Back before the now-time began, and well before the world ended, Marci and I were lovers. Now we’re married, so even though we’re still lovers it doesn’t count. We’d been working “starter jobs” the year after college, and when those came to an end (or rather, when we decided to end ‘em) we went on a six-week driving trip through the Great American Southwest, starting in the ‘burbs north of Dallas, Texas, where we both grew up.
Among the images I remember clearly from the day we left:
One: Marci turning around in the front seat as we drove away from her parents’ house to look back at her mom and dad. Her father was holding up three fingers: three weeks. Marci shook her head and responded with extra fingers: six weeks. I had to marry her after that. Not in the shotgun sense, of course. I just had to! Couldn’t get enough of her company. That was twenty years ago. I still can’t get enough of her. Crazy, huh?
Two: we stopped by my folks’ house. Said goodbye. Told my dad, “Westward, Ho!” and then had to turn back to him as M and I walked to the car. “Uh, which way is west?” Dad laughed and pointed. We made it to California.
Anyway, skip forward nearly a month into the trip. Marci and I had left off from camping in Yosemite on the return route from San Francisco and had driven up over the cold Tioga Pass, where the snow at the end of May was up to our waists. And that’s no exaggeration: we hopped out of the car and jumped around in waist-deep snow. We’d spent weeks in the desert prior to that, so deep snow was quite novel. We were headed from the forests and high mountains back down to the desert on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
Within the course of that morning we had traveled from the forests of Yosemite Valley up and over the high and frozen Tioga pass, and eventually down the jagged range toward the hot desert flats. We were headed south, roughly in the direction of Las Vegas, with no real destination in mind for the night, and no sign of humanity on our two-lane highway. Over the course of about an hour, our crackling car radio noise resolved itself into music and voices and a message called to us, transmitted from some distant oasis and beckoning over the invisible airwaves.
The message was this: All You Can Eat Pizza Buffet!
Our car glided toward the source as if traveling on a giant Ouija board, up a steep mountain ascent to the small mountain town of Mammoth Lakes. We had never heard of Mammoth Lakes, but it’s a popular winter ski destination for Nevada and California folk. Marci and I drove around the town, high up in the mountains, and set up our tent in the campgrounds at the edge of town. Over lunch, we met some locals who gave us directions to a natural hot springs.
We found the hot springs at the end of an unmarked road in the desert several miles out of town. Jumping into our bathing suits, we climbed down the steep steps to the spring. Ropes were placed to keep people away from the most dangerous areas; good thing, since otherwise I would have dived right into the rapidly boiling water pools ringed with sulfurous steam-farting mud fumeroles.
The swimmable areas were deep and hot, and the water was high in minerals and made our skin tingle. Where our feet could touch the bottom we could feel a rumbling beneath the ground, as if thundering herds of pachyderms were heading straight for us. It was unnerving, like standing above an underground nuclear test site not knowing when the next bomb blast would blow.
There were a few others at the hot springs, and we all talked about the experience of hitting so many wildly different climates within a single day: cool forests to snowy mountain passes to desert hot springs.
Back in Mammoth Lakes we drove around the deserted town looking at the pricy winter chalets until heading to the promised pizza land for the dinner buffet. When night fell in Mammoth Lakes it fell hard; the temperature dropped and shattered on the ground like broken icicles. We weren’t ready to nod off or face a few hours in the cold tent, so we drove through the town in search of night life. We couldn’t find any. There wasn’t a movie theater, and there didn’t seem to be any bars or restaurants open at night. The streets were deserted by 8 PM.
M and I wandered around the local grocery store, the only place that seemed to be open apart from one self-serve laundromat. We made small talk with the two employees, who asked us if we were in town to go skiing. Mammoth Lakes is so high up that even though ski season was over and only the locals were left in town, the upper reaches of the mountain remained open. So Marci and I decided that we’d tarry a day and go skiing.
That night we gained valuable camping experience and learned some interesting lessons. For instance, we learned that a cheap tent and sleeping bags and thin foam pads don’t keep you very warm when the temperature drops into the low 20′s. And I learned that when the temperature gets that low, and you have to get up to pee at 3 am, you’re going to be really sorry that you left all of your clothing outside the sleeping bag. Apparently, blue jeans freeze at about the same temperature as water.
The next day, clad in jeans, caps and work gloves, we headed up the mountain to rent skis for the day, The rental area was at the base of the lift, and the man working there… Hmm, I’m not sure how to describe him. There are tales told around the campfire, stories to scare children that generally end with someone being grabbed. He could have been featured in one of those stories.
He had some sort of skin condition. He looked like he’d been burned all over his body. The sun couldn’t do it alone; he must have been through a kiln. His skin was in tatters, peeling off of every exposed surface. He looked like chipped beef, like one of those trays full of bacon that you see in brunch buffet lines. He was extra crispy. As he fit Marci for boots, she suddenly turned to me and exclaimed, wide-eyed, “Oh! I forgot the sun screen!”
That’s about the end of this part of the story. Except for the poignant scenes where Marci and I skied together. Twice, as my father used to day: the first time and the last time. When she said she could ski, I thought that meant she could ski. A miscommunication: Marci thought those little bunny hills constituted skiing, and I thought that skiing was skiing. So when we got to the top of the mountain, where that late in May only the upper blue and black slopes remained open, and Marci found out that she could not actually do the type of skiing that involved actual skiing… well, it wasn’t pretty.
She tried her best, and I really felt for her. Actually, she did okay on the left turns, skiing ever so slowly across the steep and icy slopes. And then she fell on each and every right turn, dropping on the same spot on her hip as the snow soaked through her jeans. Eventually she got so tired and frustrated and black and blue and sore and wet that she started crying and I was getting impatient waiting for her to Get Up! since it was obvious to me that the only way down was down. Since then we’ve been able to laugh about it with a standing joke about such situations: Stop Crying! Roll!
We gave up that night, and stayed at a motel. The next morning, we cooked breakfast over our camp stove-on the pavement by the motel parking lot. Ah, roughing it. Since then, Marci’s gotten “back on the horse” so to speak: we’ve gone skiing together several times. She takes lessons while I attempt to break my legs skiing well above my limits. Well, you know what they say: if it doesn’t kill you, try try again.