Bike Ballad: How it Began, Part 4

A shot of the Trinity river flowing toward Willow Creek.

A shot of the Trinity river flowing toward Willow Creek.

The Legend of BigFoot

Most people would compare it to the sighting of a UFO or Santa Claus prancing on the roof, but in Willow Creek, Bigfoot is a real threat shrouded in a veil of mystery. Plenty of small shops exploit its whereabouts for tourism. The China Flat museum boasts an entire Bigfoot collection for visitors to examine, along with a giant statue made of wood honoring the creature’s existence. When I was a kid, my dad would watch half-baked documentaries on the History channel of low-quality sightings or figures poking their head out behind a rock and then disappearing. My dad would watch them for hours, wanting to believe it was real based on the weakest link of proof, and after a while, I felt the same way. Applying it to my life now, there are plenty of things I wish were real without me actually having proof of it. I like to think that people are generally kind-hearted, that prayers can answered, and that the dead are still walking among us. Riding my bike down the main drag of Willow Creek early in the morning brought that hope back to life. I rode past a few ramshackle houses and little shops closed up for the holidays. Occasionally, I saw a missing person flyer taped to a light post or storefront window. A few of them I would pull over to read: Melvin Harris, Missing On June 26th, 2014. Last seen in his brown Chevy pickup on route 299 heading toward town. Please call…Most of the flyers had something similar to say. In total, I must have counted 15 people missing within the past couple of years, spanning from 2012 to 2014. In some cases, they found the car or clothing in some nearby woods, but never the body. I hate to put blame on an urban legend, but the idea of Bigfoot seemed like a real possibility. Making my way out of town, passing the last few stops of civilization, I wondered what it would be like if I disappeared. Gone without a trace, my face printed out with a random date and a note that mentions my red bike found in the woods. Would they ever find me? Would my family want to believe that I was alive? Is Bigfoot something they could believe? A highway sign for 299 West towered above me as I rode onto the lonely freeway. Arcata, CA was the next big town over, a sober 40 miles away. The cold had broke to a minor chill and the sun peered through the clouds to warm my back as I rode uphill onto the forest-lined road. Everything around me was silent. No wind or snowfall humming as I passed by.

Mike’s Hard Lemonade

This particular part of the journey is tough for me to remember on the bike. I imagine I was making great progress at first, clipping off the miles with a hope to be in Arcata by the afternoon, but I was eventually halted by steep inclines and dangerous curves with hardly any shoulder. What I do remember vividly were the tall canyon walls arching around Highway 299. Their faces were etched with deep layers of sediment, tanned from sunlight baring down, but hardened by shade from overhanging foliage. Every few yards, water ran down from the peaks that I could see above. I thought this was a strange thing to see since I was surrounded by woods and the summits didn’t seem very high up, but little did I know the actual face of the canyons in the area (known as Panther Ridge) were sprawling way beyond the tree lines. In fact, two creeks ran through the mountains which were byproducts of the Trinity River. I suspect the runoff came from either Willow Creek (flowing west off the Trinity) or Boise Creek (running south off of Willow Creek). Whenever I saw water tumbling, I made a point to pull up next to the guardrail, hop over, and fill up my water bottle. Especially at that time, the water was freezing, trickling off the rocks. It made my hands swell, but feeling the tundra soak my skin and work its way into the callouses felt good. I read somewhere that water falling naturally from a height of 300 feet will purify itself on the way down, so I didn’t care to think about bacteria or contaminates. Instead, I savored the moments of drinking crystal cold water from a soothing landscape. Each drink left my throat tingling, and the chill worked its way through my heavy layers, evaporating from behind my neck. I must have stopped 4 or 5 times to fill up even though my bottle would only be a third empty. I think it was the act of pulling over to appreciate something so simple is what captivated me. Each time, I also realized how many things I took for granted over the years. Whether it was a home cooked meal of spam and rice, sitting around the metal fold out table in a studio apartment, or the times my mother cut my hair at her salon, shampooing my head in the sink and telling me to lean back so as not to get soaked. Filling up my water bottle, I stood there tilting my gaze upwards, watching the water spill from the top, hitting different cracks and boulders before splattering into the mouth. Flecks and thick drops coated my arms and shoes, and somewhere in the roar I could her my mother’s words prompting me to lean back, her eyes looking down on me before the water blurs my sight. Eventually, I had to stop appreciating every waterfall and start hustling up the road. Whenever the last time I filled up was, I took a long drag from the bottle, tucked it back into my pack and peddled for as long as I could.

I was still deep in the woods when I decided to hop off again and start walking. The curves had become too much and I wasn’t making good time. By then, the sun had reached its apex for the day. A considerable amount of light still made its way through the tree tops, but the warmth was dying down and so was my energy. I walked along the shoulder, turning my head every few minutes to check for any approaching cars. Only 10 or 15 minutes must have passed since I started walking, and out of nowhere, a green Ford pickup screamed around a bend behind me and nearly grazed my left arm as it passed. It launched another 15 yards ahead of me before it slammed on the breaks and skidded off into a dirt patch on the right. Now I’m not sure what kind of Ford truck you’re imagining right now, but this one had a distinct look that made a personal connection with me. I suppose somewhere in the early 1990’s, Ford came out with a body style for their F150 that was rounded at the edges. The front took on an insect-like shape that looked like the face of a bee. Actually, a wasp or a yellow-jacket is a good way to envision the entire look of it, except this truck was a sea-foam green like when you mix blue and yellow into a cup of water and a diluted, putrid color is made. Plus, when I was a kid, my next door neighbor owned a pizza delivery business and he drove the exact same truck for many years. Sometimes, my neighbor, Jack Taylor, would even give me a ride home or a ride to school if he caught me on his way to work. The inside smelling of grease and pizza dough. The cloth seats grimy and covered in a layer of soot. With that image fresh in your head, you can imagine how I felt when it came to a grinding halt in front of me. For a moment, I though Mr. Taylor would hop out with an armful of pizza, and I was sort of hoping it would be him, but I hung back for a few seconds instead. After a few seconds, I decided that I didn’t wan't to send out a message of me being intimidated, so I moved forward and approached the truck on the passenger side. I pushed my bike onto the shoulder with cautious steps, and once I approached the window, the smell of cigarette smoke and motor oil blew into my face from the cross-breeze. Clutching the steering wheel was a short, wild-looking man somewhere in his late thirties. There’s an actor named Jackie Earle Haley who’s been in some noteworthy films, and if there was ever a person to envision with my retelling, he would be it. He had long brown hair tied back into a ponytail with a few greasy spirals left untied dangling by his ears. A thick goatee covered a third of his face and he wore a puke-green sweater speckled with food stains or drops of liquid. Obviously, I was a little hesitant to make acquaintances, but he quickly shattered my reluctance with a carefree disposition. “Hey brother, you want a ride the rest of the way up?” He scooted himself up toward the pedals using the steering wheel as an anchor. “Uhh, No, that’s okay. I’m just walking until the road evens out a bit,” I casually replied. On the floor of the truck were fast food wrappers and empty brown paper bags. Tucked into the dashboard between the windshield were old parking tickets, loose-leaf papers, and empty cigarette boxes. Sitting in the bench next to him were two six-packs of Mike’s Hard Lemonade, and after I responded, he pulled one out and used his sweater to twist off the cap. “It’s nothing but hills and turns for the next 20 miles or so, man. You’ll be walking for a while, but I figured you could use some help.” Although he seemed a bit rough, there was an earthy kindness in his demeanor. He reminded of ragtag crew members I used to work odd construction jobs with or the type of crazy friend who would be the first one to have your back in an outmatched fight. “It’s your call, brother. I’m headed into Arcata now, so it makes no difference to me.” I flashed him a reluctant smile and peered out at the road ahead. All I could see were trees stretching out for miles over the guardrail. The thought of walking and losing daylight in some remote wood brought me back to my nasty fall before reaching Willow Creek, and reliving that trauma wasn’t appealing in the least bit. I turned back to the window and gritted my teeth. “Alright, sure. I appreciate it,” I affirmed. “Good deal. Let’s get going.” He hopped out of the truck and climbed into the bed from the side. I quickly checked my bike to make sure everything was strapped down, and then I hoisted it up to him. “You sure you got it? She’s heavy as hell.” He fumbled with the frame and uneven weight for a moment, but then he got his bearings and worked it over the cab wall. I stood back and watched as the pedal scraped a substantial gash into the metal, and I winced a bit from embarrassment. “Shit, sorry man. The pedal…” He laid the bike down flat in the bed and leaned over the wall to take a look. “Ahh don’t worry about it. It’s not even my truck.” He slapped the mark with his hand and darted back over the other side and hopped back into the driver’s seat. I let out a nervous laugh to myself and shook my head as I opened the door and settled in. He started up the truck, glanced at the rear view mirror, and then took off around the corner. Slowly, I reached across my chest and slung the seat belt around me, pushing the Mike’s Hard Lemonade aside to buckle it in.

Some of the corners were so sharp that he probably would have killed me if I was still walking. The pickup skimmed the edges, drifting off the pavement and spraying dust and gravel against the canyon walls. Particles would ricochet and sprinkle through my half rolled-down window, creating a dust cloud inside that floated momentarily before getting sucked out the window across. Faintly, the stereo played Nirvana by Kurt Cobain and glass bottles clinked against each other as the elevation on the road shifted up and down. “So brother, how long you been riding the bike?” He took a swig of lemonade and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “Feel free to grab one of those.” He nodded to the six-pack and whipped his hair away from his eyes. “Been drinking them all day. Trying to stay awake…C”MON MAN! Where you riding in from?” His energy was booming despite what he said. I took a look at the drinks and sighed. I was thirsty, and refusing didn’t seem like a smart thing to do considering the circumstances. “You know what, sure. I could use a drink. Thanks.” I grabbed a bottle and twisted off the cap. “Hell yeah! There we go! Gotta enjoy life, man. Gotta enjoy every drop.” He held out his drink and waited for me to bump mine against it. Any anxiety I had before started to fade, and I cracked the bottle against his in modest celebration. Right after, he guzzled the rest of his drink, chucked the bottle to the floor, and then grabbed another. “So, man, the bike? You look like you’ve been riding for a while.” The spiked lemonade was sweet and cold and the dusty cross-breeze chilled my bones. “I started back in Redding a few days ago. I’m headed down to LA.” “Holy shit! That’s cool, brother. That’s cool. I used to ride bikes and shit, but then I crashed them, HAHA!” He exploded into a raucous laugh and cut the wheel around another bend. The wheels slipped off again but caught pavement once the road winded the other direction. “I just drive now, man. Much safer, you know?” I gripped the seat belt with my free hand and took another pull from my drink. “I’m Chase by the way. You’re saving me a lot of time; I appreciate it.” “It’s all good, brother. Hey, I saw you walking and thought, ‘hell, that’s the last thing I’d ever wanna do is walk with all my shit on a bike.’ The least I could do I was offer you a ride. But that’s just it man, lotta people won’t take rides from strangers. Too scared and stuff of getting killed or something, but I guess it does happen, HAHA!” I should have been terrified right then, but listening to him talk wasn’t some strange foreshadowing. It was more like someone spewing their immediate thoughts. I could actually hear the random connections from point A to point B while he spoke, and the unfiltered speech was refreshing in the face of whatever he would say. In fact, I laughed with him and got onto his level. “Gotta go sometime, I suppose. Might as well go out taking chances.” “Taking a chance, hell yea. That’s what it’s about, brother. I’ve taken lots of chances, too…” His focus drifted out over the sea of trees beyond the horizon. Either what I said triggered some moment of personal reflection or he was short circuiting. Nonetheless, he snapped out of it and guzzled half his drink. “I’m Mike…woah! Just like these!” He indicated the lemonade and took another long swill. “Damn, these are good. I should know, I made them, right? HAHA!” I had to accept that Mike was probably hammered, and altogether, I counted around 7 empty bottles that I could see on the floor. I figured that most college chicks can handle 7 fruity drinks, so why couldn’t Mike hold his own and drive? Anyway, it was too late to make a fuss about it. At that moment, I was cruising and drinking with a maniac in the mountains, and for the most part, I enjoyed myself.

“Did you grow up around here?” I was still on my first bottle to his three, and he was closing in on a fourth. Mike placed the bottle between his legs and pushed his hair back behind his ears. “Willow Creek, brother. Born and raised. Bigfoot country! I’ve been driving these hills forever. Most people take them all slow, slamming on their brakes, but not me. Better to fly through them. To be surprised, you know?” Maybe it was the lemonade changing my perception, but Mike’s words took on a slow, philosophical tone that always left me nodding my head in agreement. “Yup, the Redwoods, Six-Rivers, I’ve been around these parts a long time. My brother and I own a little business down in Humboldt, actually. That’s where I’m headed now.” Bottle three cracked against the others and he grabbed a fourth. “That’s cool. It’s a beautiful area up here. A lot different than LA—so what kind of business is it?” The road finally leveled out and turned into wide curves, rather than fast turns. Mike gripped the steering wheel and pulled himself a little closer to the pedals. “Well, to be honest, I’m a runner, man.” He turned his head and glared at me for approval. “Oh, like running? Like races and marathons and all that?” Mike took a pull from his drink and howled. “No! I prolly couldn’t run a mile right now if I wanted to. No, man! A runner, a mule—you know, drugs.” My stomach flipped and the taste of lemonade soured in my mouth. I didn’t want Mike to think I was afraid, but my easy-going demeanor shifted drastically to one of precaution. Not only was I drinking and driving, but now an accomplice to drug trafficking? How did my trip of self-reflection fall from grace so quickly? Mike didn’t change at all. He kept drinking, fiddled with the radio, and gassed it down the straightaways. “Oh yeah, brother. been doing this a long time—too long. My brother owns the farm down in Humboldt, and I run it up to a few hospitals and clinics around here. Nothing fancy.” Nothing fancy? What exactly did that mean? I suppose there must have been a hint of legitimacy in what he was doing if he was supplying products to health care facilities, but I still had to know what I was dealing with or what kind of time I would be looking at if a cop happened to be waiting underneath an overpass. I straightened up and launched my investigation. “Right, that sounds good. So, what are you selling, weed?” Mike finished his fourth, reached for a 5th, but the drinks were all gone. “Damn! Still thirsty…Yeah, brother. Just grass, just grass. Nothing fancy. I ‘m just about to finish a run right now. Last one is a smoke shop in Arcata—right where you’re going. That’s wild, man. Good timing, HAHA!” We passed a sign showing 15 more miles until Arcata. Valleys of tall spruces gave way to long stretches of road where Mike took the liberty to accelerate. “That’s right, brother. You caught me at a good time. My mom still lives in Willow Creek, so I always stop for the night and smoke with her. Helps her feel better, you know? That cancer is a bitch.” And suddenly, a chill ran up my spine. We drove underneath an overpass through the limits of a small town called Blue Lake. Next to us along 299 was the Mad river extending like a nervous system filled with lush trees and shiny rocks. Mike took a moment to peer out over the water, the beginnings of sunken sunlight blazing across his face in meditation. “Yeah, brother. Life is a beautiful thing, right? I remember coming down here as a kid. Mom, sister, brother, and me.” He glanced down at his empty drink and held it in his free hand. “Cheers to those days, right?” He held the bottle to the rays penetrating the windshield. “God bless, Mom. God bless, HAHA!” Mike put the bottle between this legs, focused back onto the road and blazed ahead. “That’s what she always says after taking a hit. My mom, ‘God bless.’ Kinda funny, huh? I guess we do owe God a lot, man. Crazy, HAHA! Wait, do you smoke?” His attention bounced like a pinball from one thought to the next. Finally, it zeroed in on me. “Yeah, I have before. Not in a while, but I’ve done it.” Mike squinted his eyes and flashed a small grin. “Hey, it’s no pressure, man. I think weed is a natural thing, you know. Comes from the ground, right?” And I agreed with him.

When my mom was sick, her doctors agreed that controlled doses of marijuana might help curb her nausea from the chemo and help her eat larger meals. Over the years, my mom would drink a bit of wine on special occasions, and she even used to smoke when I was a child, but blazing up some weed would have been the last thing on her agenda. Sure enough, she had a friend who created his own gummies with CBD oil, and he gave her a free supply to experiment with. I never saw her take one, but she would tell me that at night she would try small amounts to help her sleep. “Chasa, it was like the room was up and down,” she would try to explain to me. “I guess that’s what being high is a like, right? Is that right, Chase?” Personally, I had only smoked weed with a few of my friends growing up. I had never had the gummies before, but after visiting with my mom, I convinced her to let me try a pack. I took it over to my dad’s house later that night and ate half of a square. Little did I know that an entire square equals one gram, and after a few minutes, I didn’t feel much of anything. Without thinking, I popped in the other half and sat down on the couch. 30 minutes go by and still nothing. Annoyed, I sat up to check my phone and realized that the floor was spinning. I felt this incredibly empty space expanding from the middle of my forehead and my mouth was drier than a slab of hot concrete. I laid back down at 9pm thinking that the room would slow down, but it only got faster when my eyes closed, not to mention there were crazy orbs of light and color shape-shifting in my mind like an inkblot test. I managed to fall asleep for a couple of hours, but when I woke up, I could hardly breathe, move, or even talk. My dad had gotten up to use the bathroom at that same moment, and I desperately called out to him in a chalky murmur. “Dad…Pop!.” The words barely made a sound. “What the hell’s wrong with you? Son, are you okay?” “Dad, I need…some water. Water…” My dad bent over to look at my face and he started laughing. “Ahh hell, you took too much of that shit, didn’t you? My damn druggie son, gettin high on my couch.” He waked away for a moment then came back with a big plastic jug. “Here’s your damn water, you pothead.” He walked off down the hallway and I guzzled down the water and passed out. The next day, I met with my mom and sister at the cancer center and told them what happened. My mom snarled her upper lip and shook her head. “Tara, I put you in charge. Don’t let Chasa try anymore. He can’t handle it.” My sister laughed, and to this day, she still hasn’t given me one.

Suddenly, Mike jerked the wheel last-minute along the road’s edge. The highway transitioned into a long arch that swooped closely to a line of trees emerging into another small town called Essex. There wasn’t much to see except for a bowling alley off in the distance, and somehow, Mike was able to catch a glimpse of it and share another memory. “Man! I got my ass kicked at that bowling alley back there. My boy Pooky was all over this guy’s wife, but she thought it was me hitting on her! Ain’t that some shit?! HAHA! Rest in Peace, Pook!” Essex disappeared in a flash, and instantly we emerged on the other side of the Mad river into another small town called Alliance. Mike checked a flip phone in his pocket and set in on the dash. “Right on time, my man.” Driving through Alliance was like stopping at a gas station before you hit the actual town. It gave off the beginnings of a bustling city, but it soon fell off into another stretch of road as it transitioned from 299 to the vast 101. Even the landscape began to change. Rather than sprawling rivers and dense forests, the road gave way to local streets and a strong sense of small town pride. Mike took an exit off the 101 onto H st., and we soon become surrounded by another bowling alley, a bakery, Humboldt University on the other side, a local high school to our right, and then we ended in small section known as Arcata Plaza. Mike pulled the truck off to the side and parked in front of Don’s Donuts & Deli. “Okay, Man. This is where i’m stopping. Gotta get me a snack. You know how it is. You wanna stick around for a donut?” He started cleaning up the glass bottles at his feet and had them all tucked into his arms awaiting my response. “Hey, I appreciate the offer, but I think I’m gonna find a place to sit down and eat. I’m a little tired. But thank you.” Mike opened the door with his elbow and slid off the seat. I gathered my empty bottle and did the same. When Mike landed, I heard glass rattle and roll onto the pavement. “Shit, rolled under the truck. Oh well, I’ll just crush it. Turns to sand anyway, right!? HAHA!” He walked around and chucked the others into a nearby trashcan. I slipped mine into my pocket instead. Mike climbed into the bed of truck and yanked my bike over the side. I grabbed it and guided it down to the sidewalk. “I really can’t thank you enough for the lift, man.” I reached my hand out to shake his and he gave it a friendly sideways slap and pulled me in for a shoulder hug. “You take care of yourself out there, man. And hey, here’s a little something to help you kick back.” In my hand was a small baggie filled with herb. It was air-sealed and had a purple dragon sticker around it. “That shit’s smooth, brother. Just a sample for a new friend.” I was speechless. Of course I didn’t want to be rude, so I shoved it in my pocket and smiled back. “Alright, man. That’s…I’m honored. Thank you.” “Hey man, my mom always taught me to give. God bless, brother. God bless.” We shared another affirming nod and then I hopped onto the bike. “I hope your mom feels better,” I said before riding away. Mike leaned against his truck and pulled out a cigarette from his pocket. “It’s Chase, right? I’ll tell her you said so. My best to your mom, too! And hey, man, make sure you share some of that with her! If she’s cool with it! HAHA!” We both laughed and then I pushed off down the sidewalk. Down the road was a busy intersection with pedestrians crossing every direction. At the end of the plaza, I noticed a post office. I had been meaning to mail a few post cards that I had bought earlier in the trip, and I took the opportunity to head inside and buy some stamps. By the time I pulled up next to the door, I turned around to see Mike hopping back in the truck with a box of donuts and an orange soda. He guzzled it down as he threw the box aside and started the truck. He pulled out into the road and held the soda bottle out the window with his free hand. The green truck turned left onto 9th st. and blended into a row of cars waiting at a stop sign up ahead.

I realize it has been a while since my last entry on this story, but I hope that everyone will understand the distractions that life creates, especially during the holidays. Recently, I was on a trip to both Japan and Korea, and my writing job during the day has been hectic to say the least. Nonetheless, I still plan on chipping away at this story, and I hope to produce the next section at a much quicker pace.

In the meantime, I hope that you’e enjoyed reading this, and please let me know if you have any feedback or questions! I hope you all have a wonderful 2019!

-Chase