Happy Birthday, Greg Van Loon

Who knew Truckee, California, would be my second favorite town on the planet?

One of the unexpected gifts of my life in California is my passion for landscape and history. Truckee has both, and that is quite the understatement.

First can I say: Donner Party. Don’t get me started. I wrote about it, and I’m still writing about it (my forever-in-progress Living in Cheese). I can never get enough Tamsen Donner. (The sole reason why one of my kids dodged the name is the fact that “Tamsen” would become “Tams,” and I once knew quite a nasty Tams.)

But this is not a post about the Donners, as devoted as I am to the people and starkness of that extreme and awful time. Nor does it concern other Truckee history, often not discussed, terrible things involving Chinese workers who built the Pacific Railroad (1863-1869) running through the town. I could write all about that railroad, the track echoing I-80, the steep freeway climbing from Nevada to Truckee. That drive deserves a post of its own. States change curve by curve, you accelerate through Nevada California Nevada California as immortalized by the Jayhawks’ song of that name:

First you twist
Then you turn
You’re on life’s icy mountain, dear passenger

Can you help me to find, Nevada California.

Or the cold Truckee River. Nature dazzles. Pines dark green as bottle glass, rocks russet, the snowiest shiny snow you ever saw. And perhaps it’s what the locals call a Bluebird Day: Fresh snow from the night before injects light into a sky too clear to call cerulean.

This is Sierra Nevada, yes, and jagged terrain hangs as backdrop over the downtown district. Everything is old. I go for the storefronts, the aging brick and mortar, not the merchandise. This is no touristy mock cowboy spot. There are beautifully restored homes such as Richardson House, which is managed by my friend Chelsea Walterscheid. Chelsea cherishes and protects the history of her lifelong hometown in a most inspiring way, and she can set you up with a stay at Richardson House, or a personal tour of any aspect of Truckee history, including the jail. She’ll tell you about Hooligan Rock. She knows the true Truckee. She understands Jibboom Street.

A five-minute walk  from the stores of Donner Pass Road and you’re on Jibboom Street.

I love Jibboom Street. Such great examples of structures, former brothels and saloons and flophouses, in a state of suspended decay untouched (mostly) by developers. I walk there often, to Coffeebar, and, if I’m lucky and she’s in town, to Urban Angels, where Kori Walker understands big wavy Jewish hair like no one else. The hair salon’s name says something about that small street, its past, and the decades of women who lived there. To put it country (or New York) simple, they were there. They’re gone now. But they’re not.

You may not understand this, or agree, or think that I’ve been in Cali way too long and it is time for me to make like Dylan’s “Tom Thumb’s Blues” and go back to New York City because you “do believe I’ve had enough.”

I sense stuff and that is all I want to say about it.

Jibboom Street brims with it, this ineffable quantity, a change in the air. The people on the sidewalk before.

Many of the ladies of Jibboom Street are buried at Truckee Cemetery.

I love old cemeteries. I could write about all the impromptu old cemeteries I’ve reveled in over the years, starting with Sagamore Hill’s pet cemetery and then the tiny grove of 19th century headstones found while hiking at that bucolic Catskill hellhole for Great Neck sixth graders known as Ashokan, but this is not the post.

Perhaps it’s odd that I spend time in old cemeteries. Since childhood I’ve been more petrified of death than Babette Gladney in White Noise.

Lately I’ve been thinking about death more than usual.

There are actually two cemeteries in Truckee: the Catholic cemetery, a small and verdant plot down a slope, and the main cemetery on East Jibboom Street. Both have been in use for 150 years.

The “urban angels” of yesteryear’s Jibboom Street share a resting place. It, like the rest of the cemetery, is cared for by a lovely man named Greg Van Loon.

Greg understands the power of this place. Being at this cemetery, in the company of the many graves, is to recognize that Greg does not so much maintain this ground as care for it. Here, “care” is a verb of doting and devotion. It is no mere job.

Greg’s awareness and honor of those resting there, and their stories, many unknown, moves me every time I think about it.

In his office is a wooden cabinet with a decal on it: “Life is Good.”

I know that one day I’m going to go out or move on or croak or leave this place or cross the Rainbow Bridge to find my dead cat Spenser or plop down into the same oblivious state I was in prior to birth. Do I miss 1964? I wasn’t there. To paraphrase Mickey Sacks’ father in Hannah and Her Sisters, I was unconscious.

Still, I’m terrified. I know this fear is as old as the hills.

If I knew that a Greg Van Loon would exist, in perpetuity, wherever I was, to watch over me, I wouldn’t be so scared.

I would know he’d be sitting in his office with the space heater and tools and ledgers, and, when needed, he’d gently adjust whatever marked my spot, and I could handle it. The being there.

Today’s his birthday. Happy Birthday, Greg Van Loon.

One response to “Happy Birthday, Greg Van Loon

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