From The Book of Maps
After the Thunderstorm (Toulumne Creek)
In summer, the mountains beckoned. The city was dry, and the dust came west from the desert, blowing out to sea. But not the local Cuyamacas, the real mountains, with snow on their peaks, north of the Mojave, east of the San Joaquin valley. The only problem was how to get there, with nothing but a backpack and my thumb?
I used both. It was easy then to hitchhike from my town north past the big city of freeways. But going north from there was troublesome. Epiphanies of onramps stretched into hours, time enough to contemplate the dry hillsides, mesquite and creosote. Where the coastal range gives way to the plain, the misnamed Quail Lake is always dry. I was stuck there, on North Peace Valley road, for a day, or part of a day.
I was rescued by a young woman in a Volkswagen, a convertible. She wore a wedding ring, and her hair blew in the wind as she drove. She’d been driving since morning, south, and turned around when she saw me, before the road started its long climb up towards Fort Tejon. Even though she should have stopped at Madera, she took me all the way to Merced, to the Yosemite Parkway, talking along the way.
She was certain she’d never see me again, so she told me everything as we moved across the valley, her whole life so far, there was plenty of time. She won’t remember me. But I remember her, I can recall every word. I had plenty of time to go over them, in silence, all that long summer in the Sierras.
If you drive east from the shoreline, up the canyons, through Alpine, Descanso, and Cuyamaca, you’ll get to Julian and the Sunrise Highway. From there the road drops off, down into the beginning of an almost endless desert: Borrego, Occotillo Wells. And if you could, near dawn, step into a hot air balloon, and float a few hundred feet above the desert floor, condors and curious redtails your only companions, you could look down, and with your eyes follow tire tracks across the landscape.
How surprised would you be then, to see sand willow, creosote or manzanita growing up between the two wheel ruts of a single track, and realize the jeep that made them passed through decades ago? Whatever happens in the desert lasts forever.
And if you landed somewhere, wherever you happened to touch down, you could walk around and discover the desert is not lined with loose sand, but gravely dry soil, topped with flat stones, which makes a kind of pavement between the sparse shrubs and the occasional jumping cactus. If you know what to look for, you can see them: long ago, someone stopped in this place for the night. Think of the emptiness, the wall of night filled with stars, the featureless landscape stretching forever.
Once you find one, they’re everywhere, small circles of those desert pavement stones, gathered to afford a ring of protection against that emptiness, by someone very much like you, but ten thousand years ago. We can’t know the incantations that protected them while they slept, all we have are these small low rings of stones, a dozen feet wide, always in perfect circles, untouched by the wind.
Up on Mount Palomar one winter, they lost the ability to see the stars. Oh, they still had the world’s biggest telescope, they hadn’t yet been eclipsed by the Chileans. But the city lights gave off too much glare. One man even began to doubt the red shift itself.
Winters then were a time for study. I was writing about a woman who never arrived. Then in she walked. She said, “Here I am,” and I believed her. But how can we ever know? Perhaps I simply wanted to believe.
What could be more beautiful and useless than a winter garden? Even there, where jasmine and orchids bloom in February, where tropical birds, escaped from the giant walkthough enclosures in Balboa Park, feast on the backyard gardens in Golden Hills? They make their nests in palm trees, and you can be certain they exist: you can hear them half a mile away.
Picture, then, an early evening, the sun already set, the moon rising through late clouds. The birds are at their loudest, not yet settled in. And even though I’ve lingered too long in the garden, it’s hard to regret anything, for I’ve long believed blossoms give off their own light at those moments, if only we can look closely enough. But perhaps I would have been better off crafting critiques of pure judgment. She certainly thought so. It would have been better to discuss the nature of beauty, rather than cultivating beauty around me.
I still don’t know. The garden was beautiful: coral vines and staghorn ferns. Alas.
A long trip up the coast, this time in our own car. Five and 101, with stops along the way: Altadena, Malibu, Santa Barbara. There were sculptures to praise, and quiet coves, castles and a rough tower built with a poet’s own hands. And then across the bridge into the north, into unexplored country. The roads were smaller there, and we turned off even those, up a gravel track into the woods. I asked if she was sure this was the right way. She just nodded, and pointed forwards.
As the way narrowed, the trees grew, turning into redwoods. The road curved across a bridgeless creek, and we barely made it through. But then we were home. At least it felt like home. We passed our days walking the hills and exploring the woods. Once, she found a stand of lilies in sunlight along a streambed, and I picked one for her hair. Later, standing along an open ridge, we imagined we could see the ocean, distant to the west. But part of me knew it was only a level bank of low clouds, a woodland mirage.
Some days we never left the house. Those hours were filled with hurricane lamps and silk, her form outlined in the soft light, her skin almost glowing. In those moments, I was at last fully myself, the completed man I’d always believed I would become. We needed nothing else, we were wholly ourselves, together in quiet peace. If heaven exists, it’s in that place.
And one evening, we walked down to the lake. I placed a lit hurricane lamp at the end of the dock, so we could find our way back. I helped into the canoe, handed her the bottle of wine, and we moved out across the waters.
Lost on the Midsummer Road
Is there anything else, really? Just when we think we’ve found ourselves, the ground trembles and moves beneath our feet, even the stars, which we’d mapped as certain, transform themselves, we lose ourselves even in the moment of our becoming. Or perhaps we’re not what we’d imagined, our experiences reshape us at each moment, and the trick is to let go, to abandon what we’d thought was our essence, and to allow ourselves to be remade.
I was helping a woman move from Altadena to Malibu. Behind me in the pickup’s bed were the tools and materials of her studio: air hammers and chisels, blocks of marble and wood rounds ready for carving. I’d never seen the new house, I’d never driven the road, but I had a map. And I had, in mind, her description of the place: a canyon whose throat gave way to the sea, a road curving along the dry riverbed. She’d told me about it with wine on a terrace overlooking the city, the evening haze stretching over the populated valley like a moth-eaten cloak, so worn points of light slipped through.
A sudden breeze came up from the water as I drove, and my map blew out the window. I saw it flying over the cliff edge in my rearview mirror. There was nothing to do but move forward, to try to remember her words and match them to the landscape. Then I heard the coyotes singing from the ridges around me, and remembered they’re always out there, and they’re always waiting. I went as fast as I dared, hoping only to find the statue she’d left at the road’s edge, marking the entrance to her drive.