Katie and Bernd were already up, a kind couple from Stuttgart we met the previous afternoon. They were stretching against their rented silve Rav-4 when I walked by.
“Will you be going back out?” Katie asked.
“Well, I’m going down to the creek to dust off,” I told them, stroking my forearms in pantomime. “I’m not sure what Rob is feeling, but I guess you’ll see!”
We exchanged charmed grins and I scampered down the small ravine, where I immediately spotted a large boulder, dug a half-foot trench with a sliced-open can of Tahoe beer and squeezed out an orange turd the size of a large turnip.
I have never pooped more frequently than I did while driving down from Portland to Los Angeles with Rob. It was a disarming span of days. Until late in my tenure at UVA, I was unable to pee underwater. Typically when I head into the woods, my sphincter would simply lock up for days. Crawling over Rob our morning at the world-famous Buttermilk Boulders, clenching for dear life, I missed that innocent, bygone era.
Weeks before Rob flew into PDX, we settled on a route down through the Oregon Cascades to Lassen National Park, cutting east after Tahoe to 395 and the Eastern Sierras – on our Google Doc, we called this “The Rugged Route.” We would camp every night, and hopefully not pay for most of them.
Days before Rob arrived, I worked out a system for packing my life into my 2004 Toyota Matrix. Folding the backseats down a necessary precursor, the stacking and wedging began. Below everything would be my trusty pallet, one I spotted on the side of the road two years ago, awed by its gapless surface – it proved perfect as a low-lying table and grilling prep station. Once, at Laurelhurst Park in Portland, a woman stopped in her tracks to compliment the pallet, where Jake and I were dining on roast beef sandwiches.
“Sorry, I’m just sort of obsessed with pallets.”
Me, too, lady! Unfortunately the pallet was the first casualty of my meticulous packing, buried under a tent, a 65 liter North Face backpack loaded with gear, a laundry basket full of towels and shoes, a plastic tub full of board games and thirty pounds of books. Between all that and the front seats are thirty pounds of clothes, a Jansport bag full of electronics, a snowboard, various balls and athletic gear. On Monday, August 7th, Rob’s rust-red Osprey pack was the cherry on top, occluding the rearview mirror. We cleared the rear windows so I could at least check my blind spots, and then we were off.
Saying goodbye to Portland was easy – I’d hit my favorite spots, returned my library books, savored a joyous weekend with all my friends and promised them all I’d come back and visit. I was ready to leave – and frankly, the city was getting a little too hazy for my taste after a week of forest fires in British Colombia.
Rob and I have been friends for over 10 years. Our drive to LA would be the longest time we’d ever spent with each other – that either of us had spent with any person – and we would be on the road with no definite shelters awaiting us – we made no reservations. Rob’s first night in Portland I received a long text message from my friend Kevin, who had been thrilled to host us in his apartment in West Hollywood. Kevin told me that he’d had two surgeries on his ankle in the past week, that he’d be in and out the hospital all weekend, that he might need another surgery on the spot, that, naturally, it would be a bit taxing for him to play host. I agreed, and didn’t protest.
We’d officially be winging it.
“Kratom is very controversial,” Jason began.
The morning before we left, Rob and I got brunch at Dots Café with Jake and Ian, two of my best friends in Portland. Ian had briefly mentioned a friend of his who was obsessed with kratom, a plant-based substance that is on the fringe of being classified as a Schedule I drug.
Heading east of Eugene, I suddenly swung the car into a Chevron parking lot, the tank already full of gas. Right up the hill from the station, just off the road, a large black sign with neon letters implored, ASK US ABOUT KRATOM!
So I did.
“The red kind is a pain reliever,” Jason the Chevron attendant explained. He stood behind a tidy glass case of brown pouches sporting big green pills, each package branded with a small color tab indicating the particular flavor of high. On top of the case were business cards for Sunstone Organics. “The blue is a stimulant, the white is like the blue but with some psychotropic properties – that’s our most popular.”
“What’s your favorite?”
“Blue. The white – I don’t like how the white makes me feel. But now that I’ve been taking the blue, I don’t drink coffee any more.”
I bought a 10g pouch of the blue stuff for $8, thanked Jason for his tutelage and left him smiling behind his case of barely legal uppers and downers.
Part of the agony – and the fun – of driving over 1,000 miles in five days is knowing where to pull over, which byways are worth it, when it’s appropriate to detour 30 miles and when to just plow through. That’s why I love a good sign. While Jason’s was mysterious and very topical, David’s Brawny Burger was more akin to the “that’s a big honkin’ sign!” persuasion. Rob and I were hungry, and were eager for our first burger bag of the trip.
In LA speak, here’s a “log line” for a burger bag: slap a ten on the counter, walk away with a burger, fries, a cup of cold soda in one hand, a grease-spotted sack in the other, and some change rattling in your pocket.
Yknow, a fast food burger.
We both ordered the Double Brawny Burger, small fries, and a small drink, which was 16 oz. Their medium was 32 oz and their large a whopping 44 oz, which is almost 4 cans of coke, which is fucking insane. The burger, on the other hand, was wonderful, an American classic, and I delighted in the all-booth interior beset by a simple speckled counter housing two tattooed farm girls. I asked the more experience of the two for ketchup, and she plopped four packets on my tray.
“Also,” she pointed down at the two little cups of orange sauce her counterpart had slid next to the fries, “that’s our famous fry sauce. Ketchup and mayonnaise – it’s really good, we make it all in-house.”
Well gee, I would sure hope so!
The cause of my hyper-active sphincter was no big mystery. Aside from the coveted burgers – we enjoyed three in all – our diet consisted of packaged pasta dinners, cheese sandwiches, gummi worms, yogurt pretzels, kettle chips, a WinCo trail mix combining candied peanuts with both goobers and raisinets. Yknow, stuff that gives you diarrhea.
Getting used to pooping thrice each morning was much easier than getting used to pooping as an inconvenience. Working at Health & Science School, each coffee-clotted breakfast bomb was cause for a ten minute vacation in the private staff toilet – on especially glum days I’d treat myself to a few extra snippets of whatever podcast I’d been listening to on the drive in. While writing alone in my apartment, each sojourn to the john was a chance to sever my eyes from the screen, collect my thoughts and prepare to attack the next paragraph.
It was a chance to do that. On the road my life and its accompanying utilities were just that – utilities, perfunctory asides in the effort to transport my body from one station to the next. Laying down the law in a shallow hole was just as valuable as snapping together tent poles, rolling up sleeping bags or hunting for firewood. Without the mental punch-card of a day at the office, it’s hard to distinguish when you are working and when you are not.
One way to tell was when Rob and I talked and when we didn’t. Each morning we packed up the car in silence. Long stretches of the drive were quiet, punctuated with occasional comments on the scenery, random memories from high school and college, laughs at billboards. My favorite was a pure black one with thin white text that read:
Walking to and from lunch spots and trailheads and beaches and vistas, we would both look at each other and trade thumb-ups after passing a pretty girl (it was at least semi-ironic, I swear).
Rob is quiet and smirky; I am talkative and smirky. We are both broad-shouldered and love the outdoors, and share distaste for bullshit and pussyfooting. We respected the rhythms of the road, its ebbs and lulls, trusting that conversation would flow at night, while waiting for our dinner to boil over the tiny campstove’s flame, and later, swilling whiskey before tumbling into the tent.
For me, these evening comforts were the soul of our trip. Given the pace, we didn’t have much time for any serious backpacking or even day hiking, and I had to limit my writing to occasional scratches in a hammock before dinner (that is, when I could find a loaded pen). Starting off through Oregon and California with Rob created a set of parallel realities: there was “our” trip, with its definite start and end, and “my trip” with its definite start and its end far off in time and space, in Virginia several weeks later. Our trip was focused on a handful of points of interest; my trip was – I realized – going to be a lot of “me” time, with only my writing to reconcile the vast expanse of days without work or any sort of formal purpose. I chose to focus my efforts on the former, thankful to have Rob by my side for the time being.
Rob’s head tilted back, his lips hanging open. We were just south of Big Pine, CA, the scene of our second burger, a scene preceded by intense drama and a narrow escape.
At the top of Big Pine’s main drag, Copper Top BBQ sat bathed in glorious mid-morning sunlight, strings of little stars-and-stripes pendants flapping in the breeze, red patio umbrellas standing erect in the active smoke of cooked-to-order ribeyes. Impressed, I pulled in to the parking lot in rear, though something did feel a little off – the little restaurant hit the right roadside drive-in notes, but seemed almost too flashy for such a podunk little town.
Standing in line, Rob and I both tacitly questioned whether we wanted to be standing in line, in the penetrating sun. I eyed the menu and the prices were steep – nothing under ten dollars. Rob saw the same thing. We quietly acknowledged our mutual desire to try somewhere else, shuffled out of line and started walking back towards the car—
“Hey guys! Hey guys!”
We turned. It was the grillmaster. He wore a beautiful white cowboy hat and a salmon polo that was just a shade lighter than his own skin; his thick, beautiful steaks sizzled behind him.
“You guys don’t want food? It’s real good.”
He looked back at his smoking red steaks. Are these guys seein’ what I’m seein’ here???=
“Uh.” I fumbled for politeness. “We don’t really have that much money.”
“How much money you got.”
Jesus. “Just a few bucks – we were trying to grab…a burger, or something.” The truth stomped out.
“Oh.” He glanced back at the steaks again. These guys must be fuckin’ blind!! “Well, sorry.”
“I mean, it looks great!”
“Yeah, yeah, well…” Go fuck yourselves.
Down the street we settled for the Country Kitchen Diner, whose terrific sign wooed us into a $14 burger bag-on-plate that hit the spot, if overpriced. But they had a cool, rustic interior and the first Wi-Fi we’d encountered since Portland. I downloaded a few podcasts and on our way down 395, the first Adopt-a-Highway sign read COPPER TOP BBQ. I think the big pink grillmaster is doing fine without us.
Rob was asleep as we progressed from Big Pine to Lone Pine, home of the Mt. Whitney Portal Rd, lulled into his present state by an anemic discussion of brain chemistry between PhDs coming out of the stereo. I always find a modest relief in knowing that my passenger is asleep. Rob and I are comfortable with shared silence, yet a certain tension inevitably exists whenever their could be conversation, but isn’t. A sleeping passenger offers a similar relief to the first gentle snores bumbling out of a friend’s nose while watching a movie late at night– but only if it’s a thinker. To snore through a comedy puts tremendous pressure on the vigilant.
Alone with my thoughts, a disconcerting notion crept up that we had already reached the apex of our journey the day before, clambering through the Buttermilk Boulders below unbelievable ice-crusted onyx spires outside of Bishop. Even though I did not hazard any attempts at climbing, I could tell Rob was happy to be there. For most of the drive up to that point, I’d clung to the somewhat patronizing notion that I was passively eschewing places Rob covertly wanted to check out.
“I didn’t realize we were so close to Yosemite,” Rob muttered earlier that day as we pulled into the Tioga Gas Mart.
After that exchange I felt guilty for not suggesting we drive the 11 miles through the Tioga pass so Rob may be able to catch a glimpse at El Capitan or Half Dome – even though we agreed weeks before that Yosemite might be too much of a scene, we might get caught in a long line at the entrance gate, that we’d only end up wishing that we had more time there.
Therein lies the double-edged sword of a carefully planned route: you have to ignore a lot. We doubled back on more than one detour. After the beautiful June Lakes Loop (just south of the tempting Tioga pass) we turned off towards Mammoth Lakes and the much-hyped “Devil’s Postpile,” only to discover that it would be a 43 minute trek there and back. Screw that. We said the same of Crater Lake after our lovely evening at my beloved Waldo Lake; we turned our backs on Mt. Whitney when I decided I was putting far too much pressure on the pedal for only 25 m.p.h.
And the night before setting off for Bishop, we joined up with 395 after a long afternoon of driving that took us through the heart of Lassen National Park, around the western shore of Lake Tahoe, past a slew of anti-forest fire propaganda – some designed by local elementary school students – on a slow crawl up and a smooth careen up the high desert of the Monitor Pass. Dusk was gaining on us. The salt-crusted rim of Mono Lake lay sixty miles ahead, where I’d read in a blog that there is free camping on the delightfully titled Picnic Grounds Rd. As the peaks began to purple, though, I spied a sign for Virginia Lakes Rd. – elsewhere I had read that Virginia Lakes is the gateway to the Hoover Wilderness, which is the gateway to the Yosemite backcountry, and in-between a plethora of enticing locales to lay down our gear and rest. I felt remiss to simply pass by.
“Should we check it out?”
On the six-mile drive up to the trailhead, I realized I’d taken us on a fool’s errand. As scenic and interesting as the road was, it wasn’t Mono Lake. Even without a developed campsite or a motel or a lodge to greet us, we had made the lake our de facto destination – anything short of that would be a cop out. So we puttered around at the trailhead for a few minutes and turned around.
Picnic Grounds Rd. is a narrow, unmarked gravel road that extends for a few miles past a boat ramp and day use fee area, which boasts a no camping symbol that glowed radioactive in my headlights. I figured the symbol was meant for the parking lot only, but our uneasiness was palpable: Rob had effectively vetoed Virginia Lakes, and I wasn’t much of an advocate either. My main concern was access to water, and secondly, access to dry snags where we could harvest some firewood. Mono Lake’s salty brine and sage-laden shores were no good for either – all that was guiding us forward into the darkness was a brief endorsement in a self-published blog.
Eventually the road widened and forked – to the right a small road jutted back towards the highway, and a large white dully gleamed.
NO OVERNIGHT CAMPING
Property of the City of Los Angeles
“I think that’s just talking about the land behind that sign, down that road—”
“I don’t know. I’m not digging the vibe,” Rob confessed.
“I know. I fucked up!” Rob shook his head and we both quietly chuckled. There was no choice but to follow the leftward path, away from the L.A. water baron’s dusty estate and towards the huge swath of black water.
But alas! A small brown pole with white letters emerged from the earth as the road transitioned from stripped, stuttery gravel to rollocking mounds of rock. Public land! The bumpy road suddenly transformed into a wide parking area, its signposts warning of submerged objects in the lake but offering no admonishments for opportunistic car campers. We unloaded and erected the tent in silence – it was pitch black, and both of us kept our headlamps on infrared to avoid the presumed gaze of wayward rangers patrolling the distant highway deep into the night.
That is, our uneasiness did not dissipate until we looked up and saw the stars – with no moon or city lights muddying up the atmosphere, we saw faint splotches of Milky Way among hundreds of constellations neither of us could name. I dug out my DSLR camera and captured some long exposures; Rob kneeled down with me and observed the results. Then the moon – near full – poked its bald red dome above the horizon, and within an hour was hanging high overhead, a blue radiance sweeping over the sagebrush. Under the moonlight we regained our confidence – the vibe – split a six-pack of Tahoe Amber and talked until we were tired.
“How romantic!” Katie exclaimed as we recounted to her and Bernd the previous night’s experience. It’s nice to know that Germans can still crack a good gay joke – later she remarked at the rather small nature of our tent.
Each night after Mono Lake – the third night of our trip – we observed the stars in full bloom before a brilliant moonrise. At the Miracle Hot Springs, our last stop before Los Angeles, we sat in a pool of 100° water and watched a meteor shower yards away from a naked man from Bakersfield. The next morning my friend Henry Kittredge from college messaged me to let me know his roommates were cool with us crashing in their living room in Culver City. After five days of uncertainty, we no longer had to tip-toe into Los Angeles. We had a plan.
Naturally the first order of that plan was In-N-Out Burger, our third and final burger. Afterwards I left an underwhelming, feathery green pile in a dank public toilet on the bluffs above the beach at Santa Monica, where we wasted away the afternoon; then another in Henry’s toilet after an episode of Game of Thrones. They both felt a little too easy, like I hadn’t really earned them. And neither offered much relief – I was nervous about asking Henry to stay another night after dropping Rob off at LAX the next morning. I had only inquired about Saturday night, and didn’t want to be an inconvenience, or worse, a mooch.
Per the pattern of the trip, though, things worked out. Henry let me stay not one but two extra nights at his place, and we were able to get dinner and catch-up; Rob made it onto his flight, and every Nationals fan in the world heaved a sigh of relief when it was announced that Bryce Harper’s ACL was not ruptured after one of the most dramatic base-running incidents Nats Park has ever witnessed.
While writing this in a McDonalds a couple blocks away from Henry’s, a little girl in sandals threw open the glass doors behind my booth, then sprinted flappy-fooyed to the restroom door, leaving her mother behind and entering relief. For the next few weeks I won’t quite be sprinting, and I may not find a McDonalds bathroom when I need it, but I will be very in-tune with the feeling of my body leaving itself and preparing to begin again.
Oh, and the kratom – it was pretty nice! I sampled some in hot water as Jason recommended, which became like a very strong green tea, offering the stimulating buzz of three cups of coffeewithout the caffeine jitters – just as the kind stranger promised.