Silicon Follies

Chapter 36: Last chance -- squatters off Highway 17

By Thomas Scoville
July 17, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Liz and Kiki had decided to return to Silicon Valley through the back door -- Highway 17.

Californians take their driving very, very seriously. In a land where the car is perhaps the most important statement of personal identity, it should come as no surprise that the very roads themselves have become bold semaphores for class and status.

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Highways 101 and 280 dictated that Silicon Valley align more or less on a north-south axis. Fortunately, the San Francisco Bay and Pacific coast also consented to this general alignment some millions of years ago, so the matter was settled: Silicon Valley would be framed between the two mighty transit bookends, 101 to the east, and 280 to the west.

Either would take you from San Francisco to San Jose. But as one Silicon Valley chieftain had already observed, the journey is the reward. This seemed to be quite literally the case. While 101 ran straight up the commercial corridor packed with office parks, billboards, warehouses and gritty, blue-collar industries, there were long stretches of 280 that looked like a tourist brochure: tree-covered mountains, rolling meadows, pristine lakes. Any cross-section between the two roads betrayed a naked class stratification: Sunnyvale and Saratoga, Alviso and Los Altos Hills, East Palo Alto and Woodside. Geography spoke louder than words: The money preferred the western passage.

There were a number of opportunities for east/west class-jumping: highways 92, 84, and the newest cross-valley express, 85. As the worker bees of the Valley commuted westward, they dreamed of real estate.

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Highway 17 was more like a leap into the great beyond. This narrow, winding, famously dangerous and chronically clogged road climbed out of Silicon Valley and down into Santa Cruz, where innovation and entrepreneurial drive dissolved into indolence, beach life and left-wing politics. Some, it was rumored, actually made the commute daily. There was wide agreement these people were insane.

Fortunately, there weren't many opportunities for side trips along Highway 17's path. But those who did wander from the road soon found themselves in a parallel universe of survivalists, hippies, cannabis farmers and other unconventional rustics. The dense redwood forests and secluded canyons collected them like filters.

Which was why Liz was more than a little surprised when Kiki had mysteriously suggested such an excursion. Winding upward over roads with names like Branciforte and Zayante, they drove until finally the road markers -- and the pavement -- disappeared altogether. They continued along dirt tracks flanked by giant sequoia and madrone trees, until Kiki turned onto an ominous-looking lane marked with an off-kilter, weathered wooden board pointing the way with the words "Last Chance."

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They parked the car and walked through the forest for a few hundred yards, their feet crunching in the pine needles as enormous, lurid yellow slugs oozed across fallen logs. Just as Liz began formulating a gentle protest -- what the hell were they doing all the way out here, anyway? -- the women came to a clearing. Bedraggled-looking counterculture apparitions seemed to be cooking over an open fire.

And there were teepees.

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One of the fire-tenders, an unthreateningly muscular, bearded man -- shoulder-length hair and naked to the waist -- smiled and waved like a dancing bear. He called out to the tents in what seemed to Liz a German accent.

"Jah love, Gretchen -- I think your mama has come to visit."

A young woman emerged, dressed in harem pants, sandals, and a tattered wool sweater -- raven-haired, beautiful and spectrally slender, except for an obviously advanced pregnancy. She cupped her swelling belly with one hand and ran to greet her mother.

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It was a bittersweet scene. Liz stood, a little awkwardly, some distance away from them as they sat under a tree, holding each other and speaking tenderly. It seemed Kiki was trying to persuade Gretchen of something, but she had gently resisted, speaking in ever-widening circles about love and freedom, Babylon and "Jah Love."

Later, the three women joined Gretchen's feral family in toasting tofu dogs and mochi over the open fire; for a time it seemed like Gretchen and Kiki teetered on the edge of some kind of conciliation.

But by the time the setting sun poked its fiery fingers through the redwoods, nothing had resolved between mother and daughter. They hugged, kissed and parted. Liz and Kiki made their way back through the trees and the creatures, toward civilization.

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"That was a real eye-opener," Liz said as Highway 17 emptied them onto the valley floor. "I'm amazed people can live that way. "

"It's a personal choice," Kiki said matter-of-factly, changing lanes without a blinker. On the hostile, congested freeways, it was best not to signal your intention.

"How does it work? Does Gretchen's clan actually own that land up there?"

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"It's government land. Technically, they're squatters. That's why they live in teepees -- they can move any time, anywhere. Besides, they're so far off the beaten track it's not worth anybody's time to run them off."

"Still," Liz insisted, "it must be a pretty precarious life, especially if you're expecting a child. I ... I guess I'm a little worried about your daughter."

Kiki paused a long time before answering. "Yes," she agreed, wiping the corner of her eye. "It's not what I had hoped for."

Coming Wednesday

Chapter 37 -- Liz and Paul's dating game


Thomas Scoville

Thomas Scoville is either an Information Age savant or an ex-Silicon Valley programmer with a bad attitude. He is the author of the Silicon Valley Tarot.

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