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California Dreaming

On a vintner’s day, the grape escape awaits.

No brown leaves or gray sky for me. I’m looking forward to green hills, bright sunshine and thin red wine. No yellow chardonnay for me, either. Chard plays a central role in “Blood Red Syrah,” a hook, if you will, that targets those unlucky souls unfortunate enough to cross Wally Wilson’s path as he winds his way up the Central Coast in search of truth, enlightenment and peace of mind.

Chardonnay is just too snooty for me. I drank a lot of pinot noir when I lived in Santa Maria and look forward to drinking more when I return this Friday, November 2, to launch a freewheeling book tour to promote my first novel.

I drank pinot noir when I started working writing news columns at the Santa Maria Times in 2002. And I drank pinot noir after getting fired when the company got sold to Iowa children of the corn.

“I’m partial to pinot,” I once said.

Then I immediately wondered how those words could possibly have come out of my mouth. That’s highbrow wine talk, not the way most people I know express themselves. But I was living in Central Coast wine country and had so very much to learn.

In the almost five years I lived and worked in Santa Maria, I learned more than I expected about the people, places and social dynamics on that raw western edge of America. No matter how hard I tried to assimilate, I remained pure East Coast, talking too loudly, getting agitated too easily, and not speaking Spanish.

But I also realized a lot of people didn’t speak Spanish, even some people of Spanish and Mexican descent. How could that possibly be? So I set out to find out. Thanks to the Lopez and Martinez families and their extended families and friends, I picked up enough linguistic basics to get by – to order bolillos at the bakery, drink cans of Tecate with young farmworkers, and make small talk about the future at batismos. I traveled to Mazatlán in Sinaloa and bought a black satin wedding shirt and a straw cowboy hat. I resumed drinking tequila on special occasions. And I felt pride swell in my chest when my wife/manager Stephanie and I stood as padrino and madrina with Jennifer Lopez on her quinceañera.

I also watched one day as a woman visiting from Mazatlán softly rubbed an unbroken egg over the even softer skin of a crying baby to see what ailed him. When she broke the shell and read the yoke, she saw health and happiness. The child was smiling within the hour.

So many of those real life lessons show up in the pages of my book, serving as skeletal foundation for my imaginary characters and their imaginary adventures. But reality always lurks. Fiction writers draw from real life to make our points and offer morals to our stories. Jesús Malverde is as moral as anyone.

Legendary as the Mexican Robin Hood, Malverde looms large in my novel as well as serving as the centerpiece of colorful shrines set up in countless Santa Maria homes. An outlaw saint not recognized by the Catholic Church, he is recognized overwhelmingly by Mexicans and Mexican-Americans as a symbol of perseverance and courage against all odds – the embodiment of a noble fatalism peasant people understand better than anybody.

I adopted the Malverde code of honor and set up a shrine in my home when I moved back East. A state police drug detective friend who saw my Malverde shrine sent me photos from a raid where the dealers maintained a similar shrine.

“Cartels hijacked Malverde,” I said. “We are taking him back.”

That call to action also shapes the spirit of my book. “Blood Red Syrah” is a raw, rough, violent read at times but always worth the effort.

Our search for truth, enlightenment and peace of mind is a noble hunt. Our quest for principle molds our character. Our pilgrimage serves as gospel to those of us who find common cause in the holy mission that leads to decency and wisdom and are willing to fight to attain justice.

Trite as it sounds, we’re all in this together.

Maybe we’ll meet on the Central Coast during the two weeks I’m there. Maybe we’ll meet when I come home or move on to tour LA or even Mexico. If so, maybe we’ll learn something valuable from each other in the process.

This long, strange trip is always worth the ride.