A Meditation on California While Rushing Through It Print
Essays and Memoirs

2683210010_b127534e8b(Benicia Bay Review Volume 1, Number 2, Fall 1994)

How many times have I rushed home to San Diego on a Sunday evening from a weekend off in the hinterlands of California? From Carmel, Idyllwild, Tecaté B.C., from hiking in Yosemite, the Lagunas, Anza-Borrego. The flying drive home inspires me with its geographical spectacle, and the contour of meaning I take from the land I navigate. I always arrive not tired, but ecstatic, aware of something new, something perhaps magical coming to my work and life. I think clearly in the dark at seventy-five miles an hour. One benefit of freeways.

I return with my sons from two days of skiing in Mammoth. Incredibly, to cover half the state, the drive takes only seven hours. We get there via two highways: Interstate 15 to Victorville, above the Cajon pass, and U.S. 395 to Mammoth, and its ice-packed, chains-required turnoff. San Diego is on average 100 feet above sea level; Mammoth is over 7,000. And, in the steady rsie of the journey, we bridge worlds of incredible contrast: A shop outside Victorville promises those head to Las Vegas "Wigs! Lashes! Nails!" while Mt. Whitney and the Sierras, snow-dusted gargantuans, darken in the twilight.

At Mammoth, we wait in long lines to ski, we freeze, we eat big meals in crowded restaurants. I spend too much money. Time to go, I say. Yet the motion of driving home spawns an insight, worth our hurrying. At the wheel of my Honda, a word comes to mind—traversing. In cars and trains and planes, on skis, on foot, on rollerblades, in lines from seat to snack bar, from warming house to slope, we cross and recross space, not until we’re there, but because motion, even the squirming we do for attention, produces life.

Unremarkable, you say. We already know that, the familiar rushing to work, to home, to recreation. But in the freeway flying there is another rushing I perceive, a rushing that allows us temporarily to evacuate our lives and reach an anonymity that is full of wonder and loneliness.

I realize this at the stoplight in Kramer Junction, one of those Alice-doesn’t-live-here-anymore destinations, population thirty-seven. It sits on 395 between Victorville and the Sierras and on California 58 between Edwards Air Force Base, home of the shuttle landings, and the lights of Barstow, a town most everyone passes through, glimmering in the distance.

I feel the sadness of those vanished Alices in Kramer Junction. I sense the disquiet of their back-and-forthness collecting in the bright dirty toilets, in the dish of black pennies at the register, in the bulging dumpsters. Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, found a sort of permanent impermanence as well as a language to express it, in "the used surfaces of things." By contemplating the wearing away of objects with poetry, he tried to capture what he called "the confused impurity of the human condition."

In "There Is No Forgetfulness," Neruda writes,

If you ask where I come from I have to start talking with broken objects,

with kitchenware that has too much bitterness,

with animals quite often rotten,

and with my heavy soul.

What have met and crossed are not memories,

nor the yellow pigeon that sleeps in forgetfulness;

but they are faces with tears,

fingers at the throat,

anything that drops out of the leaves:

the shadowiness of a day already passed by,

of a day fed with our own mournful blood.

Neruda’s intuition about absence also led him to deepen his compassion, especially for the stranger among us. He said in an essay, much different from his poetry but springing from the same well, that "to feel the affection that comes from those who we do not know . . . who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses—that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things."

Over these highways of destination and regret, I too feel the confused remains of our picking-up and putting-down lives. I think of California as a patchwork of such crossroads, where our tracks mix and layer and reach out uncertainly. I think of cities as magnets, hometowns yes, but also monolithic deposits of the colonizing motion of the West: South Central L.A., for example, a huge pocket of immigrants coming and going amid neighborhoods chocked with poverty and beauty; or San Diego, particularly south and west of the city, and its compartmentalization—la frontera, Naval shipyards, placid suburbs, and the communities of dispossessed Thais, Vietnamese, and Cambodians.

In the Midwest, where I was born, people came and stayed; but if the place didn’t feel like home they left. In California, no one leaves because there’s territory enough for every clamoring, butting-in, finger-wagging new arrival to find his or her niche. In California, where the roots of nearly 80% of its residents lie elsewhere, how and how long we sit with the stranger becomes our history.

If you want to understand California, understand that the rushing through it which we say we abhor but secretly embrace is the soil of our mythology, the paradox of our character. Home is between being everywhere and being nowhere, the furthest reach of the American dream and as far from Kansas as you can get.