The Chance Encounters That Change Us

Road_Sign_Welcome_to_California

We may have reached the moon. The world had gotten very flat, but we were about 4,000 feet above sea level, technically in the middle of a state forest — or was it a national forest? There are, happily, many taxpayer-supported forests in the state of California. Too many to count. Some appear to overlap. They make it hard to believe the state contains as many people as Canada. Contains isn’t the right word. The population disperses itself around the state like mercury in a petrie dish, large blobs here and there, tiny beads scattered everywhere else.

Around Gold Lake the residents are here to get away. Few houses are visible from main roads. In the fall of 2012 there were more Romney signs than Obama signs; nearly as many Paul signs as Romney signs. The signs were stuck on the hilly edges of the roads, often the only signifiers that there were residents in this area at all.

The mercury beads up there somehow fell together into a single mass at Gold Lake on a Friday night. Where did all these people come from? Out of the trees. Down their long, hidden, wooded driveways. They brought radios. Some brought generators.

A tense moment in northern California consists of wondering whether you’ll get to a campground too late to get a spot. The routes to get to most campgrounds are long and winding. You start to feel like you’re driving a penny racer, powerless against the scale of what you’re trying to traverse. But there is the view. The drive is an outing unto itself, the way driving used to be. And there is always a campground with an opening somewhere. It turned out that there were so many lakes in this regions — moon-like mineral-rich craters, really, filled with mountain runoff — that even on a sought-after early fall evening, there were more empty spots than full spots.

This night a woman country singer belted out saccharine songs that traveled down the path running along the edge of the lake. As we lost track of how much dark red wine had been poured into or consumed out of dark blue metal camping mugs, we decided that this was a live singer. Maybe on the dock down at the other end of the lake there was a stage, and a real singer, and people gathered around. Sitting on a picnic bench waiting for coals to heat up, this was the scene I imagined. In the dark anything seems possible: good things, bad things, and alcohol is a second cloak over reality.

But there was no applause, and only three seconds between each song, so slowly the fantasy gave out: someone had brought their stereo, and they were just playing music really loudly. This is not why most people go camping: to listen to another person’s music at full volume. But somehow it didn’t feel like an obstruction. It seemed to make sense, perhaps because the people involved came here every weekend. We were “tourists” from a different part of the state, nearly four hours south.

A few minutes later the contents of the skillet reluctantly began to sizzle. A blue LED flashlight resembling a glowstick floated by us on the path. It was attached, we realized after tilting our headlamp-clad heads upward, to a woman. She announced herself with a cheerful “Hi!” and walked over to us, not passing by us as other campers had. She was wearing a long denim skirt, hiking sandals, a t-shirt and a dark brown cowboy hat. Thanks to the wine, or the dark, or more likely, her, the conversation progressed quickly, not with questions of work, which came up only at the very end of an hour-plus-long conversation, but questions of origins. San Francisco felt impossibly far away to this woman and the other campers we talked to that weekend: it was a long way to go, and a long way to come. The woman, for her part, was from Reno, a far shorter distance to come despite being in another state. She was on a camping trip with her boyfriend’s coworkers and their spouses.

We refrained from telling this woman that we were moving back to New York City in a week’s time. At that moment it would have felt like admitting that we’d once killed a man. The Bay Area was chaotic enough, but New York City? We pretended that we were California people until the end. Maybe it would come true, somehow, a spell cast in the night.

What was she? I hardly remember. Maybe a landscape architect. She told us she’d gotten a job after a bout of unemployment when someone got a random glimpse of some plans she’d drawn while she was standing in a post office or some other public place. She’d just happened to be standing next to her future employer that day.

More important, she was an athlete: a runner turned cyclist, and also a former competitive ballroom dancer. She had three daughters, all grown up, whom she’d raised on her own. Once, years ago, she had been traveling back to Reno with her dance partner from a competition in Sacramento when rocks fell onto the winding highway. It was dark and raining. The car collided with an oncoming vehicle and her partner was killed, crushed by the steering column. Our new friend ended up, as she put it, “in a heap” on the floor in front of the passenger seat. She had to be told of the circumstances of the accident. All she remembered was waking up in the hospital.

“Guess how old I am?” she asked us at one point. She had bronzed skin, a long, dirty blonde braid and big blue eyes. She looked like she was in her early 40s — no exaggeration — so we threw out 43, doing some quick math and silently agreeing that she could have had her first child at 17. “54!” she cried, while smoking a cigarette. It was all the sports, I assumed. She told us she often drove around the west by herself on race weekends, sleeping in her van. And she was good, too. A doctor had told she needed to stop running, so she traded running shoes for a bike. She talked about how much concentration it took just to stay on the thin line between the edge of a California or Nevada road and the stream of cars to one’s immediate left — all while going 40 miles per hour. Road cycling in that part of the country is precarious, to say the least, but this woman echoed what so many endurance athletes claim: that cycling gave her purpose, direction, kept her sane.

I got a sinking feeling when she finally walked away, leaving us forever. I had not achieved that admirable state of being while in California, which I think had been the goal. The scenery seemed to have provided sanity enough. I guess I was still young enough that I didn’t need anything to provide me sanity, because I still felt sane. Now, not so much, although maybe the urban jungle I call home again is the cause. As for running, in California, I would go on adventures by myself, spurred to go fast by the threat of mountain lions in the hills near my house. But each run felt impossibly weighty, too big of an event to be repeated the following day. My brain just couldn’t handle it. In other words, I was immature. Days still felt long to me, distinguishable. I didn’t have a routine of any kind — a requirement of anyone who wants to be dedicated to anything. And I hadn’t yet figured out that, as far as running went, mountains were another weapon in my arsenal: that they made me stronger, provided me a better offense against potential competition (with the exception of mountain lions). No: I hated hills and saw no reason to change my point of view. I hadn’t yet realized that there was a whole world of people in this country who run absurd distances in the mountains for fun and sometimes win good money doing so. That a few hundred of them are sponsored. Like them, this woman was living the way so many people out there dream of living. We had gone out there with a similar dream, but I gave it up, badgered by terms like “ought” and “supposed to.”

A college degree — particularly a humanities degree — does not come with instructions, but instead of seeing this as a negative as I long have, I have tried, in the past year, to view it as a plus. Many of us do what we’re “supposed” to do only to wake up five or ten or thirty years later realizing that we hate what we do. Along the way, we may be stressed, overworked, driven by bad habits. In some cases, what we thought we’d be able to do — become a magazine editor, say — is increasingly difficult to achieve now.

I have tried for years to figure out what it means to be American so that I could once and for all become whatever that is. I was born here, my parents raised me by its tenets, if not always in the country itself, and I attended college here. But I’ve preferred to view this country from the outside, from the vantage point of the other places I am “from”: Canada, England. It’s seemed safer, not to mention that I was heavily influenced as a child and adolescent by how those two countries viewed the US. Of course there is no one way to be American, but there is one streak that seems to run through all of us: independence, and a fearlessness about starting from nothing or starting over. When we first came here, we were often doing both: starting over, starting from nothing. And the generations that followed us did the same. This pattern continues today.

The woman from Gold Lake was able to do what she did partly because she had a government that supported her as a single parent. She didn’t spend her weekends looking for dates. She drove around from state to state competing as a cyclist. She worked to make sure her daughters had enough. Now, they were all in college or close to it, all of them athletes of some kind: gymnasts, runners. One had a scholarship. Another had chosen to go to art school in faraway San Francisco. This is only part of her story. I wish I knew the rest. But I do know that she did what she had to, while also managing to do what she wanted to. If only more of us were so brave. TC mark

image – Nicki Varkevisser

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