Lone Pine was our first real stop. Not counting the stop for ice cold water at Brady’s Mini Mart. If you’ve headed north on the 14 up through the Owens Valley you’ve probably stopped at the Mini Mart. It’s well past the town of Mojave where you are by now thinking you should have stopped, as all seems to be utter desolation as far as one can see. Even with its tenacious forms of hardscrabble life and its barren beauty, the Mojave looks to be the kind of place Hades’ officials send their worst offenders. If you have no air conditioning the hot, suffocating heat forces you to pull off at the Mini Mart for something cold. If you had brought water, it now has the consistency of a non-nutritive warm soup. Old man Brady, if that’s who he was, seemed a bit startled to see us, as he came forth from his back office. He was rather non-committal to communicate. On top of the weak assortment of travel and camping sundries, there were plenty of odd things; cheap medieval dagger knock offs, a coin bank in the shape of President Obama’s head that declared “Change”. I endured the potent stench of the bathroom and met my friend out in the blistering heat. Come to find out Old Man Brady had spoken a word or two to my friend, after all. We soon continued on over the alluvial fans and sediment bajadas covered in sagebrush and saltbush.
Now here in Lone Pine we had a quaint little town. Maybe it once did have a general store and one lone pine. But now it was flush with a bit of life. Lone Pine is the staging area for all those trekkers prepping to do the Mount Whitney Trail. There were a few hostels and hotels doing a brisk bit of business. If you are thinking of selling anything here, it’s probably as a vendor of camping and sporting goods. It seems one out of every four of my friends and acquaintances out in the West have done that trail. It is some sort of right of passage if you live out here. I’ll admit hiking to the highest point in the lower 48 does seem enticing. And the locals know what to provide. It did seem every other store sold sporting goods or camping gear.
We headed to the local market to grab ice and any last-stop fresh produce for the wilderness. After my purchases I was forced out of the air-conditioned womb of the market and into the baking glare of arid, valley heat. It must have been 103 F. As I waited for my friend to exit the store I watched this woman in a bent, straw woven hat riding a bicycle with a basket full of groceries. The foodstuffs tempting to spill the whole balancing act. The woman had a smallish dog on a leash, which she practically dragged along behind her on the hot asphalt of the road.
“Come on, Tino! We have to get across the road”, she yelled. Pour Tino worked his little legs desperately to keep up.
I felt bad for the little dog. This seemed a bit unnecessary. Why not just leave him home for your errands. The asphalt really did feel like a griddle. Sometimes life makes you feel like that. Like modern living is dragging you along on a leash. Dragging you on to the next assignment and to consuming the next bit of production. I need quite a few more empty days then I get. I need days I can ponder. And days I can pursue other interests at a leisurely pace. But I try to make do with what I get. And these mountain trips are an escape from the leashes of daily stress. An escape into landscapes that make you forget, for a short while, that leashes ever existed.
We did not succeed in finding any sunscreen lotion at the market, an article forgotten earlier when leaving home, so we stopped in one of the dozen sporting good stores along the main thorough fare. We entered a little shop with an Old West clapboard front. A lot of Lone Pine looks like this. Once we selected our product we talked to the proprietor as we made the purchase. He was an old chap crafting flies, which he sold from a panel just behind him. This guy was no Old Man Brady. He chatted on about the good fishing. The rainbow and brown trout and the lakes they’re best stocked in.
“You boys fishin’ up in the Sierras?” he asked.
“Well, actually we’re just looking for some good trail hikes in the White Mountains,” my friend answered.
“White Mountains? Ah that’s a good 10,000 or so feet. Not really any lakes up that way.”
“Yeah, were just going to do some hiking and see the old trees,” I said.
“It’ll be cool enough for ya up there.”
“Yeah, you have a scorching town here in August,” I replied. “I figure this time of year the only places to visit in southern California are either down by the beach or up at higher altitude.”
After nodding in agreement he asked. “Where you boys from?”
“Santa Barbara,” my friend replied.
“Santa Barbara hunh? I know it. My daughter lives there. I’m going to visit her soon for her birthday. We celebrate for a whole week. Won’t be able to stay in any of those expensive hotels though. I’ll have to find something in Ventura at a more reasonable rate. If it was just me…er just me and Peanut. Peanut’s my little Chihuahua buddy. We could just sleep in the car. But my wife’ll need some comfort. You know the ladies. They need a cushy mattress and such.”
Once the old guy got chatting he wasn’t going to let us get away too easy. The bag of ice I cradled in my arms began to numb my forearms. I never did get the old guy’s name. We’ll just call him Keeper of Peanut, for what’s left of his story.
I had to sympathize with Keeper of Peanut. Most of the women I’ve dated recently are not too keen on camping. As it was, my buddy and I were going to be dirt bags for a week. It’s an affectionate term that those who enjoy camping in the rough call themselves. No showers, only pit toilets, long hikes in beautiful, but inhospitable country and a tent for shelter. A thin roll up air mattress is as cushy as it gets. Where to find a girlfriend who enjoys being a dirt bag one weekend, then wants to get a bit dolled up for the next weekend? They may be out there, but I’ve yet to find them. Of course, I’m sure there are plenty of women who enjoy a bit of dirt bagism. And there are plenty of men who scoff at the idea of sleeping in a lousy tent, or even a decent tent. Keeper of Peanut was not one of them.
“It’s usually just me and Peanut up in the Sierra lakes,” he went on. “My wife waits for my catch down here in the valley, in comfort. And boy, Peanut’s a trooper. He’s got the moxie to stand up to anything. I’ve seen him growl at a bear. You’d think he thought he was a Rottweiler. And a damn brave one at that.”
I can sometimes cringe and fade on people when they start telling little dog stories. But when you’re on the road little dog stories are tolerable. Soon you will be back on the highway. If one of the town folk want to make you feel less like a stranger, it’s welcome. Whatever story they want to tell.
We had to say goodbye to Keeper of Peanut and go back out into the oven hot air and the glaring light of midday Lone Pine. We got back to the truck a couple of blocks down from the grocery store. I loaded up my cooler with the ice. As we opened the cab doors I saw Madame Leashes ride around the block. She was glancing every which way and calling out, “Tino! Tino!” But there was no dog. It had escaped the leash and the forced run on the griddle hot blacktop. We had a good laugh!
“I bet he’s hiding out in the cool dust under a bush somewhere,” my friend said.
This was a favorable omen. Soon we’d be hitting the high road. Rising up out of this hot valley. Rising above the busy valley of our ordinary lives. Escaping our own Madame Leashes.