The Eastside, 3/31–4/2

On this trip, I see and declare the coolest thing ever on average once every two waking hours. A sampling:

1. Plow-cut snowbanks fifteen feet high, pickups crumpled inside. It’s like driving alongside a giant slice of ice-cream cake.

2. The shrouded mountains falling away into the desert, like this:

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3. Hundreds of sheep scattered across a dead-level pasture. Literal sheep, but everywhere you look one is doing something different: bleating, eating, scratching, kneeling, all under the drifting shadows of fleecy clouds that look just like them. Am I in a Far Side cartoon?

4. My friend the Montanan rolls a tractor tire down a gravel road. It wobbles drunkenly, rights itself, keeps going and going out of sight behind the sagebrush.

5. Abandoned mine works, lumber and wrecked and rusted metal strewn about a gully of ankle-deep gravel so steep that in places I’m clawing up it on all fours. The Montanan, as one might expect, had a childhood full of such excursions and doesn’t want to go any higher; I didn’t and do. We’re about to argue about this when—

6. Fighter jets come howling low and fast down the valley floor. There is an astonishing, unreal moment between seeing them and hearing them and then the thunder rushes into my ribcage through my open mouth. It’s awesome.

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7. At Alabama Hills the bright dry washes are full of wildflowers, red-white-yellow-purple-blue. My allergies are horrendous; I can hardly open my eyes; nevertheless I’m belly-down in the sand peering into the blooms with the smile I later realize is the way you’re supposed to look at a (human) baby.

8. A very efficient foot pump for an air mattress.

9. High above the jumbled lava rock at Fossil Falls, a flock of pelicans is dancing a massive, silent ballet. As each bird turns it flashes briefly black and silver, then disappears completely, then reappears in white. The movements are unhurried but the choreography unreadable, animated by invisible intent: the cloud coalesces and evaporates, divides itself, floats back together, rises and falls away.

It’s hypnotic, holy, surely; it feels physically difficult to drop my eyes from the sky to the sand. In the afterimage of the birds I think I see the sleepy flutter of a jellyfish, the roll and ripple of grass in the wind.


10. A 1995 Suzuki Samurai JL, white with pink Dixie-cup accent squiggles. Here my enthusiasm is tinged with some regret for my own vehicle, which has neither the 4WD nor the flair.

11. Joshua trees, hundreds along the highway. We’re going fast so they’re coming at us like aliens, on cruise control so it feels like a spaceship.

12. The Kern River like I’ve never seen it before, a swollen, bottle-green juggernaut. It’s hurling froth and spray over boulders and hapless cottonwoods, roaring down the canyon under the sun.

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I want to mention Manzanar, also, although it obviously doesn’t belong on this list. It would have been a different kind of detour a year ago, let’s say that.

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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Bishop, etc., and why

“What is it, Major Lawrence, that attracts you personally to the desert?”

“It’s clean.”

Owen's River Gorge
Owen’s River Gorge

On the wall I got very, very scared. That I had no legitimate claim to the fear—on top-rope, on a 10a!—meant the proximity to total, tearful panic came paired with the sensation of my ego grinding my cowardice into my face. Robert breezed by me on the adjacent route, fresh off knee surgery and, to my eyes, completely serene. “Having fun?” he asked. “I’m miserable,” I said.

I meant it then and have not forgotten it since, and yet all l I want now is to go again. I don’t know why I continue to marvel at this, the compulsion to torture myself in frivolous, stuff-white-people-like ways—but I still do and I still look for some reason I like better than my own neuroses. I am quite sure now it’s nothing to do with the sport itself. But maybe these places act on you. Perhaps there is some fact of the land that climbing puts you near and lets you touch.

These are after all landscapes generous with room for the imagination. Here is space and here is time, physically real in rock rent over a billion years—or something—and also absent in the canyon’s constant afternoon, in the sense that every long shadow might hide cowboys or dinosaurs, or better, or worse.

(Can’t do panoramas, can stand on a rock and turn around.)

The next day I wandered past the cool kids at the Buttermilks to where the road ran out in the the soft foothills of a peak I didn’t know. As I knelt to peer at a pale cactus I felt, then heard a muted sort of thunder on the ground. A hundred deer came down the ridge like water. As if I ever really had the slightest doubt.