I only experience true summer heat when I leave the coast. The inland valleys and foothills of the Sierras become prohibitively hot for me, after thoroughly adapting to days on end of pure fogginess. I do miss the expansiveness of the mountains, lakes, and pine forests, so I make an effort to go visit my brother-in-law, Pete, in the gold country town of Sonora. I drove out of the Santa Clara Valley on July 2nd in the early afternoon, knowing the roads would be absent of commuter madness. The drive east through valley hills and stifling heat requires about three hours of concentration behind the wheel even when commuting conditions are reasonable.
The further east I go from Silicon Valley the thinner the asphalt lanes become, until I arrive in Oakdale, which lies at the first set of rolling hills that lead into the mountains. I must first pass through narrow roads that brush up against miles of fruit and nut orchards. I see that peaches, walnuts, cherries, apples, plums, and pears, are all achieving ripeness right about now. The make-shift little farm stands made of plywood and two-by-fours have been freshly painted in yellows and gaudy greens. The stand keepers have put out their bright-colored signs and umbrellas to try to slow and entice the flow of traffic to stop and sample a bite and buy a bag of fruit to take to the lake. I could buy a bundle of oak tied up in rope to bring to a campfire. The price is right, but I’m not sure Pete needs more firewood so I let the temptation to buy pass me by.
In Oakdale I do buy a bottle of iced tea and sit out in the parking lot of a shopping center for a few moments without my air conditioning blasting me in the face, as it has been doing for the last two hours. I stretch and sip and feel the heat bounce from the asphalt. The air here is much more dry and unforgivingly warm. It sits heavily on me and makes me want to move slow. I am reassured that my decision to live close to the ocean many years ago is justified. This form of oppression does not seem so obvious to me until I feel the surface of my body leaking sweat. Oakdale is 105, Santa Cruz 70.
The hills beyond Oakdale have a beauty about them that varies with the time of day. In fall or spring I don’t mind stopping in mid-day and having a long look at the majestic shapes prevalent among the volcanic buttes and steppe-like grasslands. I might find a side road where I am removed from the danger of speeding maniacs that traverse the windy, twisty, up-and-down highway as though they are in a racing event. This day in July, the sweltering heat keeps me rolling. Soon I’m climbing a few longer grades just west of Sonora, then taking the new expanded section of highway that loops me around the big-box-store outskirts of the town.
When I arrive at Pete’s he is home, but still working for the company with his computer, so I amble off into the back yard, find a shade tree and comfortable chair, and read more of Schleiermacher’s platonic ideas on my Kindle. The early afternoon sun has cooked every trace of water from the atmosphere. I must remember to drink more water than usual. At the ocean I do not think much about the effects of dehydration. These deep cool shadows from the maple overhead are the perfect sanctuary for now. If I sit quietly here for an hour or two I do not need to go into the air-conditioned house, which makes me feel slightly threatened by its stuffiness. The feeling reminds me of days when I was young and would sit indoors with my grandparents in their old farmhouse on the edge of the eastern Oregon prairie. I’m not accustomed to sitting indoors in mid-day while waiting out the heat.
Pete’s dog, Rigby, has an open wound. The vet removed a malignant tumor from her leg and the sutures are still healing. She is slightly drugged, but agitated nonetheless. I would be too. She has a lamp-shade, or cone-shaped, plastic shield tied around her neck to prevent her from getting at her wound with her mouth or teeth. Her frustration and pain spills over into my own sentiment. I am better off outside, where the heat seems to bake the agitation out of every living thing.
By 7pm the sun has pulled back some on its heat production. The sky is a dusty orange. We have access to a power boat and have been waiting for the cool down. We hook up the boat to the back of his truck and tow it out to New Mellones Reservoir for a refreshing splash. This is the first time the boat has touched water this year. It belongs to my daughter, who has moved to Hawaii, and she is storing it in a warehouse in Sonora. Pete is much more proficient at handling the boat than I am, so I let him do all the hitching and unhitching. He backs it down the long ramp into the edge of the lake, while I plunge head first into this inspirational coolness. The oppression of heat that I have been experiencing for hours is lifted from me in a heartbeat. Thank God for the relaxing composure to be found in mountain lakes!
In minutes we fly forty miles an hour to a secret cove out of the direct line of sight from the sun. Pete shuts off the motor and digs his fishing pole out of a compartment in the bow. We sit and stare at a pregnant moon giving birth to reflected light, as it arises gently over ruddy, purple hills to our east. The early evening advances much too fast for me, when I compare its progress with that of the passing day. We move the boat out more toward the middle of the lake after sunset, then across the lake to the western edge, to where the man-made dam maintains all the holding privileges. I can see the Big Dipper and Orion’s belt. When I make an effort to go outside and observe, I see that night is so much bigger than day.
We pull the boat out about 11pm and head on home. An SUV passes us on this bumpy country road at nearly twice the speed he should be doing and nearly rolls when he swerves to avoid an oncoming car. He must be young and maybe drunk or he would not live this life so recklessly. He is soon out of sight and we are thinking we may find him upside down in a ditch in a few minutes, but we never do. Maybe the heat of the day had gotten to him in a more violent manner than it had gotten to me.
At midnight we have a small campfire in Pete’s backyard. The air is now cool enough that the fire actually feels pleasant to me. We talk. It’s been months since we’ve visited. We talk about work and wives, friends and enemies, money and politics. I retell one or two of my old fish stories and he has a couple as well. We realize the conversation has drifted off into repeat mode. It’s time to go in and sleep, but Rigby’s wound is now bleeding. She has figured out a way to reach around the funnel on her head. In the middle of the night we go to the big food store and buy bandaging materials so that we can wrap her up. I go right to sleep when we are done nursing her, but Pete tells me next morning that she whimpered and fussed all night over the sutures.
Next day Pete is busy taking Rigby to the vet and daughter to the local health clinic because she has stomach flu, so I find my way back under that shady maple tree once again and read more of Schleiermacher. Spiritual and self consciousness blend together in our emotions to produce everlasting joy. I become too warm and too drowsy to concentrate. I find a fairly cool naugahyde couch indoors and catch up on what sleep I might have missed the night before. The indoor stuffiness is hardly noticeable to me as I drift into a long nap.
Late in the afternoon my wife and her sister, who is visiting from Oregon, arrive at Pete’s. We have plans to take the boat out on another lake a little further away than New Mellones, one called Don Pedro. We load a big cooler with food and drink and splash the boat down an hour or two before the sun drops behind the mountains to the west of us. We zip back to the source of this dam, where the Tuolumne River first feeds into it–a distance of maybe eight or ten miles from where we launch. The further we go the more narrow and gorge-like the shores of the lake become, until we come to a spot where further navigation seems too tricky. We drop anchor here and I swim while the other three try to pull in bass. In an hour we see many jump out of the water, but none bite, so we turn our attention to eating dinner. In another hour there will be a display of fireworks at the dam. We race back out of the narrow canyons where we have wandered and jockey among the other boats for a spot where we might best see the fireworks.
The canons float on a platform on the water. When the rockets explode with all their shining, brilliant colors, they reflect across the lake, so that the light emitted from each is twice what it might be on land. By 10pm the air cools enough for me to wear a light cotton sweatshirt, although my swimming trunks are still wet from the earlier swim. I think to myself that if I lived in this sort of intense daily heat, I would have to make a daily ritual of coming to the lake. When the exhibit ends, we are among the very first few boats to load up and leave. I imagine with hundreds of boats on the water the queuing up for the loading ramps will go on half the night.
Pete and I have another late-night fire and talk more. Rigby is better tonight, more sedated from a stronger drug that the vet had prescribed. He’d also put a heavier bandage on her leg to keep her from tampering with the sutures. Pete and Rigby will both sleep better tonight. I awake early in the morning, quite anxious and ready to return to that wonderful ocean fog. Coming to the mountains for a couple of days and celebrating American freedom and independence makes this holiday memorable for me. Perhaps it is just the disgruntlement that comes with aging, but the sense of freedom and independence to me is found in being free from the tyranny of summer heat. My patriotism seems to be more aligned with fog than with land and country.