Three and a half weeks in, the routines became rituals, and the amount of decisions that need to be made slowly declined. Whereas my morning routines used to involve thirty minutes of phone time as soon as I woke up, followed by an automated shower, a trip to the local cafe for a latté and a pastry, then the drive to work, my new routine involves rushing out of the 30˚ sleeping bag into the 35˚ ambient temperature, popping open the stove and the pantry to get the oatmeal and the coffee prepared as soon as possible, using the heat from the stove to warm up the van and my Little Buddy (a brilliantly named propane-powered space heater I picked up early last week) to warm me up.
It's a good morning this way, I don't mind the cold really, it's the heat that kills me and agitates me. Usually by the time breakfast is done, the windows are fogged by the heat, the van is cozy, and I get to sit and enjoy breakfast along with my homegirl Fairuz. Pack the bed, do the dishes, brush my teeth, adjust the solar panel, and my reward is two-to-three of uninterrupted reading time in the one sunny spot between the trees.
So I wake up, perform the morning ritual which has become a starting marker on my day, get in the van, and head over to Convict Lake. I'd seen Gregg Boydston whom I've been following for a while on Instagram shared photos from there which made the place amazing.
One the way, I pass through the town of Bishop. On the main street, I come across a Vanagon, parked at an angle towards the street. Cool! I get closer, and see a Vanagon pull out of the parking lot. Huh, that's weird, you don't see that many in one place. I get next to the place, and in front me, the clouds parted and the light shined like it had never shone before. The music radiated like it had never played before, and no less than fifteen Vanagons sat side by side, with a shop window open. A Vanagon Specialist.
Coming across a Vanagon specialist on a trip is like coming across a coffeeshop that has freshly ground Kenyan beans drip-poured after a month of drinking Folgers. It's like finding an Aspirin when all you've been given are slaps on the face to make you focus your pain on another part of your body. It's like coming across a specialist after 5 mechanics reach to the back of the bottom drawer trying to find something, anything, that would fit that weird hose your van has, regardless of origin or compatibility.
I pull in, my spirits riding high. I walk in, there's nobody there. I look around, shit. Fox News is playing on the TV. At this point, my beard has grown over an inch, and I've gotten into the habit of twirling the end of my mustache as I drive, making me look like a Turkish Basha with an ear for downtempo electronic music, out camping. I wonder how this is going to go.
Five minutes of idle chatter with another waiting customer, the shop owner arrives and jumps right in: "What year is that? What's going on?" "It's a '91, my headlight switch melted, I got a replacement, but I don't have the connector. Can you help me out?" We chat, he doesn't have the part, but he might be able to find it for me. We move on to talk about engines, I mention a Subaru engine conversion that people do to their vans which more than doubles the horsepower, but isn't smog-legal in California. I joke that I just need to find a nice Arab smog certifier and chat with him about the homeland and as soon as I said those words his brain clicked into high gear, he stood up, got a smile on his face, excited about what's to come.
"Are you a liberal?"
Huh, that came out of nowhere.
"Uhh, yeah, you could say that"
He takes this as a cue to jump into a 10 minute tirade on the hypocrisy of liberalism, how the other states that don't have smog rules are sharing the air with us and how we're creating an uneven playing field, how the Indians on the reservation next door charge the same price but pay less for gas, how abortion is immoral, how immigrants need to be stopped.
How he jumped from one conclusion to the other was amazing to me. I was more impressed than anything, I wanted to give him a pat and the back and congratulate him on TV well watched, but at the mention of immigration I perked up myself. I knew what was about to happen, it's happened many times.
"If we closed down immigration I wouldn't be here"
"Where did you come from?"
"Did you come here legally?"
"See you did it right!"
"Do you realize how much time it takes and how much money it costs to come here legally? It took us fifteen years, and many thousands of dollars."
At this point, the conversation usually turns to some variant of "If you're too poor to come, you shouldn't come". My mention of Syria as my place of origin usually takes a couple of minutes to register and locate on the hazy, foggy mental map of the world, and then the mention of Islam comes. This is my favorite part.
"I'm not Muslim, I'm Catholic Christian."
I love being Catholic. It's not like being an Orthodox, a Protestant, or any other obscure offshoot. No. I'm fuckin Catholic, bro. The Pope is my homeboy, what you got on me? It's like someone assuming you're not driving an American car and you tell them it's a Ford. It's the most blunt of Christian beliefs.
He gets confused at the introduction of nuance and realism into the stark black & white vision of the world, and the conversation ends with:
"I'll tell you the best argument against abortion." - Somehow we were back on this topic – "I was adopted, if I had been aborted, I wouldn't be here working on your van". Point actually well made, I wanted to give him a hug for deciding to specialize in Vanagons.
I don't want to give off the wrong impression. The commentary in that section of the story is not how I felt, it was how I reacted in my head. In truth, I side much more heavily on the liberal end of the spectrum, but I believe in nuance. Nothing in the world is black & white, and people are neither strictly right nor wrong, especially in these areas of debate and belief. I also don't think arguing with someone on these topics is worthwhile. We'd be arguing at the leaf nodes of the logic tree, not the root, where we disagree. It doesn't matter what you think about Obamacare, abortion, religion, immigration. I want to have a conversation about human nature, what our tendencies are, how you prioritize and weigh factors in your life. That's the difference, not right or wrong, just different priorities.
Unfortunately, he didn't have time to work on my van and I didn't have time to wait. Slightly dismayed but more amused, I continued up the eastern foothill of the Eastern Sierras, showing my van Sierra the backside of her namesake. "You think this is cool," I told her, "Just wait till you see what's on the other side of the peak!"
Weird things happen to objects when you name them. Ever seen bestowing my van with a name, I've felt a kinship toward it. Yes she has a temperament, and yes she's needy, but I can't help spoiling her. She has trouble up the hills. You see, she's only got 90 horsepower, and coming up a mountain pass, she'll pull a hearty thirty, and on a downhill, she'll pull a lively seventy. The problem with going thirty uphill though, is that the heat starts overpowering the wind's ability to cool the engine, and the heat starts to scare me, after what happened in Death Valley. So I scratch her in her favorite spot, that little patch of soft metal right above the driver's side window but below the windowsill, and I comfort her. I open up the heater on full blast, and I start: "You can do it, baby, just two more turns, you can see the peak, there it is, see that sign? Come on, Come on – HEY PASS ME MAN I DON'T HAVE A TURNAROUND! – it's ok baby, it's not your fault, it's coming up, it's coming up! HEY! Summit, 7,800 feet! YOU DID IT!"
I arrive, spending the whole trip looking for some dispersed camping in the many national forests around that area to no avail. I find a campground sign near convict lake, turn into it, find a spot, take a swig of whiskey after finding out it's $25 per night (relatively, even a nice spot on this trip would've cost me $15, most were free). I find a spot, park, open the door, and immediately I hear "Hello neighbor!". I look around through to trees to find the campground host on a chair outside her RV waving. I head over, wanting to know about some of the hikes and the area around. She's new, but she has maps and packets which she lends me to read over. Her name is Christy, and there's a guy there, shirtless, bald, muscular, with shorts and a pair of skater shoes on. His name is Jay. He was from London.
I ask them where I can go to get a good steak and some fresh Asparagus, then he silently goes in and fetches me a pork steak and some asparagus. Huh, how awfully kind! "How much do you want for it?" "Nothing mate, just enjoy!" "How about a trade?" "I'll tell you what, you get the beer, and I'll grill the steak." Sound good to me! Off I went with them, slightly disappointed by him putting on a shirt. Suddenly we looked less like an Arab and a Skinhead walking together and looked more like an Arab and a punk English man walking together, much less poetic.
Anyway, we walk over, some idle chatter later, the steaks are done, we eat, we drink, we feel good, and then they mention Chemtrails while I was dozing off a bit. "Chemtrails? What are those?" Jay and Christy proceed to explain the conspiracy theory to me, I'll leave the explanation as an exercise to the reader. Out of this conversation follow a few more conspiracy theories: Capitalism, Religion, Society, TV. I'm fascinated by this topic of conversation and want it to keep going on. I've never met anyone who believed in those theories, and I wanted to find out more, but the beer was working its way and I lost focus. We started feeding the chipmunks.
I woke up the next day, said goodbye to Jay and Christy, and took Sierra up towards Tahoe. One mountain pass later which Sierra championed, we descended into the casinos of the California-Nevada border in southern Lake Tahoe. Through the casinos were $35 campgrounds, tall thick pines, clear blue lakes, 5pm rush hour traffic, overpriced rent, overcrowded brunch, and home. Home sweet home.