It’s early in the Sierra foothills, with a pale sun blinking over tall ragged hills. Three Rivers is a tiny town strung along the Kaweah River. In any other place this would be a stream or a creek, but in dry California it’s a raging river.
Bruce and I pull into a two-pump Chevron station. My window is rolled down and the chill damp raises goose pimples all along my arms. A rangy black and white cat emerges from the station yard and calls out a greeting.
As we get out of the Jeep, Bruce says, “Big Tommy likes you.”
Big Tommy does indeed. I kneel and he immediately approaches, rubbing his cheek on my calves and ankles. I pet his hard black head as he purrs and my hand comes away greasy. He has white socks and a white tuxedo chest, but these are not white I see up close. They are the same color as the early morning clouds over the river.
“He’s greasy as hell,” I say.
“He’s been out all night,” Bruce says. “He’s got a lot of business to do.”
“He’s got girls up and down the river,” I say. “Caught a fish last night.”
“He’s running numbers,” says Bruce.
Big Tommy does have a rakish look. His green-gold eyes are narrow and cockeyed. I scratch his greasy head a few more times and we get back in the Jeep. On the way out, I see his lair – stack after stack of used tires back of the station. Big Tommy sleeps in oil and tire dust. The fishes sleep with him.
On the way up to the giant forest Bruce spins yarns about Big Tommy. His cousin is Big Ollie, the crime boss. Ollie’s vice isn’t girls, it’s food. They’ve corrupted Gambit, the sweet young dog. Now he’s their wheel man. Soon, they’ll introduce him to the numbers trade and girls and dope.
The gray ribbon of pavement winds up and up through thick, impossibly beautiful forest. Amid the pines are slender red trunks of young sequoias. Two or three are giants, burned deep at the roots, still growing outward and upward, miraculous survivors. The sun is a bit higher now, but the cold morning air knifes through me. My heart is tapping steadily inside, faster and faster.
We round a curve and in front of us is a young bear, ambling across the road. His fur is thick and black, sunlight glinting off his back and shoulders. He looks straight at us with his shiny black eyes as if to say, “What are you going to do about it?” and continues to the turnout on the opposite side of the road. We watch for a few moments. The Mini Cooper behind us stays longer. We continue on.
At this hour, the prime parking spot at the forest museum is easily gotten. I get Bruce’s poles out and my tool. With little discussion we set out on the Moro Rock trail. My memory says it’s a two-mile hike to the rock, but of course I’m not sure.
It’s a classic scout-type trail, well-cleared and easy, a narrow path of soft red earth and sand cushioned by decaying pine needles. The giants are scattered within the pines. At our feet are tiny, perfect flowers, pink and white.
We have gone no more than ten minutes when I sense something and turn.
“Whitetail,” I say – wrong.
It’s a heavy muledeer buck chasing a doe not ten feet from us, strong hooves pounding the forest earth, raising small clouds of dust.
“There’s something up ahead,” I say. Bruce’s green eyes flash.
The forest deepens. I pick some miner’s lettuce and give a piece to Bruce. He’s no longer innocently trusting of things I might put in his mouth and I see the doubt in his eyes. But this is not bad, just a leaf with a slight crunch and lemony tang. Oh to be such an authority, able to survive at least two or three days in the wild.
The trail turns and rises ahead. Atop the rise are a lovely doe and delicate fawn. The doe is feeding in the grass beside the trail. The fawn looks expectantly at us, then back to its mother.
My heart stops. I raise my hand. Bruce stops and steps quietly beside me. We watch the pair for a few moments. They pass along and we continue. I want to tell him how this made me feel, that he knew exactly what I was doing and what was happening without words. But of course I haven’t the right words to say.
Beside us, a hillock rises, with patches of smooth granite between the trees. This may be too high for the giant trees; there are only pines and cedar on this side of the trail. We climb upward, up onto the rocks.
We stand in the sun, the only place there is warmth at this early time. All around are the smells of the forest. The loamy earth, pine sap and red-furred big trees. Big flat gray-white granite rocks dusted with lichen and pine needles.
His arm slips around my waist. His lips find mine. Time stops. I cannot feel my pack, my boots, none of it. It is just the sun’s warmth, the earth turning beneath our feet, his lips on mine, my hands on his strong back, his strong hands supporting me.
We part. His eyes are warm and brown and green, flashing in the sun.
There is a near-black suncast shadow against the broad gray rock. It is an outline of passion, searing and perfect.
Then comes the feeling again, as when the buck was chasing the doe. Steps behind his shoulder. We both turn, and a doe is stepping toward us, her eyes soft and curious. She stops no more than three yards away. Our eyes meet hers. Her body is strong and elegant, long neck curved, sleek legs cream and brown and white.
Afterward, we continue on and the forest deepens again. Because we have kissed, we are less observant. A young Marine passes us and asks if we saw the bear sleeping on the rock. No – we hadn’t. We double back and I try to get a picture. Another bear of about the same size as the one we’d seen crossing the road is sunning himself on a small boulder in the shadow of the pines, sleeping and stretching.
We go farther, winding through thick glades of fern and pine and sequoia, interspersed with small alpine meadows. Then I hear a sound like a tree falling.
It’s no tree – it’s Bruce, complete with bloody nose and cut lip. The Marine returns and asks if we need help. No – I’ve got my pack.
This is poetic justice of a sort, as I had tripped and fallen on my face two nights before, chasing Big Ollie the crime boss. So now we have matching swollen noses and fat lips.
We reach Moro Rock and climb halfway up the stairs, far enough to stand at the edge and look across to the edge of the world and the great Western Divide. It takes our breath.
“You were looking at my ass when you fell,” I say.
Bruce admits this is true.
“Let that be a lesson to you,” I want to say. But I do not. He has suffered enough for his transgressions. There isn’t even any water in the bathrooms, and the drinking fountain is dry. We must ride all the way back to the forest museum to deal with the blood and dirt.
We see many more things that day. On another bus, the others are crying out because there is a doe in the forest near the road.
I smile over at Bruce. His dimple is very deep.
Oh, the places we’ve been. The things we’ve seen.
God is talking.
I hear, but his words are to me, unsayable. At least, just yet.
We have stripped ourselves bare and with silent minds listened at His breathing place, felt His presence and seen His face. Heard his eternal voice and know.
The first name of an animal is us.