"Did that lady come here all by herself?"
I'd been waiting to hear that question all day, but it didn't come until I was driving away from Mitchell Caverns with the window down. For a second I considered stopping the car, turning my head and declaring, "I can hear you..." but instead I just kept driving.
I'd been alone, really alone, all day, but it didn't bother me until that very moment, when I felt not loneliness, but humiliation. I always feel like I'm getting called out for flying solo. People feign being impressed but I think they're really just appalled, and bewildered. Alone in a bar? Eating dinner all by yourself? Didn't you have anybody you could come with?
But this morning at 9 a.m., alone behind the steering wheel, careening down Amboy Road without another car in sight, I was happy.
I suppose going to a notorious Route 66 ghost town to hike a volcanic cinder cone by yourself isn't the greatest idea, but I wanted to do it before it got too hot, and even today at 90 degrees it was a challenge. I'm not the most prepared outdoorswoman, so I went without a hat or a compass or something to wrangle rattlesnakes with. And as I tiptoed through the igneous trail, careful not to disturb any web-covered tarantula nests, I kept talking to myself out loud to get myself over the fear of treacherous desert predators. And I kept telling myself there was no way I was going to climb to the rim of that huge thing, which you can see easily from miles down the road.
Then I got to the rim, and thought it didn't look so bad. And if I'd gone that far...
That is, til I tripped and skinned my knee. The same knee I skinned in Morocco.
When I got to the top and looked inside, I realized the Amboy Crater was a lot taller than it was deep (unlike the crater in Death Valley), shrugged my shoulders, and attempted the trip back down. Inertia sent my sneakered feet sliding down the loose dirt and sandy terrain to the point where I had to sit-and-scoot just to proceed.
The heat and fatigue were alleviated a bit by a Route 66 Root Beer from Roy's, the only standing business in Amboy, before I headed to Kelso Dunes. I was too exhausted to climb to the top, but I hiked a little bit, enough to fill my sneakers and the inside of my socks (!) with sand before returning to my car.
I drove like a bat out of hell to get to the 1:30 p.m. tour of Mitchell Caverns, something I might not have risked with a passenger on board. I still arrived late, so I snuck into the group from the back and tried to assimilate as quickly as possible while my chest was heaving and my face was shedding sunscreen (which had become a solid after mixing with sand from the dunes). I had little control over my legs while climbing up to the cavern entrance (described by the Native Americans as "the eyes of the mountain") and slipped a couple of times, prompting retirees to offer me their arms and walking sticks. I fit right in. So what's so terrible about going to a cave alone? I was in a tour group. We had a tour guide. I wasn't alone at all.
Still, the teenager who asked his mother about me as I drove off made me self-conscious, and I couldn't wait to get back to The Desert Lily where I could really be alone, rather than alone in a crowd.
But not self-conscious enough to pass up a table-for-one at Pizza Hut on my way back.