Wednesday, January 2, 2002

(September 25) The same day of our big lesson in Yosemite, we made our first score dumpster diving. Behind an Albertson's grocery store in Bishop, California, we found cardboard boxes full of unsold bread, bagels, and pastries. This time there were no surprises -- it really was being thrown away. At least, I think so...

Next stop: Death Valley. I was just kidding about the heat on the way to Yosemite -- that had been a crisp ocean breeze by comparison. Now we were driving in the world's largest oven, the sun set on broil and the van's temperature guage reading "What Are You Doing You Bastard Turn Me Off!" which is the next tick mark above "Woohoo We're Off To Burning Man!"

That evening, we slept outside in the light of the full moon. It's common knowledge that deserts, as hot as they may be while the sun burns its excruciating path across the sky, are equally cold once the ball of fire sinks below the flat horizon. This proved a little optimistic in our case -- around six in the morning it finally cooled down enough to require a sheet to keep comfortably warm. An hour later, the sun made me wish I'd forgone the sheet and relished the cold a bit longer.

Juliette took the wheel as we escaped the austere hell of the valley. Two days isn't enough time to get used to the heat -- it merely allows one to retain the memory of relative comfort.

"They're not really experiencing Death Valley," I scoffed -- seeing tourists driving with their windows rolled up and air conditioning on gave me a feeling of smug superiority, thinly veiling my envy.

A truck stop shower later, we were in Las Vegas. It wasn't at its craziest in these post-September 11 days, but it still presented a happy face completely devoid of any reality. Juliette won $0.20 when I pressured her into gambling at the nickel slots, then lost $0.05 because I was too greedy. Even so, 300% isn't a bad take -- we took off before they put us on the blacklist.

On our way out of town we had a second dumpster diving success. With each attempt, I gained confidence and began to lose my fear of being caught or seen in the act.

I guess Vegas wasn't really our kind of place. Seeing stacks of $500 chips disappear one blackjack hand after another almost brought Juliette to tears. An expensive game, I agreed. But what is money itself but a game, an abstraction whose power is maintained merely by our collective belief that it means something?

My favorite Las Vegas memory was watching the lobby-sized fish tank in one of the casino hotels. As we stood there, more and more people gathered to quietly gaze at the colorful fish. The fish were exotic and pretty, but I can't help but think it was the calm they provided that was so attractive -- a moment's peace in a mad city.