Saturday, May 3, 2008

Kindred Encounter

a pretty flattering shot of Panamint Springs Resort Last night when I arrived at the Panamint Springs Resort in Death Valley, which isn't a "resort" at all, I was kind of ready to jump off the ledge. I'd been in a race against time, to get to my motel before sundown and before they stopped serving dinner. I was all alone, with no cell or Blackberry service, and a little stressed out from all the driving. By the time I got here and checked into my room, it was peak dinner hour and I had a hard time finding a seat for myself on the restaurant's outdoor terrace. Typical cafeteria moment, except not appropriate to ask someone if I could join them. And too many big tables for me to justify taking up one all alone.

So I ended up being relegated to the back of the terrace on the side of the building, by the parking lot, in the dark. At a four person table. When the waitress went to give me a place-setting, she said, "Just one?" and I'd just about had it.

Lucky for me, a guest who'd been sitting at a small table alone, with whom I'd shared a mutual nod when I walked by, vacated his seat and took off on his bike. I quickly relocated to his table and nestled into the corner of the terrace, followed immediately by a black cat who took the other seat and proceeded to clean himself. It was nice to have the company, even though he wasn't paying attention to me and didn't care to be pet (typical male).

As I was drinking my soda, I noticed a party-of-three squished at a table-for-two giving me the evil eye for hogging such a huge table just for myself. They wouldn't stop staring at me, and while normally I would offer them my seat, I just found the whole situation so rude that I mentally gave them the finger and stayed in my seat. I'd earned it. They could sit at that dark table in the back.

My guilt got the better of me when I saw the older gentleman return and eye his former table, so I blurted out, "I stole your seat..." as he walked by. He smiled leisurely and said, "That's ok, I'll come join you."

For the rest of my dinner, the black cat was replaced by Ike, a German self-described "traveller" who bikes his way around the country, setting up camp wherever he can hang his hammock.

Ike Ike's real name is Horst but stupid Americans need a more accessible name like "Chuck" or "Bud," so he quickly appropriated the understandable portion of his last name and became "Ike." Long since divorced and without family in the U.S., Ike makes ends meet in Santa Barbara as a roof contractor, but occasionally must answer the call of the wild and go exploring on his bike, scouting locations for his side business of guided Harley group tours.

Sometimes I have a hard time meeting people because I just don't care enough to ask them extensive questions about their lives. But Ike was so comfortable and non-threatening, so cool and tough at the same time with his white pointy beard and distressed western hat, that I couldn't stop asking him about his life. What has he seen? Where does he shower? How does he fit all of his stuff on one bike? How does he avoid getting eaten by coyotes in his sleep?

I think Ike was glad to meet a kindred spirit on the road, one that wasn't looking to hire him, that just wanted to hear about his life. I like weird and unusual travel (his specialty), but I'm comparatively sheltered and have never driven a motorcycle, only ridden on the back of one from Sullivan Street to some gallery in the West Village. Ike and I joked about taking off together on his bike, the only obstacle being the "damn laws" that require me to have a helmet. Once again, I recalled never having seen a ranger, and wondered who would be there to enforce it.

After complimenting me on my feeble attempts at artistic photography on my cell phone, Ike offered to show me his camp last night - I think in a genuine expression of hospitality, given my keen interest in his life. But it gets too pitch black out here at night, and I didn't even want to cross the street, much less be in a campground with a stranger. Luckily there were no hard feelings, so after I saw Ike again this morning and shared breakfast with him, I was happy to join him in his camp and investigate the life of a bona fide nomad.

While swinging in his hammock, which was tied between two gnarled trees, I asked Ike if he was ever afraid of someone stealing his stuff. He said, "No, but sometimes the wind steals it!" and we both had a laugh, me suggesting maybe the coyotes carted his goods off instead of the wind blowing away.

I was sad to say goodbye to Ike this morning after he cheered me up so effortlessly. But I promised to sign his online guest book and to take him up on his offer to ride the next time I'm on the West Coast - as long as I bring my own helmet.