Foresthill, 6/25–6/26

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Is it hot out here, or does manzanita look like fire?

My friends are here to ride dirt bikes, the route I’ve picked is for a cyclocross bike, but what I’ve got with me is a road bike and so I use that and beat the crap out of it and feel pretty guilty. Perhaps because I’m already anthropomorphizing the Cannondale, the heat in the strangely silent Gold Country canyons seems somehow sentient as well—at the least, the furnace breath of a sleeping dragon under the dusty oaks.

It’s a long climb out of the ravine, shotgun shells and shrill private-property signs in typeface from the 50s or spray paint on plywood. I’m sure the route is trendy as a group ride but it’s creepy alone, plus I’m short a few gears and not fit enough to drop the mosquitoes. Back at camp a few too many hours later I’m acting like I’m excited for burgers … but really I’m just glad to see people who haven’t expressed a willingness to shoot me in writing.

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This thing turns 10 next year, at which point I can start saying I ride a vintage Cannondale.

After dinner we’re looking out over the lake in the dark. Someone points to the mirrored image of the pine trees on the opposite shore; someone else notes the surface of the water is so still it’s also and even reflecting the stars. I’ve been staring up at them—there are lots, compared to home—but now I drop my head and step to the edge of the shore. When I look into the lake I find to my amazement that there isn’t one, that instead I’m peering down at the lights of a distant city a thousand feet below.

It’s the effect of standing on a cliff edge; it’s uncanny, vertiginous. My stomach floats and my hands tingle. I back away and the lights disappear; I return again and they twinkle up at me as before. I do this over and over again for a good half-hour and every time am afraid the hidden city will have disappeared. It’s very hard to walk away and go to sleep.

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Morning after.

I don’t know many nights I’ve looked into a lake before, what collision of conditions flips empty air into them or whether it’s rare. But I think what I saw at the bottom is the light of what I want to believe most—that there is more to find, and further, that those things might be anywhere.

Surprise me!

Yosemite, 6/3–6/5

The valley in summer is as hot and buggy and crowded as I would have thought, but I’m here for a trails workshop and spending much of the day indoors anyway. The point was to learn to use tools, become handy … but I can’t help but maneuver into my comfort zone—i.e., bullshit—and instead wind up debating fundraising language with a rep from another nonprofit. His expression suggests he may fake a seizure in order to end the conversation. Whatever.

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Not pictured: hang gliders landing the meadow, a serious blow to what remained of my interest in rock climbing.

The workshop also includes a bit by the park geologist, whose job it is to investigate rockfall in the middle of the night and shoot LiDAR at El Cap. He’s pretty cute and also talking casually past my farthest points of reference in space and time: of bedrock 2,000 feet below the valley floor, of using cosmic rays from another solar system (????) to measure isotopes in flecks of quartz. In combination with the heat this is dreamlike and soothing. “The granite you see is the guts,” he says, “of hundred-million-year-old volcanoes.”

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Less problematic than the last time I went this way.

At 10 p.m. that night I’m hiking back down from Glacier Point when I encounter a mule deer glowing electric white, like it’s Harry’s patronus* or being abducted by aliens. In reality it’s backlit by the headlamp of an off-duty ranger, who mitigates my initial disappointment by walking the rest of the way with me and reciting draft tour scripts that didn’t pass muster with his supervisor. These include a talk on the cultural role of selfie sticks and another I would have titled, “Did you guys have any idea how badly this park fucked over the Miwok?”

The following evening finds me at the base of Yosemite Falls. I’ve never been before, and in the fast-failing twilight the hurtling plumes appear as a massive, warlike spectre, emitting a howl from another world. I have water on my face, my heart in my mouth.

* J.K. Rowling’s marketing team says mine is a falcon, so.

Whitefish to Missoula, 6/16–6/21—part 2

Or, altars, altars, everywhere
(Part 2)

(This list starts in Whitefish—part 1, here.)

6. The Garden of One Thousand Buddhas

On the one hand there is the sound of chimes, now and then against the drone of a tractor in the adjacent hayfield. There is the symmetry and the neat white gravel, the prayer flags snapping in the wind on the hill, the reflexive reverence I feel at the foot of Prajnaparamita—that I feel, lest anyone think I’ve got religion, in the presence of anything beautiful and large. On the other hand, the plaques on each of the thousand Buddhas are inscribed in Comic Sans (“May all beings benefit”), and on the bench behind me a Botoxed blonde is pitching an elderly couple her e-book.

“I’m so glad that we met you,” the wife is saying. “We’ve heard about mindfulness and don’t know the first thing about where to start,” She is earnest and round—like Comic Sans, now that I think about it. Her husband is silent and grasping a cane. “You know, it’s funny,” answers Botox, “I could just tell you were Seeking™. It’s like, when you become receptive to the universe? These things begin to reveal themselves? You’re going to find the right people appear at the right time. And I am so excited to help you on your journey.”

“Here’s my card,” she concludes, a few minutes later. “I am so blessed to know you.”

7. Missoula

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I’m here for maybe 8 waking hours, and in cramming them full—I rent a bike, ride at Rattlesnake, survey campus, eat pastries at the hipster bakery, nurse my envy at Adventure Cycling HQ—I find I speak to almost no one.

But I watch them arrive at the “M” in the morning, a parade of sweaty early risers ascending the switchbacks. There are women in pairs, in yoga pants, intent. A family with two young children laughing and walking backwards. A girl jogging, barely, in front of her coach, who has a constant stream of advice on where and how to place her feet. A young man with a camera around his neck. An old man with dog that runs ahead.

The bulletin board at the trailhead has maps and phone numbers and a bit of Edna St. Vincent Millay: “I shall be the gladdest thing under the sun / I shall touch a hundred flowers and not pick one.” I know it’s posted as an admonition, but since I know the whole poem I can’t take it that way and don’t.

8. Garnet Ghost Town

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Garnet was protected in part by my employer, reason enough, apparently, to drive 12 miles up a fire road to see it. The town has been preserved exactly the right amount, at a clever midpoint between unrecognizable ruins and stage-set contrivance. Inside the scattered buildings various artifacts are laid out like offerings to the future: single shoes, kitchen apparatus, tins of snuff. The old hotel rooms retain rusty iron bedsprings and peeling wallpaper, chipped sink-stands, and sure, perhaps the ghosts. The creak of the floorboards goes well with imagined piano.

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It’s easy to imagine this place getting grim in winter, but today the valley is bright and green, invites a picnic. The BLM will let you stay here for free if you’d like to volunteer: there are some refurbished cabins or a trailer, screened off by a fence against the anachronism. Or, if you like, you could stay in the town itself. “Girl tried that last year,” says the bearded man in the gift shop. “She didn’t reckon on the rats.”

Whitefish to Missoula, 6/16–6/21—part 1

Or, altars, altars everywhere
(Part 1)

1. Glacier Country Rodeo

It’s a little awkward to come to one of these alone—especially a small-town rodeo, all families and high school couples, an announcer with an anecdote about everyone and everyone’s horse. In addition, I’ve arrived straight from the airport and bought myself three hot dogs, which I now consume in the far corner of the bleachers, dribbling relish on a pair of jeans I’m supposed to wear for the whole trip. The sky gets steely and the wind picks up. I watch glassy-eyed bulls spin furious circles in the dirt.

2. Whitefish Mountain Resort

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The best time for me to ride a resort is the day before it opens: the trails are clear but the lifts are closed, so I can venture down blacks a few hundred yards at a time without worrying about getting run over or passed in the air. Of course, this means I earn my turns: after an hour of pedaling I arrive at a mid-sized Jesus that I unthinkingly assume marks the end of the climb. I’m feeling good—that wasn’t hard at all!—so I descend and do it again. This time I notice that the trail continues on, higher. Much higher. I’m tired now; I fume. “Who puts Jesus at a false summit?” I demand of the statue, out loud. Oh, I think, then. Oh.

3. Whitefish Bike Retreat

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This is a hostel so pleasant it hurts my heart. Inside is airy and spotless and everything that can be made from old bike parts is. Outside the trails leave ten yards from the door—perfect, buffed-out, roller-coaster singletrack through wildflowers and quiet woods. I stop halfway through my ride to swim in a lake. A small brown fish leaps up in front of me; my mad giggling echoes on the water, frightens the ducks.

Everyone else staying here is semi-local, or following the Tour Divide route at their leisure. I’m doing the math on what it would cost to extend my reservation for another week, or month, or year; I need a reality check, stat. “How’s winter?” I ask the girl running the desk. She has the strong shoulders and sensible bearing standard here, it seems. “Alright if you ski,” she says, judiciously, but goes on to describe months of darkness, tells a story of driving for hours in pursuit of a freak break in the clouds just to weep at the feel of the sun on her face.

I consider everything I do to avoid extremes—of weather, of politics, of feeling—my instinct for the split difference, the even keel. I don’t know how to proceed. What’s the more realistic aspiration? A new personality or a timeshare?

4. God’s Ten Commandments Park

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It’s about a half hour from latte art and bikepacking bag rentals to this. The center itself is closed but I stand for a few minutes before the crosses, listening to the wind buffet the billboards. I turn a slow circle to read them one at a time, each reminder of where I am, each warning of where I’m headed.

5. Glacier National Park

The Going-to-the-Sun road opened to cars just yesterday. It’s a must-see, but in truth I’m not enjoying it: I inch past the balaclava’d cyclists braving the traffic and the cold and feel dirty for driving—and I’m too worried about hitting someone to look around. When I do, I find the black and ragged crags somehow unfriendly, at least compared (as I inevitably compare them) to Yosemite. The places I really want to go are under snow.

On the east side, though, the rock is of another palette and the sky has burst into light above whitecapped lakes.

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The first mile of my hike out of Many Glacier is a slog along a pack-train route, a mess of ankle-deep mud and manure and mosquitoes and my own mortal terror of bears. But the payoff, when it comes abruptly into view, is colors like I’ve never seen in my life.

By chance I arrive between two big groups and have a full hour here alone. I use it to watch the lake change with the light—turquoise, cerulean, teal, azure—and the clouds spill over the rim of the cirque. I pick up smooth pebbles from the shallows and put them back, listen to a waterfall spattering snowmelt onto moss. High on the red shale, I see a mountain goat (my first!), scramble after it until the point that caution overtakes me. That’s not far, to be honest. However, there are tiny star-shaped plants between the rocks.

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(The tail end of this trip was to Missoula and surrounds—part 2, here.)

 

Bishop, 5/27–5/30

I went all the way to the Eastside, didn’t climb, and didn’t especially regret it.

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Between Mammoth and Bishop and heaven and Earth.

I think you can categorize people as motivated either by accomplishment or exploration, mastery or novelty. I’m the latter type, I know. I attribute this either to some higher wisdom—for what are our accomplishments, ultimately, in the grand scheme of the cosmos?—or to a colossal character flaw: that I simply lack the work ethic required to get good at anything. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

But also, I once read an article about how new experiences counter the effects of aging. I read it well past its logical conclusion and into a belief that if I can just keep doing and seeing new things I will live forever.

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This is stolen from pro photog Andrew Burton‘s Instagram.”Reverse camel toe,” commented someone, immediately. Well, yes, but who’s the asshole?

In any case: climbing held my attention the first time I was learning. But just like my lost love for cyclocross, it seems something happened to my stoke while I was out gimping. And the prospect of repeating kindergarten—weekend after weekend of waiting in line to tremble and sweat up baby trad routes everyone else wants to solo, all the stress of my first campaign for competence with none of the mystery—I can’t get excited about it. 

What can I get excited about? Well …

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That’s the Bishop Mule Days parade. Specifically, it’s the National Park Service mule train packing park equity propaganda, a sight that—and granted, I was tired and it was very bright—literally brought tears to my eyes.

After recovering from this apparently poignant display of Americana (…) I followed a boulderer to the Happies, where instead of bouldering I crawled around looking at petroglyphs (see ass-shot, above) and caterpillars (see draft of my new children’s book). In retrospect a good steward would not have touched either one of these things, but there was thunder in the distance and the remnants of a river running below and I got carried away, had to get close.

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I camped one night with two friends headed into the Inyo to summit Mt. Sill. While rehearsing my pitch to be included on their next expedition, I discovered I couldn’t even lift their packs to move them out of the rain—never mind carry one to 14,000 feet. Hiking solo the next day, I got so nervous about the occasional snowfields that I took to walking with a rock in one hand to use as an ice axe if I slipped.

So for all I might want my next bit of exploration to be actual mountaineering, I must concede I am a long way from that Freedom of Hills™.

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Like cake through the store window.

I ended the trip with quick run down Rock Creek, which is fast and fun but needs an uphill trail to feel like a ride (mountain bike) rather than a ride (Disneyland). Looking for more, I asked an armored-up girl in the parking area about another trail that disappeared behind the cars.

“Oh,” she said, “that doesn’t go anywhere.”

She must have been a mastery person, though, because while it wasn’t much of a ride it was something to see.

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Central Coast, 5/13–5/16

Or, a series of transitions

Friday

I break at Mission San Miguel, one of the quiet, little ones. There’s a statue of Junipero and a tiled fountain with bees swarming over the lily pads. I walk down an arched breezeway hung with flags—Spanish, Mexican, Californian, American—into a tall, narrow chapel: diorama dimensions. The frescoes are original, the candles electronic. You make a donation and they’ll safely fake-flicker for two hours; I didn’t even know this was a thing. On opposite pages of the prayer request book, an adult has asked to beat addiction and a child for no clas proximo viernes.

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Left: Charms. Right: Chapel.

From a canyon campground later that evening I spend an hour or so mostly pushing my bike to the top of Cerro Alto. Only poison oak prevents me from ditching my wheels in the bushes, and when I finally do putter up to the summit, it looks like this:

But there’s light behind the shroud and it’s close, flashing gold onto the coyote bush through split-second breaks in the shifting fog. It’s only a matter of time.

Saturday

In the parking lot at Montana de Oro I take trail recommendations from two men in ink and Oakleys and camo. The lack of irony in their full sleeves is as refreshing as the warm blue sky over the ocean, the fast, buffed singletrack built to ride. The last time I was this far south, I concluded these were a different sort of people. Three years of Bay Area boom times later, I have an addendum, which is, I think they’re better for it.

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Montana de Oro. Eureka, goddamn.

I arrive in Santa Barbara to visit an old friend. We spent a decade in school together; since then she has acquired a husband, a PhD in economics, a professorship, a cat, a house, and a baby. To meet this last is the purpose of the trip. The newcomer and I engage in long staring contests—her eyes are blue, for now—in which I imagine I am being silently judged. But of course it’s just a reflection: I am judging myself.

These days I think a lot about how to keep my friends as the space between us grows more than geographic. The crux will be to see the difference in our lives as a curiosity and not a rebuke—to convince myself that I am doing things my way rather than slowly or badly or not at all. I suspect that’s the most useful thing to believe whether it’s true or not. But it also might be true. After all, if life’s a linear progression it leads straight to the grave.

Sunday

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Johnson Ranch. Not pictured: the locals.

Some peculiarity of the underlying geology means that the ride from Johnson Ranch to Irish Hills includes a shift from gold-and-oak foothills to rock gardens and chaparral in the space of one switchback. There’s a point in the trail where the views behind and ahead are so completely different that turning from one to the other feels like some kind of prank.

On the ridge, looking down at the suburbs, the howl of the wind catches on the crackle of transmission lines. Together it sounds just like blood through a stethoscope. Not to be creepy, I mean, I’m just saying.

Monday

The brochures at Fort Ord inform visitors that they may encounter “shearing operations.” I’ve been here a few times and never seen any such thing, but today I ride around a corner and there it is! Men in plaid smoking cigarettes wrestle the sheep into a chute; the clippers whine and the animals thrash about. I can’t see what happens next, just a hundred freshly shorn sheep milling and bleating in the meadow on the other side. There’s nothing tidy about it. They look like baby deer covered in buttercream frosting.

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Fort Ord moss-monster.

Sonora, 4/23–4/24

I’m usually the only one in the car who wants to stop at the Oakdale Rodeo Grounds. But today is different: Alex is game. There’s goat-tying, steer-riding, and an unattended toddler marching industriously back and forth across a mud puddle. We debate expensive shirts that say “RODEO” in a lariat script and ask to pat the vendor’s unimpressed pony. “We used to ride but now we live in the city,” Alex explains, as if it needed explaining. As a kid she’d take her horse to the gas station in town as a lark.

In Sonora I instead buy a cheap necklace with a tiny charm of the state flag’s bear. I wasn’t born here, but I am certainly closer to being Californian than to being the type of Californian who knows how to tie up a goat.

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Here we find Alex effortlessly matching everything.

Shiny stuff and legitimate claims are interesting subjects to consider in Gold Country. Its history is in front of my face in literal ways—Sonora, Mi-Wuk Village, Chinese Camp—and yet I’ve never really thought about the names or pictured anyone living here other than grizzled white miners. Now, though, I’m reading Carey McWilliams’ Southern California: An Island on the Land, and getting schooled.

The trouble began, naturally enough, in the mines … . In 1850 a mob of 2,000 American miners descended on the Mexican mining town of Sonora and … proceeded to raze the town. The rioting lasted for nearly a week, with scores of murders and lynchings being reported … .”We can see only indirectly, wrote  [Josiah] Royce, “through the furious and confused reports of the Americans themselves, how much of organized and coarse brutality these Mexicans suffered from the miners’ meetings.”

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Seen downtown. Advertising, art installation, or a concise history of labor?

In the first 25 pages I also learn that the indigenous population of California pre-Columbus had four times the density of the rest of what would become the country—whereas previously I imagined Indians living mostly in the Great Plains and dying mostly because of East Coast people.

My ignorance is especially egregious because I was assigned this book in college and hardly touched it. Nor was this the first time such a history lesson was lost on me: fourth grade I recall building a model of Mission San Luis Obispo without having the slightest idea of what a mission was—my closest point of reference being Redwall Abbey, where certainly no one (“nobeast”) was ever held against his will, even by weasels.

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Left: 5.8. Right: 15.2.

The road to the Grotto crosses the hills that front the highway and descends unexpectedly into a broad green valley that for its part doesn’t look Californian at all. “Kentucky,” Alex says. She’s in sales and has lived a lot more places than I have. The asphalt runs out amid a smattering of muddy yards and “KEEP OUT” signs, but we determine we’re in the right spot based on the presence (here I initially wrote “pretense”) of a Subaru and a Tesla.

The approach trail winds up from a red dirt road and runs a gauntlet of poison oak, emptying high on a scree slope of volcanic rock. There’s a lake on the horizon and columns of lichen-accented basalt looming overhead like organ pipes; something about the afternoon light makes me expect grazing brontosaurus. There aren’t any of those, but for a relic from the past I instead end up climbing next to some dude I met once on an ancient Internet date. Neither of us says anything, of course.

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Getting there.

Both climbing and dating are things I previously believed I could learn to enjoy by diligence and repetition. Having grown bored and skeptical of this I wonder now, why not simply do things that are pleasant from the get-go? To find out, I brunch lavishly on French toast and biscuits on the porch of the Jamestown Hotel and then, instead of climbing, ride my bike. Not far, and real easy—in a place that’s new and warm and blowing up with flowers.

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Sun’s out, tongue’s out.

Tucson 1/16–1/20

Friday: An e-mail prompts me to check in for my flight. I figure I should at least decide where I’m headed once I land, so I make some preliminary inquiries.

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Ok, Google, now … what?

Saturday: From Phoenix I drive to Tucson Mountain Park, no mention of murder or traffickers. Despite the name, I’m so committed to my idea of the region as flat that I’m caught off-guard after nightfall by a road that to me feels reminiscent of Old Priest, a situation rendered more stressful by the fact that I can’t locate my headlights.

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Via Reddit. If you’re a normal, functional adult and have forgotten what it’s like to be a new driver: yes, this.

Sunday: Within minutes of starting my ride, I lose the 50-Year Loop on a side-trail that deposits me in a dry riverbed full of startled cattle. As I’m pushing my bike up out of the gully I slip and fall on my ass straight into a bed of cholla cactus. By adopting a Kardashian squat and craning my neck I confirm that my rear end is bristling like a toothbrush with translucent spines. I spend 45 minutes picking them out with my fingernails, furtive and bare-assed on the side of the trail, then ride back to the car, standing, for a new pair of shorts. Needless to say, my enthusiasm for take two is … tempered.

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NONE SHALL PASS

I camp at a state park that’s hosting a church jamboree. Their drums and songs echo in the valley, and the mountains are a shadow on the night.

Monday: It’s Martin Luther King Day, so I pack up my iced-over tent before dawn for a “Day of Service” at Saguaro National Park. Said service is roadside trash pickup, which only reinforces my sanctimonious stereotypes of smokers and people who eat Carl’s Jr. The volunteer group is largely silent; I get bored and then reflexively competitive, maneuvering cagily in a slow-race toward the most impressive pieces of garbage. MLK I am not.

In the afternoon I ride under a yellow haze at Fantasy Island, which is an island in that it’s surrounded by strip malls and a fantasy in the same sense as Mad Max. The trails are tight, flat, and disorienting; the cactus and mesquite is scattered with hubcap artwork, discarded machinery, and garden gnomes. It is an especially peculiar place to ride alone.

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How they do it where you from?

When the KOA turns me down I head for “Adventure Bound Camping,” which sounds promising but turns out to be a snowbird settlement of RVs with AstroTurf lawns and a lot of passive-aggressive signage. I am the youngest and brownest thing on the premises; I pretend I’m refueling at an alien colony on a Star Wars planet and this helps me sleep.

Tuesday: I return my rental bike and head up Mt. Lemmon, which I’ve been imagining as another Old Priest with the addition of black ice and hundreds of hostile cyclists. It is of course not that bad, and the campground, after the desert, is Shangri-La: golden crags and oaks and brooks, where I should have been all along.

I start up the Arizona Trail and immediately want my bike back. To avoid a bitter out-and-back hike I peel off for the ridgeline. There’s enough snow for me to fall yet again into a cactus (stiff, black thorns this time, dark blood beading on my palms), but the view, when I get it, is a worthwhile and wonderful surprise.

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I saw tracks in the snow on the other side, but no bighorn. Someday.

I spend the evening with some friendly randos off MountainProject: one weekend warrior, two #vanlifers, and an engineering student from Iran who offers up slices of various mystery fruit she can name only in Farsi. Having spent three days in near silence I am now babbling manically; despite this they still invite me climbing. But of course I’m going home.

Wednesday: Return ticket and my birthday. I’m entering the final year in which polite society will forgive my being an idiot, so on the plane I review what I’ve learned. A little more research, a little less winging it. Carry tweezers, sweet Jesus. Always seek high ground.

Yosemite 12/31-1/2

This could be the year this trip officially qualifies as a holiday tradition.

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Clockwise: New Year’s Day 2013, 2016 (photo by Nick), 2012 (photo by Jacob), 2014. In 2015 I was on my way to the Grand Canyon and in 2011 I was in a snow cave.

We had the biggest group this time around and—thanks to Julia’s enthusiasm for spending hours elbow-deep in fire and vegetables—the best food. It was a happy change to have so much snow, a sad one to cut short a day of clumsy cross-country skiing to baby yet another half-healed injury. This was also the first Yosemite trip I actually went inside the Ahwahnee, and the visitor center. I think the former needs more lawyers and the latter needs more Roosevelt.

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2008 called, it wants its musculoskeletal integrity back.

So there are still small novelties, yes—but for the most part a tradition is something you’ve seen before. Perhaps that’s why this time I found myself paying more attention to things I heard. There was the roar of rockfall in the night (impossible to ignore that), but also:

  • In a meadow the powder was deep and light. On the surface were strange, feathery formations shaped like shuttlecocks, and as I kicked my way through these shattered and collapsed.
  • I stood at the base of a tall slab that had accumulated a thin layer of snow. The granite showed through in patches and dimples. Every few minutes the wall shed a fine layer of crystals, which scattered and skittered down the face, fell in my upturned eyes and down my jacket collar.
  • On a shallow section of the Merced the surface had frozen in irregular discs, amoebic plates of ice that bumped and scraped against each other as the water lapped the shore.

In each case I had no word for the sound except “rustle” or “rattle,” and neither was ever quite right. Whether that’s a hole in my vocabulary or the language, I don’t know.

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Since my description makes no sense … here, just look.

In the car on the way up we happened to listen to a podcast on Toki Pona, an invented language with only 123 words.

The point is simplicity. And in Toki Pona, simple is literally good. Both concepts are combined in a single word: pona. … The word pona is everything that’s good in the world: pineapples, bananas, cute kittens. If I call my friend a jan pona, I’m calling him a good person. … You’re a beautiful person, and everything is beautiful, and everything will be beautiful. 

I thought about this as I stood by the river and felt a chill from the inside out. It was the vague, vertiginous horror of loss whose only origin is love—for me, of the whole wide world and its every infinitesimal distinction, between simple and beautiful and good, between all the sounds that ice makes, between the impossibility (true) of the exact right word and the futility (false) of looking for it.

Happy new year, is what I mean to say: here’s to every little difference, every little thing.

 

On the way home from Denver, 9/12–9/15

Here are three things I couldn’t photograph on U.S. 50. (And three things I could, for decoration.)

ONE

I’m pretty sure those are mustangs in the scrub, scattered under the thunderheads. There’s no one out here to be grazing so many horses on nothing, on purpose. The herd has raised a cloud of dust that throws the light.

Do you remember book-order catalogs in grade school, from Scholastic? The thin, crinkly paper? I got any dollar paperback with a pony on the cover. Breeds of horse were the first and last subject of which I could ever claim a thorough study. I’d never be that kind of hungry again.

I suppose the mustang’s the whole country’s symbol of a former, better self. So then it makes sense we round them up to make room for cows.

Substitute steed in Park City.
Substitute steed in Park City.

TWO

It’s very, very dark out here; the mountains barely cut an outline on the night. You see them best where they’re on fire, faint in the glow of a silent crimson blaze creeping lava-like across the void.

We’re Californians; we’re dubious. Is that a very big fire, we wonder, or does it just seem big with nothing around it? Are we meant to report it somewhere? If we had reception? It’s very obvious; surely they know. Who is they, though, and where even are we? Does anybody look after this place?

In the morning.
In the morning.

THREE

In a parking lot in Fallon, Nevada, I walk past a van with its sliding door open to a white-haired man sitting at a card table. It’s under a checkered vinyl tablecloth. On it, one mantlepiece clock, two overturned wine glasses, and three small brass figurines; I’m not sure of what. A double-burner to the side, a beaded curtain to the rear. On the floor: towers of canned corn and Heinz beans, a potted pepper plant, a radio, paperbacks, canteens.

It’s out of character for me to do more than notice, but today I can’t leave this alone. The man doesn’t hear well—it’s a few “Excuse me, sirs” before he turns to me—and then its with rheumy eyes sunk deep in his face. He says he moved into the van eight years ago, when Bakersfield got too bad. He left his last spot due to the fires, will chose the next based on the snow. His friend’s a meteorologist, thinks it’s going to be a long, hard winter. There’s solar panels, $200 cash, and two years’ food in the van; that’s all he has and all he needs. “I’m completely self-sufficient,” he says. He says it a couple times. “Have to be. I don’t like the way the country’s going.”

“Well, that makes two of us,” I say. I figure we needn’t get into why.

I’ve rarely wanted to take a picture so badly. Someone else might at least ask, but I can’t do it, fear it would be an unconscionable request of a man living in a windowless vehicle covered in camouflage paint. I’m making an assumption, I know, that he doesn’t want to be found or followed, doesn’t need to be liked or shared. I’d just like to think such a person still exists, maybe even in myself—that they’re out there living that #vanlife.

Whereas here I have a picture and no words.
Whereas here I have a picture and no words.