Her nametag read “Karen,” and she was our cashier at a Wal-Mart in a medium-sized city in central California.
The Man and I had popped into Wal-Mart to get a few supplies before we headed back up the mountain. The Man had a 12-pack of socks and a comb, and I had a bottle of hand sanitizer, a roll of paper towels, and a bottle of bleach. We usually go through the self-check line, but that morning I wanted my cash back partially in ones so I could feed the water dispensing machine. I knew the self-checkout machines would only spit out twenties, so I needed to deal with a human to get the bills I wanted.
Karen had completely white hair styled in a way that seemed old-fashiond even for a woman I presumed to be about 70 years old. She asked me if we needed to buy a bag, and I said no, we’d just carry our purchases out in our arms.
We’re not from California, I told her, so we forget to bring in our own bags.
(In much of California, stores no longer provide flimsy plastic bags for free. Shoppers can bring in their own bags or purchase paper bags or slightly more sturdy plastic bags at the register.)
You’re lucky you’re not from California! Karen exclaimed.
I told her we worked in the National Forest, and I must have told her we traveled too, because she asked me What’s your favorite place? I told her I’d just been to Moab (she looked confused, so I added Utah) and I’d liked it very much, and I said I really like Taos, NM too.
What’s your favorite place? I asked her.
She’d never been out of California, she told me.
Well, what’s your favorite place in California? I asked.
Home, she replied with a laugh.
Where would you like to go? I persisted.
I’m 82 years old, she said, much to my surprise. I thought she was a dozen years younger. I’m scared to go anywhere, she told me.
I’m always shocked when I meet people who’ve never ventured even into a neighboring state. I suppose California is big enough to satisfy a lifetime of wanderlust, but I wonder if Karen traveled even the state of her birth. I just hope she was content to stay at home instead of being held there by fear.