Sierra City Vacation
Day 1 - August 18, 2002

All too often a vacation journal ends up as interesting as a laundry list. I made an honest effort to avoid this by jotting down the thoughts I had along the way, in a much abused PalmPilot. Hopefully these will add some character to the endless parade of photographs and statistics.

More people would love camping if it wasn't for the dirt. You can boast all you like about "roughing it" in the woods, taming the wilderness with a blanket, a pocketknife, and a sack of granola, but I find that the true distinction of a camping trip is that people stop bathing. For this reason, I highly reccommend you camp way up in the mountains, where the thin dry air will hamper your sweat, and destroy your sense of smell.

My family has gone camping to the same grounds for three generations now. We live in many places, the majority of us scattered up and down the west coast, but a few of us always find our way back to the old site in northern California. Wild Plum campground is 4000 feet up in the Sierras, near the aptly named Sierra City. Well, the 'Sierra' part is appropriate, anyway. With a population of 224, it hardly qualifies as a city.

That number has not changed much over the years, either. Sierra City is mostly an outpost, with a few die-hard locals around to maintain the equipment that the tourists use. Snowmobiles, for example, are very popular in the winter months when the entire mountain range is frozen. Several private citizens and small shops will rent you a snowmobile, but these loud, powerful, treaded beasts are not cheap.

In fact, going on a winter vacation there is tougher in every way. To reach Wild Plum campground in the winter you need a four-wheel-drive truck with chains on the tires. I have neither truck nor chains, but it's a lucky coincidence that I prefer camping in the late summer. Besides, I like to do my hiking without wearing skis, and you can't roast marshmallows over a propane stove. At least, not without making a complete mess of your stove.

So I've been looking forward to this late August trip for most of the year. This Sunday, it's finally underway.

I wake up on my blue pad, in the living room of my friend Android's house, in Sacramento. Android and his wife Amber are enjoying their Sunday at home. What's the first thing I do when I wake up? Head for the shower! This is going to be the last hot shower I get for six days, so I've got to enjoy it and get as clean as possible. Aaaaaah.

Outside, Android is working on the truck he just bought. The previous owner of the truck, a prematurely aged tweeker (meth addict) with the usual delusions of skill, has swapped the manual transmission with an automatic transmission she found in a junkyard. She did all the work herself, while tweeked out, and held everything in place with plastic zip-ties. Android has had to cut hundreds of the damn things to get at the engine, and is now applying shrink-tubing to a transmission cable with his soldering iron.

Some people work on cars because they like to. They lower the frame, they paste on a loud irritating exhaust tip, they dick around with neon tubing and booty-bass. Not Android. Every time he has worked on a car, he has done it because the car needs it, and because he needs the car to work. His skills are a lot more thorough and practical, for this reason. I've seen him pound struts into place with a rock from the side of the road. I've watched him disassemble an entire engine and transmission, replace two parts in the pile, and put it all back together in time to drive to work the next day. He's a brilliant mechanic, but in an ironic twist, he also has terrible luck with other drivers on the road. This, however, is another rant entirely. Today he's just replacing a cable.

While he's working on his car, I figure I'll work on mine. I grab the garden sprinkler on the end of the hose, and set it on the roof of my car. With a washcloth I scrub away the dust of Los Angeles, accumulated from yesterday's 440 mile drive.

When I'm done with the sprinkler I give it to Amber, who positions it to water the garden. I pat her seven-months-pregnant stomach. She's wearing some of my sister's maternity clothing, and looks very comfortable in it. It's essentially a pair of pants, with big wedge of blue lycra where the front would be. "Tell your sister thanks," she says. "This clothing is really good."

I nod, and dry off the car with a towel from the back seat. That done, I break out the camera, and attempt to make it behave while I take some test pictures. It's a Minolta DiMage 7i, and it's my new obsession. I plan to use it thorougly for this camping trip. Digital photography has been rocking my world ever since I realized I no longer had to worry about film costs, but the time I save in development is now offset by the time I spend weeding out all the frivolous pictures I tend to take. Heh heh. I should definitely study the manual more, on this trip.

Andy finishes with the truck, and heads inside for lunch. I dig around in my pile of stuff in his living room, and locate the green baseball-cap with the weird numbering on it. This cap is a gift from my pal Ken. None of us can figure out where it came from, or what the numbers mean, so it has an air of mystery to it. The strap in the back is ripped, however, so I tinker around in Andy's garage, and manage to repair it with a combination of automobile fixative, green electical tape, and an industrial-size stapler. A hat to protect my face and shaved head from the high-altitude sun is a very important item.

In the garage, I also discover some grip pads that might fit under the edges of my laptop screen. I put a few on, but they're too thick and the screen won't close. I'm about to give up, when Andy strolls over, takes the sheet of grip pads, flips the switch on his lathe, and grinds them down for a perfect fit.

"Man," I say. "That's such an engineer solution."

Andy laughs.

"See, I'm mostly a programmer, and I wouldn't have thought of that in a hundred years. But you're mostly an engineer, so it was obvious. This is why the world needs engineers and programmers! For some reason, they just can't do each other's jobs. I wonder why that's so?"

I ponder this for a while. The best distinction I can come up with, is that programmers are really good at working around constraints, and engineers are really good at defeating them. What think?

Anyway, it's time to get on the road. I hug Android and Amber, and pet Brickle the cat, and chase Poop the cat around the lawn, but she doesn't want a hug, she just wants to go "Mew!" in her high-pitched voice and eat the grass. So I pet Brickle twice as much, instead. I wake up the Honda, and go foraging into Sacramento to complete the first of many errands.

I get lost several times looking for CostCo. By the time I escape Sacramento I am hours behind schedule. Highway 80 is clear and open all the way to Auburn, however, and I make good time. Auburn has an excellent Gold-Rush museum, but is only a signpost along my route today. I switch to highway 49, headed north into the beginnings of the wilderness. The earth develops a rusty hue, aquiring more iron, and losing nitrogen, with the steady rise in altitude. The trees thicken and crowd up to the side of the road. The sun flits behind the trees, then fades beyond them to an evening glow.

As I round each curve, my shutterbug vision obsessively frames the hillsides and cloudscapes, fiending for an excuse to stop the car and use my new camera before the light fades entirely. Around 8:00pm, I glance to my right around a long bend, and see the graveled mouth of a gloomy forest road called "Snowline Drive". After twenty minutes of knob-twiddling I get an appropriately gloomy photograph. I must master this camera! I must be camera master!

Highway 49 crosses the Downie river at a one-lane bridge, and the small tourist-town of Downieville is packed in around that bridge. The road suddenly develops a curb. Gift shops and restaurants crouch on it like predators, hypnotizing each driver with their huge yellow eyes. It's 9:00pm. On previous trips, I have only stopped in Downieville to get gas. The sight of an open restaurant door, and tables on a wooden porch at the bank of the chattering river, seduces me to pull over. I follow my creaking stomach inside to a bustling, friendly woman behind a counter. Her name is Cassie, and she owns and operates the restaurant. She leads me to a table.

I order Cassie's Special Ceasar Salad, with breaded calamari instead of the typical grilled chicken. The meal comes with clam chowder, and when it arrives it is incredible, the best soup I've had all year. I wolf it down, unable to stop myself, and admire the decor between bites. On one wall is an artistic arrangement of old keys in a picture frame. I ask Cassie about the picture while she wipes down a table.

"Oh yeah, my grandfather and I put that together, a long time ago. Neat, isn't it?"

"Do you mind if I go get my camera, and take a picture?"

"No, no, not at all. Feel free to stand on that chair, there, for a better angle."

I pay, retrieve the camera, and snap a few pictures of the place. Cassie and her waitress are sweeping off the porch. A large, hairy man with buggy eyes is standing around watching grainy television, tossing the remote in his hand. I note that he has that classic back-woods hick profile to him, and wonder how much of that profile I've built from watching movies, and not meeting actual back-woods hicks. He looks like Billy-Bob Thornton, except possibly more of a pervert. If Downieville had a mascot, this guy would be wearing the costume.

I ask him where the nearest gas station is. He stops tossing the remote, and tells me gravely that there aren't any open stations for miles, at this time of night.

"How far is Sierra City from here? Forty, fifty miles?"

"Naaaaah, only about seven."

"Oh really! Well, heck, I'll just get gas tomorrow morning. I can make it there."

"Glad to hear that." He grins, wider than I thought possible. "You have a good night."

"Thanks, you too."

I guide the car to the one-lane bridge, and wait. A big white dog is moping his way from one corner to the other. "Puppy," I correct myself. As my friend Beatings says, there are no dogs, only puppies. An adult dog ... is just a biiig puppeeee. This puppy takes his time, moseying over the bridge with a proprietary air, then gives me a bored expression while I tool the car across. Sierra City, here I come.

The road winds up, occasionally veering close to a riverbank on the right. Boxy cabins perch on the hillsides, pouring warm light into the trees from expensive picture windows. These retreats are gorgeous, and popular. If I could just get a DSL connection out here, I'd move right in.

A spray of moonlight on the river distracts me. The moon is full, and beaming down from a clear sky between two mountain peaks. "Oh, man. That's it," I say, hitting the brakes. "I can't pass up a shot like that." I weave into a gravel turnout and scrabble for my camera, which I strap around my neck. With the car off, the highway glows blue. I run back downhill to the bend in the river. Crickets and the slap of my feet echo in the valley.

I prop the camera on a post and adjust the settings, crouching behind it. Will a car come by and spoil my light? Will I have to jump off the road? Won't I look silly? None of these questions matter ... in the entire 20 minutes, no cars approach. Why am I so surprised by this? With a bitter twinge I realize that I've been in Southern California so long that an empty road is an anomaly. When I was growing up, in the woods near Santa Cruz, a car coming up the road at night was a curious, almost intrusive event. Around here, in the mountains, people go to bed on time. I trot back to the car, musing on this, and drive on.

In a few minutes I pass into Sierra City, closed for the night. There's the general store, to the left. The Buttes Inn, running downhill to the right. The miniature library. The one privately-owned gas station. It feels like I'm in another world, but the odometer surprises me by claiming that it is only a hundred miles from Sacremento. This terrain is all rough peaks and hillsides. By contrast, Sacramento is at the end of a vast plain that floods to the horizon every year.

Thirty seconds later I'm outside Sierra City, turning down the road off highway 49 to Wild Plum campground. Here, the road turns from smooth pavement to sharp, nasty rocks and gravel. I slow down to ten miles per hour, and creep the final mile to the river. The trees block the moonlight, and the vegetation is so close at hand that I could be driving through a cavern. I prop the camera on the dashboard for a shot.

The tires crackle and grind on the road as I drift past the campsites, heading for the one farthest up the river where my family always goes. It's unclaimed, though the one next to it is occupied. These two campsites share the same large parking area, and I lumber up next to a bulky white van and shut off the car. The engine noise is immediately replaced by the river, like the endless exhale of a sleeping giant.

As I expected, the campers in the adjacent site wake up, and sensing a vehicle parked in "their" space, troop out to investigate. While I'm opening my trunk, a flashlight beam approaches, carried by a woman in a cotton nightshirt and hiking boots. She squints at my car, and then politely suggests that she saw another parking space just a little farther back ...

"Oh really?" I say, humoring her, and walk back a ways.

"That's funny, I coulda sworn there was another space... It's gone now..."

I shrug. "Well, these two sites have shared the same parking space for as long as I can remember."

"Yeah, I guess you're right." She gives up, yawns, and turns back to her tent. "'Night."


I put on my headphones, to speed the unpacking. The first step is to get everything out of the trunk, and onto the table. The pile of luggage is as follows:

Backpack, Batteries, Blankets, Camera, Clothes, Cooking knife, Cooler, Clothespins, Creek shoes, Cups, Flashlight, Flotation pad, Flour, Frying pan, Hammer, Headphones, Hat, iPod, Jacket, Keyboard, Large pot, Large garbage sacks, Lighter, Lantern, Lantern stand, Mattress, Mouse, Newspaper, NO GIRLFRIEND DAMMIT, Palmpilot, Paper towels, Pillow, Rhymes of a Rolling Stone by Robert W Service, Rope, Silverware, Shorts, Small plastic tub, Sponge, Sweater, Swimtrunks, Two-burner stove, Tablecloth, Tarpaulin, Tent, Tent stakes, Toothbrush, Towel, Toilet paper, Vice grips, Wallet, Wisk, Wool socks, Washcloth.

That done, I attempt to make light. I push aside the broken lantern, and unwrap the box for the new one. The screw that holds the lid and handle in place slips onto the ground, and rolls away. Poking around with the flashlight is no use; it's gone. So much for hanging the lantern from a tree.

I open the propane stove and pull out a hand towel, unwrap it, and find a lighter. Then I tear open the bag of mantels, and affix two mantels to the lantern. I uncap a bottle of propane and screw it in. The mantels need to be burned to ash with the lighter before I can turn on the lantern, but I can only hold the lighter in place for a few seconds at a time without burning my fingers. On the fourth try, the spark wheel breaks off the lighter with a ping! sound, and vanishes in the dirt.

I lean forward and blow on the wicks, trying to keep them smouldering while I turn on the lantern. If they don't catch, I'll be stuck in the dark for the rest of the night ... I was depending on the lighter to make sparks, and brought no matches. Duuuuh.

The wicks burn down, and the propane doesn't catch. I sit in the dark, irritated, then pick up the old lantern. It has a sparking mechanism on it similar to the lighter, but the flint is exhausted. I pick up the lighter. Yes, the flint is still wedged into the top, at the end of a spring. Ah hah! A little MacGuyvering...

I turn the dial on the lantern, and it hisses. I hold the sparker up to the mantels and twist the knob. Poof! Piercing white light explodes into the campground. Now, setting up that tent is a lot easier.

While doing that, I boil some water on the stove, and make a bunch of the CostCo tortellini. There is a sign by the water spigot saying that the local water has been chlorinated, and needs testing. Good thing I brought a gallon of my own. I hang up my clothesline and drape my spare towels and washcloth from it. "What if it rains sometime?" I think to myself. "Oh well, guess I'll just be screwed then."

In my little mini-universe of the tent, I unfold my mattress and arrange my laundry. The air is getting cold, so I pile two blankets on and snuggle down. When I look up, I realize I can see straight up into the sky, out of the transparent screen dome that crowns the tent.

The broad columns of the pine trees cut the starfield into glimmering bars. Their branches drift in the gentle night air, which flows freely through the mesh of my tent and slides across my face. The river blankets me with cool white noise. I've pulled myself out of the basin of humanity to these dark mountain peaks, cutting my possessions to survival gear and a few favorite toys. There is a lot to think about, and the simple pleasure of the next few days should help my mind unravel.

I stare at the dark blue sky. Some people are actually afraid of the woods. That always surprises me. It's a fear of the unknown, of course, but what's more unpredictable than people? I've been in the forest, and nobody's out there. Things are a lot simpler that way.

It's the complete absence of people that does it ... even having one person nearby can break that spell, and some people rely on that. I admit, with the right person under these blankets, I would probably be having even more fun than I am now. Hell, I would probably be having sex. No noise constraints, either. If we sounded like wild animals, all the better to drive the other animals away.

I grin in the dark. Yeah, that would hit the spot. But it would really have to be the right person. I suppose that's one of the things I'm here in the mountains to think about. What am I interested in, at this point? What do I want to do next? Big questions.

My mind drifts out into the trees.

Day Two