High Sierra Honeymoon

1974, a scorching hot, blinding day in North Dallas. As we approach the front door of a solidly upper-middle-class, two-story house of pale, pink brick, sotto voce…"Don't tell mama you were married before. She hates divorced women." I came to dread that subtle detour on the approach to a party, a counseling session, a manipulative encounter--a last-second diabolical coaching. It was sure to mean "don't reveal this secret; it will make me look like a jerk"

May 26 or May 27? It became a running family joke--I could never remember the exact morning we crawled out of mismatched sleeping bags, consumed a hasty breakfast of porridge, and you said, "Today’s the day." A little reluctantly, it sounded, but for some mysterious reason, you were adamant about doing it. Reeking of sulfur from a high sierra hot springs in a cow pasture in the middle of nowhere, 200 feet from a small, crystal clear stream running frigid with snow melt, we broke camp and drove the Scout down from the mountains into Carson City in search of a justice of the peace.

The trip began as just another one of our customary hot spring adventures. Over a long Memorial Day weekend, we ventured further than usual from our home on the coast north of San Francisco at the tip of Marin County. The margins of my "Great Hot Springs of the West" were satisfactorily filling with annotations, accompanied by copious field notes penciled on a corresponding Forest Service map, much like a birder’s prized life list. Some of the springs had dried up, some had migrated, and others had been “improved.” Some were so scalding hot that only the brilliant red and orange heat-adapted algae could survive at the source--you had to splash up and down the crick connecting to the snow runoff to find a bearably attenuated spot to soak.

Best of all, natural springs exist in the most breathtaking, tasty locations--vast, empty deserts, with infinite skies that make your eyes ache. Old logging roads intimately caressing the shoulders and hips of California coastal mountains, tracing the swell of a switchback to reveal the sight of geysers spewing from crevices up and down the coastline, the agitated ghosts of wives and sweethearts gazing out over the treacherous deep, searching for their loved ones in herring boats lost to ancient storms. Corrugated tin shacks slumped at the heads of silver mines abandoned in magnificent desolation, coyotes barking in the cold, crisp air, stars beyond counting sparkling in tremendous vaults of inky darkness.

Nevada was convenient, no blood test, no waiting. This particular day, we found our rabbity bureaucrat, complete with matching wife and sister-in-law as witnesses, in the flats east of Tahoe, just south of Reno. We stank of Hades, our silver rings oxidized to a sickly yellow-black patina, mute prophecy of our troubled future.

I, nonchalant, a mounting suspicion that there might possibly be a script somewhere that I would never be allowed to read, and which would, at any rate, be constantly rewritten, “You know, it’s not the official paper that counts, it’s the intent and the commitment, what’s truly in our hearts. I really don’t care about the license.”

“Yeah, yeah, sure. You know I love you. We’re living together, aren’t we? It just makes it easier to deal with mama if we’re married.” The deed was done, papers signed, tarnished homemade rings removed and replaced in minutes.

We make a quick stop at the grocery store to replenish supplies, then continue south to an oddly upscale, sanitized Forest Service cool spring, cemented into a concrete box, brimming with families escaping the desert heat. A deeply bronzed, longhaired, bearded forest ranger in cargo shorts slouches on the lifeguard tower, his gaze that of a man accustomed to months of solitude searching great swaths of alpine forest rather than myopically sweeping a pool for floaters.

A suffocating sense of alarm sends me off to find a quiet corner beneath a shed, alone, sitting under a pipe that draws the spring water up to fill the crypt-like natatorium. I won’t find the reason behind the paranoia, won’t feel safe, for years. It takes a long time to venture from the womb-like water.

The next day, we drive back to our two by two cliff-clinging shanty, blasted by the wild, unforgiving Pacific. Nothing will be the same. The rules change abruptly and without warning, when I least expect it. The easygoing give and take of our relationship morphs into a stomach-wrenching realization that our life together is tragically flawed.

Unknowing, I sacrifice a vital part of myself to some mysterious disease, until I relinquish all but a tiny shred of my soul. Incessant flight from danger finds me, decades later, half way around the world on the opposite side of the Pacific, and back again. Our wedding rings clamor, Look at us, look at us! I am too blind to hear.

Sydney, Australia, 1996. Faces flushed from a stormy ferry ride, we walk up the path to our CEO's exclusive North Sydney harbor-front home adjacent to the Lieutenant Governor’s estate. Fresh from a dress rehearsal at the Sydney Opera House, voice a tiny bit hoarse, I’m wearing--at his insistence especially for the party--a large, stunning scallop shell, fossilized in opal, set in a gold bezel on a fine gold chain. The final unholy rites are spoken, sotto voce…”Don’t tell them I bought that necklace for mama…”

I know the year was 1975. I can’t remember if it was May 26 or May 27…it could have been the 28th. It doesn’t matter now--I finally made it back.