California is known for its many countercultural communities, which have long attracted those who are restless, disillusioned, or searching for spiritual awakening. For some, as for Ceilidh Michelle, they are a form of escape from past trauma and family turmoil. This excerpt comes from Michelle’s new memoir, Vagabond, which chronicles her turbulent life drifting from Venice Beach to Big Sur, and acquaints us with the characters inhabiting this unique landscape—musicians, veterans, ex-cons, addicts, drug dealers, gang members, cops, and con artists.
The smell of black mould and rotten wood permeated the room, a sweet decay. After a few days of relentless fever, I probably should have been in the hospital, but I was Canadian, so I had to sweat it out.
The Rose Den was once white, but the paint had slowly peeled away to reveal ocean-soft wood beneath. The yard was buried beneath Jurassic palm bushes and shrubs. The living room was crowded with bookshelves and cardboard boxes, a wheelbarrow missing its wheel, two rusty clawfoot bathtubs. There was one bedroom, its lone window looking out on an overgrown backyard. The room was empty except for a mattress on an iron frame and a closet alive with the sounds of spiders. You got into the cottage by crawling through the fence, wading through the long grass and pushing in the back door that led directly into that bedroom.
It was still raining. The hitchhikers and travellers and local drifters were competing for shelter, so Alex was very strict about who was allowed into the Rose Den. “I’m not having another scene like the one at Heartbreak,” he told me. “Next thing you know, this place will be full of junkies and gangs and cops.” He let me into the cottage on the condition I came alone.
The gangs and cops were a legitimate worry in Venice Beach. I’d seen the gangs rolling along the boardwalk, scattering rivals with the wave of a weapon. I kept the warning stories I’d heard at the front of my head to stay sharp. The stories of the LAPD were just as bad; they were known for bursting into abandoned buildings and beating and arresting whoever they grabbed. We could exist so long as we kept our existence to ourselves.
Excerpted from Vagabond: Venice Beach, Slab City, and Points in Between by Ceilidh Michelle. Copyright © 2022. Published by Douglas & McIntyre.
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