Outside of the dull, brown excuse for a town that sits on the rim of Nevada’s Creech Air Force Base, a brown square of paper billows about in the wind, remaining impossibly aloft against the alien landscape northwest of Lake Mead. Gripping tighter on the handlebars of my motorcycle, I accelerate up the narrow seam of highway that lies almost against the California border and toward the winding pass through high desert cattle country that will take me to my home town in the Owens Valley.
I imagine the blowing paper as some kind of lost map pointing the way to somebody’s idea of treasure, and it’s all I can do to avoid pulling over and trying to coax it to earth. I could use a treasure map; I’m looking for something.
When I told people in Santa Fe I was going to my 20-year high school reunion, I was met with guffaws, eye rolling and incredulity. Most of the people I know in Santa Fe were, like me, misfits at their high schools, people who didn’t slide easily through the quasi-medieval social hierarchies of teenagers. Most of them would never even consider returning to whatever dim backwater or tired industrial landscape or secluded, wealthy enclave that hatched them, especially not if it meant rubbing elbows with former classmates.
But because I was born and raised in one town, as was the case for many of the people with whom I graduated high school, I can’t escape the idea that those early peers—like them or not—had some kind of profound influence in shaping me. Even if through observing them I come to understand the things I am not, more than gain understanding about who I am, there is considerable sway at work. So, I was lured, like I suppose anyone who goes to such a reunion is, to see if I still understand myself as defined by the people who were my friends, enemies, crushes and co-conspirators for the first half of my life.
As I ride between Death Valley and Nevada’s vast spread of proving grounds, test sites and gunnery ranges, I remember how bitterly conservative the politics in Bishop, where I was born, can be. As he is to John McCain, Ronald Reagan remains a hero, only vaguely distinguishable from John Wayne. The all-time most popular bumper sticker during my youth proclaimed, “We’re rednecks, we’ll keep our guns.” It is a stubborn red spot on California’s deep-blue electoral map. An old friend who still lives in the valley and works for the local newspaper told me that one of the county supervisors refers to hikers, who flock to the region’s vast wilderness in the Sierra Nevada and White Mountains, and provide much-needed tourism dollars, as “hippie faggots.”
But as I descend from Westgard Pass, peeling past Deep Springs College, the small but famous school for boy geniuses where students must also run a working ranch, the valley swells with the setting sun below me and the craggy, jutting Palisade range—the highest concentration of peaks over 14,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada—stands against the horizon. Sweet sage breaks through the barrier of my helmet; the intoxicating smell only intensifies the light that is filtered through tall grasses where lazy cattle, fattened and muscled horses run free through the hazy, golden ether. Surrounded by the alpine peaks where I spent each summer with my mountaineer father from the age of 3 months, I trace a slow path up the narrow valley’s lanes. I remember that the geography is as much a part of the crucible I was formed in as is the sociology.
Bishop and its surrounds are, as predicted, the political inverse of Santa Fe. The only Obama sticker I see is on a car on the highway, while yards and ranches are peppered with McCain/Palin signs. At the homecoming football game—a component of the reunion festivities—a Palin impersonator is on hand to encourage participation in the booster’s club raffle. But the same ranchers who will pull a different lever from me on election day, view the valley, its lazy river and canals, and the mountains that teem with wood, water and game with the same awe that I do. There is an ethic of self-sufficiency and sustainability—a community value—that is increasingly core to communities regardless of the voting booth.
People are what they are—some friendly, some posturing, some standoffish—and the reunion itself proves to be an awkward, absurd and mildly sweet affair. But standing in the autumn chill, while people share accomplishments and family photos inside, the bold stars wheel above the dark country town and the land that we cannot escape having in common. There also is commonality of earth in Santa Fe, but it is scattered among a larger population and more varied interests. How land and water and food and work come together to form the metaphorical landscape that comprises a community’s soul is more ambiguous, harder to trace.
I didn’t find myself. I didn’t find a map. But I realized the terrain that will need charting when I get out of my hometown and come home.