Our Last Road Trip

Our Last Road Trip

by

Adam Gottstein

They made it abundantly clear: “Make sure the funeral home does not embalm her.” Right. I’ll remember that. Embalming a human body isn’t a part of daily discourse unless you’re in the industry, so one doesn’t forget an instruction like that. 

Therefore, I had to make sure the funeral home supplied enough dry ice for the trip to Washington. I live an hour east of Sacramento and I’d never make it to Seattle driving by myself in one day. I wasn’t sure how far I’d get before sleep forced me into a hotel for the night. How long does dry ice last, especially to keep a body chilled? I would lie in a hotel bed in Eugene, Oregon, thinking about it until I mercifully fell asleep.

When the skies started to lighten, we hit the road. Finding strong coffee on the road was paramount and, fortunately, coffee shops are plentiful. I drove a huge SUV rental and bombed up Hwy 5 doing 80 miles per hour, but people still whizzed by me. As one ages, driving habits change: slowing down, allowing more space between my own and other vehicles, increasing my margin of error. The pandemic had limited my mobility for the past two and a half years. I felt vaguely like Chauncey Gardiner from the movie Being There as I moved hesitantly in the brave new world beyond my front porch.

For all my concern, it turned out my deceased mother and I arrived before noon the next day. The dry ice had lasted and she was in very good shape for her next phase at Return Home, a new facility in Auburn, just south of Seattle. They perform terramation of the human body: a new, slow, organic decomposition process. Terramation uses no chemicals – hence the instructions to not have her embalmed at the local mortuary. It is an earth-friendly, low-carbon-footprint method that is being pioneered as a viable alternative to burial or cremation. In September 2022, Governor Newsom signed legislation that paves the way for terramation to be performed in California, thereby joining Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Vermont. 

Mom’s process would be complete in a few months, by which time I would receive approximately 10 pounds of her composted remains. My plan is to distribute a small amount to family members and a few friends, as well as placing a little bit around the plants and trees on my property. At that time, mom will have “returned home.”

Although I drove very fast from the Sierra Foothills to Auburn, once I had dropped mom off, I left in a bit of a fog, aiming my rental casually in the direction of the Washington Coast with no specific plans, nowhere to be, no one to whom I needed to be accountable. It was an immediate and profound transition. With a spinning head and still slightly aching heart, I now had time to think. To really think. And the time and space to finally do so.

Ruth turned 100 years old on Aug 11th and passed away on Aug 30th. I loved her deeply. Our relationship had always been unusually close and became even closer after my dad died in 1981. 

She moved herself and her book publishing company from San Francisco to Volcano, a village in the Gold Rush region of California. She continued to produce works focusing on progressive and feminist themes such as women’s health and domestic violence. Having published the first book on the subject (Battered Wives by Del Martin, 1976, Volcano Press), Ruth’s work was pioneering and groundbreaking. She was fearless and regarded as a leader or, in the words of domestic violence activist Kit Gruelle, “Ruth gave language to the battered women’s movement.”

In 2014, after a bad fall requiring surgery, rehabilitation, and ongoing around the clock care, she resided in an assisted living facility. When Covid snuck its tentacles into the group home, I brought her to live with me in my tiny cottage for the next two years, where she eventually passed away very peacefully.

Her hospital bed was set up in the main room of what Ruth had dubbed Serenity Cottage. The room is full of mementos from our past life in San Francisco: tschakas, paintings of Coit Tower, and photos of loved ones, including my father, Howard. 

My parents met in 1936 at an anti-Franco rally in San Francisco. They would marry two years later, in 1939. Mom was 17.

Ruth and Howard. Dad was stationed in Pasadena in the early 1940s.
Grainy screen grab from a family gathering video around 1940 or so.

Our early family vacations were road trips. Among them, I remember traveling with my folks and older siblings to New Mexico. Our family vehicle was an old Chevrolet Suburban that doubled as the dry-cleaning and laundry delivery truck my dad used for his business. On our trips to the Southwest, there was a canvas cooler of water strapped to the front grill, similar to this:

Mom sat up front, dad drove. My siblings and I were in the back, alternating between sleeping and playing games. No seatbelts, of course. We’d travel at night due to the heat and spend our days in motels with swimming pools. My folks slept while we played in the water. Incredibly fun memories.

With my stomach growling, finding a sushi restaurant somewhere near Tumwater, WA, was my top priority. My AirBnb host was a diminutive Japanese seamstress who created custom bikinis loaded up with a rainbow of colored sequins, a specialty service she provided internationally for professional female bodybuilders. Her living room was filled with her big display. Talk about your niche profession! 

She lived alone with her cat and dog, renting out rooms to augment her income. She was delightful and well informed on the topic of salmon spawning in the local Washington migratory rivers. 

Our conversation increased my desire to have sashimi for dinner. I took my leave and, for the life of me, could not find a sushi restaurant in the area, and ended up at a pretty lame place serving a quasi Chinese BBQ. It was wholly unsatisfying. I would find this to be the first of marginal road meals. Mildly disappointing for someone like me: an entry level foodie. 

Back in my room, I spent a restless night (suspecting the faux-BBQ) finding myself anxious to get on the road by 5am the next morning. A charming local coffee shop in a rural town was my first stop on my way to the coast. 

“Morning,” I said to the friendly barista. “I’d like a five shot dry cappuccino.”

”Five??” She replied, aghast.

“Yes, please.”

“I should make you sign a waiver releasing our shop of any liability. Hope you have a strong heart.”

We both laughed.

Driving again along a very circuitous two-lane route, I made it out to the Washington Coast right around Cohassett Beach. It was my first view of the Pacific Ocean and my relief was palpable. I was enjoying a wonderful conversation with one of my very best friends on my phone. I wanted to capture the moment:

This triggered a memory of a family car trip up the Washington Coast. I distinctly remember being around six years old and building a lean-to fort out of driftwood with my older brother. It took hours to make and then we played in it for hours afterwards. We only took a break to eat a meal my mom and sister had spread out on a red gingham  tablecloth. I thought that this was one perfect vacation. It just couldn’t get any better. Simple pleasures.

Back to my road trip. Found myself driving through Cannon Beach, Oregon where I had first road-tripped with family friends in 1969, when I was fourteen. At the time, I fantasized about learning how to live a beach-bum life. Cannon Beach had been small and funky, with a well established artist community. Now? Huge condominium complexes render this town nearly unrecognizable. I was glad for my memories. 

Clearly I did not become a beach bum. Instead, my life followed a different trajectory. We were a middle class, Jewish family living in the Haight-Ashbury. In 1964, my folks discovered a magical village called Volcano, in Amador County. Mom and dad yearned for some time in the country. She had read a column by Stanton Delaplane in the San Francisco Chronicle about Volcano. He himself had family ties to the area and his article was the impetus for their first visit.

Not only did they love it, camping illegally on private property in the milder seasons, staying in the St. George Hotel in the winters, mom eventually found a very small, hand-written “For Sale” sign in the old Sibley’s Brewery (circa 1856) with a 415 area code number. She was very excited at the prospect of owning a historic building in Volcano and chattered all the way home about it to dad. 

“For heaven sakes, darlin’! Call the owners tomorrow.” Dad was supportive, although he wondered how they would afford a second mortgage. The next morning, Ruth did just that.

A deal was struck in the downtown San Francisco highrise building of the financier/owner of the home. Mom showed up with a purse, but nothing inside by way of payment. The seller shook her hand and asked for a moderate deposit. 

“Deposit?” She asked, suddenly nervous. “Oh my goodness, I didn’t even think about that. May I use your phone?” She immediately called dad who picked her up, went to the bank, and took out some cash to conclude the transaction. All legal, but very informal to say the least. 

Her excitement was off the charts. My dad? Not so much, but he eventually came to love the family weekends spent in the country, wood burning fires in the big room, crisp Tanqueray and tonics, BBQ and Thanksgiving dinners in this new and unusual home. It was the getaway that they thought they’d never be able to afford.

It was decided that mom needed to return to the workforce to help pay for two mortgages. One of her first jobs was as an assistant to Revels Cayton whose City department spear-headed the new, low-income-housing apartments, called St. Francis Square. This was the first of a number of jobs she’d have leading up to her career in book publishing and, later, owning and running a small indie publishing company.

Ruth working at St. Francis Square in the early 1960s.

Coming into Astoria, Oregon, I had to make a stop at Ruthie’s Cookies.  The name was, of course, no small part of my impetus for stopping, but I was also drawn in by a breakfast of oatmeal raisin cookies and homemade smoked salmon which were incredible! Strong and delicious coffee. Again.

My folk’s life and work in San Francisco fostered somewhat of an entrepreneurial vibe in our home. It was the sixties and while I was young (nine years old in 1964 when the Beatles first played in the US), I knew how unusual a family we were. My older brother and sister were definitely part of the hippie Peace & Love movement while I, too young to be fully immersed, dabbled in the fringes of the times and tried to make up for it in the 70s.

Mom was the driving force behind the multiple properties that she and dad eventually bought. His only reluctance was the idea of trying to support more than one mortgage on their modest incomes. One of their homes was located 18 miles west of Taos, New Mexico. It was a small, beautiful adobe-built home in San Cristobal at the 7,300 foot elevation. The majestic Sangre de Cristo mountains loomed behind this valley community, soaring up to 13,000 feet. The view looking north at these snow covered peaks, and then south towards the Rio Grande Gorge was breathtaking. Mom had a sixth sense about owning property here. They were very good friends with Craig and Jenny Vincent, progressive political thinkers and movers. Jenny played music with Pete Seeger and taught local children rudimentary guitar skills. Whenever I visited, she would rope me into helping her. I just thought, this is how everyone lives, right?

In the eighties, after dad passed away, we traveled several times to Europe, connected to mom’s book publishing business: Volcano Press. At one point, my family and my mom found ourselves in Italy. There was an International Children’s Book Fair in Bologna each spring. On a side trip, mom and I went to Assisi, a town in the Umbria Region of central Italy, home of St. Francis, the patron saint of pace (peace). So we intentionally wore our Volcano Press T-Shirts: Doing Our Part to End Domestic Violence with our Volcano Press logo. There were many more such trips and they left an indelible imprint on my psyche.

Mom and I on our way up the hill to enjoy the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi.

Following a series of forgettable meals on my way home from Washington, I found myself one morning at The Drift Inn in Yachats, OR. Turns out many years ago, we stayed at the nearby Overleaf Lodge and Spa. When asked for recommendations for dinner, we were directed to The Drift Inn. I remember the margaritas before dinner were built by an expert bartender who squeezed fresh Meyers lemons and limes for each drink he made. I never forgot that attention to cocktail preparation. In fact, I incorporated it into my own bartending.

On this morning, I wanted an authentic crab omelet and found myself at the same restaurant by happenstance. I ordered my omelet, along with a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, strong coffee, a breakfast sausage patty, and English muffins. I was thrilled with having finally found the phenomenal gourmet meal I had been seeking.

Crab omelette.

I continued south on Hwy 101 to Depoe Bay where I spent the night. This was one of the film locations for the cult classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It was where Jack Nicholson absconded with a fishing boat, recklessly introducing each of the lunatics as doctors when they returned to the marina. So it had a pilgrimage vibe for me.

I took myself out to dinner with some friends from Amador County who own a beachfront home in Newport. They knew the purpose of my journey, so as I sat down with them at a local eatery, I decided to preempt the potentially gnarly topic. Not everyone wants to talk about burial, cremation or, in this case, terramation as a new alternative in the death-care industry. I broke the ice and shared my excitement about mom’s journey. I think they were relieved at my light-hearted approach, shorthand talk, and that the topic didn’t dominate the rest of the meal. They were interested, maybe a little mortified, but heard me out nonetheless.

During this trip, I had plenty of time to think about Mom’s life. One story seemed to stand out and thread through all the rest.

Sometime in the 70s, in addition to Volcano Press, mom was instrumental in forming a group called Independent Publishers Services. They represented small, indie publishers who couldn’t otherwise afford to attend the international book fairs and have their books available for translation and international publishing. 

She was on a panel in a large room to address a wide range of publishing professionals. Doug Mount, a colleague of hers, (pictured below in the sunglasses) sat next to her. He was young, brash, handsome, and gay, living a colorful out-and-proud life in San Francisco. They were very close friends.

Not being a public speaker, she leaned over to Doug and whispered, “I don’t know what to say to these people. They ALL know more about publishing than I do!” She told this story many times afterwards with relish, saying she was practically paralyzed with fright.

Doug turned back to her and hissed, “BE OUTRAGEOUS!!”

David, Doug and Ruth.

Outrageous. His advice gave her license for most of the things she did for the rest of her life: her work, her engagement, her activism. It served as a professional and personal manifesto. 

Ruth frequently said, “I’m not your cookies and milk kind of mother.”

No kidding.

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