Walter Mencken 1:04 p.m., Sept. 4
- Community Blog
- Between National Boundaries
Eye of a Firestorm: Pine Valley
No television. No internet. No telephone. I have all of these things, I just decided to turn them all off one night. I put on a jacket, went outside, and started a fire. It was a small fire, but a good one. Once it got going, I just sat there and stared at the colors.
No drugs. No alcohol. I have these things too, but I decided not to use them that particular night.
Every once in a while I drive up to Pine Valley to get away from the business and noise and distractions of San Diego. I stay at my great-grandfather's cabin. He built the place himself, back when people did that sort of thing. It's made of stone and wood. To get from the one bedroom to the kitchen you have to go outside, walk down some stairs, and cross an unpaved path to unlock the kitchen door. My great grandfather was not an architect.
I once read somewhere that everyone needs a "day away" to maintain their sanity. Well, that's what I was doing. So I sat for hours watching the changing colors of the flames and listening to the crackling embers. For a brief moment I felt like I actually belonged in a place like Pine Valley.
But I didn't. I was reminded of it earlier that day when I went to get a coffee at Major's Diner on the main strip-- the only strip. I searched the menu for something half-way nutritious but came up empty. Spinach? "Try onions-- deep fried-- if you want vegetables, hun." I didn't ask the kind waitress anymore questions. Later that same afternoon I visited the bar across the street at the lodge. When I asked for a Sierra Nevada the bartender just paused and squinted, as if I should automatically know that beer selection was not their forte. I was quickly greeted by what seemed to be the only patron at the bar. "How you doin', flatlander?" 'Did he really just call me a "flatlander"?' I didn't know if this was an insult or what. And where was he from? Pine Valley's not exactly the Rockies. And what did terrain and altitude have to do with anything anyways? I kept my thoughts to myself. I didn't hang out at the bar very long. That would defeat the purpose of my "day away" any how. The last thing I needed was some drunken cowboy seeking the small town glory of slugging a "flatlander" in the face.
So I was alone at the cabin for the night. The fire was nice anyway. The sounds were soothing too, until I heard leaves being stepped on nearby. It had to be a large animal. It was getting closer. Each cracking, dry leaf was louder and more frightening. I could see someone-- or at least an outline. Just beyond the patio was the shadow of a man standing still. I couldn't see his face. It was too dark. "Hello" I said, going with the friendly approach. He didn't respond. I tried to remain calm while I glanced around the patio for potential weapons. Nothing. "Hello?" I repeated with a little more assertiveness. The man in the shadow started to talk, but only a half-uttered, gutteral sound slipped out. Then he turned and walked away.
Maybe it was the flatlander guy from the bar. Maybe it was a hitchhiker that wandered off the highway on heavy hallucinogens. Maybe it was the town creep who likes to lurk in the shadows and scare people. I honestly don't know, and will probably never know.
For a moment I thought I should run into the cabin, lock the door and prepare for an attack. But then I paused and considered my place. I was standing on a stone and concrete patio that my great grandfather built 100 years ago. I wasn't going to cower in a corner and worry myself to sleep. So I sat back down and stared at the fire. Its levels of light opened so many unreflected memories, I almost completely forgot about the shadowy weirdo. It had been a long time since I had stopped and internally drifted all night-- alone with my thoughts.
I realized a couple of things. That Major's diner was what it was: greasy, fried, and fattening. That "flatlander" could've been a conversation starter rather than an ender. And I realized that the shadowy figure was probably more scared inside than I. That he had his own problems, and posed little or no threat. And that my own worst enemy was me.
I thank that fire in Pine Valley for helping me see.