Into Central California we have come, cruising up the 5, past Bakersfield, then west on California 46, across pastureland and green-gold hills and down the stretch of highway where, one Friday 45 years ago, James Dean's Porsche Spyder met a telephone pole right about dinner time. Near Cholame is where he died.
"Gary?" a dad riding in my car shouts into his cell phone. "Gary? I'm losing you . . . call me back."
It is spooky, this stretch of highway. Blood Alley is what the Highway Patrol calls it, not just for Dean, but for the dozens of others who have died across this flat but deceptive 22-mile stretch, where his gray Porsche must have looked just like asphalt in the dusty twilight.
"Gary? It's me," my friend says. "Be there in about an hour."
We are on our way to the lake, six dads, eight daughters and a half-dozen car phones--all packed tight into minivans and SUVs, an Indian Princess caravan spread out across this California prairie.
Some dads and daughters are already there. Others, like us, are on the way. Down Blood Alley and into Paso Robles, then onto the curvy wine country roads that will lead us to the lake.
"Dad?" says a voice from the back seat.
"Can you play Britney Spears?" the little girl asks.
"No," I say.
"Can you tie my shoe?" she says.
"OK," she says, too tired to argue.
It is late now, well past the princesses' bedtimes. We have our Expedia directions to guide us and they are helpful in a technical-gibberish sort of way.
"At US-101 SR-46 Exit, continue (west) on 24th St."
"Huh?" I say.
"Just go that way," my friend Tom says, pointing straight ahead.
In the back seat are three of our daughters. They are Indian Princesses, here to help guide us through the wilderness and onward to this weekend retreat.
With each request, the little girls prod us to continue, encourage us to go faster and farther, past skunks and across country roads that grow narrower and darker with every mile.
"Dad, I forgot my Dramamine," the little girl says.
"So did I," I tell her.
Our own fathers and granddads had the Moose Lodge and the GOP. We have the Indian Princesses, a father-daughter tribe that understands the importance of fresh air, pine trees and weekend retreats.
"I could use a sandwich," a tiny voice from the back seat says.
"It's midnight," Tom says.
And the cell phone rings.
"Hello? I can't hear you. Hello?"
The cell phones ring constantly on this trip. We use them like walkie-talkies, the dads do, talking between cars, talking to our offices, talking to our wives. They represent exactly what we are here to escape--a world of passwords and access codes and gadgets that won't leave us alone.
Except that we can't escape them. It would be like going into a saloon without a six-gun. We wear the cell phones proudly on our hips, then draw them quickly when they ring.
"Gary?" Tom says into his cell phone. "Yeah, we're at the entrance."
Moments later, we are at the cabins, where sleepy kids and their dads grab backpacks and stuffed toys, blankets and extra-dry vermouth, then trudge quietly to their rooms.
"Good night, Dad," the little red-haired girl says as she crawls into the nearest bunk.
"Good night," I say.
First, silence. Deafening silence. It is the kind of nonsound you get only in the most remote places. No freeway hum or dishwashers to lull us to sleep. Only crickets and silence. At first, it's a little unsettling.
Then I fall asleep, descending into a sort of half-sleep, mini-dreams flashing through my head like commercials. Then, finally, real sleep.
"What's that, Dad?" the little girl says.
As an experienced dad, I know not to open my eyes. I fake sleep, listening for what she heard.
"What was that?" she asks again, each word a little louder.
"What?" her friend Kaitlin asks from the next bunk. "What?"
"That!" the little girl says.
The creature is right under the floor of our cabin, trying to scratch its way through the subfloor, then the flooring. It sounds as if it has reached the linoleum, that final layer that separates a cabin kitchen from the wilderness. In a moment, we could all be dead.
"I think it's a raccoon," I say.
And the Indian Princesses all gasp.
With that, the raccoons seem to laugh. They make that monkey-chatter sound raccoons make when they have a bunch of city folk on the run, a happy twittering that signals to the other raccoons that victory is near and it's time to wash up for dinner.
But they have met their match with us--the Indian Princesses and their fearless dads. One of the dads is a marketing whiz. Another works in television. Yes, these raccoons have met their match.
"I'll whack 'em with this magazine," Tom says.
"I'll choke 'em with this towel," I say.
"We're coming in," the raccoons chatter from below.
And the Indian Princesses all scream.
Next week: boats, raccoons and Frank Sinatra.
Chris Erskine's column is published on Wednesdays. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.