“Your mom is hot.”
Nichole Snow motioned up the dining room wall with numb surprise; the framed image there had never stood out, and for the first time in my life, I wondered how a man like my father had ever dreamed of marrying such a beautiful woman. Until now, the greater question following years of all-night scream wars, fistfights, a divorce, remarriage, and radically different lifestyles, was why?
“Huh, I guess so.”
Our house was originally a hotel built in 1893, and rested in the center of Mariposa, California: a tiny gateway town of Yosemite National Park. The hardwood floors cried violently with every footstep; sneaking out was an art I had mastered. Despite the utter lack of insolation by the knotted pine walls, we never dared to light the fireplace in winter. My bedroom window hovered upstairs, right over the town’s central YARTS bus stop (Yosemite Area Regional Transport System). This obviated the need for an alarm clock; every morning would start with a loud squeal and a hiss as each bus came to a stop. If it wasn’t a school day, I would roll out of bed into a pair of gortex pants and carry my snowboard downstairs. All four years of high school (only three blocks away), my parents provided me with a seasonal ticket for YARTS and Badger Pass, Yosemite’s modest ski resort. I never brought water or food; my prescription of Adderall provided an invulnerability to hunger and thirst. In the summer, the only place to be was the river (as long as wildfires or rock slides didn’t close the road). In the spring and fall: the skatepark. Some nights, my friends would throw rocks at my window.
“Zay! Come skate!”
One day, I agreed to meet Sam Paul at midnight, up at the bottom of Grosjean Road. After a well executed dance across the screaming hardwood floors, I snuck out through the back door, traipsed across the balcony, and hustled down the stairs to “Main Street.” It is there that HWY 140 and HWY 49 merge briefly, cutting through the heart of town for a mile and a half (the entire width of Mariposa) before diverging. Following the road up to The Top of Town, I came to The Fourway, the only stop sign on Main Street. From there, The 49 splits off to the left, towards the shores of Lake Bagby. Instead, I continued up The 140 as it gently rose for the next two miles in the direction of The Park. Two miles, and my skateboard was my shield. The hair on the back of my neck stood in vigilance. If the Sheriffs didn’t catch me, the mountain lions might. Two miles, and finally, Sam’s ghostly figure materialized on the highway. Not a single set of headlights had interrupted our treks from home, nor had any cats. The full moon stood tall above us; we needed no head torches. Nor did we need pads, nor helmets; we were invincible.
We smoked a cigarette right there, on the middle of the highway under the moon. The time had come. We mounted our boards, and pointed our noses back to town, downhill. Two miles, with only the assumption that no significant rocks littered the road. Two miles, and you get the picture. Carving back and forth helped regulate speed, though at one point, I got ambitious. I straightened out, and soon came a revered phenomenon. Speed wobbles. Reflexively, I balanced on my front foot while dragging my left on the asphalt. That was a long three seconds. Down we went, and grass and trees flew by at hundreds of miles an hour, glowing in the moonlight with the wide expanse of mountains looming over the lights of town below. It is possible that the whole ordeal lasted only ten minutes, but to us, it was forever: an eternity that, unfortunately, had to end. We were in that moment, where you are simply nowhere else. The Nexus. Freedom. Moving meditation. Surfers know it. Rock climbers know it. My dad showed it to me, and I spent my whole life chasing it, wanting to be just like him.
Finally, we cut to the right, off the highway and onto Smith Road. The hill eventually slung uphill, and we came to a stop. Sam kicked down on the tail to fling the board up, and the back wheels fell off. The nut that was supposed to hold the axle to the board had disappeared. With wide eyes, we deliberated where it must have happened. Where did he lose it? Had he hit a bump, attempted a slide, or did anything to release contact between his wheels and the road… let’s just say, anything could have happened. How long was he in such danger?
We found it the next day, at the bottom of Grosjean Road.
Let’s start over. I was born in Fort Collins, Colorado, though that fact means little to me now. My dad had a wolf, whose name was Tundra, and they were tight. Mom had a hard time getting their attentions. One day, Tundra started following my mom. She was pregnant with me.
One day, Tundra dug a hole under the fence, and disappeared for several days. Assuming the worst, my family was distraught. When he came back, he had a large Big Bird doll with a built-in cassette player. He dropped it right in front of me in my crib. I remember listening to music on that very player, and was sad that I never really met Tundra.
When I was two years old, my family moved to Kauai. We ate hot dogs and applesauce by the water. Dad worked on a Zodiac, running coastal tours and fishing trips down the Napali coast. I remember him bringing home lobsters. I don’t remember what my mother did. When a bad hurricane appeared on the forecast, the same one filmed in Jurassic Park, we moved to California. The town was called El Portal, a (very) small town just outside the HWY 140 entrance to Yosemite National Park: where my parents met. By now, I was three.
My mom worked in the Ahwahnee Hotel, and my brother and I played hide and seek in its grand architecture. My father was a ranger, and involved with Search and Rescue. To carry my weight, I searched for Easter eggs behind the Yosemite chapel after Sunday school. I remember one time when, in the middle of a sermon, a loud cracking and rumble sent everyone running outside the chapel. Across the valley from us, was a giant cloud of dust, hundreds of feet tall, sailing away towards Half Dome. I didn’t understand.
I remember a mother bear and her cub in the back yard a few times,
“Mommy, the bear’s back.”
I usually spotted them from “the cold room.” It separated the garage from the kitchen, and had two large glass doors for walls on either side. It didn’t heat well, but it had a great view up the hill when animals walked by. At night time, I stayed away from those windows. Especially when the crickets stopped singing.
Just up the road, lived one of my best friends, Haley. It would be over twenty years until I could truly appreciate that her dad, legendary climber Ken Yager, named a cliff after her.
Up the hill was a forest of oak trees. We had a rope swing, and would run up the incline, holding the knots, and jump. One day, my brother, Seth, panicked and let go. He fell twenty feet through the sky, and to this day the image is fresh in my mind; I can still feel that warm, dry air. The hill took him like a ski jump at Badger Pass; our neighbors helped carry him off on a wooden board to keep his spine straight. Seth turned out to be okay, in the end.
In the autumn, we would jump off the roof into piles of leaves. One of my favorite pastimes was catching grasshoppers, alligator lizards, and frogs. My favorite shows were The Simpsons, and The Crocodile Hunter.
One time my mother screamed, “Zay get in here!” There was a large insect in the bathtub; I think it was a cicada, as big as my hand. I picked it up, and put it outside. That sort of thing happened a lot. The tarantulas were cool too.
We had a pet Iguana, and I named her Lizzy. She would escape sometimes and we would find her under the house, or sometimes on the chimney of the iron fireplace, clinging to the bricks. She never seemed to mind sitting on my shoulder while I played Warcraft II: The Tides of Darkness. I tried to make her happy by catching an alligator lizard for a friend. I got yelled at, for that one.
One day, in 1997, the Merced River flooded, and showed no mercy in its rage. We lost power to our home for a long time. Lizzy could not keep warm, and went to sleep forever.