My ‘92 Ford Explorer, fondly named Dora, groans over the last rocky hill before the dirt road leading up to Shady Rest Ridge flattens out. Kozi starts to whine as I shift to park, grab my backpack, and hop out into the dusty warmth of the midmorning August sunshine. Although eight years old already, Kozi trots youthfully ahead of me on the pine-needle-paved trail that leads to the lookout. I climb up behind him onto the porous volcanic boulder and sit down facing the Owens Valley below. From here, I can see the landmarks of my childhood: Crowley Lake, Smokey Bear Flats, and the stretch of sagebrush betweeen highways 395 and 203 that we call Mountain Lion Territory. Each region whispers memories, some soft and amusing, some heavy and stifling. Over the past twelve years, I’ve read countless books at this very spot, driven the same four roads until I could navigate them blindly, learned more about my classmates than I ever wanted to know, and grown comfortable with the blanket of silence that engulfs the town on days like this.
In less than three weeks, I’ll leave all of it behind. I’ll move to a city eight times the size of Mammoth and begin my undergraduate education at UC Davis. My whole life is here, and don’t intend to return to it.
Five years later, I’ve moved back home. Well, technically, I moved next door to home. And it’s temporary, I promise. I’m here with my boyfriend of one year, a completely different degree than I intended, and plans to move to Buenos Aires in September.
Leaving as a teenager and returning as an adult has diminished every aspect of this place: the grocery store, the hiking trails, the interpersonal battles. I’m somehow unable to attach names to the familiar faces that welcome me home, and subtle family intricacies that make up the web of the town are suddenly confusing. In other words, I’m a tourist.