Ninashka Hanz talks about being a good witch. How Wicca is the only religion a young woman like her could embrace. The Slovak grandmother taught her the old ways and what was the point of life but to be one with nature and your own true self? Her Czech grandmother from the other side of her family was a witch too, but deep and dark.
Twenty and wondrous to watch, she moves from one campsite to the next, changing conversations, flipping campers’ radio dials. She approached our site after a short exchange in laid-back FM station style with Don the post office warehouse worker whose tent was pitched nearest the forest. Then we watched her sashay up to AM Top 40 tuned Joe Six-Pack camping with a family not his own, having exchanged his kids for someone else’s when a new Momma came into his life. I thought I’d seen the young woman roving the campsites somewhere before.
Nina says the big Rec-V next to our van belongs to an ex-Navy guy who was at Ft. Meyers back in the late sixties and now drives around the lower 48 from state park to federal forest, camping out year-round. “I tried to sell him on driving up to Alaska,” Nina said, “but he didn’t want to drive outside the borders of the USA. Go figure.”
Later we realized we’d seen her hitching on Route 101, fetching groceries. I spotted her first, warned Les to slow down. “It’s a girl. We have to pick her up.” He shrugged, drove past. “We’re headed up to Mono, need to get there before dark.” By now, surely he sensed I was exhausted by his silence on the road and needed to talk to other people. We’d been road tripping the better part of a month without saying much. Get up in the morning, drive, stop, gas up and go on. Smoke into a state recreation area, eat, sleep and do it all over again. The pots of coffee on the Coleman burner marked the passing days.
I told Les that he and I used to be on the opposite sides of some line. If I hadn’t crossed over and made a move, nothing would have happened. Now I crossed the line to move outward again, in this case the line is a sandy gritty campground path that connects the tent sites to the restroom and bathhouse. I’m headed for a young couple huddled around a campfire and soon enough I realize the female is the same person I’d seen that afternoon on 101.
I offer Nina and Joe Six Pack a bag of marshmallows. I’m guessing that Nina is reluctant to waste her time with him because that’s what she calls him to his face, Joe Six Pack. I hang around, toasting marshmallows and keeping the conversation around the crackling fire drifting upward instead of down into a silent gully of stoned introspection. Nina is sucking her beer bottle and complaining her life is not worth much, the other face of the girl who says her ambition is to make money packing Alaska salmon. I tell her what she’s doing now is still an opportunity, not a mistake.
Nina holds court at Mono Campground, so named after the last great mononucleosis epidemic of 1969. Not really; Les and I entertained ourselves with such made-up road stories. We’d been there ten days now and Nina long ago installed herself as unofficial hostess greeting all newcomers, visiting her favored campers each day.
Nina would come round, telling the older folks how she lives in state parks and national lands. “It’s my land,” she’d say. “Yours too. Take advantage of it. Stay as long as you like. Remember, these forests belong to us — We the American People.” I’d nod and smile at Nina, then repeat what she said to Les who was cleaning his revolver under the plastic pull-out awning. I’d asked him to show me how to aim and shoot it, not like I knew anyone else with a weapon like that. “It is her land, you see, Les? And ours too. America, land of the free. This is government forest, owned by we the people, so she’s living on her own property.” My volume climbed. I was trying to shake Les from his skeptical view of Nina. He pulled his lips back in the fake mad-dog smile. We hiked far into Los Padres Forest and I learned to hold, aim and release the trigger, without ammo.
If anyone interesting pulled into the neighborhood, as we called our corner of the three campgrounds, Nina invited them over to her site for wine, dope and guitar tunes. “Before I became a witch,” she said, “I was a singer in a rock band. I was the drummer’s old lady,” she bragged. “They had to let me sing or he wouldn’t play and that group needed a drummer. Couldn’t play for nothing without him.” She’s her own old lady now, just twenty years, writing ballads about the meaning of life, too young to have a storehouse for the meaning.
We bathed in the sulphur hot springs and she talked to her dog Sugarfoot. “All bark, no bite, but they don’t know that,” she confided, pulling shreds of Bugler tobacco out of the economy size can and piling it into two glued together Top rolling papers. “Hey Sugar, hey Foot — go kill, maim and scare,” she joked at the dog, a mangy white cur that splayed on the dusty dry grass nosing its hindquarters . She spoke without raising her head from licking the seam on the cigarette. I ask her where she got the tobacco. “Downtown, you know, in Carthage, east of Santa Barbara.” The joke was there’s nothing east of Santa Barbara but mountains.
Another time when we were together in the bathhouse, I asked her, “You ever get scared out on the road alone, sleeping in campgrounds? Not knowing where your next meal or ride is coming from?” Nina laughed, “Fear? Of what? Magic protects me,” she said. “I really am a witch; no one would mess with me.” Like Sugarfoot, she’s all bark, no muscle. I think Sugarfoot does his part; looks like a mean junkyard dog.
Later I heard her giggles while she toyed away the night. She’d moved on from Joe Six to the ex-Navy guy in the big motor home. When I walked by, they leaned back on folding chairs looking at the stars. “Have some wine and weed,” she urged. “Andy has some of the good stuff, Maui magic. Come on, let’s talk about things tragic and all that good-lookin’ magic.”
“That sounds like a line from a song,” I said. “Write that one up!” Nina grimaced and pulled her guitar from behind the chair. “Sure, I’ll come by later when I’ve punched it out.”
Toting her guitar and Bugler can, a stack of tattered songbooks under her armpit, Nina sloped towards our camp. She showed me her own lyrics copied on three-hole lined school notebook paper. She banged out her twenty year old lament, a defensive answer to a world that has not dealt her well. In the song, she wants to go to Scotland and she wants to go to Budapest to see what her grandmothers talked about.
“My name was Hanzlik in the old country — Czech and White Russian.” She sang patches of a language that only a million people know. “There’s none of us left,” she slurred. “We gypsies and witches, ‘zey killed all us women. ‘Cept ‘zose who went hiding, ‘zey killed us all off.”
Nina slugged back cheap wine, fisting the bottleneck. Now she’s sitting on a picnic table. The ex-Navy man is sloshed and amazed by her. He’s wandered over to see why she’d been gone so long. Nina says fuck a lot, has no lasting interest in him, knows the difference between knaves and knights. She’s telling us about different men she’d known, maybe to shuck off Andy-the-Navy-guy or maybe to stir him. On the one hand I want to give her my time and my ear, but she talks cheap. Not new to me, this story.
She sings: “Jest mello down some backroad, bein’ native and naive, eatin’ weeds and grazing dope, sniffing each other’s breeze. Me and this spring’s lover, me and love me later. Sometimes my mind I play, sometimes each old day. Beat the clock in corridors of plenty, listen to the voices rhyme, magic airwaves on the sundial.” The song was truly awful.
“It might be time for me to leave Mono campground. Change my life,” she says, dragging on another Bugler reefer. A scrap of tobacco from the end of the rolled cigarette sticks to her lip.
Sure enough, she hopped in our van the next morning, headed out with us to the highway west of Santa Barbara. The coast road, 101. Sugarfoot curled on a throw rug in the back and Nina crouched on her gear. I swiveled around in the shotgun seat so I could talk to her and still keep an eye on the road ahead. Les drove as usual, nodded once in a while towards the side view window. Kept his peace when she broke the no smoking in the van rule and lit up in the back.
We dropped her off in Christmas (the town named Solvang), California within sight of the big yellow house that she said was her adopted mother’s. “I’ll stay here with her for a while, then head up to Alaska. Time to get some money.” In the right side-view mirror, I saw her stall around, put her knapsack and guitar on the ground next to Sugarfoot, then stick out her thumb.