First Chapter

Life, I am wont to say, is a first draft. In my case, I have just about filled the page. There is precious little blank space left. Somewhere near the bottom, the typescript ends as abruptly as the Mayan calendar. We’re reduced to margins now. I’m writing on borrowed time. I’ve got the paper turned sideways and am scrawling with a pen that refuses to yield its ink into a side margin. To get the most out of the space, my letters take on microfilm dimensions. The margin soon exceeds its carrying capacity, and next thing I’m exploiting openings in the typescript – line breaks, paragraph endings. Squiggly arrows now connect my disparate narrative, first this way, then that way.

Soon enough, I will run out of space. Soon enough, I will set down my pen.

We never get to write a second draft. No do-overs, no going back. What’s there is there. The best we can do is read and review with an aware mind. If we’re lucky, we may divine a sense of meaning and purpose, some indication that there was more to our short time here than a mere series of accidents.

If I think that is all there is to life, a friend tells me, then I haven’t been paying attention. What she is suggesting is that if you live with your eyes open, you will catch glimpses into how our lives are mysteriously entangled. My default belief lies squarely in the randomness camp, but the crazy events in my life are laying serious challenge to that notion.

I’m driving into Connecticut, mother of my childhood memories, cruising along at 60 MPH, taking a photo through the windshield in my car. Don’t do this at home. As acts of folly go, statistically this ranks with photographing marine life from inside a shark cage acquired at a garage sale

The object of my attention is the Merritt Parkway. Some of my earliest memories involve this stretch of road. Back before seat belts became standard issue, mom and dad would dump my older sister and I (baby brother came later) into the back of our Ford ranch wagon (or something earlier dating from the Spanish-American War), and head into New York City. In those days, the drive shaft ran down the length of the car and formed a hump through the center of the back floor. It was standing on this hump, hands braced on the back of the bench front seat, that I got to take in almost the exact same view, albeit in the other direction, I am now enjoying from the driver’s seat more than 60 years later.

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I take in the canopied thoroughfare and the bridges out of a Hollywood movie set. The Parkway – together with its New York counterpart, the Hutchinson River Parkway, which the Merritt runs into – is totally unique in the realm of humankind. We are talking about a strip of wooded Eden running through one of the most densely populated sections of country and into and back out of one of the world’s great cities.

But you would never know it, driving this byway. Way way back, motorists actually picnicked by the side of the road. Even the pit stops are out-of-world experiences. I content myself with driving past, but can’t help but wonder if they contain the same hot chocolate machines. I taste piping hot sweetness. I may have begun my journey back in California five months and five thousand miles earlier, traveling through seventeen states, but it is here, into my eighteenth, that my journey takes on a new dimension, one with a new starting point.

Check out the picture below …

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My quest begins here, an innocent boy, in a state of wonder, unbroken by the brickbats life would later hurl my way. Earlier in the day, my family would have been traveling down the same parkway that I am now traveling up. Same Hollywood bridges, same forest canopy. But my older sister and I are looking ahead. We’re on the lookout for buildings, really tall ones, the redwoods of urban architecture. Now, here I am, standing on the observation deck of one.

Other family photos from the era show me at places like the Bronx Zoo and the circus. In one of them, my mom is actually engaging with me, showing some warmth, not looking as if she is auditioning for the role of absolute zero on the Kelvin scale in some sequel to Frozen. There she is, in close physical proximity, pointing to something in the distance (a circus trapeze artist, perhaps?).

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We are off the Merritt Parkway now. Once into New Haven County, the Merritt morphs into the Wilbur Cross, scenic in its own right, but, shorn of its leafy canopy, just another byway. In the town of Meriden, roughly in the state’s center, the Wilbur Cross becomes the Berlin Turnpike. We are now on a commercial strip straight out of the fifties and sixties. This is owing to the opening of I-91 in 1965, which would allow five decades of human intercourse to completely bypass this thoroughfare, thus leaving it practically in its original state, complete with rustic motels and billboards, minus a drive-in or two.

I’m headed toward Newington, outside Hartford, for dinner with an old friend and a bed for the night. Back up a bit …

For weeks, I had been pondering: When I got to Meriden, would I turn off the Wilbur Cross? Perhaps check out the house I grew up in? Maybe veer off into nearby Southington and visit my mother’s grave? I wasn’t there when she died a few years before. I last saw her a few years before that, soon before she descended into dementia. Should I try to find closure of sorts? Ceremony? Ritual? An act of remembrance where her remains lie beneath the oaks?

The exit looms. No, I decide. Ritual without the right intent not only lacks meaning, it borders on desecration. Better to let her – and my memories of her – lie undisturbed.

Next morning, I’m heading out from my friend’s. My nemesis, Google Maps, takes me to the Berlin Turnpike. Suddenly, this sight greets me. Suddenly, ancient memories overpower me.

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This is my first McDonald’s, probably the only one in existence in central Connecticut back in the early 60s. Note the retro look. This is more or less what I ventured into when I ordered a 15-cent hamburger way way back, though I’m sure the arches were a lot closer together. The teenagers – in crisp paper hats – taking my order would address my 11-12-year-old self as “Sir.” All takeaway, no sit down.

This particular Mickey D’s also represents one of the rare opportunities I had to bond with my otherwise distant mother. Both her parents would die within months of each other. My mom would pick me up at my junior high in Meriden, and together we’d head up the Berlin Turnpike to Springfield, Massachusetts. I-91 was still under construction. A glorified road with traffic lights was how you headed north in your ’59 Ford Fairlane 500.

My mom would stop off at the Newington McDonald’s. I would jump out of the car, and return with our orders. Then we’d head up to Springfield, eating our burgers, my mom on her grim mission of mercy. Looking back, I like to think my presence steadied her. Who knows? What I do know is that those drives up to Springfield, munching 15-cent burgers together – just her, just me – afforded me one of those rare and precious moments of getting to know her.

Years before, at her 80th birthday party, I had searched in vain for a story I could relate to the gathering, you know, a special mom moment, some mom wisdom, some mom acts of love and affection. To my dismay, I came up empty. Instead, I told a story about how I almost killed my little brother by taking him tree-climbing with me. The gathering was too busy laughing at my recollection to notice that I wasn’t actually talking about my mother. I simply didn’t have a story to share.

Now, thanks a simple drive along ancient byways, I had at least one, maybe even two or three. Such is the nature of unexpected healing.

A few months later finds me on the other coast, on a beach along the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, where I have pitched my tent. Night is settling in. Eight thousand miles of uninterrupted surf is pounding against rock formations, which protrude from the water like ancient pyramids. Behind and over, the moon is working its evening magic. Ahead of me, in the distance, I make out the lights of a passing ship.

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“My father would love it here,” I find myself saying.

Now where did that thought come from? I could only think. Nevertheless, I feel his presence, walking beside me, the two of us leaving two sets of footprints. Earlier, back east, I had encountered the ghost of my father on a Civil War battle site, along with a ghost of my earlier self. A lot of unresolved issues back there, but here, I experience a sense of release – if not a healing, then a sort of truce. Yes, he would have loved it here, I realize. Yes, we can share this, together.

More family road moments, these ones deliberate: A final beer with my brother outside San Diego, two days prior to taking off. A stay with my sister at her retirement village in central Florida, one that went surprisingly well, especially considering we hadn’t talked in three years. A joyful reunion with my daughter and son-in-law and four grandkids in New York City. A day with my nephew in Connecticut.

Then there are my other families – call them tribe – the ones we choose. My two main ones:

  • My didgeridoo family, people drawn to a unique ancient instrument that acts as a type of wooden sorting hat. I’m guessing most of us are Hufflepuffs.
  • My mental health family, defined by the wisdom and insight we picked up along the way. We may have started off identifying with a particular condition or disorder, but we’re way past that now.

What separates tribe from all the rest of everyone else is you never have to explain yourself to tribe. With tribe, you’re never an outsider. This is the key to a long life filled with happiness. Trust me, I can write a book on this. I think I did, actually, maybe only a chapter. On the road, I’m looking forward to strengthening my tribal ties, but I am also keeping myself open to new tribe. What kind of tribe? Easy. One with people who don’t bat an eyelash when you tell them that you’re living out of your car and sleeping in a tent while recovering from bypass surgery. Let me give you an example …

It’s the end of February. It’s only been a month since I’ve been on the road, and I’m learning as I’m going along. I’ve pitched my tent in the desert at Camp Verde, in central Arizona. I’m 3,500 feet up. Just me and the ground and the sky. The morning air feels like it was delivered fresh from a special place, so pure you can put it in a bottle and sell it. Don’t worry, some day someone will.

I’m taking a short walk, indulging in my clear crisp air bath, clad in at least four layers – two jersey-type garments and two fleecy jackets. The sun is well below the horizon, but it is already putting on a spectacular show, lighting up the bellies of some low lying clouds, painting them brilliant orange.

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The fact that I’m up so early speaks volumes. It happened my first time camping out, in Joshua Tree in southern California, a few weeks before and there’s no stopping me now. Outdoors, there is no wall separating me from nature. Thus, there is no choice but for the two of us to sync up. I’m living on nature’s schedule, now. I’m new at this, but I’m sensing the formation of a major insight.

After breakfast, I head out to check out the Indian sites in the area. First to Montezuma’s Castle, cliff dwellings that have nothing to do with Montezuma. It’s all about the Anastazi, who dwelt here for about four centuries beginning in about 400 AD, then who mysteriously moved on, probably absorbed into other tribes, still present.

Afternoon finds me at a place called Montezuma’s (that name, again) Well. Walking in a short distance, I find yourself looking down into a spectacular sinkhole. To my left, is a tiny cliff dwelling. Down below is a jade pool. The water is not for drinking. A path winds down the cliff, taking me to more dwellings.

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Time to break out the didgeridoo. When you feel the spirits of the land, you just feel it. No explanation. My ancient instrument is calling out to an ancient people. The cliffs around the sinkhole create an echo chamber effect. In nothing flat, I am in another world, untethered to time and space.

And this is when Becky and her three delightful kids walked into my life.

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She, too, is on the road, together with her husband Rob and their brood. I explained the didgeridoo to her in terms of energy, frequency, and vibration. Nikola Tesla used those words in reference to understanding the universe. Of course, were Tesla alive today, he would be playing the didge.

When one of the kids asked when Tesla died, I explained that technically it happened some 70 years ago in his room in the New Yorker Hotel, but that perhaps he merely entered another dimension. This, of course, made perfect sense to the kids and their mother.

This is what tribe is all about. In my case, it just felt right bringing up Tesla, without wondering whether I was going to come across as weird. I’m guessing some four decades separated me and Becky, but the beauty of tribe is this doesn’t matter.

Later, our paths would recross near White Sands in New Mexico. I showed up to their site with three didgeridoos.

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Later, dinner inside their RV. Excellent conversation with the grown-ups, Pokemon with the kids. Let’s call Becky and her gang part of my new road tribe.

Perhaps just plain tribe. As I would discover on the road, the qualifying labels represent strictly point of origin, how certain people came into my life. Staying connected goes a lot wider and deeper. In no time, the distinctions blur. We just are.

My friend Joanne easily crosses tribal lines. She came into my life about six years earlier as one of my more active readers. In no time, we had a long-distance friendship going. I’m not sure she knows what to do with me. You see, she gives me advice, and I actually follow it. She’s the one who came up with the title to my book series, “The Bipolar Expert Series.”

Some time before, a personal crisis resulted in her being unable to return to her well-paying position as an IT specialist on Wall Street. She downsized into a camper van and hit the road with her service dog, traveling cross-country between one family in Connecticut and another in Arizona, learning as she went along. It quickly turned into a way of life. A few years ago, anticipating my current financial crisis, Joanne suggested to me doing something similar. At the time, this was way beyond the realm of my comprehension. Now, here I am.

I like to say that our only purpose here on this earth is to make God laugh. God, in effect, sees the banana peel we are about to slip on. Now God is snorting out milk through his nostrils. Joanne is far too polite to do the same.

We happen to run into each other for the first time face-to-face in Tuscon. Several days later, she and I and her friend are camping out in eastern Arizona. I wish I could get a pic of the night sky over the desert. We’re sitting out in the open, sipping tea, gazing up into nature’s splendid canopy, mere specks amongst the specks. Then one of the specks breaks loose and bolts. It shines brilliantly for all of a second, only to extinguish into nothing. Such is our fate. No matter what, how you choose to parse our existence – reason for everything or a series of accidents – it all ends up the same. We will all return to the nothing from which we came. Our only crime is to never take up the challenge of breaking loose and daring to shine when presented with that rare opportunity we call life.

By rights, I should be occupying the same nothing as that burnt-out piece of space rock. Perhaps I am. Einstein got it wrong when he devoted the last three decades of his life in pursuit of his theory of everything. In hindsight, he should have been pursuing a theory of nothing. According to Einstein, nothing travels faster than the speed of light. Hence “nothing.”

Perhaps “nothing” should be in the title to this book. All I have right now is the subtitle: A Journey of Discovery, Healing, and Connection.

By now, you have got a sense of that. But now it dawns on me that what we are really talking about is the entanglements that bind “nothing.” In my case, it is if my late mother and father were still alive, with some kind of gravitational pull on my every thought and action. Likewise, it is as if Becky, whom I only just met, has always been in my life. Perhaps she has. Maybe she is here with me right now, in our the family station wagon, driving down the Merritt, looking forward to our outing in New York City.

Forgive me for going on like this. By rights I should be dead – this stuff is important. The year before, my heart nearly stopped beating. Later, on my first outpatient visit, my cardiologist asked me if I had any questions. “Only philosophical ones,” I replied. It just popped out. Of course, there are no answers, but I needed to be asking the questions.

Several months later, I would be packing my life into my ’99 VW Passatt. No fancy gear, no camper van. You go with what you’ve got. As I said in the beginning, life is a first draft, no do-overs. But now, through an improbable convergence of personal disasters, I am being granted that rare opportunity – you might want to call it once-in-a-lifetime – to review that draft with a new sense of awareness.

The time has come. For the last several months, I have been the guest of my good friend Warner and his family, occupying a leaky trailer on his ranch in rural east county, 40 or so miles out of San Diego. After days on end of bitter rain, today dawns bright and blue. I’ve said my goodbyes, made my last dumpster run. No more thinking. No more philosophizing. Time to close the lid of my trunk and go.

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Journey’s End

Early Dec …

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Here I am, with Dwight and June, my gracious hosts for the past eight or nine days in Escondido, in San Diego’s North County. They will be the last to sign my “travel didgeridoo” prior to me retiring it. There will be one last inscription, but I’m jumping ahead …

I give my brother a call. Six or seven years ago, he followed me out to rural East County. Here we are together, Christmas ’55 or ’56, me beating him across the finish line …

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His move coincided with a time in our lives when we both felt driven to talk about our family dynamics. I’ve recounted the story a number of times in my mental health writing. Basically, it goes like this:

I’d invite him over for a home-cooked meal. Together, over beers and Neil Young, we’d start talking, comparing childhood experiences, validating each other’s recollections.

All forms of trauma therapy are based on reliving one’s past experiences in a safe setting. In essence, this is what we were doing. With each successive retelling, the various family dramas that shaped our respective personalities would lose their deathly hold. Then came a day, over beers and Neil Young, neither of us felt obliged to bring up family.

Call it a major breakthrough.

So here I am, on the phone with my brother. “Hey, James,” I say. “I’m in Escondito. When do you want to meet up for a beer?”

Silence. Then: “I’m in Las Vegas. I moved here three days ago.”

What?!?!?!

This set the scene for my San Diego homecoming. Nothing seemed to go right. Earlier, when I put out the word for places to crash, Dwight was the only one to respond. Warner in East County where I started my journey was already a lock. So was Maggie, my bipolar tag-team partner who would be back from Hawaii in a week.

In the meantime, with one exception, I couldn’t even book casual events. One person was up in LA, another had a sick mom, another had to bail out because of a client. On and on. On top of it, a meet and greet event failed to materialize.

Thank heaven for Dwight and June and their delightful company. With Dwight and his free passes, I got to experience San Diego as a tourist. A zoo pic:

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And, from Safari Park, this cheetah pic …

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Plus a couple of surreal shots from the San Diego Botanic Garden …

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Plus I had the opportunity to hunker down and get only four months behind on my blogging. Now, Maggie is back from Hawaii. Time to make tracks. She texts me: Her husband, who never gets sick, is down with the flu. Next day it’s clear he’s down for the count. There will be no visiting Maggie.

No Maggie!

Meanwhile …

I can’t begin to describe how Dwight is one of the kindest and most gracious people I ever met. I look forward to seeing him, someday, but only when San Diego is ready for me – or, rather, I am ready for it. The road is calling.

Dwight has a coupon for the Soup Plantation. I use it at a location just off I-8, my direct route into East County, for my last night in greater San Diego. Outside the Soup Plantation, soft-serve ice cream cone in hand, I get to talk to Maggie. There will be a time and place to meet again, but it is almost certain to be on the road.

A few minutes later, back on I-8 I almost instantly start reliving my 10 years here. I start climbing. The buildings thin out. First past San Diego State University, then the suburban town of La Mesa. Over to my left is Sharp Grossmont Hospital, where a highly dedicated medical team repaired my heart and gave me a new lease on life.

The road levels off and I cross into El Cajon. Psychologically, San Diego ends here. For a large Mexican population, not to mention Chaldeans and other immigrant groups, the American Dream begins here.

I clear El Cajon and once again I’m ascending. Unofficially, I’m now in East County. The buildings thin out. I round a bend and gaze up at a monolithic rock formation, popularly known as “El Capitan,” but more closely resembling Ayers Rock. For ten years, El Capitan has been my geographical greeter, as to welcome me to the countryside, to deliverance from the city, into a new life.

Ten or so miles further up I-8, up in the hills toward the small town of Descanso, is a sign that indicates we’re at 3,000 feet in altitude. I won’t be going past it today, but I do recall, a month or two after my arrival in East County, driving past that sign from an event in the city and literally feeling the barometric pressure change inside my head. With that came the realization that the country was my true home.

A few years later, I moved to from Descanso to Alpine, a bit closer to the city, but still comfortably removed from the urban bustle. I’m approaching my turn-off. I make my exit and pop into the local market, where I pick up some beer for my host. Around the corner is the apartment complex that I called home for six or seven years. In the end, I could no longer make my rent. The last time in my bed there, I went to take a nap, only to discover I had extreme difficulty breathing. I could die right here, right now, came the thought. Somehow, I managed to climb out of bed and call my brother.

I get into my car and drive by without looking. Soon, I’m on a winding country road, where I’m taken aback by the beauty of the mountain scenery. It’s a quiet beauty born of low-lying peaks, hardly spectacular like Yosemite or other attention hogs, and hence its appeal. In our quest to seek out the highest and widest and deepest and so on, we tend to ignore what soothes the nerves, restores the soul.

Even people living in San Diego seem unaware of East County. But for 10 years, its unpeopled hilly byways have been my home. This is where, soon after landing here from New Jersey, I found my soul. If any experience prepared me for the road, it was living here.

Then, a force I can barely comprehend let me know it was time to go.

One last call. I turn sharp left onto a private dirt road and head down into an isolated valley. Here, on a ranch, live Warner and his wife Karen and daughter Kyra. I met Warner six or seven years before through the didgeridoo. Warner has been host to didge gatherings featuring the world’s most celebrated didgeridoo artists, as well as get-togethers for the local gang.

More recently, he let me stay in his trailer for a few months while I recovered from my heart and then eye surgery and got organized for the road. This time it will be just one night.

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I produce my beer offering. Warner breaks out his prize sake, which he serves in thimble-sized porcelain mugs. The Christmas tree is up. Decorations abound. He shows me a trick. Grabbing a soft tortilla, he bids me to follow him as he steps outside into the twilight and gives a whistle. An animal comes bounding out – a coyote. Warner rubs his hand on the tortilla, gives it a twirl, and flings it into the dark.

The coyote pounces on it and is gone.

Warner and Kyra and I run an errand in town, picking up a pizza to go, then head back to the ranch. Later, Karen joins us.

I produce my travel didgeridoo, a eucalyptus log that originated as a gift from the Aboriginal artist and activist Lewis Burns, here on Warner’s ranch. It was Warner’s idea to employ the stick as a travel didgeridoo. I proudly show the didge, now filled with inscribed well-wishes and keepsakes. Nearly 11 months before, Warner and Kyra got the ball rolling, with the first inscriptions.

Now it is time to officially retire the didge. Beneath the picture of the turkey she drew nearly a year before she draws a circle. Then she dates it and inscribes:

“Journey’s end.”

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Fire!

Early Dec …

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I’m in Escondido, in San Diego’s North County, looking north out the window of the home of a friend where I am staying. The smoke is from a wildfire 15 miles away. Further north, large parts of LA are ablaze.

This year is turning out to be one for the record books. Since Montana back in early August, the fires have either followed me everywhere or preceded me. At this time of year, here in southern CA, the fire season should be a month past. But now the people who devote their lives to the matter are telling us another story, that there is no longer such a thing as a wildfire season – that we should regard fires as a year-long threat.

Wildfires are a way of life in the west, part of nature’s inexorable cycle of destruction and regeneration, but the frequency and intensity and sheer magnitude of what we have been witnessing over the past decade is new to our experience. We’re living in a new world, decidedly less comforting than the one we grew up in.

Over the next week, the fires further north will continue to rage. This one, though, will expand to the west a bit, but has reached its southernmost point. No evacuation order. I can breathe easy – for now

Drum Circle

Early Dec …

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Here I am, at my old drum circle at San Dieguito County Park in Solana Beach in San Diego’s North County. It’s official – I’m back.

San Diego is best known for its surf culture, which permeates everything San Diegan, even among those who never surfed. Without the surf culture influence, a didgeridoo never would have made sense to me, nor would I have found various tribes that welcomed the instrument. This includes my drum circle, which I discovered some seven years before. Here’s me back then, same place …

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A few years ago, on Facebook, I came across a meme that went something like this: “In Africa, if you are depressed, they will ask: how long has it been since you stopped drumming, dancing, singing …”

Among other things, my didgeridoo serves as a vocal drum. Skilled practitioners can lay down highly sophisticated and driving rhythms. In this context, the instrument acts as an energizer, an antidepressant. From an article on my mcmanweb site:

A few years ago, I ventured out to a drum circle/neuro-talk event led by Mickey Hart. Mickey Hart is the legendary drummer of the Grateful Dead and the leader of the Global Drum Project and other efforts. He has been working with neuroscientists on rhythm and healing. 

I showed up with my didgeridoo. At least a hundred drummers were there, plus a larger general audience. My didge was mounted on a stand and hooked up to a small speaker. This freed up one hand to thump on a cajon – a wood box drum you can sit on – and a foot to stomp on a tambourine.

At six o’clock, we all started spontaneously banging (and in my case, honking) away. Think of a drum circle as a self-organizing phenomenon like a flock of geese or the internet. Order emerges, the sum becomes greater then the parts. In a drum circle context, this can be a transcendent experience.

It’s no coincidence that drumming featured in ancient rituals and that music is found in every culture. In this case, the universe temporarily suspended its laws. No time, no space, no gravity.

No self, no other.

The drumming stopped. I came to earth, well not quite. Mickey walked past. “Good doo, man,” he said to me.

According to music educator, Anita Collins, in a TED-Ed animation:

Playing music is the brain’s equivalent of a full-body workout… Playing an instrument engages practically every area of the brain at once — especially the visual, auditory, and motor cortices. As in any other workout, disciplined, structured practice in playing music strengthens those brain functions, allowing us to apply that strength to other activities.

As I conclude in my website article …

To this I would add that music breaks down barriers and connects us to others. In the joy of music, we find joy in our fellow humans, we find a reason to live.

 

You don’t need to be an accomplished musician to find these connections. A good many venues these days encourage picking up a drum or noise-maker – or simply clapping your hands – and joining in. Three words: Just do it

Into the Land of Shorts and Flip-Flops

Late Nov-Early Dec …

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You’re looking at a bird-of-paradise plant. I’m definitely in southern CA, in the land of year-round shorts and flip-flops, at a friend’s in Laguna Niguel in Orange County, to be more precise. But first things first …

Perhaps the only experience worse than driving through CA’s Central Valley is driving through LA County. Doing the two on the same day counts as an official psychiatric-certified traumatic experience, necessitating years of intensive therapy, interspersed with at least three failed marriages and nine busted relationships. By the time I pull into a rest area at the top of “The Grapevine,” a notorious stretch of I-5 snaking two-and-a-half thousand feet up from the Central Valley to the Tejon Pass on the northern flank of LA, I am in no shape for the 80 or so mile-drive ahead of me.

I find a parking spot, get out and stretch and do my business, then get back inside, lean my head against the glass, and dream of an afterlife with no freeways. I wake up 20 minutes later, reasonably refreshed, grab a vending machine coffee, and brace myself for the push through LA.

In another five days or so, the dry brush I’m driving through will be ablaze in the worst wildfire in southern CA’s history. It’s as if Nature is trying to tell us something, but all it is receiving is a pre-recorded message.

Your call is important to us …

In due course, I’m though LA and into Laguna Niguel. My view of the Pacific, 11 months ago …

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Same view now …

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Here I am, with my good friend Amaya …

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Amaya represents the first stop on the first day my journey, some 11 months back. Back then, my fear factor was telling me it wasn’t too late to turn back. It was only a couple of weeks after that, when I crossed into AZ, that the reality that I was on the road truly struck home. Now here I was, on the verge of completing a 13,000-mile continental loop, nearly back were I started.

Every inch of the way, I experienced the goodwill of friends and strangers.  To a fault, these people were taken by the idea of one person leaving everything behind and setting out on a journey. Now, I was nearing the end, at least to this part of it.

Amaya is a spiritual teacher I met five years before through the didgeridoo. On my earlier visit, she and her daughter Sarah gave me the courage to trust my fate to the road. Now they are telling me that the next stage will yield new discoveries and deeper connections. More lessons to be learned, obviously, more challenges, but with the promise of greater rewards. Clearly, I am not exactly the same person I was when I hit the road 11 months earlier. How could I be?

But who exactly am I now? Maybe when I get to San Diego, the people who knew me there will give me a few clues.

Four days pass. Then I hop into my car. It’s just a short run to San Diego County. Time to find out.

Into Southern CA

Day after Thanksgiving …

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I’m with Lisa, a long-time reader of mine, together with her parents, Ray and Gloria. Backing up a bit …

Early in the morning, I pack up my tent for the final time in my journey. From now on, I will be sleeping in beds, with access to hot showers. I head back through Yosemite and set a course out a different entry/exit toward Fresno. Lisa had invited me over for Thanksgiving. I replied asking if it could be Thanksgiving left-overs. At the Park gate, traffic is backed up in the other direction.

Soon, out of the Park, I’m making a rapid descent toward the dreaded Central Valley. In a couple of days, I will be driving through a stretch of it toward LA. But today my destination is closer. After 30 or so minutes, the sugar pines give way to scattered broadleafs and open grassland. A bit further and I’m in what can loosely be described as civilization – strip malls, restaurants and hotels, car dealerships.

Turn back! every last billionth of my 100 billion neurons screams. Back into nature! “The mountains are calling,” says a vision of John Muir.

But we’re also social animals, in need of human company. To connect, I need to seek them out in their natural habitats. Today, I find them outside of Fresno, in weather we identify with southern CA. I’m in a residential neighborhood pulling into a tree-lined street. Next thing, Lisa is greeting me at the door, making me feel at home, introducing me to her parents, who moved in with her a few years before.

Later, a daughter and son-in-law will pop in with a grandchild. The son-in-law will busy himself changing light bulbs while the rest of us dote on the grandkid. Next morning, at their favorite diner, the family introduces me to the concept of biscuits and gravy.

Early next day, it’s time to hit the road. Technically, Lisa is my last host until I get to San Diego. Later in the day, I will be dropping in on my first host in Laguna Niguel, just south of LA. In one sense, my journey ends there. In another, it ends when I land back at my original point of departure, from a secluded ranch in San Diego’s east country.

Either way, I’ve reached the beginning of the end. Here, outside of Fresno, I’ve crossed the unofficial line of demarcation into Southern CA, into the land of all-year shorts and flip-flops. For ten years, southern CA had been good to me – a place of nurture and refuge, where I managed to reclaim my soul and develop in ways that I like to believe made me a better person.

But the year before, like a pup being kicked out of the litter, it was my time to go. I’m looking forward to waking up in familiar surrounds and catching up with old friends, but I know in my gut I won’t be returning home.

I knew that way back in June in New Jersey when, at my request, my sister booked me an airfare for Christmas at her place in Florida out of Phoenix, not San Diego. I would be gone by then, I knew.

And here I’ve been, in CA for nearly a month, putting off my arrival there. It’s as if I already know that my my stay will be short, here, that for another year at least, the road will be my true home.

In the meantime, one more stop …

 

 

Hetch Hetchy Valley

Thanksgiving day …

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I’m in a remote valley of Yosemite National Park, Hetch Hetchy. Backing up …

My plan for the day is no plan. I head off down a road in the National Forest I’m camped out in. A fork presents itself, and I go one way. In due course, I’m being waved through a back entrance to Yosemite National Park, and soon I’m on a narrow road snaking down a cliff. I round a corner, the view opens up …

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All in good time – zigging when I’m supposed to zig, zagging when I’m supposed to zag – I reach the bottom to discover a dam, the O’Shaughnessy Dam, built in 1923 …

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The signage tells me that the reservoir from the dam supplies San Francisco and that John Muir adamantly opposed its development. According to historic accounts, the Hetch Hetchy’s beauty rivaled that of Yosemite. On the dam’s far side is a tunnel through the rock …

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The tunnel opens up on the other side into unrivaled scenery, dam or no dam. Looking out …

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Looking back …

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And in between …

Plus mama and her cubs …

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Near a waterfall, I find myself chomping into a cold meat sandwich alongside a family eating their packed lunch. It is Thanksgiving. I can’t think of a better feast, a better setting.

John Muir died, at 76, in 1914, a year after losing his fight against the construction of the dam. But the loss helped galvanize the conservationist movement, including the Sierra Club, which he founded in 1892.

No dam, I rationalize, no San Francisco – no beat poets, no Summer of Love, no Janis Joplin. Alas, with the reservoir – venture capitalists and app designers. What can I say?

Bear!

Thanksgiving day …

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Best conversation-killer of all time …

Say to the person talking to you: “There’s a bear behind you.”

I am in Yosemite Park’s Hetch Hetchy Valley, taking a break. It is Thanksgiving and the trail I’m on is well-traveled. About 30 minutes before, I saw a crowd gathered, viewing something in the near distance. A waterfall? I look past the crowd …

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Mama and her two cubs. They look so cute and cuddly that it is all I can do to restrain myself from hugging them. By this time, I had virtually given up on the thought of ever seeing a bear in the wild. Perhaps my didgeridoo was keeping them away, I rationalized. So it was that I was reconciled to going to my grave bearless.

Now this!

The bears saunter away and, light-hearted and light-spirited, I resume my hike. So here I was, further down the trail, enjoying an unrelated conversation, when the bears make their reappearance, at much closer range. Cue the utterance of my famous conversation-killer. Without looking back, the woman lets out an earth-shaking screech and breaks 17 long-standing world speed records making her exit.

Guess she feels different about bears than I do.

Valley Floor

Late Nov …

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If I get off the beaten path, I can nearly convince myself that I am walking in the shoes of John Muir, with the whole Yosemite Valley to myself.

According to an article in Smithsonian Magazine, the first white visitors here were vigilantes who rode into the valley in 1851 and 1852 and evicted the local Indians  – the Ahwahneechee, a branch of the southern Miwok – and burnt their village. But these same vigilantes also spread the word about the sheer beauty of the place. In 1864, in response to petitions from tourists from San Francisco, Abraham Lincoln signed a law setting aside the valley and its surrounds.

John Muir first visited here for a brief period in 1868, and returned for an 11-month stay in 1869. A few months later, he was back for nearly a two-year residency. Back in the Bay Area, he began to establish a name for himself as a nature-mystic and self-taught naturalist. Over the years, his reputation would mature into that of a philosopher-statesman worthy of the mantle of Emerson and Thoreau before him.

In 1889, now in his 50s, Muir returned to the Park with an influential magazine editor.  Together they came up with a plan for Yosemite National Park, which Congress passed the following year.

“Any fool could destroy trees,” Muir wrote. “They can’t run away.” Muir saw God’s immanence everywhere in nature. “Unfortunately, “God cannot save trees from fools,” he observed. “Only the government can do that.”

In 1903, John Muir took a sitting President – Teddy Roosevelt – for a three-day camping excursion. TR was a committed conservationist long before he met John Muir, but after the Yosemite trip he marshaled his resouces with new urgency.

When TR assumed office in 1901, half of the nation’s timber lands had been cut down, the buffalo and other species faced extinction, and special interests were teaming up to lay waste to huge tracts of pristine wilderness. Thanks to TR, five national parks were created, along with 150 national forests, 51 bird refuges, four national game preserves, 18 national monuments (including the Grand Canyon, which later became a national park), 24 reclamation projects, and the National Forest Service.

Significantly, TR extended the concept of democracy to include future citizens, arguing that it was undemocratic to exploit the nation’s resources for present profit. “The greatest good for the greatest number,” he wrote, “applies to the number within the womb of time.”

Meanwhile, back in my valley …

Among the sugar pines …

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Macro view …

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Micro …

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Parting shot …

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We all flow from one fountain Soul. All are expressions of one Love. God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts, saturating all and fountainizing all. – John Muir, writing from Yosemite Valley, 1872.

 

 

 

Waterfalls

Late Nov …

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I’m back down in Yosemite Valley. My car is in a lot. I am on a hiking trail to Vernal Falls. I head uphill, and almost instantly I am winded and in need of a break. I’ve gotten soft in my 10 or 11 days as a house guest back in the Sierra foothills. I need to pace myself. Soon, my efforts are handsomely rewarded …

By the way …

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Reason to bring a didgeridoo on a hike #352: Should I fall over the waterfall, the didgeridoo doubles as a snorkel …

Looking down …

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And a quiet place in the neighborhood …

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It had been my intention to make it past Vernal Falls to the top of Nevada Falls – but by now the sun is getting low, and I have to settle for this view …

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Some views on the way down a different path …

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.  – John Muir, The Yosemite.