The water was a long way down and a hike across deep sand marked with char left from beach fires and a giant peace sign made from flowers sprouted in the sand, given body from twigs and shell fragments.
Close enough that I could hear the power of the waves and smell the bright saline air. So tired from over 12 hours of travel, but I’ll never have a first time at the Pacific Ocean. I climbed. Down the twisting, sand-covered metal steps, kicking off my sensible vegan Mary Jane mules and plunging my tired skin into the cold sand.
I carried my shoes to the shoreline and watched the tide for a long time, paying mind to how it came in closer each time. How waves from left to right converged, synergizing their power to push onto the beach. Two nights before the Supermoon. Does that make a difference? I don’t know.
With this in mind I dropped my shoes a good distance from the last spot kissed by water. I needed both hands so I could take a photo of the first time my toes dipped into the cold pan-Asian waters.
And the water kept coming, rushing over the cuffs of my leggings. I didn’t have time to turn and run for my shoes; I stumbled backwards, racing the waves which swallowed my shoes as I ran past them. Backwards.
The white water swallowed my shoes so fast I instantly lost sight of them.
2100 miles from home and my shoes are going to Japan.
Not wanting to make the barefoot trek across the beach, up the stairs, and down the asphalt block to my car – and another pair of shoes – I stood there, thinking.
I get spooked when I see single shoes abandoned where they shouldn’t be. I see a shoe on the side of the road, I assume it’s there because someone was knocked out of it by a car. Because in cleaning up the post-wreck mess, they’re so often going to leave behind one footless shoe, every single time.
While I was thinking about my shoes, stolen by the sea, on their way to fuel someone else’s neurosis on the other side of the world, the tide rolled in and deposited a shoe. My shoe. I ran forward and grabbed it before it washed away again.
If one shoe could return … I scanned the length of beach and saw something in a small tidal basin. Looked a bit like driftwood, except there wasn’t driftwood anywhere else.
Sure enough, my shoe. Again I raced the tide and won, getting soaked halfway up my shins.
I still had to walk barefoot to my car when I finally left. A cheap cotton dress I could spare from my luggage worked to scrub the sand from my feet. I put on my other shoes, and continued down the 1 to Salinas to my friend’s house, her great friends and family, my inaugural trip to In & Out. Sleep after 20 hours of wakefulness before going to my first day of the John Steinbeck Festival (more posts about the festival will follow.)
Author Tim Z. Hernandez and vocalist/guitarist Lance Canales gave the second presentation I attended the next day. I’d interviewed Hernandez for my Monterey County Weekly story about how the festival combined literature and music this year with the inclusion of Woody Guthrie. These guys epitomized just what happens when music and written words are used together.
Their presentation was inspired by the 1948 Los Gatos plane crash that killed four Americans and 28 Mexican nationals who were being deported after their produce-picking contracts expired. Newspapers reported the names and details of the American pilot, stewardess, co-pilot and the immigration agent. Everyone else was just lumped into the title “deportees” in press reports about the crash, which infuriated Guthrie. He wrote about the crash in the song “Deportees (Plane Crash at Los Gatos).”
During our interview a few weeks before the festival, Hernandez told me about the influence the song had on him:
“It was another book project that I stumbled upon the story of the plane crash. It took place in 1948 and there was a quick allusion to this plane crash and I thought, that’s it. I’ve got to write about that plane crash. But what excited me was the time in which Woody Guthrie looked into that plane crash, recognized that it seemed important enough to write about. Guthrie and Steinbeck’s attention to getting down the real voice as best as possible, and writing about the gaps that go overlooked in mainstream media or art forms.”
Hernandez is my age – late thirties – and he spent part of his childhood near the site of the plane crash. The first part of his childhood was spent moving around the west with his migrant farm worker parents. “For the most part a lot of it really hasn’t changed much,” Hernandez told me of the modern working conditions in the central California farmlands. “We still get a sense that, while some of the MO has changed in terms of the agricultural business and the agricultural industry, there are other issues that have arisen from it.”
And to convey all of this – the crash, family history, nameless deportees, marginalized workers, and the piles of strawberries we can buy for Valentine’s Day in the Midwest – how?
Hernandez described what he planned to do at the festival. “I think one of the things folks will find from my presentation is it’ll be a balance between the people who were in the plane crash, and my story, the story of my family and migrant farm workers. Lance Canales has done his storytelling with music. We’re basically weaving these together. I think that’s an important aspect because it ties in the past with the present. That’s ultimately what I’m hoping to do. Tie the past to the present. Give voices and names to those who died in the plane crash, but also voices and names to those who do this today in our lives.”
Canales plays hollow-bodied, anger-fueled blues guitar. He growls like Tom Waits. Stomps with his feet clad in the heavy work boots of his grandfather, a fedora on his head tipped in homage to the man.
At the apex of their performance, Canales provided frenetic guitar rumble as Hernandez spit out a poem documenting eye-witness reports of the Los Gatos crash, listing items found at the crash site. His poem began:
I choked back a sob begging to erupt out of my throat that would have broken the haunted still of the dreadfully under-filled conference room. Held my breath to keep my horror from filling the room, a tide tapped from the core of a sad, fearful heart that worries, gnashes, and devises the worst possible reason for something mundane being where it shouldn’t be.
Tapped and flooding. Hernandez and Canales managed to drill into one of my deepest, oddest idiosyncrasies. Shoes. Fundamental. Taken for granted. Until they’re gone. Or empty and displaced.
They found shoes at the crash site. So many that Hernandez lists them first, repeatedly. Scattered shoes – some empty, some not – one of the only indications of the people who wore them, worked in them, sweated in them, kicked them off at the end of the day, tied them on in the morning with the mindlessness of habit.
And every single person who died in that crash became a human being to me. Not just the Manuel, Rosalita, Jesus and Maris in Woody’s composition. Human beings so vulnerable they could be knocked out of their shoes.
After the performance I talked to Canales, who I hadn’t interviewed for my article. Not sure what I said. Just random gushing. Later, I approached him and Hernandez in the lobby. I’m not much of a hugger, but I told Hernandez I had to hug him after his performance. I just wanted to cling to them the way people do at a funeral.
And yet, it was joyful. After their performance they’d received praise from Nora Guthrie and Robert Santelli – organizers of the Woody centennial events and primary keepers of his legacy.
I’ve kept in touch with both guys since the festival. Canales has a new album with his band, The Flood, called Elixir, and it’s incredible. I’m long overdue to review it, but I will.
Hernandez and I have emailed about shoes.
If anyone captured their performance at the Steinbeck festival, I haven’t found it, unfortunately. These videos will have to suffice. They’re good, but I don’t think anything can capture the power these two create together.