As I crept through the dark forest that ringed the lake, my flip flop feet weary of sharp sticks and stones, I caught sight of something small and white laying amongst the pine cones. Although only captured in the corner of my eye I knew what it was, a dirty nappy, laying open, like some forest flower, paper white petals streaked dark brown with baby shit and discarded by some parent eager to just be rid of it. You find such things all the time, beside the road, beside the sea. The last I saw was on the beautiful island of Cape Clear of the West coast of Ireland, dumped beside the ancient walls of a harbour hand build by locals hoping to save their community from famine. My reaction is always extreme and illogical, the word ‘scum’ flashing into my brain, followed by visions of summary execution. I imagine the offender, quivering, full of excuses, being dragged up to the gallows. “It was only a nappy” they’d say, tell you they didn’t have anything to carry it home in, that it would stink out their car, spoil their beautiful day at the lake. As the noose would be passed over their head and cinched tight, their final words would no doubt be “I thought someone else would pick it up”. Such things make me question just what we are, that someone could travel so far to be in paradise, then happily leave their offspring’s shit behind to rob some small paradise from those that come next.
I looked down at the nappy, felt my anger boil, thought of the be-speckled and bearded park ranger saying to camp away from trails when in the wilderness so as not to spoil someone else’s experience of that wilderness, that this small thing of absorbent paper and shit could upset my universe so.
I crept on through the woods, the sky opening up at the silent lake, the late hour calming it to glass. The sky above was not so calm, alive with smoke a fury, a column of ash pushing up into the high atmosphere, feathers of dead trees drifting down on us fifty miles away. If someone had told us a volcano had erupted near Mariposa, it would be believed, or that North Korea had nuked Merced equally known to be true. Instead, out there in the night, people were fighting a fire, with shovels and sweat and blood. They fought to save people and houses but most of all they fought to save the fabric of this wilderness, that what would come after the fires had raged would be the ashes of un-wilderness. Under this spectacle we undressed like Germans, too grubby to care, feet and hands sore, and shuffled out into the water, our day unspoiled by the fire fighters great toil far away, all thought of them eclipsed as we dived deep into the black.
A night later we drive up from Mono Lake, up the Tioga pass, into the rock fall zone, the signs warning of the danger. Anywhere else such signs would be just road furniture, ignored, like those that told you of darting deer, but not on the Tioga. Here the walls and slopes hang like Jenga blocks, the whole mountainside intent on the eradication of this manmade scar. Once, driving up here with the kids in the back, the car headlights casting around the bends, we found a block the size of a fridge blocking the way. Now I understood the need for bulldozers parked in the safe harbour of the lower lay-bys, that this area was a war zone. On that occasion I congratulated myself on my skills of observation, and just quickly drove around the block, hoping that other cars, perhaps filled with families, would be equally aware and that someone else would report it, someone else would man a digger and drive up and push it off the road, not my problem after all.
But on this night, on that same road, I came around a similar bend and found the mountain had made another assault on the road. There was a block of dark brown rock the size of a TV sitting in our way. I slowed, then checked my mirror, before indicating to move around it, leaving it for someone else to deal with. But then I stopped. That nappy came back into my mind, tugged at something. What is it inside me, inside most of us, that forms this feeling of detachment and separation, that it’s not our job, that we are free to be disconnected from everything around us beyond that which directly concerns us. Why are we programmed to think that such things as a boulder on a lonely dark road are not our business but someone else’s, that if someone hits it and dies, it’s someone else who is to blame, the road crew, the police, the engineer, the unobservant driver. And so instead of moving on I put on the hazards, get out, and begin to twist and rock and push and pull the boulder towards the edge of the road. As I was working, I imagined how stupid I must look if anyone had seen me, not heroic, but interfering, sticking my oar in where it wasn’t my job. What if all drivers started doing this, what then, people would be laid off, no rocks for them to move.
“You’ve scratched your arms,” said Vanessa when I jumped back into the car and drove on over the rock dust trail. I looked down, still panting, still feeling a bit daft, but then thought that it was fitting penance for not being that someone to pick up that nappy, and so spare someone else the job of keeping someone else’s perfect universe in order.