Early Dec …
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 …
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.”
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:
And, from Safari Park, this cheetah pic …
Plus a couple of surreal shots from the San Diego Botanic Garden …
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.
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.
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: