Bandit Town

Words + Photos: Molly Steele

If just for the weekend I can be wild and free. If just for the weekend I can sleep outside in the rain and under the snow. I could wake up at every fireside crackle, thinking it's a bear. If just for the weekend I can drive back and forth along the Merced River, I can sleep in my car. If just for the weekend, if just for an hour, I can strip down to my hair band and lie on the brown floors of autumn in the sun and let the world crawl all over me.

I drove up to Bandit Town, just for the weekend. A belated birthday present to myself, a Halloween spent in the woods and at Vertigo Fest, a time to do mushrooms and skinny dip in the cold waters of October with my friends. This was the first big trip in my new-to-me 1979 Mercedes 280E, and if it isn't obvious, the whole thing was like a movie. About me, of course.

Bandit Town is a new sensation in the small town of North Fork, a stone’s long throw from Yosemite and the geographic center of California. I drove up from LA late one night – I’ll stop somewhere when I’m tired, I said – and five hours later I was tucking myself into sleep in the back seat of the car. The nearby town of Bass Lake had just recently shut down for the winter, so there were plenty of open roadside turnouts for me to turn in for the night. But after thinking about the Zodiac Killer for my bedtime story, I chose a hotel parking lot – which, with a little help from the housekeeping girls, set me up for a quick morning shower the next day.

Not yet ready to immerse myself in Vertigo Fest, I returned to Bass Lake to explore a wooded turnout where I had considered sleeping the night before. As I was walking through the woods a black cat crossed my path, turning me on my feet until my eyes fell on a bundle of rainbow fabric sitting on a tree stump. I used my foot to kick and push the bundles around, not really wanting to see what was inside. The rainbows made me think, “Okay this isn’t totally fucked”, but it was eerie enough to send me back to my car. At that point, god help me, I decided eating some mushrooms was a good idea. And I thought what a beautiful time of year this is, when you can still strip down to your skivvies in the daytime under the crisp autumnal sky. So ya, I did that. I walked around a 20 foot area over and over for at least an hour before realizing there were literally thousands of ladybugs all over the ground and trees that seemed to be gushing with them. So, naked and on mushrooms, I laid on my back in the leaves and let the ladybugs take over. In my eyes, in my mouth, and all the other places that aren’t on my face. I swear they were real.

Later, Vertigo Fest. Britt is the man behind the machine that is Folk Yeah, which basically puts on some of the best shows and festivals throughout California. Some are so good that they don’t happen more than once. Vertigo Fest was a must, basically an eclectic summer camp of bands and friends camping out in the woods, staying up late and abstaining from nothing. The morning after, the perfect hangover cure for everyone was a skinny dip in a nearby spring or the ice cold Bass Lake.

I have a limit with the people-thing. Like talking, walking around back and forth, seeing humans everywhere. By the third day, I had to skip out to Yosemite. And I’ll do just about anything to get in this car and drive it like, a lot. I ran into an old friend as we both pulled up to the same stop sign. Happenstance. We drove around the park, memorizing the species of trees and quizzing each other as we drove. That night we camped along the Merced and woke in the middle of the night to an incessant downpour that lasted well into the next day. There’s not much I love more than lying in a tent under the pouring rain. At this time of year, when it’s raining in the lowlands, it means it’s snowing at higher elevations. The park was dusted like a frosted cookie. I wanted to lie outside under the falling snow forever until my tiny little toes froze off and icicles formed from my crying eyes because it was THAT beautiful. It’s so easy to ignore responsibilities in a place so captivating. It’s so easy to say I’m totally and completely in love with the person I was there with. He doesn’t know it, and it won’t go anywhere, but just for the sake of describing the situation this was like, my ultimate fantasy. That night we rented a cabin in the the Valley at Curry Village. Halfway between camping and glamping, it does the trick on cold nights: canvas tent cabins with heaters, multiple beds and free hot chocolate on tap in the office.

The next morning I woke up to like the most beautiful day ever. I drove the way back to LA alone, stopping every quarter mile to marvel at basically everything. Do yourself a favor – fall in love, quit your job, and get yourself to Yosemite.