Driving Backwards: Returning to Memory Stores Along the Drive Through California Wine

baby Rachel at one-year of age, and me eleven years ago

In 1994 and 95 I lived in Seattle attending classes at the University of Washington. Realizing I was spending a lot of money simply studying anything I could get my hands on, and not directing that study very efficiently towards a degree, I decided to take a break from university to assess my options. As a result, in January 1995 I began what was to be an extended road trip on my own around the United States visiting friends and places I wanted to see. First up I headed south into California, a drive I’d already done regularly and so was quite comfortable with.

A week into the drive, however, news came that my great grandfather was dying. He’d already had a stroke a few months prior, so it wasn’t shocking, but even so the idea of losing the man that along with my own father had been most important in my life was wrenching. At the news I set off immediately out of San Diego towards Seattle, trying to get back to my apartment there so I could then depart for Anchorage to be with my great grandfather as soon as possible. It was 11:30 at night when I started driving. I made it just North of Los Angeles before having to stop for sleep, then the next day I set off again at sunrise and drove all the way to Seattle only stopping for gasoline. I’m not sure I even ate.

An hour from Seattle I reached a state of pretty serious exhaustion but was so close to home the idea of stopping didn’t make sense to me. Still, I was worried about maintaining my focus on the road and to stay awake began talking aloud as if to my great grandfather about how I wanted to make it home, and then to him.

Almost immediately after beginning to talk in this way (it was fully dark outside) I began to hallucinate the image of a giant snowy owl flying with my car towards Seattle. Even as I was clearly seeing a bird that couldn’t have physically existed there, my vision of the road also became more focused and clear. I drove the rest of the way to the city with the bird accompanying me the duration. Upon arrival I went straight to bed.

First thing in the morning I was awoken by a telephone call. It was my sister wanting to talk through the timing of the funeral with me and how she’d get to Anchorage from Fairbanks, Alaska. The funeral had been scheduled for several days later. She hadn’t realized I didn’t yet know Grandpappy had died, and I found out the news by her mentioning when we would bury him. After finishing the phone call I lay in bed a long time staring out the window, then called the airline to make my flight arrangements for what would now be a series of elongated funeral visits (Native burials in Alaska generally happen in several steps–a funeral in Anchorage for those that can’t make it out to the village, preceded by a private body visitation for the family and closer friends and relatives, followed by a flight with the body out to the village and then days of visitation, pot luck, service and burial, followed by more pot luck occur). Calling to talk to my mom I finally got the details of my great grandfather’s death. What I discovered was that he’d died in the same time period that I’d started talking to him, and the vision of the bird appeared.

With his death my road trip plans changed. I stayed in Alaska for a month instead of traveling around the country. Being near my great grandmother, his wife, and my family was what I felt more interested in. During that time I also searched the library for images of snowy owls in flight. When I returned to Seattle at the end of the month I had the photo I found that looked like my vision tattooed on my back. Because of how ethereal the experience had been, and also because tattoos fucking hurt, I had it all done only in outline, no shading to make the image more substantial.

Yesterday, having finished this recent stretch of driving California wine (I’ll return in July) I found myself facing a fast drive from San Rafael all the way to Seattle in one day. About an hour south of Seattle I suddenly started flashing back to the drive I’d made chasing after my great grandfather’s bird–something I hadn’t thought of recently–and realized there I was getting tired in the exact same stretch of road I’d had to pray through when I was 20 years old. It turns out, just before my great grandfather died was the last time I’d made that same drive.

My drive through California just a few days earlier uncovered another experience of repetition. In 2006 one of my best friends died by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. The grief I faced from her loss was so great it was over a year before I was able to readily feel a range of emotions again, and three years later when I saw the tip of the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time that I had to stop walking and hold the sidewalk I was on with my hands for several minutes before I got up and continued on again. By now it’s been long enough I can say I just deeply miss her, and occasionally will get teary eyed over silly things like home grown tomatoes because of how I associate them with her. Still, facing a drive over the same bridge she died from when I hadn’t yet taken it since her death was challenging. I’d chosen a route between Santa Cruz and Sonoma that brought us over the Bridge without my quite realizing it, simply because I wanted Katherine to be able to view Highway 1. As we approached the red structure, Katherine realized the challenge I found myself in and quietly offered her support. After, we stopped for about twenty minutes to give time to shift gears before then meeting up with Ryan Glaab of Ryme Cellars, followed by Dan Petroski of Massican Wines. (They are both such lovely people with some of my favorite California wines.)

There is an intensity of place I find behind these drives. The way an object, like home grown tomatoes, or parts of a road, can store for us experiences in our lives we might not so readily revisit without them. The place, or thing become libraries of our life experiences, of feelings we’ve had before, a place that calls back out of us aspects of ourselves we might not have realized even existed there still. In this way, a place or a thing offers a kind of repetition of experience, a revisit of who we are. Some places, like a road we live by and drive frequently, are re-visited so frequently the memories become less overt, or we might not even recognize we have them. Others will always clearly carry certain moments for us, much like some songs will always be associated with our first love, or high school, or an ex we sometimes wish would simply die (I never actually wish that of anyone but let’s be honest that some people really just piss us off and ruin otherwise good music for us).

In the midst of my time tasting wine across California there I was repeating a whole series of my own histories–I lived in Santa Cruz for almost 6 years, my daughter was even born there; I used to drive the North/South stretch of that state repeatedly; the Golden Gate Bridge will always be a kind of tragic haunting; and even the end game of the trip, my drive to Seattle harkens back to my 20s when long drives up or down the West Coast were how I spent my time.

That layering of experience–grief over a roadway, so much feeling in the middle of meeting wine makers in person for the first time; taking a friend, Katherine, along for a revisit of the stomping grounds from my 20s (I didn’t even think of that when we decided to plan the trip)–it’s much like the power certain wines evoke. I will always love Willamette Wines for how they were the first domestic reds that caught my attention (Eyrie, specifically). I will always think of my mom when drinking a Cabernet Sauvignon, no matter where it is from, and assess whether I think she’d like it–she is so vocal about her love for Cabernet. And now, thanks to our travels, Katherine will be associated for me with California Chardonnay–the citrus, steely, high acidity old world inspired kind (even though I also know she secretly likes that oaky-buttery shit).

In recovering from my grief over losing my friend Gita I realized a lesson somewhere there along the way–that grief and joy are utterly entangled. Not that we must feel one to feel the other, or that they exactly appear together. Instead, that my willingness to open to my own grief is reflective of how much joy I am capable of living. That we can’t close off to one feeling if we want to retain loving through the others. Somehow that knowledge plays out for me in the value I feel in wine–there in the glass, the more open I am to my own experience, the more open I can be too to what the wine itself is offering. That the more fully I am willing to try wines I may have less experience with, and even less love for, the more fully I can expand my understanding of what is good in wine, and expand my ability to enjoy and truly love it.

Some of the most insightful conversations I’ve had in my life have come recently from going deep into the story of how wine makers, wine retailers, sommeliers and others found their way into wine, and what they find for themselves in it since (and that’s really saying something considering how much time I’ve spent in philosophy). Over the next several weeks I’ll be writing many of these stories through reviews of wineries, and also a series on wine world personalities called “A Life in Wine” (Levi Dalton’s biography being the first installment). I’m so grateful that for right now this is how I get to spend my time. Grateful people have been so willing to share with me. Grateful Katherine was there for parts of it. Grateful to have begun new friendships in this too.

Yesterday I drove 12 hours non-stop from San Rafael to Tumwater, Washington. The road began to be familiar for how I had been so tired in that same spot so many years before when the great white bird visited me. This time instead of praying, I found a hotel and pulled over. I went to sleep, the snowy owl this time on my back. My great grandfather still there guiding me but now in the idea of him, and in the places from where his memory revisits. Tonight I return to the land he is from. I am flying to Naknek, Alaska. It turns out, I’ve been driving backwards along the same routes that took me away these last two decades from where I grew up, now heading right back to it.

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