Nice things people on Yelp had to say about Ukiah, a rustic town in Mendocino County with a population of 16,000: “The air is always sparkling clear (unless there are forest fires). Every night we can go outside and look up and feel as though we are camping in the Sierras—billions of stars! There are lakes and rivers close to us and the famous Redwood Forests are everywhere north and west.”
Some less nice things: “This is a very gun friendly area, four local gun shops, an excellent gun club (Ukiah Gun Club) that we’ve belonged to for over ten years.”
Exploring it for myself allows me to form some of my own impressions.
In addition to being somewhat outdoorsy, Ukiah retains olden-day charm. Brick buildings make up the majority of its downtown structures. In some parts of town I feel like I’ve traveled back to the 1950’s; for example, behind the window of one shop, tiny meadows and sheep the size of pinky nails sprinkle a board game that covers the entire surface of a large wooden table. Around it gather four men (all wearing fedoras), whose facial expressions communicate their serious level of engagement with the game.
The ’50s give way to the 80’s and 90’s in other parts of town, with songs like the Cranberries’ “Dreams” and Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” playing at one (“Brazilian”) restaurant. A glimpse through the window afford a view of voluminous bushes adding texture to the verdant hills in the distance. Occasional small houses also speckle them, with flags waving at the entrance to some.
Kids jump inside a bounce house at the arcade downtown. Spiky-haired teenagers blast a navy blue puck back and forth across an air hockey table. Couples take turns launching rubber orange balls into basketball hoops.
A sign inside one brewery announces weekly drag shows, reminding me of my hairdresser (who’s from here) having told me not long ago that the town is “getting bluer.” Not only have the past few years seen an increase in LGBTQ+ acceptance, but also a wider variety of ethnic culinary options.
“I think in thirty years, Ukiah will be gentrified from spillover of people moving up from the Bay Area. It’ll keep getting more cosmopolitan, artsy, culturally diverse,” forecasts one reviewer on Yelp.
To fetch one batch of passengers, I drive about ten minutes outside of downtown, down lone country roads beneath a star-speckled sky.
When I arrive they’re gathered around a beige couch in the middle of the driveway. Four of them get up and hug the remaining couch-sitters goodbye before making their way to the car.
The girl with crutches sits in front, thanking me for coming to get them “out in the middle of nowhere.” Once all inside, they start singing karaoke: “Tennessee Whiskey Blues,” while the man in back (the lone non-singer) crunches on a snack called Bugels.
“You always carry snacks I’ve never heard of,” the woman passenger to his right says to him, after reading aloud the label.
There are also a fair share of Trump supporter passengers, though this shouldn’t have surprised me. As Dustin Lance Black wrote, “It turned out California wasn’t the monolithic, liberal place so many Texans feared it to be. In fact, in some ways, rural California was even more conservative than central Texas—which we would rediscover two decades later in the fight for marriage equality.”
The Rainbow Dragons Gay Bar
A passenger shares that the name of his daughter’s soccer team is the “Rainbow Dragon Warriors,” and I like this. I’m tempted to co-opt it for an LGBTQ+ bar I plan to open some day. It will be located in the middle of a body of water. Bar-tenders will take a boat carved into the shape of a rainbow dragon to get to it.
They will then choose from a menu that includes drinks such as “The Sassy Dragon” (red slushy with a punch of vodka), or “The Poison Claw” (inky purple liquid with jagged ice shards floating at the top to mimic claws).
The bar will take the shape of a coiling dragon’s back, each bar stool a different color of the rainbow. Too kitschy? Hey. It was just a thought, Readers. And I, for one, am a fan of kitsch.
Passenger Inspired Short Story: Walter The Failed Botanist
“I hope it survives the ride home,” a passenger with a plant in his hands repeats several times. Our ride spurs the following flash fiction.
Walter sat inside the greenhouse, the reminders of what could have been closing in on him. Failure surrounded him.
Plant-growing had once seemed a beautiful business, that Walter had wanted to take part in for some time. He’d once envisioned his plant babies growing tall—so tall they’d hit against the greenhouse glass ceiling like a soon to be celebrity. One who’s bound for bigger and better things, but meanwhile lights up the space he occupies before moving on.
He foresaw flowering buds of bursting branches adding color to the room. Vibrant petals bloomed in his mind’s eye, providing landing pads for honeybees to pollinate before flying on to make succulent honey.
The reality before him reflected none of this. All of his plant babies were now dead, would be the kinder description. The more honest one was that Walter had killed them.
He’d tried all the things. Fertiliser. Water. Even space. Sometimes the water helped it grow; other times the leaves would wilt regardless. When this happened Walter would up the dose, leading the plant to perish shortly after.
How much was too much versus how much was too little versus how much was just right constantly changed depending on the day, as well as on conditions that Walter wasn’t always able to pinpoint—the changing nature of which he just couldn’t quite seem to chart in any meaningful way. The golden number, that sacred amount necessary for sustained vitality, continually eluded him.
Light streamed in through the glass windows and gently brushed his skin—leading Walter to feel momentarily hopeful. He knew the hopeful feeling wouldn’t last, though— that its departure was as imminent and inevitable as the sun’s at nightfall.
When the hope within Walter died once more, this time it felt like a permanent death. For the greenhouse manager Tyler, who sat across the room with a fresh packet of seeds, motioned for Walter to join him. Yet Walter would not even look his way, much less make the trek across the room.
Tyler gestured towards the seeds, somewhat frantically—trying to make it known that it was not too late, that Walter could always try again.
But Walter could only continue to stare hollow-eyed at the deluged botanical corpses. He prodded at their wet, droopy leaves, perhaps not altogether closed off to the idea that wishful thinking and somber glances might resuscitate them. Eventually Tyler brushed the seeds back into the bag, swiped the bag up off the floor, and marched off with it in frustration.
Ten minutes later Walter ceased brooding. He sighed at the barren wasteland in front of him, all of it spelling out the sad simple truth: a life surrounded by full-grown plants just wasn’t in the cards for him.
With that, he picked up his coat and vacated the room, on his way to print out a job application to a place where his skills might prove useful: the local kill shelter.
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Dead plant cartoon—https://www.dreamstime.com/illustration/dead-plant-pot.html