Lassen County had none of those California tourist places that people flocked to in the middle of the summer.
For the Lowells it was a bleak, dusty anticlimax to the week preceding their drive up U.S. Highway 395. Towns with names like Doyle and Milford and Buntingville passed with invisible speed. Before all the chaparral and rocks, it had been Lake Tahoe, the gold country, the wine country, and Jack London Park. And Bodega Bay, where Hitchcock had directed The Birds and they still dug for horseneck clams on the mud flats.
But that day, for a couple of hours, it was Lassen County.
The Lowells, Greg and Janet, and their children, Mark and Allison, had not planned this vacation. A month earlier, it had been nothing. Vacation plans for that year were to fly east at Christmastime and visit Janet's family in Pennsylvania.
But on a particular Sunday in July, Greg and Janet knew they couldn't wait that long.
Traffic inched along the San Diego Freeway near Mulholland Drive. Janet and Greg, trying to get home to Van Nuys from a day at the South Coast Plaza shopping mall in Orange County, had traveled three miles in the last forty minutes. A stage one smog alert was in effect in the Los Angeles basin; temperatures were in the nineties. Turn your air conditioning off, roll down your window, breathe it in. Or leave the air conditioning on and overheat, like dozens of cars along the shoulder.
"Great choice," Greg muttered.
"What'd you say?" Janet asked.
"Nothing. Just thinking with my mouth."
She looked at him. "You've seemed a little out of it all day. Maybe these seventy-hour work weeks are finally getting to you."
A dented Honda cut into the few feet of space between Greg's Camaro and the car in front of them. Greg braked three inches short of the Honda's rear bumper.
"It's not just today," he said. "I don't know what's bugging me lately. Just ... things. Guess I shouldn't complain. Work is going well, although Jeremy Hunter's fourth novel is going to be late and I'm getting some flak over that."
Janet nodded. Greg was executive editor at Sabre Press, a small but successful publishing house in L.A. A few years earlier, he'd "found" Jeremy Hunter. Now, after three best-selling novels--all set during the gold rush period in northern California--Jeremy Hunter had proven to be a gold mine himself, one whom Sabre Press depended on heavily.
"We have the kids," Greg went on, "and the house. But ... Hell, I don't know."
Janet indicated the stifling freeway. "This could do it to anyone. And you have to deal with it every day."
"Maybe." He glanced at her. "I wish we could get away from it for a week or two."
"A vacation." She nodded. "I was hoping you'd ask. Okay."
"Just like that? What about December?"
"We'll go. The hospital will let me work extra shifts. Even if I couldn't, I'd just as soon cancel December and do something with you and the kids now."
Greg leaned over to kiss her, ruffling her short dark hair. "Thanks. The day's getting better."
Allison Lowell, fifteen, thought a vacation was a great idea. She had always been Greg and Janet's "baby," but that wasn't going to last much longer. Although Allison described herself as plain, Janet knew she was changing. The pictures of Janet as a teenager could easily be mistaken for Allison. And Janet, at thirty-nine, was considered a "foxy lady," even by Mark's friends.
Mark Lowell, nearly seventeen, was less excited. The tall boy, an ardent athlete, had inherited his father's dark coloring and rugged features. A starting linebacker for Van Nuys Central High, he was already into informal scrimmages for next season. It was the lure of Bodega Bay--Mark loved horror movies--that won him over.
Two weeks later they left Shanty, their terrier, with Robert Lowell, Greg's father, and started up Highway 101 in Janet's LTD station wagon.
At Susanville, the largest town in Lassen County, they picked up State Highway 139, which skirted the Lassen National Forest. It was a slower route, but more direct for Greg's destination.
"How far is Bonner from here, Dad?" Mark asked from the back seat, momentarily looking up from his new Sports Illustrated.
"An hour and a half, something like that," Greg said.
"I'm hungry," Allison said.
"We'll be there by lunchtime."
"Are you assuming Bonner has a restaurant?" Janet asked wryly.
"You should talk, coming from Oil City, Pennsylvania."
"Touché. What will you do there, seek out old haunts?"
"Old haunts? I was born in Bonner, but I was only a few months old when we left. Didn't I ever tell you that?"
"I guess not. Why did your folks leave?"
"I'm not really sure. Tough place to make a living, I suppose. Dad wasn't exactly the farming type. And they had only been there a short time. Sold a piece of land that belonged to my mother's family. Crazy Ben Padgett's old ranch."
"Crazy Ben Padgett?" Mark repeated.
"But why crazy Ben?" Allison asked.
"Ah, a sudden interest in our family skeletons." Greg smiled. "Okay, I'll tell you the unpleasant early history of the Padgetts ... later. During lunch, maybe."
They drove through the prehistoric stillness of Lassen County for the better part of an hour. Greg concentrated on the often-twisting road as well as the music pouring from the speakers. It had been his turn to choose the tape: Beethoven's Choral Fantasia. The full orchestra had just joined the solo piano, which had laid a sonata-like foundation for the piece. The quiet entry of the strings belied the thunder that would soon follow.
Ahead, they saw a road sign: ENTERING MODOC COUNTY.
Allison and Mark, debating some issue in the back seat, heard nothing. Janet, gazing at the stark volcanic tableland outside, was only half-sure her husband had spoken. Soon she forgot it, for what she thought she'd heard made no sense.
There would have been no reason for Greg to say, "Almost home."