The Devil’s Stopwatch

by Bradley Wilkinson

As he relives a day spent in Northern California, a traveler reflects on what may have been his happiest moment.

Recently, a short story I read maybe thirty years ago came to mind. It was written in the 1950s by Robert Bloch and is titled “That Hellbound Train.” It tells the story of a down-on-his-luck man who makes a pact with the devil: a watch that will stop time when the man wants in exchange for a train ride to hell when he dies. The protagonist agrees, and throughout his life there are times when he considers using the watch, but he always hesitates. Maybe, just maybe, he thinks, things will get even better.

It isn’t tough to remember the happiest times in my life. But deciding at a single instant that there will never be a better moment is hard—even though the track left for my train, hell-bound or otherwise, is growing shorter.

But there is one such moment.

It came during a trip to Northern California when both of my children, their mother, and a close friend of ours went to Santa Rosa. We went to collaborate with a man to commercially formulate a traditional drink my wife had enjoyed as a young child growing up in Guyana, South America.

It started with several days in San Francisco, which is in itself a gorgeous, memorable destination. My son insisted we visit the intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets. That should have been my destination of choice, having been deep into my formative years in the late 1960s, when Haight and Ashbury was the place to be for anyone like my young self who was learning to protest the Vietnam War, becoming what REO Speedwagon sang about in a song titled “Anti Establishment Man,” and, yes, experiencing the drug culture. Nonetheless, it was my son who wanted to go—and that, to use a flower-power phrase, was “groovy to me, baby!”   

My then-wife saw things from a different perspective. She was born in Guyana to a family whose ancestors had arrived indentured by their British masters. Ultimately, her family earned their freedom and became reasonably wealthy, only to lose it all during the chaos that resulted when a colonial power decided it had taken the best British Guyana had to offer and what’s left wasn’t worth the toil and trouble (the image of Shakespeare’s witches comes to mind).

Coincidently, that was also in the 1960s, when turbulence extended well beyond the jungles of Vietnam and Guyana, the concert halls of the Bay Area, or even the campuses of the Midwest of the United States where I was raised.

The result was that her family was forced to flee to Canada, trying there to cling to their Guyanese ways by living a somewhat sheltered life, as do many refugees the world over.

She had seen nothing like Haight/Ashbury, even though it was long past its hippie heyday. The Haight of our visit was barely a distant echo of the ‘60s. Yes, there were head shops selling all kinds of drug paraphernalia (and a few folks outside breaking in their purchases), record stores selling reproductions of “classic rock” albums, and tie-dyed everything.

The Pacific Coast off Northern California

Photo credit

Mostly, though, it was hordes of tourists watching a few scraggly street people and teenagers trying to live (not relive, as most of them hadn’t even been born during the Summer of Love) a moment in time that will simply never be again, and whether that is for better or worse is entirely up to you. A small group of young people sent up a haze of marijuana smoke as they staked a claim in front of the former home of the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia. The current owners had posted a warning that it is now private property and uninvited guests are not welcome. I can only imagine how many times they’d found people on their porch peering in the windows to warrant such a notice.

Nonetheless, drink concocting and taste testing awaited. So, we took the Golden Gate north.  

We stayed in Santa Rosa only long enough to taste many iterations of the West Indian drink. Some were not bad, others disgusting; ultimately, none were worth keeping. Chalk one up for scam artists and business failings. Needless to say, we were disappointed and needed to enliven our spirits.

We drove to the Pacific Ocean.

San Francisco has Lombard Street, but the Russian River has State Road 116. Spectacular views combined with heart-stopping twists and turns rapidly took our minds off the failed business venture. We saw on the map that near a small town called Guerneville stood a small stand of ancient redwoods. We diverted. It was a small park with big trees, including the 1,400-year-old Colonel Armstrong. Want to feel small, insignificant, and humbled? Stand at the base of one of those. Time stoppable? Damn near, but like Bloch’s character, I decided that better moments might be around the corner.

Soon enough we got back on the road and came to the mouth of the Russian River, where we lunched at a restaurant on a cliff overlooking the estuary and the Pacific. I swore I saw a whale breach the water and was told by our waiter that it was possible. Due to the river, the coastal waters were rich with fish, and whales were known to feed while cruising along the shoreline. Jaw-dropping; not time-stopping.

After our lunch of (well, I can’t remember, but local seafood of some kind I am sure), we headed up Highway 1. We were open to possibilities, swerving our way north with me trying to keep the rented van on the road while enjoying the scenery. It was unquestionably unnerving for my passengers, so when I spotted a small park, no one argued when I suggested we stop—even though the park itself was closed. The sense of relief was palpable as we piled out, hopped the padlocked chain, and explored an overgrown path that meandered toward the ocean.

The path ended at the edge of a cliff overlooking the Pacific with the rocky northern-California coast below, which again to understate, was stunning.

The wind blew strongly off the Pacific, carrying not only sea salt and the intermittent roar of the waves, but also a haunting, almost barking sound, which we soon discovered came from hundreds of seals lying on the rocks below, basking in what to them must have been warmth—but to us was nowhere near.

As I stood on the edge of that precipice, a sense of peace I have not felt before or since settled over me. My son stood still beside me and without a word lit an expensive cigar he had been saving, while his sister, their mother, and our friend stood nearby, silently feeling their own moments. We were together, but each of us was alone in his or her thoughts, watching waves that could have started in Japan and rolled their way across the vast ocean, only to crash on the beach below while a large bob of seals cheered them on.

There I was. My loved ones near me in a magical place sharing a magical moment. Worthy of stopping time? Oft times I wish I had.  

Top Photo: Mural on Haight and Ashbury Streets – Credit

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