walkabout west, part 1

Sheltering in place for 6 months has been good, but it’s time for an exploration. I’m learning that this is a good and necessary part of my soul, both the comfort and security of my home with Jen, and traveling out into the world. We usually do it together…aaaand we (or certainly I) need some time apart. So I’ve concocted a trip, to visit friends and family, in a big circular loop down through the desert to Arizona and New Mexico, and then north to Idaho. I’ve set aside two weeks, and am now spending my first night sitting at a campsite all by myself, with a hot tub, at 6000 feet.

My vehicle this time is a 2013 BMW X5, newly acquired after selling my Mini Cooper and our Jeep Cherokee. The X5 is the most luxurious thing I’ve ever owned, a modern, quiet and capable piece of German engineering, 5000 pounds and 300 horsepower, with leather seats and more convenient widgets than I can comprehend. She is black with tinted windows, a somewhat Darth Vader-like vehicle with tons of room. A friend suggested the name “Obsidian”, which just works. She calls one to competence, just like the mineral, and every meaning and association with the short name “Obi” works for me. I have a trusty companion on this adventure. Jen snapped this photo just before I started today, firewood, camping gear, water, computer…and my favorite hat, jeans, comfy cotton. I will be adventuring in Trump Country, my friends, and I need an anonymous western presence. And…this is pretty essentially me, I’ve always dressed this way, old habits from my Arizona upbringing.

The best laid plans…I was going to take California Highway 4 to 120, then head east across the mountains to Benton Hot Springs. The first part and the end of the day all worked out fine, but I missed the turnoff to 120, and crossed the Sierras on Highway 4. Not a problem, it just means I’ll arrive close to sunset. This is a remarkable cross section of the state: one travels through the delta over levies and bridges, seeing boats on waterways and small institutions offering food, drinks and live bait, interspersed with almond orchards and a few small towns. Then there is a confusing series of onramps, multilane highways and off-ramps that pop you over and through Stockton, back onto twisty two-lane roads east across the valley. More orchards, rolling brown hills with cattle, then Highway 4 takes you into the Sierras. I don’t think I’ve driven it all the way through before. The road is narrow, like 1-1/2 lanes, as it goes through towering Ponderosa pine up and up, into granite reality. There was little traffic, and Doc Watson on the stereo couldn’t alleviate my awareness of quiet and sadness in the land. This year has been tough on all of us, and the loss of Ruth Bader Gisburg and the coming election create a lot of fear and anxiety in almost all of the people I know and love.

Past forest fires have left a lot of scars, and current fires fill the air with haze. I drove through 50 miles of burnt forest. Ebbets and Monitor passes are over 8000 feet high, with stunted trees transitioning to high desert. The usual vast vista was barely visible through the smoke. With no cell coverage, I was relying on the compass (in the rear view mirror, how cool is that?) to assure me I was heading east. Dropping down to US 395, I cruised south from Topaz through Bridgeport, finally reaching Lee Vining and the barely-visible Mono Lake, to rejoin Highway 120 and head east. As I drive south, the smoke gets heavier until the Sierras themselves are hard to see, and the setting sun illuminates dark drifting clouds of smoke everywhere.

I turn east on Highway 120, where the smoke and the smell of burnt forest gets heavier. Finally after cresting a ridge, the air starts to clear as it gets darker after sunset. The last dozen miles to my camp site are a relief, as I can see the landscape again, and breathe normally.

Now I’m nestled into Benton Hot Springs for the night, a new place for me. It’s beautifully quiet, with widely separated campsites mostly populated by couples. I hear a child laughing in the distance, and an infant crying for a bit, while folk talk and laugh and splash in the hot tubs a hundred yards away. Conditions are so dry I can’t use the fire pit, so I dive in to my excessive camping supplies, silently eat dinner and fix a margarita, thoughtful.

So far the trip has been a journey down and in. The air is dry and clear, and the tub is warm enough to use, but not hot. I move the sprinkler that delivers hot water so it’s under the surface, for maximum heating. Crickets provide background music, while a blood-red crescent moon descends over the mountains I can no longer see in the darkness. It feels both good and a little sad to come to extreme stillness after a half day of driving. When I was younger, these adventures always felt exciting at the beginning, with scarcely a thought of what I was leaving behind. Now, I find myself feeling both the separation from home and the pleasure of solitude. One of the benefits of getting older, I guess — we can experience several feelings at the same time. I wonder what lies ahead.