Surviving the lonliness in Northern California

It was somewhere between Fernly and Winnemucca on Interstate 80 when the order came down, though the news wouldn’t hit me until I stopped in Reno for lunch and chains to get over Donner pass. A two car pile-up reduced an otherwise empty two-lane highway to a standstill earlier in my day, now flurries of snow dusted the windshield of my car as I read the governor's order: due to the growth of COVID-19, all residents of the six Bay area counties were to shelter in home and shutter non-essential business, thus putting an unknown amount of workers in limbo amongst others. The weight of mounting stresses and driving for nearly 10 hours at that moment put my head in a spin. In a way, going home to San Francisco felt a lot like putting my hand in a blender: if I balled up my fist, the blades probably wouldn’t get me, but I’d be damned to think I was anything but a fool for doing so. Regardless, I couldn’t stay in Reno - I drove on. 

Amidst the overwhelming uncertainty of not knowing what was next or even the scope of what was happening to the world around me, I found myself back at my childhood hometown of Dixon, roughly halfway between San Francisco and Sacramento, where my mother lives on a 20-acre defunct horse farm just a few miles off the highway. As familiar as the farm felt, it had been at least 25 years since the land provided for what was left of our family, and it showed. The fields looked worse for the wear, stripped of the posts and fencing my family stretched over my youth. My childhood room, a far cry from the Nirvana and movie posters my teenage self covered the walls with, yet it still smelled like the memories of a home I remembered surprisingly well. And in the darkness when I attempted that first night of sleep, in an unfamiliar bed to the symphony of frogs and crickets just beyond the bedroom walls, I contemplated what the next few days and possibly weeks would hold. 

Ritchey - Surviging the lonlinessRitchey - Surviging the lonliness

Growing up in the Central Valley of Northern California felt akin to a punishment for a kid like me who only cared for punk music and making damn sure nothing he did in his life mimicked his parents in any way. It was all I could do to get out of that small town and escape to the city as soon as I could. If I had a rear-view mirror to throw out a window, I would have tried. Oh, the cruel irony of growing up and finding the tics and mannerisms emanating from me feeling horribly similar to the actions of my parents. But of all the horrors I witnessed in my actions came a subtle love for the land I once loathed for its deep loneliness and foreboding sadness. Despite my intentions, here I was, more than willing to let the feeling of this place take me over as I tried to shake out the growing tumultuous times. 

In the days that followed, normalcy consisted of few ingredients: my computer where work didn’t seem to end, my mother’s harmless chores and requests for help around the property, and throwing a leg over the top tube of my favorite bike. For eight years, we felt the best and worst of each other, more than any person I knew and possibly a better friend than I could have asked for. We shared in the elation of the celebratory joy of getting a new job, to the suffering hard earned miles of bike tours across the Central Valley, to the mind numbing square pedal strokes I pushed while contemplating the cancer that grew in my father’s liver; my bike remained that constant factor. While the world felt chaotic and uncertain, together we felt whole and steady. We had each other and that was enough to survive loneliness.

Pedaling the long flat roads leading away from the farm was a reunion of names I grew up with but their names became entwined and confused with others from my past. Sievers ran East to west, ride that east then head north on Stevenson Bridge Road, over Stevenson Bridge where I painted graffiti with Rick Lane and Harley Quinn (it was on this ride when I finally realized the humor in his name) as teens. My legs took me to the intersection of Road 95 and Russel, where I blew the stop sign and high-sided my Volvo, drunk young and stupid. Thankfully, we only spun out to a less than violent stop having missed a telephone pole and waiting open ditch. My girlfriend, Michelle, cried out loud as I turned to check the rest of our friends to see Zach Hash had thrown up between Kristen Watney’s feet and Shaun laughing at the calamity of it all. It would be another year before an SUV full of classmates would find themselves a more grim result of very similar circumstances. Yet, somehow this history felt tantamount to that of Lake Berryessa in the foothills to the west; the result of the New Deal era Works Project that saw the damning of and drowning out the Monticello valley and flooding of the town which bore its name. The residents relocated amongst the open farmlands I now pushed through, haunted by the ghosts of my past and whose company I felt more comfortable without. 

Northeast of the neighboring college town of Davis, the roads lose their names around a blip of a destination called Plainfield Station to bleak numerical designations. 27a led west across Roads 96 through 91 towards the foothills that bound my horizon. Out here, time felt slow and forgettable. Simple ranch homes speckled throughout the open winter fields of dirt littered by volunteer remnants of previous crops. Compared to the Bay Area, home to more than 6 million people of different histories but otherwise known for a sky-rocketing rental market and more new millionaires than any other location on Earth thanks to a blossoming tech industry, this felt shockingly complex. Most people here didn’t know much of their neighbors, but they knew them by sight and name. These sparse country roads with square intersections could be forgiven for being analogized to city blocks busy and full of people who hardly know of or acknowledge the person directly adjacent to them. Foreign yet familiar, these two horribly different places felt agonizingly similar no matter how I tried to highlight their value in their differences.

Whatever it was I was looking for, by running from or towards something, pushing the pedals over roads I never knew existed and finding comfort in their familiarity, connecting them to each other like the memories of friends from my past. Maybe there was a larger metaphor in those empty roads I knew without knowing, like the way I somehow knew all those kids' mundane histories from parents divorces to petty breakups to visiting the tombstone of a friend I never knew had it in him. Yet, I found myself thanking the disease whose spread throughout the country was parallel to none, did more than strike growing concern into the hearts of many, it highlighted the modern condition. Only it magnified due to circumstance and placed in front of a mirror for not only everyone to see, but more importantly ourselves: in solitude, we are trying more than ever to connect with each other - only desperately attempting to avoid personal encounters at the same time. 

It would be days, weeks yet, before we would find ourselves on roads more familiar, even trampled by routine. It would be what felt like a lifetime before I could find my own solitude in the congestion of the city, away from the allure of my rural past. It would be more miles still we would have to push the gears to better understand the world around us. Not sure who else will be there to share it, but in the interim, a simple bike ride seems to be enough to survive loneliness.