800 words about The Life I Never Lived

By Sam Fortier

To understand why I’m in the parking lot of a high school 3,000 miles away from home bugging out — bugging out in the sense that I outwardly appear like a vegetable but on the inside feel something that I’d equate to being trapped inside a burning building — we have to go back.

Back to the early ‘90s, a few years before I existed, when my dad was still a radio ad salesman. Back then, he got an offer to do the same job at a station in Shasta Lake, California.

He accepted it, but a last-minute raise by his then-employer kept us on the other side of the country in Strafford, New Hampshire. A few years later, after I was born, Dad ended up leaving radio anyway for medical supply sales (he hated that) and then left to start his own software consulting business.

If you appraised the Fortier family the day he quit, here’s a partial list of what you’d have seen:

Zero computer-related degrees, one unfinished mortgage, one couple, two infants, two cars, a few dozen instructional software manuals and $129 in the bank.

Leave him, Nana, dad’s mom, said to my mom, half-jokingly.

Spoiler alert: We made it. Together.

Anyway, fast-forward a bunch of years to late August. I’m driving from Seattle to Los Angeles. My route cuts directly through Shasta Lake.

The place fascinated me. Or at least the idea of it. I memorized its Wikipedia page: It has triple the population (11,000) of my hometown while owning one-fifth as much land. It’s a poorer place, median income $26,000, and more diverse. (Then again, it’s not hard to beat Strafford’s mark of 98.5 percent white.)

So when I pulled off the freeway, fair or not, I had a vision of the place. Which (surprise!) it didn’t resemble. It’s a place reduced by the freeway to franchised fuel and foods, the town adults saw in Cars, only without the lewd rusty tow truck and 1940s-Germany-mustachioed green car.

I sat in my car and, because there’s no scan button in 2002 Dodge Intrepids, flicked ‘Seek,’ listening for the call letters of a radio station my dad had long forgotten.

Pop music, parenting advice, five preachers, San Francisco baseball.

The Giants need to beat the Dodgers tonight… Flick.

The city of Shasta Lake doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s in the Central Valley in Northern California. It’s named after a dam that’s named after a lake that’s named after a mountain.

Apparently the lake and dam are tourist attractions, but those are actually miles north of the city. Everything else left in its shadow.

But I was determined to live in it. I got my hair cut at Sal’s Barber Shop and read his old-person wooden signs about fishing and being old. I went to the sad “Welcome to Shasta Lake’ sign with a sad four-foot-tall water fountain. I ate a Super Burrito at Taco Shop and wondered, ‘What makes people think olives are good in burritos?’

Do I vote Hillary even if I don’t like her? Flick.

I would’ve been a Falcon, not a Bear.

Central Valley High School is regional, like mine, but not small and colonial. It’s got a squat-and-permanently-dusty-like-a-21st-century-pueblo feel. I imagined going to class, learning and getting detentions from faceless teachers with Charlie Brown voices. That’s when everything hit.

I wouldn’t have grown up near extended family or cheered for the Red Sox or worked as a lobsterman or dated that girl or started that blog or… or…

The sheer volume of hypotheticals became overwhelming and this is the part I mentioned at the beginning. So I probably look like I’m on Quaaludes, and I’m subconsciously praying that no one would come up to the car and ask me my deal. Because I’m pretty sure I would’ve said, “Uh, alternate reality, uh, sorry, uh, Go Falcons,” and sped away for the interstate.

And the Lord protects us from evil. Trust in his… Flick.

Don’t get it twisted: I love my life.

It probably doesn’t seem like it, but I do. There’s just something so inherently frustrating/beautiful/weird/tantalizing about the possibility of what could have been. Like a Pick Your Own Adventure book but actually good. And your mind can instantly formulate thousands of scenarios.

Anyway, I feel like I should add this disclaimer: I recognize/appreciate/give shouts to all the challenges or haters or whatever that “shaped me” into whomever Sam Fortier is to you.

So pretending could only be for an afternoon. I got back in the car, drove past Sal’s grumpy-old-man signs and back onto Interstate 5 South.

Oh, mom said when I told her about the trip. It might not have been Shasta. It could’ve been Redding. We’re not really sure.

Editor’s note: This story is part of our September 2016 series ‘Hundreds of Words about Location: Where are you, and how does it affect how you see the world?’


Sam Fortier doesn’t have all the answers. Or even most of them. Or, probably, any. Say hi on Twitter @Sam4TR.

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