Sunday, December 30, 2001

Sleeping in the van that first night, parked on the side of the road, filled me with feelings of nostalgia. Pulling the curtains shut -- the ones Darcy and I had made out of some purple batik sheets the night before I left for my U.S. walkabout; unfolding the lumpy, saggy back seat into a lumpy, saggy bed. The feeling of being on the road, the excitement of not knowing what's to come. Where are we? Where will we be tomorrow? Will we even make it through tonight? A litle bit of fear comes with not having the answers to these questions, but once I get beyond that insecurity the reward is an unmatched sense of freedom. Not the kind of freedom you do a report on in junior high school, citing wars and politicians -- not a freedom to do anything in particular. Rather, a freedom to just be, to live directly with whatever comes. There's nohing that has to be done tomorrow, so we do what we do and it's the right thing.

(September 24)

The hot wind blasted our faces through the open windows. My right foot, anchored to the gas pedal, was being slowly roasted by the radiator that served as an engine cover. My eyes were dry and scratchy from the wind, they just wanted to rest. My body felt sticky from the heat, my mind was irritable.

Juliette sat in the passenger seat, quietly looking out the window. This was our second day on the road together, since leaving Jeff's mansion.

Suddenly I pulled over. I'd had my eye on the small river valley the road flanked, and now there was finally an opportunity to park. We climbed down the rocks to the crystal clear water in the babbling brook, disrobed to our respective cultures' standards of bathing decency, and jumped in.

Can you enjoy a dip in a creek so much if you haven't suffered through sweltering heat? Is joy anything other than relief of suffering? Does it have any independent existence? I certainly didn't care to think about it at that moment.

We arrived at Yosemite National Park in the early evening, to be immediately confronted with a matter of utmost practical concern: how to avoid bears tearing open the van like a sardine can. Warnings were posted everywhere: Do not leave food in your car. I'd seen bears in the parking lot at Yosemite before, they're supposed to be very good at what they do -- it was said they would go after anything with a scent, even a tube of toothpaste. How could we rid the van, in this case our home, of all scented items, and even the smallest crumbs of food? We decided we'd do our best, and if the bears still wanted in we'd deal with it when it happened. I didn't relish the thought of explaining to David how his van had become a convertible. We packed all food and toiletries and carried them to the "bear boxes" -- steel boxes with bear-proof latches. Whoops, somebody forgot to lock their box -- we found another one, empty this time, and stowed our stuff. We swept out the floor as well as we could, and hoped the bears didn't think it was a giant bear pantry.

"Is it okay to sleep in your car here?" a young British traveler asked through our open door.

"I don't know," I answered as helpfully as I could, "but we're going to try. Just don't leave food in your car." Maybe I shouldn't have told her about the food -- the bears would be so full after a Brit or two that they wouldn't mess with the van.

In the morning, we hadn't been eaten by bears, so we went to retrieve our food. We noticed a sign telling us to empty the bear boxes by 11:00 am, or all contents would be confiscated. Our minds, full of intentions of spending no money on food, started working -- do they really come around every morning? What do they do with the food? Could we have it? It wasn't that we waned to benefit by somebody else's loss, exactly, but if it were going to be thrown away we'd rather liberate it.

"Let's take a walk and see what happens after 11:00," we decided. It wasn't dumpster diving, but it was certainly in the same spirit -- taking advantage of the waste that was unfortunately such a large part of our culture. We just wanted to be sure we weren't taking people's food.

On our way to the hiking trail we passed another group of bear boxes, in a distant area of the dirt portion of the parking lot. Against the boxes were piled old camping chairs and equipment in varying sates of disrepair. I looked inside one of the boxes, and lo and behold, it was stuffed full of food. All kinds of camping food, from spaghetti to peanut butter, a bag of chips to a rotting apple. Obviously this food did not all come from one group, or at one time -- some was covered with dust from sitting so long, and some was clearly fresh, evedenced by a soft loaf of bread. The explanation was obvious: this was the food collected from the bear boxes, put in an out of the way place awaiting disposal. We had hit the motherlode -- most of the boxes were without locks, and filled to the brim with abandoned food.

We continued on our hike, spirits elevated by the thought of so much free food, and not being able to come up with any reason not to help ourselves.

When we returned, everything was, of course, just as we'd left it. We began going through he boxes, loading the nice things ino the van and leaving the rest. I was like Christmas. It was amazing how much had been left behind, but it was easy to imagine Joe Camper half way home, realizing he'd forgotten his rice and camp stove, and deciding it wasn't worth the extra four hour drive to go back and get it. Nice for us!

A man walked up. This was a moment of truth, I could feel it. If he unlocked his box, as I expected, everything was okay. I said hi. He said hi. I heard the rattle of the lock. Oh good. A few seconds passed.

"Somebody stole my food!" he exclaimed.

Oh no.

It took a moment to come to terms with the implications of this. I must have heard him unlatching the box, not unlocking it -- that's just what I'd wanted to hear. And if one man had left his box unlocked, there was a high probability that all these other boxes belonged to trusting, unparanoid people, too. And we were stealing their stuff. We thought we'd been so conscientious, examining the possibilities, determining beyond a shadow of a doubt that nobody would leave their food unlocked and in such a mess.

"Uh," I found my voice," I think that was us." There was no other way -- as much as I wanted to disappear from existence at that moment, I couldn't avoid taking responsibility. I'm not particularly proud of this story, but that moment of admitting to this stranger what I'd done is my only redemption. We gave him back his food ("I brought this tea from England," he said indignantly.) and explained our mistake.

"Backpackers share boxes and come back at different times, so they don't leave them locked," he told us. He didn't understand why we'd made the assumptions we'd made, but once had his tea back he was remarkably equanimous towards us. In fact when he looked in some of the other boxes he said he could see what we meant.

So now what. The van was still half full of stolen food, our dreams dashed and our self-respect crushed. We weren't the harmless fringe travelers we thought we were, we were petty thieves exploiting the innocent trust of nature lovers -- people whose communion with this beautiful land, as well as their faith in their fellow man, would be destroyed when they trudged back, exhausted, from their backcountry trip to stock up for their next hike.

We felt terrible. But we did the only thing we could do to keep from feeling worse -- put the food back. Or tried to, at least -- luckilly Juliette remembered where most of it had come from. Even the last jar of peanut butter, which neither of us had any idea from where it had come, we didn't dare keep, lest we benefit from our mistake. In each box we put a note, apologizing and asking them to check the other boxes if they were missing any food.

We left Yosemite with visions of poor haggard hikers reading our note and shaking their fists. How had we fallen so low?

Desire and greed, I guess. We wanted so badly to believe something that we didn't honestly examine the situation. Without the appearance of the tea man, we could have driven off without knowing, stuck in our selfish delusion. This was a big lesson, clearly -- and the sooner we could get over our feelings of guilt, the sooner we could learn from it.