I think “Grizzly-bitten” is a reassuring name, don’t you? In Pilot Rock I drove past one-story wooden houses with pickups parked beside, in front, and behind them. Car parts littered the yards. Large trailers had been converted into more permanent homes. And oh, there’s the left turn onto East Birch Creek Road. I began to switch back and climb past ranches, Black Angus cattle along and ON the road, the trees went from Live Oak to Ponderosa Pine, and slowly I watched the reading of the outside temperature drop into the nineties, then into the eighties. By the time I opened my window to see if the outside was cooler than my air-conditioned inside, I was feeling grateful for the two bottles of water and full gas tank I’d brought with me. Yellow, dry hills gave way to wooded cliffs with fallen trees and small brooks dribbling onto the road.
And then…oh yeah, the asphalt ended. My Ford Focus said to me, “Uh, Anne, I’m not a 4-wheel drive.” I said, no problemo. My little worried self said, “You will drive off a cliff and no one will find your crippled and thirsty body for weeks.” I said, come here sweetie, I love you, but you do tend to exaggerate a tiny bit sometimes. And with a spit of gravel and a cloud of dust behind me, off we went.
Where I had been walking the day before, near the museum, I had read a sign saying cougars had been sighted recently. Where I drove now looked like prime cougar country to me. I drove and drove and drove. I thought, hey, this is like writing a PhD: you think you’re almost there, then turn a corner and see that you have another stretch to go, then you turn another corner and you’re still not there. I drank water. I drove. I drove slower and slower because of the potholes. I thought, hey, this is like when Erik and the kids and I were in Botswana and we lost the road and he followed the sun and brought us exactly where we needed to be. Camel Trophy driving. My by now, dust-encrusted Ford Focus was not amused. Just once a large blue pick-up with two black labs in the back careened past. See, I told my hesitant self, if something happened, people would find us. She did not answer.
I think she was mad at the lion part of me who loves adventure. My friend in South Africa calls me a lioness, and PvK (see four posts previous) must have recognized that part of me since he once said I have more balls than most men. This part of me was having a party, soaking up the sight of mountain vistas and swaying pines and blue skies with red-tailed hawks criss-crossing above. She relaxed and let go in a way I haven’t felt for years. She said, you’ve come home, sweet Anne. Rest.
I kept driving. Twice I passed tiny wooden cabins tucked in between the trees. Every now and then a sign warned that this was Reservation land and no trespassing was allowed off the road. Did I miss the lake? How do you miss a lake? Nearly an hour had passed. How long does it take to drive 19 miles? How many kilometers is that?
I turned a corner. And there she was. Pristine. Isolated. Perfect. A sign said, “Check in with the Gatekeeper. Those who don’t will pay double.” I thought, hey, this is like heaven. Ha! It turns out, the Gatekeeper is called Mike (not Peter), and he sat behind a picnic table. ON the picnic table panted the biggest Rottweiler I’ve ever seen. I drove up, got out, shook Mike’s hand, tried to ignore the dog and said, I came over Pilot Rock. Is that the best route? “Oh you only had 9 miles of unpaved road. The other routes into here are 20 or 25 miles of dirt road.” He looked at my Ford Focus questionably. Thanks Mike. I handed him the $2 fee for State park day use and said, Hey, you have like the best job in the world. He looked startled, then smiled. “Yeah, sometimes you have to work. Number 10.”
Now I had planned to just find a shady place and stretch out in the grass somewhere. I had my picnic blanket and a towel and my bathing suit and sunscreen. But I was being sent to campsite number 10. Like a good girl I followed the signs around the lake until I saw 10, and pulled in. Nice. Blanket on the grass. Stretched out and felt all the muscles relax better than a yoga workout. I squinted up into the pines and heard them sigh. I hadn’t heard that sound since I was a little girl and we stayed in the Sierras at our cabin on Donner Lake. The pines sighed. I sighed. My Ford Focus sighed. I meditate and am gone.
And then I heard it. A woman’s voice, high and shrill, “He almost shot my kid. You keep your fucking kid away from him. And your god-damned gun! Who the fuck do you think you are, you and your fucking kid and your fucking pellet gun!” Well, you get the idea, it went on and on and was right next door at number 11! The kid is screaming. She’s screaming. The man is screaming. Their dog is barking. I told the part of me who wants to interfere and make things right that she is going to stay put and not breathe a word. In an instant I was that little girl again, listening to my mom, wondering how I could calm her down and make things safe.
The man: “I think you’re over-reacting.” Well, and you can imagine what she said to that. Then others joined in. Six pickups and an all-terrain vehicle later, it seemed a family reunion was weighing in. Someone turned up the radio, the dog kept barking, and I thought, right, time to go for a walk.
I passed more pick-ups, people laughing, people drinking, people swimming. “Ma’am, could you take our picture, please?” Me? I walked down into a hollow where four huge RVs were parked. One had a satellite dish on it and loud country music blasted out the doors. Ice chests all around, smiling people shake my hand, introducing themselves, “Come stay for a drink, who are you? Are you here alone, honey?” I took their picture with a type of phone I’ve never seen before, and smiled charmingly (the same one I used in the gun shop), thanked them and kept walking around the lake. I tried to remember the name of the movie where people said yes to hospitality and disappeared.
Slowly the noise died down, and the sighing pines remembered me. I found this spot in the photo–it called my name and I sat in the shade and memorized the smell of pine, the lap of water, the eagle’s cry. Rest. I rested and played with the silence, stretching time until it stops, inside the light dancing on water. I have come here for this moment. It stays with me.
Chuck told me these mountains are who they are as a People. Here they can visit their dead. So I visit mine: Dad, whose grave I stood by on Wednesday for the first time since the funeral–Dad, who used to say to me whenever I felt unsure: “Go get ’em, Tiger”; PvK, who never was supposed to die, and certainly not so fast; Hemayel, young and smart, who taught me about youth empowerment; other friends and family. They smile. I smile. Then I keep walking. For years I’ve longed to hike in the mountains again and today I do, picking my way through scented grass and scrambling up slopes, all the while, the sighing of the pines brushing my cheeks with cool air.
When I return to Number 10 the drama has shifted into low gear. I shake out my blanket and throw it into the back of the car, then drive to another spot and sit looking at the water for a little while longer. The peace of this lake soaks into me, and I carry it inside. If a place can make a people, then the Tribes are made well. No wonder they call this home.
Driving down out of the mountains I realize it actually only takes 90 minutes. No grizzlies. No cougars. No car spinning out of control in the gravel and diving off the cliff. No crazy Appalachian-accented people throwing me into a hole and tossing dirt over my face. No rabid Rottweiler foaming at the mouth. No child with a gunshot wound. The only real thing: the sighing of the pines, as they whisper to me still: All is well.