Sierra City Vacation
Day 2 - August 19, 2002

The cool night air and the river make my dreams pleasant and unconnected, until a scraping noise pulls me awake. It's still dark, but I quickly remember where I am, and in my wakeful state I recall a few noises I'd also heard in the minute before. Crunching noises, like the boot-heels of a very large man.

I don't have time to mull over the interesting fact that I remember hearing something before I was awake to register it. I'm too busy scrabbling for the flashlight. When my hand closes around it, I lie still and think. Should I turn the flashlight on? That would draw attention to myself.

Well, now, the crunching noises indicate a very large animal outside. But is that animal on two legs, or four? Which is worse, a bear, or a human? If it's a bear, it already knows I'm here by the smell, and the flashlight will help scare it away. If it's a man, better to just let him fumble around by himself -- if I'm going to get in a fight, I should at least try and put my pants on first.

I decide to put my pants on, and then turn on the flashlight. The scraping noises continue, in the vicinity of the picnic table. I realize that it's the sound of an animal rummaging in my cooler. That quite surely indicates a bear. Well, I can't just let it destroy the campsite. I turn on the flashlight and unzip the tent, thrusting my feet into the hiking boots placed outside.

I stand up and point the flashlight towards the picnic table just in time to see a medium-sized black bear drop to all fours and dash over to the road, heading for the woods on the other side. My flashlight beam illuminates its black furry head in a halo against each tree. As it passes within fifteen feet of me, I can feel the thud of its paws on the ground as a vibration in my shoes. That is one heavy animal. And it's moving faster than I can run.

I stand around in a daze for a minute, and then walk over to the cooler, which is turned on its side. If it had been latched shut, the bear would have probably torn the lid off, but this cooler has no latch. Food is spread around it in a wide arc. I place the headlamp strap over my forehead and scrape the food back into the cooler. When it's back up on the picnic table, I stand and look around for a better place to store it. That's when I notice the food locker.


It's a large brown box bolted to the base of a tree, with an elaborate latch system too tricky for a bear to defeat. Two coolers like mine could fit inside it easily. That box wasn't here last year. I guess they've been having more trouble with bears.

I walk over to it, twist open the latches, and lift the lid. It's piled high with food. Since the box is located between two campsites, it must be shared between them. There's so much food in here that I'd have to rummage for twenty minutes to wedge my own cooler in.

So here I am, holding the lid to a storage box open in the middle of the night, staring down at a pile of my neighbor's food, just after some loud noises have probably woken up everyone nearby. It looks pretty suspicious.

I shut the lid and walk down the road a ways. Three campsites down I find another storage box, this one empty. I walk back, pick up my cooler, and haul it to the box, then twist down all three latches. I don't really want to put the food in my car just to have a bear rip the doors off, so this box is my best option.

I push off my clothes and slide into bed, staring up at a pre-dawn 6:00am sky. The daylight should keep any more bears away. Funny thing, those crunching sounds. The bear's feet were so heavy that it sounded like a pair of boots. Turning into my pillow, I actually feel relieved that it was a bear, and not some difficult human.

Why are we so constantly afraid of criminals? Psychotic, murderous individuals make up a very small percentage of the population, yet we spend so much of our time on guard, and invest so little trust in strangers. The vast majority of criminals aren't out to kill you. They just want your stuff, for their own use or for the money it brings. The less they see you, the better.

Then, steeped in this paranoia, people wonder why a bear scampers off when confronted with a flashlight beam. It's the same thing, really. A bear just wants your stuff, he doesn't want any trouble with you if he can avoid it. Who knows -- you could have a gun, or big nasty claws, or be the scout for an entire army.

And yet, city folk have this nightmare of a gigantic forest animal tearing their limbs off. Well of course they do. It's how they treat the roast chicken on holidays. It's what the television shows re-hash endlessley at midnight. If some desparate guy makes off with your stuff, it's depressing and frustrating, but when your life is at stake, that's a thrill! Much more exciting to ponder, when the lights are out.

In the end, a nosy bear is just like any other dimwitted, earnest critter. It's crankier and heavier than most, but just as all big cats are eternally jungle dwellers, all bears are eternally forest dwellers. The forest is what they know, and they shy away from anything else. Flashlights and fire will always be alien to them.

This is not to say that bears aren't dangerous. If you act like something else in the forest that a bear understands, it will react in kind. Don't do any pouncing or chasing or running in fear. Crazy bear might mistake you for gigantic turnip... Big two-legged rutabega...

My thoughts fall apart, and I fall back asleep.

I rejoin the world at about 10:00am, just as the day begins to heat up. Chirping birds, fresh air, bright sun ... and an extremely dry nose. I'll be dealing with that for the rest of the week, I assume. And no matter where or how long I sleep, I always wake up with crud in my eyes, and that's why the campstove and a washrag are my highest priority now.

My feet say hello to a fresh new pair of wool socks. I haven't worn socks like these since ... hell, since the last camping trip. Aaaah. A snug fit in the big clunky hiking boots. Now, where's that faucet...

After a few minutes I have a pot of water steaming on the propane stove. The washrag comes off the clothesline and goes into the pot, then onto my face ... rinse, repeat ... okay, now I'm awake. The last fifteen minutes didn't really count.

I haven't gone to the general store for my ice and perishable items yet, so breakfast is a powerbar, some juice, and a handful of corn chips. Strolling while I eat, I observe that the campers next to me have disassembled their entire campsite and packed everything in the car. I raise the lid of the bearbox, and find it completely empty -- so I move my cooler into it. That makes things easier.

Wild Plum campground is not a free site ... one is expected to pay $13.00 a day to camp here. Cash or check goes into an envelope with the site number on it, and the envelope goes into a large metal box by the entrance. In the summer the rangers don't drive by very often to check, but most of the campers are honest anyway, and the box fills up.

I plunder my wallet, and find enough to assemble one day's payment in cash. The sudden impulse to get in the car and drive over to the payment site, perhaps on the way to the general store, puts an expression of dismay on my face. What the hell am I thinking! I'm here to hike!!

Down by the payment box is a bulletin board, where campers can leave notes to each other. While I'm scrawling my number on the envelope, I glance over and see a note that must be for me.

Looks like my friends Zeugma and Torrey made it here before I did. I walk down around the corner, and along to the campsite indicated by the note. It's the very same site that my mother always preferred, back when we had a trailer, and a truck to haul it with. I suppose I could say, "Oh, what a magical coincidence that is! Out of fourty campsites, they chose that one! It must MEEEAN something!" Well, what it means is, it's really the best looking one by far in this half of the campground. No surprise they would take it. There's a tent here, a clothesline, a car ... and a note under the windshield wiper of the car. They've gone on a hike, and won't be back until 4:00.

Well hell, I guess I'll drive to the general store, and take some pictures while they're out. One of my plans for this trip is to explore the ancient Sierra City graveyard, up in the hills behind the town. This mid-day light is perfect for photography. I scrawl a reply onto the note with the pen I used for labeling my fee envelope, and walk to my own campsite, to pack the car.

Sierra City, and the other outpost-sized towns around it, were at the heart of the 'Gold Rush' two centuries ago. Back then, people flooded to this region in order to get gold out, and take it home with them. Nowadays, most people come to this region just to be here for a while, and pursue an entirely different set of activities. To encourage this tourism, Sierra City has a web presence ... you can make cabin reservations over the internet, for example, and get the latest weather reports.

Taking this into account, there's something I don't understand. There is no mention of the Sierra City graveyard anywhere online, except as a single word on a map. I figure that such a remote, almost bizarre site would be a good draw for curious amateur historians, and be well documented by now, but... No pictures, no words ... the only other place I can find it is on the US Geological Survey maps, which are gzipped multi-megabyte 'TIFF' files piled into numbered directories deep in their webserver. I wouldn't even remember it myself, except for an old book I found in the Santa Cruz Public Library once, while working as a page.

It was an amusing, though perhaps macabre, collection of gravestone inscriptions from around the country. I was leafing through it, and read:

Here lie the Jones boys,
Dead as nits.
One died of fever,
The other fits.

--Sierra City, California

Above this was a crude drawing of a grave, with a jolly looking ghost in prospector garb floating up out of it, a lyre under one arm. Oh yeah, great literature happening here, folks. Stand back. I put the book on the shelf, but I remembered the poem and the silly man, and decided one day to visit that graveyard and see if I could find the grave bearing that inscription.

According to the US Geological Survey map, the graveyard is at the edge of town, off a side road. As I drive the car slowly down main street, I realize that even with the lack of other maps, I really don't need to worry about finding the place. Sierra City only has one paved street that doesn't dead-end in a driveway, and off of that loop is only one road that looks large enough to connect to something like a graveyard.

As I turn uphill on the looping street, I pass by two slim white churches, each within thirty yards of the other. I see signs indicating current events happening at each, including a sqing dance. How many of the 220 locals were packed into these churches yesterday morning? Beyond the second church, the road levels off and I see another paved road branching away. A road important enough to be paved is an encouraging sign.

About a hundred feet up this road, wrought iron fence appears uphill on the right, running along a cement retaining wall. Steps built into the wall indicate the entrance to the graveyard. There is no parking of any kind, but farther along is an open space where three driveways branch off, just large enough to park a single car for a while without disturbing anyone. I display my camera prominently on my side, hoping to make my intentions clear before anyone complains about my parking. No one is around, however.

The Sierra City graveyard is built into the hillside as a series of steps, with a central path bisecting it. Smaller paths run out along the steps, until each step peters out along the fringes of the graveyard. At the fringes, the graves simply lean uphill in patches of unbroken grass.

The whole site is surrounded on three sides by fencing of different kinds. Classy wrought-iron for the front, practical chicken-wire between posts on the left side, and rambling wooden fence at the back. The right side of the graveyard opens up to a clearing -- some local's private property, I assume. The ground is rocky everywhere in this valley, but it must have been especially hard to bury people here because of all the trees crowding this hillside. Then again, a graveyard laid in an open field would simply wash away.

Walking up the central path, hearing nothing but a subtle wind in the trees, I notice how small the graveyard actually is. I read the dates on the headstones, and observe that most of these people died at the turn of the century -- 1900. Then, sometime in the 1920's, the locals stopped burying their loved ones here, perhaps because the graveyard simply got too full and they couldn't expand it. There are a few graves from more recent years, the latest one being 1975, and their headstones look so fresh and sharp compared to everything else in the graveyard that I catch myself wondering who would have the nerve to bury a relative here in modern times, messing up the 'authenticity' of the place. Kind of a silly thought, actually.

Another thing I notice, which I find rather convenient, is that some of the graves have additional markers at the front, to compliment the large one at the back. I assume this is so that polite mourners can pay their respects without accidentally standing on top of their deceased relative. It may also serve the additonal purpose of marking the burial site in the interim, from when the grave is filled to when the custom-made headstone arrives from foreign parts. That kind of marble certainly isn't available in a local quarry.

The sunlight and the quiet air make walking in this graveyard incongruously pleasant. A line from Angela Carter's "The Werewolf" floats into my brain: "Graveyards. Those bleak and touching townships of the dead." I spot a lizard sunbathing on a stone wall, but the heat has made it fast, and it zips into the undergrowth when I reach out. I should have made a lasso out a stalk of grass, like tricky children do all over the world.

As I snap pictures here and there, I am surprised to discover some very large, elaborate headstones for children under one year of age, ... sometimes right next to humble, nondescript plots for people who lived into their 70's and 80's. All I can think of to explain the disparity is that distraught parents were trying to give their children the glory in the afterlife that they could not survive to find in life. Or, perhaps a big headstone just means a rich family, eh? I check almost every inscription, but the cute poetry about the 'Jones boys' is nowhere to be found.

The graveyard is relaxing, and if I had lunch with me I would probably eat it next to someone's burial plot just to revel in the cameraderie of living and dead, but I've run out of interesting angles to shoot from, and I'm worried about my parking space. Not that Sierra City is large enough to have a tow-truck. Tromping to the front stairway, I briefly wonder why I don't feel particularly cowed or humble, surrounded by such symbolic evidence of ended lives. I feel as if there should be explanatory signs on posts at regular intervals ... "This is called a cemetery. It's where the early explorers buried their dead. To your right, observe a farmhouse. It's where the early explorers kept their horses."

I can halfway picture it, a hundred years ago, the woods dark all around and the headstones gleaming and fresh. People interred here that the locals had seen, walking and talking, just days before. Perhaps the town was so small, and the mountains so dark and empty, that the living needed to keep the dead around for the extra company.

If you get to Wild Plum Campground only to realize you've left some important piece of equipment behind, you can always cheat. The Sierra City general store usually has one or two of whatever you're missing, tucked into a dusty shelf with a price tag on it to fully compensate for the extra shipping costs involved in hauling the item up here. If you're too poor to shop inside, you can always sit around outside. Locals and visitors alike enjoy kicking back on the covered porch, or waiting at the battered public phone for their turn to make an expensive call to some relative back home, and piss them off by reminding them they're not here.

A 'general store' in the great vacation tradition, in other words. I grab a basket from the stack by the door, and collect some marshmallows, some milk, some eggs, a large bag of ice, some cereal, and a chocolate bar. All the vegetables look terrible, unfortunately. The bell peppers look almost completely dehydrated from the mounrain air. I have the woman at the miniature deli prepare me a sandwich, and pay for everything with the camping-trip cash I'd set aside in my wallet. That was easy.

On the way back to the car I pass a young woman with two toddlers, walking ahead of me. A bent old man in a colorful shirt and glasses is walking the other way, and with a big grin he asks the toddler nearest to him what his name is.

"William!" replies the mother. She nods to her son. "Say hello to the nice man, William!"

The old man squats down and throws his arms out. "Hey, there, William! Come get a hug from your honorary grandfather!"

But the child scampers over to his mother's leg, and rubs one tired eye with his fist, too shy to approach.

"Aww, that's okay." says the man, standing up. He nods to the woman -- "Cute kids!" -- and resumes his fastidious tottering towards the general store.

It's just that kind of small town, I suppose.

Along the way back to the campground, I realize that I'm going to need firewood. Usually, there's a spot along the road here ... ah, this is it. I pull off next to a clearing with a gasoline-powered wood splitter set up in it. A large stack of cut wood is piled between two trees, the pieces tied up into bundles with rough twine. A sign nailed to another tree reads, "Firewood -- $4.00 a bundle", in wacky hand-painted letters.

I get out of the car and look around, but the owner of the woodpile is missing. He could be in either of the two nearby houses, but it doesn't make sense to disturb him. I scan the clearing and locate a rock, then place four dollars on a flat stump near the wood-splitter, with the rock on top. Price paid in full, I drag a bundle of wood into the trunk of my car. Folks around here are honest -- they don't survive as well otherwise. In that sense, it's the exacty opposite of life in the "big city". Must be that whole fear-of-strangers thing, again.

Continuing down Wild Plum road, I pass by a converted mobile home on the right, angled in between the pines and painted a cool aquamarine. From a realtor's website I'd found a week ago, I remember that this property is for sale, for around a hundred thousand. If I had a steady income, I'd consider buying it. On the other hand, as my father says, I am "-- to young, and have too many things to do, to move way up into the mountains yet." Yeah, that's probably true, but ... give me a decent net connection, and I could live here for months at a time, I reckon. Heh heh heh. Does that make me a weirdo?

As I trundle slowly over the sharp rocks on the campground road, I notice the huge rock in the river that marks the old swimming hole. In decades past, that rock was not visible from the road, but a gigantic storm a few years ago sent a flood of water down this river, cutting deeply into the banks on both sides. The torrent overwhelmed even the largest trees, knocking them down or washing them away, leaving behind a wide concourse of naked round rocks that the river now trickles meekly between. Happily, the swimming hole next to the giant rock is still full of water, and the rock is still just as good a diving board as before. The spot has lost most of it's charm, however, without the trees around to conceal it.

The local rangers say that this sort of disastrous flooding has happened at least once every thirty or fourty years, according to their records. I found that hard to believe at first, but as the foliage crept closer to the riverbank each year, reclaiming it, I began to accept the idea. If I take children camping here some day, their memories will be fixed with the region looking like it does now ... and the next massive flood will disorient them the same way.

I get back and pack my groceries into the cooler, then dump the ice-bag out on top of them. Zeugma and Torrey are not back yet, and it's only 2:00pm, so I decide to take advantage of the sunlight by hiking up the river. I do it at least once every time I camp here. I rip everything out of my backpack and stuff in a bottle of water and my camera, slip on the welding gloves I like to wear for rock climbing, and tromp down to the riverbank. From there it's a strict policy of adhering to the river, hopping from rock to rock, trying to avoid dunking my shoes in. I've gotten quite good at it over the years.

Primitive looking plants grow all along this river, and others like it in the Sierras. Some day I'll have to figure out the names of some of them. Deadfalls and accumulated brush from previous years of flooding make the way treacherous. Standing up from a successful jump, I bump my head on the underside of a bony tree, poking sideways out over the rocks. Luckily, my mysterious green hat absorbs the roughness of the impact.

I hop by the water purification plant, on my right. A chunky cement building about the size of a cable car, with a large gap cut under it that a fringe of the river pools into. This station provides fresh drinkable water to the campsites below ... or at least, it usually does. This year the machinery and piping has been chlorinated to eliminate some kind of bacteria, and needs further testing. No big deal; one can still boil the chlorine out into gas, also killing any bacteria. I've always been amused by the idea that we can drink bacteria and get sick, but we can drink a billion corpses of bacteria and be fine. (I mean, what's a dead bacterium gonna get? Infected? Hee hee hee!)

Beyond the building and around the next bend is a large red boulder with several creases in it. This is often the stopping point for most river explorers, coming up from the campsite. They sit on the rock, wade into the pool beneath it, have lunch, take a nap in the creases of the rock, and then turn back. My ex2 once waded into the pool here, after taking her shoes off. Very brave of her, considering how cold the water was. I think she was encouraged by the presence of another family at the rock, and two kids playing at the shore of the pool. She always felt calmer around children -- they're unpretentious and easy to read, and she was very good at playing with them as well as looking after them. That vacation seems like a lifetime ago, now, but there's that very same rock. Funny what memories a simple hike can trigger.

Eventually I reach the first waterfall. Over countless years the river has carved a deep channel between two hillsides of compressed rock. If hikers have a very high tolerance for cold water, they can swim up the channel and paddle around at the impact zone. I don't think I've ever made it there, though I remember several of my friends succeeding in various years past. I snap a half-dozen pictures with the digital camera, cursing all the while that I really should read the instruction manual more. The contrast of sunlight and shade on opposite halves of the channel gives me trouble.

From here, I have no choice but to pause my rock-hopping and leave the river, and climb up the hills on either side. The welding gloves make the detour much easier, providing wrist protection and insulation against the sharp rocks. Everyone should have a pair of these, really.

At the crest of the rocky escarpment, I sit down for a rest, and suddenly notice that every single thing in the vicinity desparately needs to be photographed. That shutterbug impulse again. I take a self portrait, and get a picture of some interesting looking moss, as well as an avalanche of other things that don't turn out as well. Bracken that's too contrasty, complex branches that look like a mess in two dimensions, distant trees that are impossible to distinguish from their background. That sort of thing. Suddenly I realize that I should really be looking at each potential shot with one eye closed, to make sure it resolves itself properly without depth. I squint and wink at everything for another ten minutes, clicking off even more semi-tolerable pictures.

Yeah, well, it's all fun. The route down to the river involves some serious rock climbing, and gets very treacherous, but that feels fun too. What an excellent day! Back by the river, squatting to frame another picture, it occurs to me that I have to concentrate on being here, as well as documenting everything.

I take a deep breath, smelling the air, and look around me several times, taking in the foliage, the gigantic blue and grey rocks, the sparkle on the hissing river.

Mmmyep. Here I am. Okay, next picture!

George Carlin's rant about adults with video cameras comes bouncing into my brain as I hop around the next ridge. His exasperated voice cries out, "What ever happend to just remembering things?!" I laugh to myself, and take another picture of an odd looking divot carved into the side of a boulder by ancient flooding activity. Sure, I remember things. Like, I remember where I keep all my pictures.

Seriously, though, it's a good point. Sometimes documenting an activity corrupts, or even entirely replaces, the activity itself. We can't all march through life like zombies with VCRs taped to our heads. Someone once said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." Immediately, someone else added the smart-aleck qualification, "Yeah, but the unlived life is not worth examining."

I have to detour around two more waterfalls before I get too tired to stay with the river. At one point I attempt to take a shortcut by climbing a bleached log leaning out of a pool up onto a rocky prominence, and slip on the log, dunking my feet into the water. It's rather embarrassing, and I try to climb the log several more times before giving up. What finally turns me around is the thought of breaking my neck before I get back to the campsite, where that fresh pastrami sandwich is waiting for me. That would be a bummer, not getting that fresh pastrami sandwich.

The path that I find nearby feels very familiar, and I realize that I'm standing at the area where the river used to make a sequence of three pools. My friend Brent took my aunt's boyfriend fishing here once. We had trouble working the hook out of a hapless undersized fish, nearly killing it, and my aunt's friend, who was a quantum physicist by trade, fainted at the sight of the poor fish in pain. Now the rocks forming those three pools are blasted up the hillside, and scattered half a mile downstream. The place we stood at no longer exists.


But hey -- different leaves, different water, different fish, different air ... why not different rocks as well?

I pack my gloves away for the hike on the trail. Away from the constant airflow at the river, the mosquitos now come careening in to steal my blood. When I get to the top of the hill and the forest opens into scrubland, the sunlight drives them back again. The path forks, two snaky ribbons of loose brown gravel running downhill to the left and right.

I turn left, and descend into the woods again. Sunlight trips and slithers down through a mixed variety of trees, falling in beams onto clumps of intense green, as if anchored to the plants there. The absence of sound, even of the hissing river, enhances the feeling of an infinite wilderness.

For a time, I forget that I exist at all. I am caught up in the immediate input of my senses, and the instantaneous presence of my environment ... not the impact of the gravel on my boots, but the solid fact of the gravel itself. Not just the rough texture of a tree against my hand, but the undeniable reality of the tree, it's roots packed in around soil and rock, it's leaves mingling with the surrounding chaos of the air, asserting it's presence in each individual moment as an integrated part of what is. People ask, "if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" But aside from the basic irrelevance of the question, the woods around me force an additional thought to the front of my mind. I can explore and observe and build and destroy all I like, but in any given moment, I exist no more or less than anything else -- no more or less than anything I can explore, or observe, or build, or destroy.

So how's this different from the dimestore philosophical statement, "Dude, all is one, dude!" It's not really. But having a vague, smeared impression of a concept, conveniently stripped to two or three words and handed to you, is one thing. Scrutinizing the fine grain of your reality, and personally discovering that concept staring back at out you, is something else entirely.

Anyway, I come to the end of the path, and encouter the logging road that leads down to the campground. A large truck with a winch attachment on the front, and a U.S. government plate on the back, is parked in the ditch. I continue crunching down the road around a corner, and in a minute the same truck comes creeping down after me.

I stand at the edge of the road, partway up on the hill, and watch it pass. An entire family is piled into the cab, along two rows of seats. I wave to the bushy-bearded man at the wheel, and he nods his head. From a back seat, his teenage son waves through an open window, looking almost comically grave and serious. When they pass I wait for the dust to settle a bit, before smiling to myself and walking on.

Since when did I become the big respectable looking man that young travelers wave to in order to feel grown-up? That transition must have happened in the last four or five years ... I'm not sure exactly when. I don't really feel that different. The change must be all external. Maybe it's this mysterious hat.

So, a family working together at a government job, as rangers perhaps. Must be an interesting life. Watching the trees bounce by, I remember my last intersection of family and park rangers. My ex2 dated a man six years her senior, after we broke up, who was a park ranger in Yosemite. Took kids on nature hikes. Big buffed man, but also a nice guy, from what I heard. I didn't resent him for any of that, at least until my ex2 refused to introduce him to me, because she was afraid that we wouldn't get along.

Since I never got to meet the guy, he was reduced to some kind of caricature in my mind. I envisioned him as this smug, independent, mysteriously friendless guy, clever enough to seduce her, unscrupulous enough to do so even though she was clearly too young for him. Attractive enough to distract her from her problems, forceful enough push her insecurities aside, convincing enough to make her ignore the advice of her friends and family, and move out into the middle of nowhere with him, and be his captured animal.

A pretty dark impression, of course. But if I never see her again, her future isn't really my concern. However much the past fascinates me is however much I am distracted from the future. I feel like a sailor in the middle of the ocean, trying to figure out where I am by staring at the wake of my own ship and thinking really hard about waves. Maybe I should go hold the wheel, instead.

I strip down by the tent, without bothering to go inside it. That's the sort of thing you can do when you're the only camper in an entire section of campground. The wool socks are actually soggy, with river water and accumulated sweat, so I pin them on the clothesline and put on my swimsuit.

The river is absolutely freezing, and the extreme cold accentuates the roughness of the rocks under my feet, and I dance around jerkily. All the splashing does rinse the sweat off, though. After a mere two minutes I can't stand it any more, and come charging up towards the campsite again, going "Hooo Hah!!" and "GARRRRGGGH!" and "FUHh Wuhh WUhh BUhh" and all that.

I change into fresh clothes, and lay back on my matress in the tent, looking up through the clear mesh at the trees again. "There's that same feeling," I think. "I really, really wish I had a nice girl with me, here in this tent. In fact, I can't understand why there isn't one here. On a camping trip this good, a girl should just come wandering out of the forest, and say, 'Aren't you forgetting something?'"

Weird thought. It has a certain appeal, though. I reclaim my sandwich and milk from the cooler, and sit down at the picnic table to devour a late lunch. Halfway through the sandwich, I hear an approaching vehicle, and look up to see a familiar car lumbering along the road. It pulls to a stop next to mine, and Zeugma and Torrey get out.

"'Allo, there!" says Torrey.

"We've come to invade your campsite!" says Zeugma, grinning toothily.

It's only a three minute walk between the two campsites. Talking around a mouthful of pastrami, I shout "You people drove here?!"

"Well, we had to pack up all our stuff..." Zeugma strides to the back of the vehicle in his action-packed way and lifts up the trunk. It's brimming with camp supplies.

We unload those, and then take the car bumbling back over to the old campsite, to load up the rest. I tell them the story of my encounter with the bear while they dismantle their tent, and finish it just as they set the tent back up at my campsite. We sort the supplies, hang some more clothesline, and then sit around reading. I type on the laptop for a bit, and show off the pictures I'd taken earlier.

At the picnic table, I catch up with Torrey. We talk about school, then a few old friends, then work. My dilemma with moving and job hunting becomes a magic wand ... every time the conversation lulls, I just bring it up again, and we take off on some entirely new tangent. Workmates, eccentric college professors, the appearance differences between people in Santa Cruz and people in Southern California, the economic downturn of the computer industry...

While we're building a fire, the discussion segues from that into the observation that everyone's idea of a good time in Southern California, no matter what it is, involves alcohol in some way. Whether it's a bar, a party, a picnic, a bonfire, a dance, a restaurant ... it seems hard to avoid. None of us can really explain why.

We cook pasta on the stove, and Torrey unwraps the rest of a tabouli salad. For dessert we lounge around immolating marshmallows and devouring their crispy hides, then Zeugma reads aloud from a very interesting book about the history of the science of chemistry ... Interesting as much for it's uncommon subject matter as for the detailed quality of the writing.

Though I was first ambivalent about having my solitude interrupted, over the course of the evening I realize that Zeugma and Torrey are a pleasure to have around. We have reached that stage in a friendship where we are fully allowed to either talk, or not talk, as the mood takes us, and the silent presence of the other person is not a palpable silence. We water down the coals and pack away the food in the bearbox, and when Zeugma and Torrey turn in, I sit up taking notes on the laptop for a few hours more.

When I look up at the little clock in the corner I am startled to see that it's 2:00am. I slouch groggily up towards my own tent, happily anticipating the next day and the trip to Sand Pond.

Day Three