Re Catchy’s serial killer link, I thought I’d mention my own experience.
Recently, my wife and I flew to San Francisco, driving up to Oregon in order to say our last farewells to one of her sisters, who has a terminal illness. It was the first time I’d ever set foot in California. After a week in Oregon, we decided to drive back via the coast and spend a few nights on the ocean.
Because I’d never been to Northern California before, and the trip was undertaken in a hurry, neither of us had any idea of the topography we would encounter or what our hotel, a place in “Shelter Cove” overlooking the Pacific would be like. If pressed, I guess we’d have said the North Carolina Outer Banks or something. The usual East Coast touristy beach towns. As most of you already know, the joke was on me; we drove back through mountains and Redwood National Park before ending up in one of the most isolated spots on the West Coast.
Shelter Cove, which is south of Eureka in Humboldt County, is a wealthy little second-home enclave of 700 for Angelenos and San Franciscans with its own landing strip/golf-course, which functions as a sort of halfway-house for the Afterlife. The beaches are black, the skies dark, the cliffs sheer and serenaded by seals. They have about two deaths a week there in summer, mostly tourists caught by the undertow or dashed to pieces on the rocks. In the fall, they tow away all the abandoned vehicles left by people who drive in, hike north to the wilderness area, which is nearly the size of Rhode Island, and are never heard from again. The economy of Humboldt runs entirely on marijuana growing and welfare administration, though meth labs are a growth industry.
When we left town, it was about 55 degrees and so foggy we could barely see the road as we ascended the first mountain that cuts the town off from the world. Midway through the winding 26 mile drive-- about 60 miles of switchback road, single-lane in some places, with sheer drop-offs, every idiot light in the RAV 4 was on. The brakes had burned on the way there ( we had alas, incredibly, witnessed a very young biker kill himself on a blind curve after passing us; he’d hit an oncoming truck); in order to minimize this I switched to 4x4 and downshifted a lot, which caused the transmission to jam and burn. Then, about halfway, we had a flat tire in a sunny, tree-lined stretch with no cell-phone coverage.
We took out the donut-- no tool-kit.
I flagged down a kid in a truck, who promised to call the cops for me me when he got cell coverage. Nothing happened for a while. Then a guy in a small white Tacoma stopped to help us. He said his name was Mike. He was frantically nervous and obviously stoned; red-eyed. Mike was in his forties, clean-shaven, red-haired and tanned, a funny, affable man who talked too much and too fast. I could tell almost at once that he was a veteran of the usual rural rehab/anger management progression; his rage, like his joking, lay close to the surface. I could also tell-- as I can about any other man I’ve ever met-- that he'd done some hard time. He had the jailhouse manner; the shifty eyes, the mad stare. Despite this, we got on well; I look and sound and dress like the aging redneck I am. But I was careful to always shield him from my wife.
He had all the wrong tools; somehow he and I got the thing changed anyway. He told me he was a "horticulturalist", with his own 60-acre ranch deep in the woods. In other words, a marijuana grower. He said he'd been having a "really rough time" lately; when we said goodbye, I gave him $50, and he almost cried. I'd have given him a hundred if I'd had it on me, but I didn't want my wife going through her purse in front of him. By now, me and Mike were pals, but...
Anyhow, the point of this was that we had a “moment”. He’d treated us like we were his parents; in return, I put a hand on his shoulder and told him to look out for himself. I had the distinct sense that some terrible grief or rage was trapped inside him. Things would get better, I told him.
He very sweetly followed us for a mile after he drove off to make sure we were on the road again safely, then turned off, and that was the last we ever saw of him. We took it slow, taking nearly 40 minutes to get to the nearest tiny town, Redway. Let me say that Redway, in spite of being hideous, a single ugly old commercial strip was, after the Mercedes-Benzes, sullenness, and supercilious stares of Shelter Cove, like Brigadoon. Its main visible industry is-- you guessed it--tire repair. Out of 12 shops, three are tire stores. While George at the Majestic Tire Center replaced our rental's blown tire with a temporary retread for $37, we ate at the Great American Hamburger Joint next door.
I know what you're thinking. The greasy spoon from "Deliverance". That's what what I was thinking, anyway, as I went inside. But you'd be wrong, as I was. The place was one of the nicest restaurants I've ever been in. Great food-- Idaho french fries with the peel on, delicious home-made chocolate cakes and apple pies-
- and it doubled as a bar at night, with a huge selection of imported spirits and organic local beers. And it had clean restrooms. And a local newspaper.
And right there on the front page of the local newspaper was a color photo of Mike. His real name was Shane, and he was wanted for the murders of his ex-wife and two small daughters in Shasta. He was believed to be hiding in the mountains behind us, where he had grown up and was "familiar with the country", meaning he knew every trail and. There had been a huge manhunt and roadblocks all month; these had been lifted the day before. The photo was of a bearded, red-headed man about 10 pounds heavier than Mike with shorter hair, but he had the same mad stare. But could we have sworn it was the same man in a court of law?
This question occupied us all the way back to San Francisco. Was he or wasn’t he? Could it have been a brother or a cousin? Once in our hotel room, we Googled the case, and there was no longer any doubt—he was Shane, a well-known Shasta grower who’d done time in San Quentin and was a gun dealer on the side with a huge arsenal of weapons. So we called it in. Way too late, of course.
But no amount of prison time can cure any man of the hell Mike/Shane was in.