Heading East From Eden

By Alex Heldman

The first time he drove past, he didn’t notice. He didn’t notice much, as far as things go. The world he navigated was a paint stroke, verdant and idyllic. Those first weeks, the buds were fertile and the sun held in the sky and shadows were underfoot. He thought he saw things like Van Gogh did, maybe Monet—but then again, that could have been the wine. Monet had always been his favorite, Claude, a spongy name that sounds like his paintings look.

The second time he drove past, he saw it. He was uncomfortable and soaked with the unidentifiable mix of liquids that filled his day and changed the color of his clothes. Not in the normal dry-to-wet way, mind you, but in a way akin to paint. Blue became purple, white became purple, really, all his clothes became purple. But it didn’t matter because he saw it.

He was thankful, then, for 1852 and for heavy rains. Floods left the main road through Napa Valley impassable that year. Silverado Trail was the solution, a 29-mile road that sits, in most regions, slightly above the valley floor, connecting Napa to Calistoga. It was along Silverado that he saw the vantage, just south of Rector Canyon, the point where the trees waned and the air opened and he saw the most perfect view of the valley. The vineyards spread out beneath him like rumors, whispers that there was somewhere on Earth that remained Edenic. Save the rows, there was only a single mark of human hand: a small building, red but paler in the sun, that sat halfway across the valley floor. The vineyards were buffeted on the far side by mountains, the Mayacamas, though he always thought they lacked the edge and cliff of real mountains. There was no edge here—the wine saw to that.

A few moments later, the trees swallowed him and it was gone. He could have turned the car around, but he was still soaked, and besides, he lived here. He had plenty of time to decide how to return. It seemed slightly heretical to want to pull over for a picture. Gawking and immortalizing was something tourists did, not hardened locals. He had a house here, after all.

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But he was someone raised in the 21st century. Etiquette demanded he post on social media.

The likes meant his day had meaning. The validation was intoxicating. Especially given the fact that he had, in the eyes of his social world, a dream job. It was something romantic and poetic, one people longed for as they sat in white-lit offices, typing numbers into screens. He made wine! What could be more glamorous?

He arrived at home and fought his jeans and socks off. Napa was expensive and he was poor, so the clothes were needed once again. The house he occupied, one surely older than his parents, had no functioning washer or dryer. He washed his clothes in the bathtub and hung them over the small fan beside his bed. The nights were hot, a heat that reached into his spine, and the air in his room was almost asthmatic. But he preferred to struggle through the night and step into dry clothes, rather than sleep comfortably and curse his tomorrow.

The demands of the grapes meant the next few drives down Silverado were in the dark. He could only tell morning from night by how wet his clothes were. The vineyards across the valley were speckled with farmers harvesting grapes, their headlamps bobbing and seizing like fluorescent fireflies. He didn’t know much about photography, but something within him felt strongly that such a scene would not photograph well. He did not stop; he drove the winding road.  

On Sundays, he rested. Occasionally, he worked up the energy to go somewhere beyond the grocery. Yelp told him the eighty greatest things to do in Napa were all wineries and he decided nothing sounded less appealing. Instead, he’d walk Napa’s handful of downtown streets, book in hand, dip into whatever restaurant seemed interesting, and dine alone. Sometimes he felt like he was modeling for Edward Hopper, a subject in something far more real than Monet’s paintings, with the edges the mountains lacked.

It was not until the fall that he again saw his vantage in the light. The grapes were in and fermenting. Some were already wine at that point. The valley smelled of stale sugar, a somnolent essence that hung on the hills. The rows that cut the floor were no longer green. Instead, they were the normal fall shades, reds and yellows and oranges, made all the more prismatic by the oblique sun in the sky. But by then, he was sour and he was embarrassed. The faster he got back to town, the faster he could make it tomorrow, and the faster he could put this behind him. The vineyards passed by, he took no photos, and he posted nothing.

If he was honest with himself, Instagram and film led him here in the first place. One could categorize the types of accounts he followed: people he knew, athletes, and beautiful things. Beautiful things was broad, but they are the things he dreamed about late at night: cobbled streets around the world, stunning vistas, and haute food and wine.

Instagram had long been his favorite. For some reason, though it reflects the present, it seems not to exist in it, a refreshing temporality that runs askew to the metastatic paces of Facebook and Twitter. Instagram does not have the day-to-day drama, the debate, the endless fights and pigeonholing that characterize the web. It’s easier to disconnect, to disengage, to live in a little reverie where everyone is beautiful and nothing hurts.  

That’s what he did, in a way. As college came to an end, a myriad of choices loomed before him, roads off to distant lands and distant futures. The boy was a poet at heart, and so he chose the poetic path. The path painted by photos of sprawling vineyards, rows that traversed mountainsides, quaint reminders that humans and nature were meant to coexist. Despite the articles proclaiming it was not what one might expect, despite the experts calling it long, grueling work, he charged ahead and justified it to himself as a mix of his loves: science and wine.

The plan was flawed, of course. On a page somewhere toward the end of his journal was scrawled “Honestly, come on. What were you thinking?”—his predilection for talking to himself carried over to his writing. His jeremiad continued and the writing puttered out without a sufficient answer. It was hard to say what he was thinking. He knew that there had been forever inside of him a conflict, a debate between two extreme desires of local life: rural and urban, the two natures of man, a defining debate in America. He knew he lived for the electricity of the city, the pulse and crackle of streets, the hidden haunts and the culture they shelter. But he also felt a deep frustration with modern life, a wheel spinning ever faster, weighed down by a never-ending cycle of news and memes and crises.

With Napa, he deferred to the latter. There was something deeply alluring about the life winemakers posted about. It felt like an off-ramp and a smile, a right turn past the interstate onto a tired country road that split the land. Steinbeck wrote about it. Robert Louis Stevenson did too. He wanted that introspection and a glass of Cabernet.

Was it odd then, that in choosing it, he neglected it? He fell prey to the fatal flaw of social media. Everyone projects polish, a smoothing over of the nuances and labors of life. You’re still expected to smile, to highlight the highlights, to filter away the flaws.

We’re almost voyeurs, giving and receiving bow-tied shouts of our thoughts and outfits into a decreasingly personal world. The more he shared and the more he scrolled and the more he dreamed, the less he thought slowly about his life. He tried to fight back, but he booked the fight in the wrong venue.

After November, he drove east. His position was seasonal, July to Thanksgiving. That was the saving grace of the job, even if it looked like an ineluctable headache on the front end. He spent some time at home, free, able to sleep and think and nurse his hands. But such things do not last forever, and he had to return to the job search.  

As he pulled up classified after classified, he found that his fear had not been left in the desert. If anything, it had been sharpened as it dragged along the road back home. Now, he nursed something more fundamental: what if he didn’t know himself as well as he thought he did? What if his view of reality really was impressionistic? The roads before him spanned just as wide, only he had pulled onto the interstate a few mile markers down the road.

A mentor told him something once, something he dusted off then. He said you’re young and you’ve got time to make mistakes and the world isn’t built on binary choices. It’s not right or wrong out there, it’s trial and trial and trial. He said to push towards something, five years even, and if it wasn’t right? Well then, you’re only five years older, and that’s not so much, is it?

It bears emphasizing, dear reader, that Napa wasn’t all bad. It was in Napa that he learned drinks could transcend. It was in Napa that he walked the vines and, when no one was around, giggled to himself at this poem-cum-reality. It was in Napa that he was bored, where he lost his debate, where he learned that cities were the winner and he could not see himself living without their pulse.

As he drove home, he promised himself something. He told himself that if people asked, he’d tell them.

He decided there was no shame in his error, if it could even be called so. There was no shame in his distaste. His fall was a delineation, a line in the sand between passion and profession. He would not whitewash that which he did not enjoy—he spent too much time washing things on the job anyway.

Maybe that’s why he kept driving all those days along Silverado. Maybe it was a rejection, however subconscious, of some unspoken cultural rule, the one that declares the good times must be public, and the dark times must remain so. Maybe he felt that place, his private vista across the valley, could remain distinctly his, not a show to the world for validation, but a memory he could draw on late at night when he dreamed of his past and of beautiful things. Maybe he just wanted a painting without the edges. It’s softer that way. ◊