We’re not even past Manteca when I wander carelessly into an argument about climate change and the primaries. It ends poorly, with one friend red-faced and seething in the driver’s seat and me in tears, confused—but not really—at how easily I make people angry when I’m only playing a game.
A neutral third party, child of schoolteachers, tries to mediate from the back. It is gently suggested I tend to belabor semantics. (Moi?)
“Listen, have you ever seen Star Trek?”
“I’m not Spock,” I protest, wiping my nose on my sleeve. I’ve heard this one before. “I have feelings.”
Chief among them: I’m tired. In trying to make up for a summer lost to my new job, I set a rat-a-tat cadence of shoulder-season trips I didn’t really have the energy to take. The weekend-warrior maneuvers have always been hard: fractious Friday-night logistics, restless sleep, pre-dawn alarm. Sixteen or so waking hours of the good stuff before the reluctant slog back to reality, straight into the glare of the sun bleeding out in Central Valley smog. Those drives are so much longer than they used be, the dread of the Monday so much heavier in my chest. This late in the year the days are short and cold along the edges.
So what I want to do, if I’m honest, is crib from notes on another day I didn’t feel like trying very hard and have brunch on the deck of the Jamestown Hotel. My friends will not say no to me, now that I’ve scared them by behaving like a girl—so I order French toast and inform them we will be here for a while.
Our waitress is a grandmotherly type in sensible shoes and a black butterfly-sleeved blouse. I can see her pausing over it at the sale rack, a scene so vivid I realize I may cry again when she arrives to take our orders. She moved to Jamestown after a divorce, she says, doesn’t miss him or the city or a single damn thing. She works when they’ll have her. She likes seeing people find a moment to breathe.
The boys make steady progress on biscuits and gravy. When the server returns to distribute the remains of the mimosa pitcher, she just grazes their glasses before chugging the lion’s share into mine with a wink.
“Ready to roll?” one friend asks me tentatively as I finish my drink. We’ve got another hour or so in the car and they want to ride. “No,” I announce gravely. “I want to go antiquing.”
We get to Pinecrest eventually. I bail on a long cross-country route in favor of dozing by the lake like a civilian, guzzling sun in the brief afternoon hours that still look like summer. The crowds are manageable now, and if you keep out of the shadows it’s warm enough.
I do ride a little: just the short stuff, more a vague gesture at the French toast than anything else. There is a moment after dropping in from a road crossing when my friends and the trail turn directly into the setting sun. As they pull away from me they are cast suddenly into silhouettes against their own rising dust, lit deep orange and red through the trees. I hit the brakes, taste the dirt settling on my tongue as I watch them disappear into plumes of light.
I try to attend women’s-only mountain bike events once every few years to avoid becoming completely incompetent. We all improve by observing others, but my usual riding partners are men so much faster than me that they’re rarely in sight. Even when I can watch them, their clearing an obstacle is meaningless—whereas I consider a woman doing the same thing to be admissible evidence I should at least try it. If this approach is completely sexist, it has also thus far kept me alive.
Having said that, all-women events stress me out. There’s often a lot of dancing and “WOOO”-ing, and while men can choose to stand apart from these rituals without drawing much notice, opting out as a woman tends to cause other women to assume you’re a stuck-up bitch. It doesn’t help that in my case it’s arguably true.
Point being, I am already swimming against a current of dread when I arrive late to the meeting point and find the parking lot full of women kitted up in armor—a lot of armor. I watch them loading big bikes onto the shuttle rigs and observe an alarming number of full-face helmets.
Oooooooh shit, I think. I am at the wrong party.
As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. Georgetown trails are somehow everything I like and nothing I don’t: all wide, chunky, fast stuff, no acrobatics, no exposure, no water. Even without a functional rear brake (….), by far the most intimidating part of the day is dinner with 20 women I don’t know—and even that is easy to sneak out of once it gets dark.
I go to bed resolving to Fully Participate on day two, but when I wake up the weather has taken a turn. A bone-dry wind is howling down through the woods to the foothills. The thoughtful decorative touches are blown about the lawn and the oaks are groaning and cracking overhead. No fool, the organizer pulls the plug.
The first two roads I follow out of camp are blocked by downed trees. When I finally reach the highway a few 15-point turns later, it’s strewn with branches and pine needles that crunch under my toy car as it wobbles in the gusts. In the small Gold Country towns where PG&E cut the power days ago, the blank-faced stoplights are swinging drunkenly in the wind. Construction debris rattling down the sidewalk sounds strangely like shouting: get out, get out, get out.
… on the other hand, I hate to waste a day out of my own zip code and I’ve always wanted a closer look at the Foresthill Bridge:
One ill-advised “short jog” later, a dozen or so grassfires are now burning between me and the bay. Driving in hapless circles through Sacramento trying to route my way around one of them, I at one point find myself in bumper-to-bumper traffic across an overpass spanning visible flames. Crossing the Carquinez Bridge at last—hills smoldering on both sides of the water—I’ve been in the car for almost six hours: easily more time than I spent on my bike.
There are more days like this ahead, more and more grind for the right side of the ratio. We all know it and we pray for rain.
This climb is pretty civilized, but it’s also 20 miles long. By the time we’re over it, I’m over it: I dump my bike unceremoniously on the rocks and stumble off to stuff my face and drink the view—Lake Tahoe in dreamy blue haze far below.
Sean’s moving my bike out of the way when he notices the headset is loose. After many years of watching my eyes glaze over at the first mention of mechanics, most of these guys would rather fix something for me than watch me make it worse, which suits my version of feminism just fine. Sean tightens the headset and, being both generous and thorough, starts checking the rest of the bike, too.
“Uh, you might to look at this, actually,” he says.
“Don’t care, do whatever,” I reply around the last of my sandwich.
“No, seriously. Do you have a 10?”
One of the pivot bolts has loosened to the point you can see daylight between pieces of the frame. To fix it takes a tool nobody’s carrying, so I face the prospect of a long, baby-head-strewn descent on a bike coming apart at the seams—or on foot.
I’m cry-laughing at my options when a pair of riders appears over the hill behind us—the only other people we’ve seen on the trail all day. After a suspenseful few moments of rummaging through his pack, one of them presents Sean with a 10 millimeter Allen wrench.
I will end the season with my trail karma deep in the red.
I thought sea level might help, but—apart from dropping things out of my pockets—I’m having all the same problems I did at Lost and Found. It’s a beautiful day and the course is a treat, but with a number on I just want to get it over with.
Being not especially athletic, my best strategy for doing this involves spinning slowly up climbs, then riding the descents at a speed at which I can’t actually see anything and a wreck would end in the hospital. Every time I careen past someone fitter than me I hear echos of my former self watching the podiums for my first race, circa 2008.
“It’s not fair,” I’m hissing at my boyfriend, who’s (quite correctly) ignoring me. “She was behind me the whole time and then she just passed me going downhill! Does that even count? It’s just gravity!”
I’m glad, truly, to be better now both at losing and descending. But I still miss those days—back when riding bikes wasn’t cool. From my sample size of two, it appears that organized gravel events are my petty, contrarian hell: something I want to do that the Popular Kids want to do, too.
In the evening the beach is awash in craft beer, peppered with Ibis and Thesis bikes (Ibises? Theses?) posed against driftwood and the sunset for Instagram. In the gentle surf, a pair of yoga-bodied blonde chicks splash naked arm in arm, while various indistinguishable bearded men mill around their string-lit Sprinter vans pretending not to watch. I’ve been trying to study pelicans through my binoculars and now I have to put them down so I don’t look like a creep. I do recall graduating middle school, but I’m so irritated with the whole scene I could spit.
They’re out here, too, though, my Freds, my people. They were the retirees trundling the 60+ miles on un-ironic hybrids; the red-faced couple on a tandem. We don’t speak apart from brief congratulations at the finish, but I decide they’ve dated since high school and met in marching band. I love them as fiercely and unjustifiably as I resent everybody else.
The much-hyped, new-to-us trail is too technical for me: I’m walking more than I’m riding. It’s also bitterly cold, occasionally raining, and, by the time we get back to the car after getting lost and riding in circles for an extra 45 minutes, almost dark.
Between the first time out and familiarity a lot of Forest Service fire roads look the same. In this case, I’ve confused the ascent of Pinecrest Peak with the long slog up Mt. Hough, which is at least five highways north and much, much harder. When I realize this—after dragging my feet and dreading the climb all morning— I’m so pleased I don’t mind when the trail peters out, that I can’t remember how to mountain bike, or even when the boys lose me in the woods.
There’s still snow up high and it’s too early for the flowers . But from where I sit in the hammock in the campground—inhaling queso fresco, talking shit, breathing woodsmoke—summer is on.
My still-new job and the misguided decision to take allergy drugs mean I arrive in Oakridge—one of my all-time favorite places to ride—in a state of irritable lethargy bordering a medical concern. At the fish hatchery I’ve been hyping for weeks I make it through just three holes of salmon-lifecycle-themed mini-golf (you see why I was excited) before staggering off to sleep on a bench. Later I watch Fourth of July fireworks reflected in the inky river, in part because it’s beautiful and in part because it takes less energy than lifting my head.
Apart from some outstanding trails, Oakridge has a few through-streets, four or five trailer parks, and an often-shuttered Chinese restaurant we’ve always regarded as a kind of joke. This time around, we stop in. Sean has heard the proprietor is in fact the onetime personal chef of Jackie Chan, and that he can be plied with tequila into provisioning off-script dishes and entertainment.
As the DD (for all of four blocks between dinner and motel) I suspect that Mr. Lee is not even remotely as drunk as he’s pretending to be—or serious when he insists we come to stay with him on a dumpling tour of Taiwan. But the food is excellent and his advice is worth considering. The secret to matrimonial bliss, he says, is to transfer your assets to your spouse outright and then encourage her to spend however she likes. “I tell my wife: You like it? Buy it! Just buy it! But if the money’s gone, it’s gone. That’s all you.”
He has arrived at this understanding over the course of several marriages, each of which cleaned him out. He met his current wife when she cut his hair at a salon. He came back daily, nothing left on his head to cut, asking her out until she capitulated. Wrong word?
His father-in-law tells him he’s an idiot. “Maybe I am,” he tell us, “but I’m happy.”
Even if if you don’t count the long stop at the logging museum—where I buy a bird-shaped water whistle and a train t-shirt declaring me “ALL STEAMED UP”—it takes us 12 hours to get home. The combination of holiday and construction traffic has turned the highway rest stops into stations of the apocalypse: idling trucks and fractious dogs and children, bickering in a dozen languages, overflowing toilets and trash. I spend the week that follows wistfully browsing real estate.
The season’s nearly over and we haven’t been backpacking once. We get it together just enough for 18 or so hours in Emigrant, a tease. I’m dizzy and wheezing from the altitude, but the light in the morning‘s a balm and the water, once I inch my way in, a cool caress.
This trip has two offenders. One is Maddie the dog, who limps and lags and pants until she cons me into lobbying for the removal of her backpack—and then bolts off into the woods like a track sprinter. The second is the garbage human flying a drone over the lake.
“NO DRONES IN THE WILDERNESS,” Ryan yells down to their Instagram-able hammocks on the shore. This of course is all anyone can do. But vivid fantasies of a sharp shot from a BB gun—also, obviously, not allowed in the wilderness—down to the bite of granite on my elbows, the pop and the whine and clatter of the wounded machine—carry me all the way down to the car.
I’m sick and sitting out the first day’s ride as a sort of sacrificial offering, as if a cold can be negotiated with. Walking alone in the woods instead I encounter a snake, an encampment, a creepy pile of rotting clothing, and a stretch of trail that smells suddenly and powerfully like a railroad track. There’s no reason for this that I can see. Just Gold Country shadows and ghosts.
Back in town I watch two kids—maybe nine or ten—as they record a third cannonballing off the bridge into the river. They take turns working the cell phone and shuttling the performer’s Crocs back and forth. They debrief. (“So-o sketch, bro. That one was so sketch.”)
It’s a nontrivial jump with signage strenuously forbidding it. I wouldn’t have tried it at their age, and though I think I’m braver now I know I’m not brave enough. Over the course of what I’ll call my career as an editor I have by coincidence worked on three separate pieces featuring an interviewee who paralyzed themselves jumping into rivers or lakes, and the act of dissecting each scene down to the comma has given cliff-diving and the like a special place in my anti-repertoire, the things I will not do. I’m glad when the kid quits for pizza.
When I ride, even somewhere familiar, I take very few bridge-grade risks. The consequences are too high, and the payoff—given that my bravest moments on a bike are routine for everyone else—almost nonexistent. So when I crash these days it’s usually somewhere unexpected: in this case, on a flat, fast corner 30 seconds from the car. I’ve been trying to hold Ryan’s wheel. I insist it had been going, up until that point, pretty well.
I’m skeptical that I have any business being on the water for a week, having only and rarely ever served as ballast. Sean, however, has more than a decade of experience both in guiding trips and in baiting me out of safe harbors. I’m not really listening to his detailed explanation of dam releases and flow rates because I get the gist: this is a rare opportunity, a river you can’t usually run. My catnip, my kryptonite, my achilles: the Chance That Will Not Come Again™.
When I commit to going I envision that I’ll be unemployed, or at least seriously underemployed—not two weeks into/already underwater at my first new-new job-job in a decade. I haven’t had time to think about it, and the sight of all three of my travel companions in our Google Sheets packing list at 12:45 a.m. the morning of our flight suggests that none of them have, either.
The immediacy of the need to get ourselves and our gear to the airport overshadows the larger issue of the rapidly deteriorating forecast, which we dismiss as an incidental detail we can do nothing about. This age-old illogic may one day end the world in fire. (“But sir, are you sure you want to—” / “DO IT. I ALREADY BOUGHT THE TICKET.”)
Once confined to suitcases, this Gear Explosion is less enormous than you’d think—considering that it includes a literal boat—but still too enormous for the Lyft driver, who takes one look at me standing on the curb with my duffles and speeds away shaking his head. Plan B involves three bodies and six body-bags in a Gig car and looks like this:
We make it to Salt Lake City, play another round of rental-car Tetris, and beeline south. Anticipating lean times ahead, we eat an extravagant last supper in an inexplicable, Alice Waters-esque outpost of “fanciful cuisine” called Hell’s Backbone Grill. It’s an ashram or art collective or organic goat farm or something and all the staff are beautiful in exactly the same way, as if generated by artificial intelligence trained on a dataset of Madewell catalogs. Our doll-waisted waitress coos and floats about like an exotic bird reciting unnecessary but mellifluous information about herbs. A few outstanding margaritas later I am calling her Jessica and cannot recall if this is actually her name.
The next morning there is a long and fractious procedure of packing, re-packing, and shuttling vehicles before we finally get our feet wet, at a nondescript put-in under a low bridge in a thicket of mesquite trees. Neither Ryan or I have seen our packraft outside of a living room before, but as it belongs to a bona fide National Geographic Explorer one hopes it’s imbued with some sort of residual competence. I am swimming (soon literally) in said Explorer’s trousers and splash jacket, while Ryan has borrowed his wetsuit from an ex-girlfriend, a stick-thin triathlete. We look insane.
It’s immediately apparent that the Forager is not for amateurs. Ten feet long and fully loaded with food and gear, it spins and ping-pongs off the banks on a capricious course of its own. This becomes less and less amusing as the weather deteriorates, from cheery spring sunshine when we set out to a steel-gray sky and spitting rain.
The temperature drops and the wind rises. The rain becomes a deluge, then hail, pellets of ice ricocheting off the nose of the boat like buckshot. Behind us there’s a deafening crash, something like a building collapse or a car wreck. When I turn to look, there’s a jet of water exploding over the cliff edge, a roaring cascade where seconds ago the red rock face was bare. It’s one of the most astonishing things I’ve ever seen. Nothing happens until it happens, I think, inanely, then, everything happens out of sight.
In the morning the river is running very high and very fast. It looks like a latte and sounds like an animal. Sean surveys the situation from the banks in silence. “Seems … different,” I offer. “Yeeeeeah,” he says. “We’ll talk about that.”
The crux isn’t rocks or rapids but Russian Olive. Yesterday it formed a graceful and pleasant canopy overhead, but on the swollen river today the dense, woody branches are now at eye level and very difficult to avoid. Behind me, Ryan can usually flatten himself into the boat deck, but as the hapless hood ornament in the bow I’m getting clotheslined over and over into the water. There’s very little I can do about this other than cover my face and pray I keep both arms in their sockets.
It sounds funny and certainly must look it, but after a few solid blows to the head I am not laughing. Apart from the fact of repeated bludgeoning by (very) invasive trees, I’m also now wet to the skin in a knife-edge wind: having packed for “just stand up”-deep water I’m not wearing a wetsuit, never mind a drysuit. I’m dealing with this the way I typically react to the cold, which is to make myself as small as possible and pretend I don’t exist. Thus semi-catatonic, I almost miss Sean on the riverbank ahead, shouting at us to eddy out.
I haven’t noticed him in time to stop the Forager from careening past the beach. “Not going to make that,” I announce. “I’ll catch the next one.”
“NO. DO. IT. NOW.”
In many years of following him around the backcountry I have rarely heard Sean take this tone. Startled out of my stupor, I lunge at some branches and stab a paddle into the sand. I am half in and half out of the boat when I notice there are other people on the bank—the first we’ve seen in days. They look very concerned, which, given that they are being invaded by shivering lunatics, is probably justified.
I, however, am delighted to discover the reason for the urgent stop. These fine folks have a campsite in the shelter of a glorious overhang; they have hot water and a fire. (Note for due diligence that the latter is not allowed, endorsed, or undertaken on this river without a good reason, which I feel we had.) The angels of mercy are generously sharing all of these things and are also cool as hell. I am once again glad to exist.
River conditions improve somewhat over the days following. Sean makes a gracious sacrifice of his own, much more entertaining single-person boat in order to take over as pilot of the Forager, which significantly reduces the amount of time I spend in the water and fretting over trees.
That said, it’s still very cold, and I’m reminded of how a thing can be physically challenging without being physically difficult. Whenever the sun appears and disappears behind a cloud again I could weep. I used to resent the lack of secular language for awe. These days I borrow freely. The juxtaposition, sometimes—of our silly little boats in the water and the colossal arches overhead; of my hopelessly awkward, daunted body and every perfect bright flower blooming in the sand—all that is inarticulable otherwise. In every direction the landscape is indifferent, immeasurably variable, infinitely perfect. What is that but sublime?
I watch my footprints fill as we walk silent washes. I think of flash-floods sculpting the alcoves, picture hidden currents freezing and thawing in a million tiny fissures, the moment their exhalations over eons at last cleave the rock apart. I imagine the sound this would make, stone the size of a high-rise hitting the canyon floor. What runs through my head over and over again all week is,
on your knees before your God.
There is also a duck—logically several different ducks, but for all I can tell, one single, very blasé duck—who seems to bob in front of us most of the way down the river. Even when you’re ad-libbing rosaries and spinning in the infinite, you have to admit there’s something intrinsically casual about a mallard.
We have one day of blazing sunshine, which coincides with our re-entry into land-access territory on a holiday weekend. After miles of perfect solitude the canyons are suddenly overrun. The banks are denuded and tragic, every alcove strewn with camp chairs and sticky, staring children. It’s time to go.
The way out is up a a low-angle slab that morphs from negligible to oddly fraught as soon as I put my pack on. Same goes for the interminable sand dune that follows. As soon as we’ve hauled our gear and ourselves over the canyon rim it seems impossible that the thing exists.
For several hours the entertainment consists of Sean and Ryan yelling back at me that every oncoming hiker is our onetime housemate Philippe, who we’ve vaguely suggested meet us at the trailhead so we can swap shuttles. They’ve told a dozen versions of this joke already by the time it’s actually true—but when it is, our old friend’s buoyant, ambling stride is unmistakable even in distant silhouette, even after many years. It is the perfect thing to take the sting off the end of the journey, The Chance That Will Not Come Again.
Compared to my friends I am much less fit and much more concerned about trespassing—which is easy enough to do here, whether you mean to or not. I don’t know which side of the Jefferson state line we’re on, but I do know none of us is quite white enough to make assumptions in the woods.
I win some route-finding squabbles; I lose some. On Fish Rock (legal, but too long for me) I cut out early and wait at the car in the gathering darkness for the boys. When they find me I am muddy from looking at sticks and mushrooms.
I love the ruins, the steam, the bend in the river, love the deflating Mad-Max pavement and the unconcerned cows chewing cud on the centerline. I can have a shining-white view of the Russian River Valley or a screaming, serpentine descent into it; I cannot, alas, have both.
Sean’s uncanny instinct for the most and best food leads us to a Mexican grocery stocked with things I’ve never seen before, less because I am not Mexican than because I am not a cook. There is interesting cheese and Twinkie variants; there are strange cones of brown sugar. I learn these are called piloncillo: literally—too good to be true—”little pylons.”
Exchequer is a small park and I want it to myself. To arrive in time for a chance at this—that is, to ride new dirt without weekending GoPro-bros from the valley on my ass—means provisioning at a tiny shop in La Grange. The door breathes a plume of gold-lit dust at my heels as it shuts behind me; I have Pringles and expired chocolate milk for dinner.
But on the trail I get what I came for. I can laugh like a mad thing at the view—land before time—and there’s no one to hear me.
A new bike materializes at the same time as a new job that will prevent me from riding it. I flee south in a sort of desperation, so keen to try this bucket-list route while I still can that I don’t ever check to see where it actually goes.
I’m in the honeymoon period of a bike upgrade where you’d swear the thing has an engine. Hours of climbing feel effortless and the sun is warm on my skin for the first time in months. The wet winter has brought forth a parade of wildflowers that smile and nod from the road-cuts, from beds of chaparral and yucca and agave. On my knees in a saddle meadow carpeted with lupine, I heave with what I suppose the kids these days or a doctor might call a panic attack and I’d call a perfectly reasonable response—to anything so beautiful it hurts, to anything you might never have again.
We talk about “FOMO,” of course, and trivialize it as millennial conceit. But the frivolous little twigs—the aftertaste of the acai bowl when (!) you might have ordered avocado toast—grow on the same family tree as the most fundamental fear we know. I’m on a middling branch as I consider that I have bills to pay, that I can’t stay in this field forever. But at the base—I’m sorry; this is how I’ll excuse my behavior—is nothing less than the specter of death.
I grew up down here on box lore: haunted (false), haunting (true), guarded by armed survivalists (true again). To see the site open now impresses me: I can guess at the work it took to reconcile the EPA with multiple jurisdictions and the smarting Amah Mutsun. I watch the latter shuffle and hum in the ceremonial circle, their piece of the park pie. The tower behind me of course gives an impression of watching, too.
The other ridgeline scar and urban legend in the South Bay is the quarry—rumored of aliens, corpses, etc. Strangely enough I’ve been there, too: in junior year a friend and I finagled a tour by claiming we wanted to write an article for the school paper. We wore polo shirts, trying to look serious, and ogled trucks with tires the size of a house. We had a hell of a time and never actually wrote a word about it.
I am too often in my head, keep too many notes, to be truly confused by my own past logic very often. So while it seems a small thing, I can say without exaggeration that not writing that quarry story is among the most mystifying decisions of my life.
Theoretically I no longer ride bikes competitively. I will occasionally pay for a destination event if it’s got something I need: a water stop or good camping or permissions for private land (see: Boonville). “I’m not racing,” I will announce, piously, as if anyone gave a shit. “I’m just riding with a number on.”
In reality? Though I’m not willing or able to ride fast, once I put said number on I’m just as dogged as ever by the idea that Ican’t stop: not for photos, not for the water I paid for, and not to drop my tire pressure from the cement-like PSI I left it trying to seat my new tires the night before. Nor do I feel I can stop to pick up the driver’s license that falls out of my pocket, where I’d stuck it after eking through registration three minutes before the start. “You dropped something!” yell a half-dozen riders behind me. “Okay!” I yell back.
Sixty-three painful miles at altitude plus a night’s rest and a journey home later I realize it is in fact a huge pain in the ass to replace a driver’s license. I’m still despairing over appointment windows and my new work schedule a week later when this letter turns up it the mail—miraculous. I send a thank-you card, a prayer, and the postage back. The address is a P.O. Box.
On the way to Quincy we lunch roadside at the Rock House on Yankee Hill. A wooden cutout of Bigfoot ambles across the gravel lot; there is one valiant, buoyant woman behind the counter.
These are my favorite places. I like some kitsch on the walls, some saran-wrapped muffins in a basket, a menu in Comic Sans—italic. “It’s perfect,” I announce, before the food has even arrived. “We’ll have to come here again.”
Back home two days later I’ll watch the incident map as the Camp Fire crawls inexorably toward this spot, hitting the refresh button every hour until there’s no denying the line has jumped the highway. A year later we’ll drive past the little restaurant’s namesake stone walls, all that’s left.
But today we sit on the back patio, hands and sandwiches striped in the shade of a new trellis roof.
Highway 70 after Yankee Hill has been plucked from a model railroad layout. Pylons perch above the road as it winds through rough-blasted tunnels, past power stations trimmed in fall color. Alongside us, the Feather River is by turns glassy bottle green and churning white, strewn with house-sized boulders as if by petulant gods.
When we arrive in Quincy there’s a small crowd of people standing in the median holding up signs and American flags. In the gathering dusk I can see only white skin and hair under red baseball caps and “TRUMP” scrawled on poster-board. My stomach lurches. They are hit and miss, these old mountain towns, after all. You can only guess how each will manifest its particular nostalgia for timber or mining or dinner on the table at six.
But as we get closer I can make out the small print. The sign says “TRUMP LIES MATTER.” The red caps are embroidered with the seal of the U.S. Marine Corps. The midterms are next week.
The house flips, but Paradise burns. I’m aware my N95 is too big and not sealing properly; I wear it anyway, imprinting it with lip gloss. The tightness in my chest might be from smoke or from first-world guilt—from knowing perfectly well that the apocalyptic yellow curtain hanging over my street would constitute a great day in Delhi.
Nevertheless I flee because I can, to midweek-rate motel rooms in South Lake. While waiting for the days to warm and my friends to arrive I watch, for some reason, the BBC rendition of Daniel Deronda—a sort of Victorian drawing room drama with a surprise dose of Jewish mysticism. One thing leads to another and there I am, not so much working on job applications as Wikipedia-ing Purim and shaking my fist in the name of Vashti, who also did not care to dance for the king.
Hiking alone above Fallen Leaf Lake I step aside for a couple going the other way. The woman has dropped a bandana from her pack, which I retrieve from the trail and offer back to her. “Hey, is this yours?”
“Oh,” she says. “Yeah.” She snatches it back without meeting my eyes or saying thank you, then turns on her heel and jogs back up the trail to where her partner is sniggering into his elbow. I’m puzzled and offended by the entire interaction until, months later, I read a Backpacker Magazine blurb espousing pee rags.
The best ride of the season begins with several hours of pushing my bike up Van Sickle, proceeds to a miserable interlude of backache and altitude-induced puking, and finishes, inexplicably, with my hands in the fur of three golden retrievers unattended at the end of the trail. The first two acts are as likely as the fires to be repeated; the last will presumably never happen again.
A close reader will notice I’m writing, in this case, more than a year after the fact—beginning on a backlog that forces awkward, ungrammatical contortions of temporality because I don’t like to write (read: live) in anything but the present tense. My clairvoyance is only hindsight, and even from one future, what do I know about the next? What does anyone know, of what will befall us, what wind may change?
So dum spiro, spero, I say, for more surprise dogs—through that red-kissed respirator mask or not.
In Bend I resolve to do the things no one else ever wants to do, specifically, people-watch from armchairs in the library, gain five pounds in cardamom Ocean Rolls, and attend a presentation on ravens. Did you know they mate for life and live to 20? In the High Desert Museum I also learn the word “buckaroo” might be a corruption of vaquero, or perhaps from the Gullah buckra—white man—itself from mbakara in the language of Nigeria’s Efik.
I was going to say that the raven meanwhile quethe today the same as ever. But we don’t know that, either, do we?
It’s not warm enough (for me) to get on a bike until one or two in the afternoon, but the northern days are short and I keep finishing rides in the dark. It’s sure some kind of trail-building, that even I can just about clean this stuff with my eyes shut, and I relish this even as I telegraph thanks to home turf for keeping me honest. What would I be it weren’t for a blown-out, off-camber, fall-line ego-check every weekend?
For an answer, a herd of girls in unicorn onesies appears at the top of the flow trail. A few have gotten too hot on the climb and unzipped themselves into sweat-glossed, lace-bra’d centaurs, unwanted horns and heads dangling lifelessly behind their saddles. They stop and preen and smother the last rider up in hugs and coos of “yaaaaaas” and “crrrrr-ush-errrrrrr,” a dialect of affirmation I’ve grown to understand but can’t speak. I feel like I’ve ridden into an Instagram ad.
The Painted Hills are that, and scattered slabs of layer cake. In the dusky palette I recognize a few shades, if not all: terra cotta tiles, sun on a rose, palomino horse. No lipstick, charcoal-smudged palm. Old bruise, fresh-scraped knee.
I stay at Spoke’n, a white clapboard church with a reading nook in the alcove—place of honor, where books belong. They are catering to bike campers and meticulous about it: kneeling pads for wrenching, conversation prompts on the kitchen table, pre-filled coffee filters, lemon-scented garbage cans. I arrive to my name in calligraphy on the bedroom door, despite having impulse-booked only a half-hour earlier.
I know the right-sized reaction to careful hospitality begins and ends with “Nice touch,” but I feel I know the rare mind it takes to do this sort of thing well, and that it’s often found in a woman not getting nearly enough cash or credit for it. Admiring the aesthetic choices in the old nave I’m consumed with unholy, acquisitive fantasies of a call with the head of recruitment for Hilton or Four Seasons. “You’ll never guess where I found her,” I’ll tell them from a crackling payphone that doesn’t exist. I might also be chewing tobacco, spit a stained arc into the dust and smudge it with my boot. “Trust me, you’re going to want her on those tower walk-throughs A-S-A-P.”
God forgive me; I live in capitalism and my imagination, if not in sin.
To say I make a series of stupid navigational errors would I imply I’m navigating, at all, rather than cruising along on the assumption that a trail named “Broken Top” will eventually just arrive there.
It’s midday before I realize that it won’t, late afternoon by the time I backtrack and screw up again, picking my way up the wrong couloir on the thin evidence of a few other footprints. Just short of a view over the edge, at least, my courage dies with the light. I fret, sally, waffle, retreat, and reach the dark and empty parking lot convinced I could have made the last few moves after all. Oh well, oh well.
I want to go east and wallow in obsidian on Glass Butte, but it’s hours of off-road driving and at this point I have to admit my car is unwell. I turn for Oakridge, instead, a known quantity, drive through either the night or outer space blinded by moonbeams flashing wildly through the pines.
The next day I buddy up with the next-least braap-y people on the shuttle: I ride better this way than without anyone around to call an ambulance. I’m a bit fitter but they’re a lot better, so our pace is about the same—and in any case they seem pleased to have a new audience for old jokes.
It’s difficult to leave. The forest is a kaleidoscope of low-angle light and fall color, the trails a glorious, torturous high-wire between wanting to look and wanting to fly. But the season’s nearly over. The mornings are getting very, very cold.
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.