You can see Castle Crags from I5: they’re the fairy-tale spires that sprout from the forest just south of Dunsmuir, the detour there’s never time to make. Here at last, I listen to the semis rattle the state park campground all night and set out for the capital-W Wilderness in the morning. The fog of my breath goes gold in the sun.
The difficulty is, there’s a man stopped in the middle of the trail in front of me. Tall and broad-shouldered, he wears combat boots and fatigues with a white tank top, though it’s cold enough that I’m still in gloves. He’s standing and watching something on his phone with the volume all the way up, laughing loudly at it every so often.
The laugh is not right, nor are the angles of his body, the shape he makes between where I am and where I want to go. I wait downslope hoping he’ll move on—like a bear—and when he doesn’t I approach as loudly as I can, dragging my feet in the dry needles and rustling my jacket. It’s no good: when he finally registers my third “good morning” his head snaps up and he spins around in surprise. This movement is not right, either, ends in a half-crouch on his back foot with his arms spread wide. Even having anticipated this, I flinch.
Once I’ve smiled politely past this man—who says nothing, who stares— I want distance. This isn’t rational or compassionate and because I’m alone I don’t care. I book it for the tree line, where I know the look of blue day against granite will feel safe.
An hour later, though, the same impulse that drove me out of the woods has drawn me up the slabs much farther and more steeply than I can easily reverse. That wasn’t intuition back there, I realize now. I’m half-sliding and half-falling to the bottom of a rock chimney that I knew going up would be trouble going down. I have nothing so useful as good sense. What I have is just misplaced affection, a homing instinct for the sky.
I’ve left blood on the granite and sit for a while with my grated palm in my mouth, peering down the long drop to the highway where toy trucks are crawling up the pass. To the south I have a clear view of the trail switchbacking through manzanita. I can pick out two ascending parties, the man in fatigues returning down—
—and the Earth’s face upward for my inspection.
Ted Hughes, Hawk Roosting
Not even fear is ours alone. I imagine an ancestor standing watch, over an empty moor, maybe, over a desert tribe. It came from somewhere, sometime, the conflation of vantage and safety. At some point it might even have made sense.
At its north end the highway above the gorge runs a straight shot through a level plain. From here there’s nothing to indicate you’re on an escarpment: away from the edge you can’t perceive your own elevation, how you would tower dizzy heights above the river were it in sight. True of life, I think, as the sagebrush blurs, or money, or luck, or something.
On the Utah side the Flaming Gorge Dam has a visitor center with views of stately pylons and almost Caribbean water. The desk is staffed by gum-chewing kids in cavernous polo shirts; a security guard with a well-worn set of jokes collects watches and lighters in a dish and waves us through a metal detector. I follow the guide and a big, bored family, taking notes surreptitiously in the back. The dam was dedicated by Lady Bird Johnson and the reservoir took 12 years to fill. Imagine!
Now 191 crests waves of breathing, turning aspens. The trees yield to rock and dust, then an emerald quilt of irrigated alfalfa with the pale spine of Dinosaur National Monument hunched incongruously beyond. I go there and touch what bones you can, shuffling through an over-air-conditioned hall with a queue of retirees, then find I can’t decide what to do next. I drive in and out of the campground three times before I concede, signing in after a white-haired lady in a beat-up Ford. Her entry in the logbook reads, “Vehicle: truck. Number in party: 1.”
She would have made the perfect neighbor but I end up next to two twenty-somethings, a new couple. I know this because every item extracted from the trunk of the Prius as they set up camp must be asked about or remarked upon, complimented and giggled over conspiratorially. The man in the site on my other side is alone when I arrive but soon joined by a toddler, mother, and grandparent. The adults coo over a portable pink toilet they’ve brought along for the child. The sun’s down by now but I start walking.
In the moonlight the dry river washes look like spilled milk, the ridge of uplifted, sedimentary rock like a row of hooded monks. They seem to watch me wind my way up the ridge—them and the spiders, green eyes glittering in the sand.
The next day I turn at last for home. I stop in Roosevelt City, of course, where alas the only sign of Him is on the wall of the aquatic center where I go to to find a shower. The facility is shiny and new, but Main Street is a march of shuttered storefronts. I pull over to ask the Internet for food, opening my door against the heat. The woman parked next to me has done the same while she applies mascara.
Across the road, a man obscured by the open hood of his car hurls something heavy and metal onto the sidewalk, screaming. “Fucking BITCH! Fuck, fuck, FUCK!” The other driver and I close and lock our doors in perfect unison. I suppose these are steps in a dance we all know.
The diner is stacked floor to ceiling with a merry jumble of candles and chapstick and snarky signage, figurines and pocketknives and Pendleton blankets. It’s a place of refuge, I suspect—there is a pierced and pink-haired waitress and a silent cashier with a lazy eye—and I’m a stranger, served briskly and left alone to make time for the regulars. “How’s your brother?” the waitress asks. “He’s a junkie,” the man next to me says flatly, steadying the base of a milkshake as his little boy swipes at the straw. “It’d be pretty alright if he died.”
“He can ruin his own damn life if he wants,” the man continues, eventually. “But you bring those kids into it and now you’ve got a problem with me.”
I head out of town, past ranch houses and boats at rest behind chain-link, through farmland, and up again into the Ashley National Forest. There is an obvious and ominous plume of smoke on the horizon, but as the road twists through the wooded canyons it’s impossible to tell if I’m headed toward it, if this is a problem, until I too clearly am and it too clearly is.
California of course burns everywhere and all the time, but this is the closest I’ve been to a fire this size. As I unfold a map on the hood of the car to reroute—no signal—a hot wind snatches angrily at the corners and my hair. I look up in time to see the roiling, steely cloud seem to fold in on itself, flaring orange in tears and creases. I have never seen anything so animal.
Highway Patrol comes screaming up the road in the opposite direction. The cop slams to a stop and rolls down a window. “Road’s closed,” he says. “Wind’s changing. It’s jumped the canyon. Time to go.”
“Yes, sir,” I say. The words are strange in my mouth, but for once I have no impulse to argue.
Everybody warned me about Jackson Hole, resort town of resort towns. Even so I’m not prepared for the amusement-park foot traffic, or the fraught campsite hunt. I spend an anxious hour coaxing my 2WD (ok, myself) up rutted-out Shadow Mountain—only to find all the ridge spots occupied by cool kids staging photos of their Sprinters against the sky. I retreat, watch the Tetons grow gauzy behind a curtain of wildfire smoke.
The next morning I pull into a valley visitor center for reception. A few hundred people with their phones out are massed across the road, trying to catch a glimpse of a black bear on the sidewalk. A pair of besieged rangers stand between the animal and the advancing horde; tourists with SLRs are standing on car roofs and climbing up signage. One ranger speaks urgently into the radio on his shirt pocket. It’s clear violence is more likely from the photographers than the bear. I put the car in reverse.
So, yeah—still never been to Yellowstone.
The shop guys tell me to ride Phillips Ridge via hitchhike shuttle. “I guarantee you will not wait more than ten minutes,” insists the mechanic. “You can just leave your bike at the bottom, outside the bar.” If you’ve lived in the Bay Area you understand that everything about this suggestion beggars belief—but my thumb’s out four minutes, if that, and the hulking man in the F150 who takes me up the hill is a kindergarten teacher who “prefers the challenge” of teaching special ed. “You’re doing the Lord’s work,” I say, since I know no secular expression for this. He drops me by my car and I drive back down to retrieve my bike, which is—would you believe— just where I left it.
In the rearview leaving the Hoback Valley I can see the leaves have turned in just the few days I’ve been here, blazing orange swells rising to meet the bare peaks as they shrink behind me. From the Pinedale library—boom-funded, beams, beautiful as a church—I plot a reluctant course south. This is always how it goes, I realize: tortured oscillations between deciding to get warm and deciding to get high. It’s unclear to me how much of this dilemma is, you know, the fundamental human condition, and how much might be solved with of those damn Sprinters.
On the Green River it’s another season altogether. A long descent from the canyon rim ends in a near-deserted campground dotted with dusty acacias. The sky is sickly yellow, the air heavy with smoke, and the cicadas are screaming in the heat: deja-vu, Zimbabwe, 2004. Disoriented, I sit at the water’s edge and watch through unsteady binoculars the birds winging low down the gorge. The million little stones making up the sliver of shore below the stair-step shale—bits and pieces in brown, red, yellow, white, green-flecked black—feel like running my hands through time.
There are two retired couples in small RVs on opposite ends of the campground, one pair listening to the radio from folding chairs and the other walking slow laps with a wire-haired terrier. In the evening a man arrives alone on a loaded KTM, ATGATT. There are so few of us, the surrounding silence so thick and the sunset so blood-red apocalyptic, his moon-booted arrival feels like a dispatch from another world.
I ogle the bike; we get to talking. He lives in Jackson, solves the problem of winter by spending it Palm Springs. Farm boy, hucked bales; worked, bought, and sold a welding company. Made bank, retired early, does whatever he likes: motorcycles and mountains, mostly. “Could have gone anywhere,” he says, “thought about the Dolomites,” tried it all and decided there’s no place like the American West. I’m trying and failing to place his accent, realize eventually that it isn’t one: just a perfect frankness—no humility, no apology, no attachment, not the merest suggestion his own success is replicable or that it makes him any better or worse than anyone else. He answers all my questions and gives no advice.
I first saw the Cirque of the Towers as a flash in a photo carousel on an ex-something’s screensaver. It’s been eight years since then—I couldn’t weekend-warrior Wyoming—but the image stayed frozen in my mind. How could I forget, when the place has a name like a paperback fantasy? The spires pose like gods. I like to think it was never a question of if, but when.
Having said that: I’m not much of a backpacker. It’s awfully literal, this staggering under the weight of my own fear, every anxiety made manifest in actual baggage. Carnivores? Bear spray, one pound. Cold? Fifteen-degree sleeping bag, two pounds. Getting hurt? Getting lost? Garmin, four ounces, plus the first aid kit and a backup map and compass. Add it up, cram it in, pile it on, and feel the pack settle on my crooked hip and metal shoulder like a reprimand for having forgotten how to live off berries and starlight.
I struggle to distinguish preparedness from paranoia, precaution from placebo or superstitious gesture to the mountain gods. In the process of trying I inevitably grow bored, then annoyed, throw up my hands in a final flurry of illogical tradeoffs: the bear spray for binoculars; salami for chocolate. When I was climbing the risks had immediacy enough to check this caprice. Backpacking, once I get impatient, is easily dismissed as just walking around.
My solution is to stick to short trips. I plan two nights and three days from the Big Sandy trailhead, set off—after rattling down 30 miles of dirt and gravel road to get there—under a pack small enough that I still feel light on my feet.
But as I head toward the cirque on the morning of the second day I begin to encounter friendly ghosts. First there is pair of fishing buddies (dad bods, camo, belly-laughs), then a stunner-shades trail runner—and what trail runner from this world stops to talk? Last and least likely, another solo, brown woman. She’s got longer hair and a decade on me, but we’re the same height, have the same pack, and are near identically sloppily dressed. Our eyes meet and go wide together.
In all three vaguely uncanny encounters I have the same conversation. It begins as trailside SOP—how’s it going, lovely weather, where you coming from, where you headed—and then, when I tell them, swerves off script in the exact same way. The next line in this exchange is supposed to be, nice, have fun, bye now, occasionally adorned with fish tales or tent spot recommendations. But today I get disbelief and protest. That’s all? Just the cirque? When you came all the way from California? You have to see more than that! Who knows when you’ll ever be back?
This last question is the most insidious, Kryptonite. I point out I’m only carrying food for one more day. “What would you rather do,” asks one of the anglers, jabbing at my map. “Go a little hungry, or regret missing out on this forever?”
I’m told in gaming there is the term “non-player character,” for the wizards and soldiers and three-headed beasts whose function is to step across your path, split the screen and deliver information you’ll need to make a choice. You can believe we’re here playing together, or you can believe, as I’m afraid I do, that we’re all just NPCs in each others’ games.
Either way—message received.
I blow past what was supposed to be my turnoff without bothering to work through a new plan: past this point, I figure, details are a waste of a time and calories. A long slog up Hailey Pass in driving wind ends at the exact moment the clouds part, spilling light onto little glacial lakes in what I choose to interpret as a blessing on the whole endeavor. It takes me as long to descend as it did to climb, mostly because every other rock is the most interesting thing I’ve ever seen. You want to take a spin through the infinite? Honestly? Geology.
I see no one else for days, marvel at the compulsions of the social, animal brain that so quickly begins to convert downed trees and dappled shadows into human silhouettes and faces that aren’t there. I spend some time crouched between stunted trees in torrential rain, thunder ringing in my ears; I cry at sunrises; I wrestle my bear canister bare-assed in the dirt. By the fourth night some combination of rationing and altitude produce a headache I half believe will kill me. The rain turns to hail, then snow, and there is nothing to do but make camp and hope I can sleep it off.
The force of my relief when this actually works carries me merrily through snow flurries across the Lizard’s Head traverse and down, at last, to the cirque. My original destination feels crowded by contrast, but the rock gods themselves don’t disappoint. I can lie on a boulder in the middle of the babbling Popo Agie and watch the shadows of clouds crawl up and down the side of Mitchell Peak. This is the best part: the map rising before your eyes; the act of putting a stone face to a strange name. Watchtower, Shark’s Nose, Overhanging Tower. I announce them to the trees. Wolf’s Head, Bollinger, Pingora.
It’s a blessing, really, that I’m out of food: if I wasn’t it might be impossible to leave. But there will be another time, I hope, and higher. I like to think it’s not if but when.
* * * * *
Back in town I’m inhaling a brewery burger when the man next to me at the bar taps my shoulder. “Aren’t you the gal we saw at Valentine Lake? Did you make it?” I am, I did. They say they were surprised to see a woman in the Winds alone, but I am jaw-drop shocked when they tell me how old they are. (I won’t out them or say which of us is more guilty of patronizing the other.) Karl didn’t start backpacking until he retired but has thru-hiked the map since then; Paul is an ultralight evangelist (“To Have Fun! To re-enjoy backpacking which I thought was part of my youth; To embark on small or grand adventures.”) They’re great. If they’re NPCs, I think they’re here to give me hope there will be time to play again.
The singletrack called “Bloody Shins” rides slow waves of sagebrush, to which I’ve only recently realized I am wildly allergic. (Because the plant’s range corresponds almost perfectly with places I’m interested in going, I had previously assumed that vacation itself was making me sick. This was perhaps a capitalist plot.)
Through a stream of snot and tears, I puzzle over the name: out here, no rocks, no exposure, no bad sight lines, nothing technical at all … what gives? It’s the sagebrush, I discover, with my shins, as I gather speed—or rather, that it doesn’t.
I first came to Liberty Lake in the snow and the evening and it felt like a faraway secret. This time I share the hike up with screaming kids and pairs of women in yoga pants, men with speakers in one hand and coffee in the other. I’ll have to work a little harder for some space.
I find it the next day in the talus fields below Snow Lake Peak, pushing past slabs and scree and the usual crescendo chorus—turn back, turn back, turn back, you’ll fall, you’ll fall, you’ll fall—until I can at least and at last peer over the spine into Thomas Canyon on the other side. This moment of unveiling is 90 percent of what I wanted. I will be back one day for the rest.
The only people I encounter up here are a pair of grouse hunters in their 70s. One is in vintage teal Polartec and a deerstalker, the other head-to-toe camo and a Wyatt Earp mustache. His eyes are lost in the somber folds of his face. “See any big birds?” he asks me. I shake my head. “No birds and no friggin’ goats, either.”
He raises one furry eyebrow and I’m immediately ashamed for swearing. I want to move on from this and so I ask the best way down off the ridge. I could retrace my steps but it’s going to scare me. He swaps his rifle to his other shoulder. “Well, it’s hard country,” he says.
I arrive close to midnight, following GPS to a pin dropped in BLM blankness. I pass turnouts occupied by what appear to be semi-permanent family compounds, pavilion tents and rifle stands, big men watching the road from camp chairs. Peering through the dust and dark for another option I nearly dump my little 2WD RAV4 in a three foot-deep pothole the size of a bus. Enough, I think, and pull off into the darkness. Play it where it lies.
When I open the door in the morning it’s into a sandy wash at the base of a mountain I didn’t know was there. I wander the lower slopes and tell myself the summit is choss so that I’ll continue on to Salt Lake City. How is it even now there’s not enough time?
Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate a Henry Coe bushwhack, our EBRPD fire-break hike-a-bikes, the Sierra suffer-fests and ego-checks, and every minute spent lost in the woods in Santa Cruz. But I’ll admit, every now and then I just want to follow signs to the summit. I want to cruise perfectly buffed and graded traverses, make every effortless switchback like I know what I’m doing, take a roller coaster down, nice surprises only. Eat pizza, take a hot shower, sleep in a bed. For that, Park City and a big bike. Let ‘er rip.
I do a lot of walking here, to be honest, in deep duff and up silly-steep Jeep roads, sliding out of my shoes, down stair-step boulders too technical for me even on my new bike. But it doesn’t matter; Bear Valley is dreamland—Tahoe without the crowds. We find a walk-in campsite on a Saturday afternoon (?!) and encounter two other riders all weekend. That’s heavenly.
Emigrant Wilderness, 7/6–7/7
Three things I watch through binoculars, my new toy:
I’m looking down onto Relief Reservoir, puzzled. As well as the rippling scales of wind-driven water, the cobalt canvas breathes with strange plumes of swirling white. Shoal of fish? I spin the wheel into focus. No: pollen from the pines on the slopes above, invisible where it falls in their shade and sparkling where it finds the sun. The effect is that the lake reflects a phantom forest, moonlit clouds drifting behind shadowy trees. “What do you see?” asks a man on the trail behind me. “Pollen,” I announce, as this seems the more sensible answer. He’s still looking at me like I’m nuts.
Something slinking and bounding across a ledge on the other side of the river. It’s long and nearly red, not a bear, not a fox, not a mountain lion or a bobcat. I’m resigning myself to a Loch Ness mystery when I remember the binoculars, fumble them frantically to my face (which way?) catch the creature just before it vanishes into a crevasse. Pine marten: rare treasure.
I’m reminded of the inscription over the door of Bass Pro Shops in Manteca, where I’d stopped for paracord and cultural tourism. “Welcome fishermen, hunters, and other liars,” it says.
But it was a marten, I swear! I saw his face!
This is the old-school cross-country we were promised, cliffside catwalks and boulder-strewn switchbacks, barely-there trail petering out into meadows and bogs. It’s a playground for my riding partner and a minefield for me: I crash all of 45 seconds into the descent on Sunday after catching a pedal on a log cut. (“I thought that might happen,” he says as he lifts my bike off me.) My knee balloons as the rest of me deflates proportionally; again I walk most things and again I don’t mind because this place is insane for flowers. There’s Washington and Mariposa lilies, blazing Indian paintbrush, drooping irises, neon fireweed … sunflowers as far as the eye can see.
Halfway down the Downieville Downhill, where the river runs turquoise beneath the oaks, I find a half-rotten box “RIGGED WITH EXPLOSIVES.” It contains leaves and a small pile of mismatched cycling shoes. I would very much like an explanation.
On the deck of the Mills Peak lookout the next day, one of us makes an innocuous comment about the view. “I’m made of views,” replies the ranger from behind the door, “and I’ll show you what I mean.” He returns with a notebook and recites a poem that starts somewhere in the Grand Canyon and ends on “the snowmelt of their birth.” I don’t know what you’re supposed to say to a man in a tower who reads you his poetry, I realize, especially when he retreats to his cot and starts playing harmonica.
I stop in Sacramento on the way up to visit a friend with a yard and power tools and instruction for #vanlife-ing my RAV4. She’s eating keto and therefore so do I; by the time I arrive at Donner Lake the next evening I’m so ravenous for carbs I inhale an entire Mountain House meal for two and a bag of chips. Conceivably this is why riding the next day feels so hard. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
We have summoned “Shuttle Bob”—the man, the myth, the legend. Driving this stretch of road yesterday, he says, he hit a snake, which somehow cartwheeled underneath his truck and onto the grill of the one behind him. Bob watched this whole drama unfold in the rearview. Darnedest thing.
I assume this story is not entirely accurate, just as the “Killer Kern” did not claim 43 lives last year; just as the drownings were not all of drunk off-duty guides who’d forsaken the embrace of a lifejacket or a good woman. Nevertheless, I can see the hapless rattler limp and airborne in the mirror as clearly as I see the green water churning in front of my eyes, the last snatch of a tilted horizon before the crush of the last and deepest dark.
Bob thinks I’m one of the guys, which is often my aspiration and anyhow fair enough: I’m misgendered now and then in civilian clothes, never mind plaid baggies. Curiously, though, his conviction persists even after I speak—even after I inquire pointedly after the name of the Beautiful Yellow Flowers edging the switchbacks on Sherman Pass.
“You’ve all ridden Cannell before?” he asks us.
“We have, she hasn’t.”
“He’ll be alright,” Bob says.
I am. The last time we came to Kernville my knee or hip or something couldn’t hack it—so even gasping at the altitude I am grateful to be here now, to skitter down gullies chewed up by dirt bikes, to pinball off the baby-heads and whoop at the berms. The namesake “plunge” roars down toward Lake Isabella across a tawny canvas strewn with granite and splashed with wildflowers—a view that may kill me if I try to take it in without stopping.
Speed and color, I decide, is my wish for the summer. Time to fly, while the days are long. I want to go fast and see beautiful things!
I am going to the Nonprofit Technology Conference, which is not, you Silicon Valley smartass, a contradiction in terms—but rather a mass convening of people trying to do good and people trying to sell them things. On the plane I end up seated in a row with one of each; they’re schmoozing while I stare out the window. “Anytime there’s paper, you know, that’s a chance to disrupt it, with, like, more technology,” says the consultant in the middle seat to the ED in the aisle. “It’s, like, pretty turnkey.”
Once on the ground in New Orleans I set out on my own doomed campaign to optimize, simultaneously, for business and pleasure. The only way to even attempt this is by walking fast and a lot, often in dress shoes and often in the dark. It’s is no city for introverts—twice I sit down to eat alone and am presented with two glasses of water—but I do the best I can. Other general observations, from most to least obvious:
I suspect that when people say that New Orleans “feels different” from other American cities, up to 50 percent of that sensation is attributable specifically to the lack of an open container law. There are plenty more sober reminders, lately, that we live in warring and disparate feudal states—but still I am dazzled to think that in Utah you have state-controlled liquor outlets, and in Louisiana you have daiquiri drive-throughs, and both accept payment in the same almighty dollar.
Perhaps related: there are police everywhere—on foot, in cars, on horses with suitable names like Ace and Duke. Presumably this phenomenon is confined to the tourist and business districts, but casual Googling does indicate New Orleans has almost as many officers per capita as New York City, which is well over twice the rate of Oakland.
There are white seashells in the dirt, in the middle of the city, in any old gap in the pavement.
On a tip from my first Lyft driver I decide to take a $2 ferry (“cheapest ride in town!”) to Algiers Point. I’m keen on this, to come close to the Mississippi—the muddy water lapping at the shore seems surely steeped with secrets—but the walkway to the terminal is discouraging. The concrete walls are hung with what I understand to be Mardi Gras banners but experience as sinister paintings of insane clowns presiding over the dozing homeless.
I wait at the prison-bar gate until the ferry arrives, then watch the sun set on an abandoned office tower as we chug across the water. On the Algiers side I wander the silent neighborhood by streetlight, peering past wicker porch swings into tidy living rooms filled with hardwood and books. My foodie friends sent me to New Orleans with a 20-item-long list of restaurants to try, but I will tell you my favorite meal is out here, at the Dry Dock Inn. The service is hostile and the food is from the freezer—but a man walks in and begins a conversation with the barkeep by announcing, “I’m just in off the India Star.” I’m enchanted.
Another peculiar place is City Park. At 1,300 acres it’s more than twice the size of its New York City cousin, but as far as I can see—albeit midday and midweek, and albeit from what must be the wrong entrance—much of that is one giant, deserted, flat, and wilting lawn. There are lovely lily-choked lakes, a fancy dog park, playgrounds … however, these are scattered oases in a vast expanse of featureless grass without pathways, trails, or, in places even sidewalks. Hoping to find the famous live oaks I walk for miles in the road until my feet bleed, then sit sweating on the curb trying to improvise Band-Aids from leaves.
Go by bike, is all I’m saying.
Of Katrina—in tourist areas, to a tourist’s eye—there is almost no sign. It’s the last day of the conference before I realize I’m sitting in a ballroom that for 25,000 people served as the “shelter of last resort”—the phrase still used to describe it, for some reason, as if at the time it actually constituted either a shelter or a choice.
I was 18 that year, old enough to know better but perhaps young enough to be forgiven for understanding the storm to be what I saw on TV: looters, helicopters, another East Coast thing. When I get home I watch Spike Lee’s take twice through and still feel sorry that it took me so long.
My birthday is on Inauguration Day*, which means I spent my 30th mourning the simultaneous demise of my youth and American democracy. I want to make it up to myself this year, so I’ve planned a self-indulgent weekend in southern New Mexico—some time to bop around the national parks and not think about politics.
Checking out is appealing. At a stalemate over DACA, Congress squabbles its way toward a government shutdown and workdays grow correspondingly depressing. Every strategic dilemma—is the border wall a conservation issue?—comes fringed in tactical inanities: I prepare social media posts that read, literally, “Will your travel plans be affected by a national park closure? Tell us about it!” And yet, in a mind-boggling error of compartmentalization, it doesn’t occur to me to consider my own itinerary until a coworker asks me offhand if I plan to cancel.
Too late. Nothing to do but get on the plane and hope they make a deal.
A friend collects me from the airport in El Paso and we drive north. The idea that I might still take a mental vacation dissolves as soon as we hit a Border Patrol checkpoint. A faceless voice belonging to a gun framed in the driver’s-side window asks, “Are you U.S. citizens?” Why should it even matter if I—“Yes, sir,” replies my friend at the wheel, eyes forward. “Both of you?” inquires the gun. Yeah, so I know what the fourth fucking amendment—”Yes, sir,” says my friend, again.
The agent waves us through and we drive on in silence. The sagebrush and utility poles blur by. “It’s good you’re here,” I say.
At Organ Mountains National Monument—on the president’s hit list—the granite crags stand beckoning against the dusk and there’s not and never enough time. We hike by moonlight, watch distant sprawl invisible in the daytime haze coalesce into twinkling circuit-boards as the night deepens.
Driving out of the campground the next morning I glance into the rearview and see the ranger shutting the access gate behind us. Without cell reception I can continue to tell myself it’s only maintenance work until we arrive at another locked gate at White Sands. The shutdown is on.
Carlsbad Caverns, which would have been our next stop, is out of the question. But here at least it’s possible to nibble at the edges: we follow a few other carfuls of thwarted tourists to a spot where the undaunted dunes have overwhelmed the fence. I hear three languages spoken but the delight at the smooth swell of the sand against the sky seems universal. Three children sprint by carrying boogie boards, shrieking and racing for a tideline that doesn’t exist.
In the end—after a detour to the excellent space museum and a night wheezing at altitude in Cloudcroft—I get my fix in Texas, where only five percent of the land is public and the state debates a reservation system to manage demand for what few facilities it has. My friend is a seasonal guide at Hueco Tanks, which helps, and after dutifully observing the informational video I am released into the park to follow him around.
In this I’m reminded again that public land is where shit gets real. A visitor ponders the difference between trash and treasure; a superintendent somewhere draws a line at 50 years, before which graffiti is not art and beyond which a soda-can pull-tab is historical artifact, not be disturbed. One man may dip his fingers in chalk and posit climbing is a religion; another might tell you in Tiwa that it is not—but there remains only one pile of rocks to share and this is how it’s done: by my tour guide radioing in his location as we pass from one administrative zone to the next.
I don’t know enough to judge the particulars of the arrangement but feel reverence for the fact of the effort—almost as much as I do for the place itself, for the shape of the cliffs and the genius of the cactus and the wild grins on the cryptic figures painted on the rock. It’s a lot to think about, certainly more than I wanted at the outset—but even for me there are moments of silence, here and there.
This annual trip has trended larger and younger lately; there’s a lot of spontaneous group singing. The moment a girl unzips her puffy to reveal a sweatshirt announcing “FEMALE FRIENDSHIP” in white script is the moment I accept that I can’t hang.
I bow out to instead walk 16 miles alone to Glacier Point, watch a super-moon rise over Half Dome. The year flares out in dreamy traces of pink on the twilight, and my sharp lunar shadow follows me all the way back to camp.
There’s a quality to Southern California sunshine that makes it distinctly more difficult to take things seriously.* Massive mudslides in Montecito are washing dead animals onto the beach; regardless, there is a beach. Donations of clothing are accepted only new with tags. I’m just a visitor and so it’s all difficult to reconcile: there is the sprawling emergency-response staging area and the old burn zones across the water; there are the red-tile roofs and crying seagulls over the pier.
In any case, we eat and we ride. Having my friends on knobby tires with slow flats hardly puts a dent in my problem of keeping up, and they’re in sight only when we’re descending. In fact, I watch one of them come with in inches of being hit by an (at-fault) car on Gibraltar. As with his last near miss, I have a clearer view of his actual proximity to disaster in that moment than he could ever have himself—but in this sunshine, at least, there is warmth enough to convert the horror of that split second to an afterglow of fierce relief.
* A must-read, if you’re interested in this particular superstition: Carey McWilliams, An Island on the Land
It’s ridiculous that I’ve never been here before. Angel Island is every bit of professional park propaganda I’ve ever written balled up in a beautiful rock: transit-accessible, urban-adjacent, family-friendly, and best of all, Historically Problematic. It has ruins, vultures, flowers—all my favorite things—and it puts the city on the skyline, where I like it.
It is also, as a consequence, insanely difficult to book. So here I am with the Golden Gate Bridge framed in my tent door, all because I have a friend who is six to eight months better than me at planning ahead. Thank you, thank you, thank you!