I sprawl like a gutter punk on the pavement by the gas station trash can, my dinner and some crumpled bills in a plastic bag beside me, licking a melting ice cream cone in the heat.
A guy comes out of the store with a soda and sees me on his way back to the pump. “Hey, gorgeous,” he says.
“Hi,” I reply with a smile.
I am puzzled, for two reasons:
a) Crusty with sweat, I haven’t showered for days, and above my bizarre tan lines, a green bandana hangs knotted from my neck, as if I’m a dog. This is gorgeous?
b) I loathe honks, catcalls, and other unsolicited, appearance-centered comments that are the supposed prerogative of men looking at women. Why don’t I mind this one? Am I more susceptible to flattery in my grungy state? I think not. Somehow he seems more genuine than most. It does not feel like a power trip. I’ll have to think about this… well, after I finish my ice cream.
Months ago, I reserved a night at the Independence Inn in Lone Pine, California. Out of three weeks, one night should feel like a Vacation, right? So I hike eight miles off the trail, over Kearsarge Pass, down to the Onion Valley trailhead. Standing in the stony notch of Kearsarge, looking back into the wilderness, I see for the first time the smoke plume rising from the Rough Fire. Its white mushroom billows smoke from under its rim, which spreads and falls into the valley. Satisfying with a touch of schadenfreude, I observe it from a distance, rather than trudging inside it, blind to wider perspective. This is already a great vacation from my vacation.
I don’t have a plan for how to get from the Onion Valley trailhead to town, but I eke out a bar of cell service and call the innkeeper, who collects me in an old Subaru for an extra $10. The road descends 5,000 feet in thirteen twisty miles to the pancake-flat Owens Valley. My eyes are not used to flatland, especially one that stretches as far north and south as visibility permits but ends suddenly in sharp mountain ranges to the west (the Sierras) and east (the Whites). The trailhead was pleasant in the afternoon shade, but it’s 100 degrees on the plain below. It’s easy to believe that Death Valley is just forty or so miles to the east.
The Independence Inn is a modest, whitewashed motel with a big American flag sign and NO VACANCY in pink neon, despite current occupancy of only three rooms. Tourist season is winding down, and Jim, the innkeeper, is ready for a break. I dump my gear in Room #1, gasp in relief at the air conditioner, then head back into the swelter to find some grub.
Independence is a one-street, one-stoplight kind of town, not much to see. Agricultural people and eccentric retirees form the population of 669 citizens. Somebody built a clapboard museum of the Old West in their front yard. Planters of geraniums wither in the sun. Paint peels. The post office is hardly larger than one of its stamps, and dining options consist of two gas stations, a wee French restaurant, a Subway, and a taco truck parked in an empty lot.
The taco truck is reportedly incredible, but unfortunately, I cannot face another tortilla. Nor do I wish to wait more than two minutes for a meal, ruling out the restaurant, so Subway it is. As a side dish, I crave fruit– indeed, this afternoon a day hiker caught me mumbling “apple… yogurt…” like the cartoon crawling through the desert thirsting for agua. Produce options in Independence are either bagged green apple slices from Subway, or an elderly orange from the convenience store. I gamble on the orange, and supersize it with an overpriced, pre-pack ice cream cone.
Now it’s melting on my face, and the guy says, “I like your eyes.”
“Can I at least know your name?”
“Sure,” I say, and tell him. He shakes my hand, introduces himself as Felipe, then gets in the car with his buddy, waves, and drives away.
Truth is, I do feel gorgeous. It’s obviously not grooming, or clothes, which are always the same, liberating a good ten minutes of time from my daily routine. No, it’s feeling the energy of life move through me so vibrantly, strong, free. And plain living: time away from mirrors, magazines and billboards.
Wilderness measures a body not by appearance but by usefulness as a tool that enables one to roam, maneuver, recover, dissolve. Countless living beings are both deformed and beautiful: the giant juniper tree symmetrical on one side, charred and split on the other. The bird missing half its tail feathers, swooping through blue regardless. The dying bush that becomes a bonelike sculpture of itself. These things are what they are. They do not try to be otherwise.
Back at the inn, I forget my deep and superior thoughts about nature vs media, and in true American style eat dinner in front of the TV. The dimpled orange tastes like wine, and the TV’s inanity is deliciously weird. As the cherry on top of my media binge, I snap a selfie.
In the morning after breakfast, I veg out in my room. I’m not really sure what to do on Vacation. I’ve taken a shower, washed clothes, phoned J., his parents, and mine. I mess around with my gear, repack it and mail home extras. I watch more junky TV. I want to hang out all day, but why? Now what?
I couldn’t resist coming to town earlier than expected, nor can I resist going back up early today. I’m antsy for the trail. And it doesn’t hurt that I lose my room at noon. A retiree who also spent last night at the Inn gives me a ride back to the trailhead. It’s generous of him, but my opinion sours when he tells me, in the middle of otherwise normal chitchat, that he likes to do the grocery shopping because “I like to girl watch, from the waist down.” Felipe he ain’t. Why would you say that to anybody? I hand him some gas money in the parking lot and disappear into the woods. If I meet his wife, who is hiking above while he plays golf below, I swear I’m gonna say, in the most cheerful tone possible, “Oh yes! I met your husband, he told me that he likes to girl watch… from the waist down!” But fortunately I don’t see her. No need to pay caddishness forward.
Thus ends my Vacation. I’m back in high gear, striding over Kearsarge Pass, clamoring on the now-familiar and dear spine of the Sierras. Fewer than forty miles left. This is really happening. One more full day of hiking, then Summit Day. My pulse speeds from excitement.
Next stop, Mount Whitney!