The old man and the taco truck

by Gautam Raja

I could devote hundreds of words to Crater Lake in Oregon, and not come as close to its overt magic as the briefest Google Image search. So let me tell you, instead about meeting the Old Man of the Lake.

The first documented sighting of him was in 1896, when a explorer camping on Wizard Island in the lake, noticed a tree stump sticking out of the water. The next morning it had vanished. It was obviously floating around the lake, upright. For over a hundred years the 30-foot stump has wandered the waters of this caldera, covering as much as seven miles a day. We were lucky on this boat tour, the ranger said, to be able to come so close the four-feet or so sticking above the surface.

The Old Man doesn’t bob. He’s too heavy, too stately for that. He just sits in the water, appearing to be anchored to the bottom. The wood above the waterline is white and weather-beaten. And since this is Crater Lake, with the clearest water of any natural water body on Earth, you can see his entire length below the water surface. How he has floated upright for so long remains unknown.

After the boat tour, I stood on the shore of the lake, cupped some of the clear, cold water in my hands, and drank it. The taste was as crisp and blue as the lake itself. I wasn’t being foolish–the park rangers themselves tell you that the lake waters are perfectly good to drink. “It felt like an Ent-draught,” I told my wife, as I passed her on the steep hike back up the side of the caldera (Lord of the Rings references are a nearly daily occurrence between us).

This then, is where travel happens—in the moments in between. The points at which you break through into a new country or place are rarely at the grand vistas, but at the marketplaces where a smiling vegetable vendor tips an extra red capsicum into your bag, or the street corners where a man goes out of his way to give you directions to your destination, or the coffee shop that doesn’t charge for your drink because you mentioned it was your first visit to the chain.

This brings us neatly (in the way that hacking through a jungle with a machete is neat) to taco trucks. If you’re ever walking, baffled, through the streets of Los Angeles, California, stop at a taco truck. It’s likely to be a stepping stone into this city, one of those little travel portals you rarely find on purpose. Here, you will share a line with a bearded hipster, a couple of be-suited office workers, construction workers in high-visibility vests, and a young man with a cheap backpack who speaks only Spanish and looks bewildered, as if he only just walked into town through the San Ysidro border crossing from Mexico.

I mention taco trucks today because, of course, the co-founder of Latinos for Trump who infamously warned on September 1, that Mexico’s “aggressive” culture might result in a taco truck on every corner. Steve Lopez, Los Angeles Times columnist, wrote about the issue, in his September 4 column ‘Taco Trucks on Every Corner? Si Por Favor’. He ended, “…I know what would truly make America great again. More taco trucks.”

I agree completely, and it’s not just about democratic, ethnic grilled meats. After all, if tomorrow, the Old Man of the Lake sank, Crater Lake, in its massive entirety would be unchanged. Yet to me, it would have lost a part of its soul.

First published in Gulf News, September 13, 2016