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How We Got There from Here

Michael Stipe and Peter Buck of R.E.M., 1985. (Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Anna Armstrong | Longreads | December 2017 | 12 minutes (2,903 words)

 

“Jefferson, I think we’re lost.” — Little America, R.E.M.

The distance between Rodeo and Santa Cruz is just over 90 miles. For the most part the drive is unremarkable — urban, industrial cities and rural, unincorporated towns along the Eastshore Freeway, shaping the wasteland east of San Francisco Bay. But then the interstate gives way to Highway 17 and you begin the ascent to another world. The road is a thin, curlicue curved by the green Santa Cruz Mountains.

As a child I made this trip many times with my parents in our wood-paneled station wagon packed tightly with my five siblings and me — my gaze resting out the window, tracking the miles by the three-minute pop songs on the radio while an endless imaginary flat-panel saw tethered to my slight wrist sliced through the redwoods. Our destination? The historic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

The winding highway was a signal that we were close to the magical unworldliness of rickety wooden roller coasters, salty ocean breezes, barefoot children, bikinied girls, sun-kissed boys, a symphony of voices, crashing waves, tinny arcade bells, the smells and tastes of corn dogs and candied apples — and far, far away from the broke-down, shuttered place of stillness, silence, and late-to-bloom fondness in the rearview mirror. What separated Santa Cruz from Rodeo was not just miles but a tangible joy you could hold in your hands. Coming home sunburned, exhausted, happy — sleeping through the curves of the highway, waking abruptly in time to see the straight line to home.

June 1985. I was 17 years old and newly licensed. I was preparing to make the trek from home to Santa Cruz in my very first car, a 1972 Chevy Malibu that braved a Black Flag bumper sticker in a town that just didn’t get it. The destination? A very different type of spectacle: A rock ‘n’ roll show. The Athens, GA band R.E.M were scheduled to play the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium.

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