road trip notes iii: another country

In Lone Pine we find a saloon with swinging doors and escape the mind-numbing afternoon heat by having a beer at the bar. We’re served by a leathery blonde in tight black pants and there are two trucker types sitting to our left. “Where are ya’ll from then?” they say when my husband orders. The doors swing open and shut to admit a pair of thirsty backpackers. It’s perfect, it’s perfect, I think. You couldn’t make it up. 

We play pool for a while, but I get snappy because he keeps showing me what do to, because I’m terrible at pool, because there’s a group of guys hanging around at a nearby table watching, waiting for their chance to play, and they can see how terrible I am. It’s all of the things I hate: I hate losing, I hate asking for help, I hate being patronized, I hate being watched. He goes outside for a cigarette and I practice. The guys at the nearby table have raised eyebrows but I can’t tell if it’s because they see my point, which I’ve been making loudly: I’m fine when you’re not WATCHING me! or because they are watching me, and they are bemused, and they want their pool table back.

***

Later we drive back to the campground. I’m over the pool but cross now because darkness is falling too fast. For months I’ve been dreaming of seeing the mountains at sunset, I’m saying, as I roar down dirt roads, the camping stove rattling in the back of the car. I can’t believe we’re missing my mountain sunset! I say. But we see it anyway, a quick deep blush and then a slow fade. It feels like there’s no one else around: just a few RVs parked up, no voices carrying but smoke rising from fire pits. We are almost alone; it is almost terrifying. We cook steaks the size of our heads on the campfire and eat them in almost-darkness, the propane lamp buzzing, the firelight flickering. The air is alive with little flying beetles, flat as skipping stones and the colour of dust, and they settle in our hair, on our clothes, next to our skin. I read a few Adrienne Rich poems by the light of the headlamp - Summer was another country, where the birds/Woke us at dawn among the dripping leaves - before slipping into the fragile sleep of the camper. I wake pre-dawn to a wicked wind shaking the tent, ripping through the valley. I go outside to pee and the warmth on the horizon is palpable. The foothills look snow-capped but it’s just the colour of the rocks. 

***

I have been here before. The last time I was here, in this very campground, maybe even this very spot, I was sixteen, on a school backpacking trip, our last night before the drive back to civilization, via an In ’n’ Out in Bakersfield. We slept under the stars and, giddy after ten days of altitude, early starts, long hikes, drinking water tinged with the acid taste of iodine, we wrote notes about who we had secret crushes on and giggled hysterically, conspiratorially. Oh my god this is stupid but do you know who I think is SO hot? (Secretly, of course, and in that there-one-minute-gone-the-next way of teenage lust, I had a crush on the twentysomething group leader with the beard and the beanies who had said I had “some really cool CDs” on the drive up). 

I don’t know any of those people anymore, not really. When I was here then I was homesick: I’d been here as a child, too, with my parents, and I remembered sleeping near the creek, hearing it rush at night, and I missed the solidity of childhood, which in retrospect isn’t solid at all, it’s pure liquid, and yet which takes on a fixed form in memory, like something moulded out of stone. Now I’m here as a married woman, someone who breezes through in a dirt-encrusted SUV packed with borrowed camping equipment, who wakes up early and gets the stove going in spite of the wind and sits and waits, and waits, and waits for the water for coffee to boil while reading Jon Day’s account of being a bicycle courier in London. London, another country, another world. It seems like an unreachable place from here. I think of tube trips I’ve taken, of sweaty frantic walks, on my way somewhere, late, stuck behind some meandering couple. The last time I was in London I stopped by the Chanel counter at Selfridges to buy red lipstick for my wedding day before meeting my supervisor to formulate a plan for the summer. At this stage in the PhD I can imagine neither having the fortitude to finish nor the courage to not finish.

“Increasingly, the lives of our bodies have become disciplined, made to conform to the stranglehold of nine-to-five existence,” I read. “Couriering reminded me about the existence of my body.”

I was anxious to get here, I realize: this whole trip I have been rushing towards this, looking forward to being here again, and the fact is it’s deserted and eerie and I am not sixteen anymore. And yet, on returning, it does still have something, some pull, some power, though whether this is because of its essential familiarity or its dissonance I don’t know.

The wind pushes itself against me, blows the beetles from my hair, but the day, barely even light, is already hot. 

***

Later that morning we hike up to Lone Pine Lake, which is far up the Mount Whitney Trail as you can go without a permit. It’s hard going, harder than I think it should be, considering that we keep running into backpackers descending after making the summit, or, in one case, after traversing the entire 210-mile-long John Muir Trail. They’re all heavily burdened, taking careful downhill steps, breathing hard, and they keep saying, do you know how far it is to the bottom? We keep saying, oh, you’re so close, it’s just half a mile, a mile, which to them must feel like nothing and everything all at once. The altitude is palpable and the ascent to the lake, elevation 10,000 feet, is relentlessly steady: switchbacks, switchbacks, switchbacks. I remember the feeling of backpacking as a teenager, watching my feet fall for hours, choosing mantras or phrases to roll over in my mind as I walked. Repetition - of action, of landscape, of journeys, of thought - is what forms us, contains us. It gives the mind both a focus and a freedom, “both kindles and quenches”, as Thomas van Leeuwen wrote of how the form of the swimming pool, that fundamentally, wonderfully repetitious environment, influences the imagination of the swimmer.

***

I was skeptical about the idea of a road trip at first but now I do see a kind of logic in it. To drive through the landscape of the American west gives you a sense of how subtle and then sudden change is. For hours and hours everything is the same, a repeating pattern of low distant hills and shrubs, and then suddenly it’s not, you’re in an entirely new place: higher ground, winding roads, pine forests and shimmering lakes. But it’s not sudden, and because you’ve been moving with it for so long, at a speed which magnifies the change but doesn’t distort it or abstract it, you understand this: that the change is constant, the shift smooth and seamless and timeless. When, after a day of driving across Nevada, we reach the California border, it is marked only by a small station at which a woman flags us down and asks if we have any fruit in the car. “Some apples?” I say, wondering what the correct answer is, but she just waves us on, wordlessly, and we glide into a place which is home but not-home, familiar in its proximity to where I grew up but also utterly alien, more akin still to the desert highways we’ve been on than the golden rolling hills and deep Pacific of my youth. The road trip makes evident the fluidity of what’s apparently solid, animates the landscape.

“What appear to us as the fixed forms of the landscape, passive and unchanging unless acted upon from outside,” writes the anthropologist Tim Ingold, “are themselves in motion, albeit on a scale immeasurably slower and more majestic than that on which our own activities are conducted. Imagine a film of the landscape, shot over years, centuries, even millennia. Slightly speeded up, plants appear to engage in very animal-like movements, trees flex their limbs without any prompting from the winds. Speeded up rather more, glaciers flow like rivers and even the earth begins to move. At yet greater speeds solid rock bends, buckles and flows like molten metal. The world itself begins to breathe.”