I was hiking alone a few weekends ago when I decided to try a new trail, one I’d never taken before. My wife and I live at the edge of the Marin Headlands, across the bay from San Francisco, and the trails that lead up to the ocean ridge have been our companions for years. The Tennessee Valley Trail is the closest, and simplest: a straight shot from the parking lot to the Pacific, about three miles round trip, perfect for those hiking with children and old people. We’ve walked it countless times together over the years; it’s become a default hike, a no-brainer when you feel like you don’t have time for anything else because of your busy schedule: places to go, people to be.
But on this day, it was just me. My wife was traveling and I had to clear out of our apartment in the morning to make way for the cleaning lady. It was still foggy when I got to the Tennessee Valley Trailhead, where you can choose your adventure, and I found a spot by the horse stables where children learn to ride. There was a trail right across from where I parked, a wide fire road really, running straight up the hill. The fog was so thick that hikers, runners and bikers disappeared as soon as they set off. I’d avoided this road, called the Marincello Trail, in the past because it looked difficult. But today I was alone, and I wanted something difficult.
About a year before I got a call from my old friend Dave*, who wanted me to know he was losing his marbles. After misplacing his car several times, and then looking for a car he hadn’t owned in years, he went to a hospital in San Francisco and was diagnosed with early onset dementia. The doctor advised him to start letting his friends know so they could keep an eye on him, or at least put him on their radar. Dave left the hospital feeling skeptical; like me, he had spent a significant amount of time drinking and drugging in his youth, even into middle-age, and figured maybe those wasted days and nights were catching up with him. He was spacy, maybe, but not hallucinating.
Then he stepped out on the street and saw Ricky Nelson in a 1957 Ford Fairlane, and after a moment of marveling at Ricky’s hair and the cherry quality of his ride, he started to make some calls.
Dave just turned 76; he’s about eight years older than me, and he is not the first of my friends to experience the frightening symptoms of early dementia. Losing your car is a classic tell, even for those who don’t live in car-centric California, and a common if unreliable symptom of memory loss. (I lived in Brooklyn, New York for decades and after moving my car on an almost daily basis thanks to the city’s byzantine parking restrictions, I often forgot where I’d parked.) If it keeps happening you could lose not only your car but driver’s license, your means of escape.
I saw Dave the week after he called. We had brunch at a nondescript diner on Van Ness Avenue, perhaps the most nondescript street in San Francisco, home to car showrooms and chain hotels. Lingering over our coffee and pancakes, we could have been anywhere. He looked okay; he’s always been a handsome man, and after a health scare in his 50s, he got sober and began taking better care of himself. He belonged to a local AA group, and was part of a meditation circle that met every week. Most of the people he called after his dementia diagnosis were friends from one group or the other. His family of origin was gone; these were his brothers and sisters now.
I hadn’t seen him since that brunch, when I should have been amongst those checking in on him. I’d been gone from California for six months when I received a group email, addressed to “Friends of Dave,” saying that he had been hospitalized after experiencing several seizures and falling once, breaking his hip. He could no longer live alone, as he had for most of the 40+ years I’ve known him, and some of his friends were working on his behalf to find a Skilled Nursing Facility (SNF) that would take his insurance.
We were driving across Canada when I received the email. I was part of the second string to receive the update; better friends were on the frontlines, and presumably more in the loop. I’d seen more of Dave back in the early ‘80s, several lifetimes ago when I still lived in San Francisco and went to a Tuesday night poker game at his house. We had reconnected when we returned to the Bay Area nine years ago. I was speaking at an AA meeting in SF, telling the assembled about the time I wrecked his car coming back from a biker’s bachelor party in Oakland when he walked in, like a surprise witness at a trial.
But I only knew a fraction of John’s life, glimpsed at Giants’ games and poker parties. He has lived whole lifetimes that I knew nothing about. He’d been in the Army, and married before I knew him. He moved to New York himself for a spell, to be with another woman, and like most alcoholics and addicts had a secret life after hours. He only got sober about 20 years ago, when a bout of pancreatitis exposed his affliction, and he started calling old friends then, too, to say, This is who I really am.
Canada’s eastern provinces are as flat and unremarkable as the American Midwest, just maybe more so. You can drive for hundreds of miles (or kilometers) without seeing anyone. Until you enter Alberta, and start to see the Rockies in the distance, there’s nothing to get excited about. It was a big deal when the shape of the hay bales that we flew past changed from round to square. It’s about the machinery, I learned; the round bales were less expensive, but the square ones are easier to handle. Part of me really wanted to get back to SF and see my friend, and part of me really didn’t.
I could hardly make out the people going up the Marincello Trail; they were just silhouettes in the fog. If we passed close enough to each other we said hello (it’s California, after all), but many seemed happy for the isolation and the cold, wet weather. The trail was named after a real estate development that was never built (the mere threat of the development spurred the creation of the surrounding Golden Gate National Recreation Area, over 80,000 acres of protected land), and I imagined that the shadows I passed were specters from an alternate universe in which coastal California was as overdeveloped as Florida. Halfway up the grade I came upon two dads and their young sons, all on bikes. The fathers were talking business while the boys spun their pedals in boredom.
“After you’ve reached parity,” one of the men said, “the separate brands just aren’t that significant.”
By the time I returned to SF and tracked Dave down, he’d been moved from the hospital to an SNF in a faceless suburb south of the city. According to the facility’s website they specialized in “dementia care ranging from early onset to late stage.” They also provided hospice care.
It was a two-story complex, stucco on the outside, where the white noise of the nearby freeway filled the air. Inside, it was clean and friendly; I had called to let them know I was coming but no one had written down my name. The woman behind the counter was wearing a mask, along with everyone on staff. “We probably will be for the rest of all time,” she said. The wall colors seemed to have been taken from a jar of TUMS, chalky pink and green pastels some administrator decided were soothing.
After taking my temperature, the young woman led me to Dave’s room. There was supposed to have been a birthday party for him in the cafeteria before I arrived, but since Dave was new, and most of the patients were in the process of forgetting everyone anyway, it couldn’t have been much of a party. His bed was against the wall and under a window that looked out on the hallway. There was a bedside table and flatscreen TV mounted on the wall and not much else. Dave sat up in bed when I entered, and after I removed my own mask and identified myself, he said, “I know who you are.”
I pulled up a chair opposite the bed and we talked. Dave didn’t look that differently than when we’d had brunch last year, though the clothes he was wearing, he told me with what seemed like pride, all came from the Goodwill. He repeated some of the stories of his original symptoms, though this time Ricky Nelson was driving a ’57 Thunderbird instead of a Fairlane, as if Dave had revised his own hallucination. He enumerated the things he had lost before being hospitalized: his phone, his checkbook, his wallet, his keys, his car. Whatever car he’d been driving last. That trail of missing objects was part of what led him here. A couple times a word would slip away from him when he spoke, and after struggling for an instant he’d smile and say, “Lost it.”
“I feel like I’m just stripping things away,” he said, and I reminded him of Leonard Cohen’s “Going Home,” in which the songwriter contemplates letting go of everything: “Going home/Without my burden/Going home/Behind the curtain/Going home/Without the costume /That I wore”.
A thin curtain separated Dave’s side from that of his roommate, a man he hadn’t met yet. He told me that he had another room, at the end of a trail that led to the ocean, but that he had to share that, too. He said he’d show it to me the next time I came to visit. Given that his new home was miles from the ocean, and surrounded by houses and some light industrial businesses, I suspect his beach house would be as hard to find as Ricky Nelson’s T-Bird.
After an hour of not looking at my watch, I bid my old friend farewell and drove to Golden Gate Park, where people were wearing costumes of a different sort. It was the first day of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, an annual SF showcase for all kinds of music on the Americana spectrum. Dave loved a lot of the artists who’d be performing there, which was maybe why I didn’t mention it to him. The festival is free and draws hundreds of thousands of people each year. Golden Gate Park was the epicenter of the hippie scene in the 1960s; the Human Be-In of 1967 was an acid-soaked “gathering of the tribes” on the park’s Polo Fields that featured readings by poets Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, and performances by local bands, including the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. Eighteen years later, in 1985, the Dead’s lead guitarist, Jerry Garcia, was busted within sight of the Polo Fields while freebasing cocaine in a black BMW with expired tags. According to Deadhead legend, he was on his way to rehab to deal with his coke and heroin addiction when he took an unexplained detour to this haunt of his younger days. He had to tell the arresting officer his name since he didn’t have any ID with him.
San Francisco has changed considerably since the Dead shared a house in the Haight-Ashbury district there in the late ‘60s. Struggling musicians can’t afford to live there now; hell, flourishing musicians can hardly afford the city. But at events like Hardly Strictly, festival goers can engage in a little harmless nostalgia. Though smoking is forbidden in the park, the smell of marijuana (legal in California now) permeated the air, and I saw a couple of young people dressed in what looked like Halloween hippie outfits—bellbottom pants, headbands and sandals—selling belts with tassels and artificial flowers attached to them. They looked like dancers from a modern production of Hair, and I wondered what other costumes they had in their closets. A man selling psylocibin mushrooms wore a sign around his neck that said “Shrooms”; when my brother asked if he could take his picture, he pulled his bandana up over his face like a bandit.
Looking around the field as the Drive-By Truckers performed I realized that a small number of people in attendance probably lived in the park. They seemed happy to have all these people in their stomping grounds, and I know some of them had come to California in search of just such a scene, one that, for the most part, didn’t exist anymore.
When I got to the top of the Monticello Trail the next day, I couldn’t see a thing. There was a trail sign pointing to different destinations but every path was swallowed by fog. I was thinking of a job I had in the late ‘70s, working in a sandwich shop on Haight Street. The hippie scene was already long gone, but young people kept coming in search of it.
We didn’t call the people who lived in the park homeless then; they were “street people,” or sometimes “park people.” Then as now, a number of them were afflicted by mental illness and addiction, but a few just seemed like they’d made a bad turn and remained there by choice. My favorite was a guy named Richard; he was probably close to 30 then, and a little less down at the heels than some of his cohort. He hung out with the same gang, a troupe of park people who would come into the store begging for food, but he acted like he was above them.
“Look at this face,” he’d say to them, pointing at himself as they sat at a corner table, sharing a cup of coffee and a giant chocolate chip cookie. “This is the best-looking face you’re going to see this close.”
And Richard was handsome enough to be an actor, which he said had been his aspiration. He told me he was an impressionist, and had gone to Las Vegas to study with Frank Gorshin, an actor best remembered for his portrayal of The Riddler in the TV series Batman. Before that, Gorshin was famed for the impressions of Hollywood actors that he did on stage and TV shows, and according to Richard he had a side-hustle teaching people to do the same. Sometimes Richard would hustle me with an offer I couldn’t refuse.
“I’ll do Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster and Marlon Brando for half a meatball sandwich,” he’d say, and on a slow night I’d agree. The impressions were more like Gorshin’s, an impression of an impression, but clearly, he had studied. I wonder about him sometimes, where he ended up and who, if anyone, he is today.
*Dave’s name has been changed to protect his privacy.