No one else is awake. I am not really. I wander the paths in the semi-light and then head back to bed. I pull the sheet over head to filter the air. It is dank from our bodies. I can't sleep. It's going to get much worse before it gets better.
|The 120 is closing|
It's all the talk of the two dozen who mill impatiently outside the dining hall. There's a palpable excitement. One man is telling a crowd that the park's resources are no match for this fire. If the winds change again, everything around us will be reduced to ash. A fellow on my left chimes in that we are "loving this place to death" and that we should give it back to the grizzlies and the wolves. A lady on my left whispers, "nut case." In another circle, a fellow is decrying the worrywarts who would bolt at the sight of their own shadow. He plans to stick around and hike to Cathedral Lake this very afternoon. By my informal poll, the consensus is mass exodus.
"I guess we should leave too," says Lilalee. "What's Ann doing?"
We knock on Ann's cabin. They are packing, but everyone is merry. You'd think they were starting a vacation, not ending one. Ann is heading home, but her friends have hatched plan B. A trip to Healdsburg for winery cheer and fine dining. We exchange sincere hugs and go our separate ways.
We turn towards Tioga Pass to take leave of the park. In the rear view, the debris cloud climbs high into a sierra-blue sky. A brown streak tears from its top and spreads to the northeast. Thankfully we are heading south towards good air.
We descend from the high country. The road down is blessed with the red and grey rock on the talus slopes of Mount Dana. I dare only an odd glance because in the smallest increment of a perception we could be over the edge. Meanwhile, the high country quickly slips away. In few odd minutes, we are back on earth breathing the hot, thick air from the valley.
"I have an idea," says Lilalee. "Why don't we go see the Bristlecones?"
It's a great idea. Suddenly, we are back on a trail of adventure. Great ideas have the power to transform.
We turn south on The 395. The Sierra escarpment sweeps into view. It's ramparts guard the heights from here to the horizon. Soon, the Minarets are soaring above Mammoth. Then the pinnacles of the Muir Wilderness. The hikers I saw yesterday are up there now. If I were at the treeline, I'd have that acute consciousness that comes from being among things on a different timescale: in harmony with plutons and moraines, where daily worry matters little.
We book a room in Bishop at at the Vagabond Inn. The office is sterile. The air is stale with air freshener. The room expensive. We head over to Schatz's Bakery for a to-go lunch. Schat's is famous with the RV-bermuda-shorts crowd. They are drawn like zombies to a TV series. It is the most unpleasant parcel of earth for 300 miles. Lilalee stays in the car. Inside is a crush of humanity. I am pressed into the soft flesh of the seemingly nice lady in front of me. Under any normal circumstances she would never let me feel her body heat or smell her shampoo or the dry cleaning residue in her dress. We exchange uncomfortable looks but say nothing. I feel relieved I showered after yesterday's hike.
Sandwiches in hand, we make for Big Pine and turn left at the 168. The narrow road penetrates a surreal canyon whose double-cut walls are decorated with anticlines and discontinuities. We turn onto White Mountain road and begin the long climb. The air grows chill. A thunderstorm gathers. A wind kicks up. The rain comes down in a blinding torrent. Hail clatters off the roof. We pull off the road eat our sandwiches.
Suddenly as it starts, the rain stops. The sky brightens. The sun bounces a blinding glare off the asphalt. We creep along the last 5 miles of winding, shoulderless road trying not to peer down.
It's mid afternoon before we make the Bristlecone Pine Forest Visitor Center. The parking lot is empty and dotted with hail. We climb out of the car. The air is thin and crisp with ozone. Our breath is steamy. The visitor center is closed. The chem-toilettes are locked. The place is ours.
We are surrounded by Bristlecones and huge blocks of granite in a shadeless forest. The slope across the way is also covered with these trees. They are all craggy and wizened. We wind our way to the top. Out to the west, across the Owens Valley, there's an unobstructed view of the dusky-blue Sierras.
A cloud blocks the sun. Lilalee feels cold and walks ahead to the car. I climb on a boulder and try to absorb this place. That adolescent Bristlecone was here when Plato was writing the Republic. The Sierra batholith was once buried, and the rivers flowed east. Then, 5 million years ago, the crust stretched, the valley has dropped and pushed up the Sierran peaks like the Evolution group over yonder which has become swathed in a dark cloud. I imagine some hikers at Darwin Lake. They would be draped in their bags and huddled in their tents. I sense connections, but they are out of reach.
We arrive back in Bishop just as twilight sets in. We unload the car. Lilalee settles into bed with a book. I am still hungry and restless. I nag her to go eat. She sends me on my way.
I decide to eat at Raymond's Deli. It's about a mile south down Main. Bishop is hopping. It's Labor Day. Traffic is loud with RVs and big rigs. Clots of tourists are hovering on the sidewalk waiting for a table. Gatherings of hikers or homeless sit in the grass at City Park. People mill between adjacent smoky bars and a cover band plays Lynyrd Skynyrd.
I am waiting at a light when this freshly showered fellow with a backpack steps next to me. The pack is medium sized; I'd guess 35 pounds. Could be a PCTer who hitched up from Lone Pine. JMTers don't usually show up in Bishop.
"Know a good place to eat?" he asks.
"I'm headed to Raymond's. Want to come along?"
"I'm starved," he says. I just got off the John Muir Trail."
"Really?" I'm interested, but puzzled. Bishop is not your JMT typical stop. "Getting resupplied?"
"Nah." he said. "I've had it. The walk around Edison Lake just about killed me. My knee is shot."
His name is Tim. As we walk to Raymond's he tells me he's from Oregon. He works at the paper mill in Halsey. Weird, but I once applied for a job there. I lacked the right connections. How different things might have been.
We queue up to place our order. The crowd is young, fit and sunburned. We order sandwiches with a very tattooed young woman with a half shaved head. She is extremely efficient. She gives us a number and we take the last table.
"What was it like?"
"I don't know," he says. "Disappointing I guess."
"Really?! Did you hit any rough weather?"
"I did get drenched. Wasn't too bad."
"Wasn't the scenery amazing?"
"Yea. Yea. It was really beautiful." Then Tim clamps his jaw real hard so he doesn't lose it. After a couple of moments, calm returns, but his checks have flushed. "I guess it was was just pretty lonely up there. I thought you met people and made friends. No one was really friendly. It's beautiful though."
What can be said that's not utterly stupid? "It's gonna be OK?" Well it probably won't. At least not for a while. I'm sympathetic. This guy has just busted out of his experience of a lifetime. It's no picnic living with the shame. I just don't want to be part of his tragedy. I suspect he doesn't want me too either. I say nothing.
"Yea, he says with an ironic smile. "It's a bummer."
We sit quietly for a bit longer. Then with renewed spirit he quips, "I won't want to miss this chance for some toilet magic. I'll be back."
Three loud guys in the booth across the aisle catch my ear. They wear baseball hats and plaid shirts. One guys has set up their empties like a ten-pin. "If you ask me," he says, "there are just way too many people out on these trails. Most of them don't have a clue."
"Somebody else was coptered-out just yesterday." says the second guy.
"Second time this week," adds the first.
"Well if weren't for these newbies,' says the third, "we'd be eating out of dumpsters."
"Got that right," chimes in number one.
Number three continues, "What gets me is the big hurry. These dudes are into speed records."
"And gear," says number two. "The other day I heard two guys getting into it about rain pants. You'd think they were talking about Obamacare."
After a lapse number one adds, "Did I tell you this customer wants us to carry a three day supply up to Charlotte Lake? That's a lot of dough for what? 4 pounds?"
"I guess it's their right." says number three on a wistful note.
Number two points a rejoining finger at his friends and proclaims, "What I know is that with all those people up there, you can't hardly get away any more."
"I know," says number one. "One of these days the park service has to do something."
"Yea, but they won't," says number three.
Tim returns just as our number is called. The sandwiches are huge and delicious. I eat every morsel. So does Tim.
I return on the back streets to the Vagabond. The stars are close; the moon won't rise for five hours. The houses are modest and built close on small lots as if to huddle together against the elements. Dogs bark at me from inside the houses. A balmy breeze sweeps in from Long Valley. The trees stir. I know now it is time to get off the sidelines. Time for that shake out hike across the San Gabriels. The end of October should be enough time.
"How was dinner?" asks Lilalee
"Good. I met another JMT hiker."
"I guess you'll be one of them before too long."
"I guess." I say, but I'm only partly there. I'm already thinking about what I am going to carry.