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Rearview Mirror

2014 wasn't all bad, but it was close



You hear about this thing called a "California drought" and think—how bad could it be, really?

We were outside of Bakersfield, hurtling north on what would be the final day of a weeklong drive from New Orleans to the Bay Area. First stop: Berkeley.

We were treading light on American roads lit up with the Fear, or that was the idea, anyway: terrorists at every gas station, illegal aliens in every barn, you know the picture.

I just wanted to find some good doughnuts out here, and maybe some of that Kerouac apple pie and vanilla ice cream business from On the Road, but minus the speed and its manic edge.

It was me and the dogs, a cheap guitar and a bag of clothes in the trunk, not much else. Johnny Cash was the main soundtrack for the ride, his record that was made at the Orleans Parish Prison in the early 1970s. The prison crossroadss marks one of the endpoints of the legendary "blues highway" across America, and here we were, at the other end of it somewhere.

The Man in Black was in the metaphorical rearview as I rolled through Texas and beyond, thinking about new opportunities, or a righteous and legendary death on the Donner Pass, whichever came first.

But here's the thing: All through the drive west, I was expecting to find—and I mean this literally, in the figurative sense—the last of the Okie Joad family holed up in a barn when we got to California. I was vibing Shangri-La lush as I thought about the Central Valley of lore and John Steinbeck's descriptions of it. Pendulous plums dripping dew in the grand fecundity of the Eternal Renewal, that sort of thing. I was ready for it.

Instead, I got the Fear: "The dawn came, but no day," is the first line of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, which kicks off deep in Dust Bowl Oklahoma. Yet that line ramshackled itself clear across the country, with visions of the creaky Joad caravan playing ghost-roller in the breakdown lane.

The miles of dusty grape vines along the highway should have tipped me off that something was quite amiss in California. But before I knew it, there were signs looming with the orange-glow letters, big roadside portents of badness: "Warning: Dust Storm Ahead." I thought, oh, these wussy Californians with their overdone warning systems. There was a little bit of wind, some whipped-up dust. No big deal.

Hey, dogs, look at those cool windmills! Just look at them spin! Then we were in it, just like that. The full-on dust storm, a rust-tinged dirt mist of scary blackout proportions, for miles up and down the highway.

Noon broke, but there was no day. The traffic had slowed to a crawl, the wind howled scary, and tumbleweeds the size of Toyotas rolled across the highway. Big freaking tumbleweeds that would have been mesmerizing were it not for the immediate menace of traffic, dust and wind. Welcome to California: Have you heard about the drought?

Grip the wheel and pay attention to the three feet of visibility that you do have. Turn off the Johnny Cash and focus on the road. Eventually, the dust settled.

This was late January 2014, the early days of what would be become the year in fear—and doughnuts. At least there were the doughnuts.

So we made it through the California dust bowl scene and got settled in at the Bohemian just in time for the torrent of terror and weirdness that was to come in 2014: Isis and Ebola, the midterm election meltdown, black kids getting shot and choked everywhere, earthquakes and fires and immigrant haters and radioactive tsunami ramen-wrappers washing up on the beach. At least that last one was just a rumor.

Oh, and good doughnuts, from Tan's Donuts in Santa Rosa. With all this chaos and uncertainty swirling around, the bilious fear-mongering on your public media outlets, the anonymous shriekers commenting furious on the news sites as they reach for the Klonopin, it is important to remained grounded in the mindful doughnut—if not the moment.

"Hope and fear cannot alter the season." That's a line from the late Tibetan Buddhist Chögyam Trungpa, from his Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. Chögyam, the founder of Naropa University, is credited as being one of the bigt ambassadors of Eastern thought to Western minds.

It's a resonant line for the obvious reason that it's true, but the aphorism also—and quite unintentionally methinks—makes a statement in reverse about global climate change. The ding-dong denialists want you to be afraid—very afraid—of people who would insist that there's Weird Things Happening with the weather. Maybe there are, and maybe there aren't, but Why do you hate America?


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