In early 2010, I had just finished grad school, broke up with a girl I’d been dating for 3 years, and moved to Stockton, CA to start a job with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Everyone at my future job told me that I should not move to Stockton and instead move to Lodi — two years prior, Fortune magazine had rated Stockton America’s Most Miserable City and it was known for high crime and gang activity. I was undeterred.
One potential snag was that I didn’t know anyone there. So I did what any nerd would do and I got on the OK Cupid dating website, found someone with a high match score, sent them a message, and made my first and only friend in Stockton. The job eventually transferred to Petaluma where I made many more friends and put down roots. I thought I’d be there for a long, long time. Four and a half years later, I quit that job, said goodbye to all those friends, and started this trip across the U.S. and Canada.
I’m not sure what happens next, but this is where the story starts.
August 4th, 2014.
The alarm was set for 6am but I woke up 15 minutes earlier. Karen was snoring. I carefully slinked out of bed, closed the bathroom door, and turned the shower on. 90 minutes later, I had packed my car, fixed a couple things around the house, and gave Karen a big hug goodbye. It was all so bittersweet in a way that I find difficult to put into words. I’m going to miss the comfort and dependability that she brings to my life.
There were a few incidental things to take care of before I left Sonoma County. A yellow fever and meningitis vaccine in Sonoma (the town), which took way longer than it should have, and breakfast at the Sunflower Caffe on the square (highly recommended — go eat in their back garden). But finally, around 10am, I got in my Prius, and glanced in the rearview mirror. Everything I’d need for the next 3 months was crammed behind me with just enough headroom to see out the back window. I reached over to the cup holder, picked up my iPhone, and dialed in my internet radio. It came alive with Soul Killing by the Ting Tings. Perfect.
Full tank of gas. Radar detector on. Deep breath.
First destination? Wilton, CA.
Traffic on Interstate 80 East wasn’t too bad considering it was Monday morning. I picked up my iPhone and dictated “Text Jesslynn. Tried to call. I’ll be there around 12 or 12:15 :)” We hadn’t seen one another in almost 3 years and had a lot of catching up to do. The radar detector was silent so I pushed it up to 80.
At noon, I pulled up to a huge horse ranch and parked at the end of a long driveway. I found Jesslynn by the stables, standing next to two horses, her back to me, with long reddish brown hair flowing down past her shoulders. I walked up and said “Wow, those sure are pretty horses”. She turned around, gave me a hug, handed me a rope, and said “Take this, and help me lead these horses to the pastures”. Her little black-and-white pomeranian Piranha was there too, yapping at the horses, and running circles around everything.
Wilton is a small town but there’s at least one good bar. We had a beer there and decided to drive to Sacramento for more. The afternoon passed us by quickly: lunch at Plum Cafe, beer and insane duck fat spicy cheesy fries at Lowbrau, and a stop at the feed store on the way back. Jesslynn needed to clean out the horse stalls before the sun went down, so I offered to help but I had no clue what to do. “Well, the wet spots are pee. You scoop all those dark shavings out. The other stuff is poop, which you rake up. It all goes in the cart.” she said somewhat sarcastically. I always did like that about her.
Just before sunset we drove to the local ball field to meet up with her boyfriend Scott. We decided on tacos for dinner, then realized the taqueria closed in 5 minutes. After mulling over other options we went inside anyway and asked if we could order something. The woman yelled to the kitchen “Qué tenemos para los tacos?” Our only choice was carnitas or carne asada. No problema.
Scott handed me a Coors light and we took our tacos out on the deck at Jesslynn’s house. The first thought that went through my head was “This is the second Coors light I’ve had today. Is it the second one I’ve ever had? Hmm.” followed shortly by “My dad used to drink this when I was a kid. Eww?”. The three of us chatted while stuffing our faces, I accidentally dropped a couple of pieces for Piranha, and then I crashed on the couch. It was a long day.
Me and Jesslyn at her local bar
As I drifted off to sleep I reflected on things Jesslynn and I had talked about during the day. How she made so many sacrifices to start her equestrian business and she’s now doing what she loves. I’m proud of her for following her dreams. I wondered why we had gone so long without seeing one another when we were only 2 hours apart. I felt a little bit like a bad friend considering all that she had done for me when we first met.
I remember that day clearly. It’s hard to forget.
She had sent me some photos via email, helping me find a new place to live when I was too busy to do so myself. A couple weeks later, I parked my car in front of her dad’s house and took her out to dinner. A friend invited her to a house party. We thought it’d be fun to stop by for a bit but we ended up there all night and crashed on the couch.
Around 6am her dad calls.
“Does your friend have a red Prius with Georgia plates on it?”
Jesslynn grabs my arm.
“Yeah I think so.”
“The window was broken and it looks like some things were stolen.”
Fuck. Welcome to Stockton.