South Fork of the Eel River
Home of the Coast Redwoods
Home of the Sinkyone and Wailaki tribes
Humboldt County, Northern California
This river is where we swam as children. Not together, but around the same time, with our own families, on our own camping trips, with our own canvas tents and green metal lanterns and Coleman stoves. Our own parents, carrying their own worries, but not here. Our own siblings and cousins, with their own baggage, unknown and unopened, because it was still early.
Eight summer vacations between both of us—or maybe six. Time is slippery these days.
We discovered our confluence at the beginning of our relationship, pouring over family photo albums, scavenging for clues into the others’ history. We immediately recognized the river and trees with crowns we couldn’t yet see. The square pictures with scalloped edges tucked in four black corners show each of us floating on our own air mattress, scanning the rocks with our fingertips, squinting for the camera. We search the backgrounds for a pony-tailed girl and crew cut boy, smiling and squinting for another mother, just outside the frame.
I can still feel the air mattress, purchased for $3.99 at Thrifty Drug Store, suitable for sleep or play, as long as the leaks are patched each evening. The built-in plastic pillow, how our legs stick, how the air would seep out, but just a little. A sixty-year memory for $3.99 is a pretty great value.
The river is low and narrow today, as are most in California, especially this time of year, especially this year. Steve is already in the water, and I am toes-in only. Occasionally a fish jumps, though I can’t vouch for the fish, just the splash.
I notice the hair on his chest has turned white, reminding me of his dad. At 91 and 65, they’re closer in age than anyone wants to admit. Counting the bumps and bites on my own body, I puzzle at how my feet have turned into my grandmother’s. The women in my family are barefoot, even in winter, so I know my grandmother’s, and mother’s feet, as well as my own. I’m almost the age my grandmother was at our wedding, and she was always old to me. I remember twenty, when our skin as tight and smooth, and on hot summer days we’d hike to Upper Bidwell to swim, no suit required.
Same. Different. New. Old.
Rocks. Water. Trees. Sky.
Three heart-shaped rocks on the beach today, though the third is skinny and wonky, but the top dips in and the bottom points out, and three in two days is remarkable, especially for hearts.
The river is green, sometimes brown, and in the deepest spots, indigo. It seems to be reflecting the trees, five shades of green, instead of the sky. The gray and white rocks turn brown as they climb up the mountain. The sky is the exact same shade of blue everywhere, without a hint of cloud. With each gust of wind, the lower trees turn their leaves, revealing soft undersides. The sway starts low and moves up to the next row, as if they’ve just discovered a secret worth whispering. The redwoods, at the very top, are still. They’re hundreds of years old, and it takes more than a summer breeze to impress them.
Same. Different. New. Old.
Rocks. Water. Trees. Sky.
Downstream a group of families gather on a spit of land. They're settling in under a giant sunshade, maybe ten children under the age of eight, not counting the two babies on mama hips. Their floaties include the usual rings and rafts, a purple seahorse and a watermelon slice. I’m fascinated by the huge white unicorn with the rainbow mane and tail, golden horn and pink wings. Steve says, “Someone had to blow all of that shit up.” I think someone must have paid more than $3.99 for such a work of inflatable magic.
Rivers merge with streams and creeks, lakes and oceans. We have been together longer than not, with matching gray hairs, one bad back (his) and a few extra pounds (mine). We have made a marriage, a business, and a family. But today we are right here, with our fluid memories, and a river full of rocks that feel like home.
Seacliff State Beach, Aptos, California
Santa Cruz County
How must she feel? To be responsible for myth and miracle, showing up every day with the churn and crash required to satisfy the job description. Does she ever wish to be a lake or river instead? Are there days when she’d prefer to be a seasonal pond with reduced expectations, fair compensation for the mud and mosquitos?
Is she happy?
Do the kelp and coral recognize Ocean’s willingness to keep pace with the changing tides, just because Moon has its own ideas about scheduling? Do the octopus and whale and jellyfish, the gull and pelican and plover on the shore, the sand and abandoned seashell and driftwood not yet smooth, the swimmer and surfer and sailor and Rosalie who sells shave ice from her rainbow cart on the south end of the boardwalk while her husband and son fish from the north pier, appreciate the creativity that goes into each and every single wave? Do the sea turtle and snorkeler and the college kid on the beach who preps cabanas for today’s guests, bringing them cocktails and fresh towels, understand the stress their Ocean endures to take care of their needs? There’s a certain push and pull when one is in cahoots with the moon, you know.
I’m no different from the plankton and crustacean, the barnacle and the buoy and the old lighthouse on the point that enjoys new life as a guesthouse for the intrepid cyclist who seeks a view with his room. I’m as selfish as the others, asking the broad horizon with the barely visible curve and the rolling waves that shimmer in the fall when the light is low, to swallow my sorrows and set me straight.
What do we owe her?
The great white shark circling the reef in Western Australia may know. The sea snail circling the algae that will soon be supper, the shy boy poet who collects sand dollars and words that sing, and Kiri, who mends fishing nets in her village, as did her mother and grandmothers and aunties before her—they all know.
The iceberg and glacier, and by association, the penguin and puffin, know. The scientist at McMurdo Station, and the baker on a seasonal contract for the third year, who is also an artist who studies the reflections of water and ice, both know. The starfish and cuttlefish don’t know, not yet. But the urchin and mollusk will clue them in when the time is right.
Is she weary?
Does she grieve the oil spills, plastics that refuse to decompose, immigrants lost in a leaky boat? Who comforts Ocean when the moon is just a sliver, and she has to keep the tides shifting on her own? Will there be a moment, close to solstice, when Ocean might whisper to Moon, “Let’s give it a break.” Moon would resist at first, but she is a good listener, and Ocean can be quite persuasive.
Moon will eventually acquiesce, and agree they both deserve a rest, at least for a phase. Maybe two.
Land of Wishful Thinking
It’s beautiful, this desert, where ideas rise from the sand.
Today we’ve driven past blooming ocotillo with bird-like flowers perched on the bare branch tips. Past the 350-foot rusted sea serpent, too-tired-to-try-anymore motels and RV parks, date farms, dirt bikes and dune buggies. Out to explore renegade art at the edge of Salton Sea, we first stop at Salvation Mountain and Slab City, though we missed East Jesus and the Lizard Tree Anarchist Library. We admired a surprisingly beautiful fence crafted out of bed springs and paused at a dead tree with twelve paint cans hanging from the branches, a reminder that the desert is a crossing to somewhere else, and not a safe one.
On cue, he’s says, “This is the land of wishful thinking.” Inbound, it’s all anticipation and aspiration. Outbound is a story of unfortunate choices and questionable timing.
Bombay Beach was a popular-then-abandoned resort, poisoned by the salinity of the Salton Sea and runoff from Imperial Valley farms. It’s having a second go as a bohemian artist’s colony, though it’s still reviving and not yet thriving. Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby have been replaced by an impressive collection of graffiti, art installations and decomposing structures on the beach. It’s not easy to discern trash from treasure, but the colors are bold and bright, which might be the point.
The first person we see is a shirtless runner, wearing sequined kitty cat ears. He looks like an average suburban runner, especially if you ignore the striped tail following him.
We drive around the edges of town and to the beach, finding a ghost ship, swings in the water, a doorway to nowhere, and a sign that claims, “the only other thing is nothing.” We park at Bombay Beach Estates, a crumbling compound of decay and poetry and broken glass, with pigeons nesting in the corners. It’s brilliant and confusing and a little gross. Step carefully, he warns me. But look at this, over here. And this. And this.
We stop at an orange building in the shape of an M, The Museum of Unwanted Architecture. We hear a sound check, “testing, one, two, three” and a drum solo that sounds promising. On the corner, a slab is painted with the message, “rent me and live here for $250 a month.” It faces the lake which is toxic and smelly and full of dead fish, with sculptures that might last a season or two.
“That’s a bargain,” whispers my inside voice, as I ponder what my contribution might be. I could paint stories on my imaginary motorhome and build totems out of coffee cups and baby doll heads, but not the creepy ones. I’d drive a golf cart covered with miniature plastic toys. Obviously, I’d wear caftans and bracelets up to my elbows, and change my name to Annabella, but you can call me Bella. My garden would be a gathering place for writers and readers, broken pottery, and anyone who needs a little kindness. Lemon bars and iced tea will be served every afternoon at three.
I don’t mention this, not yet. Maybe he’s scheming too, and we can be neighbors in side-by-side RVs painted in complimentary colors. I suspect his yard will have bicycle wheel whirligigs, a putting green, and weekly life drawing classes, but that’s just a guess.
We spy a dinosaur painting hanging on a cyclone fence, promising free hugs. A house with five crystal chandeliers hanging from streetlights. An airplane that looks like a fish. The Bombay Beach Drive-In, full of cars without wheels. A wall of televisions and computers, with pink paint that dried dripping and a Venmo number, just in case. A young man is carefully painting a house without walls. I want to ask if he’s going to live in this house of rainbow colors, and if his new home will have walls or be all porch, which would save the cost of windows but still get plenty of light. On the way out of town, we stop at the billboard with a vintage photo of four laughing women on water skis. The Last Stop for the Bombay Beach Resort has been altered so only the words, The Last Resort, are highlighted in yellow.
As we drive away, Mr. Kitty Cat is returning from his run.
Later, I search property prices in Bombay Beach and realize I don’t have the resources or constitution to be a renegade artist at a toxic beach in the middle of the desert. My comfort zone includes moderate temps and as little poison in my water as possible. The only idea worth pursuing is a closet full of caftans and an armful of bracelets. Maybe the lemon bars. And the community of readers and writers. I’ll skip the baby head totems, because no matter what I imagine, they will always be creepy.
Purple Sand Beach
Pfeiffer Big Sur Beach
Monterey County, California
Home of the Esselen Tribe
It’s a warm, crisp day for mid-February, even for California. The air and light are perfect, but it isn’t quite right. We’ll pay for this not-winter in July, when trees are matchsticks waiting for a bolt of lightning or a downed power line to strike. But for today, we have sand and surf and puppies and beach balls and jumping with a rope of kelp and a hole in the wall that reveals half sky and half sea. The dads are in charge and the tide is out, and sometimes the dads turn their backs, calculating their odds of winning the betting pool for tomorrow’s Super Bowl, though that is just conjecture, and the toddlers move closer to the waves and further from the shore. But once a mama, always a mama, and across the beach we all sit up and focus, because nothing will happen to those babies on our watch.
The couple in tie dye, who are the ages of our own grown kids, which I know because they are our neighbors back at the campground, are hugging in the water, and a group of college kids are building an impressive sandcastle, though only three are building and six are giggling. I’m accompanied by one pigeon, a few sandflies and a book by my new favorite writer who I just discovered, four books in, doesn’t use quotation marks, which is why I have been confused about thinking versus speaking, especially when it’s a crow, dog, or marten holding the conversation.
The toddlers are digging with their bellies, creating their own personal sand pools where they can swim in place, flailing arms and legs and laughter because they have no idea how much sand they’ll be bringing home in their bathing suits. One of the benefits of being three is you aren’t in charge of cleaning up anyone else’s mess.
The woman in the orange sari and gold sandals, who I didn’t figure as a cliff climber when I saw her back at the parking lot, but here she is, scrambling around the hole in the wall, so she can get a better look from the other side.
And you, next to me, who drives the trailer, parks the trailer, levels the trailer, checks the solar and the propane, who crafts the cocktails and cooks the hotdogs and builds the fire, and plays backgammon and reads out loud and stays up an hour later with a glass of whiskey with one big square ice cube, and draws and listens to music that feels familiar but I can’t quite place, and finally climbs into the bed that feels like a tree house. You call me the welcoming committee, and sleep on the side next to the window, which is the cold side, and you still get up first and start the heater and the coffee and the day, so I can ease in at my own pace, which is to say, after the coffee has been dripped, but before it’s had a chance to cool.
Most of us are in bike shorts or yoga pants, and the only one of us in a bikini lies in the water as her boyfriend takes photos, showing her each shot for approval before taking another, and she doesn’t even look cold. Further down, a four-year-old, in the only other real bikini, pink with turquoise ruffles, fills her bright orange bucket with water and runs up the sand to her dad, teensy tiny quick steps, like a sandpiper, dumps the water at his feet, and he jumps and acts surprised and delighted every single time.
They call this the Purple Sand Beach, and sure enough, I find ribbons of sand and water, bleeding out of rocks, growing wider until it looks like a ballgown. Closer to the rock, the one with the hole in the wall, someone has written with a stick, “Hey, I really like you.”
Scenic Byway 12
Leta is evaluating her career opportunities in Escalante, Utah. She might work alongside her mom and sister, serving fancy people in their fancy hiking clothes at the fancy resort, as she’s been doing since she was 12. It’s a fine job, but she can’t see the horizon from inside the restaurant, or even the patio, and that makes it harder to orient herself when she’s on hour six. Her cousin Emmalyn is a housekeeper at the not-as-fancy lodge down the road, where the view is better and the guests are kinder, but Emmalyn suffers from chronic cheerfulness, which Leta fears could be contagious. Her cousins are a network of their own and everyone knows of a job or knows someone who knows someone who knows of one. Josh is a tour guide for Escape Goats and has a spot for her in the office and she’d be tempted if she could work with the goats instead of guests. Sylvie is a cashier at the Anasazi Museum in Boulder, despite her anthropology degree, or maybe because of it. Leta is missing the college degree and also an appreciation for organized postcard racks. Leta’s uncles all have cattle ranches, though her dad opened a rock shop specializing in petrified wood and fossilized dinosaur poo. No disrespect to the dinosaurs, but Leta has her heart set on a job with a view, a crew and a uniform that commands respect. Steel-toed boots would be proper professional attire for someone like her.
At least I imagine this could be so.
What I know is true: We’re in the middle of a three-week tour of Utah’s five national parks and one monument: Zion, Bryce, Arches, Canyonlands, Capital Reef and Grand Staircase-Escalante. Every park is different—in Zion the show is up, in Bryce the show is down. In Canyonlands it’s out and in Arches the show surrounds you. Capital Reef is close and intimate, and Grand Staircase-Escalante has been tossed back and forth between politicians that it's still catching its breath.
I do know the red cliffs render me small, but not insignificant. The arches surprise me every time, though we’re in a park with 2,000 of them. The slot canyons feel like a hug. The petroglyphs, gnarled juniper trunks, and glowing outline of the rocks after the sun sets, but before the moon rises, write their own stories. I’m almost speechless and nearly religious in the presence of hoodoos, washes and walls, towers and tunnels and prehistoric rocks that have no business balancing in the turquoise sky. We drive through a forest of birch trees still wintering, while tiny purple wildflowers sneak out of the sand and stone. And we camp before a grandmother cottonwood tree so broad and graceful that everyone who walks by is compelled to stop and hug it. In the middle of the night the stars appear for all of us, followed by the Milky Way for those of us awake at 2:00 a.m.
A raven visits our campsite each morning, eyeing the lantern lights hung on the beautiful burnt branches, and brings a partner to discuss how to transfer them to their own nest. On the trail, mama deer holds her ground because she was here first, so I wait my turn, because I’m a little lost and suspect she knows the best way back. In the canyon a tiny lizard plays stare down, until he darts into the rock crevice, declaring himself the winner.
I know I feel, more acutely than anywhere I’ve been, sorrow for the pain of the indigenous people who loved and lost this land—the Utes, Goshutes, Paiutes, Shoshone, and Navajo. The spires feel like totems, and it is easy to believe they are honored ancestors, watching and waiting for us return their land, and if we can’t do that, at least respect and revere it.
And here I am, on Scenic Byway 12, one of the most beautiful roads in America, face-to-face with Leta. She’s standing before our truck, in her orange safety vest, bright green gloves and yellow hardhat. She appears to be in her early twenties, and has a single braid down her back, mirrored sunglasses, and a black fabric mask that covers her neck and most of her face. Leta is holding the biggest stop sign I’ve ever seen. For twenty minutes we watch her twist and turn, sometimes for the view, sometimes to relieve her back. When the forklift stirs a cloud of dust, she pulls up her mask and watches him instead of us. Sometimes she bows her head, and we wonder if she’s napping. A gallon water jug sits at her feet, half empty, or maybe half full. Her boots are sturdy and we note that she reminds us of the rock formations, proudly standing guard in each park.
I wonder if this is the job Leta wants, even though she may secretly aspire to be a goat herder? Maybe next season she will be promoted from flag person to transportation technician, and she’ll supervise where the traffic cones go, instead of being the one to put them down each morning and pick them up each afternoon. What if this is the path to forklift driver, which is awesome for anyone, but especially for Leta?
She stands still as she waits. We are all waiting, watching for any changes in her movements.
Eventually Leta reaches for her walkie-talkie. The pilot car arrives from the opposite direction, followed by a hundred more cars, trucks and RVs. She waves to each driver as they pass, not one long wave, but individual waves—arm up, palm out, arm down, repeat. Every car gets a custom wave, with a slight variation. Sometimes, but not always, she smiles. A few cars wave back, and I try to will the passengers to greet rather than just pass her. Her wave repertoire is impressive, and I question if her hand dance is rehearsed or improvised.
The pilot car turns, the dust settles, and Leta rotates her sign from stop to slow. She signals with her hand that we can go, and I raise mine to wave first, hoping Leta knows we appreciate her commitment to safety, creative wave choreography and sign stabilizing skills. I watch in the rearview mirror until I can’t see her, wondering if she knows her own power.
Lake Tahoe, CA
Home of the Washoe
Blue is waiting for me.
“Pull your chair closer, right to the edge. Hydrate, sunscreen, sit.”
Blue is beautiful, but she’s a little pushy.
The water of Lake Tahoe confirms that all the blues are my favorite blues—especially the blues mixed with the greens. Not turquoise or teal, but that iridescent-middle-of-the-lake blue that shows up when the sun moves away from the clouds.
I remember now.
We’ve been carrying some heartbreak over the past few months, and this lake gives our sorrow buoyancy, not permanently, but just long enough to catch one’s breath. This is my favorite spot in seventy-two miles of shoreline, tucked into the west side, without a café or cocktail in sight. I question why I almost always have the beach to myself; maybe not everyone requires silence or solace or all the blues in one place.
Steve tells me that in painter’s terms, the water is Prussian Blue and Mediterranean Turquoise. Blue is showing off, just a little, today. The clouds are trying harder, too. A few paddle boarders are out, though when the wind comes up, the stander-uppers become sitter-downers, and my arms ache for them. The red boat speeds up when he gets close, making sure we don’t forget him, or his wake, when he disappears around the point. A piece of bark floats by with no better place to be.
It’s not full summer yet, and the moss climbing the trees is fluorescent green. Today the mossy sticks are more tempting than the rocks, except for the water rocks that have taken on other colors—golds and purples and oranges and pinks. I won’t take them home though, not this time.
The party boat arrives, just outside the buoys. Two decks, plenty of bros, a few bikinis and an electronic dance music soundtrack. From the cheers, I’m guessing they’re having Tuesday afternoon tequila shots before one bro and one bikini jump into the water, yelling, “Fuck it’s cold!” The boat is named Prime Time, and Steve guesses it’s owned by a local news anchor. I guess it’s a rental and the bros haven’t yet hit their prime. Surprisingly, they don’t annoy me, even when they’re dancing and whooping it up on the bow. I may be condescending, but I can appreciate a good time when I hear it.
Steve pulls his sketch book and seven different blue and green pencils from his backpack. “Do you think this is enough?” he jokes.
Cells of light reflect all the shapes, swimming right up to my toes. A ladybug lands on my thumb and I watch her right wing move, then her left, and can’t recall how long it’s been since I’ve had a ladybug in my hand. She stays for a long time, though it might have been only a minute.
Steve finishes his drawing; I finish my crackers. The wind comes up again and the light changes the blue all over again.
y hand. She stays for a long time, though it might have been only a minute.
Steve finishes his drawing; I finish my crackers. The wind comes up again and the light changes. It’s always changing here, that you can count on.
The Protection Plan
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
Santa Cruz Mountains
This park promises redwoods, but they’re down the road, and we’re camping in a magnificent forest layered with oak, madrone, sycamore and pine, hovering over a carpet of red poison oak. Here it’s easy to believe trees talk to each other, as they twist and turn to support a bough that might require an assist.
The trunks gather in groups of four or seven, going out of their way to reach over the road, weaving in and out until they’re a tangled puzzle of twigs and leaves and sunlight. The pattern is confusing, but maybe the pattern is simply reaching out, leaning in and wrapping around. I wonder if they say, “Here, take my branch, I can grow another,” or if they hold each other up without a word. Is it duty or delight to lend a branch to a tree who has lost a favorite limb?
My metaphor-loving brain lists everything I’m trying to nurture and protect—my time, my marriage, my daughters, my mother, my friendships, my writing practice, democracy, women’s rights, the vulnerable and oppressed, my garden, my neighborhood, my books, my financial investments, my modicum of talent, my values, my muscles, my memory, my heart.
And then there is the planet, she who protects all of us.
No wonder there are so many trees.
That’s why I come here. To sit with my morning coffee, under the trees, looking up and out, waiting for a new point of view to find me. If I am still, the tallest tree will speak to me.
“It takes a forest” she whispers.