The trail crossed a clear blue river full of boulders and rushing water. The pine and birch trees cast a shaded canopy over the dusty trail ascending upwards, flanked by steep grass and fields of grey and red gravel, topped by spires of solid red rock, the ragged ridge-lines of the eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range. The river ran down from a greenish blue lake surrounded by melting snow patches, boulders, and towering cliffs, a remote valley far removed from the crowds, cars, and smog of the city. The trail starts at the end of a paved road that rises above a desert valley, just south of Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, about a five to six-hour drive from downtown Los Angeles. Sweating up this trail in the mid-summer heat, maneuvering around the flaking trunks of tall redwood trees next to a rushing mountain stream, I ran into Cody. Cody was a tall burly deer hunter, who carried a bow and arrow strapped onto his over-sized red metal frame backpack loaded down with tent, stove, sleeping bag, and other back-country woods camping provisions.
We started talking. He was just hiking down the mountain, and probably hadn’t talked to, much less seen, anyone for at least three or four days. Over 6 foot five inches tall, with a long red beard, wide arms, and bulging biceps, Cody carried the heavy pack like he barely noticed it. He had hiked up past Steel Lake on Friday, scouted around, and tried to find some deer to hunt, but there weren’t any. Cody lived above 4,000 feet in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada—he had lived there his whole life. “I love it here, in the mountains,” I inhaled a deep breath. “The air is so nice, and clean.” He asked me where I was from. “I live in LA,” I replied, exhaling slowly clearing my lungs, and replenishing them again.
Over 6 foot five inches tall, with a long red beard, wide arms, and bulging biceps, Cody carried the heavy pack like he barely noticed it.
“LA? He asked, raising an eyebrow. “My girlfriend went to college down there, at Cal-State Fullerton.” He would travel down to Southern California a lot to visit her. He’s a back-country road type of guy, so the freeways— Interstate 5, the 210, the 90, the 60—”They are such a mess,” he shuddered at the thought of sitting in traffic. “Man, they really bugged me. There was this one place,” he recalled, “where freeways merged. You had to cross from one side of the freeway to the other; changing six lanes really fast. Talk about nerve racking. If you didn’t make the turn, you would have to double back. It sometimes took a half-hour or more in traffic just to get back to where you were going.”
Cody’s girlfriend now lives in the Bay Area. She is a geologist, studying rocks, and works for the government; the U.S. Geological Services. “She rents an Air-Bnb out there,” Cody explained, “A house where four or five different people live. You don’t want to know how much it costs; it’s one of the richest zip codes in America,” he continued. “The Geological Service mostly does work overseas, looking at rocks and mineral wealth in China, North Korea, places like that,” Cody explained. “She doesn’t get to travel much. Mostly she sits at a desk and looks at a computer screen.”
Cody looked out through the pine trees to the valley floor, a pale tan haze thousands of feet below. “We grew up together," he reminisced. I could tell he had been thinking about his high school sweetheart a lot on that trip in the woods. “We would hike and check out the rocks together in the foothills above Fresno. Now she sits at a desk, sending and answering emails, crunching numbers, and data, coordinating field trips all over the world,” he explained. “Sometimes they even go to the Owens Valley, you probably saw all the volcanic rock on the way up from LA.” He pointed at the valley below. “We were hiking over there once, and she kept stopping, picking up different stones to examine them. "All I want to do is check out rocks!" She’d tell me. "Instead I’m in a cubicle all day,” Cody related. “She is there in Palo Alto three weeks a month; then gets to come home for a week,” he sighed.
He hated traveling to San Francisco, the in-your-face rainbows, the flamboyance of it. The rainbow-colored Wells Fargo ATM—he didn’t really mind that—it was kind of cool actually, but it is so in your face—so ever present. He ran into a protest, I mean a protest, he said the word like it was an insult, then looked at me, furrowing his brow expectantly, to see if we were speaking the same language. “Argh,” he shuddered. Some parts of the city just disgusted him. “There are so many homeless, and so much poverty—yet these people protest, they are in your face about being soooo liberal. Walking in some parts of San Francisco, it is just gross. I mean there are big piles of human shit just sitting there, in the middle of the street. “It’s disgusting,” Cody emphasized.
“California is the richest state in America. The Golden State, they say. But all the wealth pushes up the cost of living and no one can afford anything.”
“It’s bad in LA too,” I said.
He said he spent more time in Orange County than LA—which was at least a little bit isolated, as well as in Hollywood—he could see all the homeless there. I asked him what he did for work. He was a mechanic, a machinist. He made big and small machines for difference companies, for the government. He was pretty specialized. He had his own company so he could do work—40 hours of work in three days if he wanted to, and then take time off, so he could go hunting. “Nice," I replied.“Beats working for someone, you can set your own schedule, you have control of your life.” We parted ways, but first he told me a bit about conditions up ahead. “It’s nice really. I don’t expect any storms or rain. Also, there weren’t too many mosquitoes. With the changing weather, there was an early thaw. All the mosquitoes laid eggs that hatched, but then it refroze, and a lot of them died. " He only got bit once or twice all weekend.
The road back to LA stretches across hundreds of miles of desert—a hot sandy desert its once lush and wet lakes and marshes have dried up, leaving a bright white glittering salty sea shimmering in the blinding sun, a victim of both the ever decreasing precipitation and snow melt, and the concrete viaducts stretching for hundreds of miles diverting all the water flowing from the entire mountain range to the Los Angeles County Department of Water and Power- to sustain the Southern Californian sprawl.