July 4, 1992
I let him set up the coffeepot while I showered and shaved. Before I got to the bottom of my first cup of Peet's, Mantami showed up, closely followed by Bill, both of them on shank's mare. (Since all the gear for our trip to the Sierras was stacked around the walls of my apartment, they'd only had to carry the clothes on their backs.)
We managed to polish off that first pot of coffee and had done some serious damage to a second by the time Tong and Blandy arrived, driving a gleaming, black van conversion with an in-dash CD/cassette player, leather captain's chairs in front and plush leather bench seats with cupholders in back.
"A nicely-appointed vehicle," was Bill's reaction.
"Yeah," I agreed, "nice ride. Where'd you guys come up with this?"
"Dis hooptie-ass bucket? Shit, Wildman, ain't no dap in dat, you know whut I'm sayin'?"
"Honestly, Tong? I haven't got a clue. You want to try that in English?"
"He's, like, totally not proud, dude."
"Thank you, Blandy."
"Precisely why are you ashamed of such a fine vehicle, Tong?"
"Ain't no Beamer, you dig? Shit, ain't even no 88."
"Tong, that thing has got to be worth thirty K, if it's worth a dime. How can you complain about it? For that matter, how the hell could you afford it?"
"Dude. Mostly, we should hit the road. Traffic is, like, gonna be awesomely major."
"His point is well-taken, Drew. It is a major national holiday. Thus, we will likely share the road with a significant number of Yosemite-bound travellers."
"Fine, fine. This conversation can wait until we're on the road. Let's load up."
. . .
What with Blandy and Tong arriving late and the delay involved in checking and re-checking that we'd packed everything we needed to bring, it was just after 8:00 in the morning when we finally got out of Berkeley. We took Grove Street to 580, avoiding the worst of the MacArthur maze (which is to say, avoiding I-80 and the Bay Bridge interchange) and traffic really wasn't too bad for a 4th of July Saturday morning. Until we hit the Livermore grade, that is.
Then the grind began and it didn't let up. 580 was crammed. 205 was jammed. Things let up a little once we got past Manteca, (I guess a lot of our fellow motorists were more interested in water slides than waterfalls,) but it jammed up again on 99 and got postively putrid once we turned onto 108, just North of Modesto (most of the way, 108 is one lane each direction, trends steadily uphill and has way too few turnouts for the number of overloaded lumber trucks and underpowered RVs that crawl along it in both directions).
That left plenty of time for conversation and it wasn't long before I brought the subject back to our unexpectedly luxurious transportation.
"So, where'd you guys lay your hands on this admittedly-bitchen van, anyway?"
After a suspiciously-long moment of silence, Blandy and Tong both spoke at once.
"We, like, borrowed it from some dude.."
"Traded uh bird fo' it.."
They traded glances.
"We, like, borrowed it from some dude who traded a key for it. He, uh.."
"Dude! That's it, he, like, totally owed Tong, for..for.."
"Fo' not kickin' his BG ass, you know whut I mean?"
"How dumb do you think I am? Never mind, don't answer that. Just tell me how you really got this thing."
The two of them looked at each other, wordless. Then Tong shrugged.
"We done brodied tha' ride, Wildman."
"You stole this van? The one we're driving in right now?"
"That is certainly disconcerting!"
"Bill, dude, the guy we stole it from is, like, not gonna' call the cops on us, for sure."
"Word is bond, dat busta-ass trill rat us out ta' tha' boys in blue, this nigga goin' ta bang his bamma' butt to tha' boneyard."
"Drew, dude, gangstas don't, like, tattle on each other!"
"'Sides..CJ done jacked it his own self."
"Sweet mother of mud! You're telling me you stole a stolen car?"
"Van, dude. It's a van."
"Car, van, whatever! You stole a stolen van?"
"ARE YOU GUYS NUTS?"
I guess that came out a little louder than was strictly necessary. Tong, who was driving, flinched and swerved onto the shoulder. Luckily we were considerably under the speed limit.
"FUCK is wrong wid you, Wildman? Don' you never shout at me like that, you hear? I'll smoke yo scraggly ass!"
"Oh, hey, I'm sorry, Tong! I'm just stuck in a traffic jam on the 4th of July in a stolen car..pardon me..a stolen van full of assault rifles! A stolen, highly-customized van full of assault rifles! What the hell do I have to worry about?"
"Chill out, Wildman. Plates on dis crate ain't even original, you know whut I'm sayin'?"
"Oh, well, that's reassuring."
"Besides, dude, we, like, totally converted the A-K's to full auto. We could stand off an army, for sure."
. . .
I calmed down eventually.
Pith kept a steady stream of seedless bombers flowing my direction and I know they helped. By the time we turned onto 108 I was giggly as an eighth-grade slumber party and had cornered the world supply of cottonmouth. Two and a half hours later, when we pulled off 108 into the parking lot of the Strawberry General Store, I had the munchies so bad I needed dark glasses and a guide dog.
One after the other, we hit the head, then loaded up on cold drinks and Saran-Wrapped, slightly soggy, mostly-bread sandwiches and piled back into the van for the last part of the drive.
We didn't have far to go. I'd managed to wolf down two of those inadequate sandwiches when, at Mantami's direction, Tong pulled the van off of 108 onto a secondary road. We stayed on that long enough for me to polish off a third so-called "ham" so-called "sandwich" and drain most of a bottle of Mr. Pibb, when Mantami had Tong turn onto a logging road.
That did it for the notion of eating or drinking. I'm convinced that "road" was three-quarters imagination and 90% rut. We bounced and jounced and tried--mostly without success--to keep from bashing into each other as Tong inched our city-bred vehicle down that very, very countrified road for what seemed like three or four hours (but was probably only 45 minutes or so).
Finally, he brought us to a full stop.
We crawled out of the van, complaining about Tong's driving and making cracks about "rock and roll with real rocks" and sundry other such half-witticisms to find our wheel man had pulled up to within inches of a "Road Ends" sign mounted on a padlocked metal gate.
Bill consulted his watch.
"It is now just past 2:00. I estimate we have somewhat less than seven hours of daylight left in which to reach our destination. I suggest we begin unloading."
We managed that in fairly short order. Before we set out, Tong and Blandy carefully wiped all the metal, glass, plastic and leather surfaces in the van free of fingerprints.
Mantami then performed a little ritual of his own. It involved him sitting on his heels with his eyes closed, his palms together with fingertips pointed downward, as if in prayer.
"Whutup wid dat, Mantami?"
"I am finding a path, Mister Tong. I am in difficultness to be talking with you."
He shut up and Mantami returned to his ritual.
After a couple or three minutes of awkward silence on the part of the rest of us, Mantami rose to his feet in a single, fluid motion (not all that easy with 50 pounds of pack on your back) and, without so much as a "Follow me", set off into the coniferous forest around us.
We spent the next few hours following him steadily uphill and having very little fun in the process. As it turned out, our stroll along the Bay Area Ridge Trail had been little or no useful preparation for this trek.
The Ridge Trail is relatively well-marked, heavily traveled and clear of underbrush, dead branches and the like. The path Mantami followed toward our rendezvous was none of these things. It was, instead, densely wooded (although we crossed a couple of mountain meadows), totally unmarked and strewn with obstructions. Worse still, it was high.
Berkeley and environs is pretty close to sea level. Even the Ridge Trail is only about 1800 feet at its peak. On the other hand, we abandoned "our" van at around 5500 feet and climbed steadily from there. By comparison with what we were used to breathing, the air was thin. It made hauling our cumbersome packs harder work than it had been in the Bay Area (and, thanks to the added weight of guns and ammunition, the packs themselves averaged ten pounds heavier than they had been for our Ridge Trail excursion).
I was still high, too, which turned out to be a mixed blessing. It made my load seem about a million pounds heavier than it actually was, but, at the same time it had me constantly distracted from the discomfort of my burden by the beauty of my surroundings.
And they were really quite stunningly beautiful. We'd started out in a mixed conifer forest, threading our way between Incense Cedars, assorted firs and Sugar Pines and occasionally passing through the cathedral-like stillness of a grove of Giant Sequoias. Better still, early July along the approach to the Sonora Pass is a riot of wildflowers.
Now, I'm no botanist, (in fact, every plant I've ever owned has died a lingering, probably painful death, regardless of how carefully I've tended it,) but even I recognized the masses of bluish lupines and white heather in the meadows we crossed. And there was plenty of hardier stuff, too.
Way too much, in fact. Deep within the mixed conifers we passed through early on and, farther up, in the thicker sections of Yellow Pine, the canopy of treetops was dense enough that the forest floor was relatively unobstructed. In fact, the carpet of pine needles was springily pleasant to walk on.
The problem was, in the thinner forest areas and in the meadows and clearings, the underbrush (mostly manzanita, deer brush and the aptly-named mountain misery) slowed our progress to a brisk crawl. Foolishly, I had chosen to wear cargo shorts in order to keep cool and the occasional patch of gooseberries and other such scratchies had my lower legs covered in welts within the first hour.
Some three or four hours after we began hiking, (and nearly 2,000 additional feet up,) I was lacerated, sunburned, gasping for air and considerably less stoned when I heard a female voice ring out from ahead of us.
"Ho, the party! Advance and be recognized!"
I turned around to look at Pith, who had caboose duty.
Pith nodded at me, put a finger to his lips, then nodded his head to the left. To make sure I understood, he pointed to himself, then pointed to the right.
"I get it," I whispered.
I expected him to grin back at me in response.
He didn't. Instead, he turned without a word and, crouching slightly, faded into the forest to the right, leaving me standing there by myself.
I bent over, imitating Pith, and stepped off of what little trail we'd been following into the forest on my left. My plan, such as it was, was to circle around and forward, flanking whoever had hailed us and making sure I checked her out before she saw me.
I had every reason to believe that it was the mysterious and long-anticipated Læ who was hailing us. Everything probably was hunky-dory.
Still, a little caution couldn't hurt.
Anyhow, I'd gotten perhaps forty feet, trying my best to move silently and keep to cover, when it occurred to me to pull out the Webley. As a threat, it wasn't much, but it looked a lot like a real gun and there was always the hope that whoever I pointed it at wouldn't know that, at worst, it posed the danger of me putting their eye out.
I was just starting to loosen it in its holster when a voice from behind and to my left spoke in a pleasant baritone.
"I'd rather you didn't do that. Please let go of the gun, put your hands up and turn around. Slowly."
At least he said, "Please."
I let go of the gun, put my hands up and slowly turned around to face the owner of the voice.
It belonged to a solidly-built man of indeterminable age. He was barely more than five feet tall, totally bald and was dressed in a kind of Robin Hood outfit in verdant forest camouflage colors. He was standing not five feet away, holding a silvery gun that was all smooth curves flowing into a bell-like "barrel" pointed directly at my head.
(Copyright© 1997 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)