Bent over in the road, searching in the dirt, I turn around to see a mountain biker coming up the steep hill. I pick up the enormous pine cone next to me and move to the side of the road, out of his way.
"Hi!" I say, I feel self conscious.
"Hi," he says, stopping his bike a few feet from me.
"Uh, way to go," I say, motioning at his bike. It's a steep hill in a park of steep hills and we are miles and miles from the nearest trail head. I'm pretty sure I would barf if I was trying to ride a bike out here.
"Thanks," he says, "what are you doing?"
I'm alone in Henry W. Coe State Park, the second largest state park in California. My pack is sitting neatly on the side of the road, under the gray pine. I have salt crusted around the edges of my nostrils from hiking in sweaty weather and blowing snot rockets. I'm wearing a skirt and hiking boots. I don't know how long he got to watch me before I noticed him. It's an obvious question.
"Collecting pine nuts," I say, relieved at the chance to explain myself, "theycomeoutofthegraypineconeslikethisonehere, want one?" I offer him a precious seed. For 20 or 30 minutes, I've been tossing the pine cones around to make the pine nuts jump out, and then happily squatting to collect them from the ground. My skirt reaches below my knees, but when I squat like I've been squatting, my knees come up to my chin. It doesn't count as showing your underwear if there's no one around to see. But obviously now I'm not alone. I wonder if he saw my panties.
Pine nuts from the gray pine are enormous (for a pine nut) with beautiful thick black and tan shells. They taste deliciously roasty, better than any store bought pine nuts I've had. I crack them open between rocks when I eat them and tell him so. He tries to crack it with his teeth. I wince, sure he'll break a tooth. He remembers he has pliers. I go back to picking pine nuts out of the road. These particular pine cones have lots of pine nuts in them, and I'm excited by the bounty.
"You come here often?" he asks.
I tell him I come a few times per year, that I work in outdoor education, that I have two groups of students out here and I carried a re-supply in to one of them yesterday, that I'm on my way to check on the other group, but I've been delayed by the pine nuts.
"So they come out for the weekend or something?" he asks.
I tell him they're out for 10 days, that today is day 8, that they carry a week's worth of food, that I carried more food in for them. I tell him there are instructors with the students and I come out to bring the groups food, but also to support the instructors with behavioral issues.
He squints at the sun. Or maybe he squints at me. I'm 5'3". I'm wearing a skirt. He's much taller.
We chit chat about the avoided park closure. Henry Coe was on the list of California State Parks due to close because of budget cuts. One of the park volunteers donated a bunch of money to keep it open, so now it's okay for three years. Which is good for him, he's been coming out here to bike since the 90's, and it's good for me because it's our biggest course area, bigger than Point Reyes or Big Basin. And because I like rolling hills and oak woodlands. And because I like pine nuts.
We make motions like we are ready to leave. I give him a small handful of pine nuts.
"Do you have a business card?" he asks.
"Not on me," I laugh, "I have one in my car."
The idea that I would carry a business card way out here in my backpack just in case I make a business contact is funny to me.
"Well, you are so nice, I just thought, maybe," he explains, and I realize he was asking me for my number. I would have answered more carefully if I had picked up on that. And then I would have found a way to mention my partner.
We say goodbye and he rides away. Slowly, up hill.
I put my pack on and hike away. Slower, up hill.
I still think he may have seen my underwear.