It was April and flat sheets of clouds pocked the sky as the couple drove north on Highway 395. The dogs were asleep in the backseat and the couple had grown tired of podcasts. The plan was to camp wherever the wind led them. Only, the weekend forecast was snow all over California. The Tioga Pass through Yosemite was closed, as was Sequoia and most of Mammoth. They thought of cutting east, hitting Death Valley and then maybe Joshua Tree. But they didn’t want to be somewhere expansive and wide open. T hey wanted to be tucked away beneath the pines. Somewhere cold. Somewhere canopied. Somewhere solitary.
Even though both had spent time camping in their childhoods, their trunk was filled with new equipment. At Sport Chalet, she jokingly chucked a yellow survival whistle into the basket. The whistle was in the duffle bag now, along with the expensive wine, good pot, and gourmet food for days.
She rested her feet on the dashboard with ankles crossed. She had on her favorite pair of shoes, beige Clarks, which she only wore when she was walking somewhere interesting. The shoes had been with her for years before she met him, yet she was pleased to be wearing them right then. She followed her own strange rituals and he was the first man who seemed to like her for it.
She felt happy and took a picture of her shoes against the sky and posted it to Instagram. If that were the last picture she ever took, she’d be proud of that.
They were in the beginning stages of their relationship, still discovering things about each other. A few days before they left, she wrote in her journal, “ We are going through the ‘so this is how you are’ phase of our relationship. He’s teaching me about himself. He can be a stubborn ass sometimes—but not overall.”
This was in response to his little comment about her debt.
“You say you’re dealing with it,” he said, “but then you go to Sugarfish with Lindsay every other week.”
“My friends matter to me,” she shot back. “Your parents paid for your grad school and this condo, so who are you to talk?”
Oh, money: that nasty little form of kindling to a relationship.
He was a film director and she was learning that he liked things his way. When she made the coffee, he told her how to make it better. The beans were better when ground less coarse , he explained. The next few days, she bought her coffee out to piss him off and made sure it was good coffee—the expensive kind.
She had moved into his place but decided to keep a storage unit full of her old, shitty furniture in case things didn’t work out. She often thought of that Kundera quote from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting :
Every love relationship rests on an unwritten agreement unthinkingly concluded by the lovers in the first weeks of their love. They are still in a kind of dream but at the same time, without knowing it, are drawing up, like uncompromising lawyers, the detailed clauses of their contract. O lovers! Be careful in those dangerous first days! Once you've brought breakfast in bed you’ll have to bring it forever, unless you want to be accused of lovelessness and betrayal.
But mostly, aside from the little things, their unwritten agreement was harmonious, so harmonious that they were able to pass long stretches of countryside listening to Johnny Cash and Paul Simon in total peace — in a kind of dream. It was just the two of them in that car and nothing felt better than that.
The drive became increasingly more beautiful as they hit the jagged glaciers of the Sierras to the west and the smooth sand-sloped Alabama Hills to the east. It looked like two disparate landscape paintings shoved side by side. Kind of like him and her. They passed through Lone Pine, famed Hollywood ghost town, and decided to stop at a general store with a bait for sale sign in the window, because that seemed like the sort of place where people would know the secluded spots to camp.
They left the pups in the car. As they walked in a bell tied to the door jingled in a friendly, old-timey way. They picked out a bag of tortilla chips and queso, hoping their purchase would lead to better campground knowledge. Red and white bobbers and neon lures hung on a decorative display beside the register. It smelled like popcorn. They explained to the old man at the cash register that they were seeking woods but weren’t prepared for heavy snow.
He told them he knew just the place. “Take a left on Glacier Lodge Road about a mile up and head straight up the mountain,” he said. “But be careful, you two. It’s going to be cold tonight.”
Up, up, up they drove for more than an hour. A sign on the side of the curving road read, big pine creek, elevation 8,000 feet . She could see the rolling desert hills getting further and further away, like a mirage.
They got in a little argument that turned big because she almost spilled the jar of queso and was being crude, resting it like that on the dashboard with no lid.
“I don’t want it spilling all over my car,” he said.
“Who gives a shit if it does spill,” she said in a mocking way.
Somehow the queso on the dashboard became a metaphor for how each behaved in life. When he ignored her response, she said to herself, “Oh fuck, so this is how it’s going to be all weekend.”
They got to the end of the road.
The campground was at the base of a narrow canyon surrounded by steep mountains. They let the dogs out and took a look around. Huge Jeffrey and bristlecone pine trees shrouded the canyon, providing the canopied effect they wanted. The creek water trickled lazily into a pond that reflected the tips of the cragged glaciers. It was the perfect mix of warm sun and cold air. And it was deserted. They were in heaven.
She wished she had a guidebook to identify the glaciers. She pulled out her phone to figure out exactly where they were and realized they had no cell phone service. That was to be expected, but it worried her a little. Being totally cut off was a sensation that felt unfamiliar.
“We’ll be fine,” he said. “Look at this place.”
“No one knows where we are,” she said. The dogs chased each other toward the creek, as if they were in a cartoon. Both were rescues and had likely never been outside a city before. This kind of unchecked freedom was new to all of them.
“Let’s find the ranger,” she said. “I bet that’s his camper up there.” She pointed toward the next plateau.
They got back in their car and drove up, and came upon a man in a green jacket doing some landscape work. He was picking up pinecones with a clawed contraption resembling a golf club and dropping them in a wheelbarrow. He wore a black beanie pulled down low. He looked like he was contemplating a lengthy memory and didn’t want to be bothered.
They rolled down their window.
“Hi there,” the boyfriend said in his usual cheerful manner. “Looks like we got the whole place to ourselves!” She smiled but kept quiet.
“It’s opening weekend,” the man explained. He spoke in an informational, passive way. “Because of the snowstorm, though, it’ll be empty. You’re better off picking a spot that gets sun. It’ll be snowing by tonight. Spot 34 over there is good,” he said, “as is 22.”
They asked him where to pay and he pointed to the head ranger’s RV, though he said he wasn’t sure if he would be around. The man went back to picking up pinecones one at a time, very slowly.
There was no one in the ranger’s RV so they paid as the sign instructed, dropping a $20 bill in an envelope into a wooden box beside the RV.
They decided not to listen to the man and chose a site that wasn’t really a campsite at all. It was, they found out later, the remains of a log cabin that had been taken out by an avalanche. Only the stone foundation and fireplace remained. She pictured them sitting in their chairs in front of a roaring fire with steak and wine warm in their bellies. They would sing Elton John ballads to each other and play cards. They would have sweaty sleeping bag sex all night long. He would tell her stories about his childhood and how hard things were for him growing up and then she would share those things, too. Because that was what she pictured as love between humans: a continual exposure of the dark parts.
They played Bob Dylan and drank cold beer as they set up camp. It was growing colder and the girl’s nose was freezing but her chest was warm beneath her sweater. She pulled her boyfriend into the tent, and just as they splayed out their sleeping bag, the man from earlier came by to see how things were.
“I see you picked a good spot,” he said, then explaining about the avalanche. “That’s my place, just there.” He pointed to a cabin with the windows boarded up. She had thought it was some kind of storage cabin owned by the state when they drove by earlier. It looked uninhabited with the windows shut up like that.
Both dogs growled at the man but he didn’t flinch.
“If it starts to get cold, feel free to take some of my pinecones,” he said. “I have hundreds of them.”
“Pinecones?” the girl said.
“You can burn them. They’re great free fuel in these cold temperatures.”
They thanked him and when he was out of sight, she told her boyfriend she never heard of burning pinecones before.
“Of course we pick the site right next door to the ranger,” he said. Hopefully he’d be cool with the pot.
As the temperature dropped, the fire grew. They realized the man had been right and they hadn’t brought enough firewood.
“I’m going to go borrow some pinecones,” the boyfriend said.
“I’m coming with you,” she said, already a little tipsy.
They walked to the cabin expecting to find the man but he wasn’t around. She remembered seeing a white, unmarked van on the driveway but now it was gone.
“He probably ran to town to grab something,” the boyfriend said.
All around his property were small piles of pinecones. There must have been a hundred little piles neatly arranged, like land mines. As though he was preparing for something. But what? She started to wonder what kind of a person would live here all alone. And why he spent his days compulsively collecting pinecones. The boyfriend took the wheelbarrow and rolled it back to their site.
“That’s too many,” she said.
“It’s fine,” he said, dumping the entire barrel of cones next to the fire. “So he’s the type to take a whole wheelbarrow of pinecones,” she thought. She could sense another fight coming on, but let it go.
The pinecones burned rapidly, with high heat. They nicknamed the man Pinecone as they got high and tipsy at 8,000 feet.
“He’s probably a little slow,” she said.
“Or deranged,” he said, and chucked a few more pinecones into the blue flame.
The pups slept wrapped in blankets on top of the picnic table near the fireplace as the couple cooked burgers and drank red wine. They tried to picture the pioneers who once lived in this cabin and wondered if they were in it when the avalanche struck. They made up stories and kissed and drank more wine. Every time they looked to the night sky, shooting stars exploded in every direction. They were kings, until the dogs startled and bolted from their blankets.
“You guys keeping warm?” the pinecone man asked from behind their chairs. He had walked inside their camp without announcing himself. The dogs lunged at his ankle and nip-bit him, but again he didn’t flinch. He just smiled and kept talking.
“Can I get you a glass of wine?” she said.
“Sure, I love wine.”
Maybe he had more news about the snow. Yet he just stood there with no apparent purpose and said nothing. Suddenly his ranger-ness was gone.
He joined them around the fire. As he spoke, they began to realize the things he told them weren’t adding up exactly—he wasn’t a park ranger at all; he inherited that cabin from a friend, or something; he’d been up here alone for weeks, or was it months, years?
Pinecone eventually asked the couple, “So what do guys do?”
“I’m a filmmaker,” the boyfriend said and did not elaborate. He was good at ending conversations in one blow and had it been him up here alone, he probably would have asked the man to leave. But she complicated things for him.
“I’m a journalist so I ask a lot of questions, sorry,” she explained to the pinecone man. She ignored her boyfriend’s look and drew the man in further.
Some facts, like his name, remained unreachable. He was an ex-Marine, had fought in wars, the Gulf War, was it? He believed in forms of justice where criminals were presumed guilty until innocent. He believed in eye for an eye.
The couple listened and agreed with every insane thing he said, because he wasn’t leaving—no, not at all. He drank more of their wine and told them stories about the time his platoon was dropped in the Sierras to practice for war. They were dropped by helicopter onto the freezing glaciers and had to run around chasing each other, mock-killing in a mock-war. Then he said something about becoming disenchanted. Was it AWOL? They would never know. All they knew was that at 8,000 feet with no cell phone service and a snowstorm looming, politeness was all they had to protect themselves.
“Want to come check out my place?” he asked out of the blue. He stared at them and his eyes looked desperately lonely and intense. Before they could use their dogs as an excuse, he added, “You can bring the dogs.”
“Sure,” she said. “We’d love to.”
They dutifully followed him with their dogs guiding the way. There was nothing they could do but try to act normal. They were just checking out their old pal Pinecone’s place, the one with the boarded up windows.
His cabin had no electricity and was lit entirely by gas lanterns and Gothic-looking candlesticks. The wood-beamed walls were pleasant enough, in a Little House on the Prairie kind of way, but the boarded-up windows made it feel claustrophobic. The couple listened as he described every detail of his cabin, every painting, every shitty little old throw blanket. It felt as though they were on a tour in a museum. The girlfriend picked up a framed photo of a dog and the pinecone man explained that his dog had died earlier that year and how he much it upset him. Maybe he was just a normal guy seeking solace in the woods after losing his dog? Maybe that was it?
He asked them if they wanted to step into the back to see the half-cabin, a kind of guest house to his home. “Let’s go this way,” he said, not as a question.
The boyfriend turned on his flashlight to see what was in front of them, as though, whatever it was, he could somehow save them from it.
The pinecone man guided them into the small shed and lit a candle. The way he would methodically light a candle every next room they entered was something the couple would never forget. When the space was lit, they could see that it looked like a little girl’s room. It was pristine. A small daybed was perfectly made with a white lace overthrow and pink pillows perfectly arranged. A child’s teddy bear. There was floral wallpaper and the pride of the room, according to the pinecone man, were the windows. He’d filled the space between the two panes of glass with dirt and pressed flowers to create a permanent darkness in the room. The flowers had been buried alive.
“You can stay in this cabin tonight if you get too cold,” the pinecone man said, as if he was a host of a bed and breakfast.
“I think we’ll be okay,” the boyfriend said and then said something else to get them out of that room. But what? Neither later could remember.
Yet the pinecone man wasn’t ready to say goodnight yet. “Why don’t we go stand around my fire?” he said.
Out back, he started loading shovels of pinecones from one of his piles into an empty barbeque grill, creating an enormous flame.
More information began to spill out of the pinecone man. The girl felt sorry for him—if he wasn’t a creep, he certainly came off as one. That couldn’t be easy. She began asking him more personal questions.
The girl’s technique, she later argued to her boyfriend, was to disarm the man by being kind and empathetic. Her boyfriend, she knew, thought she again was being reckless, yet couldn’t stop her in the moment. She got out of the pinecone man that his mother was a whore and that he was writing a book about her.
“I’d be happy to read it when you’re finished,” she said.
The boyfriend eyed her in silence.
The pinecone man put his shovel down and slugged vodka from a bottle. The couple had declined a sip.
“My fiancé was murdered earlier this year,” he said.
“By whom?” she asked.
Her boyfriend pulled on the slack of the dog’s leashes bringing them closer to him.
“They don’t know yet,” he said, taking another swig. “But I think it was her ex-husband, that piece of shit.”
The girlfriend moved toward the pinecone man and hugged him, long and hard. She was terrified, though she would never let him know. She thought she was probably hugging a murderer, and that there was no fiancé, and what about that poor dog? But she didn’t let go until she could convince herself that he was not to hurt them. That the code of humanity must be honored and that they must be left unharmed.
Perhaps it worked. Or perhaps there was no real danger at all. Perhaps he was just a lonely ex-Marine looking for some solitude in the woods.
“Why did you do that?” was all the boyfriend asked in a whisper when they got back to their tent. The girl lay awake as the wind ripped through the top of their tent, smacking the rain flap up and down all night long. It howled. It howled so loud it sounded fake. She finally woke her boyfriend up, who hadn’t really been asleep, either.
“Did you hear that?” she said. “I heard footsteps.” She was convinced Pinecone was standing outside their tent, watching them sleep.
“It was just the wind,” he told her, and hugged her hard, the way she had Pinecone.
When dawn broke, he turned to her and said, “We survived.”
They opened their tent flap and down poured beautiful white snowflakes in buckets. But she couldn’t enjoy the beauty of the moment because she kept thinking about how snow gave them a good excuse to leave.
Within twenty minutes the car was packed up and the girlfriend peeked over at the pinecone man’s cabin but didn’t see him. As they were about to drive away, he appeared along the side of his house with a bushel of pinecones in his arms, which he dumped into the same barbeque from the night before.
“We should say goodbye,” the girlfriend said.
“I don’t know but it just feels right.”
They walked over and pleasantly thanked the pinecone man for his hospitality and explained that they were heading home. He smiled like he understood all too well, and said, “Have a nice life.”
The way he said it— have a nice life —as if he was giving them that gift and wanted them to know it.
The couple drove down, down, down past the other barren campsites, the convenience store, then got back onto 395. They talked very little. The snow eventually subsided as they began to cross back through the mountains. She could see a shimmer of something casting off the smooth sandy slopes—now further and further away—what was it? She would never know.