I wake in the night, the moon has set and the Milky way streaks across the sky directly above. Shadows of mountains towering behind, sound of the waterfall just in front. Even the mosquitos have taken a break. Cowboy camping on a clear night, always worth it.
I wake with my face swollen with mosquito bites from dinner, though I don’t think there are new ones from the night. I have slept in, courtesy of the puffy jacket on the face trick again. If I want to get in to town today, I am going to have to rush to make the last bus. 21 Sierra miles, lunch at the 900 mile marker, leaving at 7:30, and making it by four. I blast past lakes, the red cinder cones and a burn area. I eat the remains of a ratty tortilla with peanutbutter, a tortilla I have carried for 198 miles.
For the first time in my life, I am the dirtiest, smelliest person on the bus. My desert shirt, though structurally sound, is more brown-grey than white. The outline of my pack straps and back marked dark in dust and sweat and sunscreen. I am surrounded by day trippers wearing shiny new outdoor gear they do not need. Khaki safari hats too clean and new, resort accessories taken on mile long loop walks to waterfalls.
At the Adventure Center, a ski-gondola area trying to brand itself for summer, we try to transfer to the town bus, but it is no longer running. I try to buy a Vitamin Water, the small bottle. It is 5.48 the clerk kindly explains before bothering to ring it up, knowing before I do that I will not be buying it. Strange theme-park resort land, more expensive than the airport and similarly too clean. Children play on the swings, parents hover nearby telling them to keep their feet out of the sand. “You’ll get dirty” they worry. We get a ride to town from a bus driver done with his daily rounds.
I have had days to make plans: pay for two nights at the Motel 6, room to myself for maximum rest. Of course, I walk around the corner and find the gang, arrived earlier in the day all in a room together. Even Moo Juice from the first weeks in the desert is here. Laundry is happening which means people are sitting around in various combinations of underwear, rain gear and the woefully undersized Motel 6 towels. Shenanigans has twisted two together into a skirt. None of this merits comment or requires explanation. This is our normal.
At the Barbecue restaurant next door, I watch as Bad Camper provokes Power Thighs into an all you can eat rib competition that can only end in vomiting in the parking lot. Which it does. I calmly consume an order of fish and chips, not even finishing the fries.
Too exhausted to deal with laundry tonight, I collapse on one of my two beds. A flattened, desiccated mosquito just fell out of my keyboard onto my clean white hotel pillow. A tiny piece of the wild dirt that comes everywhere with me now.