The next morning after breakfast I say goodbye to Twinkle, throat quivering and tight, as she gets in the car with a bunch of other hikers to be shuttled to Walker Pass. My mom and I leave soon after with a hiker named Ida, a Swede who lives in Australia, in tow. We’re going to Kennedy Meadows to pick up my packages and then north along 395 to Reno and home, dropping Ida off in Mammoth.
We find our way out of sprawling Ridgecrest and onto the sun-bleached highway that will take us to 395. Right after the turn-off heading up into the mountains to Walker Pass, we see a hiker hitching and slow down to pick him up. As we pass and pull off into the shoulder, I recognize his black-bearded, dirty face. It’s Tomas! He’s been sitting on the side of the road in the heat for a while now with his thumb out, and he’s disheveled, dirty and smelly as he slides into the back seat. We talk and drive. Eventually we turn off onto the small mountain road that goes up to Kennedy Meadows. Our Prius’s engines grumble us upwards, the winding road cut into the side of a steep desert mountainside, the slope falling off so sharply that I can’t see what’s below. After a half hour or so, the landscape changes into dry pine and eventually greener meadows as we near KM. We pull into the general store parking lot. Hikers choke the porch and patio, and bumble past the car while walking to and from their tents.
We walk into the busy store and put our names on a list to get our packages. Tomas is picking up a new pair of boots he sent here, while Ida has already been at Kennedy Meadows. The counter is worn and covered in taped-on notices, and the walls are lined with shelves of trail bars and powdered drink mixes. I squeeze past hikers and say hello to Farkle, who is sitting on a bench out front and who I haven’t seen since day 3 or 4 in Mount Laguna. My mom insisted I sit down while she gets my packages, and I find Hitch and Woodstock on the patio and sit with them and tell them about my foot. The snow/mountaineering class they were both going to take and that Hitch skipped a section to get to in time was cancelled after the teacher, Ned Tibbets, was heli-vacced out of the mountains on a scouting trip when his back went out. He sent out a message to everyone taking it that he would consider their course fees a donation to his business, and is being difficult with Hitch about refunds.
Every now and then the entire patio erupts into clapping as hikers walk up the road, having finished the desert. I feel sad that I can’t be a part of this, but at the same time oddly detached about it. The only other hikers I know here are Whizkid and Baby Jesus. When my mom comes to tell me the packages with my ice axe, bear can and resupply are in the car, I introduce her to Hitch, Woodstock and Whiz and then I say goodbye and shuffle after her to the car. I don’t feel any desire to stay here.
Then it’s a long, windy drive back down the road to 395, except this time braking instead of meat-grinding with our hybrid engine (I might be affectionately exaggerating). We drop off Tomas and briefly pick up two skinny hiker dudes in Lone Pine, hitching back up to the Onion Valley trailhead. They aren’t carrying maps, and there’s a vague tension in the car, between the hikers who are going through the Sierra in the snow and display a pointed and seemingly criticizing nonchalance about the achievability of what they are about to do, and the rest of us: a mother, a hiker skipping the Sierra, an injured hiker. We drop them off and continue our long drive north.
It’s a familiar and nostalgic drive, the Sierra rising up to our left, vast stretches of brown desert mountains in the foreground. We drop Ida off at a campground in Mammoth as the sky is getting gray, the sun low and the air coming biting and cold through our car windows. We pass through Lee Vining with the dying sunset giving off just enough light to see across Mono Lake, through the neon main street of Bridgeport in darkness. Topaz Lake is only the far-away light of one or two houses on the far shore, and the single casino that hugs the curve of the road. Gardnerville and Minden. Then Carson City, where 395 is briefly un-joined. We find our way back to 395 through streets with stop-lights and bright signs, the change in pace jolting me from my tired, zombie-like state.
The 30-minute drive between Carson City and home (!) goes by quickly in the dark, passing through Washoe Valley. Suddenly, inexplicably, we’re surrounded by the lights of Reno, the pale, spider-webbed concrete of the highway tread feeling unreal and exposed. Everything about being in big towns feels awful and wrong now, wasteful and dis-ordered and confusing. It feels strange to have this feeling towards my own city.
We pull off the highway and sit at the red light. The roads are quiet and empty this late at night, and I guess I’m glad I’m not coming back in the day time. Right onto McCarran, left at Pyramid, the lit-up roundness of our library, then left onto into our neighborhood. We pull up into our driveway and into our garage. Our dogs are barking at the door for us. The car headlights flood the garage. I pull myself up and out of the car, wincing at the swollenness of my foot. My mom opens up the door and our dogs run to meet me, although honestly they’re just as excited to see her. Wren is so furry and bigger than the last time I saw her, although she’s still a puppy. I’m not sure she recognizes me – she’s confused but Zephyr is excited to see me so I must be someone she knows.
I limp through the dark house in a daze and say hello to my dad and brothers, who were woken up by the barking dogs. I go into my room and pull on an over-sized t-shirt for sleeping. I have a dresser again now. I get into bed. Should this feel more momentous or different? I fall asleep.