I've been a night owl for most of my life, but here in the campground, with the light of dawn creeping in through the fabric of the tent, I find myself awake at 6:00am. I rotate endlessley in the bed, trying to think sleepy thoughts, but my body remains stubbornly engaged.
Well, there's one reliable cure for this. I'll get up, get dressed, and have breakfast. Once all that's done, and I'm all ready for the day, the sandman -- perverted schemer that I know him to be -- will march me right back into the tent fully clothed, and force me to sleep right through lunch. That's how this usually works on vacations.
But clothing, the washrag, and breakfast all come to pass ... my fatigue clings to me like a wet leather snowsuit, but the sandman has apparently jilted me today. I walk down to the creek while Zeugma and Torrey read books, and lay back on a large rock, attempting to nap. The rock bulges, and my arms drift behind my head like outspread wings. Through my sunglasses I see the flawless blue sky like a vast ocean. I feel like the carving on the prow of a ship as big as the whole world, pushing out into that ocean. And yet, I do not sleep.
I wander aimlessley around the campsites next to ours. I lie down on a picnic table, and feel the light creep rapidly up my body as the sun rises, leaving me in chilly shade. I sit up to track the progress of the sunbeam, and realize that I'm resting on the table that Android carved words into, seven years ago.
Lying on the picnic table in my threadbare state, I wonder what to do with the day. Perhaps today will be set aside for extreme laziness, recovering from yesterday's hike and the impending Upper Sardine climb. Yeah, that sounds good. Zeugma and Torrey appear perfectly content to hang around reading books, and Sand Pond is a fine place to do that, and to take naps. I walk groggily back up to the campground, and propose that we all drive up there today.
While we're packing for the afternoon, I spot a nicely illuminated log behind the campsite, and convince Zeugma and Torrey to pose on it for a picture. Doing so reminds me that I have to read the instruction manual more, so I toss that, the camera, a towel, and my swim trunks into my backpack. Maybe the material will be so boring that I fall asleep at Sand Pond.
We sit at the table and make sandwiches. "You know," remarks Torrey, "I just realized that all of the pictures we have of us together were taken by you."
"What can I say, I'm a shutterbug."
I play some drum-and-bass music for Zeugma and Torrey as we grind over the road out of the campsite. It's a sequence from the KZSC radio-show tapes I've just converted to MP3 format. The music is from the same era as the last major camping trips I took to Sierra City, almost a decage ago, and adds to my own little retro experience this week. Hissing cymbals bounce around the interior of the car as we climb an additional 1000 feet up the gracefully undulatng highway 49.
"Is all drum-and-bass this improvisational?" asks Zeugma.
"Generally, no. It's often lower quality than this." My smugness shines through!
We roll into the Lower Sardine lake parking lot, and collect our gear. People staying at the lodge connected to Lower Sardine usually park here. From the lodge they rent fishing boats, and paddle out onto the lake to catch the fish that lodge officials stock the lake with. I don't really go for that whole fishing gig. I don't understand the appeal, really.
We turn away from the lodge entrange, and take a short walk to the far side of Sand Pond, where fewer tourists usually set up. Sand Pond is microscopic compared to Lower Sardine lake -- a silt-bottomed puddle at the head of a marsh, so shallow you can almost walk from one side to the other. The same iron-hard logs have been drifting around in it for as long as I can remember, providing handy flotation for the kids. During the winter, the logs must freeze under the ice of the pond right along with everything else -- but for the rest of the year, the water of Sand Pond is much warmer than that of Lower Sardine, making it an ideal place for folks to splash around in and eat lunch next to. Today all the picnic tables are vacant, so we choose the one in the center of the clearing.
I drop my tired self on a towel, making no attempt at all to hide from the sun. In my dazed state, the heat on my back is worth the obvious risk of sunburn. I turn a few times, trying to cook evenly, but mostly I drift on the edge of consciousness, thinking about yesterday's hike, about the camping trips of the past, about nothing in particular.
The years spent away from Sierra City threaten to fold together, disappearing like the bellows of an accordion, erasing a giant section of my life. The year in Davis, the time at UCSC, everything in southern California -- vanished. And me, lying on a towel between consciousness and sleep, stirring what fragments remain, in the vague unconnected language of a dream that will fade entirely when I am awake. That all-too-familiar feeling of existential terror squeezes at the very edges of my mind, poisoning my relaxed state with a single observation -- one I cannot defend myself from -- one that I cannot find any way to discredit or turn aside:
Reality is no more vivid than the dreams I have every night. Not one tiny bit more.
When I was younger, and my horrifying dreams would pursue me up out of sleep with such vehemence that I would fly out of my bed and awake on the floor, I was too busy being directly scared to think about the ramifications of it. I would drag my sleeping bag upstairs and curl up outside the door of my parents' room, wanting to be as close to them as possible, but not wanting to disturb their own sleep. There I would stay, safe until the morning.
Everything was more intense back then. My emotions were much closer to the surface of my skin, and the world was a vast unknown. Now that I'm older, more laid back, and more experienced, my emotions have sunk into a comfortable neutrality for much more of the time.
Except when I fall asleep.
I've learned how to control my dreams, just as I've formed a grasp of the waking world, in order to avoid the worst trouble. Waking up when things start to go awry. Forcing myself to leave bad places. Sometimes a dream takes me by surprise, but usually I can anticipate it. With all this going on, however, I've started to wonder... From moment to moment, how can I really tell when I'm awake, and when I'm not? All I have to rely on is memories ... and in a dream, my memory can be incorrect, or flawed ... or entirely missing.
Lying on the towel at Sand Pond, these old thoughts flicker around my head yet again. It's an issue I will probably never settle, as long as I live. As Lau-Tzu said, am I a man dreaming I am a butterfly -- or a butterfly dreaming I am a man -- or neither, or both, or...?
Sunburn, however, is not burdened by issues of consciousness. By the end of the day my face will be red, and have that spongy sunburn feeling -- a feeling that partly comes from not getting the usual feedback from roasted nerve endings. I'll put my hand to my face and not be able to feel it there. Blargh.
The sun creeps away from my little glade, and I move the towel closer to the water, and flip through the instruction booklet for my camera. While Zeugma and Torrey read their books, I try a few experiments, catching a distant tree with the zoom. When I stand up and show the picture to Torrey, we spot a bird in flight high over Sand Pond. I quickly set the camera to 'continuous autofocus', zoom it all the way in, and snap a few shots. We're pretty sure it's a hawk, looking for lunch.
Speaking of lunch! Let's eat. The sandwich is hummus, tomatoes, lettuce, and onions, on seedy wheat bread. It turns out to be so delicious, I snap a picture to remember it by. Envigorated by the meal, I decide to go for a swim.
For that I'll need to change into my swimsuit. It's here in my backpack, but I don't feel like stripping down with all these people nearby. Perhaps I can use a bathroom for that purpose. Besides, the sandwich has kicked my bowels into action, and I'd rather get rid of the ballast before I go swimming.
Sand Pond only has outhouses like the ones at the campground. Dozens of pesky flies whirl around in the stall, and the acid chemical smell burns my sinuses. I manage to get my shorts on, but the idea of sitting exposed on the toilet with flies marching all over my ass is too much. Perhaps the lodge at Lower Sardine has better facilities.
On my way to the lodge I pass by the cabins, which lightweight vacationers can rent for a premium. Each one has a shower, a small kitchen, and a number of beds. The larger ones have a front porch, facing the lake, with a bench wide enough to sleep on at night. These cabins are cheap enough to be very popular during the prime vacation months, but as I walk the wide dirt trail this late in the season, only half the ones I pass are occupied.
I pass an occupied one, to my left. A large bristly Korean-looking man is lounging on the front porch, his wooden chair leaned back against the rough-hewn logs of the cabin. His expression is serene, despite the half-dozen small children playing on the steps of his porch, making the incredible noise that only a group of small children at play can possibly create. Then again, maybe he's happy because all his kids are in plain view for a change, and he doesn't have to worry about 'em.
A nice theory. Maybe sometime I'll have direct evidence enough to prove it. On second thought, no. Six kids is way too many, for me. I'll leave the oversize family rearing to this guy.
He glances up. "Howdy!" he says, through his grin.
I raise my hand. "Howdy!" I say, in automatic response, and walk on.
At that moment I realize something that should have been obvious to me, after all these years. The word "Howdy" is a shortened version of the polite english greeting, "How do you do?" Why didn't I notice that before? It reveals the mannered english culture that settlers in the wild west brought in with them. But ... "Howdy" is such a ... cowboy thing! I just can't imagine Wyatt Earp moseying up to some newcomer in a saloon, spurs ringing on the hardwood floor, and saying, "How do you do?"
I arrive at the lodge -- a two-story cabin with the workings of a restaurant built into it, and a broad deck scattered with chairs and tables. The tablecloths wave gently in a mild breeze, broken by the tree trunks from a stronger wind coming over the lake. The site is very picturesque, but not what I'm looking for: A poster tacked by the stairway announces that the lodge does not, in fact, have any bathrooms at all. Patrons need to use the one in their cabin, or the outhouses back at Sand Pond. Rats.
I turn back, walking along the rim of the lake. The trees shrink into bushes, and the bushes peter out as I walk onto the slope of the dike that keeps Lower Sardine from spilling out and drowning Sand Pond. Some of the water has to flow, and for that there is a fish trap. This is a wide concrete channel at the far end of the dike, perfectly level with the water, and gently sloped so that the flow is not turbulent near the edge. The idea is that fish are not inclined to swim near it, or get sucked into it, and the structure never clogs or rusts like a drainpipe. Excess water from Lower Sardine lake runs casually down the ramp, through a short muddy creek, and into the general swamp of Sand Pond. The whole area is just fascinating to little kids, who like to swipe rocks from Lower Sardine and place them on the ramp, making the sheet of water spray over them in smooth cones and push them slowly into the creek below.
I've played on the ramp many times in the distant past, but have no urge to now. Later generations have also discovered it. As I walk down the gritty side of the dike, I watch a small boy emerge from the creek and begin his barefoot journey to Sand Pond. He walks painfully over the sharp rocks, trying to put each foot down as gently as possible, waving his arms in that exaggerated Scooby-Doo dance we all learned as children.
This particular kid's goofy behavior is intensified by his weight, as it places extra pressure on each foot -- he's so fat he appears to be developing breasts. I pause and marvel, inwardly, at the unfairness of our Western attitude towards obesity. A child this young, and we already blame him for his condition. Yet, his diet cannot possibly be worse than mine was at his age. This is pretty direct evidence that weight is a factor of genetics, much more so than anything else, and is something entirely out of this child's control. But no one thinks. They would rather not think. And so this kid's peers will make his adolescense, and eventual adulthood, miserable for no good reason.
If anybody wants proof that life is unfair, here it is, dancing over to the softer banks of Sand Pond on sensitive American feet. Perhaps the obesity problem in this country is less a factor of diet and more a factor of large people just breeding faster around here. Thoughts?
I take a final glance at Lower Sardine before rounding the bend. All those fishing boats, loaded with people, and all that expensive fishing gear ... just so they can hook dimwitted fish by the lips. Fish that were poured into the lake by other people, earlier that year. I'll never understand the appeal of fishing. So expensive, compared to a hike or a good swim, or a deck chair and a good book. More of George Carlin's wisdom leaks into my brain. "You see these guys on the freeway, in a big truck, hauling a trailer, a boat, a jet-ski, two snowmobiles, two ATVs, a second car, four bicycles, a lunar excursion module, and a small deep-sea diving bell. Doesn't anybody just take a fuckin' walk any more?"
Of course, I'm not one to talk. I own a laptop for god's sake. The most complicated portable gadget in all of human history, and I take it everywhere I go and rely on it for driving directions, photo editing, letter writing, chit-chat, music, cooking tips, and even earning money. We all have our little self-perpetuated obsessions. How much fishing gear is a laptop worth?
I creep carefully into Sand Pond, wincing at the 'cold' water and whining to Torrey about it. She and I swim around, chatting happily about previous camping trips, Santa Cruz and Carlsbad, and the value of regular exercise. We both make it out to one of the ancient logs drifting near the far shore, and clutch it from beneath so our arms are not exposed to the chilly wind that occasionally comes gusting off the mountainside. We can hear it roll through the trees half a mile away before it reaches us.
I dive around a bit, and squish my feet on the silty bottom. When I was younger I thought weird creatures lived in it, and would squirm around if I stepped on them. All kinds of creepy animals could be hiding in the aquatic plants, too, ... just hanging out, being creepy. I didn't want my feet anywhere near them. Now, I tromp merrily over the plants without even considering it, and of course no critters emerge. Just fluffy dust clouds. On the face of it, this would indicate that the world gets less strange as you age ... yet, that hasn't been true so far. The more things I do and people I meet, the more I am surprised to discover that things are never quite what I expected. I expected creepy critters, I got dust clouds. I expected to remain a nerd, then I somehow developed a social life. I expected to marry my ex2, but in the end we decided to break up.
A funny thought, that. The bitterness about the whole thing has passed, since I realized that even if we had remained together, our time would end anyway, when we die of old age. It all eventually ends, here or there, now or then. And so, the value of the time we did spend together, remains undiminished. In fact, it grows more valuable with it's relative brevity.
More old-person thoughts. This was certainly not how I felt when it was all crashing down around my ears.
I take a final lap with Torrey, out to the log and back. The exercise feels great, and so does the lounging around at the picnic table afterwards, drying off. By early evening it seems like we've each thoroughly enjoyed Sand Pond, and so we pack our things and drive back the way we came.
Back at the campsite, I exchange damp shorts for pants, and put on thick wool socks. In the privacy of my tent, looking up at the serene evening forest through the mesh dome, I am siezed again by the sudden urge to grab someone and kiss them. Oh well ... Nothing I can do about it.
I walk over to the picnic table where Torrey is sitting, and grab the keys to my car, which I'd dumped on the table earlier before changing clothes. I announce to Torrey, "And now, like Alex says, it's BACK TO THE HACK!" I sit in the passenger seat of the car and arrange my laptop on the glove compartment, and mess with photos until dinnertime. Ah, what a life.
We chop up vegetables and toss them into a large pot, with some olive oil and pepper. Squash, onions, carrots, potatoes, and broccoli. We then divide the contents of the pot into three equal portions, on tinfoil sheets. I rake the coals in the campfire with my leather gloves, and wedge the packets in.
We sit around the fire, impatiently watching our food cook. Zeugma checks his watch three times. Torrey suggests we tell a round-robin story to take our mind off dinner, and I start one off innocuously with a half-man half-moose who lives in a fairytale forest. We decide to tape-record the whole thing, and two hours later we've eaten our food, and brought the story to a close just as the fire dies out.
I walk the garbage down the road to the dumpster. On the way back I observe the way the light from each propane lantern makes a little pod of activity inside the shadowy cocoon of dark forest. In each of these pods is a different family, a different collection of individuals creating their own memory of the campground between themselves.
Approaching my own campground, I realize I have made a transition. I know that this gathering is significant and special, yet I do not feel a very intense urge to write about it. If I write about it, I encapsulate it as a story I can revisit and refer to later on. If I don't write about it, it quickly fades into the chaos of my increasingly crystalline memory, like an echo is lost in mountain peaks.
It's ironic that, as I age, the possible repeats of this experience have diminished with my shorter remaining time, yet I am also less inclined to preserve and document the experience, and more content just to live it. Or perhaps that is not ironic at all ... one preserves memories with the intent of reviewing them later, and perhaps I value the memories less, as my future time to meditate on them has decreased. Perhaps now is more the time for doing things. As my english teacher of six years ago cautioned me, "Remember that you must also act. Do not be content to just gather data forever."