Privilege and the back of beyond

IMG_0653The weather was clear while the van was being fixed in Redding, but later that morning the forecast was for rain. It drove me berserk that I had woken up early to avoid the bad weather, and now wouldn’t get to start running until 11am… but I at least hoped to beat the rain. I had planned a longer run on a rail-to-trail the went along the Sacramento River to the Shasta Dam. The pictures looked beautiful, with a blue river and green mountains to either side. However, when we got there the sky had turned grey and oppressive, and all the colors felt muted and dark.

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We literally turned around at exactly this point. We ran into the tunnel until we could see the light at the end, and then we turned around. There is an obvious metaphor in there somewhere… Don’t overthink it.

The moment we reached the trail, it started sprinkling. I really, really hate the rain. Despite my recent loss of control, I am not usually someone that can’t manage my emotions and keep setbacks in perspective. I knew that if I canceled my run then the memory of this morning would always be that the rain ruined my run, but if I ran anyway, there was a chance that something else good would happen. I know that a story can be completely different depending on who’s telling it, and so I tried to look around for ways to not see this trip as a string of terrible luck. The rain wasn’t a soaking rain, and at least it wasn’t cold. That was something, I thought grimly as I slogged through.

I ran about 3.5 miles down the trail looking for a silver lining, but one never came. I had to admit to myself that I wasn’t really having fun, but at the very least I had spent the hour emotionally neutral rather than spending it driving and ranting in my head about the missed opportunity. Perhaps I would have counted the run as a success if it had been a normal Thursday, but I felt like my relaxation time was already running out. The crushing responsibility could catch me again at any second with a dead battery or other headache, so every moment of my work furlough that I wasn’t having fun was a slice of my lifetime wasted.

From Redding I headed generally southeast into the northern Sierras, through Lassen National Forest toward the Plumas National Forest. This area has been a new obsession over the past year. Ever since chance brought me here to run the Running with the Bears half marathon with Oscar, I had sought every opportunity to come back. This part of the Sierras isn’t on the way to or from anywhere, it doesn’t have any blockbuster tourist attractions like Yosemite or Mt. Shasta, and cell service is rare and precious.

IMG_0649.JPGWe were at elevation now, and so many of the trails and campgrounds hadn’t opened yet for the season. My FOMO was in a frenzy passing so many well marked trailheads and gorgeous views with closed gates, so finally I gave in and parked the van outside a closed parking lot and wandered in. Because the trail was closed, I let Oscar off leash and followed the trail to see what might be on it. What we found was a kind of self-guided tour of volcanic features, complete with museum-style informational signs. There were sinkholes that could hold a house, “splatter cones” made up of jagged igneous rocks piled precariously together, a “bat cave” that went so deep that I couldn’t see the bottom, and views all the way out to Mt. Shasta. It was snowing on Shasta, so the mountain blended from mountain to falling snow to sky in one seamless spectrum of white. By the time we got back to the car, I finally felt like vacation had found me.

My GPS navigation went out somewhere in the stopover, and a road I was supposed to take wasn’t open for the season yet, and I didn’t notice either until I realized that I was getting somewhat low on gas and I wasn’t guaranteed to pass through a “town” for the next 50 miles. I tried to orient myself, but when I passed through the same intersection for the third time in as many hours I had to admit that I needed help.

It is a strange feeling in this day and age to find yourself without your cell phone and realize that you’re completely helpless. I pride myself on knowing how to read a map and there was an atlas in the van, but I realized with dismay that without a blue dot to tell me where I am (none of the towns I had passed in the past few hours were large enough to be on the map), or the ability to zoom in to see the back roads, the atlas was useless. How did people survive before GPSes?!  I wondered. They asked for directions! Luckily there was a gas station at the intersection that I had practically spent the day in, so I pulled in and walked inside.

The guy behind the counter looked like he was about my age, but was probably much younger. I expected a suspicious unfriendliness from him, but he ended his phone call immediately and enthusiastically gave me thorough (and correct) directions. He even gave me a piece of paper to write it all down on. I was so surprised and grateful that I forgot to buy anything.

In our chat I found out that his wife was pregnant with their fourth kid, and scheduled to deliver via C-section that week. He explained that he had been on the phone with his mother-in-law, who was watching the other 4 kids while his wife went to an appointment. She had developed gestational diabetes with the pregnancy, and for the past couple of weeks she had been driving 150 miles each way to the nearest hospital for check-ups every other day. He said that they had to deliver their kids by C-section, because if she went into labor the only way to get her to the hospital in time was by helicopter.

I was stunned. I often think about what it would be like to live in the middle of nowhere, and wondered who was out there. I couldn’t imagine living in a town where the population was the size of many high school classrooms, and the entire downtown was a gas station and a stop sign. I wondered how hard it was to get by on a gas station attendant’s income in a place like this, and also how they were paying for the gas for a 6-hour car ride several times a week. Well… I guess he did work at a gas station…

For hours I thought about what it must be like for this man and his family to make ends meet. I resolved to send him an anonymous gift of a couple of boxes of newborn Pampers, and a gift certificate to a In-n-Out where he could take his other 4 kids for a treat when they visited Mom and baby in the hospital. But when I tried to place the order, Amazon would not accept the address. I tried it every which way, based on the Google and Yelp listings for the store, but nothing would let me complete the order.

I was crushed. For months I hadn’t been able to see myself as anything but the victim of bad luck and self-absorbed people. Meeting this guy was the first time in months that I’d realized how blessed I am, and that not everyone in the world is a self-absorbed jerk. It was a profound shift. I wanted nothing more than to thank him by surprising him with a reciprocal act of kindness, but apparently my world could not reach his. If you’re ever in Old Station, CA, please stop by the Old Station Fill Up and fill your tank. Even if you don’t need it.

My friend’s directions held true, and I found myself back in Taylorsville right around sundown. I was surprised to find the same couple hosting as had been there the last time I visited, back in October on the first really cold day of the year. They were “don’t tread on me” Trump supporter types with two sons in the military. The last time I was here, the woman had explained to me at length that her younger son was in the same regiment as “General Custard.” Before camp hosting in Taylorsville, they had been living in Honduras where they had “retired.” I would guess they were in their early 50’s. I suppose “retirement” can just be semantics for “I don’t want to work anymore,” and apparently it wasn’t just millennial hipsters that were picking up the lifestyle.

Despite the multiple aggressive threats of gun violence stickered onto all of their vehicles, the husband came out and was kind to me. He didn’t recognize me, but he called me “honey” as he explained in a gentle voice that the campground wasn’t open for the season yet so there was no running water or bathrooms, but I was welcome to park there for free. I asked if I could please pay him anyway, but he refused my money and suggested the best place to park. It was pouring rain as I prepared my dinner, but I tried to maintain the neutrality that I had found at the Sacramento River.

When it was time to get ready for bed, I climbed into the driver’s seat to run the engine while I used the dome lights in order to spare the battery. I still didn’t trust the van. But when I turned the key, the van wouldn’t start. I can’t remember what noise it made, because the black curtain of stress dropped over my mind again and my brain went into overdrive. I do know that I tried turning the key over and over and got the same result every time. I couldn’t believe that this was happening. I wanted a new van, but I was a 6-hour drive from San Francisco (probably 8 hours in the van), and I wasn’t willing to spend 2 more days of my vacation to get a new one. I wouldn’t be near another rental location until I was in Phoenix or Las Vegas toward the end of my trip. How could my luck be this bad, and after everything I still wasn’t going to be able to have a vacation? If I had felt like I was pacing an 8×10 cell while I waited for the roadside assistance in Redding, I now felt like I was bouncing off the walls in a padded cell. It no longer felt safe to look forward to anything, and I would honestly rather die than continue on this losing streak.

I don’t know what made me try the key again, but an hour or so later I did, and this time the engine turned over with no problem. I went to bed feeling no more hopeful than I had before, but relieved for the glimmer of hope anyway.

In the morning the van started up without a problem. I have no idea what was going on that rainy night in Taylorsville, but the van didn’t give me any more problems for the rest of the trip. I did still have one problem: It was pouring buckets. I considered running a short 3-mile run just to defy the bad luck streak, but I could not get myself to the “game on” place that I could convince myself that it might be fun, even if only for 25 minutes. Instead I decided to find a diner and spend some money in the county that had been so good to me.

I found a greasy spoon diner in neighboring Greenville (when I say “neighboring,” I mean 10 miles away) and ordered a couple of traditional breakfasts to go. This place was the sort of frontier roadhouse with wagon wheel chandeliers that was probably once an inn for miners and prospectors and had been passed down and evolved through the generations from a tavern to a chipped formica-tabled diner. It was a Friday morning at about 10am, but nearly every seat in the place was occupied by people of all ages. I guess 9-5 jobs are rare in a valley that is home to fewer than 2000 people and there’s a barn on every property. Shortly after I came in, an older gentleman came in with his newspaper, cordially greeted another guy already sitting at a table reading the paper, and settled down opposite him as was clearly their daily ritual. I didn’t know that this still existed in America.

A man and woman sat at the bar chatting and drinking coffee. The woman was probably in her 40’s, but could have passed for 20’s if it hadn’t been for the smile lines around her mouth and eyes. That’s how I want to age, I thought as I placed myself to eavesdrop on their conversation while I waited for my food. The woman was talking about her daughter, who was applying to colleges. By the depth of history that she had to explain to tell her story, it was clear that the man was either an old acquaintance who she hadn’t seen in decades, or had been a stranger before this conversation. They didn’t know each other well anyway. I looked at her left hand, saw no wedding ring, and guessed that they must be on a first date. I mused about what it must be like to date in middle age in a small town like this… until she mentioned her husband. I watched them talk (or her talk and him listen) for probably about 10 minutes, and in that time I could not suss out a single reason for them to be talking to each other, except that they both happened to find themselves in the same place at the same time. For an introverted city dweller who craves solitude, I found this behavior baffling.

I was already out of the Sierras and in the empty and featureless desert around Reno before the rain finally let up. I was driving down a two-lane road that turned the border between the mountains and the high desert plane into a straight line. I could see what looked like trails heading toward the mountains every mile or so, but I saw no signs with names or maps or parking. I had not figured out the concept of public land yet, and so thought that all dirt tracks must be either hiking trails or service roads. The fact that there were no signs seemed to indicate that they weren’t hiking trails.

IMG_1884Finally curiosity got the better of me and I pulled over to explore one of them. It left the highway in the direction mountains for less than a mile before ending in an open patch littered with rusted beer cans. It seemed like such a waste to have a trail that headed toward the mountains, and then quit so soon before even reaching them. I walked on for a little ways on the open ground beyond the end of the trail and imagined what it must have been like for the pioneers who had no existing paths to follow. How hard was it to get through the mountains anyway? Could you just walk, going around obstacles and following the gentlest slopes until you reached the ocean, or would you reach dead ends before you got there and have to turn back. IMG_0703I had no clue. There was no chance that I would lose the van, as I could see the whole valley from even my modest altitude of only about 40 or 50 feet above. It was the only thing in a featureless desert, parked at the intersection of the only 2 roads this side of the horizon. This was not the most beautiful place, and so rather than walking on into the mountains, like the trail I too decided to stop short of anything interesting happening. Instead I would have an “administrative day” and search for a campground with a shower and laundry. Exploration was inevitable, though, as the road I was driving faded from pavement into dirt a few miles beyond where I’d stopped, and I had to drive back about an hour to find an alternate route to Reno.

Once I reached Reno I pulled in to a very fancy trailer park. I say “fancy” not because it was rich in natural beauty (it was nothing more than a large asphalt parking lot), but because it had a water feature out front and the check-in office was clean and modern and sold golf equipment. I walked up to the desk with a smile and asked if they had any openings for the night. “No, we’re all booked up,” the woman said in a gravely smoker’s voice, and she beared her black-outlined teeth at me like a smile.
“Well can I at least pay to take a shower and do some laundry?” I asked, only slightly taken aback.
“No,” she said flatly. “You can go to the truck stop up the road for a shower, and there are laundromats in town.” I was stunned. I walked out without even acknowledging her answer.

I wanted to say, “Do you think I’m just some truck stop hooker? Do you know who trusts me with their bank information and social security numbers?! You think you’re such hot shit because you are lord of a parking lot with a pile of rocks and some plumbing out front?!” But then again, I had given up that job, and what exactly made me any different from the tramp that she thought I was?

At the next park that I tried I learned why it was so hard to find a spot to sleep in Reno. Apparently the Tesla factory had called in a fleet of migrant workers and had rented out every RV park in town to house the influx of labor. As I would learn over the next several days reading Nomadland, there is a new migrant workforce in America, and it’s not who you think. There are tens of thousands of American-born, mostly Caucasian would-be retirees who either lost their savings in the recession, or aged out of the workforce without a nest egg large enough to support them. To survive, these people travel the country doing contract work at warehouses and factories like Amazon and Tesla. The companies that employ them find the arrangement so lucrative, that some have actually bought up land to create more trailer parks to house their workforce during their peak season.

I had spent most of my downtime driving around Reno looking for a place to stay, so a shower was off the table. As I made my home next to the loading area behind Walmart, I promised myself that no matter where my career brought me, I would never have a job that didn’t provide enough surplus to make a hefty contribution to my retirement accounts every year. My vacation inconvenience was some people’s reality, and I was determined not to let that be me. I may be powerless over who takes over my town, whether Google engineers in Mountain View, or Tesla factory labor in Reno. I can’t always prevent bad luck like car trouble. And I certainly couldn’t stop the rain. But I could predict that before I die, the cost of living will rise, bad luck will strike again, someone will screw me out of more money, and there would continue to be rainy days. I didn’t know when they would come, but if I save a rainy day fund, I would at least be prepared when they hit me. If everything went to plan, I would sleep in many more Walmart parking lots before I kick the bucket, but I promised myself that from this day forward, sleeping at Walmart would always be a choice.

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