The places we go

Some nights are for driving.

Tonight I drove I-280 south from San Francisco on my way back from a raucous afternoon at the Golden Gate Races. It was one of those winter days that I think only happen in California. There really is only one word for it, that light: nostalgic.

The drive tonight reminded me of a summer night in Davis last summer, the night before I moved to San Jose.

I had completed grad school a mere 48 hours earlier and spent that entire weekend fitting two years’ worth of work into the back of my 2002 Volvo. It was one of those summer days where the sun goes on forever. When I was a child, playing outside on nights like that, I'd imagine that on the other side of the Berryessa Hills, Paul Bunyan would be standing there with his ox and a hatchet, lifting the sun above the hills. I was always drawn to follow that horizon, if anything to find him standing there, keeping the night at bay.

When I don't know where to go on summer nights in Davis I go to Fairfield School. That hot night last summer was no different. I got in my car and drove out on the county roads west of town.

There was an unintentional poetry to it; returning, almost without thought, to the place where I first learned to learn, the very first school that meant anything to me, just hours after completing an advanced degree. When I go out there among the oak trees, I still think of Debbie Clark, the second grade teacher who let me be shy, the woman who agreed to be my pen pal, even though we lived only blocks from each other. She had two beautiful grown daughters but had room in her heart for a dorky shy seven-year-old; this was the same woman who, a few years later, was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was in seventh grade and I still remember her dying wish: to be surrounded in flowers. Someone, I don't know who, organized a group of Fairfield students and parents, and the group of us gathered to rototill her new backyard, and all that spring we trimmed rosebushes and watered her lawn. A few months later she succumbed to breast cancer at the young age of 45. The complete lack of reason for it all - the irrationality of it, seeing a good person get sick, left an impression that remains with me today.

I go out to Fairfield and I remember her still, swishing between the desks in those long elementary-school-teacher-dresses, the ones with the alphabet on them, or flowers, and I remember the art of wonder. How that little two-room brick schoolhouse is a place that fills me with wonder, even now. How nostalgia can be different from sentimentality; how you know when a place is meaningful when your feet -- or your wheels -- simply lead you there, on instinct.

There are no Fairfields on 280-South, but there are these luscious woods in every shade of green, and there is this quality of light that shivers in the afternoon. There is Half Moon Bay. Sometimes, if you are lucky, as I was today, there are great white egrets that straddle the freeway divider, standing on one leg without a care in the world, their oblong heads almost invisible if they stand at the right angle.

Sometimes, if you squint your eyes, you can make out Paul Bunyan standing just beyond those hills, propping them up with his hatchet.