Strange among us, but no strangers

We pulled into the Vons parking lot and found a parking spot in the shade, near the Burger King. As I rolled into place, one final gust of wind buffeted the truck.

“Thanks mate!” Chairman said in his thick Australian accent as he reached his hand out. His powerful body stepping around the side of the truck. His grizzled face and thick, tan legs gave him the look of a mountain man. His blue eyes and grin revealed his pure joy for life on the trail and making new friends. “Next time you make it to Australia, give me a message and I’ll show you around,” he smiled at me.

“Sure thing,” I said with a smile and grabbed him for a side-hug. We’d only met a couple hours earlier on our way in to town. He was taking a break from the Pacific Crest Trail for a couple days and needed a ride to town. I was headed to town after a few days of field research to resupply water, ice, and some food. We enjoyed sharing notes on our respective native flora and fauna.

“I’m going to head to the Burger King for lunch. Think I saw some others from the trail over there.” He smiled once more.

“I’ll probably head in there in a moment.” Just got get a few things situated here. And so he turned toward the BK while I rummaged around the truck for my shopping bag.

The mid-day sun beat down on the asphalt as heat waves rose. The wind provided a constant nuisance and with occasional gusts picking up plastic bags and other trash into the air. A tap, tap, tap rang from the empty flag pole in back of the lot. Rising high above, and empty, it kept time with the wind. Throughout the parking lot desert rats, dirt bag thru hikers, and leather faced pensioners all formed an unlikely smorgasbord of humanity. My head was in a fog and I’d been up since 4 a.m. so I made for the Starbucks in the grocery store for iced coffee. The poor kid working the shop alone was working through several orders of mocha lattes and cookie crunch ‘coffee’ drinks. Several customers idling on their cell phones while they waited. Poured into their bootie shorts and tank-tops, burned red shoulders and sun bleached hair – summer had arrived.

“What can I get for you?” the kid behind the counter asked with a strained smile, after he handed out one last cookie crisp Frappuccino.

“Can I please get a large iced-coffee, black.” I asked. “Oh, and can I also get 5 dollars in quarters back please? I need to fill water tanks outside.”

“Sure thing,” he proceeded to fill a large cup to the rim with ice, then filled in the remainder with cold brew.

I was too out of it to protest and took the drink gladly and sipped from it while he counted out quarters.

I stepped back outside into the afternoon heat. Now that I had some caffeine in me, I began to feel hungry. I decided I’d walk back to the Burger King and see if Chairman and the others were still there.

Wind blew through the lot, almost providing a cooling effect if not for the heat radiating off the asphalt. A large truck, with a rusty tail gate peeled out as black diesel smoke poured from the exhaust. Just as a motorcycle gang passed through, an older woman with a bright orange pair of track pants and bikini top hollered for a ride back to Weldon.

“California on Fire! Gonna be on fire again. California on fire, “she proclaimed in between pleas for a ride. She eventually pulled a pack of cigarettes from her cleavage and turned into the wall of the building to escape the wind as she lit a Camel into a cupped hand.

I took long pulls off the iced coffee and continued to walk back to the Burger King. As I got toward the back of the lot, an older couple, wrapped entirely in sarongs and wearing shrouded field hats shuffled around in front of their RV. Eventually I realized they were walking laps in the shade of the row of trees in back. Staying within the shadow of the few Bartlett pear trees that lined the back of the lot, they shuffled slowly. Taking turns walking out and back, this method of exercise seemed pathetic but at the same time respectably resourceful.

The iced coffee was really kicking in now and I was feeling energetic and sprightly again. The wind was still blowing and I cinched the drawstring around my hat to my chin. I ambled through the shade of the trees and toward the Burger King. A fish sandwich sounded good.

Near the flag pole, still keeping time like a metronome, I began to hear what sounded like someone yelling. As I turned around the corner of the fast food chain I noticed a thin strung out dark skinned guy. After a moment I recognized him as the busker from the front of the store 15 minutes earlier. His hair stuck out in several abrupt angles from his head and his facial hair only faintly covered his gaunt jawline. He wasn’t wearing sunglasses but wasn’t really squinting either. He was sitting cross-legged on the curb of the parking lot, clearly strung out from too much acid, and it was hard to tell if he was deep in, coming down, or just perma-fried. I’d actually thought he played well on the guitar. He had a soft but confident voice, and even sounded like he had written his own tunes – I’d have given him a few bucks if I had had any cash. But now, he had relocated to the vicinity of the flag pole and decided to take arms against the obstinate noise maker.

“Fuck you! Don’t you ever shut up. It’s all day long with you, isn’t it,” he looked half entertained with himself as he waved a fist skyward at the recalcitrant flagpole. “Disturbing the peace, you are. Don’t make me call the cops,” he shouted again. Had this been some other town, this scene may have attracted unwarranted trouble. However, the residents of Lake Isabella, California were comfortable in their eccentricity. No one really seemed to care too much as long as violence was projected toward unanimated objects or delusions. Like a festival, everyone was in their own little world that afternoon. Maybe it was the sun, or the wind, or likely a combination of the two.

He kept it up for a few more moments before he broke into a cappella. This seemed to keep him pretty occupied and even a few passers-by stopped briefly to listen.

I finally stepped into the Burger King and was hungry so I made straight for the counter to order. I asked a couple old ladies if they were still waiting to order or waiting on food. They nodded and so I stepped to the counter and ordered a fish sandwich. The older gentleman who took my order gave me one of the most authentic smiles I had ever received at a fast food restaurant. I thanked him and returned the smile.

Once I had my order number, I scanned the booths for Chairman. He was sitting across from another couple of hikers with a full tray of food and large drink.

“Hey Chairman, how’s that food!” I stepped over to him as he unwrapped a large burger.

“Hey, Danny! Yeah, it’s great, better than trail food.” He smiled up at me.

We chatted for a moment and I showed him my iced coffee, full of ice and now all but empty of the coffee.

I noticed the other two hikers again and asked where they were from. A girl and guy. Both busily eating through burgers and fries and relishing the calories.

The girl responded first. She had long blonde hair pulled into a braid and had the look any thru hiker would. Sun tanned, hard worked, and happy.

“I’m from Alabama,” she responded in a distinctively southern accent.

“Cool, I grew up down there,” I responded, always thrilled to meet other folks from Alabama.

“Where you from?”

“Auburn,” she replied.

“Now way, me too!” I got excited.

“What!” she too was excited now. “No way. Well, OK, I am actually from Opelika, but no one knows that town, so I just say Auburn.”

“Me too! Holy shit, same thing. Well, I actually lived in Auburn too, but did kindergarten through 8th grade in Opelika.”

“What year did you graduate?” she asked. “I graduated ’04.”

“I was ‘03”, I replied.

“Well, we must know a lot of the same people then,” she proclaimed.

“Do you know the Yarbroughs,” I asked, knowing that if any family was probably widely known down there it would be them.

“Yes! Lenny, and Cody and Scarlett,” she knew all of them.

I laughed and told her I had known them since I was 5. Lenny’s mom, Charlotte, was my kindergarten teacher and we had been friends ever since.

“Oh my god!” this is amazing.” She said.

“Yeah, I actually just got married last November and they all came out for the wedding.”

By now she starting naming off every mutual friend and acquaintance we had from Opelika, Alabama. People I had known from grade school, and many who I still stayed in contact with.

“What is your name?” I asked. She had given me her trail name, Dixie.

“Jessica Mills,” she replied.

It wasn’t familiar to me as I probed my memory for that name from childhood.  She had moved to Opelika about a year after my family moved away from Alabama to Utah. One year different and we’d have likely met almost twenty years ago in that small southern town. Now we were sharing memories in a Burger King in a small desert town in southern California.

Chairman was enjoying watching the whole interaction play out. Maybe it was something about being in another country and seeing strangers meet and realize they aren’t so strange. He told us he had actually met a woman early on the trail who had just two weeks before gone out with his son. He said he only knew two people in the states – his son and an old friend. Then somehow he met this woman.

Me and Chairman from Australia.

“Well, shit, small world, right,” I smiled at them all. By now, we had finished our food and took turns taking photos together.

Some other thru hikers had started in on the conversation too. Their mutual goals of the trail and of enjoying life created an amazing community. They all knew the trail names of each other. They even knew where others were on the trial – 20 miles back, 30 miles ahead. At least within rough measures. Like a clan of nomads, they took care of each other as they moved through the summer months together in the vast landscape with nothing but what they carried on their back. Sharing the wide open night skies, full of stars. Sharing the long days, mile after mile. They understood the joys, the pains, and the trials and triumphs of the trail. They were like a family, no strangers among them.

“Dixie” from Opelika, Alabama.








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