Monday, March 31, 2014

Frozen Music, the Choral Novel, Chapter Fifteen: The Famed Awahnee

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Listen carefully. The land traversed by the water was filled with rolling hills and shallow valleys. But the two great bodies pressed against one another and lifted the hills into mountains. The water ran faster, cutting the valleys into canyons. The land fell from the sides of the canyons and exposed the rock underneath, great domes and walls of granite. The land grew chill, and glaciers came from the north. The glaciers carved the sides of the canyon, splitting the great domes and turning the canyon walls into sheer cliffs festooned with hanging waterfalls.

I was living in the Santa Clara Valley. Nancy had left her husband’s trailer and moved to a friend’s cabin deep in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The point between us was Castle Rock State Park, a hilltop spread of dry chaparral, oaks and great clusters of exposed rock. On weekends the place was people by rock climbers, scrambling freehand up the boulders, rappelling down the larger faces.

We met in a dirt lot just off Skyline Boulevard and hiked downhill into redwoods and ferns, our packs filled with bread, cheese and wine. We stopped at a spread of green grass to eat and watch the birds. After a while, we hiked to a wedge of sandstone looking out on the deep cut of Big Basin Redwoods Park.

“I’m going to give him another chance,” she said, brushing back her hair. “I’ve been with the poor bozo half my life. I can’t just leave without giving him one last try. He said he’d give up the marijuana. He said he would see a counselor with me.”

“You’re right,” I said. “If you don’t give him a chance, you’ll always wonder.”

“You don’t mind?” Nancy asked.

“It’s not my place to mind. He’s your husband. I’m just the guy you have great sex with.”

She laughed and lay back like a lizard against the sun-warmed rock, picking up her eyes in that peculiar languid fashion. “You’ve been great, Michael. You’ve taken me all those places I wanted to go. Have I been good for you? Have I helped you forget her?”

“I think I’m ready. I think I’m really ready. I’ll never forget our Christmas.”

“I wouldn’t think you would, you dirty so-and-so.”

“Or that card you sent me. Or your roommate’s three-legged cat.”

We balanced a smiled between us. The wine was having its effect.

“Come on,” I said, leaping back onto the trail. “Let’s see what else we have to see.”

By the time we rounded the hillside, we were down to a snail’s pace, stopping every three minutes to kiss. It reminded me of our first date, when I had to slow her down a little bit, to enjoy the smallnesses as well as the prolonged attacks. I held her atop a spread of bare dirt, feeling her breasts though her T-shirt. We stumbled past a throng of mythic extreme sportsmen, dumping themselves over the rocksides in neon clothing. As we walked out of earshot, I told her we were just going to have to find a private spot in the woods.

As fantasies sometimes do, this one regressed from a nasty idea to an awkward quest to a wish to just have done with it. We kept spotting hideaways but shying back, afraid of passersby. Finally I led her up a steep deer path to a clearing shaded by oaks. We left on our shirts and shoes but took off the rest, using our shorts as blankets. By this time, Nancy was feeling anxious. I picked up on her tension and kicked things into high gear, coming quickly. She was surprised, but I wasn’t. I had places to go.

I am driving Highway 120 near Modesto, headed east to the great shrine of the Yosemite, because that’s where this car is taking me. The Cowboy Junkies are on the stereo, a song called “Escape is so Simple.” I hope so.

I woke up this morning in a Silicon Valley cornfield, coated over by a dull headache and several bruises to my side and legs – and next to me, sheathed in the sequins of a butterfly, a beautiful, half-naked woman. I was not ready for this; I had not ben properly prepared. I found my jacket hanging from a cornstalk, ripped along the sleeve, covered with dust. I used it to cover up my companion, then stepped quietly down the row and up the street to my car.

I entered my studio in a panic. Soon Amy Fine would wake up. Soon Amy Fine would call to ask what the hell I was doing, or call someone else and ask them what the hell they thought Michael Moss was doing. The only thing that could save me now was to drastically alter my location. But how?

I pulled my wallet out of my pocket and tossed it on the dresser. It clanked against my jewelry box and flipped open, coughing up its shiny underside of photographs, driver’s license and the holographic image of a bald eagle. There it was – my invitation, an untested rectangle of plastic. The eagle spoke to me. It told me to Get Lost.

And so now I am covering the Big Valley, the endless straight shots of farm country turning into the rolling dodge lines of the Sierra foothills, then it escalates into mountains, snow-tipped almost into June. I pass a sign reading You Are Now Entering Yosemite National Park and begin scanning the roadsides. A brown sign with ranger yellow lettering announces Merced Grove – two letters from Mercy. The asphalt stews into rough dirt. The land grows darker as I ramble forward. The sequoias shoot from the earth like skyscrapers.

In sixth grade, I bought a tree at the hardware store and planted it at the corner of our yard. My parents seemed amused at this strange initiative, and said nothing. Over the years, I watched it grow, weird and convoluted, branches winding around with no sense. A silk oak. It was crazy, but I loved that tree.

The road ends at a gate – No Cars Beyond This Point, Merced Grove Trail, 1.2 miles. The trail breaks out of the woods and into a hot field of grass. The sweat beads up on my forehead. The woods eventually come back, bringing me into a cool twilight. A Steller’s jay squawks and buzzes my head. He jumps back across the trail and looks back at me, daring me to follow. So I do. But not for long, because there in my sights is the sequoia of my dreams, bathed in crisscross shafts of light.

I come to its wide, wide trunk, reach into my brown bag and pull out the stained-glass rainbow of a dragon tail. A dragon kite tail. I latch the end over a low stub and circle the trunk, wrapping as I go. It lasts two turns, and then I hitch the kite around a low limb. Perhaps someone will find it here and give it a spontaneous flight.

On the way back, I think, This is something – but this is not it. This might take a while.

The anticipation driving into the great valley of the Yosemite is a killer. You find yourself next to the boulder-strewn Merced River, then you’re off on a turnout eyeing the granite lighthouse of Half Dome, and next thing you know you’re standing in a meadow, straining your neck at the white waterlace of Bridalveil Falls and, just across the street, the big shoulder of El Capitan.

I drive past the wide meadows, the jam of weekenders going the other direction, and watch spire after spire come and go on either side. The logical endpoint would be the visitors’ center, but this trip is hardly about official recommendations. A friend of mine who is a Yosemite buff – note-taker, map collector, postcard sender – told me once that you have to make reservations at least a year in advance to get into the acclaimed Awahnee Hotel. So that is where I go.

The famed Awahnee sits like a scared but proud child at the bottom of a humongous pile of deathly granite, waiting for the right moment to be sledge-hammered back into its weak man-made history. I take my day’s growth of beard, dirt-stained tennis shorts, and grubby Oakland A’s T-shirt and parade them into the rustic yet elegant lobby of the esteemed Awahnee. After losing myself in the soundly official hubbub, I gravitate to a friendly-looking young woman at the registration desk.

“I’d like to stay tonight,” I announce.

She looks at me in consternation. Should I give him the party line first? Yes, I will give him the party line.

“You know, usually you should make a point of making your reservations at least a year in advance. The Awahnee is much in demand, and we wouldn’t want you to get stuck here this late without a place to stay.”

“So is there a room?”

She shrugs me off and turns to a drawer full of little index cards, flips through them, looks at one, flips past, finds another, and pulls it out. She sets it on the counter and etches a little mark on the side.

“Yes,” she says. “We have one on the meadow side. But it’s a suite with a queen-sized bed. Rather expensive, I’m afraid.”

“How much?” I ask.

“Three hundred,” she answers, firmly, as if to say, Don’t fuck with the esteemed Awahnee.

I grip my wallet so as not to shriek. This impulse buying takes practice. But the bald eagle on my virgin card calls out to me: Do it. You know you want it, why not buy it? I’m your friend. I give you power.

“I’ll take it.”

The friendly desk clerk checks another mark on the index card, returns it to its file, takes my credit card, and eventually hands me my key on a round of plastic.

“Your room is on the second floor, to the far side of the hotel. Dinner is served from six to nine in the main dining room.”

“Thank you,” I say.

“Enjoy your stay,” she says, and smiles. Ah, I am accepted. I am one with the historic Awahnee. I will steal a towel and as much hotel stationery as I can lay my hands on.

I eat the largest piece of beef I have ever seen for dinner, and I work off the extra tonnage wandering back through the rustic cottages behind the hotel. I circle around to the meadow side, past the lobby where some traveling opera singers are entertaining the guests. When I reach the far side, I look up through the gloaming, the cloaked silhouette of Half Dome, and I hear a scurrying above me.

I raise my eyes to find something racing through the pines and toward the hotel, slithering through the sky not quite like a bird but something more irascible. A bat! I look a little harder and spot three of them, gridlining their lumpy little figures over the darkening frame of the sky. Then I remember something a friend told me. If you throw a pebble into the flight of these little devils, they will attack them as if they were insects. You can play catch with bats!

I scratch around at my feet and find a few pebbles, then stand there waiting with a chunk in my hand. I catch the path of one of the winged rats screaming by through the light from a lamppost. Before it comes overhead, I flick the rock into the air. He veers on a dime, the rock vanishes from the sky and you can almost imagine the first bite: crunch! what the hell? fuckin’ tourists!

Two more come screeching across my ceiling. I roll two pebbles into my hand and squirt them upward, watching the bats veer off and almost hit each other in their eagerness to collect their foodstamps. One of them misses, the other catches his rock and deposits it elsewhere. Just over Glacier Point, next to the tall dark stranger of Sentinel Dome, a little more than a half moon peeks out at my nocturnal gaming. I allow the light to burn into my retina, then shake the sliver into a red line as I turn back and ready the bait for my next flying idiot.

Rocks. Bats. This fits, I thought. This is a start.

Photo by MJV . (See video version at YouTube.)

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