The drive here was long. Highway 5 was backed up at the Grapevine due to mudslides from last week's rains. So, we took an alternate route on tiny mountain roads—thin ribbons of asphalt twisting about like snakes in the California foothills. We didn't exactly avoid the mudslides by doing this. It was more like we dove right into them. The roads we took were covered with an inch of dirt in some places, a foot in others, and mud in some spots. We came to a barricade that said ROAD CLOSED. There was a local boy about twenty chopping wood nearby. We asked him if the road was really closed and he told me that no road was ever really closed if you could drive over it. "Keep on going. You'll be fine." So we did.
After about 15 minutes we approached a bar where I was sent in to ask for more directions. The building was covered with wooden siding and the neon sign said something like "Joe's Place" or the equivalent. The door was wider than usual and the doorknob was an old horseshoe. We were in the middle of nowhere in the California high desert. I was tingling with excitement about what might be inside of this dirty old door on a Thursday night.
I pulled the doorknob towards me. What I saw inside felt like a big hug from a long lost cousin that lives way out in the country on a farm—someone you never really know, but you are fond of them anyway. The thin, L–shaped room was thick with cigarette smoke. A few people played pool to my left. Loud talking and country music ruled my ears. The people were clearly locals—it was like a clean room meant to keep out any molecules of Los Angeles hipster or San Francisco scenester or modern pop–culture of any kind whatsoever. I was in a vortex directly connected to West Virginia, circa 1980.
I approached a man about my age and asked for directions. He was wearing a workman's jacket with a Confederate flag patch on the right arm and he had a long, full beard. In a big city his beard and jacket would've been ironic. But not here. He told me I was almost there—just keep on going.
Everything smelled like smoke and old liquor. Everything in the room was made out of old wood. The people seemed like one big family. The youngest would've been in their late twenties. The oldest were in their seventies.
I was in the most authentic townie bar that existed in this space–time continuum. Country rock played on a jukebox. People smoked even though smoking is illegal in bars in California. The walls were decorated with homemade collages made from pieced together photographs of locals. I'm guessing they were people that frequented the bar at some point. Maybe these people were sitting around me right now, but they would've been much older now. From the looks of the photos the pictures must have been fifteen or twenty years old—the prints were faded and tired looking and they were pasted together in a way that I've only seen in old bars in rural towns.
It was gorgeous and authentic and delicious, only better. This is America.
I realized that I had to have a drink here before I left. It would be something between a fee for the experience and a sort of homage to a way of life that I will never truly know.
A drink, a drink. What would a local have if they smoked cigarettes and had a workman's jacket and lived in a town that was so small I'd never heard of it even though I've lived in California my whole life? I decided that the most appropriate drink was a shot of whiskey, so that was what I told the bartender I wanted. She poured me a double shot and I drank it at the bar, flanked by townies who seemed interested in what the hell I was doing there.
A woman with blue eyes sat on a stool to my right. She opened some superficial conversation—probably lubed up some by the beer she was drinking and whatever she may or may not have drank before that. "That'll warm you up, won't it!" I wasn't sure what to say, so I smiled in reply.
"Yeah, it's one for the road, I guess."
She told me she did that from time to time. "One, time, I even had a shot of 1800. I was so warm I broke a sweat! Isn't that something?"
"Hm, I guess so! 1800 is tequila, isn't it?" I'm not an expert on alcohol, I guess.
We weren't having a deep life–changing talk, but I was pleased to be talking with her. We would never have met in any other place. Where does a guy like me meet a woman like her—I mean, really? She was probably 80 years old. Her face wouldn't have given it away, but the skin on her neck and hands had that look that I've only seen on the very old—skin that looked like it would break apart of you thought about it too hard or raised your voice.
I wanted to stay and sit next to her and talk with her, but I had to go. Dave and Ray and Boris waited outside for me. I smiled and told her goodnight. And I told her she had very pretty eyes. My hand reacquainted itself with the horseshoe, and out I stepped into the not very cold at all Southern California night.
I felt sad as we drove away. I knew we had an important destination in Los Angeles. But, I've been to LA so many times. It was an experience I've had. While, behind me, something I've never really experienced was disappearing into the distance.
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