“As I stood there…and cast my eyes westward, a picture of wonderful grandeur and magnificence was spread out before me…Below were a succession of innumerable pine-covered mountain peaks, growing less and less until they disappeared in a broad, yellow valley sweeping north and south until lost to view, and beyond another range of mountains. This was the far-famed Sacramento Valley, nearly a hundred miles distant. The purity of the atmosphere rendered vision almost illimitable, showing every line and shadow distinctly.”
-A.J. McCall, forty-niner, journal entry from September 7, 1849
“Once I watched the sun-downing behind Mount Lu;
Now I see the downing-sun beside the ocean shore.
The great Pacific, wide and boundless,
In one hazy line touches the distant sky.
Above is an ancient mirror, round and golden;
It is sinking yet not sinking, spinning in space.
It longs to kiss the ocean waters;
Its broken reflection is borne to me on
I return it a gentle smile.
A shy blush suddenly spreads over thousands
Presently it sinks to the west, transformed in size;
A fresh red covers its full face—
The whole of space, on every side, shares
The wave-catching gulls in purple swoop
and dart more wildly.
Does only the human world sing
for the newly-weds?
The universe also enjoys a happy union.
Partly she shows her face, partly hides
and partly lingers;
I rejoice, I am content, I am lost
-Chiang Yee, The Silent Traveller in San Francisco
Furloughed federal workers, AWOL without the “out”—AWL. Like the pointed tool, punching holes in hypothetical timecards. Absent with leave, awl day, week, month even. Government shutdown, no end in sight. Crisis imminent, it’s said. We flunkies, being non-essential, find our schedules clearing up like the auroral Black Rock sky post-thunderstorm. Time to absent ourselves, then. We take leave of the desert, departing on a westward whim, leaving the blooming rabbitbrush and yellowing greasewood and shadscale for the high Sierra and the ocean beyond.
We climb out of the Great Basin near Reno, on the Mount Rose Highway to Tahoe and all points west. Juniper gives way to Ponderosa, lodgepole, Jeffrey pine; white fir, red fir, incense cedar. Aspens and cottonwoods, ablaze with fall color, crowd the clefts and defiles, flagging the rills with their senescence. We crest the divide, cross the state line and descend into the scintillating cyan bowl of Tahoe, heavenly jewel of the Sierras, haven to ski bums and moneyed mansioned yuppies and thousands of California gulls and Canada geese. We stay for a night, promising to linger on the return trip. The restive Pacific awaits.
We climb out of the Tahoe basin and wend our way coastward, out of the mountains and onto the alluvium. The slope toward the sea is languid, obtuse; we yield to the declination as gravity intended. We roll down the windows, test the warming air for scent of brine, eau de vi. Sacramento Valley, here we are. Digger pines and blue oaks, madrones and manzanitas populate the hills. Also huge, glossy-leaved eucalypts. Produce stands galore: apples, pistachios, corn for pennies on the dollar. The fruits of irrigation, low-hanging and cheap, forbiddingly subsidized at the cost of riparian zones, undocumented pickers. It is almost eighty degrees out. We push on down the valley, chasing summer for all it’s worth.
In San Francisco we unload and reassemble our bikes and trace circles and figure-eights around the city. It is just as warm here, upper seventies at least; everybody seems to be outside, playing. The streets are crowded with cyclists, skaters, longboarders. We cross the Golden Gate Bridge, double back through Chinatown, skirt along the bay to the baseball stadium, the port and the wharf. We stand, briefly, amid a throng of tourists on Pier 39 to gaze at the dozens of blubbery California sea lions. They loll on the pier, barking and bawling and stinking of fish. We ascend Point Lobos with its wind-bowed cypresses, watch the waves roil and churn against the headland, then bomb down to the beach. Our calves complain of the ubiquitous hills; our brake-squeezing metacarpals whinge at the sight of steep descents ending in stop signs—these just as ubiquitous as the hills. The city streets rollick and gambol over the terrain and we clench our handlebars, grinning, happy to tag along for the ride.
At Golden Gate Park we see Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris, Loudon Wainwright, Gogol Bordello, et al. play for free at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Many, many others have the same idea. The park is packed. We drink beers and jostle good-naturedly, people-watching. The ultimate spectator sport. Here too we see an astounding quantity of hipsters, literally thousands upon thousands—really an unseemly number, more than any one city could possibly harbor on its own. Maybe. The festival appears to be a hipster mecca, a staging area, a lek in the park—they gather to preen and strut about and array their plumage just so, aiming to attract. We cannot help but admire the display.
We attempt to camp on the beach until a police officer disallows us, politely but firmly, sitting astraddle his ATV with its flashing blue and red lights. It’s illegal, he says, just like the bonfires that keep flaring up along the shore south of us. “Just sleep in your car,” he suggests, already looking down the beach, putting out the myriad hipster fires in his head. Our car is full of bikes, we say. He shrugs, speeds off. We end up sleeping on a sandy median near the parking lot, not quite on the beach but not fully off it, either. We pray that the cop leaves us be. We’re laid out on the sand in mummy bags, like bums. At some point in the night a group of partyers pulls up in a van and proceeds to commence their festivities almost on top of us. They blare Arabic dance music, walk to and from their vehicle within a few feet of our heads. No one mentions the swaddled, supine figures; we are ignored, sidestepped, invisible. Is this how it feels to be homeless in San Francisco? Or anywhere? We cannot presume, but we attain perhaps an inkling of transposition.
In the morning we wake to clear cerulean sky and pounding surf—the tide is up. Also up are a few stalwart joggers, chuffing along the beach, and of course the birds. A raven not five feet from our position pulls the straw from a to-go cup of Jack-In-The-Box milkshake and tilts the contents down its gullet. We throw it an old piece of string cheese. Soon there is a crowd of feathered mendicants: starlings, grackles, doves, sparrows. City birds, fat off handouts. We grab coffee and poached eggs from a nearby diner and drive to another beach to watch the surfers. What begins with a handful of wetsuited man-seals—and they are almost all men on this morning—soon becomes a shoal, and for an hour we face the Pacific horizon, sun at our backs, swiveling our heads to catch the seals standing, flailing, flopping and the waves breaking all around us. They bob and rise with the swells, paddling every now and then with pink, digitated flippers. Overhead brown pelicans soar, cormorants flounder, gulls cry and wheel on the breeze. Later we eat burritos with Brother Frank and Alex and Tanner-Means-Business, wanting to stay longer in their cozy apartment but knowing that with the morning comes the start of a new workweek, at least for those who work. We take leave of the sea and the city then, heading back whence we came, east toward the mountains.
In Tahoe we hike through the Desolation Wilderness, ascending Mount Tallac and admiring the lakes and peaks that encircle us in their Sierran corona. All the wildflowers are dried up, the wildlife scarce or hidden away. Already we feel the chilly onset of winter at nine thousand, eight thousand, six thousand feet above sea level. The next morning, as we prepare to climb the basin rim back into the desert, South Lake Tahoe’s first snowflakes of the season glide down through the pines, rimy and insubstantial. White-breasted nuthatches, Steller’s jays, kinglets, mountain chickadees, red-winged blackbirds, flickers and enormous western gray squirrels cavort about, seemingly giddy with the prospect of snow. More likely they’re just trying to grab easy-to-spot forage before it’s all covered up.
Back into the desert. The halogeton and Russian thistle along Highway 447 have taken on festive wintry hues, decked out in mauve, magenta, puce. A rough-legged hawk wings past. Black Rock sky, stippled here and there with wisps of cloud, radiantly blue as always. In our absence it seems little has changed—the desert, staid and implacable, registers nothing of our comings and goings, feels nothing at our desertion. “Welcome back,” whispers the familiar wind, “didn’t realize you’d left.”