I was starting to see double. Ghosts of fog swirled around the windshield and across the road, revealing only the reflection of my headlights. Everyone else was sleeping in their seats, posed in contortions and dreaming of heat and sage. I wanted so badly to make it to the California border, to drive down into the Owens Valley as the sun hit the Sierra. I was in the sleepy haze of my weary ego the indefatigable Road Warrior, conquerer of asphalt. Caffeine, taurine, and sugar proved true in making me feel the champion. In reality I was close to passing out and my arms were covered with little pinch marks as reminders to keep my eyes open. Road Warrior was not winning this battle. Pull over man.
I did, somewhere at the bottom of a valley in fog now permeated with half light. Someone else took the wheel and I quickly fell into a fitful sleep, bunched up like a child in the womb. It wasn't long, however, before I was awoken by one of my favorite expressions:
"Holy tits! Stop the car! I have a vision."
When Joss says this it corresponds one to one with some of the most beautiful places in the world and some of the greatest moments. I won't sleep through that.
We stopped at a cattle guard, towards the top of one of the most westerly Nevada ranges, and looked back. Below us was a sea of inversion filling a vast basin, just beginning to recede under the reproachful rays of the sun. The oppressive blanket of winter was behind us, somewhere closer to Canada. We had all been fervently telling ourselves for weeks that this trip was a good idea, that we could think about the financial consequences later and that warmth and cheap bread and climbing would cheer us up, but that view made it tangible. The road ahead was towards a deep exhale and a weeklong sigh of relief.
The Owens Valley marks the edge of a great empire of heat wave basins and Martian ranges. It sinks, is still sinking, into a trough bounded by the Eastern Sierra and the White Mountains. Three millions years ago the earth bucked and folded and rested, then did it again. Restless mother. Volcanoes spouted liquid rock which bubbled and burned down the valley. Earthquakes ripped the land and filled it in again, over and over. Later glaciers spat mountain debris to the lowland. Rock dominates this valley, and water stands by for now.
Some would say nothing grows here, anymore. They might be looking from above, in a plane or by proxy through Google’s magic. The New England idea of green equalling life is a mostly null understanding in the basin and range province. Sage and rabbit brush, most prolific of desert dwellers, look no different from rocks when viewed from afar. Take a clump of sagebrush leaves in your hands and crush, and bring to your nose, and you know that this plant is very alive. Bright green is scarce in the desert; life inhabits a different part of the spectrum.
"Is it appropriate to have a beer with my coffee?" Luke asked the world at large. He was lowering his body into hot springs to wash off the stink of stifled farts and crappy gas station food. Smells and grease and the smell of grease tend to stagnate in a car full of four people and two dogs over sixteen hours. The hot springs were our first stop. The rest of us followed him in, and cracked some beers in response. When you never really fall asleep but for brief naps and watch the sun set and rise in between, the socially acceptable beverage consumption line gets blurred. I think this must have been the conscious state of the person who invented the coffee stout.
The rest of the week would be an ode to doing what feels good. Rising with the sun, kicking dirt around with the dogs, cooking eggs on big lava rocks, running under electric wires, climbing till our fingers bled, eating burgers by the fire, traipsing through granite canyons, laughing at sunburns. When my dogs are dragging their feet behind me at the end of the day I know I'm doing it right.
Waylon and Bonnie, our cute-ass mutts, gained a respectable level of fame in the bouldering canyons. Waylon, never one to be thwarted by a vertical wall, ignored his lack of prehensile thumbs and greeted me at the top of one of my first routes. I was surprised, as always, to see him on top of something I just struggled to mount using all of my apelike faculties. He earned some cheers and laughter from down canyon, which he haughtily ignored.
Bonnie was nearly stolen on multiple occasions. Cuteness is a rather desirable feature in a pup, particularly amongst a population of very mobile young adults constantly in search of a loving companion. There would be "Aww!'s" when we walked around a boulder with Waylon, but when little Bon brought up the rear they would increase to "AWWWWWWW!!!'s." We had to smile and hurriedly rush her through the gauntlet of gasping puppy lovers.
Heat has a way of slowing things down. In Montana during the winter I often feel sad when I'm just sitting around the house, broadening my ass and studying Netflix. Vegging out is a necessity; bears really nailed it when they took winter to a whole different level and just slept right through the thing. When it's hot I embrace the siesta. It's not forced, I'm free to stand up and go about my playing whenever I feel. But man it's delightful to throw down a crash pad, grab a cold drink, and lower the ol' hat brim.
A good soak to finish off dusty days of climbing and playing. I'm often taken aback by the incredible display nature puts on at all times - mountains as perfectly formed as the Tetons, canyons as perfectly carved as Antelope - but hot springs really take the cake. There are streams of hot water pouring out of the earth, easily formed into shallow pools with a little stone engineering, usually in volcanically active and therefore aesthetically gorgeous areas. Hot baths that never get lukewarm dot the flanks of the Eastern Sierra.
Keough Hot Springs is a small operation, tucked back against the mountains. It’s been renovated and re-renovated over time by people trying to turn hot water to cold hard cash. You must pay the fee to sit in the tub, and we do not have the fee. We spent that getting here. For us awaits the Keough Hot Ditch.
The Hot Ditch consists of a series of small pools filled with runoff from the slightly more bourgeois facilities upstream. The ground glitters with broken bottles. Abandoned bras evaporate in the sun. Electric wires overhead crackle and pop as they channel light over the hills and through the dust. The Hot Ditch is free, and there we let the dust fall off our skin.
We caught the Super Bowl on our last night of warmth, in a little cantina in downtown Bishop. About twenty people including us sat at the bar to watch the game. One of the two TV's in the cantina was faster than the other, so the cheers and boos swept down the bar in a cascade. This was a one-tap bar, serving only the finest Bud Light. Hamm's dioramas with cascading waterfalls adorned the top shelf. The bartender, Tonya, was a crusty and amiable Cheesehead; she could replicate Brett Favre's autograph professionally. She cooked dinner (hot dogs and a secret recipe Wisconsin bean dip) for the bar, on the house, and promised free drinks for an even score after the third quarter. Dusty bars like this one, unassuming to the end, make a person feel at home in any town in America.
Given is a die-hard Patriots fan. He is a straight man who has been seen achieving a flushed complexion when talking about the prowess of Tom Brady. He slept fitfully that night, out under the stars on volcanic soil, partly due to his team's victory and partly due to the rounds of Crown Royal that had been ordered in a jubilant fit of festivity. In the morning he informed us that he had faced certain death during the night, bent over a tuft of sage, purging himself of Canadian whisky and triumphant endorphins. The moon was full that night, and had illuminated the porous rock. You could make out details on the Sierra flanks, all in shades of deep blue. It wouldn't have been a bad way to go. We're glad he's still with us.
The Eastern Sierra is made for dawn. The sun has already warmed up most of America before it's rays reach the border of Nevada and California. The 14,000-foot ridge of the White Mountains to the east allows dawn on the peaks of the Sierra while keeping the Owens Valley below shrouded in night. Waking up on the volcanic tablelands outside of Bishop, we jump out of our sleeping bags and run headlong towards the advancing realm of day and warmth. We meet the line and walk with it like tugboats pulling a universal ship to the harbor of our camp.