Throughout the day hikers slowly funneled into Sierra City and I wondered what the locals thought of us infiltrating their town. A hip, young couple entered the store, most likely passing through on a road trip. The woman was dressed in an affected 1950s style, with bleached blonde hair, horn rim glasses and oddly fitting jeans pulled halfway up her torso. The man's affectation was that of a blue-collar type. He had on a flannel shirt, stiff, denim jeans and a matching denim jacket. A pair of leather work boots finished off the ensemble. A rag hung from his back pocket, as if at any moment he were about to change someone's oil or wipe the sweat from his brow. Their style was pure pretension - they were clearly from the city and certainly not blue-collar by any stretch of the imagination. A local teenager sized them up from behind the counter, then leaned over towards the man working next to him.
"Is that how you dressed when you were young?" he teased, alluding to their vintage style.
"Man, I ain't that old!" his coworker shot back.
In the evening Salty and I headed out to a bar, the only place in town serving dinner. We sat down at a table and slipped into typical thru-hiker conversation, talking about how dirty our feet were, how we had come to recognize who was nearby on the trail simply from their shoe prints in the dirt and how you feel as if you've discovered some forbidden secret about a hiker when you see their real name on a resupply package.
The proprietor approached and I asked him if he had anything on draft.
"Nope," the man answered.
"Ok, how about bottled beer?"
"Yep, we got bottles."
"Umm, ok. What do you have? Any local beers?"
"Ain't nothing local," he replied.
I settled on a beer from Reno.
I returned to my tent behind the Red Moose and found a young German hiker hanging around. He was tall and gangly and wore black discs in his ear lobes. He was the type of thru-hiker that harbored an extreme fascination with gear and its weight and he approached me to ask about the bug net I clipped into my tarp. He was looking to reduce his pack weight and offered me some guylines, so that I might set up the net without also having to pitch my tarp, unnecessary as it was during those dry summer nights. I thanked him and pitched my bug net in the fading light, wrapping the excess length of the guyline around my trekking poles.
"Oh, you don't know how to tie a half-hitch?" he commented. "I think that's how you say it in English," he added, with false humility. "Let me show you how to do it, that way you don't have to wrap it around your pole like fifteen times," he said with a smirk.
"Thanks, but I got it," I replied, losing my patience and simply wanting to go to sleep. I cut off the excess line and tied it just as I had before. I watched as he again approached, his head lamp blinding me.
"Oh, couldn't get the half hitch, huh?" he said, inspecting the lines. He then laid out his sleeping bag right next to me, despite the fairly empty lawn surrounding us. I slipped inside my tiny sanctuary and struggled to fall asleep as hiker after hiker, in varying degrees of inebriation, slowly filed into the back yard, head lamps panning in every possible direction as they scanned the area looking for a suitable spot.
In the morning I packed up my belongings, looking out over the river to the low mountains beyond. Lit up by the morning sun the trees seemed as light and delicate as feathers, like the hills were some great bird covered in green plumage. The German sat up in his sleeping bag, silently watching me as I piled my gear into my pack.
In Sierra City I had found a copy of Steinbeck's Cannery Row left behind by another hiker and carried it out of town with me. It was a Penguin Classics edition from the early nineties with that distinctive orange spine and a wonderful Ross MacDonald illustration of Mack and the boys on the cover. I decided for the first time to carry a book with me on the trail. I chose it for the fact that I enjoyed Steinbeck and had always wanted to read his tale of coastal Monterey and its colorful inhabitants. A little over two months earlier, on my way from Seattle to Campo, I had walked along touristy Cannery Row with my mother and brother, the canneries long-since closed after the collapse of the local sardine population. I had read Travels With Charley after my cross-country drive a decade before and it seemed fitting to also read Steinbeck during my current adventure. It also happened to be a small, lightweight book and honestly I chose to take it with me for that reason just as much as any other. Regardless, I looked forward to nights camped alone, reading before bed in the long evening light of summer, not really knowing at the time how much I would come to enjoy that book and how much greater an appreciation of Steinbeck I would gain.
Peter Lisca writes of Cannery Row as "a world not of whole cloth but of bits and pieces, varying in chronology, recollected in nostalgia, and lovingly assembled, like the patchwork quilt ... or one of the fantastic collages done by Henri [a character in the novel]." Collage has long been a favorite medium of mine in the visual arts and I appreciate echoes of that approach when employed in writing, television and film. There is at times a dreamlike quality to Cannery Row, owing in part to its patchwork assembly and Steinbeck's inclusion of interstitial chapters - short vignettes that are sometimes seemingly unrelated to the main characters and storyline of the book. In the novel, Steinbeck coins a phrase - "the hour of the pearl" - an ephemeral, quiet and serene period between night and day when Cannery Row exists as its true self. Those quiet, magical and ephemeral moments are what I often appreciate most in life and my time on the PCT held many such instances. Cannery Row has in effect become strongly linked to my experience on the PCT and thus I can't help but think of the Monterey of Steinbeck's novels as just as much a trail town as Sierra City, South Lake Tahoe or Lone Pine.
Salty, Rocksteady, Whitewater and I strolled down the highway, four abreast, as we made our way back to the trail. We passed a home and I was startled to see a large Confederate flag hanging from the porch. Being from Virginia, I never did understand why those outside of the South would identify with the Confederacy. I wondered how much of it had to do with racism. In the South, you often hear that its about "heritage, not hate" but how could someone in California claim it as their heritage? I thought back to Lone Pine. Like nineteenth-century prospectors naming the Alabama Hills for a Confederate warship, these Californians too held an apparent affinity for the South, though I assumed it was mostly tied up in a general disdain for the federal government. In this case, the addition of an upside-down American flag left little doubt as to their thoughts on the matter. Clearly, there were no quaint July Fourth decorations to be found there on the outskirts of town. My attention returned to the highway just in time to perceive the faint swerve of a pickup truck in the direction of our group. It was a subtle enough movement that it was hard to determine just how deliberate of an act it had been, but it left me eager to reach the trailhead and disappear into the mountains above.