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Song for Hollister

(this story appears in Old Roads and Shadows, an eBook )


Song for Hollister

“I awoke today and found the frost perched on the town
It hovered in a frozen sky, then it gobbled summer down
When the sun turns traitor cold
and all the trees are shivering in a naked row
I get the urge for going but I never seem to go.”

‘Urge for Going’    by Joni Mitchell

The other night I sat at home relaxing alone in the dark, listening to music, and heard the voice of Tom Rush come through the headphones as he sang his rendition of Joni Mitchell’s classic song, ‘Urge for Going’. Being a New Englander, I can recall the many times I saw a country lane lined with naked autumn trees that stood etched against the freezing sky as the sun set traitor cold behind them. Yet on this evening, the words and music swept me back to a mild spring night a decade ago in California.

Soon after arriving in the Great Central Valley town of Modesto, I fell in love with the Pinnacles, a small recreational park designated a National Monument, situated about thirty miles south of Hollister. The Pinnacles is a hiker’s park, an ancient caldera ripped asunder by the San Andreas Fault. It is a wild haven for the California condor, with stunning scenery and trails that meander over a wide diversity of terrain, including ladders ascending steep rocky crags, remote walks on trails barely marked, and dark scrambles through cool damp caverns formed by jumbled boulders.

From Modesto, it is a 125 mile drive to the west entrance of the park, located on rte 25 south of Hollister, a distance that usually entailed two and a half hours of driving. This put spending a day hiking the Pinnacles at the limit of my endurance for a one-day drive and hike. Yet after that first visit in the spring of 1998, I continually enjoyed and tramped over every trail in the park, regardless of the season and in all types of weather.

In 2001, Shirley came into my life and so became my partner on these numerous weekend daytrips, and many of these hiking excursions included the drive to Hollister and on to the Pinnacles. In fact, the only longer daytrip we undertook with any regularity entailed hiking in the Tuolumne Meadows area of Yosemite.

Although we constantly undertook these trips, it made for a long day indeed. We arose early to have coffee and breakfast, and by the time we both enjoyed a final bathroom stop before the long ride, two hours had transpired. After leaving home, I preferred to drive straight through to the trailhead but on occasion we needed to stop on route. At the Pinnacles we made a last visit to an actual bathroom, got the packs ready, donned our hiking boots, and set out for the day. This meant that to step out on the trail by 9:00am, we needed to leave home before 6:00am. We enjoyed lunch on the trail and always carried plenty of liquids and trail snacks. Returning to the parking area, we put on dry underwear and tops before starting the long drive home, if our hiking trip occurred in late autumn, winter, or early spring, the return trip to Modesto would be in the dark. On our arrival home, we emptied the car, put the wet clothes in the wash, took a shower, and sat down to a well deserved cocktail or glass of wine to savor the sweet resignation of a day well lived and melancholy of all things completed.

One evening over dinner, Shirley said we should spend a night at a motel near the Pinnacles, that way we could relax and enjoy breakfast in Tres Pinos before heading south to the trailhead. I was willing to give this a try and, so inspired, reserved a motel room for a Friday night in the center of Hollister. It was spring and the daylight hours grew longer with the advent of summer. Shirley and I made the drive into town and found our motel before venturing on foot in search of dinner. After eating in an old bank turned restaurant, we walked along the main street there, looking at shop windows and enjoying the pleasant evening. Up ahead, music drifted out into the night air from a small cafe. I ushered Shirley through the door and entered a scene thirty years gone, a small room where a collection of tables and chairs framed a lone singer pouring out her heart and soul. We found seats at a small wooden table and ordered a glass of wine.

A young woman was playing acoustic guitar and singing Joni Mitchell songs; she streamed out the lyrics with the same clear high-ringing quality that Joni sang with, and she covered the songs with grace and emotion. In addition, she had dressed and made herself up to look like Joni Mitchell: long straight blond hair parted near the middle fell past her shoulders, a simple peasant dress ended mid-thigh with long legs below, and red lipstick made the mouth seem a bit wider.

I savored the moment; the club was a throwback to the days when folk singers plied their craft with such ardency during times of change and political upheaval. I felt young again and recalled my days of youth in Connecticut. I had been singing along with and enjoying the music of Joni Mitchell for a great many years now; she had released her first album in 1968, the same year I graduated from high school.

The singer started into ‘Urge for Going’, and now I was really lost in a reverie. The frigid truths borne by those haunting lyrics and sparse winter melody did not have as their origin the bleak and darkening autumn days of the New Hampshire landscape, but they could have. I recalled the time of my life when I was a winter warrior there, before I found my own wings to go and made a chevron flight to California. Then I looked at Shirley and realized a simple truth; that at various times, the urge for going drives all of us, and this urge carries with it the sadness of loss or the power of possibility, usually a bit of both. The urge for going was the reason I was sitting with her that night in Hollister, relishing the simple joys of living that the West Coast had bestowed upon me in the autumn of my life.

That was the one and only night I ever spent in the town of Hollister. Shirley and I awoke early and left the room. After dropping the key in the office, I noticed that someone had stolen the axle covers off my Honda during the night. But no matter, we made our way out of town and drove south on rte 25 into Tres Pinos where we stopped for breakfast before continuing on to the Pinnacles for another day of wonder on the trail, parking at the Old Pinnacles Trailhead and hiking through the Balconies Caves before returning over the High Peaks Trail.

Here at home in Modesto today, I find it hard to believe that 10 years have transpired since we made that singular trip into Hollister on our way to the Pinnacles. My knees are bad now and I don’t hike anymore, but I never took those hikes or those days with Shirley for granted. “You’ll never know when we won’t be able to do it anymore,” I’d tell Shirley, and off we went, following a different urge for going.

It’s early March now, and the great fruit and nut orchards of the Central Valley have already blossomed. Spring is around the corner and the short bleak vagrant days of winter slip behind us. I’m ready to call back summertime and welcome anew the warmth of the long sunny days when Shirley and I can drive through the high mountain passes of the Sierra Nevada once again, and travel wherever the urge for going takes us.

For Shirley

Laudizen King
Modesto, California
March 3, 2011