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Friday, July 15, 2011

Chapter Two: Independence Day

July 4 turned out to be a true celebration of independence for Fo Stage & No Stage. 
For reasons that I won't broadcast in this public format, we needed a little space and time away from the family that day. I'd been up most of the night tossing and turning in my frustration, and at 6 a.m. was wide awake, formulating my Plan for the day. 
I woke Annie at 7:00.
"Get up, we're leaving!" I told her. "We're just gonna put the backpack chairs in the car, grab some coffee and go to the river."
For Annie, this little announcement was like being shaken awake on Christmas morning and being told Santa had delivered a new bicycle. A surprise trip to the mountains! On a day that neither of us particularly felt like dragging ass around Visalia. And a holiday to boot!
Plus, being woken up and whisked away on an adventure is not such a bad way to start the day.

We threw our essentials in the rear of the Troop and headed to the hills. The morning was fresh, the day was ours, and the temperatures hadn't yet risen to the 100+ degrees that lay in store. The only problem was I didn't really know where I was taking her. I had only fleshed the plan through to the part where we found some accessible body of water, plopped the backpack chairs down alongside it, and chilled out to the max. 
Instead we spent about two hours circling Lake Kaweah and it's environs, unable to find an accessible spot for foot traffic. There were plenty of places to launch a boat, but we had no watercraft. I eventually decided to point the Trooper east once more and drive up into Sequoia National Park, where I remembered a nice easy hike down to the river. I hoped it wouldn't be too crowded.
The Road to the River
It had gotten pretty hot by the time we pulled up to the trailhead. We strapped on the backpack chairs and headed jauntily down the path, so pleased to finally have parked the car and be headed toward an aquatic destination. 
Not two minutes later, a giant rattlesnake slithered across the gravel path and into the tall grass to our left.
"Was that a RATTLESNAKE?!" Annie asked incredulously. 
"Um, yep," I said, trying to be nonchalant. "Hear that rattle sound?" 
I assumed our hike was over, but to my shock and awe, Annie was willing to continue. 
"They don't really want to bother you," I tried to reassure her anyway, "they just don't like to be startled."
We reached the raging river a few more yards down the path. I could sense the coolness rising from it, and was aching to get out of the sun and into a shady patch where we could finally relax.
Fo Stage Admires the River
Then we saw the family of four up ahead of us, Mom+Dad+two little girls, stopped in their tracks, pointing to a patch of rocks to their left.
"Rattlesnake," the dad said grimly, as they started to head back. "Think it's a little too snakey out here for us."
Annie and I exchanged a loaded look. It was one thing to carry on blithely past one rattlesnake, but two? Two in under five minutes? That would be sheer stupidity, right? 
"You have cancer and I have a bad ankles," Annie reminded me. "We're miles away from any hospital. We should probably turn back." 
Dammit. I had to concede that she was right. I was wearing Crocs, for pete's sake. A rattler could easily sink its fangs in my ankle or any other place on my leg. We'd barely gotten started, but we turned around and headed back the way we'd come. Disappointed, I scanned the river for a snake-free resting place. Right where the trail turned away from the river and back toward the road, I saw a nice big sprawling oak making lots of shade over the rocks. 
No Stage Plays on the Rocks
"Maybe we could just sit on the rocks over there for a little while?" I asked Annie, doubting she'd go for it. But again, she surprised me with her bravery. (This is a girl who used to hate the word "hike," has always preferred movies to mountains and will go into anaphylactic shock if she gets stung by a bee. Until very recently, nature has not been her thing.) And yet here she was, willing to lay around on some rocks with me on a mountainside infested with rattlesnakes.

Now. I do happen to know that rattlesnakes prefer sun to shade, and really won't strike you unless they're threatened or caught off guard. So I felt we were safe enough in the shade by the waters' edge. But it was one of those moments that makes you contemplate the nature of fear. Was it our fear that made us turn around, or common sense? This didn't seem to be the type of fear one tries to overcome. I was proud of us for being cautious and turning back, and proud a second time for being willing to stick it out and not call our adventure off completely. And so we frolicked for a nice long while by that river, happy as could be. 
"Nubbins" Wets Her Kerchief in the Water

The second half of the day took us back down the mountain out of the National Park, to a July 4 cookout at the home of our friends Barbra and Molly. It was a small gathering of people, but it couldn't have been more perfect for us. We sat outside on their deck all afternoon, sweating in the shade, listening to Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, sipping Arnold Palmers and playing with their newborn baby, Nya. That day, for several hours, I actually forgot I had cancer.

By mid-afternoon, when the heat became unbearable, we tucked Nya into her stroller and made the 10-minute trek down to the river. The little swimming hole they frequent was actually roped off that day, due to unseasonably high waters and the sad fact that drowning is all too common when the snowmelt flows. Still, we all snuck under the rope and waded out as far as we dared, then took turns dunking in the water. It was so hot that day that we sat in the ice-cold river like it was bathwater. Plunging my whole body and naked head under the water felt like a baptism. It was fantastic.
Love by the River

The end of the afternoon brought the perfect July 4 dinner—juicy grilled chicken, fresh veggies and herbed potatoes. We watched the sun go down between the hills and the sky turn pink and purple. Exhausted from our unexpectedly long and adventuresome day, we bid our friends farewell, climbed into the Trooper, and started our journey home. As we followed the twisty road around Lake Kaweah, the sky turned a dusky peach, making a gorgeous reflection in the lake.
Then, as the last remnants of sunset faded into a dark blue sky and the road before us straightened out into the Valley, all the fireworks displays around the county started going off at once. It was like God had decided to give us our own personal show. We were incredulous. Neither of us could stop grinning for the rest of the drive. And the fireworks just kept on going—the entire way home.

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