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Monday / San Francisco to Malga
WE WERE DRIVING through the dry, August slopes of the Coast Range this afternoon toward the glacier-skinned Eastern Sierra. Inhale this mountain air, I reminded myself, relax. In the passenger seat next to me was Adele, Del, my oldest friend -- still dark, elegant, secretive. And just now, tense from her plane journey across the country.
To me the Sierra was the backbone of California imagination and possibility. The mountain water irrigated the great San Joaquin and San Fernando valleys. From the Sierra you could see miles across California to the Nevada border and you couldn't comprehend that range without an awareness of the nuclear tests done so close by or without understanding the water wars that flooded glorious Hetch Hetchy. Most people thought of the Pacific Coast as the California frontier, but I was much more drawn to this mountainous spine. I dreamt about its music: rivers rasping with snowmelt; thunderstorms pouring succor and threat. I'd always been struck by the sheer white boulders, the clarity of light shining back from Tuolumne Falls, the fiery sunsets you could see from Lyell Fork, the long, clear mountain nights of mid-June and the shooting-star lottery of August. Here we were in August, my favorite month.
This afternoon my excitement mounted as we headed east through the hills, past the energy-efficient windmills at Altamont Pass. Strange, miraculous, to be with Adele. For years now I'd pictured our next encounter would be after death. Me attending her funeral. She, as the lucky one, would be the first to go and there I'd be, a crone at her casket lugging all the questions, all the guilt. Now we were leaving the oleandertrimmed freeway -- lusciously delicate pink and white daphne -- behind and driving on a two-lane road bordered by fruit and nut trees. Cherries. Pistachios. Cashews. Slowly. Breathe. Enter this world carefully, completely.
A rearview mirror inspection: I was short, thin, blond, a confident driver. Most people also found me taciturn in comparison to gregarious Adele who had turned blessedly quiet during the last few miles. I'd grown used to taking this road alone and our present silence was a relief. While I had enjoyed catching up with Adele on our nonstop chat from the San Francisco airport, I needed a breather here. Selfishly, cantankerously, I wished I were alone. For one thing, I'd have left Oakland at 7:00 A.M., before the heat set in. No, this year wouldn't bring the peace of my annual solitary trek. It wasn't going to be the break from other humans I needed after a year of budget cuts at work and disintegrating parents on the home front. Of course, as a newly unemployed person I had plenty of time ahead to be alone.
Still, a week in the Sierra was bound to restore me. If I let go now. I'd have to set aside, far aside, those questions about going back to school. There was a big difference between obsession and meditation. I'd walk and reflect and rediscover some optimism and if Adele wanted to do the same, that was fine. If not, there were daily buses back to the Bay Area.
What did we remember? What did we imagine? What did we see? That first night, back in 1965, I sat in camp, enjoying the warmth of evening sun on my weary back. It had been a long drive and none of the other girls felt confident about the curving highway. The air was rich with smoke and pine oil. Adele sat at the picnic table beside Nancy, sculpting Reynold's Wrap around the large, cold, solid baking potatoes.
"Isn't it great to be able to eat whenever we want?" Nancy yanked her orange hair into a braid. "Are you sure you don't want a little dinner preparation music? I found a great station on my transistor when you guys exiled me to the bathroom last night."
"No radio" called Donna. She was helping Paula assemble the tent. "Music's all around. Birds, crickets, wind"
I covered the potatoes with red coals, pretending to ignore the conversation, to be above the topic, when I simply didn't want to get caught between my friends.
Adele nodded. "Revolutionary, the idea you could eat any time you were hungry instead of when time said you were hungry."
Emerging from the tent, Paula straightened her long, thin frame and shook her masses of black curly hair. "We did it!"
The second person out of the tent looked less certain. But doubt always shadowed Donna like a birthmark. A dark line ran between her brows and across her tanned forehead. "We'll be OK if it doesn't rain, I guess."
Another memory from the next day, several days later? It was late afternoon, I know that, and I was walking alone toward camp when I spotted Adele propped up against large, white boulders, sketching a clump of mariposa lilies. Her black hair shone almost purple in that intense light. Mom thought Adele looked like a movie star, "one of the Hepburns, maybe both" with her dark eyes, fair, fair skin, long legs and elegant gait. From anybody's perspective Adele was the most womanly of us five girls. Who knew what would happen to her when she defected from California and went to Radcliffe that next fall? I stood still, observing the way Adele's long fingers held the pen, watching the swift, brusque strokes as the flower appeared in fragile vitality. I felt amazed by my friend's skill, by the grace of her body, by the attentive tilt of her head. Sometimes in class I'd have the same awe of Adele: a mixture of admiration for this exotic creature and longing -- perfectly futile -- to be her. No, it was more ineffable. It was as if we were creatures from different universes locked in a startling, terrified magnetism.
Now I glanced sideways at my familiar, unfamiliar middle-aged passenger. Reassured that Adele had brought the right clothes. An L.L. Bean model in her cotton pants and hiking boots. Maybe during the lost years she had become Mountain Woman. You had to be prepared for surprises with Adele. Again, I promised myself not to get preoccupied with her. I should've called off the trip after the others canceled. It was one thing to have a woodsy reunion among five old pals. Something else to be stuck alone with a best friend who had deserted you two decades ago. For years I thought I'd never talk with her again. Not that Adele knew she had deserted me. She might even say I had betrayed her. Happy camping ahead.
I could've kicked myself for attending that sappy high school anniversary. After a little wine and a few life stories, we were all laughing about our long, lost time in the Sierra. Someone suggested we go again. Nancy was saying, "Kath, you were in touch with Donna, right? Why don't you get her to come with us?" For some reason, maybe because Nancy looked so happy after all those years of rotten men and booze and breakdown, I found myself saying yes. Yes, I would try to find Donna. And by implication, yes, I would join them next summer in the damn mountains.
So suddenly this was "next summer." In a couple of hours this stranger and I would camp at the Meadows. Lay our bodies beside one another in my extremely small tent.
This dry heat had intensified with the altitude. I rolled down my window.
"When is Nancy's surgery?"
"Wednesday morning," I answered."I told her we'd call and wish her luck. But she said, no, wait till after the operation" Gripping the steering wheel, I knew I shouldn't have caved in when Nancy insisted we go without her. "She said otherwise she'd worry we were looming around her like spirit vultures."
"Oh, she'll be fine." Adele stretched for nonchalance.
Even after all these years I could distinguish her natural and unnatural voices.
Nervously, she continued, "I have two friends who had mastectomies this year and they're fine."
"They say it takes five years to be sure." I felt doubtful.
"Sure is a word I've folded in tissue paper and stored with other remnants of my youth."
Was I one of her youthful remnants? She probably didn't mean to condescend. She was just anxious. We fell silent and after a while I pulled into a small town. "Gas," I explained. "And I thought we could get some fruit."
"Isn't this Malga?" Adele grinned with satisfied, satisfying recognition. "The place where Paula got the strawberry milk shake?"
"Which she proceeded to vomit all over Donna and Nancy in the backseat!" I added,"Good memory. Is that why you became a historian?"
"Either that or a complete incapacity to deal with the present." Adele shrugged.
I leaned the hose into my gas tank, feeling the sweat dripping from my armpits down the sides of my breasts. Damn, it would be hot as hell until Crane Flat. Amid the putrid fumes, I speculated on the life span of gas attendants. Greasy, nauseating smells.
A rusted ivory pickup pulled in and idled next to us. The hunky, gray-bearded driver jumped out puffing a cigar. Maybe we'd all go up in flames. Maybe this was the descent into Hell and the Sierra was Heaven. Returning from the cashier, I considered my grouchiness. Normally by Malga, my mind was calmer, easing into the mountains.
Adele was washing the windows.
"Afraid I made a mess of it." She threw up her hands and plopped the filthy squeegee into the bucket of gray water.
"Better than it was." I laughed. Once behind the wheel, I saw she'd left wide streaks across the dusty front window. I switched on the automatic windshield cleaner and we drove through hot, dry Malga with soapy water arching over our windshield like liquid fireworks.
Billboards promised a Burger King and a Taco Bell. Malga was a one-story, one-street town. A few people strolled along the sidewalk but most had the good sense to stay inside in the midday heat. The Bear was playing at the Malga Bijou Theatre. Actually, I had enjoyed most of that silly romantic film but didn't feel ready to admit this to Adele.
Each year as I trespassed in the Sierra, I counted on the mountains to clear my spirit. Driving along now, I inhaled the sweet-sour aridity, reminding myself that most of California, like most of the West, is really a desert. I loved the fierce, ever-buzzing, every-dying California earth. I longed for these mountains of conflagration, destruction and generation. I didn't understand people who sentimentalized California landscape as serene and restful. But insofar as the landscape continued, it did provide courage. Sputtering down the main drag of Malga together, Adele and I were headed back to that common land.