SLIPPER IN FALL
Fire and autumn strip the Old Mule Trail of its spring/summer pastels. Ambers and umbers remain, the colors of dearth, yet varied and somehow vivid. Tarweed disturbed by our hiking feet emits the pungent aroma of vinegar, and, as it is the morning before the Thanksgiving glut, my mind wanders toward vinaigrette, which leads inevitably to salad. Brussels sprouts. Sweet potato casserole. Brown-sugar-glazed carrots. A roasted turkey, fat enough for twelve. I have only just conjured the pies and desserts when, suddenly, we are upon you.
You lay there atop a fall carpet of oak leaves. You yourself are made of carpet—old, tobacco-colored, circa-1970 carpet. You've been cut with a knife to the shape of an enormous man's foot, size 14 at least. Where bulbous toes might tuck into your heinous brown shag, a portion of you has been folded back onto yourself, the fold "stitched" with black plastic zip ties. Slipper, you're a crazy shoe! You're in a weird place for a flip-flop, homemade or otherwise. You sit about three-quarters of a mile up a trail that threads through the chaparral-covered hills behind Kernville Elementary School and the James Store on the way to the abandoned Harley Mine. You hunker just at the base of a steep incline—a hardy trek to a saddle, a gap in the ridgeline overlooking Kernville and the blue expanse of Lake Isabella. What're you doing there all by yourself?
Slipper! What do you want from me? Slipper, I can't get you out of my mind! I'm drawn to you, yet you seem to want to intimidate me with a full-frontal phalanx of exclamation points!!! Maybe I'm bewitched by the sheer MacGyver-ness of your creation, requiring no more than a carpet remnant, a knife, and a zip tie. Elegant in both form and execution, if not exactly in style, you're a gem, endless facets catching the light, distracting my focus. Who would make such a shoe and for whom? Why do you lay there, in that less-than-ideal campsite? Where is your wearer and where is the slipper that fits his other foot? To hell with the glass slipper maid! I want to know the story of the carpet remnant prince.
Tell you the truth, the trail itself is a remnant, a relic of the California Gold Rush. Chinese laborers who had worked on the nearby Tehachapi Railroad built these switchbacks to haul out ore by mule and later to schlep lumber and other supplies 5,500 feet up Harley Mountain. Slipper, our friend Grant here, who's hiking with us today: Years ago, Grant found an opium pipe on this very trail. No doubt the curio belonged to one of the 100 or so Chinese who slogged this route daily. I hear that opium made their hard lives bearable. I personally prefer the comfort of bedroom slippers: the swaddling warmth of faux fur on my chilly-boned feet; scuffity-scuff down the hall, the sound a meandering refrain.
That reminds me, Slipper. Please smile for the camera. That's our friend Peggy Sue at the back of the line. We call her Supai sometimes for fun. She recently lost her husband to cancer and she's just now getting back into a social routine. As often as I tease her for shooting, like, 33 different angles of a single piece of bark and consequently hiking as slowly as dehydrated dust, I can always rely on Supai and her photos.
Look here, Slipper, I have some photos of my own. I took them with my phone. My husband Marc and I ventured recently to the trails near the lakebed with our two whatchamaterriers, Ninja and Keji. Ninja looks like a carpet remnant, too, Slipper. She's sort of a ginger version of Dorothy's Toto, if you can imagine that. Anyway, Slipper, while we were hiking with the dogs, we happened upon a pile of 50 or so mismatched flip-flops at the high-water mark. As the river and lake waters receded, bottles and driftwood and sunglass frames deposited themselves on the freshly formed beaches. Shoes, too. Hundreds of them. Yet this pile in front of us was not the shoes' natural rest stop. Someone—let's call her Shoe-piler—had curated this collection. In bringing them all together, rather than leaving them scattered and stranded, Shoe-piler had created art, both beautiful and horrible. And as with any piece of art, this heap of summer footwear incited questions. What happened to the people on whose feet these sandals belonged? Were the sandal-bearers pulled from the gushing, overflowing river by friends, only to realize they'd lost a shoe? Better to sacrifice a shoe to the frigid floodwaters than a person. It's possible, however, that one of those flip-flops belonged to one of the year's drowning victims, no doubt ill prepared for the strength of the current, wearing neither life jacket nor proper footwear. My photo series of the high-water shoe-pile: I call it "The sadness of flip-flops."
Slipper, I'm sad for you, too. Several days have passed, and I think about you in the coldest hours of morning. Even through closed window blinds, I feel the moon's waning gibbous gaze. It pokes one slender beam into my eye, as if to say, 'Y'up yet?' Before I can mumble complaint, a coyote yodels on a nearby hillside, singing out to any who would reply. It's possible you have been dragged to your wooded spot by an animal, maybe this selfsame coyote or one of the gnashing curs that live near the trail. Perhaps I read too many fairy tales, and am guilty of projecting magic and loneliness onto a shoe. I should be more concerned with the person who fit the solitary slipper. Again, I ask, where is he, this male Cinderella of the forest, and with whom might he share leftover turkey and pie? The dude's a whopper and so are his feet, or at least the foot that shambled about in you, Slipper. In the end, I prefer to think of you as a clever man's camp sandal, rather than a poor man's house scuff, wrested and abandoned. Still, I wonder if there is more here at stake than a lone, lonely shoe.
Just before the Thanksgiving Day hike that spawned this essay, my husband and I had prepared Roast Rabbit. Though I didn't mention it in the piece, I was concerned that during our hike a wild rabbit would cross our path, guilt me out, and ruin my appetite. Instead, we came across a bizarre shoe. Roast Rabbit recipe* follows:
1 3-pound rabbit (field-dressed and skinned, or, better yet, from the butcher)
Salt and fresh-ground pepper
6-7 cloves garlic, pureed
2 bay leaves
1/2 t dried oregano
1/2 t ground cumin
3/4 c white wine
1. Rub salt and pepper into both sides of the rabbit.
2. Mix garlic, herbs, and wine. Pour half of this concoction onto rabbit.
3. Marinate in fridge overnight.
4. Place rabbit in a preheated 350 degree oven for 45 minutes. Baste often, adding the remaining garlic, herb, and wine mixture as necessary to keep the bunny moist.
* Adapted from Tasting Chile—A Celebration of Authentic Chilean Foods and Wines by Daniel Joelson