If there was ever a triumphant start to a trip, this is it: We are in the thick of traffic on the 405, office-bound. It is only 7 am but everyone, I spy, looks weary. Not we. The morning mist be damned, we feel full of glory and promise. There will have to be a word to describe this feeling at the beginning of a trip, especially a road trip, especially now. I will have to invent it.
Soon it becomes clear that we are out, truly out, of L.A: a bar called the Robbers' Roost, out in the middle of nowhere but promising cheap cold beer, is a sign of this. Some cows, evidently not bothered by it being a robbers' roost, lounge right behind. An unknown radio station is now playing unknown music, all of it good. Suddenly we find ourselves in the town of Bishop, elevation 4150 feet. A mint-green house- already postcard perfect, I think- flashes past, and then I see a sign on it promising 'Watercolors for Sale.' Rolling past the main drag, I see an outdoor market underneath some very old eucalyptus trees, a canal flowing in back. The stalls are all selling local and handmade goods; there's a sign for hand-crafted batches of BBQ seasoning, limited quantities. The whole scene seems out of time. What tranquility here, these people with their canal and their flower-lined main street somewhere in the mountains. This triggers the first stirrings of what we have long ago come to know as the 'let's move here' syndrome. Plainly put, we are wanderers. And wherever we wander, we see places that make us want to stop wandering. But it never does stop.
The mountains soon make their presence felt. The numbers on the elevation signs rise and rise. The Monitor Pass has impressive ones: 8,314 feet. It was the first pass in the Sierra Nevadas to be crossed by a non-native, one Jedediah Smith in the spring of 1827. This bit of history- supplied by J- gives the mountains a sense of occasion, even if our names will never be recorded as the millionth and such party to cross this pass.
We are headed to Markleeville to enjoy the Grover hot springs and to stay the night. Suddenly and without ceremony, there we are: Markleeville, pop.200. We stay in a tiny lodge situated alongside a creek, an offshoot of the Carson River. Right next door is the County Courthouse. It seems inordinately large, if impressive, for such a small town. Next door to that is a lively bar and restaurant, a minuscule cafe, and a general store. That is all. I spot this whimsical sun-face on the back of the cafe while the girl is unloading a truck full of supplies. She warns me that if we want to get dinner at the bar across the street, we will need reservations: It fills up.
At the hot springs, we soak our tired muscles among a throng of elderly Japanese ladies in huge visors and very modest swimwear, clearly on a girls' trip and enjoying every second. The mountains are visible across the springs, and we alternate between the springs and the 'cold pool' across from it. The thermal shock is exhilarating: the saunas of Scandinavia no longer seem so inexplicable.
Later, I sit on a log overlooking the creek to listen to the sound of the water. There is a father-and-son pair fishing in the middle distance. When I turn around, I see a house- across a field of overgrown, gold-toned grass- with a group of older folks: bikers, I surmise, in the middle of their Friday evening shindig. They wave, expansively. I wave back. The restaurant across the street, as warned, is now bursting at the seams. All 200 of the locals have clearly descended there. We pick up a few things from the general store, where the girl tells us stories about the bear that has its picture posted on the counter. She looks improbably cute (the bear, not the girl) as is the way with bears. We step out of the store to see a stationary trailer there on the street with two brown horses inside, perfectly still. Behind us an old man sits on a bench and regards us with open curiosity.
After a small dinner in our room, we feel the need to take a walk around town, which ends at the corner of the road about 200 feet from our door. This is the town. The night sky is by now ablaze with stars, and I am amazed to see the Milky Way right across our heads with astounding clarity. (Is this the first time I have ever seen it? How can I have lived for decades on this earth without seeing the Milky Way?) We listen to the live music issuing from a hitherto-unnoticed, one-tiny-room bar by which we are standing. Someone is singing a morose karaoke number to encouraging applause. For some reason, J and I giggle, filled with a jolt of pleasantly foolish glee to be picked up by the headlights of passing vehicles in the night. We hope we look suspicious.
Just minutes later back in our room I connect somewhat reluctantly to the outside world via my phone. I have missed several calls. There is a text asking me, urgently, to reply.
A friend has died a couple of hours ago. I instantly think about the shooting star, the very tip of which we had just spotted in our recent sky-watching. Was that him?