I have slept so little that when I do wake, I feel grit beneath my eyelids. I have one quiet, bitter cup of coffee out by the creek, watching the robins diving and soaring. The silence except for their sounds and the creek sound is crystalline, absolute. I have a conversation, one of many to come, in my head with my friend about the absurdity of his departure from this world. He is laughing, and I imagine this brings a shred of peace. Peace without acceptance is simply numbness, though.
It is but natural that we will dedicate this trip to him. (I cannot bring myself to say, 'to his memory.') We drive in silence to Lake Tahoe, the much-awaited sight that I have been thinking of for months. It is there, held like a jewel down many thousands of feet from our vantage point in the mountains. It is ringed by pines and covered with a fine net of sunlight sequins. Driving around the perimeter, we see stylish wooden houses with front doors left open to show off the full view of the lake behind: backless houses, we call them. But to J's chagrin, we discover that the whole area is abuzz with bees. Stopping by a scenic overlook to take pictures, this proves too much for him and he runs off. I spend a few minutes in solitude there.
We find a small pebble beach for breakfast, having carefully ascertained the absence of bees. We've resolved to find only stunning backdrops for our picnic meals, and so far we are doing admirably. The lake is a benevolent blue behind us as we walk around on the smooth shore pebbles.
Then we push on. (To get to Montana is the sole and vague objective of this trip. The rest is being filled in as we go along.) Briefly, we drive in Nevada which presents us with gambling houses and balding hills as opposed to the pristine California side of the lake.
Quickly, the route is back in California. We begin seeing mostly ghostly towns with populations in the two digits. My favorite town name for the day: Likely, pop. 73. Its single cafe is named, obviously, The Most Likely Cafe. Perhaps we should have stopped off for a cup, even if it looked unlikely that there was anyone at all to serve it. We see an inviting sign in another town called Litchfield: Come to the Buckaroo Countrywomen's Breakfast!
I'm eagerly awaiting our entry into Oregon. When I do see the welcome sign, just behind which is an intriguing, cave-shaped antique shop, I feel an absurd thrill. The town of Lakeview at the very southern tip of the state is our stop for the night. We get a hotel: ours is an extravagantly large room, situated behind a lovely old house with two giant sycamores framing it. The hotel clerk was grumpy at check-in; she needs to take her children to the fair, and no one will come to relieve her of her shift! Fair? Our ears perk up. We must go.
The fair turns out to be the grandly-named Lake County Fair and Roundup of 2016. Parking is in an immense lot where, when we walk, dust is kicked up in clouds. Soon we realize we are the only people not dressed in jeans and cowboy boots. This is a different planet altogether.
A Roundup, we conclude vaguely, is a sort of annual showing off of your farm animals. This includes pigs, sheep, goats, cows, horses, and, improbably, rabbits. The critters are housed in long barns behind barricades that are plastered with their individual histories and accomplishments. One sheep, a supreme champion named Polly, looks the most bored of all. I am beginning to feel a real sense of sadness here walking among these animals, when we hear two young, boyish voices calling out frantically, "Gate! Gate! Gate!" A pig has escaped. It comes thundering down the aisle, brushing past my leg in a blur of escaping beast. I root for its complete freedom; alas, other cowboys have appeared and placed barricades to hem the pig in. It appears unconcerned, though, and trots back sweetly to its stall.
Outside, the food is enticing if exotic: birch beer, deep-fried pickles? I have heard of neither. We ultimately settle for some chubby onion rings and an outsize bag of sweet-and-salt popcorn. Some band called The Cherry Road Gang is advertised as the live music for later tonight. Games like the ones I've seen on old-time t.v. shows are all around, including the 'barker' who yells at the top of his lungs to lure customers. I'm terrified of being called on, and poke my face into the bag of popcorn to avoid this event. J, beside me, admits to feeling as foreign as I. Los Angeles is a sort of ethnic punch-bowl, we've always known, but here is the evidence that this is not that. The feeling is a peculiar and unique thrill. Foreign-ness had been J's burden in my country for the last eight years. Now we have switched places. Or so we had thought, until now.
I take one unsuccessful picture of bags of cotton candy hanging off a stall under mirroring cotton-candy clouds. Walking back to the car, dusk is more deeply upon us. Horse trailers abound. (Is there anything as lonely as a single horse's silhouette against a twilight sky?)
Again, I look around and think of my friend. The stars are beginning to show. The fair rides have started to light up. We are strangers in a strange land, something he would have loved.
All this is lost to him now.