We lived high on a hill overlooking a long beach, a bay and a fertile valley where Portuguese farmers grew artichokes. Just beyond was a mountain where sheep grazed on wild grasses. Our house faced north and the mountain behind us stretched to the west, ending in the ocean where sharp rocks are known as Pedro Point.
Along the beach was a two-lane highway that cut through the hills, connecting the little coast towns to San Francisco twenty miles away. The road to the south had been cut through the mountain to reach Montara and Half Moon Bay; this narrow road passed Devil’s Slide, a high rocky cliff that dropped straight down to the open ocean.
One Sunday afternoon after a few drinks, my Dad decided it was time to teach me to drive. He told my little brothers Joe and Pete and my sister Mary to climb in the car. He opened the door on the driver’s side and told me to sit behind the wheel. In those days, there was no need for a learner’s permit. I climbed in and sat down. I remembered a few things Dad had shown me the week before; so, I did some practice exercises, going through the five gears from neutral and low to high. The car was near the road and with a few directions I was able to back up and shift into low for the short distance to the corner where I stopped. Dad said, “Go ahead. Keep it in low. You’ll be all right.” I gripped the wheel and headed slowly down the long steep road. I wanted to close my eyes but knew I had to keep them open as the road was narrow with gullies on either side. When we reached the bottom, I stepped hard on the brake and let out a loud sigh. The kids began to laugh; they didn’t realize how close they were to disaster.
When we reached the main road, Dad said, “Turn right,” and I wanted to argue because that was the way to Devil’s Slide. He said it again, so I turned the car onto the highway. Suddenly cars were honking as they passed me. The kids started to yell. I kept my eyes glued to the white line on the road and tried to be calm as I knew there was no place to stop and say, “I don’t want to drive.” Finally, I reached a safe place to park. Dad had fallen asleep.
I wondered how to find the courage to get back on the road and go home. I realized that the lane going north was next to the mountain and the car wouldn’t be near the deep cliff by the ocean. If I stayed in low gear and tried not to listen to the honking cars and screaming kids; if I tried to put Devil’s Slide out of my mind; I might be all right. I was so disturbed that after all these years I don’t remember what happened next. I don’t know how we got home. Probably when Dad realized the situation and sobered up enough, he drove us home. I don’t know, but somehow, we did get home.
March 6, 2017