Highway Hiking with Michael Hebb

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Tequila shots, Pacificos, and Ibuprofens follow in short order, and the pain eases. The eats—chiles rellenos, enchiladas, frijoles—suddenly feel like the pinnacle of fine Mexican cuisine. The conversation turns once again to this chapel, where Michael thinks we should at least take a nap. He reckons our wool blankets and liquor will keep us warm. Matt—a seasoned outdoorsman—counters, “But liquor is false warmth.” Michael brushes this off, and the group debates the merits of getting “real sleep” tonight, which I promote wholeheartedly.

Finally Michael says, “It’s literally five miles to hotel land. I got no problem with that.”

We phone in a reservation, and set out.

We soon see the “chapel”—a towering white cross set into a mound of dirt rising twenty feet off the ground. Michael clambers up the crude steps set in its side and poses for a picture, leaning against it. The flash makes the crucifix blaze in the night. I have seen these crosses from the road. I would not have slept a wink here.

Michael had assured us that this stretch—also known as California State Route 142, a scenic road whose twists and turns Wikipedia declares unfit “for trucks or large vehicles”—will be safer at this time of night, with fewer cars. But it is 9:30 P.M. on a Saturday night—the dead center of the weekend. It is also pitch black, and the shoulder of the road is often only two feet wide. So we hustle where it is slender, leaning over the railing like lithe Gumbys when vehicles rip by. It is a dreamlike walk only two miles long, but it feels epic. Michael walks ahead, waving a traffic cone covered in reflective tape at oncoming cars, and hooting.

It finally hits me. I am with a crazy man.

But there are no cabs, and—as the song goes—nowhere to run to, since the highway drops straight down to our left. When we at last arrive at a sidewalk, we clamber onto it as though out of quicksand. We pause to rest in a park, and pass around the bunch of herbs from Kathleen’s garden to inhale deeply. My tender feet are now all I can think about. We have come 21 miles today.

The next morning, we wake up in a hotel suite with stiff legs all around. At the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet, we discuss the menu for The Feast, and I propose ceviche—our abundance of citrus juice will help minimize cooking. Michael agrees. As we continue down the road, making our way into a new suburbia named Brea, he spies a tree whose foliage dangles over the wall, and fills his shirt full of bright kumquats.

A solitary oil drill dips its head into the ground as we enter Anaheim, only five miles from our destination. Matt and Michael walk ahead; a homeless man approaches Ashwin and me. His eyes are red, and he totes three sleeping bags lashed together. “You guys homeless?” he asks.

I swallow hard. “No, we’re just going to the highway to have dinner.” For the first time, the conceit of the project circles me like a vulture, and I feel enormously guilty. For whom are we making this landscape meaningful?

Anaheim is stuffed to the gills with ethnic markets and chain shops. We buy chorizo from a Filipino market and chocolate dipped-cones from a Dairy Queen. We procure shrimp, sea salt, olive oil, and a few other staples at Albertson’s. (This apparently counts as foraging.) Michael leans on the wall outside with bloodshot eyes. He is the picture of exhaustion.

And then we spy it at last, just beyond the Angels stadium: The I-5. Cars mass in a smoky, gasping line. The men dart ahead, and Michael howls with glee.

While he assembles the table, I sit on a stool to slice shrimp and chorizo. The traffic passes quietly on three sides. Our tri-cornered island is big, bigger than my apartment, and has traffic lights on two corners to slow the cars. I feel safe. Perhaps it’s calling it an “island” that makes this so. It is enormously satisfying to slice open a Mexican squash, to taste the tart grapefruit, to gnaw on chorizo. It feels right to be cooking here.

A cop shows up within minutes. He’s afraid he’ll have to move us. Michael handles him with velvet gloves. We are with A University, he says calmly, and with all due respect, sir, he believes we have the right to assemble here, since there is a crosswalk to this traffic island.

The officer drives off, and we are not bothered for the rest of the night. Strangely enough, there was never a moment when I thought Michael would lose that battle. He may have stretched the truth like taffy, he may have almost gotten me killed last night, and his logic may be punched full of holes. But here I am, making dinner on a traffic island—a woman who has to have her back to the wall in restaurants in order to relax—and there’s no place I’d rather be.

Our menu is Chardonnay-and-citrus sangria; shrimp ceviche with Meyer lemon juice, orange juice, segmented grapefruit, mint, and Serrano chiles; escarole hearts with goat cheese and kumquats; white beans with dandelion greens, sage, and rosemary; and a sauté of chorizo, Mexican squash, and fire-roasted tomatoes. As we squeeze lemons into the ceviche, I recount the interaction with the homeless man to Michael, and ask if it bothers him. “We weren’t pretending at being homeless,” he says, lighting our tiny camping stove, “because that would be one thing—that would be disrespectful.”

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