COMMENTARY: California Dreamin

I was thirteen, growing up in Akron, Ohio, when I saw the California coastline for the first time. It was a full-page color photograph in a magazine. Jagged rock stacks seemed to rise out of the ocean. Steep craggy cliffs that I thought were mountains towered over the beach. And a person was walking there! A person could walk between mountains and sea!

"To walk on a beach between mountains and sea."© Getty Images

I showed my mother and told her that I was going to live there.

"No," she said, "It’s too far from home."

"I have to," I insisted. "I belong there."

"Don’t be ridiculous," she said.

I gave her the knowing, skeptical, audacious smile that she always said made her want to scream and retreated to my room, hiding the photo in a safe, secret place.

When it was time to apply to college, I wanted to go to Berkeley or UCLA.

"You can go to Wisconsin, like your sister," my father said. "Or Michigan or Illinois or Ohio State. Not California. It’s too far."

So I went to the University of Michigan, with the California coastline packed among my sweaters.

I didn’t have enough money to go to California when I graduated from Michigan, so I worked for two years as a reporter on a small newspaper in New Jersey. When I was offered a job on a major paper in Albany, my friends were sure I would grab it. It was an obvious step up for anyone serious about a career as a reporter. But I didn’t belong in Upstate New York, so I turned it down.

"To go to California?" my friends said. "Where you don’t have a job, don’t know anyone, have zero contacts?"

"I have to live there," I said.

"Why?"

"To walk on a beach between mountains and sea."

My friends recommended psychotherapy.

Like the coast, the high Sierra would draw me back to its vistas of stark, moonscape granite mountains…© Getty Images

At that time, I had not read Joseph Campbell. I didn’t know about following your bliss. And I wasn’t on a spiritual quest. I had abandoned religion at age sixteen and was never drawn to any form of mysticism.

But I did follow an inner voice that led me to the first of several similar turning points in my life. What I was to discover about myself was that in everyday matters, I make practical choices, grounded in actualities. When the stakes are very high, I follow my bliss, which may be where mysticism and pragmatism converge.

I crossed into California from Nevada early on a Wednesday morning in September and drove straight to my magazine photograph, the Mendocino coast. No picture, no verbal description could have prepared me for the experience—waves bounding boldly toward the shore, only to be exquisitely foiled by jagged sentinels of intricately sculpted rock stacks. I filled a thick notebook with impressions and detailed descriptions of waves, cliffs, rocks, trees, sunsets, sunrises.

Words weren’t enough. Like an obsessed lover, I had to embrace my new home every way that I could, so without the least idea of how to draw, I bought a drawing pad and charcoal pens and drew rock stacks, driftwood, cliffs, dunes—amateurish abstractions full of emotional meaning for me.

Every day, for a week, I walked on the headlands, beaches and dunes in Mendocino and north to Casper and Mackerricher state parks or hiked into Russian Gulch and Van Damme state parks, filling more notebooks and drawing pads. At night, I read books on California history, flora, fauna, weather.

It had been almost ten years since a picture in a magazine had inspired me to come to this place. It would be another six years before I experienced even more astonishing proof that my adolescent epiphany was as reliable a guide as I would ever find.

In a newspaper trade journal, I advertised for jobs in San Francisco and Los Angeles and took the first decent offer which happened to be on a small newspaper near Los Angeles, where I later worked as a publicity and speech writer on political campaigns.

On many weekends and for most vacations, I drove to the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts, Mount Shasta, Lassen, Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Death Valley, Anza Borrego, falling deeper in love with the land. I hiked in these places but stayed in motels. It didn’t occur to me to camp out, until I started dating a man who did that kind of thing.

He suggested we take a four-day backpacking trip into the high Sierra. I didn’t think I could do it. Climb mountains, carrying all that stuff on my back? Sleep on the ground? I never had been a Girl Scout or Campfire Girl. I was a bookish, urban type who’s always relished as much comfort as I could afford.

"What about bears?" I asked.

"I hope we’re lucky enough see one," he said.

Less than an hour out of Yosemite Valley, I fell into a steady climbing rhythm and found that I was surprisingly comfortable, carrying a 25-pound backpack. In the wilderness, cut off from everything that I associated with comfort, I felt gloriously independent and self-sufficient, rock-hopping across rushing creeks, dipping my tin cup in them to drink the world’s most delicious water.

I had taken dozens of day hikes in places of exquisite natural beauty, but I didn’t really see, smell nor hear the wilderness until I lived in it. Like the coast, the high Sierra would draw me back to its vistas of stark, moonscape granite mountains, the brooding silence of its forests, the fresh exhilarating mornings. I didn’t just go into the Sierra high back country many times in the years to come. I was summoned there, the command as insistent as the characters and human situations that eventually would draw me into my plays, when I became a playwright.

"I don’t talk much when I’m in the wild," John had warned me. "But I don’t think you"ll mind. I think you"ll like it."

Smart, sensitive man. I loved the silence. It allowed me to have the astonishing epiphany that proved I belonged in California.

It was the third day of our trip. We had been climbing slowly and steadily for about an hour. John had disappeared around a bend in the trail. A few moments later, I came around the same bend, formed by a huge granite boulder.

You are not alien to this boulder.

What?

You are part of this boulder.

That’s what I heard.

I am not saying that the granite boulder spoke. I didn’t think for a moment that it had. But I didn’t speak, either. I just heard that pronouncement. Not loud but clear and absolutely certain.

You are part of this boulder.

And almost simultaneously, another equally confident declaration: You have al

ways known that you’re part of it.

Several years later, when I told people about it, they said I must have been on drugs.

I was not on drugs.

The whole episode took less than a minute.

If I stopped at all, it was only for a fraction of a second. There was no reason to stop. It was clear, profoundly true, and I had always known it to be true.

Truth. In childhood, truth is a word with a moral tag. In college, it’s defined in philosophy courses. As a reporter, truth was fact. In court cases I had covered, truth was an ideal sought and rarely, if ever, achieved. In plays, my characters sometimes discover it. I knew this moment in the wilderness to be essential truth. Astounding as it seems when I recall it, it was not astounding at the time. I felt at once as though something crucial had happened and, at the same time, that nothing unusual had happened, because I always had known it.

John would have understood and relished the incident, but I didn’t tell him right away. I didn’t tell anyone for several years. Everything had changed, but nothing had changed. I was awed by the revelation and, at the same time, completely at ease with it. It would inform the rest of my life, but its magnitude and conscious significance seeped in slowly, reinforced by years of continuous and often solitary hikes in the wilderness.

My parents had said California was far from home. But home is not where I was born and grew up. It’s where truth was defined for me in beauty, and Keats" famous lines became rock solid reality.

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," Keats wrote in Ode on a Grecian Urn. I can almost prove it.

CONTACT: California’s National Parks

LYNN SNYDER is a freelance writer from Berkeley, California.

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