Carrot and Bunny’s Christmas Adventure/queer communities over time and all the different ways to describe the light

I pull to a stop at the fred meyer gas station in Medford, Oregon and smoke starts pluming from under the hood of my van. Thick blue smoke. I roll down the window and the outside heat blasts me- late May and it already feels like full summer in southern Oregon. The attendant stares at the smoke coming out of my van.

“You want some gas?” he says.

“Yeah,” I say. I pop the hood and notice that a cylinder next to the engine is hissing and wet with oil. Well, that can’t be good.

The van still runs, but rough. I know I shouldn’t be driving it at all. It’s after five, though, I won’t be able to take it to a mechanic until tomorrow. I lurch down the highway to a rest area where I can park overnight. I’ve parked at this rest area to sleep many times, in my years of traveling through and working in the Rogue valley. The other vandwellers are here. There are the fancy sprinter vans with their tan white people who summersault out onto the grass, not a care in the world. They’re young and they need nothing and they left their fancy tech jobs to, like, be free, man. He’s a web designer and she’s a wedding photographer. They have enough followers on instagram to monetize product placement in their posts. They wanted to adopt a rescue pitbull puppy, but the waitlist was too long so they just bought one from a breeder. Their van cost $80k. She pulls out a hula hoop and starts hula hooping on the grass in front of the bathrooms. Sandwiched in between the sprinters are the faded minivans and old pickups that house retired vets, living on disability. Their buildouts aren’t aesthetically stunning but they’re clever and resourceful and all the pieces came from walmart or the trash and cost $100 in total. They’re incredibly generous with their knowledge online. “You Too Can Build Van Cabinets From Old Pallets!” They’re eating canned chili for dinner and playing online poker, using their phones as hotspots. They’ll spend the winter boondocked on public lands in southern Arizona, while the sprinter van residents will stay with their parents in Michigan. The spectrum in this parking lot is beautiful and astounding. It’s representative of the slow erosion of the American middle class as well as its inability to care for its disabled people. A harbinger of things to come.

I pull into a spot near the end of the rest area. Usually all the spots here are taken, but tonight there’s one left, and the tall sprinter van next to me blocks the light from the streetlight in front of the bathrooms. Score! I hang a blanket behind the front seats of the van and suddenly I’m in my own private world. The last of the sunset filters yellow through the screen windows onto my very comfy bed, and my small stack of books calls out to be read. I could be parked anywhere, really.

My phone beeps with a text from Bunny. I was en route to Dunsmuir, to meet up with her for the weekend. Stacked in the passenger seat of the van are the cardboard boxes that hold our extremely nice inflatable kayaks. The last 400ish miles of our route across Alaska will be floating the Noatak river. I know nothing about boats, while Bunny was a whitewater kayak guide. Our plan was to take the boats out on some water, so she could show me some basic things. Everything else, I’ll learn on the river.

But now my van is fucked? I don’t know.

I update Bunny on the situation and then brush my teeth, spit into my pee jug, and crawl into bed. It’s cooled down some, so I shut the windows against the rumbling of the semis. Everything will be clearer, tomorrow.

It’s one p.m. the next day when the mechanic calls- I’m sitting in the Medford chipotle with my friend Aga. The valve covers in my van are leaking oil. The serpentine belt is also in shreds. It’s a seven hour job and will cost $825. The job will be finished Monday afternoon.

It’s Friday. I try not to stress as I finish my food. I know, I know, that this is all part of having an old van. Every so often (once a year it seems, tbh) I have to do repairs on the van that cost almost as much as what the van itself is worth. I could save up to buy a newer, more expensive van, or I could keep throwing money at this one. If I drove long distances less, it would be cheaper. But cars are money pits, any way you slice it. Having a van I can live in means there are whole chunks of each year where I don’t pay rent. It’s all a trade off. It all comes out in the wash.

I text Bunny what’s up. “I’m coming to get you,” she says. She’s two hours south, in Dunsmuir. I feel overwhelmed with gratitude. Why are my friends so nice? I go with Aga to Ulta beauty- I used to live with Aga in Ashland, and I try and see her whenever I come through. Today I’m tagging along on her errands, which makes me happy. I like seeing Aga’s world. I’ve never been in Ulta beauty. The softbright lighting and racks with their endless pigments overwhelm me. It’s like an art supply store- but for your face. Everything is scented and the packaging makes the products look like candy. Aga browses for a small tube of expensive faceproduct while we wonder aloud about why things are they way they are, and other existential questions, and then she drops me back at the mechanic where I wait on a bench out front, the boxes with our kayaks stacked nearby.

chillin at the mechanic- at least there’s wifi

.

Bunny to the rescue!

Bunny’s friends are spending the weekend at a cabin in Dunsmuir. It’s a small dark house that reminds me so much of the house my grandparents had when I was in highschool. The aesthetic is very working class elderly, with mismatched decorative plates of freight trains on the wall and cabinets that have never been renovated. There’s a bedroom with a twin bed where everything is trout themed, from the pillow cases to the curtains, and it reminds me so much of a room my grandparents would keep for any grandchildren who might visit. Decorative, but in a frugal way because they’d lived through the depression- a small desk with a single lamp, sheets that’ve been washed so many times they’re nearly weightless, softer than anything you can buy in the store. Bunny’s friends arrive- they are kind queers from the bay, strippers with their makeup off wearing their best stained sweatpants, unpacking paper sacks of bacon and trailing large, happy dogs. They roll joints and talk about racing sailboats to Hawaii.

Although I haven’t met these friends before we are connected by no more than one degree of separation, which comforts me deeply. Pick any queer person on the west coast in their mid thirties to early forties, and I either know them or we know the same people, or have dated or lived with the same people at some point in the last fifteen years. I realize that I wasn’t aware it was happening, all those years- I wasn’t aware that we were all creating a great, extended family, many of whom I would continue to be connected to/cross paths with/share space with in unexpected ways for the rest of my life, until I would wake up one day and the world would no longer be a vast, lonely place but instead a small, closed loop, in which I was held lovingly, if loosely, and to which I could return again and again, always finding it changed yet familiar, and in which I would always have a place.

 

 

Kisses

.

Sassy

I fall asleep in the trout room to the sounds of the trains rumbling through- Dunsmuir is a rail town, and I used to come through here in my early twenties when I would ride freight trains south from Portland. Aside from the train, the small town is deeply quiet, and the night is very black.

The next day is hot, bright and dry and we pile into two cars with all the dogs and go to Lake Siskyou, where Bunny and I unfold our limp inflatable kayaks from their cardboard boxes for the first time and pump them up and suddenly, we have boats. One nice red boat and one nice green boat. “Carrot and Bunny’s Christmas Adventure,” we joke, as we carry our boats to the water. The children’s book version of our hike.

.

GREENBELLY BARS R GOOD, EAT THEM

.

The others are laying in the sun in neon beachwear, drinking lacroix and throwing the ball into the water for the dogs, who have an enviable amount of inexhaustible energy, to fetch again and again and again.

.

Bunny teaches me how to paddle, how to get in and out of my boat, how to right my boat once it’s been flipped, and other extremely basic things. The Noatak river is a very chill river, and that reassures me greatly. It seems like a good river on which to develop some foundational skills. We list off the gear we still need for the river, as we float in the lake- cam straps, some sort of fleece outfit, steel bear cans from Gates of the Arctic, twenty days of food. We have our drysuits already. I understand none of it- not how to layer our clothes on the water, nor how much we’ll be able to carry, nor how cold the water will be, nor how I’ll feel after paddling all day every day. Bunny has done the research and has the experience and is holding all of that knowledge, and it feels good, to be the noob in this situation. I have so many strong opinions when it comes to long distance hiking- on gear, pace, campsite selection, route finding, everything. As far as boats go, though, I’m a blank slate. It feels good to just let someone else tell me what to do. It’s relaxing. From the lake we can see Mt Shasta, glowing white against the clean blue sky. The lake is cool, and I throw myself off of the boat, into the water.

.

By and by we hand the boats off to our friends to paddle around in and make chicken sandwiches in the shade. This is a good life, I think, as I watch the dogs dive into the water after the ball, again.

.

.

Sunday we drive back north to Ashland and arrive at Sam and Holly’s house just in time to roast a chicken for dinner. Sam and Holly rent an old farmhouse that was likely once on a lot of land but is now surrounded by townhouses and a hospital. The house has lofty ceilings and old fixtures and they’ve filled it with dusky pink antique furniture and the evening sunlight filters through the wild overgrown yard and in the tall windows where it puddles on the rug and a gentle white cloud of a dog lays on the rug, napping.

Sam.

.

Sam is a herbalist and she has a room full of brown glass bottles with handwritten labels and Holly works in a greenhouse in the Applegate valley. The queer community in Southern Oregon is small and dispersed over a discouragingly large area and when I lived here I felt isolated and sad, but sometimes I visit and see my queer friends here living their peaceful country lives and I tell myself that maybe the dream is possible, maybe someday queers and other marginalized communities won’t be stuck in cities because that’s the only place they can concentrate at high enough numbers to feel safe and seen, maybe we can take back rural America and make it our own, even though rural America is less accessible as well as devoid of industry and western economies become more urban every year. I think of the lesbian separatist movement in the seventies and the land projects in southern Oregon left over from that. Dank forested acres that started out so full of hopes and dreams, women who built cabins and hauled water and planted gardens, trying to make a world in which they could be free. Eventually the dream fell apart and one couple would stay to hold it down in the cold fog of a mountaintop with a small marijuana grow and now those aging residents, many (but not all!) of whom are trans exclusionary, want nothing more than to pass on the dream to the younger generation of queers but it just doesn’t fit, the ideology has changed and besides no one wants to be isolated like that, and maybe they never did.

The dream never stops being beautiful, though. Maybe, someday. Maybe.

.

.

.

.

People drink wine and Sam plugs in the projector and then I’m opening the KML file of our Alaska route in google earth and it’s being projected on the living room wall and Bunny and I are arguing about bears. I move the cursor and drag the route across the screen mile by mile and it’s like goddam lord of the rings, the mountains in such stark relief with their snowy tops and the drainages with their labyrinthine river braids and there’s us, that red line way down there, just making our way. I tell you what, now that I’ve made a one thousand route myself (with various post-production tips and corrections from Skurka and Buck) I will never ever take for granted the work that goes into one. I just didn’t know, you know? Hiking other peoples’ routes, using the maps they’d made, following the line they’d drawn. I had no idea how many hours went into the making of the routes I was walking, or how fun and satisfying routes were to make. There also aren’t that many women who make routes, and I think that’s a shame. It’s not hard! Just go to caltopo.com and start messing around. It’s fun! If you can hike a route, then you can make one. It’s not as intimidating as it seems.

I pick my van up from the Mechanic the next afternoon. I’m eight hundred dollars poorer and it runs rougher now, it has a knock it didn’t before, but so it goes. I say goodbye to Bunny until next we’re able to meet and start driving north. I’m excited to get back to Portland and my dogs and the cute person I’m dating. I just want to crawl into a pile of them. Going to Alaska seems kind of dumb, when I really think about it. Why go walk across the arctic when there are dogs and a nice person to whomst I have grown attached? But then, why do anything? I don’t have the answer to that, actually.

Bunny and I fly to Alaska on June 10, and we start our route on June 14. I feel terrified, but also am certain that once we’re on the ground, things will be really chill. It’s just all the hoohaa leading up to the trip that has me stress-sweating and waking up too early, wondering how it’s all going to fall into place. Once I’m walking across the tundra, though, with nothing to worry about but the next river we have to ford and the next pass we have to cross, then I’ll finally be able to relax.

We’ve raised $4,000 for Defend the Sacred AK!!! This is amazing. The money we raise for Defend the Sacred AK helps center the voices of native Alaskans in a situation that affects them much more than me, a white outdoorsperson, and also provides them with resources to do the thankless work they’ve already been doing for, let’s be real, thousands of years. Thanks to everyone who’s contributed, and if you haven’t already donated, you can find the fundraiser here-

Alaska Traverse for Defend the Sacred AK

You can also subscribe to this blog, if you want to get an email notification every time I post. Just scroll to the bottom of this page and enter your info in the box.