Its about 5:30pm in early November 2014 and there’s no sound but my breath, the wind, and my feet crunching on the snow covered ground in the Panamint Mountains. An early winter storm has left over a foot of snow across sections of the trail, making this my longest hike across snow covered terrain so far. About two hours earlier I was looking out at the majestic, snow covered Telescope Peak, the tallest mountain in Death Valley National Park. Less than a mile away from our goal, me and my ex-girlfriend decided to turn back because we already knew that we couldn’t make it back to our campsite before nightfall. Parts of the trail were dangerously steep and icy so without ice axes or crampons it seemed foolish to test our luck by attempting the summit now.
It’s always a disappointment failing to summit a mountain, but surviving to make the attempt another day is the better choice. Even amongst the breathtaking views in the wilderness I don’t feel well.
As we approach the meadow marking the halfway point on the trail I am having a hard time breathing. Each breath seems labored and initially I’m dumbfounded as to how I can be experiencing this shortness of breath. I think maybe it’s because of the altitude since we are at about 10,000 ft, but then it hits me. I’m having a panic attack.
Why am I camping with my ex-girlfriend? What happened to my friend’s flash drive with her important files I lost before leaving on this trip? How am I going to continue with my massage therapy job where I feel so unappreciated? How am I going to get out of my father’s house again? Will I ever get over the loss of my mother 2 years ago? Where am I going in life? What’s the point of all this anyways?
Once I realize what’s happening I tell my ex, Sierra, how I’m feeling extremely anxious about some of these things and I begin to calm down. Somehow, despite the uncertainty, I know it’s going to be ok.
We continue down the trail and once the sun sets the full moon becomes our guide. Along the way a jackrabbit crosses our path. My spirit guide and zodiac animal of Chinese astrology. This feels really significant to me, but I don’t know why. We descend past the dangerous icy patches successfully and I know we’ve made it past the hardest part of the hike now.
Eventually we make it back safely to our campsite, after over 12 hours on the trail together. Sierra is so exhausted she is ready to curl up and pass out inside the tent. I’m so hungry, and in our past Sierra usually prepared us meals, but not this time. She’s too exhausted. I cook some instant noodles and bring them inside the tent for us to eat.
We laugh about silly things, joyful to be alive. It feels so good to be together, which is strange since we agreed to not have sex on the trip, even though we share the same tent. There’s this awkward tension, but with our extreme fatigue it’s easy to fall asleep.
We broke up because I didn’t know how to be happy with myself, how to be happy alone. I resented Sierra for her inability to help me deal with the loss of my mother a few years ago. I wanted to learn how to be happy again and I knew only I could do this for myself. But I’ve been feeling so lonely and I needed someone to go on this trip with me. Sierra is still my best friend so naturally we planned this trip together.
In the morning we’re still so tired so we change our plans. Instead of driving west into the Eastern Sierra corridor we head back to Tecopa Hot Springs to soak in the springs once more recover from the tough hike.
We arrive at our campsite, set up the tent and pass out quickly.
In the morning I practice my tai chi exercises and go to the bathhouse for a soak. Already in the water iis a man maybe in his 50s with a shaved head and a golden 6 pointed (star of david) around his neck.
He’s alone and starts a conversation, “What are you doing out here?” He asks me.
“I’m camping with my friend. We just came back from a long 13 mile hike to telescope peak. It was amazing. The views of Death Valley below were absolutely incredible.”
“I used to go hiking a lot too when I was younger. I’ve been running around so much but I just want to settle down now. I’ve had a lot of injuries and I just want to get better. That’s why I’m here.”
“I know what you mean. I’ve had a few broken bones myself and there’s nothing better than soaking in the hot springs to soothe your aches and pains.”
Our conversation covers everything: politics, world travel, relationships, martial arts, and film-making. I rarely speak so much with a stranger in a hot tub, but somehow we really connect in this moment. But his energy is so intense and scattered. It’s like a super powered laser, but the lens to focus the light is fractured. It’s almost too much for me. As we talk about religion I tell him that I’m a Jew and recently went to Israel for the first time. We talk about Israel and he tells me how he lived there for many years.
Although I enjoy our conversation, I am finished with the hot water and and this guy’s overwhelming presence. Normally I don’t even introduce myself to random people in the hot springs because Tecopa has a way of drawing in the strangest people. Better to keep my identity secret. But somehow, I need to tell him.
“I’ve got to go now. My name is Joshua.”
“You can call me Hollywood. By the way, what’s your last name?”
“You know Joshua, I think I might be related to you.”
“Really? What makes you say that?”
“I have cousins who share your same last name. Curtis, Garrett, and Patrice.”
I’m totally shocked. I can hardly believe what I’m hearing. “Holy shit dude. Casper is my dad. That’s amazing! I’d really like to continue speaking but I have to get out of the water now.”
After getting myself dressed I see Hollywood struggle to sit down and catch his breath. He didn’t even bring water to the hot springs! I think he’s dehydrated. I give him some of mine.
He can’t put his shirt on alone and asks me to help.
Who is this guy anyways? I wonder, is he really my cousin? He says he knows my family, but it’s hard to understand everything.
I help Hollywood get back to his car ok and he pulls out a pipe to smoke a bit of weed. He offers me some but I decline as I’m trying to quit after many years of habitual use. Everything is so weird and I’m kind of afraid. I just want to walk away, but Hollywood isn’t finished yet. “I’d really enjoy speaking with you some more Joshua. Do you know the Tecopa Inn? Meet me there in 30 minutes.”
“Yeah I’ve been there before. I’ll see you soon.”
I’m reeling from this unbelievable experience and rush back to the tent to speak with Sierra.
“You’ll never believe what just happened! I just met my cousin in the hot springs. Quick, lets pack up, and come with me to the Tecopa to meet him.”
“I don’t get it Joshua. How do you know he’s your cousin?”
“I just do. He knows my dad, and Patrice, and Guru Prem.”
She agrees to the meeting and we make our way down the highway to the almost-ghost town of Shoshone. We get a table at the Tecopa Inn. Its a battered and beaten bar and restaurant restaurants in the middle of nowhere, straight out of a hollywood western movie. The only place to eat for at least 10 miles in any direction, the food is ok and the prices are high. The inside is decorated with stuffed animal heads staring down from the walls, old wooden furniture, a piano, and photographs from the 1800s. Shortly after me and Sierra sit down Hollywood shows up and immediately dives deeper into his story.
“I’ve been coming to Tecopa for many years now. It has often been a place of solitude and refuge for me, but its not like it used to be. The locals are unwelcoming and it’s overrun with all these rude Korean tourists. They make a mess and never stop talking in the baths.
“Anyways, now my main priority is just trying to take care of my three pitbulls. They’re in the cabin down the road from here. It’s been really hard to find a place to live with the dogs, but I’m not giving up yet.
“I’ve had access to wealth for most of my life and I used to think that I’d never have to worry about money, but times have changed. I’ve been on the run for over a year now after I ran into trouble here in Inyo and Mono counties.
“I never thought when I was 60 I’d have all these troubles. I’ve never been in trouble with the law like this before. I was always on the other side, helping people as a criminal defense attorney. I was one of the best damn courtroom lawyers you’ll ever meet. Eventually I got sick of it though. Having to drive all over the freeways of LA… constantly stuck in the rat race. Building a law practice you begin to collect people’s problems. Once you’ve collected a mountain of other people’s shit on your desk, you know you’ve finally built a successful law practice!
“I just couldn’t take it anymore so I closed my practice and started selling coffee. I finally found something that I loved to do. I was taking trips to Costa Rica and Hawaii and developed personal relationships with the growers themselves. I cornered the market for high end specialty coffee. Nobody was doing it like I could. My products were in the all the specialty food stores in the Western US. Even my family said I had a gold mine on my hands.
“But I couldn’t keep it together. I expanded into the low grade blend market and placed my products in the regular super markets as well. At that time disaster struck. I had a Costa Rican girlfriend and daughter, and one day I got a phone call and found out they had both been killed in a car accident.
“At that point I just let go of the business. I couldn’t do it anymore. I had accounts receivable I never collected and my brother had to write a letter to my customers stating the business had been suspended until further notice and no pending orders would be completed.
“I was really depressed for almost five years. I felt like I had been dumped out onto the slag heap of life. At 45 I felt like a failure after losing my greatest business accomplishment. I considered jumping off a building and was hanging onto the edge by my fingertips. I had second thoughts, but I was too weak to pull myself back up. At the last moment I was saved by a firefighter.
“I was taken into UCLA on 5150. I felt so hopeless I signed my life over to psychiatrists. I was on all these different crazy medications and I began a series of shock treatments.
“On the 49th treatment I died. The anaesthesia caused my heart to stop for about 15 minutes. They couldn’t continue with the treatments after that.
“Another time I was at the shooting range and I decided to play some Russian Roulette with my revolver. I spun the chamber, put the barrel to my head and pulled the trigger. Click. Nothing happened. Another spin of the chamber and with the gun pointed toward me again my hand was shaking tremendously. Eventually I just dropped the gun. I couldn’t do it.
“It was awful feeling so convinced of my own failure and hopelessness for so long.
“But one day I just got better. Magically. It was like a spark of divine intervention. Suddenly I just didn’t feel depressed anymore. I waited a couple days thinking I would get worse again, but it didn’t happen. I decided to tell my dad. Rather than being supportive and encouraging he just put me down.”
“Oh yeah? We’ll see how long that lasts!”
“Gee dad, thanks for your support. I really appreciate it.”