East Meets West

Two people on the shore of the Pacific Ocean
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No matter what happens, travel gives you a story to tell. — Jewish Proverb

As a native Californian, I return to the Golden State each summer in an effort to imprint into my children’s psyches the wonders and weirdness of the West Coast. Each of my kids entered this world through a California pediatric ward looking glass but they are now Easterners – – preferring a lacrosse stick to a hiking staff and already developing that type-A need for constant motion and engagement.

We have worked to raise them in a household that is accented with the images and soft impressions of our native state.  I am the cultural attaché of the family, routinely using terms such as “dude” to address any member of our clan – including the dog.  I wear shorts in 20 degree weather. I am never too far from a baseball cap and flip flops.

It is important that my children remain in touch with their west coast roots. I fear that one day Los Angelinos may ascribe an unkind epithet to anyone who was born in California but cannot speak her language.   To truly grasp California ethos is to gain an appreciation for the muddied genealogy of a melting pot culture.  California is an alien nation and a bridge to a land of diametric contradictions.  It is venal and selfless.  It is a Garden of Eden with 14,000 foot peaks and rugged coastline and it is a corrupted paradise. It’s prime dialects are surfer, gangster, vegan and wannabe.  To be Californian is to embrace the narcissistic, the liberated, the tough, the organic and the cosmetically insane. The state seeps into every pore of your being.  You love it and hate it. To reside in California is the romantic equivalent of being married to a beautiful but highly unstable person.  You cannot possibly live with them but you are convinced to your tan lines that you could never leave them.

My efforts to keep some redeeming aspect of California alive in my Connecticut home are failing.  My visions of raising rabid, bi-coastal body surfers who could run with the bulls in New York while rappelling down mountain sides to catch, clean and eat their own trout have been derailed by a humid, temperamental geography of urbane, aggressive over achievers illuminated by bright, big city lights and a backdrop of militant New England individualism.

Our trips out West are always carefully planned to include a week at the beach visiting relatives followed by a week in the mountains to “get back to our roots”.  The beach is the quickest place for a native Californian to identify out of state interlopers.  Fortunately, for the us, most beach front residents are too mellow or too stoned to notice when a non-Californian violates beach etiquette.

My children pay no heed to my coaching. They race blindly across the beach front strand like it is 43rd and Madison – – inviting glares from scantily clad underwear models riding bikes up and down the fashion show thoroughfare.  The boys preoccupation with throwing a lacrosse ball, building sand castles, and attempting to boogie board four foot, neck snapping shore breaker waves – – are certain tells that they are from all parts East.  The surfers seem oblivious, vacuously watching for the next set of waves – wet suits peeled to their waists. They peer off into a deep blue distance — bleached, bare-chested sand pipers with calloused hands tucked under crossed arms.

Visiting the Pacific Ocean is only a prelude to our annual attempts to harmonically reunite east and west within our children. We share a deep affinity for the Sierra Nevada range – a crooked eastern spine of rigid ancient fissures that stretch 400 miles to the Cascades and south to the arid Tehachapi Pass.  Within this Range of Light, one can find the “tallest and oldest trees, deepest canyons, highest mountains and waterfalls and greatest snow depth in the contiguous US.”  As children, we spent summers deep in these conifer forests far from the light and pollution of Los Angeles learning how to camp, be self sufficient and to gain an appreciation for a sky filled with a celestial collision of stars, meteors and constellations.

As we attempt to bestow this California wilderness gift on our children, we are met with resistance. Our “perfect day” is considered a cruel, modern version of the Bataan Death March as we hike up 9,000 foot trails crossing great lupine and paint brushed meadows to eventually rest and fish alongside serene mountain lakes

On this particular mountain vacation, my teenaged Taliban have already attempted several insurrections and have filed a list of conditions around length of hikes, amount of exercise, and when one must rise in the morning.  Adhering to the Jack Bauer axiom that “we do not negotiate with terrorists,” I find myself playing the timeless “because it is my house, my car and I own your rear end until eighteen” card.  This is the parental nuclear option. While it is always guaranteed to extinguish any insurrection it often leaves the ground emotionally radioactive for some period of time..

10:00am – We have left Los Angeles to begin the six hour drive up to Mammoth Lakes. . We stop at a local juice bar to breakfast on healthy smoothies that include green tea extract, bee pollen and other “boosts” that can only be understood by a nutritional alchemist.  In a moment of great euphoria I order wheat grass shots for the entire family.  My youngest son looks closely at the watery green solution that resembles animal bile and declares, “I’m not drinking that!” I persuade him that this family journey can only be christened with a double shot of wheat grass.  “It’s like eating four pounds of vegetables” I exclaim.  This comment seems to have the opposite effect on him as he swigs the potion and immediately makes a face similar to the one he might make when he cleans the cat’s litter box.

11:30am – My youngest son has just vomited up his wheat grass, blueberry smoothie and morning bagel all over the inside of the front seat.  My older children are screaming and squeezing to the opposite side of the car. I have to admit, he warned me. After advising us that he did not feel well, he proceeded to purge his liquid breakfast with the same vigor of Linda Blair in “The Exorcist”.  The family trip is clearly not proceeding as planned.

Our route will take us through an over-built, foreclosed and now less populated Antelope Valley where super commuters still navigate two savage hours of traffic each way, each day to a job near downtown or West LA.  Just when it seems as if Highway 14 has you permanently in its suburban grasp, it releases you into a desolate stretch of never-ending horizon line known as the Mojave Desert.   My spouse and I take turns enthusiastically narrating a fifty miles stretch of box canyons, ancient burned out volcanic cinder cones and historical landmarks. My teens are unusually attentive to our travel narrative until we realize that they are all connected to iPods and have not heard a single word that we have said.

We arrive to cloudless sapphire blue skies and a brisk west to east clipper that blows determined down each afternoon from the high mountain passes.  After a first day hike into a beautiful but mosquito infested lake, the children spend the evening connecting via text and iChat presumably to complain that they are being held against their will in this prehistoric granite citadel. I overhear hushed tone expressions like “OMG – I am hiking with Satan” and “I cannot move, I am so sore…”  I smile and move to the sofa to read.

After declaring a moratorium on electronics, we spend the remainder of the week mountain biking, hiking, fishing and working out. The complaints dwindle and the family reforms each evening – – laughing, playing board games and heckling one another during low stakes Texas Hold ‘Em.  At one point, I actually see all three teens having a conversation.

To distract them from rehashing their list of hiking grievances – – the altitude, the distance, the bugs, the grade of the trail etc, we play a trivia game where they might earn credits that could be traded later for dessert, kitchen patrol exemptions and poker chips.  As we switchback our way upwards towards a hidden lake, I ask them questions ranging from world history and pop music to California factoids. The boys are hopelessly competitive and are quick to blurt out random answers to any question.  I start with any easy question that was drummed into the oldest two when they were living in England.  “Who discovered King Tut’s tomb?” Before anyone can say “Howard Carter”, my youngest son who has no recollection of living in the UK blurts out,” Brendan Frazer”.  My daughter laughs out loud. ” You idiot, he was the star of the movie, The Mummy!“

“What was Ghandi’s first name?.” My oldest daughter cringes and says, “Oh, I know this.” My oldest tson blurts out, “Jeff!” I look at him and smile. “Jeff Ghandi?”  I shake my head, “I weep for the future of this country.”  He smiles a wider grin and asks, “Was that his name?  Did I get it right?”

I ask a geography question. “Where is the Caspian Sea”. My youngests blurts out, “Narnia.” Our laughter permeates the trail. They barely notice that we have climbed to over 10,000 feet.   We crest a forested ridge and gaze down over a tear drop emerald lake surrounded by a massive 14,000 foot granite crest. The secluded lake is buffeted by lodge pole, conifer and blue spruce pines that are only interrupted by stands of sequined summer aspen.

We drop our packs and dive into the lake.  Screams echo across the silent cliffs as we shriek from the shock of the cold water.  I purify some drinking water from a stream and sit back with my reading book as the great heaving sweep of afternoon wind brushes across the water in a wrinkled sequined shimmer.  I glance over to see each kid reading a book or softly casting a rooster tailed, Mepps lure into a dark slate canyon of water that drops precipitously from our shallow rock-shelved shore.

“Dude”, my youngest says to his older brother.  “This place is wicked.” My eldest son is more non committal to public displays of enthusiasm.  He glances across the stream that feeds this midnight blue expanse of water, alert to the day’s first hiker – a pony tailed young man accompanied by magnificent Samoyed husky. “Yep, it’s sick. You know when I am older I am going to have four dogs” My wife smiles and I glance up at my daughter who is perched like a pika on a rocky outcrop.  She is normally most likely to be offended by any overt show of family solidarity. Yet, today, she looks up at me and smiles sardonically.  “Good choice – – dude.”

Ah yes, the Nutmeg State is doing a little Golden State.  East is finally merging with West and as they say on the strand, “it’s all good.”

Wide Open Spaces

Who doesn’t know what I’m talking about Who’s never left home, who’s never struck out To find a dream and a life of their own A place in the clouds, a foundation of stone Many precede and many will follow A young girl’s dream no longer hollow It takes the shape of a place out West But what it holds for her, she hasn’t yet guessed She needs wide open spaces — Wide Open Spaces, The Dixie Chicks

 

My summer journey is always the same. The trail climbs through deep forests of conifers, pines, birch and aspen into mountains that heave out of the ancient earth and cut across an entire horizon with jagged, saber-gray lines. The air is thin here, as elevations soar from 4,000 feet to heights almost three miles above half mile. Below these eagle’s nests of granite, an endless steppe of prairie grass sighs. It is a gulf stream of constant motion, bending and bowing to relentless winds that bullwhip down from lonely ridges and high passes. It seems that a benevolent, shadowed hand is constantly caressing this hard, muscular place.

To walk in these blue shadows is to be a character in a Russian novel, dwarfed by circumstances beyond your control, mesmerized by the sheer magnitude of nature and seduced by a relentless drumbeat whose percussion of life and death creates an irresistible cadence for every living thing.

 

I pass along a rapidly moving creek that disappears around a quivering stand of cottonwoods and aspen. It is a glorious day. It is a moment in time where the brief promise of wide open spaces and a chance to live more deeply intermingle and move the soul. I consider a time where there are no roads or people. It is not too hard to imagine anything here. It is the cradle of possibility.

Out west, a day is a sinewed, maverick roan that is impossible to fully tame. It is not enough just to hold on. A true westerner must dig in his spurs and bring each moment to heel. It is a land of tall tales and pregnant exaggeration that constantly antagonizes the imagination. It inspires, engulfs and transforms everything while never really changing its own relentless cycle of life.

 

Each summer pilgrimage to the Western mountains is a drink from the deepest and coldest of natural springs. It reminds me that I will barely bend a blade of grass in the years that I walk this earth. The great sculpted mountains endure as silent sentinels indifferent to the foibles of governments, business and individuals. When the last financial instrument or currency crumbles into dust, these massive displaced plates of earth will remain unmoved.

The West remains my reckless, wild-haired companion relentlessly tugging at my spirit and whispering to me to follow her into a twilight of mountains and high alpine meadows. Lavender lupine, blood-red paintbrush and soft purple columbine color the edges of this world. I always return to her and find myself wrapped in her swirling hot breath and relentless gaze. She is my oxygen and my midwife. Each summer, she delivers me into the world and I am reborn.

 

Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life. — John Muir

I am not alone in my love for the West. For centuries, people have found redemption, resurrection and rebirth in the Rockies and Sierra Nevada ranges. The Rocky Mountains of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana remain the grand portal that all Americans must navigate to find the Eden of opportunity that awaits somewhere off to the west. The Teton Valley is, by all definitions, the front door to Mother Earth herself. The cathedral of peaks known as Le Grand Teton literally translate from French to mean “the large bosom.” It is a sacred place — a gateway to Yellowstone and the northern wilderness of Montana and Canada. To the south, the peaks are called the Sangre de Cristo — the “Blood of Christ.” Native Americans drew deep satisfaction from their connections to the mountains, rivers and forests. There was a common belief that these places brought sacred connection to the Great Spirit and healed the People. The prominent Tetons were called “The Four Grandmothers Standing Tall” by the Shoshone, who saw the mountains and wide open spaces as a centerpiece to a connected ecosystem where man and nature lived in symbiotic harmony.

What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset. — Eagle Chief Letakos-Lesa of the Pawnee

There are those who come to the West wanting to become someone else and those who make a living off of being exactly who they are. A real cowboy loathes talk, loves action and speaks in grand hyperbole. “That canyon was so big, why I could yell Good morning’ at 9 o’clock at night and nine hours later, my echo would return to wake me up.” It is a kingdom of balance and diversity. The equilibrium is found in the eddies, channels and cut banks of Wyoming’s ancient Snake River that changes each day as water levels rise or fall. Balance is heard in the cries of osprey and bald eagles as they clasp cutthroat trout with black razor talons. It is fields of sage and wheat grass which move rhythmically in hot mistral winds while great moose, elk and bison move like phantoms across the grand plateau. It is the serene silence of a glacial lake fed by a thousand silver veins of frigid water as it cascades through stands of blue spruce, aspen and cottonwoods. A great owl swoops across an open marsh in search of an early dinner. A trout rises to a mayfly as the river becomes a boiling cauldron of feeding fish. A bison bays a lonely cry across an open plain. It is an anthem of renewal and return. The Tetons are the bones, skin and sinew of mother earth herself.

No matter how sophisticated you may be, a large granite mountain cannot be denied — it speaks in silence to the very core of your being. — Ansel Adams

If a person finds cause or passage beyond the spectacular Rockies, he or she will encounter the Sierra Nevada, which stands as a serrated knife-edge before gently sloping to the San Joaquin valley and the Pacific Ocean. The Sierras explode into view from the bleak high deserts of eastern California’s Owens Valley. They are the spine of California and its headstone, marking the deep fissure of earth which was its birthplace and perhaps one day might be its epicenter of destruction, the San Andreas Fault.

The heart of this magnificent expanse of mountains is Yosemite. One of the United States’ first national parks, Yosemite is a massive national monument of polished glacial domes, snow-fed waterfalls and meadows of white-tailed deer, black bear and beaver falling like celestial steps to the deep gorges carved over thousands of millennia to become the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. Photographer Ansel Adams captured the essence of this “range of light” giving physical form to the words and journals of Scottish naturalist John Muir, who viewed these mountains as his living companion.

Each western summer eventually loses its vitality and slips into a deep, frigid sleep. The first snow comes surreptitiously, scratching at cabin doors in late September, early October. Winter lingers until the rebirth of the people and the land the following June. The mountain summer never really goes away. It hangs in the air, a dusty perfume of sage and smoke that instantly reminds of warmer days and greener grass. She is our past, present and future all intertwined across a horizon of wide open spaces.