Soon after I settled in Fort Bragg in 1997, I had the great luck of witnessing the town’s annual Christmas Lighted-Truck Parade. I walked two blocks over to Main Street (a.k.a. the Shoreline Highway, a.k.a. Highway One) and stood with the crowd on the sidewalk waiting for the parade to begin. It was cold, just after dusk, but excitement vibrated the brisk air as kids and adults waited for the first semi logging truck to roll by.
I remember thinking as I stood and felt the palpable excitement what a great thing it was to live in a small town where everybody showed up to enjoy all the town’s special events, from the Paul Bunyan Days Celebration to the Lighted Truck Parade and several other festivals—small towns celebrating themselves and special holidays, always a bit quirky and bizarre.
It made sense, the lighted trucks, because lumber and logging were Fort Bragg’s biggest and only industry for many decades. The Union Lumber Company was a big name in Fort Bragg. Residents were loggers, mill workers, and train and truck operators. Plaid shirts abound, with baby-shit brown Carhartt pants and jackets, and rugged leather boots with steel toes. It was a rough and ready place, alive with the smell of wood and sawdust and exhaust fumes and a few dozen quarts of lager. Logging was rough and dangerous work.
When the logging industry died out due to environmental issues, the town and shop owners learned the benefits of tourism. Fort Bragg gentrified itself into a budding art community. It was a long haul competing against the well established art mecca of Mendocino, but it had one thing going for it, it was a less expensive place to live in those days. Their new gentrified town included the Headlands Coffee place with great music and coffee. The Headlands was where I read Bell Hooks and Anne Proulx and where in 1998 I began writing my memoir. A new artist co-operative opened on Main Street and grew into a successful business, along with other art shops and galleries, one failed visual arts center where I volunteered my time and where the Director made faces at people behind their backs, an art supply store that had been there for years, and other necessary shops. Restaurants were beginning to serve upscale California cuisine. And an ordinary hole in the wall breakfast place on Main soon gained a reputation for the finest breakfasts on the Northern California coast… and boasted waiting lines to get in the door. Fort Bragg was a brief stop on the way to somewhere else, but had become a destination in its own right by the late 1980’s.
That night at my first lighted-truck parade I waited in the cold. The big logging semis rumbled into town from the north as if they were coming with a load of logs on their backs, only this time they were hauling Christmas lights and decorations. As they rolled past us, they pulled their deep-throated horns and everybody yelled and hollered. The loud smog-belting diesel trucks an incongruous sight decked out with colorful Christmas lights captured everybody’s fantasies. Trucks of all types and sizes, fancy and plain, sponsored by various businesses, groups and organizations, rolled between the big semis all lit up in a blaze.
Back then, simple lights outlined the shape of the vehicles and their flatbed trailers. Today, the lights define more intricate and sophisticated holiday related themes and designs, reindeer, santa, trees, elves, like every other contemporary Christmas parade. The lighted-trucks have become more like colorful Rose Bowl floats, which removes the charm of the small town event.
As the line of sparkle and music snaked its way south on the coast highway it turned left on a side street, rolled one block east, and turned left again onto Franklin and north to Laurel. A two-way street with two lanes, the trucks rolled up each lane and came to a halt just beyond the Laurel Street intersection. They filled up three or four blocks.
When they parked, they left their engines idling to generate the lights. The parade-goers wandered in and around all the trucks for a close-up view of everything, visited with friends, and their kids scrambled for Christmas candy. I too wandered among the rumble. The roar of all the big semi engines in close quarters was like the deep-throated rumble of motorcycles as they cross the Siuslaw River Bridge during Rhody Days in Florence, Oregon. Hundreds of bikers cruising into town, black bikes line up with riders wearing black leathers and chains sitting atop their bikes like black crows on a telephone wire. The vibrations rumbled through my body from head to toe, then and now.
While wandering among the trucks, I began to feel weird, like I was suffocating. The engines were spitting out powerful noxious diesel exhaust. The fumes, trapped on these two lanes between tall buildings had nowhere else to go. An inversion layer of smog hovered over Fort Bragg for a few hours. Among the idling engines, the air got dirtier and thicker and heavier and more blue and warmer as the minutes ticked by. I became nauseous and developed a headache. As I walked among the lighted trucks, the carbon monoxide spewing from their tall blackened pipes was asphyxiating, starving our lungs and bodies of much-needed oxygen.
I had to get out. I walked the two blocks back to my small apartment behind Paul Bunyan’s Thrift Store. I thought it was funny at the time, one of those odd and bizarre funny things that happen at small town events, but now I see it as ironic. Those beautiful lighted semi trucks, as toxic and asphyxiating as is the commercialism of Christmas today snuffing out the meaning of Christmas. Instead of the simple beauty of tiny lights twinkling against a dark sky, instead of being a celebration, the big diesel trucks with their exhaust were a harbinger of things to come.
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