Las Vegas had set my plans back by two days, and I desperately needed to make up time if I was going to hit Seattle*.
The plan was to drop Chris and Corey back into Simi Valley, then take the first highway north. I’d stay at a cheap motel when I got sick of driving then head to San Francisco the next day.
At 1am I pulled off the highway at Atascadero, only to get straight back on again when I discovered it was 150 for a night in the Motel 6.
By 2am, I couldn’t rely on The Eels and wound down windows to stay awake, so I detoured east to get a $57 room in Fresno County
“Fresno” and “Coalinga” did ring a prisony, bikerish, gangland sort of bell. But, after several turns from the highway I was travelling away from neighbourhoods and onto empty desert roads.
There was no one around, and that made me feel safe (in the beginning).
Apart from an enormous set of buildings on the way into town – well lit, fenced several times over and completely unsigned** – there was nothing remarkable about Coalinga.
18 miles down the road I found the motel, nestled between a truck stop, a Chevron gas station and the usual slew of fast food joints (McDonalds, Carls Jr., Taco Bell and Dennys).
It was 3am when I got to the motel.
“Miss, there are only smoking rooms available. Will that suit you?” the guy at the desk asked flatly.
“That’s fine, I’m so tired. I must be like, the gladdest person to stay at this place” I said, offering up a friendly smile.
He said nothing back, just continued slowly punching my license details into the computer.
“How many people live in this town, anyway?” I asked.
“This, uh, isn’t really a town. I don’t know… I don’t live here.” he added, looking up from the computer and handing me my room key.
As I pulled the Charger around to the back of the motel, I noticed a dozen men spilling out of an open room onto the shared balcony – guys sporting wife beaters, baseball caps and facial tattoos. Each with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
Parking directly under their leering gaze in the only spot left, I squeezed out of the car.
My room was on the second level, and I had to walk through their party three times to find it.
Feeling awkward, I offered a weak “What’s up?” the third time I cut through.
My greeting was met with steely silence. Guess no one in this town liked to talk.
Turning the corner I found my room. The first time I slid the card into the slot it didn’t work, and a little bit of panic shot through me. I dreaded the thought of having to go through the unfriendly, unwashed drunks again.
The second time I swiped the green light blipped and as I turned the handle I thought about that movie No Country for Old Men.
I slipped into the darkened room, quickly and silently letting the door click behind me. I didn’t turn the light on, but I didn’t have time to chastise myself for being so dramatic either.
Back to the wall, peeking through the gap between the curtain and the window, I saw the youngest of the gang skulk around the corner towards my room.
He was no older than 21, and had a stupid but mean look on his face. Licking his teeth, he took a few steps forward, then turned to peer through the window two rooms up from mine.
My door was still unlocked.
Sauntering past the second room, he tried its door handle. He didn’t stop while he did it, and the casualness of his attempted entry was chilling.
At the stairwell between my room and the next, he stopped.
Motionless but for a tongue idly rolling around in his quarter opened mouth, he looked down the darkened hallway for a full minute.
Then, lazy arms swinging, he turned on his heels and walked over to the stairwell, peering down into it before surveying the parking lot.
As his face turned to the desert I slowly clicked the lock shut.
Casting his dark eyes once again towards my room, he shrugged, scratched his testicles and sauntered away, his walk led by jutting hips that propped up tattered, baggy jeans.
I was scared, and against my better judgement, I tentatively flicked the light on.
Two queen beds, big TV, 6 towels and a clean bath tub. It was nice for a $57 room.
A sign drilled to the wall above the TV (which was itself drilled onto the chest of draws underneath it) read:
“Stop! This television has been configured to work ONLY in this hotel. It will NOT work properly if removed from this premises.”
Between the door locks another sign:
“For Your Protection, When In Room Engage Deadbolt And Security Latch”.
Interest and survival instincts piqued, I quickly flicked off the light and tiptoed into the bed.
Whether or not those buildings on the other side of town were in fact a prison seemed more important now, and I begrudgingly switched my mobile data on, and found the Wikipedia for Coalinga.
Main industries: Incarceration.
I got up and checked the locks again.
Google suggested I click a link to “Coalinga hospital”.
On that page I discovered that, not only was that large mass of buildings outside of town a prison (minimum to maximum security, 3800 inmates) but a special kind of “hospital” housing 2000 adjoined the prison property.
“Coalinga State Hospital is a facility for violent sexual predators.”
Violent. Sexual. Predators.
I stopped scrolling.
Here I was, in the cheapest motel in a town that “wasn’t really a town” populated largely by rapists and felons.
I couldn’t leave. Fuck walking across that parking lot again. And, even if I did get to my car there was nowhere else to go within a 2 hour radius.
I was so tired I was hallucinating. The longer I looked at the door, the surer I was that it was slowly creeping open, and that the curtains were gently lilting in the breeze.
I was scared. Really fucking scared.
I pushed the table against the door. I checked the windows again. I plugged the peep hole. And I pulled out the Bible in the drawer. It was just about the only thing not chained down.
I guess if you steal a Bible, you probably need one.
In the past, I’d always felt sort of half assed about David’s Psalm about God protecting him from enemies roaming around like lions in the night. It just seemed a little over the top.
That night, however, it was the only thing that set my mind at ease. As I silently mouthed the words of the Psalm, an inner voice replied:
“Nobody knows you’re here.”
Nobody? What about the guys having a get out of jail party three rooms down?
I was filling out the extremes in my mind.
They could break the door in. They could break the window.
I was so far from the reception I’d be dead or raped or both before anyone got here – and that’s if the unenthused porter would go within ten feet of these guys to help me out.
I put the Bible down and kept Googling.
The Coalinga Police Department has a total of 21 sworn police officers.
Interested in joining our team? Click here for current openings.
According to the county website, rape and murders nearly double the national average constituted a “low local crime rate”.
TripAdvisor reviewers complained of bed bugs and a shit smell.
Bed bugs didn’t sway me though. What I couldn’t decide was whether sleeping with the light on and letting everyone know where I was, or sleeping with it off and telling them when I went to bed was worse.
It was 3am and I’d been awake for 24 hours. Terror relented to physical exhaustion before I could decide.
When my eyes peeled open at 11am, the first thing on my mind was genuine surprise at waking up unharmed.
The now empty parking lot below reflected the searing light of 248km of uninhabited, uninterrupted desert stretched out beyond its edge. Well – almost uninterrupted. There were three streets between Coalinga and the next town on that stretch, but the Google car hadn’t bothered checking any of them out.
Squinting across the balcony, I couldn’t see a trace of last night’s party, but I noticed the restaurant at the end of the lot had been boarded up, smashed in and graffitied all over.
I checked out two hours late and the lazy eyed woman manning the desk didn’t complain.
I guess it wasn’t the kind of place to argue a technicality.
The daylight breeds false confidence and before I left Coalinga I looped back to see the prison.
The TripAdvisor reviewers were right. Farms further up the highway left the taste and smell of cow shit lingering in the air.
It was so fucking hot and dirty, I wondered whether the inmates even wanted to go outside in their rec time.
Prisoners and cows.
Prisoners and cows.
Lives spent eating fake food and waiting to die out there in the desert.
The roadside was lined with hundreds of tomatoes that had fallen off uncovered trucks coming from who knows where.
Wet red skins withering in the midday sun.
They were the only fresh thing for miles.
I couldn’t drive out of Fresno County fast enough.
A dozen bikers followed my car for a while, faces covered with skeleton masks and their leader signalling for his posse stand up, lean, or sit down in unison every now and then. It was a little charming the way they carried on.
Prison, gangs and bikers – Fresno was everything TV had warned me about.
The tomatoes were unexpected though.
*I didn’t end up reaching Seattle. Instead, I ditched it for Montana with a Tinder date I met at midnight that evening in a bar in San Francisco. One hotel, 2 AirBNBs and 5 days later we split up in Utah.
**I figured it could be a prison town, but unlike in Arizona or New Mexico, there were no warning signs about picking up hitch hikers in the area. Not cool, California.
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