Anyone who visits California must travel along Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, once in their life. Frankly if you’re alive and own a car, the trip is required (the penalty is death if you refuse and own a convertible). I associate it to a rite of passage, as sacred and necessary as receiving your first kiss, landing your first job, or watching your first Indiana Jones movie.
The road slips and glides around the western cliffs, hugging the steep rocky curves the way roads should and cars seldom can. Signs advising 40mph wink knowingly as your car flies by, nearing twenty-more than safety dictates. You look outside and gaze straight up or straight down. Trees dapple the hills and mountains like an old man’s chin, while waves churn and crash on dark cliff walls, breaking stone with milky foam as dark clouds seem to flood the skies with sea. As fog descends from unseen peaks, cloud and water merge. The Pacific fades from view like the edge of an unfinished landscape. At night fleeting wisps of light trace the folds in the peninsula, eventually swallowed by a valley or fold hidden in the darkness. We arrived in Monterey late, exhausted and hungry.
Several hours prior we had stopped for a tour of Hearst Castle, discovering the site during a sudden and expedient bathroom break.
“Damn it,” I cursed, nearly running down the streets of the small town. “‘Bathrooms are for customers only.’ Do I have to pay admittance before I visit the privy or pay my toll afterwards?”
All of the various shops or cafes in town restricted bathroom use to customers only. Signs posted in the windows clearly told me to ‘Go away!’ and ‘We don’t want your kind here.’ Or ‘Empty your bladder somewhere else and then come back and try our scones. Delicious!’ All Dasad could manage was to giggle at my predicament, suggesting various walls and trees, which given five more minutes may have become enticing. Moreover, he would not pay the ransom, citing something about terrorist demands and the outrageous prices on a worthless sea lion snow globe.
Nearly jogging several blocks, Jay and I finally found the public bathroom, buried deep behind the local Texaco station: a concrete shack that at one time may have doubled for a bomb-shelter. Still I wasn’t in the position to quibble. Despite the notorious reputation of many gas-station bathrooms only a handful I have considered truly disgusting. Most, though ill-suited for your Aunt Gertrude, are far more sanitary than most locker rooms. However, in this forgotten town, nestled between two adjacent mountains off the Pacific Coast Highway, I encountered a chimera, something both unique and horrible.
Just imagine the worse possible scenario for each of your senses and you’ll grasp the general aura of this public facility. Relieved but pale, I hastened outside, where Jay stood waiting.
“How is it?” he asked.
“Just don’t touch or look at anything. I’d suggest breathing, but if the filth reaches your nose, you might collapse. And I won’t be going in again to save you.”
I tracked down Dasad to the local candy store, ferreting for some home-made chocolate or sweets, yet most of their confections appeared boxed, mass-produced, or Hershey. He left unimpressed and quite hungry; thus, we sat down at the local burger place for lunch. After we had ordered, Jay returned from the bathroom, his face white and wet as if he had just fallen into the polar icecap. Sitting down, he twisted his hands together, absently, I thought, until he pulled out an empty bottle of disinfectant and squirted it on his hands and face.
“It was full thirty minutes ago,” he said, massaging between his fingers. When our burgers and fries arrived, he stared at his palms for a moment before picking them up, considering – I imagine – whether any impurities still lingered.
A nearby couple discussed their own vacation at the table nearby. The conversation turned to their excellent visit to Hearst Castle, only a few miles up the road according to the road signs. Castles and ruins will capture the imagination of a twenty-nine year old as easily as a twelve-year-old, and without a word, we decided to take a gander.
Two hours later as we boarded the tour bus, Dasad and I came down with a serious case of laughing sickness, the kind that overwhelms your senses, making it nigh near impossible to stop. It began just after the National Geographic film on the life of William Randolph Hearst and the construction of his home, the castle.
Apart from the breathtaking scenes in European cathedrals and ruins, the whole presentation was essentially camp, recreating the publishing giant into some mythological figure rather than a human being: “There are many stories about William Randolph Hearst and his castle, but in order to understand the man and his genius, I’ll tell you my version. It’s the one I enjoy the most. It also happens to be the truth.” The disembodied narrator, a supposedly sixty-some year-old pilot, could learn something about subtlety in his storytelling. If they had concluded the film with Hearst curing cancer or turning lead into gold, it would not have surprised me.
So powerful was this performance that Dasad began channeling the man himself, squawking orders to our fellow tourists like a 1940s gangster.
“I’m William Randolph Hearst, see. When I ring this bell, I want you Cary Grant to dress up like Little Orphen Annie, see. And you Amelia Earheart shall dance for me. Dance until I tell you to stop, see? ‘Cause I’m the Hearst and while you’re at my castle, you’ll do as I say, see? Or I’ll feed you to my cross-eyed polar bear, nyaeah . . .”
“Why are you talking like James Cagney?”
“ ‘Cause he’s old,” Dasad explained. “Everyone back then talked like this . . . see?”
Something about that absurd logic and absurd movie that inspired it sent me rolling. The two of us nearly crawled onto the bus, packed tight with tourists, who just stared quietly at the pair of giggling pot-addicts in the front seat. When the bus started up the hillside, a train whistle erupted over the loudspeaker, followed shortly by the rest of the train: Chugga-chugga-chugga. Whoot-whoot! Chugga-Chugga. Welcome to the Hearst Castle Tour! Whoot! Are you ready, pardners?
I looked at Dasad, red-faced and biting his fist. After a few moments, it became difficult to breathe.
“If you guys don’t stop soon,” a lady beside me said with a smile, “I’m going to join you. It’s contagious, you know.”
“S-sorry,” I giggled between my teeth, earnestly trying to master myself, until Dasad began muttering something. All I heard was ‘. . . nyeah, see?’ and my willpower crumbled again. We were no more good until the bus stopped just outside Hearst’s Roman pool.