Aug 30, 2014

The quill hat

The sun has dipped behind the peaks west of Bishop, and a fitful breeze has finally cooled the day. Clots of vacationers are puttering about Main Street headed to the restaurants and bars. I head over to the lake in City Park, sprawl out on the grass and watch the ducks ruffle the early evening oranges and pinks that reflect off its surface. It's tranquil. I can think in peace.

It's our second night here. We're staying at the Trees Motel — no doubt named for the two spindly Cottonwoods on the front lawn whose trunks are scarred with initials. It's the holiday. We were lucky to find a any place. The Trees is perfect for me, but it is not Lilalee's cup of tea. I was relieved that our room didn't reek of stale cigarettes and lavender air fresher. The best thing is that the air conditioning actually keeps us cool. I've grateful she seems comfortable here.

Bristle Cone Pine
We took the extra day in Bishop because Lilalee hadn't seen the Bristlecones. She was delighted by the drive up. She marveled at the trees. It hailed a bit. We saw a rainbow. It was a fine day, but I definitely felt the altitude. Good thing we're drive up to Mammoth tomorrow and I have five more days to acclimatize.

After getting back to Bishop, we cleaned up and grabbed dinner at Las Palmas. I ate too much: albodigas, the double-chicken-mole-enchilada platter,3 bowls of chips and two Bohemias. The second one was free. Lilalee charmed the owner and he comped me a second. I got pretty buzzed.

When we got back to the room, Lila sprawled out with all the pillows and one of her 19th century novels. I dumped my pack wanting to make another check against my equipment list while we are in Bishop; replacement is a lot cheaper here than Mammoth. But I was too loopy and miserably full to concentrate. I kept going over the same items. Meanwhile, Lilalee wanted to share some passages from her book. We used to read to one another all the time.

"Tell me who this reminds you of." She cleared her throat and affected a marmmish pitch. "He's like the rooster that thinks the sun comes up because he wants to hear him crow."


"Not close," she replied. "But here's the one that does... 'College mostly makes people like bladders — just good for nothing but to hold the stuff as is poured into them.' Fits, right?" She laughed.

Of course I agreed, but my mind was on stretching my legs. Of course she didn't mind. She almost never does. That's how I ended up here with the ducks.

A trio of hikers wander over. They sit not 50 feet away. A woman and two guys in their twenties. Probably freshly bathed thru hikers taking a zero. Stained clothes, baseball caps, trail runners, deeply tanned skinny-unshaven bodies, smooth muscular arms and legs. They crack open a six pack and bag of chips. One lights a joint. They laugh and lean into each other in fellowship. They must be southbound PCTers. You don't see them every day, but the Northbound PCT herd is long gone and JMTers seldom land in Bishop.

They evoke thoughts of lost friends and real places that now only exist in memory. I'm tempted to wander over and hear their stories. Maybe recapture the old feelings. One of the guys catches my glance and holds up a can in offering. I decline. The gap between us far exceeds 50 feet. I take sad pride in knowing twenty is long gone. Where they have hope, I have advice. Where they have plans, I have cautionary tales. I remember doing just as well without. As much as I'd like, it's foolish to reach back in time. So I gather myself with a grunt and head towards the crowds parading up Main street. As I leave the woman waves and the guys signal. It is sweet.

A holiday spirit is in the air. The sidewalks are crowed with circles of drinkers and folds of waiting families and friends that overflow from the restaurants. I pass a busking couple. Lesbians I figure. One sings beautifully. The other plays a fine fiddle. I drop a five in their hat, but don't hang around. I pass an older couple dressed in matching peach-colored out fits. They hurry along as best they can. Further up, five teenage boys are seated on a stone planter secretly sharing a cigarette and eyeing every girl that passes. A block later a group of teenage girls are gathered outside the movie theater.

At the south end of town, I turn up a side street and come across a bar called the Mountain Rambler. Based on the name, I decide to check it out. Most of the clientele seem to be locals. The food looks tasty. The tables are bright with fresh vanish. The servers are rushing about. A band is setting up on a low stage by the far wall. I take a seat at the end of a long table near some old timers. A dark-haired woman with a lip piercing and tattooed arms puts a cold pitcher between them and comes my way.

"If you stay for the music, there's a twelve dollar cover," she says. "No exceptions."

"Is it OK to just have a beer?"

"The band starts in an hour. What kind?"

I order a glass of pale ale even though I don't really want a beer or like being in bars — especially alone. I don't suppose most people do. I try not to fidget while I wait, but I can't help but overhear the men near me.

A heavy fellow with a deeply-weathered face and a bushy mustache is talking. "I was sixteen first time I scramble up Mount Humphreys. Did it with Bobby Hammond. Remember Bobby?"

"He was crazy," says the wiry, bald-headed fellow across the table. "We did some wild shit. Remember that time we caught that porcupine at North Lake. We were on our way to Darwin Bench. We figured it was lost; so, Bobby decided we should take it with us to Piute Lake. We rolled it up in a canvass tarp, tied the ends and carried it up suspended by a rope. No way we were carrying that thing in our arms. Damn it was mad."

The man sitting closest to me grabs their pitcher and says, "You fellas were pretty clever," as he refills the teller's mug.

"Don't know why we did it," continues the wiry fellow. "We just did. Anyways, we dropped the little critter off and ran like crazy, but not before he shot a couple quills in my pack. Should have kept them."

"Tell the rest of it," says the man with the bushy mustache.

"Anyways," continues the wiry fellow, "it snowed like sonofabitch while we were there. Froze our tails off. We hardly left the tent. A couple days later we came out and wanted to celebrate. We went to Rusty's and bought ourselves burgers and shakes. We were chowing down at the bar when this guy walks in with porcupine quills in his hat." The wiry guy starts to chuckling to himself and takes a few chugs from his mug.

"You're not supposed to be laughing at your own stories," taunts the mustachioed fellow. "Get to the punch-line."

"I'm getting there," says the wiry man. "So happens the bartender was from around these parts. He knew this guy with the quill hat and said, 'where'd you get those quills?' The guy with the quill hat answered, 'We found a porcupine up at Piute Lake.' "Piute Lake?!" said the bartender.' 'That's right." replied the fellow with the quill hat. 'What the hell was it doing up there?" asked the bar tender. "Heck if I know," said Mr. Quill Hat. The bar tender thought about that a bit and said, 'Must been some dog carried him up.' 'Must have been,' replied Mr. Quill Hat.' You know what? We just sat there and didn't say a word."

All three men then nodded and raised their mugs in a silent toast.

"I can only hope all those kids hiking up there are smarter than we were," says the mustachioed man.

"I doubt it," says the guy closest to me.

For the most part those fellows didn't say much more until I left my unfinished beer on top a $10 bill. I thought the dark-haired server could use a little cheering up. As I walked out I heard the wiry fellow say, "Did you hear the Gene gone and had his knees replaced?"

The lights are on when I get back to the Trees Motel. Lila is snuffling peacefully with the book lying flat on her breast. I make a special note to fix this image in my mind in the off-chance it's needed in the future.

Aug 13, 2014

The die is cast

I count out loud each of the food items for each resupply bucket. Duane listens closely double checking for my errors. The hike is finally happening. It's a bit unreal, as if my fate was been surrendered to another's will. Maybe this is what people mean by an out-of-body experience.

"You double counted that one," says Duane pointing to the freeze-bag, oatmeal-raisin breakfasts. "It belongs in the VVR bucket."

We have planned four resupplies: Tuolumne Meadows, Red's Meadow, VVR and the Mt Williamson Motel. Each bucket has the supplies needed to get us to the next resupply. The longest stretch is six-and-a-half days. The shortest is four days. Altogether the hike will take twenty-three days: twenty-one hike days and two zero days. We step off the trail head on September 4th, three weeks from now. We walk out to Whitney Portal on September 26th. And in just two weeks, I leave for the eastern Sierra to start acclimatizing. Things are happening fast.

Our logistics are complicated. Duane has to work. He'll be taking a train to Fresno and a bus to Yosemite. Since I have to acclimatize, my plan is byzantine. I'll take the ESTA from Lancaster to Bishop and stay at the hostel. Next day I'll take the ESTA to Mammoth Lakes and stay at the Motel 6 for two nights. From there I'll take YARTS to Tuolumne Meadows. I'll buy a wilderness permit for a hike to Ten Lakes, but I'll only use it to be street legal at the Backpackers camp. The next day, I'll take YARTS again. This time to White Wolf. I stay there for two nights and try to steal a shower. The last night before the hike, I'll take the YARTS to the Crane Flat Campground. That morning, I'll catch YARTS one more time down to Yosemite Valley. At 10:30, I'll meet Duane in front of the Wilderness Center. We'll pick up our JMT permit. For the last leg we'll catch the 1:30 Glacier Point Tour Bus up to the Mono Meadow Trail Head. From there, our next stop is Mount Whitney. The only hitch is getting to Lancaster.

All told (with my senior discount) that's about $70 for the bus, $20 for campgrounds and $200 in hotels. Acclimatizing is expensive. It just better work.

I double check Duane as he counts his food into the buckets. After a last go through, we label and seal each one. Tomorrow I mail the VVR bucket. It won't be any use to us if it gets there late. My friend Ann is has agreed to drop off the other buckets. She leaves for Tuolumne Meadows next week.

"That's it," says Duane. "I'm jazzed."

"Except for the hike, I guess were done," I say meaning to joke but sounding dire.

He taken aback. "Something wrong?"

"Not really. But... what if there's a snag. What if you twist an ankle or I get sick again?"

"I'm not twisting an ankle and we have plenty of time to acclimatize," he says reassuringly. "Besides, we don't hit Donahue Pass until day five."

"But what if....Shouldn't we make an agreement?"

Duane nods. "What do you have in mind?"

"If one of us has to bail, the other gets to continue."

"OK," he says reflectively, "But we have to talk first. We have to agree."

We shake on it. A load lifts. I don't want to screw up anyone's hike and I sure don't want anyone screwing up mine.

Over dinner, I tell Lilalee the plan. "So if you could drop me off in Lancaster and then pick us up when we're done, that's all we need.

There's a long silence while she stares at her plate. A flush comes up from her neck to her cheeks like a rising fury.

"I know this sounds complicated. I'm sure it will work."

"Are you serious?" she replies, each word rising with intensity. Before I can utter a thing she jumps in with a sharp rebuke. "You are planning to be gone for a MONTH!"

"This shouldn't be a surprise," I reply self-righteously knowing full well it's going to make things worse and not caring.

She pushes out from the table and stands over me. "What about Labor Day weekend? Weren't we supposed to do something?"

"I don't know. Call the Swonks. Siobahn always has something going."

Lilalee glares at me with unmistakable disgust. "You're pathetic." She carries her plate to the sink and on her way out the door says "I'm going for a drive."

I clean up feeling horribly mistreated and not willing to understand the turn of events. A heavy hour passes. I have no stomach for our fights. I put the 2nd movement of Beethoven's 7th on the stereo and play it loud. Under the circumstances it's the most melancholy music I can think of. I can't shake the feeling of injustice. After these many months of planning, after years of yearning, this was the one thing above all others, I held for retirement.

Until this moment I have been blind to the fullness of the divide it has created. Now it seems I've made a catastrophic blunder. Lilalee is my partner, but she has not been a part of my plan. Not that she could have been, but that changes nothing.

It's evening. I pace the house. Our book shelves are lined with signs of her generous nature. There are a dozen photos of our friend's children. They all love her. My favorite is a vacation photo of Lilalee with her arms around our god daughters when they were girls. It make me happy just to see. And on the chest of drawers, which was the first piece of furniture we bought together, there's a framed photo of us when we were young standing under a redwood. I look ridiculous with this stupid uncontrollable smile.

And yet I know that once I am on the trail, I will have no regrets, no ill feeling. How is that possible? What is the measure of selfishness or self-absorption needed to to feel that kind of freedom? Or is it indifference? The very thought is unsettling.

I hear her car in the drive. I go to meet her at the door. To my relief and joy she embraces me.

"I've been thinking," she says. "What if I go with you?"

"On the hike?"

"No stupid. On the way to the hike. Forget all that complicated business with the buses. I'll drive you. We'll get a nice place in Mammoth. Spend a couple days together. Then maybe we can get one of the White Wolf Cabins. I love those. What do you say?"

"There may not be any rooms."

"You know me. I'll find the places. I'll find nice places. We'll have fun."

"It could be expensive."

"Are we going to start up again?" She replies with a playful threat. But it could go either way.

"So you'll drop Duane and me off at the trail head and pick us up at Lone Pine?"

"Whatever you want."

I don't know much, but I know I don't deserve my luck.

The Plan