Jerry was on his sixth beer but, like Jack, he proved to be a
gentleman. As we bounced along the dirt roads, the rabbit brush turning gold
and a quarter-moon rising overhead, it seemed like a good time to play my
Willie Nelson tape. Jerry closed his eyes, and when Willie started singing Help Me Make It Through the Night, he
insisted I stop the car. “Let’s just listen to this,” he said. So we did.
Take the ribbon from your hair
Shake it loose and let it fall
Laying soft against your skin
Like the shadows from the wall.
Come and lay down by my side
‘Til the early morning light
All I’m taking is your time
Help me make it through the night.
“Why don’t you stick around?” Jerry said softly when the song was over and we were alone in the darkness, stars beginning to prick the evening sky. I had no interest in Jerry as a sexual companion, and I was loyal to my husband, but I appreciated the offer and the moment. Sexual advances are part of being female and traveling alone, and some of them are tender, I’ve found, and end up happily with just flirting. In the distance, the lights of the cars on Hwy 395 blinked and flashed, looking tiny in the desert vastness -- and something inside me expanded: I went into the darkness, beyond words, and felt a crazy kind of joy. It could have been a contact high off Jerry, who, like Jack was clearly having a good time, but I think it was more. It was Jerry and the place and the stars and the lights and the darkness and Willie. Too bad I had to cut the moment off so Jerry wouldn't get the wrong idea.
When I dropped him off at his trailer, Jerry got serious and said, "You know if things go bad back home you can always come here. I mean it. If you
get depressed here all you have to do is go for a ride at sunset. I’ll even lend you my pickup.”
That night I drove another 20 miles down Highway 395 and checked into a motel in Big Pine where the road to the White Mountains beings. The owner said I had to be out early because a group called Holy Mountain Light, run by a German woman, had booked all five cabins for the week.
“They come here every year and one day they go up to White Mountain and spend the night alone in tents. It’s sorta – well, I have to say they all come back very happy. It’s not a survival kind of thing; something good just happens to them up there.”
My last day on 395 I drove to Lone Pine. The High Sierra ends at this point (just south of Mount Whitney), and in another 180 miles the road hits the outskirts of greater Los Angeles.
I ran into Gene Churchill in Lone Pine, in a corral where he was feeding horses in exchange for the use of a tiny aluminum trailer. I stopped and introduced myself because, under his cowboy hat, Gen’s face was so weathered it was frightening. His eyes, deep inside two leathery sockets, were invisible, and the folds and caverns of his wrinkled forehead seemed inhuman.
But Gene tipped his hat and welcomed me. He was 69, it turned out, and
although he walked stiffly and spoke slowly (I lost my train of thought during many of his long, amiable pauses), he had undertaken a new life. He was a retired horse packer, it turned out, which is about as low as you can get on the cowboy circuit, and had come to Lone Pine to raise two young boys cheaply, on Social Security and veteran’s benefits. The boys were 4 and 7, sandy-haired and freckled, shoeless and shirtless, sunburned, and while we talked they ran around the corral kicking and showing off like puppies.The boys’ mother (Gene’s third wife) left him and the kids, he said. “She was young and educated and came from a very wealthy family. But after I married her, I found out she was on drugs. I read her diary after she left and found out she’d even been a prostitute. Can you imagine that? A girl from a wealthy family with a good education becoming a prostitute?
I squirmed as he talked since the boys were listening, and said, finally: “Well, I’m sure she loves the boys. She can’t help what she’s doing if she’s an addict.”
"I don’t think she loves them at all,” he replied. “She cares more about the drugs than she does for them. If she loved them, I’d at least know where she was.” He had a point.
I tried to talk to Gene a little about the remarkable landscape, but he wasn’t interested. He wanted to tell me what he was feeding the boys, how he was going to get $2,000 in veteran’s pay and rent an apartment, how the boys’ wealthy grandmother had told him she’d pay for their college education. Gene wanted my German readers to know he was responsible.
When I finally drove off, the oldest boy started running after me across the flats. The 4-year-old tried to follow but kept having to stop and pick up his pants, which fell down with comic regularity. I drove slowly, keeping the 7-year-old in my rear view mirror, and was surprised to see that he didn’t give up. He ran a quarter-mile flat out, I think – leaping over gullies and rocks and weaving through scrub, racing across the prickly desert in the hot sun with his bare feet.
When we got to the highway and I stopped, he was so out of breath he couldn’t talk; he could barely stand up.
“What a runner!” I said. “That was really great.” He grinned and gasped and kept grinning as I groped for something to say.
“You know,” I said finally, “I’m sure your daddy’s going to take real good care of you.”
He looked startled and backed away a few feet, then looked up at me, his eyes darting wildly. He was smiling – a crazy, happy
grin. As I pulled out onto 395, I
watched him in the mirror. He
stood by the edge of the highway, watching me, until I got all the way through
Later that afternoon, I took off for Las Vegas via Death Valley, where the temperature was supposedly 119. On my way, I stopped to finish off a roll of film and saw a figure that looked like Lawrence of Arabia running toward me from the east. It turned out to be a runner wearing a white long-sleeved shirt, long white pants and a white burnoose. I dropped my camera by the side of the road and jogged alongside him for awhile, wondering how soon I’d collapse in the heat. (Strangely, jogging in a blast furnace is no more intolerable than standing in it.)
The man was in a race, it turned out – an annual run from the lowest point in the United States (Badwater in Death Valley) to the highest (Mount Whitney).
“I gotta be crazy,” he said (pant pant)
“This is a good place to do it.”
“The last guy I saw on the road was traveling in a wheelchair (pant pant). He offered me a beer and challenged me to a race.”
“Wow” “Where is he?”
“Back there. He’s an Indian, I think. A crazy Indian.”
I took the opportunity to stop. I wanted to photograph the crazy Indian with a beer in a wheelchair. As the runner pulled ahead, looking like a great, flapping ghost, I looked back and saw a tiny moving speck But by the time I got to the car and found my binoculars, the speck had disappeared.
Back home in Oakland, after a flurry of faxes, it became clear that the German translator of my much-longer-than-1,500-word opus was eliminating the characters and leaving in the “where to go and what to eat” material. I didn’t protest, remembering what Jack had said: Don’t tell them unless you can do it right. I’ve tried to do that here.
Still, there are some stories I still haven’t told – other things that happened to me on 395, like the afternoon I spent dangling in a broken gondola at Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort. But if you want more stories, you can easily get them yourself; The Great Basin has a surfeit. And if you want some more of Jack Murray’s stories, give him a call. He told me to tell my readers that his number is in the Lee Vining telephone book. ⚀