A Road Traveled
I load the car as first light etches the mountain ridges and slip away, stopping to buy coffee from an all-night kiosk. Quickly the town recedes behind me and the asphalt unrolls through farmland, then mountains. Through the lightening dawn the landscape flashes by the window; Shasta towers on my right dripping its fast-melting glaciers. I have a strange sense of being in an old film, the car is a capsule and what flashes past an illusion. But it is real enough, and the farms tell the tale of their owners' fortunes.
There are hardscrabble homesteads, rural refuges with truck gardens and small, faded clapboard houses. Sometimes there is desolation and squalor, as if the land has been abandoned: there are collapsing single-wides and ancient RVs. Here and there For Sale signs speak of sorrow and want. The road begins to climb through irrigated pastures, green carpets laid out between the straw-covered hills. Black cattle roam behind the fences, and with the rising sun emerges the sense of urgency that marks the waning year. Cattle trucks hurry by; at one spread they are lining up in the early morning light, waiting for their living cargo. Hay barns are stuffed to the eaves, and juggernaughts with more hay come towards me at terrifying speed, small alfalfa fragments swirling in their wake across my windscreen.
I climb higher and now the sun threatens my ability to drive; at certain angles the glare makes it almost impossible to see the road ahead. The landscape continues its heartbreak: a state-of-the-art equestrian center: for sale; what appears to bean only recently vacated large working ranch, its pastures blank, its well-kept buildings eerily empty: for sale.
The road unrolls through the mountains now, over the 5,000 foot elevation summit, then down in gentle loops to a major lake where hundreds of grebes of several species are bobbing on the rough surface: Western, Pied Billed, Clarks. The wind is blowing hard, and salt particles fleck my windscreen. As I leave the car to walk and stretch the cold wind sucks the breath from my lungs.
"Looks like an early winter," says the old-timer with the oxygen cylinder sitting at the counter of the Coyote Cafe where I stop for food, "seems like the last one just ended."
He says it's been a cold summer. He picks up his cylinder and leaves. The place is empty but for me and the two women running it. I speculate that one is the result of the other's teen-age pregnancy. She's new to the job. They eye me warily, not accustomed to a single woman traveling alone; one is in her thirties, the other barely twenty if that. Their faces are unlined, but there is something about them that says they've seen it all. I order the breakfast sandwich, not knowing what it is, but then, even the older woman had to look at the instructions by the stove in the back before she could tell me.
They go off to cook and, invisible, call out a greeting to the next elder who shuffles in and sits next to me at the counter. He is a bit off, not really compos; then a less savory threesome takes up residence at a window table. The place is tiny; perhaps a converted gas station.
My breakfast arrives: sourdough bread with ham and velveeta, a bag of potato chips and coffee. I choke down half the sandwich while the ladies negotiate with the new arrivals. They are not glad to see them. I ask for a takeaway box, pay the small bill, leave a dollar tip under the plate.
It isn't only the sandwich that's left me feeling queasy. As I pull out of the parking lot onto the two-lane blacktop I see another elderly person, a lady this time, making her painful way between houses with the aid of a walker. I marvel at her endurance and that of the two other octogenarians with whom I ate breakfast; I weep over the fog of despair that seems to saturate the clear mountain air. This wide place in the road seems to have been forgotten by just about everyone: most of the remaining buildings are boarded up.
Its best feature is that it is a hangout for golden eagles. I saw four on the way in, perched close to the road; several more appear, soaring, as I roll on into open country. The landscape changes again, high desert scrub, sage and rabbit brush. I make a right-angled turn north and in a few miles enter the staggering landscape of Lake Albert, an alkaline lake on the left where avocets and black-necked stilts flourish, and, on my right, a rim rising to 2000 feet elevation looming sheer. The escarpment marks a 30 mile long fault alive with light and shadow.
Then into cinder cone country, another jog east past the BLM wild horse corrals and I have entered a time-warp, a culture more in tune with the 1950s than the 21st century. Here, too, businesses have failed, but the town is still alive, the cattle go to market, the alfalfa is cut and baled, and the population ranges from the super-rich to people living off the grid. It is harsh, unforgiving basin and range. The alkaline powder is so deep on the unpaved road to my friends' house that even the 4-wheel drive has difficulty. The sun is low on the horizon now; to the east a few thunderheads linger over one ridgeline, while to the west red slips beneath the mackerel clouds to bathe the desert in vermillion.
Here the sky is vast, the land utterly silent, and one's word had better be good. I am invited to a doughnut social at a Mennonite friend's house; gentle hilarity and sweet hot feather-light rounds. Eat your heart out, Krispy Kreme. Eat your heart out, consumer culture, for these people are serious even for Mennonites: in this group it is your contemplative knowledge of God evidenced in your life that is your full membership; the older woman I speak to says it is not limited in age: her daughter met the divine aged ten. The poised young couples cherish each other; the body language is gentle and unhurried, a language that takes a lifetime of nonviolence to learn. These plain people put we monastics to shame. It is not all roses of course; I deplore the alfalfa pivots and the degrading of the landscape and aquifer; I disagree with not educating beyond the eighth grade, but I am glad to be with them, honored that I am one of the few 'English' as the Amish would say; invited and accepted.