Fear & Loathing in Carmichael
A Savage Journey into the Heart of the Suburban Dream / Nature Lovers Run Amok /
Stalking the Vile Beasts of Paradise / Notes on a Dive Bar Anthropology
Our evening began innocently enough with Novotny and me riding the dirt track upriver along the northern bank of the American. We wound through the underbrush on narrow trails, he on an old rockhopper with loaded panniers and I on my stripped down Fuji with straight bars. We blazed through twists and turns, ups and downs, low branches and other impediments—occasionally a nasty little cut bank that can knock the wheels out from under you. Despite this and some over-the-handlebars incidents through the years, this track is only slightly “technical” in difficulty.
Tonight, our route afforded lovely vistas of the serene river at dusk. We bounced along a dry creek bed, with high-lumen lamps flickering across a field of round rocks, up off our saddles and steering through the obstacle course and then arriving at a little beach where a side channel rifled along. We enjoyed a bit of Novotny's homegrown shag and took turns waterfalling his jungle juice concoction out of a sports bottle. Geese flew overhead in twos and threes, silhouetted against the dark orange sky.
We settled into the moment and the sense of stillness, with the low white noise of the river interrupted here and there by avian screeches and other nocturnal sounds. Novotny regaled me with tales from his merchant marine days, and told of the great diesel motors he had worked on down in Alameda, “motors as big as that tree,” and he pointed up like three stories high.
Continuing with his random musings on things nautical, he recited a soliloquy from the lore of the sea, Melville of course—the homily of Father Maple concerning the biblical story of Jonah, swallowed by the whale…but still not disparaging of God. It was this apocalyptic refrain:
"I saw the opening maw of hell,
With endless pains and sorrows there;
Which none but they that feel can tell--
Oh, I was plunging to despair.” (1)
I shared the sea story that had inspired Melville’s whale epic, a savage real life disaster set in the South Pacific in the year 1819, The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex. (2) And then we pushed up river, allowing ourselves progressively more robust “refreshment” stops that added a degree of difficulty to the night cruise. My learned friend provided various commentaries on fly fishing tactics, horticultural best practices, and on the wildlife we spotted–deer, mallards, lesser egrets, bright white against the dark river. And the most remarkable sight, a blue heron lighting from his perch and unfolding that long, gangling body into flight, at first bony and awkward and then a graceful and magnificent flying machine. With one flap of those great wings this prehistoric creature glides low across the water, scanning like a stone cold assassin for some little unfortunate creature to dive bomb and stab thru the heart with that shank of a beak.
On previous such excursions, my guide had pointed out kettles of turkey vultures in great circling patterns high up in the thermals. And it was not uncommon to spot a cormorant of deep black coloring, frozen in statuesque pose on a bit of rock jagging out of the current. You can miss them except for a barely perceptible movement here and there.
No urban campers were spotted on this night, although there have been some awkward encounters on previous missions, where you're rolling down a side trail through dense thickets and nearly run through a ramshackle encampment. You make sad apologies for the specific intrusion…and also for everything else about cruel fate. These river campers are a modern bogeyman for those of us townies who safely tuck into warm beds and equally comfortable assumptions—it’s a larger conversation I won’t broach here.
We nature lovers, now fairly twisted, wheeled out of the riverscape and up Arden Way, aiming for Fair Oaks Boulevard, directly into the low-intensity suburban heart of Carmichael. Here, another menagerie awaited our inspection. We made stops at a few local watering holes, nondescript shopping center dives where we continued the festivities and observed various indigenous species who had come out of their ranch style enclaves to hunt and gather, to swill Coors Lite and gnaw down buffalo chicken wings by the dozen.
Novotny and I posted up at the crowded bar and ordered whiskeys, engaging a couple sportster types—single dudes waiting for a love connection, or just getting blitzed on a Friday evening? At first these locals seemed wary of our antic state, but they warmed up pretty quickly. How menacing can middle aged dudes in bright yellow cycling gear be? Harmless stray travelers common to this ecosystem. Stand out at your own peril because everybody hates a tourist!
Scanning the room I noted melodramas playing out amid the neon lit pool tables and booths. Refugees and lost souls taking the edge off, forming an ad hoc family in the deathgrip of these precarious times. “Some men never die and some men never live but we’re all alive tonight.” Thanks Chuck Bukowski! I contemplated such anthropological notions, but also became quite focused on a buxom young waitress wearing some kind of goth neck choker. In my suggestible state I couldn’t get my mind around that damn neck choker. In this scene, a Field Guide was presenting itself: lounge lizards, cougars, all manner of subspecies—the aspirational, the enhanced and the overserved. As this visit had evolved into a quest to spot the Carmichael Vampire in his native habitat, I noted the following partial taxonomy:
Kept men with spray tans
Coked out day traders
Rosé swilling cougars
High school bro-hemians a few years past their prime
Tesla midlife crisis dudes
Divorcees on the make
Leopardskin Gucci Fashionistas
Plastic surgery "artistes"
Real estate cheeseballs
Upwardly mobile pool boys
Tommy Bahama silver foxes
Hairdressers with side hustles
Body sculpted yoga moms
And so forth…
Novotny and I were an oddly matched pair, he a Fox News Trumper and me a Bernie Sanders lefty. Somehow it works, based on our shared love of alcohol and misadventure. We briefly skirmished on the impending Russian invasion of the Ukraine, disagreeing over the material question of whether Russia had or hadn’t helped elect the former prez. Check the Mueller Report, bro! It reads like a bad crime novel: Manafort, Giuliani, assorted Ruskie thugs and fixers. Maybe we got a little loud? But I digress….
Our ladies were texting and so it was time to pull the ripcord. We left Fair Oaks Boulevard and traversed across a busy hellscape of 4-lane connector roads and into Arden Park, a fiefdom of immaculate front lawns and ornamental landscaping. Finally we made it back to the safety of Novotny’s well appointed domicile. From the backyard we could see our lovely ladies through the sliding glass doors, sitting in the living room with glasses of chardonnay—a slightly more refined Friday evening than ours.
As much as my account here attempts to ape the Doctor of Gonzo, in hindsight this trip was actually not so strange or terrifying as all of my self-mythologizing. Come on, married guys with retirement accounts are always going to come up a few hits of blotter acid short of the good Doctor. In fact, upon further reflection, aided by large quantities of my friend’s dank shag, I was left to puzzle over an uncomfortable truth about the entire social scientific inquiry. An epistemological realization continues to bear down upon my thinking. To wit: the pretension and self-satisfaction of the hunt itself is an intrinsic proof that we, the hunters, do not exist outside of the taxonomy. In other words, if you persist in asking who the vampire is, the only answer is that the vampire is you!
Avast! Freak Power! Res Ipsa Loquitur!
(full text of Moby Dick, Chapter 9, The Sermon)
In the Wreck of the Whaleship Essex, First Mate Owen Chase recounts their ship being rammed and sunk by a sperm whale, a singular occurrence in the annals of whaling. And then the subsequent grim fate of the crew, drifting for months on the high seas in lifeboats. Spoiler alert: the tale culminates with some necessary cannibalism (is there any other kind?). The book concludes with a haunting image of the author as a notorious survivor. He’s gaunt and walking slowly down the main street of Nantucket toward his homestead, passing by awe struck townsfolk in eerie silence.
(full text of The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex)