Middle Fork of the Feather

I wondered to myself about the person who came up with the expression "People in hell want ice water." Who are these anonymous men and women who coin a phrase that lives on long after they have passed? Do they know in their lifetime that they've created an idiom that will stand the test of time, passed on from one generation to the next? Such are the thoughts that fill one's head when hiking for days on end. Steinbeck eloquently explained such wanderings of the mind in Travels With Charley: "This being so, a large area of the conscious mind is left free for thinking ... But there is left, particularly on very long trips, a large area for daydreaming or even, God help us, for thought ... I myself have planned houses I will never build, have made gardens I will never plant ... I have created turtle traps in my mind, have written long, detailed letters never to be put to paper, much less sent. When the radio was on, music has stimulated memory of times and places, complete with characters and stage sets, memories so exact that every word of dialogue is recreated. And I have projected future scenes, just as complete and convincing - scenes that will never take place. I've written short stories in my mind, chuckling at my own humor, saddened or stimulated by structure or content ... And how about the areas of regrets? If only I had done so-and-so, or had not said such-and-such - my God, the damn thing might not have happened."

...

We were all hiking towards the same destination - campsites along the Middle Fork of the Feather River - dreaming all the while of soaking our bodies in the cool water. I descended into the river canyon and passed all manner of new plants I had yet to see, as the forest understory became more lush in the same way it had when I reached Milton Creek just before Sierra City. A large steel bridge arched over the river flowing far below. I looked down at the water, disappointed to see no one swimming. In typical fashion I had arrived to camp much later than everyone else. I dropped my pack and headed immediately for the water, first wading through the river on slippery rocks and then making my way down a narrow pathway along the opposite bank, which led me to the most perfect of swimming holes. I stripped off my clothes and plunged into the water. It felt euphoric floating there as I caught the last rays of sunlight before they disappeared behind the canyon wall. I hadn't showered in over a week and while scrubbing the grime from my body I noticed what looked to be a stick in the water before me. Much to my surprise it was a small snake swimming along, its tiny head breaking the surface of the river. It passed directly by me with as bemused a look on its face as a reptile can have, swimming with a sense of urgency, as if wary of me and simply hoping to make it by unharmed. It was comical, one moment being in solitude and the other making direct eye contact with a snake. Its not often a human being and a serpent meet eye to eye, but there we were in the river with both of our heads rising just above the water.

I hoisted myself up onto the rocks at the river's edge and washed my clothing in the water before returning to camp just as everyone had finished dinner. I was always one step behind it seemed. As I ate, a large group of hikers filed into camp. They lit a blazing fire in the stone ring I had been eating next to and I had to retreat back to my tent, my forehead dripping with sweat. Rocksteady and Salty were cowboy camping next to each other on the sandy ground, lost in some private conversation. They had become close over the past few days and it left me with an odd, perhaps jealous feeling, as I wished that I too could develop a close bond with another hiker. My overall solitude was not an unwelcome state of affairs, but naturally I found myself longing to meet someone on the trail with whom I could truly connect.

The sycamores rustled in the afternoon breeze. Little water snakes slipped down to the rocks and then gently entered the water and swam along through the pool, their heads held up like little periscopes and a tiny wake spreading behind them.

Steinbeck, Cannery Row


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