"Are you sure you'll be alright?" says Lilalee
She doesn't mean to challenge, but the question comes with a prick. I disguise my pique and shrug with indifference. "It's just for a night." In truth, my blood is pumping. I feel edgy. The moment has that ineffable, surreal quality: things seem normal but they shouldn't be. It's not like I'm being wheeled into surgery or getting married or seeing my Mom or Dad for the last time, but it's there. Thank goodness our thoughts are our own. I'm not letting on. No point in distressing Lilalee.
We get out of the car. The wind sends my hat sailing down the street. She grabs it with the grace of a shortstop and flashes a victorious smile. I never fail to be amazed at her quickness. Even after all these years she still has the reflexes of a cat.
I open the hatch and lift out the Mariposa. It's loaded with everything. Twenty-six pounds for authenticity. How else would I shake out the bugs? I pull on the pack, buckle up, tighten the straps and snug up the lifters. It's good. I am one with my Mariposa. If I was agile enough, I could dance with this thing.
Another blast of wind. Her hair is pasted against the side of her face. I have a photo of her like that when we first met. She reaches up with my hat and tugs it down securely. "You be careful."
I am pretty sure she watches till I was out of view. I am launched at last. The months of infirmity are past. One day they'll come again, but for now I headed out and feeling free.
I've walked these switchbacks to Henninger Flat a hundred times. In summer, it's a dusty shadeless affair. In winter, if the rain clears the basin air, you can see to San Clemente Island, a hundred miles out into the glinting Pacific.
Most times the road is busy. I know a few of the regulars. There's the older Latino fellow who bundles up as if he's trekking the tundra, the squadrons of diffident Asians who ascend in formation, the more-than-a-little-odd guy in tie-dye uses a toy gripper to pick up trail litter which he stuffs in a Nordstrom tote bag, the petite woman who bounds past wearing no more clothes than you could stuff in a number 10 envelope and the possessed mountain bikers who slalom around the hikers.
|Looking down from Henninger Flats|
The contents of the pack are settling. I adjust the straps. I fall into a stride. The 11% grade flattens out. My spirits lift. I could walk forever, but won't today.
I step onto the lower Henninger Flat campground in less than an hour. Henninger Flats is a museum of sorts. There's an old fire lookout tower, an old stone water foundation, a boarded-up mine, a rusting wheeled cart and some twisted track.
I walk over to the dormitory that houses the skeleton staff and a modest natural history museum with a single permanent display on three tables. The Aves table sports a Red-tail, a Peregrine, a California Quail replete with head feather, and a Western Bluebird in a nest. The furry mammal table has two grey squirrels, a gopher and a fierce raccoon. The time-left-behind table features a fine collection of glass insulators. Each item is identified by typed descriptions on yellowed index cards. All are the legacy of a mostly forgotten old-timer who preserved these things for eternity.
I drop the Mariposa at the dormitory step and ring bell to get my permit. Johann answers the door. Yes, Johann, like the composer. I asked him about it when we first met. He said his mother was the soprano in St Anthony's choir. I've had a passing acquaintance with Johann for years. He is a good natured, stocky man in his mid-thirties who's itchy to get an assignment in town so he can be home with his wife and kids. We routinely discuss the weather and the decayed state of the campgrounds. He is philosophical about both, but he does his best. Last month he painted all the campground trash barrels Royal Blue. It seemed like a good thing to do with the 40 gallons Royal blue left in the barn after in the Station Fire.
"Blowing pretty good out there," he says.
"Supposed to die down after dark. Good thing."
"It's pretty dry."
He nods. "The captain is nervous a shit. Keeps calling. Driving me nuts." He irons the receipt pad open with the heel of his hand. "Hadn't seen you in quite a while."
"Yea. Been laid up."
"Sorry to hear. You gonna stay up at Fuji?"
"I was thinking I might go on up to the Yale Peak shoulder."
"I'd suggest stick around here. You know. Just in case." He pushes the receipt book across the counter for me to sign.
"Sure. Will do."
He rips the yellow copy. "Say we're playing gin later. If you want, drop by."
Just as I'm leaving he adds, "Be sure to put your food in the locker. The bears have been visiting."
|Henninger Flats Campground|
I had planned to set up "tarp-style" with just a ground cover and the tent-fly, but because of the wind, I pitch the complete tent behind copse of brush. A gust nearly takes my fly down the mountain. Mental note: don't do that again.
I scatter my stuff inside, inflate the pad, roll out the bag. It's a cushy spot. Suddenly I am tired and just want to lay here. I listen to the wind roar through the Coulter Pines and wonder about the hikes I'll going to take this summer.