Monday, June 22, 2015

Rockin' In the Free World

Moonrise Over the Eastern Sierra from Tuttle Creek
We got a thousand points of light
For the homeless man
We got a kinder, gentler,
Machine gun hand
We got department stores and toilet paper
Got styrofoam boxes for the ozone layer
Got a man of the people, says keep hope alive
Got fuel to burn, got roads to drive.
-Neil Young, Rockin' in the Free World

 
Friday Night. Tuttle Creek campground in the Alabama Hills. You won't hear me say it very often, but it's a beautifully warm evening. The encroaching night has taken the edge off of the day's sweltering heat. Stars blink brightly above the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada. The waxing crescent moon hangs in the darkening sky.

Across the dirt road, in campsite no. 3 sits a solitary old man reading a book. A motorcycle is parked at the entrance to his site. He had waved to us as we pulled in and then walked back to the camp entrance to register our site. We waved back at him. After we set up and got situated, we crossed the road to offer him a beer. It seemed like the neighborly thing to do.

Not knowing him and his tastes, we gave him options. A fancy craft beer from LA or a blue-collar no-name beer from Trader Joe's. He contemplated his choice for a moment before reaching for the fancy craft beer. He held it lovingly in his hands as we began to talk.

He was 71 years old with a comfortable ease about him. He was clean. Articulate. Lucid. Well spoken. He was traveling across America on his motorcycle. He was a retired vagabond. A modern day Captain America. That resonated with us. And we told him so.

But as we continued to talk to him, it became apparent that his romantic tale of adventure was nothing more than lipstick he was putting on the homeless pig. He said he received $700/month in social security benefits. Was married for 40 years to the same women who left him after he paid $30,000 for her to get a face-lift. He liked the desert because it was safer than the city. He could trust campers. They typically don't steal your stuff.

He asked us if we were academics. We pondered that for a moment before telling him "no." He replied that that was unfortunate. He had a math problem that he had been working on for decades that he wanted to discuss with a mathematician. No one would give him the time. Even at public academic institutions. "No disrespect, but people like you guys normally ignore me too" he told us. "The rest just try to rip me off."

He spoke about the "point to noise ratio" and how it was lower in the desert than in the city. We nodded in agreement although neither of us knew what the fuck he was talking about. Later, we thought that perhaps he was referring to the quality of human interactions in relation to their number. But that is just speculation. Whatever he intended, he seemed to want meaning from encounters with his fellow travelers.

He asked us what we were doing. We explained that we were going to backpack into the Cottonwood Lakes the next day. He looked perplexed. Why he asked? Adventure, fun, sublimity we told him. We were looking to reduce the noise too. He remained confused.

As the conversation waned and the sky darkened, he told us he couldn't drink the beer we had offered. Something about his past. He had demons and needed to keep them away from his campsite. We understood and reached to reclaim our gift. He stared long at the now warm can in his hands and then relinquished it. Reluctantly.

We left early the next morning as the rising sun began to paint the mountains in alpenglow. The old man was up and waved to us as we pulled out. We drove to the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitors Center in hopes of scoring a walk up permit. When we arrived, there was already a line. After separating those with reserved permits from those of us without, the ranger in charge had us draw numbers from a hat to determine the order in which we would be called. There were 14 of us who drew numbers. I drew number 13 and tried to horse trade with the others. The only person who showed interest was the poor slob who drew number 14.

When my number was called, I stepped up and informed the ranger that we wanted to go into the Cottonwood Lakes Basin. He stared a the screen for a moment. There were 4 permits available. Surprisingly, they had been available since the day before. We took two and gave thanks to the mountain gods for allowing us in.

And the mountains delivered. As they always do and will. The crisp blue skies. The cool green forests. The deafening silence. The goddamn freedom of it all. But I couldn't shake the old man. As much as I tried to ignore him like "my type" always does, he kept invading my thoughts. His noise ratio is high. What will happen when he gets too old and feeble to handle his motorcycle? What if he gets rolled? Will anyone pay attention to him and his math problem? Will they listen? How will he get by if he has a major medical expense? Or a repair bill? $700/month is pretty skimpy and he's living on the razor's edge now.

I don't know what will happen to the old man of Tuttle Creek. But I liked him. And I'm worried.

Daybreak Along the Eastern Sierra
The Cottonwood Lakes Trail
Entering the John Muir Wilderness
The Cottonwood Lakes Basin
Trail Signage to Muir Lake
Less Frequently Visited Muir Lake
Muir Lake's Western Shoreline
Bring on the Night
First Light
Muir Lake in the Morning
More Muir Lake
View East from the Muir Lake Trail
Exploring the Cottonwood Lakes Basin
The Cottonwood Lakes Basin
View Towards Old Army Pass
Cottonwood Lakes No. 1
 

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