After eleven days, it’s time for a shower. I would rather wash up than eat a hot restaurant dinner tonight, and that’s saying something. This is the menu of my dreams:
Locally sourced shower with nine minutes of hot water, full-size terry towel, side of soap ……. $5
I step into the bathroom like Encino Man. Oh god, a bench to sit on. A furry floor mat. And it’s clean. I put the token in the slot and gasp as hot — hot — hot water shoots from the nozzle. How to describe the shocking bliss? It’s pretty much the video from Outkast’s So Fresh, So Clean, minus getting busy and getting high. Are André 3000 and Big Boi closet hikers? Cuz they really get it.
After lathering everything at least twice, I stand hypnotized in the hot water for another thirty seconds. How quickly I have become a stranger to such amenities! Still, I err on the short side. This experience is not gonna end with me yelping in freezing water at nine minutes and three seconds.
Vermilion Valley Resort, on the shore of Lake Thomas Edison, is not a picture postcard resort. It’s humble and relaxed. A diverse assemblage of campers and vans, primitively girded for wintering, houses those employed there. Though they sweep, hammer, clean, and cook, I suspect the resort is more essentially a tolerant place to live an unusual life in relative privacy. This season, due to drought, the lake reservoir is drained low, the dock a plank into nothingness, eliminating a major source of tourism. The place is off grid, powered by a generator that runs from 7 am to 9 pm. No electricity overnight. No cell reception. Two old dogs and the kind proprietor’s little daughter run underfoot through the camp store.
I almost didn’t make it here tonight. Certainly there was no confidence from the guy who asked my plans this morning. He clearly thought I was crazy, or at least sub par at math, for choosing the long way in: I’m aimed for a cutoff five miles beyond and six miles longer than the easy route, which is a flat two-mile spur to the lake, then the rest of the way by ferry. I hear the Bear Creek Trail is prettier, I tell him in vain. He may have been swayed had I instead said, “I’d rather climb this hill carrying one day of food on my back than five,” though practicality was not a major consideration. Oh well, why do I need to please his logic? I put my engine in low gear and power up the switchbacks (sixty-seven, says another hiker, who also regrets having counted). A 2,000-foot ascent in seventy minutes, bisected by a one-minute break to stuff a pemmican bar down my gullet. It’s unexpectedly satisfying to plod relentlessly, mind detached from chugging body, watching the forest floor fade farther below with each minute. I hum along, a little full of myself.
Five hours later, still hoofing, I reflect that maybe the guy had some justification. It’s more like ten off-trail miles, not eight, and the last two ain’t pretty. They abut the dam around the lake on a gritty forest service road. By the time I get to VVR, dusk is nigh, my legs are weary, and I am READY.
Which may have made the shower even better. Back in the bathroom, I touch my stomach in wonder, a stomach I hadn’t seen in days. Clean skin feels like an amazing foreign planet. In the mirror, I discover welts on both hips. I had no idea. Why would I have bothered to look back there? (Hiking makes you kind of a Nevernude.) Then it’s on to the joys of the towel, followed by the joys of combing and drying and clipping and just sitting inside a room.
What I actively miss while I’m hiking makes a very short list:
But the list of mostly absent things that unexpectedly thrill me is longer:
- Fresh fruit and veg
- Hot running water
- Soft towels
- The option of walls and a roof
- Technology. By which I mean things like chairs. When I spy a dingy cushioned back, a seat, and two arms, somewhat levelly raised off the floor, I’m agog. It’s genius.
Almost as much as I love being in the woods, I love coming out and intoxicating myself with the mundane. I think Spanish does a better job at describing both these lists in a single verb: extrañar. Technically “to miss,” it means at once a heart-in-the-throat, mariachi-melancholy personal estrangement (List A), and experiencing its object as foreign, faraway, alien, surprising, extranjero, even if it isn’t (List B).
[Aside: my Español is extra rusty, rather extranjero itself, so apologies for any errors.]
Emerging at last from the bathhouse, I pitch my tent next to Dan and Rose and cook beans in the dark. There’s free camping for hikers, and a fire ring. When the stars come out, someone stokes a fire, and a bag of jumbo marshmallows appears. We find sticks and roast sweet, white lumps until they are caramelized and flaming. We talk hiker talk. I learn from those who took the ferry that its narrow path ends short of VVR. They walked the last mile across the dry moonscape lakebed, following orange traffic cones. Warm and clean and fed, I don’t regret taking the long way in. Bear Creek, in dappled sun, alternately flowed wide and shallow along sandy rocks and cascaded into deep clear pools perfect for soaking weary feet. Most of us will take that path out.
In the chilly morning, before the generator kicks on, I luxuriate in the laundry room. My throne is a dusty upholstered chair, and I boil water for chai on my camp stove, balanced on the clothes-folding table. Rose and Dan and I pile our dirties into the machine and coo when socks and long johns tumble hot out of the dryer. In the dining room, I invite myself to the breakfast table of a friendly couple from Massachusetts. As a newly minted extrovert, I kind of don’t give them a choice about it: “Hi, mind if I join you, or is this a date?” And I buy half an hour of internet to assure loved ones of my continued existence. I don’t miss Facebook, but it’s awfully damned convenient.
Thus pass fifteen hours at VVR, seven of them horizontal, before I walk away from lo que he extrañado: both what I miss and what I thrill to find. But I walk toward the irresistible lure of what is extranjero in regular life: simple needs, few distractions, natural rhythms, and the immediate, constant awareness of being among the infinity of tiny travelers in a vast and swirling world.