Instead we start drinking at noon in a parking lot and black out before sundown. But that’s not to say that our trip to Kernville, CA is a bust—quite the contrary.
It all starts when we go looking for lunch, which, since my girlfriend lost her I.D., turns into something of an odyssey.
We try our luck at Kern River Brewing Co. (an obvious local and statewide favorite; their Citra Double IPA scored 100% on Beer Advocate), but we get carded and turned away.
“Listen,” I say, frazzled and resigned to the fear of being turned away at every bar in town, “I saw a Bar & Grill down the street last night when we came in.”
“I don’t remember seeing a Bar & Grill down the street. Let’s just grab a sandwich at the grocery store.”
“I swear on my mother’s soul I saw a Bar & Grill down the street,” I say. “I want a goddamn beer.”
We drive down the street, but there is no Bar & Grill. Sorry, mom.
So, we cut our losses. Parking lot, beer.
There’s an ominous mushroom-cloud plume rising where a wildfire burns up in the Kiavah Wilderness area of the Sequoia National Forest, and the heat and smoke and the fleet of choppers circling overhead makes me think wartime, senseless death, staccato enemy fire in the distant hills, hills that look about as hospitable as the surface of a dying star.
At Silver City, we’re greeted by owner/curator J. Paul Corlew—or, more accurately, by his cat. “That’s Izzy,” Corlew tells us. “He’s got his own Facebook page. Almost 300 friends, too. More than me.” Indeed, I send a (still pending) friend request to Izzy Theghosttowncat (293 friends; Studied Psychology, History, and Acting at Duocuc Universidad Catolica; Relationship Status: Single). Corlew himself is tall and wiry, and he’s got the thousand-yard stare of a wayfarer without destination. He looks as if he could’ve ridden shotgun with Hunter S. Thompson on a high-desert bender, Izzy in the backseat, bent on catnip.
“I have a love-hate relationship with this place,” he says.
Silver City doubles as an antique shop, and Corlew’s collection is pretty impressive. We buy a print from the 1950s of a grizzly bear and her two cubs terrorizing a campsite.
The ghost town out back consists of a series of historic buildings hauled in from the Kern Valley in the ’60s and ’70s—a jail, a church equipped with makeshift coffin, a saloon equipped with creepy makeshift cowpokes—in various stages of disrepair. And there’s a general sense of unrest and disquiet, that you’re intruding on somebody’s turf. I duck into the remains of an inn and feel spectral eyes on me like fingers.
Of Silver City’s paranormal reputation, Corlew tells Lake Isabella Online: “When you and two other people (all sober!) see a heavy miner’s lunch pail fly twelve feet across a room…you become a believer real quick!”
Back in Kernville, we find a sandy spot on the riverbank and get drunk with a few locals. This spot, according to Jan, her son Ian, and their friend Cheryl, is known as “The Curve.” We swim for a while, and it’s wonderfully refreshing. Drunk, we join the lounging locals and hang out for an hour or two. I bum a cigarette from Ian, an actor living in Los Angeles, and look around. A few kids float by, laughing. I’m hit with a jolt of nostalgia, slipping through the neuropsychological trapdoor of my memory bank: I’m running along the stamp sand of Squaw Beach with dogs long dead, front-flipping off the dock into Lake Superior down at the marina. Nostalgia, then, meaning “homecoming,” a Homeric word; in the Early Romantic period, it was known as a medical condition, a form of melancholy.
Civilizations have always been naturally drawn to water, from Jericho to Kernville. It’s a life source, something kindred—our own bodies are made up of about 60% of it. We feel its tidal pull, its lunar effect, at home in water’s lymphatic womb.
This is the draw of Kernville, a proper river town, quaint and friendly, the kind of place where you can pull over to the side of the road and get drunk with strangers for an hour or two.
Back at the Pinecone Inn, a black cat follows us up to the second floor and forces its way into our room. I pour myself a tall Jameson in a plastic cup and watch the skulking feline. Certain cultures, like the Scottish and the Japanese, believe that a black cat will bring prosperity and good luck. A woman who owns a black cat, it’s believed, will have many suitors. I glance at my girlfriend, who’s already fallen asleep.
Black cats also represent a symbol of evil omens, of misfortune and death. Pirates in the 18th century believed that if a black cat walked toward you, you’d have bad luck; away, good. If a black cat walked onto a ship and then off again, that ship was doomed to sink. I pick up the cat and set it out in the hall. It sits in the window and stares at me. I consider the cosmological implications of this event, what this encounter means in the scope of humankind’s chaotic finality, why the random nexus of the universe has brought I and cat together. Then I pass out.
On the way home, we visit the Exotic Feline Breeding Compound's Feline Conservation Center, or Cat House. The “non-profit organization that has been working for the last thirty years to save endangered felines found around the world” is located in Rosamond, in the westernmost desert valley of the Mojave. When I meet up with Camille Gadwood, Director of Public Relations at the Cat House, I’m saturated in sweat, shrink-wrapped in my own clothes.
“This isn’t a rescue,” Camille tells me as we walk the grounds, peacocks sunning themselves nearby. “We don’t take in someone’s ex-pets or circus stars or things like that. We’re researching genetic compatibility, so we don’t do any inbreeding. There are stud books kept on the breeders, so when we do find a match they come from all over the place. Basically, we let nature take its course. In many cases, we’re quite successful at it. Or, rather, they are.”
We approach the cage of a black jaguar. It’s stout and muscular, lumbering its heft, its bulk, every foot-pound of its bodily torque back and forth behind the bars.
Camille continues, “They pick and choose what to like and what not to like in a mate.”
There’s a word for seeing God in something earthly—a child, a horse, the eye of a storm—that an eccentric and crippled theology professor told me one afternoon on the Marquette University lawn (“For me,” he said, “it’s in the face of a snow leopard.”), but I’ve since forgotten the word. It’s Latin, I think, or Greek. I don’t see God in the black jaguar, but it’s humbling to stand three feet from so much power, and when the beast stops and fixes me in its sovereign sneer, it’s like staring down the barrel of a gun. I want something to emerge, however subtle and primordial, in the icy yellows of its eyes—a glimmer of recognition, a twinkle of reverence—but I know all he sees in me are shanks, loins, and spareribs.
“It’s just strange what the unspoken criteria are, what the cats look for.”
“Personalities,” Camille says. “It’s what we all look for.”
My girlfriend and I head home, arrowing south on the 14 toward Los Angeles, air conditioner cranked. I consider the rejuvenating powers of travel—even day trips—the essential nature of stepping away from your life, your city, and the necessity of leisure. I think about the first civilizations popping up along the Tigris-Euphrates Rivers. I imagine them happy, floating the Tigris, say, with a couple pints of Mesopotamian beer sloshing around in their bellies.