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When life hands you lemons… take them on the road

Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report
El Capitan and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park in California.
Fertile Ground Compost Service
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This is Part I of IV of Red Dirt Report's Heide Brandes' travels to and from California in September.

A cross-country trip to retrieve a car yields worries, answers that only travel brings

OKLAHOMA CITY – My friend and I were in California to steal a car.

OK, maybe “steal” is too harsh of a word. We were repossessing a car, a purple little Honda Fit that was an expensive reminder to me and should be for anyone reading this to never, ever, in your whole life, co-sign on anything for anyone.

The car was abandoned for five months in a storage yard in a small, funky little mountain town called Willets, two hours north of San Francisco. Also abandoned were the payments, and my best friend and I were on this car-nabbing adventure in an effort to take the car and rebuild my credit, which had been butchered by someone who lost herself in a cloud of vodka, disappointment and bad luck.

The plan was drive across America back to Oklahoma, visiting all the beautiful and legendary places in between. Yosemite, bleak and menacing Death Valley and that big ol’ ditch called the Grand Canyon were on the list, and armed with a two-person tent and trusty hiking boots; we were going to explore them all in this “stolen” car.

But first, we had to clean out the rat’s nest in the back seat. 

As far as rat’s nests goes, this one was strangely beautiful. Created out of white paper and napkins, it bloomed like a rose, all rippled designs, perfect geometry and decorated with polka-dots of rodent poop.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” I said.

Thus began our adventure into the American west.

‘In God's wildness lies the hope of the world’ –John Muir

Heather and I boarded a plane at 6:30 a.m. in Oklahoma City, and by time we hit our layover, we were giggly off of morning Bloody Marys and that woozy anticipation that comes with taking a trip, even one to repossess at car.

Another plane ride and a nap later, we traveled from San Francisco two hours north to Willets, bantered with the storage yard operator Eric who was certainly tired of hearing from me at this point, and jumped the dead battery in the Honda Fit, which is now named Birdy.

Birdy was in rough shape. She wore a layer of dirt and dust like a poncho, smelled of leftover cigarettes and fossilized fast food left in crumpled paper sacks, and her battery had long since died a slow, lonely death.

A new battery, a fresh oil change, two new tires and $500 later, Heather and I found ourselves scrubbing poor Birdy inside and out, desperately trying to help her regain both her dignity and a pleasant smell, sans rat’s nest.

Having a pleasant car to live in for days on end is an important requirement for long road trips. Working air conditioning in places like Death Valley becomes a matter of life and death, and worrying if you will get a rash from the filthy seats is not fun under any circumstance.

However, Birdy turned out to be a swan after all, as we discovered as we pushed her new-found energy up the soaring roads of the west side of Yosemite National Park.

El Capitan.

Yosemite National Park is one of my favorite places in the world, and I’ve been to astonishingly beautiful places all over the world. For tens of thousands of years, humans have been affected by this place we now call Yosemite – from the Ahwahneechee Indians who lived here for generations to the Europeans in the mid-1800s to today’s tourist.

Today, about 4 million people enter the park’s gates to explore Yosemite. With gray granite cathedrals and lush valley greenery, this part of the Sierra Nevadas was carved from glaciers millions of years ago to create such beauty that famous Yosemite conservationist John Muir said “In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world.”

Honestly, I needed hope. My finances and credit rating were tattered by this financial mistake, this disappointment of co-signing. Each time I pulled out my debit or credit card, I saw the staggering amount of cash I’d spent to retrieve Birdy grow, so even in God’s wildness, money woes lurked like the bears they warn you so vehemently about.

To help cut down on costs, my friend and I decided to camp in a tent on our way back across America. While bad luck sent us on our way to California with a cheery wave, good luck hitched a ride with us on the road.

Heather and I scored the last available campsite everywhere we went, not once, not twice, but three times. The first was the Crane Flat campground north of Yosemite Valley, where the early morning sun cut ribbons of golden light through the pines.

The second was the “first-come, first-serve” group campsite on the valley floor, where Heather and I got the last two tickets. You must be in line to get the tickets. If someone walks up before you, they get the ticket and you’re out of luck.

At one point, I made a desperate call to Heather, who was doing her morning toiletries in the car, to tell her to “RUN, RUN, RUN! YOU HAVE TO PHYSICALLY BE IN LINE! HURRY, THERE IS ONE SPOT LEFT AND PEOPLE ARE COMING.”

Hair up, hands gooey with face lotion, she dashed like an Olympic runner to the line, cheered on by the 95 people ahead of us, all of them screaming, “Run, girl, run!”

But in Yosemite’s wildness, answers can be found in the vanilla-scented bark of Jeffrey Pines, in the spotted little ground squirrels that dart about and on top of rock castles so high, you feel you are at the pinnacle of the world.

We hiked to Sentinel Dome, that jutting round rock that gifts astonishing views of Yosemite, waterfalls, El Capitan and Half Dome to those brave enough to scramble up her face. We hiked to Taft’s Point, a queasy promontory that leans out over a cliff so high that even vertigo gets dizzy.

We hiked down to the Tuolumne Sequoia Grove along Tioga Pass, prayed to those ancient giants that were young when Rome ruled and the Great Wall of China was still being built. Tuolumne Grove trail’s entire trip to the grove is downhill, and the grove itself contains a couple dozen mature Giant Sequoias, including one you can walk through.

Our muscles and asses screamed during the straight vertical hike back to the car.

We soaked our battered toes in the ancient Merced River. We drank wine under night skies filled with so many stars that your eyes sing out to them. We hiked the equivalent of two trips up the Devon Tower. We ate turkey chili out of a pot with two spoons, shared homemade wine with Burning Man refugees, and we slept in a tiny tent, our food and toiletries locked safely away in a bear box.

In that wildness of Yosemite, you and your problems seem so very small. As our hiking shoes kicked up dust along the challenging trails, a plan for Birdy and my finances started to form. Solutions on how to recover began to unveil, shy at first like the deer in the groves, and then boldly, like the trail-mix-stealing squirrels.

In God’s wildness, in Yosemite, hope comes with each step. Hope is the view at the top of the world. Hope is the night sky above the Sierra Nevadas.

Photos by Red Dirt Report's Heide Brandes.

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About the Author

Heide Brandes

Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 18 years of experience....

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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