Dust like powder blanketing the air, making a reddish apparition of the day. Smell of that dust and smell of pine, smell of doveweed. The pickup a segmented creature, head twisting opposite the body. A sharp bend and I nearly tumbled off the side.
Kneeling on a mattress tied over the pickup bed, all the camping gear beneath. Northern California, 1978. Gripping through lurches and bends, the metal hot even in morning. Switchbacks up the mountain. I had a shoebox of rocks, and when we hit straight sections of road I'd grab a rock and huck it at a passing tree. The fling and bend, the stone thrown to the side, a thrumming sound, turning and chopping through thick air but swept forward by momentum. Forced off course, bent into an arc, swept forward beyond intent. I had a feel already for that arc, prefiguring it, aiming well behind. Pumping a fist into the air whenever stone bit into flesh. The heavy thud over the growl of the engine, perhaps even a glimpse of bark torn free.
The sky coming down closer, the day heating, the air doubling and doubling again, pressing the smell from all things. Metal, exhaust, oil, dust, weeds, pines, and now a long stretch of dry yellow grass, a valley with sugar pines, a valley that meant we had entered a new land, away from the lake. Every fall this hunt, every fall this return.
We stopped at Bartlett Hot Springs. Pulled over into the momentary twilight of our own dust, my father not waiting for the air to clear, opening his door right away, stepping out a shadow tall and thin, shouldering his rifle. My father etched and luminous even in shadow, a thing set off from the rest of the earth, overly present. Walking away now, up the trail toward the springs.
From the other side of the cab, my grandfather stepped out carrying the lemons, and then my father's best friend, Tom, who had been crammed in the middle, always there from my earliest memories, same as family. Wearing glasses that caught a reflection as he looked up, even in this oblivion of dust. We're here, he said.
I hopped off my father's side of the pickup. Reached into the cab, behind the seat, for my own rifle, a .30-.30 Winchester lever-action carbine with a peep sight, cold metal, not yet heated by the day. No shoulder strap, so I carried it in my hand as I walked up toward the springs. The way I had been and always would be, I thought, hiking with this rifle low in my right hand, barrel tipped downward. Tilt of a needle, that rifle, tilt of the planet itself, sending me forward.
Bartlett Hot Springs long closed, decades before, gated and fenced and abandoned. A leftover from an earlier time. The trail a back way in, narrow pathway through chunks of gray rock embossed with lichen black, orange, green, and white, small wheels and gears and rosettes for telling futures and recording all past. The world stamped onto the world, repeating itself endlessly.
Low branches, dead and snapping against us. On the lookout for rattlesnakes. But the path short enough, and soon we were on a kind of terrace. Old lawn overgrown by grass and weed, old concrete cracked in discrete chunks, vast areas overrun. An enchanted place for me, and only for me, because I was too young to remember, and so in my mind this place could become more.
Women in sun hats, lace and frill, men in multilayered coats with watches and canes. Come to this haven to bathe in the springs and drink from them. This was how I imagined it, and my family somehow a part of that, older and grander. There would have been music, a band in a gazebo, and lanterns hung from the trees at night. Old oaks in here, thick and gnarled but with open space between. There would have been dancing.
My grandfather sat heavy against a low concrete wall overgrown and nearly invisible. A small spigot caked with white mineral. Ready for a taste? he asked me. My mouth pinching without meaning to. The water would be sulfurous. Yep, I said. My grandfather enormous, a wide inflation of belly beneath a brown hunting shirt and jacket. Always wearing this jacket, even in the heat.
–from Goat Mountain by David Vann (Harper, 2013)