Premature Evacuation

The Cursed Blessing of My Malfunctioning Vacations. Plural.

From Withnail and I (1987)

It occurred to me today that I seem to have broken my ability to plan a holiday, go on it, have a great time, and return home at the end of it all.

It has not always been like this.

In fact, in 2016, my husband Mike and I went on a lovely two-week trip to Italy for our tenth anniversary. Everything went pretty much as planned. There were no missed flights or lost luggage. The few changes made were voluntary and went smoothly. I don’t claim that this was the last vacation that went as planned, but it was definitely the best and proudest moment in my trip-planning history.

I think I can trace the curse back to 2019. I’d gone on a great writing trip for about a week in April that year, and returned feeling a little sad that I’d not really had enough time to dig into writing my book, which I’d been working on since late 2017. To be honest, I just kept rewriting the first act over and over again, each time restructuring it or eliminating excess characters or refining the voice. Finally, in 2019, I got it. I got my characters, I’d developed a voice, an interesting plot, and I knew roughly where I should go with it.

But work left me with little time to actually stew in it. My job as a group dogwalker (that means I walk groups of dogs off-leash, not groups of people with dogs) leaves me totally spent at the end of the day. I’m lucky if I can play a few rounds of Candy Crush at the end of it all, let alone answer client emails, sort out my schedule, and then lose myself in a fictional reality for a few hours.

And then, in July 2019, IT happened:

I broke my stupid ankle.

Never mind how, but let the record show that I not only had to cancel my dogwalks for three months, but I also had to cancel a planned getaway to Montana (for writing, ostensibly) in order to spend about three months healing the damned thing. And in a way, it was a blessing, because I got so sick of watching TV and surfing the interwebz that eventually, I had to buckle down and plot out all three acts (twelve segments) of my book. And then write it. YES, it was a rough plot-board that in no way resembles the finished product, but it got me started. And YES, it was a shitty first draft, but I did it! I like to think the whole broken ankle scheme was my late father’s doing. I could practically hear him saying, “You want time to write your book? Okay. Here’s a WHOLE LOTTA TIME. So do it, already!”

And I did! So come early March of 2020, we headed off for a little holiday in Cazadero, not far from Guerneville in the Russian River area. Nothing fancy, just a little cabin in the redwoods. I worked on editing the final segment of act two of the book, and wished at the end of that holiday that I could have just a little more time to write. Like last year! Oh, the ankle hurt, but it was worth it. The time was worth it.

On this trip, I was shedding a bad cold and kind of miserable while watching the world online lose its mind over something called a “coronavirus.” It was just scary enough to convince us to stop at the Safeway in Guerneville before heading home, because according to Nextdoor, the Safeway in San Francisco was a fucking nuthouse.

So I guess really, that was a successful vacation, even with a cold and a looming pandemic. I was feeling good about my story and where the edits were taking it.

But then? LOCKDOWN. The day after we got home, everything shut right the fuck down. For about three months. Mike could work from home (he still is, in fact). I could not. But during those three months, I edited and re-edited and edited again. Worked with an editor and prepped for Pitchfest 2020, which was online. This resulted in finding an agent who believed in my story. So, while the pandemic really was awful in a lot of ways, I did at least manage to pull that off. So maybe this is less of a curse, but rather a silver lining on a shit-colored cloud? Well, 2020 is where things start being less about getting things done despite being under some form of duress, and more about getting my hopes up for short getaways that all end up being cancelled or cut short due to FORCES OF NATURE. And no writing happens as a result of any of it, so as far as I’m concerned, Mother Nature is a whimsical but power-hungry bitch goddess, just as the lady from the Chiffon Margarine ads I grew up with implied.

In 2020, I thought we’d be able to at last celebrate the end of quarantine (sort of) with a trip to Pinecrest at the end of August. Neither Mike nor I had been ANYWHERE other than a three-day dogsit job over July 4th weekend. So we were READY to get out of the city. Like, a lot. And then….FIRES. Not in San Francisco, but pretty much every place around San Francisco. It didn’t matter which way the wind blew — it was bad air, everywhere. It was a bit better in San Francisco because of the coast, but Pinecrest’s air quality was abysmal.

But that’s okay. We’re all adults. We understand that pandemics and fires are not things we can control. Roll with the punches, right? Okay. FINE. We end up staying home and (GASP!) working. Not writing–just working, in between bouts of sobbing in my truck.

So then, summer of 2021 comes into view. I’ve saved for a week at Pinecrest, and as it nears, fires break out, but they’re way up North, far from Pinecrest. Okay, maybe not that far North. We had a few scares about threatened fires around Sonora, but fire crews stopped them and we actually….went. Yup–we packed up a week’s worth of food, books, games and a wide variety of leisure wear. We even DROVE ALL THE WAY THERE. Spent the night! Breathed in clean, mountain air! Went for a hike around the lake! Had a peaceful evening of stargazing in the utter dark of night, with no smoke anywhere to be found….

And the next day, they told us we had to leave. They were closing the forest. Like, the whole thing.

Mike, on one of two peaceful evenings in Pinecrest.

Stanislaus National Forest was being closed so that all firefighters could concentrate on saving South Lake Tahoe from the Caldor fire. And frankly, the last time they closed Pinecrest down in 2020 due to COVID but allowed cabin owners to stay, it didn’t go over too well with the day visitors. The rangers were outnumbered by scofflaws who spat at them, cursed at them, and went to the lake, anyway. I suspect that this time, the cabin owners and their guests were given the heave-ho the week before Labor Day weekend to avoid trying to shut the place down on one of the busiest camping holidays of the season.

Again, I got it. I’m a reasonable woman. I understand that humans are stupid creatures who clearly cannot be trusted to obey the rules of High Fire Danger and NOT light wood fires or target practice outdoors. People are assholes, and probably doomed ones, at that. The idiots are taking over. But this time, I did cry. I looked at Mike and said, “I’m tired of being understanding! I’m tired of being a grown up. I just want to take a goddamn vacation for more than two nights. I really, really wanted to look at the stars again. It’s just not fair!” And as I said it, I knew how ridiculous and toddler-like I sounded. But damn, it felt good to say it. To admit that I’m sick of always understanding when other people fuck things up for everyone else. That my patience is growing thin. Like, practically translucent-thin.

We were supposed to be gone by midnight of our third day. We tried to stay long enough to see the stars, but it was all ruined. All of it. All I could think of when I looked at them that night was, I won’t be seeing you again until at least next summer. Or maybe never, because that’s what life has become. You can plan all you want, but chances are higher than they used to be that they will just get FUBARred. That’s a verb, right?

With that in mind, we returned home, defeated but saying things like, “We may as well just accept it. Complaining won’t change anything,” and “We should be thankful that we’re not on fire, like Tahoe.” And I wanted to cry, because has it really come to being grateful for not being ON FIRE? Was that the best I could do?

Confused by this weird message I’d perceived from the universe, I obsessively started stalking properties on Realtor, looking for some gorgeous but affordable mountain retreat. I found one, too, on Hites Cove Road, in Mariposa, near Yosemite. It was a beautiful home on acreage with incredible mountain views, right near the Hites Cove Trailhead. It had come down in price and was almost affordable. Almost, but not quite. Because I’d have to give up my secure living in San Francisco and figure out some new way to work with dogs out there, and that would take time. I decided if it came down in price again, that would be the sign I’d been waiting for.

Instead, it sold to somebody else. Rats, I’d thought. Skunked again. I ended up tiring of fighting my current career in the City. I was a city dog walker. Who knew if my book would ever sell? Maybe the dream of writing full-time was a fool’s game, and one that would only serve to make me feel bad when it didn’t happen, just like all of my crap vacations. So I stopped looking on Realtor and Zillow, resigning myself to spending probably another five to ten years in the city in our small apartment. I threw myself into dog walking full-force. I took on dogs that I shouldn’t have and booked every spare moment of my time with dogsit jobs so I wouldn’t have time to even feel bad about not writing and not getting published. Stop dreaming of a future you can’t have, I told myself. It’s all bullshit.

Naturally, this led me to burn out on work much faster than usual. Luckily, we had a few days – almost a week! – tucked aside for another trip to our favorite getaway cabin in Cazadero. It’s a lovely home with a beautiful wooden deck (and hot tub!) and an expansive yard facing Austin Creek, which feeds into the Russian River a few miles downstream. Usually, when we visit, the creek is quite dry. Most of the gravel creekbed is exposed, and you could, if you really wanted to, cross to the other side without getting your ankles more than a bit damp.

When we arrived on Thursday evening, it had just rained a bit, so while the creekbed was mostly dry, there was a fair little trickle flowing through. Friday was beautiful, a break from the rain. We went to Guerneville to the Stumptown Brewery and ate lunch out in the bright sunlight, buying a few canned IPAs to take home.

Saturday, the rain started. It was so nice to hear it falling on the roof and the skylights. We’ve been in a drought for so long that I considered it a blessing to be able to hear it. We built a fire and laid around all day in our lazy pants and hoodies, snacking on cheese and crackers and chatting over wine and bluegrass. I did some Just-for-Fun writing late into the evening, and staggered off to bed with the pounding of the rain on the roof steadily growing louder.

My eyes snapped open around five a.m. It was pitch black in the cabin, and I don’t know what woke me up, but I knew the power had gone out. Usually, there were nightlights adding a near-obnoxious amount of dim light. But the dark right then? It was complete. I’d never been so thoroughly without light in my life. “Power’s out,” I said, knowing that Mike was also awake beside me. We had trouble getting back to sleep, wondering what was happening. Were the roads flooded? What if we were stuck here with no power, and only the propane grill and a woodstove for cooking purposes. What if I couldn’t make coffee???

By eight-thirty, enough daylight was finally filtering through the trees and the clouds so that we could assess the situation. Folks, let me allow these photos to tell you everything you need to know:

We decided not to wait. The phone wasn’t working, nor was the internet. We had no way of knowing what we should do beyond our better judgement, which was screaming at us to get the hell out of there while we still could. We loaded up the car with all our stuff and drove two hours in brutal winds and rain (actually, Mike did the driving; I just cringed). But we made it out safely, without being stranded with no power and no way out, and without damaging the car. It was really disappointing to leave early YET AGAIN, true. We’d planned to go on a winery tour tomorrow, complete with car service and lunch. We’d planned on restocking our wine fridge, which now sits empty and unplugged, mocking me.

But you know what else? I AM grateful. I’m fucking alive, you guys! Because last night, I went online to check on a story I’d been following about a family of three (four if you count the dog, which I certainly do) who were found dead on a hiking trail. Hites Cove Trail, in fact. The article said the family had just purchased a house there. The Hites Cove Road house. The beautiful acreage with views and trails…that one. Their case was like an X-Files for a while – how had all of them died, including their dog? Was it toxic fumes from an old mine? Harmful algae in the river? Nope. The answer was simple: dehydration and hyperthermia. Heat stroke. They’d started their hike early in the morning, when it was only 74 degrees out. They didn’t bring hats, but they brought what seemed like plenty of water for a few miles’ hike, as well as the requisite snacks and baby formula.

They didn’t realize how quickly the temperature would rise to 109 degrees by mid-afternoon, and how punishing that heat can be on the last leg of that hike, with no shade because a recent fire had wiped it all out. They took their time, hydrating and walking along the river, probably resting here and there, before moving into the intense final two or three miles, an uphill series of switchbacks. They were found near one another, the father seated with his baby beside him, the dog at their feet. There was still just a little bit of water left. The mother was found just a quarter mile further up the trail, undoubtedly desperately trying to hang on to her senses and her body to reach help for her baby, husband and dog. Just like any one of us would have done. A few mistakes, a few ignored warning signs…that’s all it takes. A simple outing turns into tragic loss of young lives. Plural.

I know how hot and unforgiving the Sierra trails can get. I’ve made the mistake of not turning back when I should have, but thankfully, I had access to shade and loads of cool water. It’s an easy mistake to make, especially when you’re a young, healthy adult who loves nature. That family that died, they were also from the city and wanting to make a better life for themselves in the natural beauty of the Sierras. They were making their dreams come true…until they couldn’t any longer. It just happened that way, as it could for any of us.

So maybe it has come to simply being grateful that I’m not on fire or struggling to get out of a sinking car in a flash flood. I may not be published yet, but dammit, I have an agent and I have stories inside me that want to come out. I will find a way to keep telling them, even if I’m too tired to do more than watch a true crime show after work most nights. I will keep planning, always planning my next getaway. Some will be successful. Others will not. It doesn’t really matter, as long as I keep fucking going. Whether it’s by nursing a broken ankle, keeping safe during a pandemic, keeping my beloved places safe or keeping my mind sane by creating…I will always choose to keep moving forward.

Wow, this got unintentionally deep. This all just kind of occurred to me while writing, so THANKS! I feel a lot better about my shitty luck taking vacations. Look out — my next holiday may be in YOUR hometown! Muhuwahahaha!