We awoke the next morning unscathed, despite our having to cut the previous night’s campfire short from fear of approaching lightning strikes (Aaron tends to view the retreat as cowardly, but I like to think we acted like any rational person would who is sitting atop the highest point in the desert and the lightning strikes the water nearby… I voted to hide).
Once again alone in our landscape, we set to making coffee and a hearty breakfast. Even Xochitl ate well. It may have only been a Cornish game hen, but to her it was a feast beyond compare.
After we ate, it was time.
Aaron pried open the pine box that held Paco’s ashes. I’ve never actually seen anyone’s ashes before, and was surprised at how much they looked like the scenery. You could have broken off a chunk of rock or poured sand in my hands and I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference.
I searched through the ashes for proof of Paco, most specifically the titanium pieces that replaced his knees, but everything was the same consistency. Aaron pointed out that they probably sift the large chunks out. I shuddered.
We went down to water’s edge. I climbed atop the dead tree that I associate so much with Paco, and poured half of his ashes in the lake. And then we made Xdog pose in front of the tree in relatively the same position Paco had taken many years before.
The rest of the morning we sat under the shade of a tree and looked out over the lake. We talked about loved ones, the ones we’ve lost, and the ones we will lose someday. I think it's rare to remember to pay homage to the people in our lives who are still around, but we did.
For several hours we continued the meditation begun the day before, though we did break away long enough to take advantage of the lake and drift out atop inflatable pool toys.
Around lunchtime, we had a powwow around the cooler.
"I think we should make a big lunch, go back down to the lake, and then leave when it starts to get dark tonight," Aaron proposed.
"I think we should eat lunch, pack up, and leave," I countered.
"Don't you want to stay any longer?"
"You know, I could always stay at this place longer. I'd love to stay here forever, but I kind of feel like I've accomplished what I've come here to do and it's time to leave now."
He agreed, and, as if on cue, 6 people arrived on our secluded coastline with fishing poles, a jeep drove up, and dark clouds appeared over the mountains, giving us 20 minutes to pack up before the rain began.
I knew, and the desert knew, that it had given us 24 perfect hours to celebrate Paco, and now it was time to move on.
Thursday night we left the Bay Area and headed east toward Pyramid Lake.
We hit Reno at about 1 am and immediately began gambling. Being a total wuss, my normal game of choice is nickel slots or low stakes video poker, but Aaron wanted to try out "real gambling" for once. We found a patient dealer who was already schooling another newbie, so we hopped in. Aaron was "the face," making the bets, asking the questions, absorbing the odds, and I was "the brain," adding the cards, orchestrating the plays, and ordering drinks. Together we made one fine player, walked away with $15 extra bucks in our collective pocket(which was promptly spent on a grilled cheese sandwich).
By 3 am it it was time to turn in, so we shoved Xochitl in a messenger bag and headed up to the room. Now, I don't condone breaking the rules and sneaking dogs into places they're not allowed... ah, who am I kidding. The reason we got a small dog was to be able to take her anywhere. We didn't actually ask if it was okay for us to have a dog in the room because we didn't want to hear "no." Full well knowing she won't shed, is potty pad trained, and we'd only be in the room for a few hours while sleeping we figured it was worth the risk. Besides, if they caught us then we'd just get kicked out, and there are worse things in life than being blacklisted by Circus Circus Reno.
Besides, she loves hotel rooms.
The next morning we grabbed coffee at a cafe (where they served us beignet's covered in baking soda instead of powdered sugar... blach!), hit the grocery store, and headed to the lake.
We arrived in the early afternoon. The sky was overcast with thick clouds but the thermostat still read 83 degrees. As we pulled off the dirt road and toward the lake's edge, I was happy to see no other camper's in "my spot". We unpacked and quickly got down to the task at hand: being lazy.
Xochitl picked up desert life like a fish to water. It was as if the landscape awakened the dormant tendencies that lay beneath the surface. She whipped out an entirely new skill set in order to cope with this new place. In a word, she went feral.
The fear was that she would see the small critters and take off, never to be seen again. But the opposite happened. In this new land, everything was foreign so she clung to her pack a little tighter. Foraging along the coastline, she would find treasures, like old bones, tennis balls, and dried fish segments, and bring them back to home base. Once there, she was comfortable enough to settle down and enjoy her booty. If she ever wandered out of sight, we would quickly hustle ourselves to a hiding spot and watch her panic trying to find us. Sneaky move for sure, but the end result was that she stopped wandering off.
As the day went on, thunderclouds began to form, swirling and darkening the skies. We watched as lightning and thunder began. It was a beautiful sight made even more magical when coupled with the fact that somehow we manged to avoid any precipitation.
Here is my attempt to capture part of it, though I missed a spectacular lightning strike as I panned out over the lake and the wind totally obscures the thunder. You get a sense of the landscape at least. Oh, and we're cooking pork chops.
There's something about the desert that facilitates reflection and meditation. Sitting at lake's edge that day, I was struck by not only the timelessness of the landscape, but also about how much my life had changed. Watching little Xochitl run around, I thought about Paco. I thought about every trip we'd ever taken there, where I was in my life at that point, and who we were with. As much as I looked back, I also thought of Aaron, Xochitl, and the future. For hours I sat there and contemplated the cycle of life and the way the world works. Sure, I barely touched the book I'd brought, but I also gained so much more.
For instance, I came to terms with Paco's death in a way I never had before. It sounds cliche, but I truly felt the ending of one chapter with the simultaneous opening of another. Without the background noise of the city and the clutter of life to distract me, I experienced that sentiment in a deep way. But it wasn't sad. It actually felt liberating.
At one point I looked down and saw Xochitl nudging a caterpillar with her nose. My instinct was to reach out and shoo her away because it might be poisonous, but I stopped myself. See, when Paco died I went through a period of thinking I was a bad owner. I know that's not the case, but all it takes is one bad comment from a message board to make you completely beat yourself up all over again, thinking you could have taken extra steps, removed the risk even more, perhaps even bubble wrapped the world.
But a series of freak events lately involving the death of other people's pets has made me put things in perspective. The thing is, risk is a part of life. You can, and should either avoid or lessen obvious forms of risk (ie. wear a helmet when you ride, leash your dog in the city, don't drink the milk if it's chunky), but you can never eliminate it completely. And there is such a thing as going too far in avoiding risk, which can actually put a damper on life. It's all about making safe choices and accepting the small percentage of life you can't control.
As I reached forward to shoo Xdog from the caterpillar, I stopped, waiting for the worst to happen. I watched as she touched it once again with her nose, then turned and left it alone. I kind of laughed at myself for ever being so paranoid, and swore I'd learn to buck up.
In about an hour we'll be leaving for Pyramid Lake. Our to-bring list begins, "tent, Paco, Xochitl." It's not a typo. This is the trip up to scatter Paco's ashes.
It's been the plan since day one to scatter half his ashes up there. I first went there the weekend after 9/11 when Paco was 4 months old. On that trip he learned to swim and I fell in love with the landscape. Ever since, we've done a yearly pilgrimage. It's our favorite place on earth.
It's funny because this weekend kind of snuck up on me. We'd planned to do this a few weeks ago, but life got in the way so we canceled. The Pyramid Lake trip was to also be a BSA riding trip, but the bike is still out of commission. With no quick BSA fix in sight we decided to postpone the trip until much later in the summer and just do a quick, fun nature getaway this weekend.
Because we are last minute kind of people, we began seriously planning the trip yesterday morning over coffee. Aaron wasn't enthused with the landscape at New Melones, and I couldn't readily find the dog policy for Pinnacles.
"Fuck it," he said, "let's just go to Pyramid Lake."
With the destination settled, it took all of 5 minutes to make a rudimentary to-bring list. I got the tent from Dango yesterday, and started making a pile when I got home last night, a pile that centers around Paco's cedar box sitting atop Xdog's crate.
Tonight we sneak The Roach into a Circus Circus hotel room and tomorrow we head out to the lake. It should be an interesting trip in many ways. Aside from the whole ritual of scattering ashes, I'll be experiencing the trip with a new dog, a new dog who may not come back after she sees all the interesting critters the desert has to offer. Don't worry, we're bringing plenty of containment options.
This is a picture of Paco at the spot where we'll be scattering half of him (the other half will stay with us). I know I've posted this picture before, but it's one of my favorites so bears repeating.
It's been 13 years since I've picked up a pair of knitting needles and you can add a few more since if we're talking about having actually completed a project. But this week I hit a milestone.
A few weekends ago we hung out with my sister in Los Angeles and walked around her neighborhood. We went into an uber hip craft store, I saw a skein of yarn, thought of the 7 hour drive ahead of us, and got a major urge to knit a sweater for Xochitl.
I tracked down an employee and we started talking craft, at which point, as Aaron pointed out later, I out-crafted her. It's not that I am just that cool, it's that when I was young, I was just that nerdy. I didn't have any friends, hung out mostly with my sister and my goats, and I'd do all sorts of projects. I knew how to knit by the age of 7 or so, and was working a sewing machine at 9. I was not particularly great or gifted at any of these things, I just don't have the super meticulous mindset it takes to iron at every stage or follow a pattern perfectly, but I could totally make something that wouldn't fall apart.
When I picked up spinning (yarn, that is) in high school, I found my niche. Like a fish to water, I spun perfect yarn my first time out. There was something so rewarding about taking a raw material, like wool, silk, or cotton, and taming it. Each medium demanded a different approach, so I adjusted accordingly. There were even differences between the fleeces of the same breed of sheep, and my joy was finding the quirks and working with them.
Though my spinning wheels are long gone, I still find joy in working with materials that you have to persuade rather than force. In college it was wood and metal, now it's leather.
As I stood in that Los Angeles shop, staring at the skein of homespun, I was struck with the desire to feel the yarn in my hands again. The constraints of the car limited my choices of craft, so I asked if they had any knitting needles. They didn't really, nor did they have yarn that was less than $30/skein, but they did give me a free pair of circular needles someone had abandoned there many months back.
We tracked down a Joanne Fabric (which is a feat since all the ones up here are out of business), brought Xdog in the store to pick the perfect color, and left with all the fixins to make a dog sweater.
The process wasn't pretty. It involved a lot of re-learning, cursing, and unraveling. But even as I undid 8 hours worth of work, I was determined to finish the piece since I hadn't actually finished any knitting project since that watermelon hat I made in high school.
It took over two weeks, but I finally made a sweater fit for an 18 lb dog (with a little growing room to spare).
It's a good thing she's lying down so you can't see the weird ball-sack-esque pouch between her legs, the result of a miscalculation.
We celebrated by playing hookey from work. The original plan was to go on a BSA ride, but the weather had predicted thunderstorms so we scrapped our plans. However, as we ran our errands around the city, we noticed the sky clearing up and bits of blue peeking through. We ate lunch and did a quick time inventory: Aaron's pie and whiskey birthday party was due to start at our house at 8, we had already finished the prep work, and it was only 3 pm. We donned our riding gear and hit the road.
I'm not a risk taker, but I love riding the motorcycle. Rather, I like riding on the back of the motorcycle while Aaron is driving. I'm not confident with my ability to operate any two-wheeled vehicle, despite my having taken a motorcycle riding class a few years back. Aaron, on the other hand, has both decades of experience under his belt and a healthy respect for mortality, the result being I can simply sit back and enjoy the ride, knowing I'm in capable hands.
We fought our way through pre-rush hour traffic, headed north over the Golden Gate bridge, and off through the mountains towards Bolinas.
I know it sounds cliche, but experiencing the road on a motorcycle is such an exhilarating experience. With nothing between you and the outdoors, you have a connection to the landscape you wouldn't have otherwise. The wind whipping through your hair, the scent of the greenery... even the rat's nest that is the result of the aforementioned wind/hair/whipping combo is all worth it as you just feel so alive!
You notice the small things:
Wild peas climbing a broken fence.
A doe grazing on a cliffside.
A hawk coasting on invisible wind currents, seemingly motionless in midair.
And then... we broke down.
But not that bad. It turned out that the chain simply popped off. A quick fix, no tools involved, and we were off again. We rolled into Bolinas, hit the grocery store, and walked toward the beach. As we passed back by the parked motorcycle, a man stopped us.
"Ah, I wondered who owned my bike," he joked. He then went on to tell the story of how he used to own a vintage bike shop that housed scores of vintage BSAs, Nortons, Triumphs, etc, but how it all burned to the ground during the Stinson fire. He lost everything but was able to recover one 66 Norton, which, to this day, was his baby.
At this point I should back up and mention that we can't go anywhere without someone commenting on the bike. It's old, you even could say "vintage," and the result is that people go nuts over it. Even if you know nothing about bikes, the rumble is so loud and distinct you can't help but look for the source as it goes rumbling by.
Last weekend we pulled up to a biker bar in Port Costa and were surrounded immediately.
"Is that a '69?"
"What size engine? Oh, 441?"
"You know what BSA stands for, right? Better Start Again! Hahahaha!"
Even when we're in the middle of something, we always stop and listen to the stories. People like to share, and the BSA provides that platform. In turn they hear how the bike belonged to Aaron's dad and how he just spent the last year getting it to actually run.
As we hit the beach in Bolinas Aaron remarked, "It's funny. I've met so many people who work on old English bikes."
"Maybe that's because they keep breaking down," I shot back. We laughed.
The beach was beautiful and the weather perfect. While the sky was mostly blue, thick clouds hung in the air and mist enveloped the mountaintops. The threat of rain and the fact that it was a Thursday afternoon kept the general public away, so we had the beach pretty much to ourselves.
Eventually we looked at the time and freaked out. We had to get back and get ready for the party at our house.
On the ride back the chain fell off again. Like a well oiled machine we hopped off, each took a job and the chain was back on without us even having to stop the engine. A ways down the road it popped off again. And then again. And then again.
The last time I took a look and noticed the master link had broken. Half of it was missing and the remaining part had bent out of shape, causing the chain to continuously fail. As Aaron rolled the bike to a safe turnout the chain fell off for good. We were officially stranded.
The bad news is that we were 5 miles from civilization in either direction. The good news was that we broke down in a spot where we actually got cell phone reception. The bad news is that for AAA to tow us I would need a special package, since the regular membership excludes motorcycles and RVs. The good news is that Aaron had the foresight to leave his pickup truck key behind, Dave was home, and willing to come rescue us. The bad news was that it would take him an hour to get there, it was getting colder, and the clouds were now threatening rain for real.
We decided to hitchhike. Once we made the decision, we realized that we were the world's worst hitchhikers. The first car was too fancy. The second had a baby. That guy looked creepy. Those girls look obnoxious. Okay, we'll take whatever car comes next.... wait, not the Landrover, it looks too yuppie.
Finally a bright turquoise 1957 Bel-Air drove up the rode and we started waving our hands wildly. They didn't stop, but the car right behind them did, and they gave us a ride into town (they explained their friends in the old car were unable to stop as they wouldn't be able to get it going again... a concept we understood completely).
They dropped us off in town 5 miles later. Using the iPhone as a guide, we found a nearby restaurant. Taking a scenic footpath, we stumbled into our destination via the bushes out front. Dirty, stinky, and covered with oil we pulled up to the 5 star restaurant bar and ordered a beer.
As we waited for Dave to arrive I reminded Aaron, "Well, this won't be a birthday you'll forget anytime soon." And then we laughed.