My wife and I needed a break. I was a graduate student and stressed out about my impending thesis which had seem to hit a rut. My wife’s best friend was planning a shotgun wedding to an illegal alien after meeting him 5 times. We both thought that a visit with her family would somehow calm us down. I don’t know how we got that idea.
On Wednesday we left the habitual sun and warm weather of Palo Alto in order to drive 6 hours north to the very top of CA near the Oregon boarder. The weather there is always cold and it rains so much that the trees become permanently covered in moss on all sides.
Our trip turned out to be special because it rain every day, all day, and was often accompanied by strong gusts of wind. Because the trees of that area have difficulty staying rooted in such damp soil, we were not able to go out and hike for fear of what locals call the “widow maker.” It turns out a surprising number of people are killed every year by falling trees. We thought we would be crafty by visiting the beach instead. When we arrived at a local state park, we were met by a friendly ranger who informed us that the trail down to the beach had fallen in a gigantic mud slide early that morning and we would certainly die if we tried to go down there.
My pain at this point came mostly from the loss of exercise. I was an athlete at the time and had given up the gym for two weeks at the end of the semester in order to finish all of my projects. I was looking forward to a week long set of hikes and outdoor adventures to make up for lost time. Instead, I got more opportunity to read that I ever thought.
“Well, the real point here is to spend time with my wife’s grandmother anyways” I said to myself as we headed over to her house. “She’s 90 years old and full of great stories, this will be fun.”
My wife’s grandmother is peculiar in that she is highly educated (she was a school teacher and her husband was the dean of physics at a local college), and still enjoys living in an double wide trailer located on a dirt road so far from civilization that AT&T cannot even locate it, let alone provide an internet connection. I know. I tried to set one up.
She has bears routinely put their paws on her front door, following the smell of food and feeds the raccoons, birds and other animals who have come to call her place home.
As we drive down the winding, one lane road with a 30 ft cliff to one side, I eye the enormous amount of trees in that area and try to guess which one will fall on me.
As we enter her house, it becomes clear she is a hoarder. An RV parked outside is filled with belongings which I can see from outside because a tree has fallen on it and broken open the side. I pass the moss covered shed next, filled also with undeterminable treasures. I pass the rotten picnic table, ruined porch and eventually make my way to the back door. Once there I can see that there are not only one, but two porcelain toilets sitting in the yard, and the remains of an old refrigerator to keep them company. When I walk inside, I learn that the water supply doesn’t work well.
“Well, it works fine really except that the hot water heater went out last year so that is off. The cold works fine except that a tree fell on the line and so it only has about half the flow. The toilet isn’t hooked up any more because the water doesn’t have enough pressure to fill the tank. You can get a bucket from the sink and pour it in the back if you’d like to use it” Grandma explains to me.
I present a digital picture frame to her as a gift and she asks me how much power it uses. Confused, I ask her what she means. “It’s only one plug” I say. “I know but my little beasties (mice) have probably eaten through some of the wiring and that is why half of the trailer’s electrical outlets don’t work. Do you think that will overload the circuit breaker?” she asks. I notice now that several extension cords run from one side of the trailer to the other.
As we talk, I look for a seat. There are only two chairs and two stools available. The rest of the space is taken up with bulk goods from Cosco, her favorite store. Ever since Grandma heard Renolds cigarette company purchased a controlling share in Safeway grocery store, she has boycotted it. Her only alternative in town is the bulk reseller Costco where you can buy things cheaply if you are willing to have a case of 15 cleanex boxes instead of one.
As a child growing up during the deepest part of the great depression, Grandma never threw anything out. I observed she was still holding fast to her principals as I made room for myself between an old stereo and vintage TV. Neither worked. This provided a unique environment in which to watch her new flat screen TV and the depression and WWII DVD’s she played constantly because she had no other form of entertainment. Besides food, Grandma loved to buy DVD’s at Cosco, and as you might think, they came in bulk. There was a pile from color to waist in front of her new TV, and a much larger pile next to me and the old set. Over the next three days I became well acquainted with the secret details of WWII and can now recount the pivotal factors of Allied success.
On one account I was right about this trip, Grandma did like to talk. This happened exclusively in her car. The constantly playing of DVD’s and seats that must be placed one behind the other in single file line (for lack of space) made conversation in the trailer difficult. I heard really interesting stories about all sorts of things while cramped in the back seat of her first generation Prius (I’m 6’3” tall). Most interesting was her constant complaining about everything. Most conversations started somewhere around Regan and usually ended on the recent legalization of marijuana. We hit everything in between. One of the most virulent offenders was the new traffic circle put in on the ramp to the highway. She disliked it so much we drove 20 minutes out of our way in each direction in order to avoid it. We also had to avoid the main road because “people drive too fast.” It was fun to travel by way of cow pastures around town, especially because the rains were causing them to flood. I was surprised how much traction the little Prius could get in the mud.
At the end of the trip, one of Grandma’s sons came to my rescue. He was driving up in preparation for a trip and would be staying with Grandma for a few days before taking her down for a visit in FL. I expected that we could talk about lots of interesting things and possibly go for some adventures. He used to run cross country in college and worked on earthquake detection for the state. As it turned out, time had changed him. As he came in through the door, his silhouette indicated we would not be going for a run. Our conversation was mostly around how traditional film photography was still better than digital. I tried to explain a program called Photoshop to him which allowed photographers to develop their prints much more quickly and easily on the computer but he didn’t believe me. We next talked about coin collecting which was such an interesting topic to him that he would talk about nothing else for the remainder of the weekend.
When Sunday finally came, my wife and I were surprised to find Grandma’s things being hustled into suitcases by her son. She wasn’t scheduled to leave until the next day. As it turned out, the son’s Ukrainian wife decided that she wanted to drive her husband’s car to work on Monday instead of her own (gets better gas mileage on the one hour commute). As a result, he had to come home early and was franticly packing for the departure. Grandma and son loaded up the car and were soon pulling out of the driveway. As she went Grandma yelled out the window an invitation for me to watch the “Secrets of WWII” next time I came. I waved and told her that I looked forward to it.