THANK YOU, VINCENT: Oh vigorous, fresh, swirling sky!
You're traveling through another dimension—a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's a signpost up ahead. Your next stop: um . . . La vie Boheme.
With all due apologies to Rod Serling, join us in pretending that it's a full moon on a recent Friday night. Pretend that you can zip from one area of the North Bay to the other without spending more than a minute. That your powers of endurance for physical activity and late-night french fry consumption are miraculous. That making out in three counties in just one hour is doable. That you love to bowl. That biking straight uphill is fun. Travel with us to the other dimension that is one rock-solid night of North Bay pleasures.—G.G.
5:30pm: Happy Hour!
The refuge of the barstool is the reliable stuff of Irish lore: the comforting slide on up, the slat to hook heels, the soft sticky burnish under elbows, the surrounding buzz of anonymous conversation, the bloody great late-afternoon deals. A week that included several unpleasant attorney-borne surprises, several resultant stress-pimples, a few thousands extra words, two parties, one public presentation and not enough yoga is one that's gotta end with something happy, if even for just an hour. And so the comforting slide on up, the hooking of heels, the agreement that well's OK—top shelf not needed—the mere $3 spent, the free food heated up and cooling in butane-fired pans . . . all of it, happy. A sip, a look around, a nice nudge in the ribs of the pal nearby, another sip, the warmth spreads and a brain flush begins taking with it the attorneys, surprises, words, parties, public—everything but the pimples. But in this light, looking at the mirror behind the bar just so, even they begin to fade as the week leaches lightly away. —G.G.
6:05pm: The Tunnels
A nice happy hour buzz is floating through the bloodstream, but stepping through the barroom doors and into the cruel light of day brings on the realization that it's still not dark yet. There's one way to fix that: by going underground. Time to hit the tunnels.
When the city of Santa Rosa paved over both Santa Rosa and Matanzas creeks to build a new city hall in 1968, little did it realize the diverting activity it created for its more daring residents. The 15-by-15-foot concrete tunnels span two blocks underneath downtown, from E Street to Santa Rosa Avenue, and looking at them from the entrance, they seem to disappear into a dark, empty hell. Take the plunge. Start walking.
The graffiti-covered walls get smaller. Visibility diminishes severely. For a length of about 20 steps, directly in the middle, pure darkness surrounds ahead and behind. Keep walking. Breathe deep and absorb every heavy inch of the still, cold silence.
Slowly, as if reemerging from a near-death experience, a faint light will appear in the distance. Go toward it. Soon, the cruel light of day shines again—except this time, it doesn't seem so cruel anymore.
Feeling less brave? Along a five-block walk underneath historic old town, Petaluma's equivalent tunnels provide light beaming down from storm drains at every block. Strap on those old grubby sneakers, find the creek entrance near Eighth and G streets, and tromp diagonally through the murky underbelly of town. Petaluma's tunnels are smaller and slightly more claustrophobic than Santa Rosa's concrete caverns, but they are brighter. Be warned that some serious boggy mud collects as the tunnels empty into the Petaluma River.
These old towns, these old tunnels. Tiny breezes billow by, first felt faintly on the cheek and then fiercely down the spine. Could these sensations be spirits collecting from the past? In the absolute darkness, is it a guarantee that the solitude of the tunnels is actually . . . solitude? —G.M.
7:10pm: Mammy Pleasant's Beltane Cave
Well-oiled and time-tunneled, tumbling from the void just as the clock strikes 7 o'clock, cast into the shadowy sepia bewitchment of an 1890s evening; dice-roll lucky, seven for the devil, Celts on the march—and all around goofer dust's up, and the mojo's working.
It's Mary Ellen "Mammy" Pleasant's Beltane Ranch near Glen Ellen, more than an hour before dusk on this ancient Gaelic fire-fest evening. Mammy, the era's most powerful voodoo queen, a crone casting spells from her hidden hoodoo cave, has gris-gris bags to power up the loves of lives.
Legend has it that Mammy engaged in "the black arts," that she sold babies, murdered as many as 49 people, ran brothels, committed fraud, spied through walls on blackmail victims and held unholy powers over the wealthiest San Franciscans. It's said, too, that she'd provide best of luck in love and money, for a price.
Distant hoodoo music weaves beat for beat through shimmering oak-splattered hills edging up the still-green Mayacamas Mountains. A faint malodor of brimstone accosts one's nostrils. Just might be Mammy's "cure-all" potion—jimson, honey and sulfur—stirred up into a nasty viscous slurry, then rubbed against the black cat arched atop a passing rock, as foot by careful foot the seekers climb mutely to a constant faroff drum beat, all the while still heading up, aiming for Mammy Pleasant's cave.
Later, as night is unveiled, blazing tongues will lap ink from the sky, roiling in fiery merriment, celebrants sweating and entranced, dancing around coastal bonfires. This ancient Beltane fest begins the moment the sun gets extinguished. But for now the seekers' mission is darkened by an even more ancient connection to druid priests from whom Beltane first emerged, replete with blood and daggers buried in those sacrificed, calling forth an unholy metempsychosis—the transmigration of the soul of the dead into another who is living.
Finally, the seekers reach and timidly enter Mammy's cave. Their way in marks years distantly past—heading out leads back to the present. Lit candles, burning frankincense, neat piles of bleached bones, heaps and clusters of human hair, and small stout vessels filled with bodily fluids lie arranged at the edges of this womblike sanctum, while in the middle of the space a thin water trickle drips near a familiar webbed gaming device, accompanied atop by its soft, furry little ball. The gris-gris bags are placed around this racket, each for the taking.
But where is Mammy, and what price does she expect each of them, ultimately, to pay? —P.J.P.
Ba-bump. Ba-bump. Heart pounding, palms sweating. Tennis shoes slapping the firm surface and arms stretching out like gum. Bright lights overhead shine into determined eyes as the cool night breeze floats quietly by. Contact! The racquet hits the yellow ball with a thud, and it's lobbed up over the net. The arm swings forward following the ball's flight. Perfect follow through. Dink! The serve has no pace and hits the net. Fault!
A bead of sweat falls onto the lit court as the player wipes it off in anger. The ball is served and smashed back. With a strong forehand, the server serves, and the receiver volleys it. They rally, and the server fails to make a legal return. They play on, and soon there is a winner. Happiness and defeat. The players walk off the court, breathless yet energized. The tennis court lights go out, and soon the only light is the moon and stars in the sky. At the end of the night, the score is 3–love. Tennis is the only game where you don't want any love, even at night. —H.S.
9:01pm: Biking to the Islands in the Sky
A great adventure awaits those who strive to experience the mystical beauty of the "islands in the sky." A full-moon ride to Occidental and up Coleman Valley Road kicks off a challenging uphill climb to reach this amazing view.
After turning onto Willow Creek Road and riding a short distance, the "real" road peters out, abruptly ending at a large fence prohibiting parking and entry of cars, and signifies the start of the Willow Creek addition to California's state park system. This trail is intended for hikers, cyclists and horses, but absolutely no dogs.
As it devolves into hard-packed dirt and gravel, the old logging and dairy road gently slopes through native iris and other wildflowers in grassy pastures that cows have long forgotten. But soon the legs and lungs feel the exertion from the increasing incline of the coastal range that divides this inland valley from the Pacific Ocean. As riders pass through the redwoods and Douglas fir trees that encroach on the trail, the path grows steadily darker and spookier. The golden eyes of imagined mountain lions and tigers and bears (oh, my!) peer out from the thickets bordering the track, and though it steepens, riders push their racing hearts and feet a little harder.
After a couple miles of steady pedaling, the forest gives way to sweeping grasslands at the top of the rise. The wind whips coldly around sweating bodies as the nearby ocean makes its presence known. Knobby, tree-covered hillocks rise skyward from the grass, forming topographic islands. As the Pacific's marine influence blankets the hillside with mist, only those islands are visible, floating in an ethereal sea of clouds. With the full moon shining down on this magical vista, the strain of the trip evaporates and is replaced by the breathtaking wonder that Sonoma County offers. —S.D.
"This is so freaking weird. I can see someone getting a tequila shot!"
"Dude, is that Michelle? It totally looks like her."
"Oh, my God, that's so funny. She would be there. I can't tell if that's her, but that bar is so dead. Let's go somewhere else."
Finding the place to be on a Friday night is hit or miss. The solution is to stalk local bars through hidden web cams. Seriously. Barspace.tv has 360-degree live views of such popular Sonoma County bars as Friar Tucks, Tex Wasabi's, the Cantina, the Yacht Club, Stir and others. These views have a zoom-in feature, in case the eye is drawn to a certain fine-looking bargoer, and usually are on all weekend from 9pm to 1am.
OK, so it's been said that the cameras don't have facial recognition technology, but still it's a little creepy. Then again, it does give us a way to distinguish the off-the-hook places from the lame. Bars can also put coupons up on their page for things like $3 Jägerbombs or can text site users about impromptu deals. A website that gives drink specials, the ability to see how many people are at a bar from a computer and is as sketch as the guilty pleasure of Facebook stalking? Probably the most genius creeper site ever. —H.S.
11pm: Drunk Dining
Cruising down the main drag of the small city, most businesses have already darkened their windows for the night. But standing out in fully-lit glory sits the Destination, the one eatery in the neighborhood offering a late-night meal. The noisy group of friends slip through the door and into the darkened restaurant's faux leather booth, giddy and exhilarated from their recent adventures out. The women's bare thighs stick slightly to the well-worn seats as they scoot deeper into its embrace.
The dimly lit room is half-full of others like them, creatures of the night searching for sustenance not homemade. As steaming plates are delivered to tables nearby, the friends crane their necks trying to figure out what has been ordered. The group hungrily peruse the menu, each member looking for the late-night meal that will satisfy a personal craving. A midnight breakfast of waffles or omelettes? Would a salad suffice?
One lass closes her eyes, momentarily tuning into her hunger and imagining what would magically appear on her plate—if she could find it on the menu. A steaming bowl of French onion soup replete with crusty bread forms before her, then disappears like a Saharan mirage. She opens her eyes and closes her menu.
The well-worn waitress approaches. Adding a few "hons" to her patter and stowing her pen behind her ear, she ambles off to the kitchen, where the road map to satiation is clipped into the chef's metallic wheel of work. And so they wait, listening to the vapid tunes of the tatty lounge lizardess hoping to fill her near-empty tip jar.
The group scrounge deeply in their pockets and purses. The handfuls of change and crumpled bills are passed to the guy at the end of the table closest to the sequined-dressed entertainer, and he rises and slips the wad into her jar. The singer beams a tired but bright smile his way, sharing the love they all feel as steaming plates laden with their own desires arrive. —S.D.
11:35pm: Late-Night Bowling
Next up! Twinkletoes! Where's Twinkletoes? All right, you're workin' off of a strike, so make this one count! No, hey, that's my ball . . . and . . . ooohhhh! A split! Good luck on that one, buddy. Looks like Blue Valentine's up next. Put your longneck back on the table, no drinks past the step. OK! Show us what you got! Gutterball! Loser!
Yo, Lucky Strike! You're up. C'mon, man, you got two strikes goin'. Concentrate. You can do it. Dude, it's, it's, it's . . . strike! Hell, yes! Turkey time! Check the screen! All right, you're in the lead, with Blue Valentine bringing up the rear behind Twinkletoes. I'm gonna go plug the jukebox, I'm tired of hearing "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy." No, dude, I'm not playing "Outshined." Hey, you wanna split a milkshake? I just had the meatloaf special, I'm not that hungry.
Twinkletoes! It's all you, bro. You left the 10. Pick it up and you'll be tied. Don't fall down this time and go sliding down the lane. Remember how they yelled at us last time? After that time you bowled two balls at once and broke the ball return? We're on thin ice around here, we gotta play it cool. Blue Valentine's back on the Lord of the Rings pinball machine, so it'll be a while. Man, this place smells like cheap perfume.
Hey, hon, check out the way your teeth look under the black light. What's mine look like? I can't even see your lips. Whaddya say we get outta here—I know a place we can go. C'mon. —G.M.
Midnight: Inspiration Points
The city's beautiful from up here. Switch on the radio. Aaahhh . . . Lisa St. Regis, "Between the Sheets." Cuddle up a little closer.
This is where we talk about our dreams, up here on Parker Hill Road in Santa Rosa. Look at the people below—just small, flickering lights, moving slowly through a city that doesn't matter. Not now, at least. We're floating above it all.
This is where we gaze at the stars, up here on Pressley Road in Rohnert Park. How infinitesimally small everything is. Even the earth, let alone America. Let alone two lovers in an '85 VW Rabbit. Not here, at least. We're just two dots.
This is where you run your hand over my arm, up here on the Oakville Grade near Napa. We collapse into each other, our familiar movements made strange and beautiful and new. I try not to accidentally honk the horn.
This is where I knew I loved you, up here at the water tower off Hayes Lane in Petaluma. The way you brushed your hair away as you leaned in over the stick shift. The way one hand curled around the back of my neck and held on for dear life. The other on the unused headrest.
This is where nothing else matters, up here on Oakwood Drive in San Rafael. The Ferris wheel below, the midway, the fireworks—mere backdrop for how beautiful you are. We fumble and laugh and get back to it. Your breath, your skin. Your skin. Your skin.
The city's a wide-open playground from up here, and it's you and me on top of the world. Two young lovers with a dream. Turn up the radio. Aaahhh . . . Barbara Mason, "Yes, I'm Ready." Cuddle up a little closer. Close your eyes. Let's get lost in this for just a little while longer. —G.M.
1am: Beach Bonfire
A beach bonfire perfectly combines all of earth's elements in a delicate balance: fire, bordered by water, nestled in the earth, and fed by the air. It's the ideal Zen moment to enjoy and the perfect party setting for staying up all night to greet the dawn.
Only one small flaw mars this plan of planetary perfection. Bonfires are illegal on every beach in Sonoma County. Night access is limited to Schoolhouse and Portuguese beaches for those over 18, and camping gear, which somehow includes blankets, is prohibited. Bonfires are a moot point in Napa—no coast.
Thankfully, Marin County's spectacular Pt. Reyes National seashore does allow them. Permits can be obtained the day of the fire fiesta at the Bear Valley Visitors Center and are free. Strict rules and conditions apply, however. If the fire danger is deemed high due to dry conditions and high temperatures, or if winds exceed 30 miles per hour, fires are prohibited.
Fire builders can collect driftwood to burn, but are advised to bring their own drier, untreated wood to minimize smoke. Fires cannot exceed three feet at their base, in order to prevent them from growing too tall. They also must be built 30 feet away from any vegetation and below the high tide line if possible, so that the next high tide will wash the ashes and remnants. Fires are quenched with buckets of water, not just buried. Fires covered with sand can continue to smolder, raising their temperature and causing severe burns to beach walkers who may unknowingly step in them. And lastly, they must be out by midnight. Midnight? So much for staying up and snuggling until the sun also rises. —S.D.
2:20am: Moonlight Hiking
Walking into darkness. Eyes not yet adjusted. Alarming to open eyes so wide and see nothing. The dark closing in all around the irises. She steps. Foot feels out of place. Gravel slides beneath her hiking boots. Branches jump up out of the forest floor to slap her legs. Thrump-ump, thrump-ump, thrump-ump. Deep the heartbeat reverberates in her ears. The sound makes its way to her brain through a cotton gauze. Her breath is thick with saliva.
Her panic subsides as they make their way out of the thicket of trees and into an open meadow in the moonlight. On the crest of the hill, they lay out a blanket. The full moon is bright so that the topography of the landscape is clear. They lay back to look at the stars. The sky is stretched just above their noses, as if that heavy, ethereal canvas had been pulled concave above them, and sags just beyond the tops of their heads and the bottoms of their feet.
There is something soothing about this sky. Like each of those tiny lights in the sky, her life is an explosion of fire and fury and electricity. Moments of sadness and fear and excitement stack one on top of another to create the seconds in her hours, the hours in her days, the days in her years. And yet, even with such energy and meaning, her life will simply burn out one day, leaving nothing more than a small impression upon the world she once knew intimately.
She then thinks of the impact she makes on the world around her. She tries to speak truthfully and with purpose. But she hasn't moved mountains. There will be no history books that tell her story. Aside from those people who knew her personally, her existence will be altogether forgotten. But then she thinks about people who she still remembers who have passed, and of the great love and laughter that has been a part of her own lifetime. And it doesn't seem that any of it ever really gets forgotten. Like the stars that have burned out millions of years ago, and yet still create a magnum opus of the sky on a night such as this, she thinks that even in their relative insignificance, they are hugely important. She sighs, emptying all the air from her lungs, and watches the moon sway across the sky. —L.P.