It was a summer morning, the kind of summer morning where one wakes up and is suddenly transported back to the joy of waking up with the realization that he is off from school for three whole months. My eyes meandered around in my closet, trying to decide upon the best clothes for the day–today was a special day. Of course you’d have figured that out by now, as I am telling you about it.
I stepped out of the house dressed in an olive green jacket that was a callback to 2012 when dressing for an apocalypse was high fashion (a fashion trend I never left), and khaki cargo pants that gave a utilitarian bend to a classy look. Thick leather boots were laced about my feet, and a kelly green scarf was wrapped about my neck. Crowning it all was a royal blue French cap, a voyageur cap to be specific, a sort of long stocking cap with a tassel on the end of it. No proper Frenchman of the eighteenth century went exploring and trapping in the icy wastelands of New France without one.
I tramped out my door with my hands full. In one hand I had a blue cooler, in the other, my little mandolin. Now for before you ask–and I have been asked this as many times as I bring up my little friend, a mandolin is like a guitar mixed with a violin. It has eight strings, in four pairs like a very very small country dance. The strings in each pair are tuned the same, so in actual use a mandolin has four strings, it’s just that each string is actually two strings. And the two strings shall become one. I play British folk music on mine, that is to say, music from England, Ireland, and Scotland. I am rather devoted to it; my mandolin is a specially designed to be a “Celtic mandolin”. It has all the right specifications and sound. It is also shaped like something you would expect a trooping fairy to play while enrapturing a countryman or a fair damsel who had the fortune or misfortune to encounter a fairy court.
I went straight to my car and threw the cooler in the trunk and placed my mandolin in the passenger’s seat, carefully positioned so that he would not fall as I took turns and embankments. There would be a lot of those where we were going. I plugged in my iPod, and thumbed through my music. I needed a good and proper set of songs to listen to. I knew exactly who I would listen to.
Steeleye Span is a British folk-rock group formed in the late sixties in the shadow of the British folk revival movement and the widespread popularity of rock-n-roll. They are still active today, and their acts consist of arrangements of traditional ballads and instrumental jigs and reels. Their songs have the original poets’ madness about them, an unrepentant celebration of life that only comes about from the hearts of anonymous commoners who honestly do not know if they will survive until next Christmas, coupled with excellent musicianship and a calming but energizing sound. They are my favorite band.
I started up my car’s engine and set off bounding down the road. I made a quick detour at my first-favorite sandwich shop. I cracked my windows open so my mandolin could breathe and ordered my regular: “tuna on white bread with lettuce, pickles, olives, and banana peppers, and mayo. No, would not like the juice and spices, thank you though”. The good people there know me. Well, they know my sandwich anyway. None of us wear nametags so I know them collectively as “Sandwich Peeps” and they probably know me as “tuna on white bread with lettuce, pickles, olives, and banana peppers, and mayo. No, I would not like the juice and spices, thank you though, Boy”.
After placing my sandwich in my cooler I set off down the road once again, only this time for real. I sped along until I reached the open highway, turning my car eastward like a Magi returning home. And then I beheld my destination.
“Montjoy” I intoned over the music.
There before me, in a rugged splendor that has weathered and will weather the test of time, stood the glorious Sierra Nevadas. I revved up my engine, and rushed down the road at great speed towards their towering embrace.
There is a little town nestled in the shadow of the Sierras called Squaw Valley. Now I say little because that is how much I have seen of it; the Highway cuts through it, and there are buildings clustered all about the road, forming what I assume to be the downtown area. I hear that Squaw Valley is in actuality a bunch of large properties scattered out over the hills and the rocks, inhabited by both a remnant of a more rural time and those city folk who want to return to such a time.
In Squaw Valley there is a little gas station that I always stop in. Never to get gas, but to use the toilet and to buy a candy bar. The only place I feel comfortable using the toilet and not making a purchase is Starbucks–they set the tone of their restaurant by giving away their internet for free and letting hipsters who dress like it is the 1890’s sit in their restaurant and type away on their laptop without purchasing nary a sweetroll or overpriced coffee. But this gas station in Squaw Valley is no Starbucks. So I stepped in, and emerged refreshed with a gigantic Twix bar and a Snickers bar. It’s amazing how much candy $2 can buy when there are no parents around to tell you no.
Thus proverbially refueled, I set off up the mountain again. The road outside of Squaw Valley quickly begins to climb over hills and then up and down, and then after that it begins to weave up the side of the mountains. Eventually it gets to the point where there is a cliff on one side of you and a sheet drop on the other, with nothing but a little barricade to stop your car from potentially falling from heaven like a bolt of lightning. Then you hit the snowline, which is both an environmental marker and an old inn in which I have never stepped foot but like to imagine plays host to all sorts of adventurous types including a perpetually made-up female wizard, a perpetually angry dwarf, and a perpetually shady fighter who broods in the back and just happens to be the rightful heir to the kingdom and is the only one who can free the land from a dread curse. Anyways, once you pass the snowline you find yourself encompassed by trees. Thick trees, tall trees, wild trees. Also dying trees. The part about the curse is real. Only instead of a wicked sorcerer or a general case of injustice it is but a tiny beetle that eats trees. It is a real problem.
My car zoomed along the road as it wove through the trees, still climbing and falling along the mountainside. I came to a bend, and then Steeleye Span hit a merry olde crescendo as I beheld the second best thing to behold when going to the mountains–the park entrance to Kings Canyon National Park. I heaved my car to and pulled into the line, rolling down my window to talk to the ranger. I handed him one of my favored possessions–a U.S. National Parks pass. I got it from my parents for my birthday, and it has a little polar bear on it, presumably to remind all adventurers that polar bears are migrating southwards and mating with grizzly bears and will soon unleash a giant bear apocalypse of giant bears on us all. (But not before the Wild Pig apocalypse. Time to invest in a good spear. They are coming)
I pass the little bear to the ranger, and he smiles. “Map and Newspaper today?” He asks. I said yes. Always say yes when offered a map. That’s one of my mottoes. Keeps you from getting lost, and those maps look good on your wall, especially with x’s and lines drawn on them. The ranger passed me the paper goods.
“They are doing some logging down the road past General Grant” he said as I took them from his hand.
I drove on into the forest, absentmindedly thinking not of the ranger’s warning but instead of the beauty of this place all around me. I never feel more at ease than when I am in God’s creation–really gets into that primal, natural world where one is truly free from all pretense and bonds. Even if I am cruising in a car.
I was looking for a little campground that is a lesser known one, a favorite haunt of ravens and French tour busses who are spilling over from when the parking lot for the Big Trees–Generals Grant and Sherman, tallest and largest in the world respectively, are too full. I was going to go sit on a rock and play a song on my mandolin for my raven friends.
I missed my turn–I had only found the campsite the previous trip, so I didn’t exactly know the way. I kept going along the road, until I found myself stopped behind a great line of cars.
“They are doing some logging down the road past General Grant” said the ranger’s voice in my head.
There was a big fire the previous winter–I remember the ash and the sweet wood smoke smell. Apparently there were a lot of damaged trees left over, trees mostly dead but not fully dead. So they were clearing them out, and they blocked the road for the log carrying trucks. Now this is all part of first-rate forestry, and is necessary for keeping the forest healthy and well, and falls well under what the Bible says about being “stewards of the earth”, but deep down, I was not too pleased with being in a traffic jam. That was Los Angeles business. Not Sierra Nevada business. I sighed, put my car in park, and reached for my map. Ah yes, there is the wrong turn I took. I knew I should have made that left turn at General Grant. Ah well, I said, turning down the Steeleye and reaching for my mandolin. Its twang filled the car, and even though I was not on a rock, I was playing mandolin in the mountains.
I put myself in a fairy trance (The Irish got their music from the Fairies, don’t you know–whether it was given freely or they stole it is a matter of folkloric debate) and smiled. If being in the mountains is the most liberating feeling, then playing mandolin is a close second.
Then I was interrupted by the hissing sound of a truck’s brakes. I looked out the window to see one of the enormous log hauling trucks off of the starboard prow of my car. And a very, very beardy construction worker in a checkered shirt, khaki suspenders, and a yellow hardhat looking down into my car with a great grin on his face.
“What is that thing?” bellowed Thorin.
“It is a mandolin” I said.
“That is the most hardcore thing I have seen today” he said, and drove away with his logs.
With the truck gone, so too was the need for a traffic jam. Of course it took five minutes for the traffic to realize that, but I was soon underway once more. I could have turned back, but the traffic had already taken so long, so I figured I’d keep going. I drove on, and found a nice clearing with a big rock in it. I sat atop that rock, and resumed my music, playing a fast-paced polka.
Once again I heard the sound of brakes. I looked up, and there was the loggers’ truck again, and Thorin Oakenshield grinning out of the window.
“I just wanted to hear what that thing sounded like” he cried.
I smiled back. “Thank you!” I cried back. I was rather at a loss for words. I’m not good at talking back to strangers, especially if a stranger is being kind.
“Thank you, and have a nice day!” he said, and drove away with another truckload of logs.
I smiled. I finally got to sit on a rock and play, and I also got to brighten this lumberjack’s day. Twice, and all before I ate my picnic dinner of tuna on white bread with lettuce, pickles, olives, and banana peppers, and mayo. No, would not like the juice and spices, thank you though.