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Sonora Pass

(Claudia Kunin - Corbis)
By Sam Esquith
Sunday, February 8, 2009

When I was 16, my father had me spend a week with him in Sonora. He was on sabbatical from the University of San Francisco. "I've got a little hacienda, Stu," he told me over the phone. "A tremendous place to spend a year." For me, he meant. It was fall break, and I was already, again, failing half my classes at St. Sebastian's. After the divorce, my mother had moved us to Oakland, and public school there petrified her.

He met me at the bus station in his blue Chevy convertible wearing a wide white cowboy hat. He was an expert in arboreal parasites, a laboratory man, and I could not remember ever seeing him wear a hat.


The hacienda was east of town, a simple stucco building on a rocky yard. I slept in the living room on a water-stained couch that smelled like wood smoke. There was a single bedroom and a study filled by a folding table.

He shared the bedroom with Alma. She had red hair and skin so pale that she seemed washed out by brightness, like a flash photograph taken from too close. She wore cowboy boots and drank dark liquor on ice and didn't seem any more familiar with the house than I was. I guessed she was in her 20s, but I had little experience guessing women's ages. She and I spent the first two days on the smoky couch watching music videos. I suppose she was earning my approval. We loved Morrissey and knew Springsteen was a rich fake. My father stayed on the porch or in the woods, and I was thankful. He was a quiet man, but with me, especially after the divorce, he could be overly chummy. I feared he'd try to give me his hat.

When he returned in the evening, he made steaks on the stovetop. He joked about how bored we must be, that the three of us should have an arm-wrestling tournament to pass the time. "What's wrong?" he asked, squeezing my arm. "Think you're stronger than your old man? I'm not in the ground yet." He winked at her, but she was looking away.


She told me the next afternoon that he'd applied for a grant to go to Oregon but had been rejected.

"They used to shoot TV shows around here," she said. "That's why your dad came here, after Oregon fell through. Isn't that funny?"

"What shows?"

"'Bonanza' or something. Frontier stuff." She laughed. "He wants to take you to Yosemite tomorrow, but I thought it would be too many tourists. I figured it wouldn't be your thing."

"Aren't we going to see the high school?"

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