Treasure hunters

Today is my birthday. I’m sitting at our campground beside the Arkansas River, having a beer and some black licorice (my indulgence) before we head into town for dinner.

The river here is low—it’s late in the season and all the snow has already melted and emptied down from the mountains, rushing past the spot where I’m sitting, and tumbling on across the Great Plains to the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico. Nonetheless the current in the Arkansas is deceptively strong, even up in the headwaters here in the mountains of Salida, Colorado.

A week and a half ago it was Labor Day afternoon, and Courtney and I found ourselves wading across this river at a seemingly calm stretch between two runs of rapids in Browns Canyon National Monument, a few minutes up the road. We had been in Salida all of an hour, just long enough to unhitch the Airstream, make some sandwiches, and buy a topo map in town. “You guys sure seem to be on a mission,” the man at the map store remarked. And we were. We were on a hunt for hidden treasure, and we didn’t have a moment to lose.

The day before, in Dubois, WY, we’d happened to watch a YouTube video about something called the Fenn Treasure. In 2010 an eccentric antiquities collector named Forrest Fenn had allegedly hidden a bronze chest containing $2M worth of gold pieces and artifacts somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, and had inserted a cryptic poem into his self-published memoir that acted as a verbal map to the treasure. People from around the world had interpreted the clues in countless ways and gone on foolhardy expeditions into the wilderness to search for the trove, and in nearly 10 years of searching nobody had ever found it. We laughed at these eccentric folks and mused about how ludicrous it was to expect to be able to find a shoebox sized treasure chest in a space as vast as the Rockies, with nothing to guide you but half-cocked interpretations of an ambiguous riddle.

We read and dismissed a few popular theories of what the clues might mean, until we came upon one that caught our attention. It posited that the treasure might be hidden up a gulch in the wilderness of Browns Canyon, just a few miles away from the RV Park we happened to be heading to the next day in Salida, Colorado. We looked at a map and compared it to the clues in the poem, and our light-hearted skepticism gradually melted away into earnest curiosity. The more we discussed this theory and delved into our own interpretations of the cryptic clues, the more we realized we too were becoming obsessed, until we reached a point where, just like the folks we’d laughed at moments ago, we believed that we’d cracked the poem, that we deserved to find it, and we had to get to it first. “I know what I want to do for my birthday, “ I said. “I want to find that treasure.”

After pulling into Salida on Labor Day afternoon and making our preparations, we drove to the starting point of our mental treasure map at Hecla Junction campground and boat ramp in Browns Canyon. We paid the day-use fee, nervously said hello to two BLM rangers, hiked a half mile down a fisherman’s trail, and changed into water shoes. We were on the popular, accessible west side of the Arkansas River. The east side was all designated wilderness, with no marked trails or bridges for miles in either direction—perfect for hiding treasure. That was where we were headed, and the only way across was to ford it on foot.

We stepped off the shore and into the icy river. The water was only shin-deep, but the current was forceful. I led the way and Courtney followed behind. Every step was a labor, and I could understand why this was a popular destination for whitewater rafting. The rapids downstream gently roared and the river pulled at us as we stepped gingerly on the slippery round stones underfoot. It was much more challenging than we’d expected, but we finally made it across. We climbed up on the opposite shore below an abandoned railroad track, where we changed back into our hiking shoes and continued toward the treasure.

The next step was a hike up a dry creek bed called Railroad Gulch. Our path was soon blocked by overgrown vegetation, but we scouted out a nearby game trail that led the way up into the landscape. The terrain shifted from cottonwoods and low grassy hills into palisades of red hoodoos rising overhead with cacti, pinyon pines, and juniper dotting the dry wash. We were expecting a straightforward path to a blaze marking the treasure spot, but out here in the wilderness we realized that this place, like nature itself, was vast, varied, filled with symbolically interpretable landmarks, and composed mostly of hiding places. The sun was starting to get low, and I’d already been attacked by a jumping prickly pear.

We made our way up to a tall spire of red rock and consulted our map. We had only gone about half as far as we had expected to go and we’d run out of time. We hadn’t seen seen a soul out here. In fact we hadn’t seen any footprints, litter, or a single human-made trail. The only evidence that people ever came up here at all was a barbed-wire fence marking the boundary of the San Isabel National Forest. We also hadn’t told anyone where we were going, and this was mountain lion country (indeed—the next gulch over was named Cat Gulch for a reason). People had died looking for this treasure. Yesterday we’d shaken our heads at those fools, but now we felt like fools ourselves for rushing so stridently out into the wilderness to look for a small box that most likely was hundreds of miles away.

We made our way back down the game trail to the river, which appeared deeper, swifter, and more menacing now in the late afternoon shadows. Courtney admitted that when we’d crossed earlier she was sure several times that she was going to fall in. We walked up and down the weed-choked train tracks looking for an easier crossing, but found none. Finally, around sunset, we put in back at the same spot we’d crossed before. This time we walked side by side, holding hands to help keep each other steady. By the time we made it back to the truck and drove into town it was dark.

That was almost two weeks ago. Since then the weather has warmed up and we’ve had time to do much more research about the different spots along the canyon that could possibly be the hiding place of the Fenn Treasure. But we have not gone back into the wilderness. The irrational rush of believing we were on the verge of finding that elusive box was intoxicating, powerfully motivating, and a little scary. Through our research about the treasure we also started to realize what that rush can do to people. The pages and pages of online descriptions of incorrect “solves,” failed expeditions, and time and money spent revealed how an obsession like this can consume people’s lives, let alone their vacations. We didn’t want to go down that path. We wanted to enjoy our time in the Rockies seeing the sights we’d hoped to see to begin with, and we wanted to savor our time in the lovely town of Salida. If another day of treasure hunting came our way then we’d happily go on another hike, but we weren’t going to let it take over our trip.

Now as I sit here outside I feel relaxed. It’s almost time to go to my birthday dinner, and I’m excited to explore this town some more. A week ago I wanted nothing more for my birthday than to go treasure hunting in the wilderness. But now I’ve gotten exactly what I really want: a relaxing day without any urgency, a nice dinner out with Courtney, and maybe a quiet evening stroll along the Arkansas River.

—September 13, 2018

Where there’s smoke

It’s Saturday morning. The sun has just come up over a thumb-shaped rock spire and I can see our surroundings here at Solitude RV Park for the first time. It’s crisp outside and feels like fall. There is an eagle or a hawk sitting on a butte looking at me. The badlands around us are still and silent, there is no smoke in the sky, and as far as I can tell we are the only ones out here for miles.

We’ve been on the move lately. We hadn’t expected to be here now in northwest Wyoming, but the beauty of life on the road is that when something doesn’t feel right you can always change course. Last week in Missoula, Montana we were at a grocery store and I mentioned that this whole month of August had felt a little off. Courtney said she’d been feeling the same way. Ever since we landed back in the west after our visit to New York in late July it has felt like we’ve been running from something. Part of it has been the crowds of late summer: the RV parks that are always at capacity, the towns filled with out of towners, and throngs of people on every hiking trail. Part of it has been the heat wave that sent the inland Pacific Northwest into triple digits. But for the most part we’ve been fleeing smoke.

The wildfires in California, particularly the Carr fire outside of Redding, put forth sky-blanketing quantities smoke that seemed to follow us as we rode our itinerary north, from the Bay Area to northern California (Mt. Shasta invisible from I-5), to southwestern Oregon and Crater Lake (erased under smoke by noon each day), and on up to Portland (“huh, we can usually see Mt. Hood from here”).

In Hood River, Oregon Courtney got to experience wildfire season first-hand when a fire broke out across the interstate from our RV park. I was on a hike that day, so Courtney held down the fort on her own, watching planes and helicopters filling buckets of water from the Columbia River behind her and dumping them onto the flames in front of her, so close she could feel the droplets hit her skin. She was put on alert for a possible evacuation that day. That order never came, and the fire got contained, but the universe had sent its message.

We nixed our trip to the Olympic Peninsula and fled the Pacific Northwest and its fires eastward to Missoula, Montana, but were met with the familiar sight of a blood-orange sun behind an oppressive haze and the faint noxious smell of burned living wood. It appeared that the smoke had followed us here too. We made the most of it for a week, until that day in the grocery store when we finally admitted that we’d gotten off track. We needed to get away from the smoke that now covered most of the northwestern US, as well as the brutal heat and the late summer crowds that came with it.

We wanted to go back to our favorite types of places—unexpected towns with higher elevation than population, where you could stay for two weeks and already feel like a citizen, and then stay for two more. So we looked on a map, skimmed some reviews, checked the local weather, and picked a riverside mountain town we’d never heard of called Salida, Colorado. We pulled out of Missoula a week early on Labor Day weekend and began the 1,000 mile journey south-southeast. We crashed at a Walmart in Butte before buzzing through Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, and 4 Continental Divide crossings in 1 day, finally coming out the other side into the badlands of Dubois, Wyoming, where we are spending a rest day before pushing on to Colorado.

We pulled in after dark and a kind man named Adam met us in his 4-wheeler. Courtney had thought from his rough voice on the phone that he’d be a grizzled old cowboy, but he was probably not much older than us, and just happened to be a smoker. He led us to our site and helped us back in, then left us alone in the glorious silence of the open high plains.

I went outside to do some stargazing and enjoy a glimpse of the Milky Way. A pair of headlights from a far ridge swept across the horizon. Then I saw two flashes followed a second later by two muted bangs that echoed off the mountains. For some reason this didn’t alarm me or make me feel unsafe. It was Labor Day weekend, and tomorrow, our host Adam told us, was the first day of bow hunting season. Somehow this comforted me. Summer was ending, the tourists were gone, and the smoke had cleared.

Now this morning looking up at the butte, my hawk has gone too. Other birds are awake now though, and a mountain bluebird has just landed on my bike outside the Airstream’s back window. Courtney is waking up too, so now I shall go and join her in enjoying the solitude of this moment, this divide between the summer we’ve just finished and the autumn that lies ahead.

Post Script: I later asked Adam about the apparent gunshots the previous night, and he said, “oh there was just a concert last night, and a party afterward.” I didn’t totally understand, but he seemed nonchalant about it, so I decided there was nothing for me to worry about either.

—September 1, 2018

Photos by Courtney Doker

Hiker smell

Courtney was driving Ben and me across the Bridge of the Gods from Oregon over the Columbia River into Washington, when we came upon a bearded man with a large backpack and his thumb out, and we pulled over. The man tossed his bag in the truck bed, climbed inside the back seat, and sheepishly said what they always say: “Thanks so much for picking me up,” and “sorry for the smell.” His name was Ofir, and like so many folks in this neck of the woods at this time of year, he was thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.

We were used to the thru-hikers by now. For the past three months our road trip had inadvertently followed the course and pace of the PCT from Los Angeles County up to here to the Oregon-Washington border. We’d decided early on, after I’d first given a ride to a young hiker named Al in the Angeles National Forest in southern California, that whenever we could we’d always stop for PCT hitch-hikers in need of a lift.

In Bridgeport, CA, near Yosemite, we picked up 3 older guys trying to get back up to the trail at Sonora Pass. They called themselves Cheerful, Ironman, and John, and we had to toss their packs in the Airstream because they wound’t fit in the truck bed. In Crater Lake, OR we gave a lift to a solo hiker called Lost Dog in the morning, and a British couple who didn’t believe in trail names in the afternoon. In sandwich shops, ice cream parlors, and post-offices up and down the western mountain ranges we saw the thru-hikers. They all had the same wild eyes, layer of dirt, and musky smell, and they were always a pleasure to see.

We dropped off Ofir in the nearby town of Stevenson, WA, where he had hoped to find a new phone charger. Besides conveying that information and thanking us for picking him up, he didn’t have much to say; his mind seemed to be elsewhere. We rolled the windows down to ventilate the truck and continued on our way up into the mountains. We had more PCT in store for our day.

I had become a bit of a PCT fanboy as we criss-crossed it this summer, but I’d never hiked any of it. Today, with Ben as my partner and Courtney as our faithful chauffeur, I was finally going to get out and hike a piece of it. Specifically, we were going to do the southernmost 18 mile section in Washington, from a landmark called Three Corner Rock, southbound to the Bridge of the Gods over the Columbia and into Cascade Locks, OR, where we had a cabin reserved for us that night. This was the shortest section we could find that had an easy drop-off point, 10 miles up a gravel road from Stevenson, just into the lower corner of Washington’s renowned Gifford-Pinchot National Forest.

Courtney dropped us off and took our picture, and we kicked things off by hiking a mile in the wrong direction (thus making it a nice round 20 mile day after we’d realized our mistake and turned around). The weather was cool and drippy, and the trees were all covered in green moss, the ground a blanket of ferns. This rainforest was a stark departure from the hot, arid landscape of brown grass and exposed basalt cliffs up the gorge in Hood River where we’d come from that morning. We followed the trail joyfully through changing landscapes of ridges, scree fields, evergreen forests, and clearcut hillsides, finally stopping for lunch about 6 miles in under a high-voltage power line tower.

By then the thru-hikers, who were all going the opposite way as us, had started streaming through. Most of them had the same kit of ultralight gear, and they all had that unmistakeable odor. I was crunching on a tube of Pringles when I saw a bearded hiker striding up the trail with a huge grin on his face. It was Ofir, from this morning.

“Ben and Jeff, right?” he said, greeting us with fist bumps. He was a changed man from the quiet, forlorn-looking guy we’d picked up a few hours earlier. He explained that he’d been hiking from the beginning of the trail at the Mexican border with his two friends, and they’d stuck together doing 30 miles a day for some 2,144 miles. But recently Ofir had hurt his knee, and had decided to break from the group to do the last piece—the state of Washington—on his own, at a slower pace of 25 miles per day. Today was his first day hiking alone. I understood more now why he might have been so quiet when we’d encountered him down at Bridge of the Gods. Breaking from the pack is a humbling and scary thing, but judging by his upbeat demeanor here under the power lines it seemed clear that this shift to the meditative solitude of solo-hiking had suited Ofir well.

We wished each other luck and bid him farewell. Ofir carried on northward toward the Canadian border and trail’s final terminus 500 miles away, while we marched south toward the Columbia River a half day’s hike down to the lowest elevation of the PCT. Our paths were going in opposite directions for distances that differed by orders of magnitude. But those paths had crossed nonetheless, and they’d crossed out here on the great PCT. Today I was not just a transporter of hitchhikers, I was a fellow hiker myself. I had a long way to go yet, but by the end of the day, I’d even smell like one too.

August 11, 2018

No room at the canyon

The thing about sleeping at a truck stop is that the trucks stay running all night. Outside on the gravel lot behind the Flying J service center in Ellensburg, Washington, the soundscape of idling diesel engines was comical, like being inside a factory. But inside the Airstream you could almost imagine it was the sound of a river.

We had tried to sleep on the shore of the Yakima River that night, in Yakima Canyon in central Washington. We’d researched it ahead of time and there were four public campgrounds along the canyon road, so we were’t too worried about finding a campsite. We’d also read that this was a popular spot for river tubing, especially in late summer. This was a fact that we should have paid more attention to in retrospect.

We entered the canyon around sunset. One by one we pulled into each campground, and one by one, like Mary and Joseph in a Toyota Tundra, we were turned away. Every campground was filled to capacity. RVs and tents of all sizes were there, fires were blazing beside the “No Campfires” signs, each group seemed to have their own sound system blasting music, and tubes and other floating apparatuses were stacked everywhere. The scene was a zoo, and there was no room in it for us.

We spoke to a nice man at one of the campgrounds, and he told us he’d reserved his site a year in advance. He suggested we could try parking behind the Flying J up by the freeway, and that’s what we did.

We pulled around between a flat bed truck and a car carrier and heated up some stew that Courtney had cooked that day in preparation. This was not where we planned on spending our night, but we didn’t let it get us down. The trucks were loud, but they kept to themselves. We were the only travel trailer around, and in that way we had found greater solitude here than we’d seen down by the river. We had everything we needed; warm food, warm beds, each other, and two brand new river tubes we’d just picked up in Portland.

The next morning we woke up early, picked up a couple alcoholic seltzers from the Flying J, and drove straight back to the once-raucous campground from the night before. Only now all the partiers were fast asleep; the only sounds were the rushing river and the birds. We parked beside a tree in the empty day-use lot, unhitched the Airstream, made a hot breakfast, and with the help of an outfitters we hired to move our truck, we tubed the Yakima River.

The water was perfectly cold and the current was fast. We hitched our tubes together and ate sandwiches as we cut the 6 miles through the high basalt canyon walls and cattle fields, waving at other flotillas of tubers and steering around the drift boats casting for trout. The alcoholic seltzers were just delicious, and we were happy.

When our ride was over we had time to kill before our truck would be shuttled back to us. There were a couple of middle-aged local women sitting in folding chairs in the water by the boat ramp, smoking cigarettes and talking about how things used to be. We thought they had the right idea, so we fetched some more refreshments from the Airstream, pulled our tubes into the quiet of the shallows, and sat in the river, watching the people floating by, like a parade celebrating the last days of summer.

—August 18, 2018

The Warrior

The hot water came out of the hillside scalding and ran down a narrow crevice in a domed hill of rock. It branched into smaller rivulets, cooled to bathtub temperature in the open air, and finally dribbled over a rounded ledge into a series of crude stone and mud pools built alongside an icy, rushing stream. This place was Buckeye Hot Springs, and we were presently sitting in these pools with a tableau of naked strangers as the sun was setting over Sawtooth Ridge in the Eastern Sierra.

We’d come here at the suggestion from our friends Charlie and Kelli, whom we’d met at the RV park here in Bridgeport, and on a Sunday afternoon Courtney and I decided to drive out the dirt BLM road into the foothills to find the place.

There were a few sightseers in swim trunks taking a dip when we showed up, but as the sun got lower those folks left and an earthier set arrived. These new people seemed to know each other, or at least they knew they were of the same tribe. Some were long-term campers, set up in tents or vans on the ridge opposite the springs. Others appeared to be locals who came here all the time. Everybody in this group bathed in the nude, and so we followed suit.

The first to arrive was an unassuming middle-aged woman in a baggy t-shirt, along with an elderly yellow Labrador retriever named Zelda. When the woman got in the spring, Zelda followed suit, stepping one paw at a time into the pool, then easing into the warm water down to her shoulders and gently closing her eyes.

Then came a couple about our age from Washington, who were here living in a van. They had brought a bottle of sake, and when they passed it our way, we drank. They were accessorized like many folks here, wearing sunglasses and feather-bedecked, wide-brimmed hats, and nothing else. The man, scrawny and bearded, was a massage therapist, and he struck up a conversation with another gentleman with slightly bloodshot pale hazel eyes. He was into energy healing, and produced a spliff which he shared with the Washingtonians. A buddha-shaped man with tan skin arrived, greeted the others, disrobed, and sat on a rock near the river’s edge to smoke and meditate.

Everyone relaxed in harmony, and Courtney and I enjoyed blending in with these eccentric folks. It occurred to us that to them we were probably pretty eccentric too. And when everyone is unusual, nobody seems strange anymore. It was the same with the bodies there in the springs. They were all different shapes, shades, and textures, but taken together they were all just bodies, and we felt completely comfortable among the naked scene.

Then there was some commotion up above on the domed rock where the spring came out of the ground. Suddenly, the water that had been cascading onto Zelda’s owner’s head slowed to a trickle and reappeared flowing into a different pool. Some newcomer had rearranged some bean bags up above to divert the water, and the unassuming middle-aged woman was pissed. She got a scowl on her face and resolutely rose out of the pool, glared up the hillside, and in a strong, gravelly voice, shouted, “HEY!” Her quiet demeanor from when she’d arrived was gone. Standing now on the rock before us, fist shaking in the air and forest of pubic hair dripping in the dying light, she looked like a warrior, like the queen of this spring. We regarded her in awe, then looked up toward the ridge, expecting to see a contrite face peer over and realize they’d wronged the empress. When none did, the woman tossed on her t-shirt and nothing else, and marched up the trail to fix the situation herself. A few seconds later the falling water went back to where it had been before, and harmony was restored.

June 24, 2018

Softball questions

I was in a booth by the front window of Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn, and the photo round of pub trivia night had just been passed around. We identified almost all of the famous faces printed on the sheet pretty easily, but a few were giving us trouble, including an image of a baseball player with a waxed handlebar moustache.

At the table with me was my brother Jimmy and three of my best friends: Adam, Naomi, and Ben. Before I’d left New York we’d made a tradition of Wednesday night trivia at Pete’s. Their questions were hard but full of playfulness, and sometimes we’d hit a streak and came close to qualifying for the annual tournament.

The bar itself was a classic haunt of Williamsburg, with a stage area that looked like the inside of an old streetcar, and a menu made up of grilled cheese sandwiches. I had performed on that stage more than once with Gondenchild, the country band I used to play in. This is all to say that nostalgia was thick in the air for me.

Being with Ben and Naomi made it even thicker. We’d been housemates for all 6 years of my time at Berkeley, and I’d just been visiting our old haunts there for the past 2 weeks with Courtney and my parents. As in Brooklyn now, when I was back in Berkeley and SF it felt like no time had passed since I’d left there 7 years ago. I had braced myself in anticipation of that visit to find a Bay Area utterly unrecognizable from its meteoric rise in housing prices and tech industry bloat, but with the exception of a few favorite dive bars that were now power lunch spots, everything felt the same to me, only now you could buy cannabis in a store.

On our last day in SF Courtney and I met up with my friend Kenneth and we walked to Glen Canyon Park. The canyon smells of eucalyptus, and when you’re in it you forget you’re in the middle of a major city. This was the place, many years ago, where I had first played softball with a group of people who would become some of my finest friends.

I thought of these memories as I sat there at trivia night, and then an image appeared in my mind. One of the softball players I had met back in SF in 2010 used to wear a shirt—or was it a hat?—with an illustration on it of the face of a man with a wide, waxed moustache, and under the image was a name: Rollie Fingers.

Nobody on the trivia team had any other ideas, so I wrote that down. The quizmaster read the answers, and to our shock and delight, I was right. We all cheered while the rest of the bar sat in silence. I think we were the only team to correctly identify the man in that photo. We wound up in 4th place out of 19, which, because the top three teams were already in, meant we had qualified for the first time for the tournament in January. The quizmaster called me up to the stage and I typed out our team name, Wild Friendship, into his spreadsheet of winners.

I guess I’ll have to come back.

July 18, 2018

No more laundry

The cab turned from Greenpoint Ave onto Franklin Street, and I instinctively looked to the right toward Kent Street and the apartment where Courtney and I had lived our last year as New Yorkers. I could see the lights were on behind drawn curtains in our old bedroom, which was now someone else’s bedroom. I felt a lump rise in my throat as the taxi kept driving straight, further up Franklin. My Airbnb was just a couple blocks away from our old place, and it felt surreal being a guest in a neighborhood that still felt 100% like home.

We had last been in Brooklyn in mid January. Dirty snow caked the curbs then, and we worked our things into a moving van on a rainy Friday and clattered away on the BQE, towing my Honda and leaving the bitter cold behind us with bittersweet relief. We’d waited apprehensively for the other shoe to drop, when we’d feel regret for leaving our grand city and all our friends, and were surprised when it never did.

Now being back in Greenpoint, enjoying my usual favorite breakfast of sage & eggs at Little Neck Outpost, I feel a mixture of things. I feel completely comfortable and familiar here, as if 6 months hadn’t passed. Snow and gray has been swapped for baking summer sun and wet humidity, but still no time seems to have gone by.

What has shifted, though, is the feeling I once had of frantic urgency to experience everything here before it was too late and we’d move away for good. I feel none of that now. Moving away has a sense of finality. But temporary returns—even long, 2-week visits like this work trip I am presently starting—are endlessly replicable. I feel now the ability to finally relax and fully enjoy this city, and in doing so I am finally able to say goodbye.

Postscript: I walked by our old laundrymat, hoping to see the kind, grandmotherly woman who always did our drop-offs, but found only a Sharpied CLOSED sign taped to the door, with an email address under it for pickup requests.

I looked in the window for a minute, then an old man sitting on the stoop next door said, “No more laundry.” He had a Spanish accent, like the laundry lady had. “They had a fire, on Good Friday,” he said. “No insurance, no nothing. Now you go to Java Street to do laundry.”

I thanked the man for the info and expressed my sadness to hear that news. Some things stay familiar to a prodigal New Yorker, but other things change for good.

July 16, 2018

Fall of a fire tree

Sequoia trees are born in fire: their cones only open in extreme heat, and their seeds need soil enriched in ash to germinate. They have thick, fluffy bark that insulates them from the numerous wildfires they will certainly withstand throughout their long lives, and when flames do penetrate that armor their trunks grow into those scars, fortifying themselves for the many centuries to come. They only ever finally relent to gravity due to an unlucky environmental weakening of their roots, or the axe. Sequoia trees do not die of old age.

They are the largest, greatest living things on earth, and walking among them humbles me, makes me small, and fills me with awe and reverence. They are fire trees.

I saw the following inscription on a sign at a grove in Sequoia National Park called Round Meadow. To witness such an event as described here would be too extraordinary even to label as “once in a lifetime.” I think about these words often:

I Heard a Sequoia Fall

It was a calm, sunny day in the Giant Forest. Out of the clear blue came loud cracks as the roots snapped, and then a crash like thunder. We found the tree shattered, with an amazing amount of water flowing from the broken wood. Touching the inside of the sequoia was startling—it was ice cold.

Bill Tweed

Park Ranger

Sequoia National Park

July 1974

Sierra cup

I woke up early in our tent in Kings Canyon, before Courtney, before the RV across from us started up their generator and all the kids started biking around hollering at each other. I made a campfire and heated water for coffee in our stainless steel Sierra cup.

I had learned about Sierra cups from a book which I presently opened and began to read. It was a collection of three essays by John McPhee that Clint had suggested to me in Phoenix as one of his all-time favorite pieces of writing. I’d found a copy at The Last Bookstore in downtown LA and was finally finding time to read it.

The book chronicled three outdoor encounters McPhee had with the famed conservationist David Brower: one on a mountain, another on an island, and the third on a river. Brower is nicknamed “The Archdruid,” which gives the book, Encounters With the Archdruid, its title. Brower, like John Muir and countless other romantic nature-lovers since, was deeply transformed by his time in the High Sierra, and he, for one, never traveled anywhere without his stainless steel Sierra Club cup.

We had staked out our campsite on a whim earlier that week, pitching our tent that we happened to have with us on a Tuesday day trip into the canyon, and paying the fee that let us leave it there in a prime spot until the weekend when we could return. We showed back up Friday evening with food but no camp cookware, so we went to the commissary in the canyon to buy a frying pan, camp stove, and the only water-boiling vessel available, a shiny Sierra cup.

I sat now in quiet solace, here in the cradle of the Sierra, high peaks rising around me, Kings River raging somewhere behind the deep shadows of incense cedars and Jeffrey pines, enjoying my lukewarm instant coffee (alas, Sierra cups are not great on a camp stove). I breathed the cool air and the smells of woodsmoke and pine sap and earth that the subject of my book inhaled, as did Muir, the PCT thru-hikers above us, and the strangers next door who would soon crank on their generator to recharge their RV batteries. For this moment I felt the serenity of solitude, but at the same time a communion, connecting me to the nature that surrounded me and to all who have ever surrendered themselves to it, inhaling it, letting it stir their hearts.

City of Angels

In LA, with the assistance of a ski lift, three friends and I hiked to the peak of Mount Baldy, the highest point in Los Angeles county. From the summit I could see to the south the sprawling city of Los Angeles and the ocean beyond it. To the north I saw the Mojave desert. I could make out the dusty, Joshua Tree-strewn town of Hesperia, and somewhere in it, a tiny glint of sunlight from the aluminum shell of our Airstream. I was staying with my former roommate Jessica in Silver Lake for a few days while Courtney was away on a work trip in Mexico. It was too expensive to take the Airstream into LA, so we left it in Hesperia, and here I was.

I took Lyft around town to visit some other LA friends. The drivers were different than in New York. In LA there was still a hustle about the drivers; this was not their main gig, and they were happy to tell me about their other moneymaking schemes. One former skateboarder told me his plan to set up a solar shingle powered Bitcoin mine in the basement of his duplex. Another older driver told me his plan to sell solar panels to Sierra Leone.

Partway through my LA stay, I drove the truck back to Hesperia to check on the Airstream and to water our houseplants. I took the steep and winding CA 2 over the San Gabriel Mountains. Coming down a bend I drove upon a wrecked Skanska pickup truck crumpled up against a rock wall, with its blinker on, engine cold, and nobody inside.

I crossed the Pacific Crest Trail near Mt Baldy, and I picked up a young thru-hiker named Al who was hitchhiking to the nearby mountain town Wrightwood. I had learned about thru-hiking from Clint, and I talked shop with Al about his gear. He had just done the AT the previous year, and was doing the PCT before starting his first job after college back in Connecticut. He smelled like he hadn’t showered in a week, and politely declined my offer of a handshake when I dropped him off, saying “trust me, you don’t want to touch this hand.”

I made it down to the Mojave Desert just in time to watch the rising full moon, then drove into Hesperia, ate a sub from Jimmy Johns, and slept alone in the quiet of the Airstream.

The month of May came to a close. Courtney came back from Mexico, we loaded up the our little home quickly and easily, and after moving westward for the last 2 months we finally turned the ship north and steered our journey out of the desert and toward the forests of the Sierras.