“Do they look normal?”
“DO THEY LOOK NORMAL?” I repeated, my voice quavering, a hint of genuine backcountry freakout bubbling to the surface.
“I don’t know. They’re pretty far away. They’re wearing a daypack. They’re probably just on a hike…besides, do WE look normal?”
I had no response. Frankly I didn’t care how we looked. We were far off into a dozer cut on a pole line somewhere off I-80, deep in the Sierras. The last trail we saw was an hour behind us, the last pavement was two hours back. We had been pushing our loaded bikes up and over rocks and brush past numerous NO TRESPASSING signs for far too long, ending up underneath a large swath of power lines in a committed attempt to avoid riding on the construction- and traffic-ridden freeway. All I wanted to see was Highway 20, a much smaller two-lane road that would be our savior from this melee of talus and thickets.
To me, seeing any other human activity at this point seemed about the worst thing that could happen. I had been steadily working myself into a frenzy, searching the ground for PVC pipes and booby traps as we traversed deeper into untrodden land, expecting to see a hidden grove of marijuana plants or a sketchy little meth trailer hidden behind each lovely pine. Meanwhile Kristen cheerily plodded along behind, enjoying her day.
Our construction orange Surly mountain/touring bikes were heavy, loaded with four days worth of gear all packed onto two rear panniers. But they were proving themselves sturdy as we dragged them and lifted them over the terrain, snapping dead logs and tearing at green shrubbery with sprockets and pedals and tires.
Minutes after Kristen had so brazenly rejected my fears of being shot by a tweaker, I turned a corner in the rocky drainage and halted. Less than a hundred feet to my left, just visible through the trees and low brush, was an army green tent. My heart skipped a beat, I stood there, one ear cocked, straining to hear the low voices coming from the encampment. I wanted so badly for Kristen to look at me, so I could motion a warning, but she was focused on the ground, articulating each step. Instead I just stood there, afraid to yell, afraid to move, and waited, wide-eyed.
Meanwhile the people at the encampment were moving, milling around. I couldn’t make out their faces but they seemed oddly short. Do the drug lords recruit shorter people for some reason? I thought to myself. Maybe they’re better at getting through the forest. Hell if I knew, but this was scary. I moved a foot or two farther, craning my neck to see more of the camp.
That’s when I saw the flagpole, standing just beyond the tent. Upon the pole a white and red flag waved gently, pronouncing that this was the campsite of a Boy Scout troop from Sacramento. This was not a drug cartel, it was a summer camp. I brought my dirt stained hands to my face to wipe away the sweat in a gesture of relief.
But then, as I felt with my hands the mixture of gritty salt and dirt encrusted over a month-old beard, and as I looked down at the blood leaking from scratches, traveling with dirt streaks over sunburnt, bug-bitten legs, I thought of something else. My smile faded as I watched two young Boy Scouts hike along the trail below me, their eyes about to grow wider. Crap, I realized: We’re the sketchy ones.
Photo by Cody Hanson
Declination is other places, other spaces, and the things that happen there.