Thursday 27 March 2008

I have been to my mountain and discovered that people are still good!

It is past midnight in the small East Sierra town of Bishop, California, and I'm standing in the middle of a side road, grabbing lung-fulls of mountain air, taking in the fact that I have made it victoriously through my long list of destinations.
So far, the trip could not have gone better.
Upon my arrival, it was splendid to sit on my mate Andrew's deck, looking from the Berkeley hills out over the entirety of San Francisco Bay.
The next day he drove me over the Bay Bridge into the city, where I enjoyed a perfect morning researching for one of my novel's characters.
Andrew offered to cut off work early to drive me home, and I didn't fight him. Even though I had a difficult time living in Northern California, I was aware that it was a magnificent place.
While my day in North Beach was successful, returning to a place wherein so much love energy and emotion had been invested and spent was never going to be easy.
So it was good to head back to the East Bay, and admire one of the world's most beautiful cities from over the water.
Each night the combination of jetlag and emotional nonsense conspired to allow sleep only until 4am, whereupon my head would greet wakefulness as a herd of a thousand bison at full charge.
Early my second morning I rented a small tank, and headed inland, toward the Sierra Nevada.
With many mountain passes closed, I drove over the top of the range at Lake Tahoe, spending my first night just over the Nevada border. The drive had been long, and it had been tough driving up over and down mountains without a gear stick.
Over four days I drove 1300 miles, traversing 6 ranges over 7,000 feet, and never did the tank once feel good taking a corner.
The road to my mountain was tight, and as my tyres kicked rubble over the edge of a 6,000 foot sheer drop, I started shouting like a mad bastard, cursing my fictional character, telling him he bloody owed me for getting dumped out here in the middle of bloody nowhere.
And then I was there.
I stood on a desert plain that stretched for maybe 40 miles in a circular pan, rimmed by snowy breathtaking mountains, .
But while the view was stunning, the reason that I had to be there hit me like a sledgehammer on the head. Even though I had fairly well envisioned what it might be like for my character to be dumped there, I could never have imagined the power of that silence.
All this vast landscape, and not a single sound.
I have heard deafening silence and the silence of the absence of human sound, but there, surrounded by so much planet, this silence was vast.
I whispered as if in a cathedral
Fuuuu ..... kinnngggggg ............. heeeelllll!
The pinging of my tank's cooling engine sounded like artillery fire.
Exhausted and elated, I headed back to my motel room, to flop and enjoy the completion of my pilgrimage.
I had dealt with the details of my female character and her life in North Beach; dealt with my feelings and personal shite; driven to my mountain and done the deed, good and proper; but I had not reckoned for the good people of Bishop.
Unlike many small American towns, which consist of shops, restaurants and businesses spread out over two or three miles, Bishop has a real main street that you can walk along. The mountains parade their snowy loads behind the buildings, and there is a feeling of vitality and acceptance in the air.
Within an hour of arriving at Bishop, I popped into Spellbinder Books to buy a present. The lass behind the counter smiled and asked me what had brought me to Bishop, so I told her, explaining that as it happened, I was hoping to ask a few of the locals some questions about the place, and what it might be like the live there.
Americans are generally incredibly warm and friendly people, and she kindly chatted with me for a good while.
A few hours later I was killing time, and found myself walking into a bar.
There were only two customers in there, and one of them was the lass from the bookstore, the other her partner.
She spotted me, told the barmaid what I was doing in town, at which there appeared on the bar a bottle of obscure Irish Whiskey, and a lively and fascinating conversation ensued.
That was last night, and that's how I got to be here, tonight, standing in the middle of this Bishop side road at midnight.
All the houses are silent and dark, save for one over there, where lights are on; whence comes the sound of laughter, whooping and yahooing, floating sensual and fast to my ears on a strong current of humanity and whimsy.
That is the house where I spent this evening. Thanks to my new friends, I returned from the drive to my mountain earlier today armed with the knowledge that I was expected at a barbecue poker party that evening.
After two hugely enjoyable nights in Bishop and two very exciting, enlightening and draining days, I leave now able to finish my novel; with a welcome promise of a place to stay; with an invitation to do a reading and a signing at Bishop's Spellbinder Books; with new friends.
Best of all, once again I found out what years on the road taught me as a younger man: that people are good. We are a kind, generous and great species, and we must never allow the fear merchants to rob us of that knowledge.
The next day I drive south, along the edge of the Death Valley and the Mojave Desert, watching the brown mountains slowly lose their snow.
The long and many hours slide by in a mesmerising race for home. Finally I hit US 5, the two-lane straight line that shoots you from Southern to Northern California, and 24 hours later I have dropped the tank off, and returned to Andrew's, shaking with relief, trembling at my achievement, and buzzing with adrenaline.
My mobile phone rings. My dad is in Intensive Care. I must return to England.
Yes, I am, as I hoped, feeling very much alive. But in the midst of life we are in death.

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