First time I learned about the Valley was from an old skinny-dipper named Chip soaking in a cliff-side hot pool somewhere in Idaho. He told me about springs named “Wizard” and “Volcano”, about bats that skimmed the water at dusk, about humans that ate mushrooms and orchestrated softball games on the desert floor.
I left in the dark, 700 miles and a raspy-voiced girl called Honey between me and the Valley. I picked her up in western Nevada and lost her somewhere before Bishop. She described our destination like a buzzing child, holding the pieces like a carrot above me.
And it was dark again, twenty-some hours later, as I limped my rig along the mountain pass road, dodging boulders, skirting pits. Ass cheeks clenched and bouncing off the seat at every rut. The wind kicked up coming off the mountain. Cloud cover and maybe-trails and scrub brush. Then I saw it. The Bat Pole. I laughed out loud, a heavy and desperate laugh launched from my throat, startled at the sound. Chip and Honey, their stories matched up: the Bat Pole, a 25 foot metal installation dripping with bat ornaments, marked the trail to the springs.
Can’t say how long I slept there, but I woke up to a sky so blue it sparkled, bright and painful angels in my eyes. That’s about where I forgot what time was.
A jack burro rubbed his head against the passenger side door, sounding like a Brillo pad. Something buzzed, I heard thunder. A fleet of vehicles coming from every direction, it seemed. Pickups bearing half naked desert-dwellers clinging to roll bars, dirt bikes, a rusty hatchback perched on oversized tires. A truck braked a few feet away, and from the bed a girl stood up and hollered. I fell in with the welcome party.
People in the Valley introduce themselves by way of gift and nickname. One woman put a leather necklace over my head, said to call her Butte. El Capitan greeted me with a shot of rum and a dirty joke. At the next camp: loud music and smoke and dancing, but when the dancers parted I saw her. Honey made a breaking noise like she had just found her voice again after a long time and grabbed my hand.
All things happened in a circle. Honey introduced Papa with the full, white beard, one arm around his waist, slipping the other around mine. Two young men wearing bug antennas passed around a tupperware of mushrooms. One of the bugs played violin while she cried and I cradled her in my lap. There was a square mirror and razor blade. Honey split a blue pill and gave me half.
She knew everything I did not know: where each rock lay in the Valley, how to navigate through the night, how to dart through the desert, how to guide me. Campfires blinked like matches, music thumped in the distance between breezes. The shower head next to a palm tree piped hot water from the spring and we stood in it, giggling and turning to share the water between us. Honey moved like a fish into the pool and I laughed, more awkward. Still, I felt warm, from the rum and the drugs and Honey. “Don’t worry, you’re with me now,” she said.
We made a bed in the back of a truck and shared cigarettes and tried but couldn’t make constellations out of the spinning world. Far-away parties faded and travelers passed by our nest. One traveler stopped to lean over the bed of the truck, laugh with Honey, joke in a low voice, ask for a birthday present. But when he put his hand up my shirt and I tried to roll away she punched his arm and yelled, “Leave her alone!”
I felt warm again falling asleep facing her soft breaths and the stars vibrating above.
Morning makes everything gold and gives way to another sky so bright that I see the angels again. I am alone and acutely aware of my aloneness.
For two more days I visit camps; sleep in my own truck; soak in the pools with strangers morning and night; accept invitations to meals; wonder, if I drink enough booze or swallow the right pill, will she maybe come back? On the third day, I drive out of the Valley.
The wind kicks up coming off the mountain. Cloud cover and maybe-trails and scrub brush. Dust makes strange shapes, spinning devils, and obscures most of my vision. It looks like Honey out there. I think I see her wearing a cigarette and sounding like she’s never had a drink of water.