My mother and I pack her shoes and assorted bargains into the jeep and discuss our route to Carmel Valley: 280 to Highway 1, down the beautiful California coast. I inform her that I will make frequent stops to take pictures of breathtaking scenery. We say goodbye to our hosts and make our way south. Having spent nearly four days in the fog, we pray for sun, which is often abundant outside of the city. The famous Mark Twain quote – “the coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco” – runs through my head, though it’s not just SF, but the entire NorCal coast. As we drive, we hit a wall of fog so thick that it’s hard to distinguish ocean from land.
It’s about a two hour drive from the Fog City to Carmel, but it take us three and a half. Rather than stopping to snap pictures, we stop once at an outlet mall in Half Moon Bay and once at Costco in Santa Cruz. Making our way along the Monterey Bay, sights, sounds and smells become familiar. We pass the county fair grounds where I rode the ferris wheel for the first time, the town in which my parents met, the hospital where I was born, the high school I didn’t graduate from. We turn left onto Carmel Valley Road and the fog gives way to abundant, warm sunshine; the memories now flow faster. We pass the junior high I attended intermittently, the place where we had to drive fast get through a river to visit Margie and Ellen (the time of year dictated how much water would come into the car), and the ranch my father used to manage.
Making the final harrowing turns, which made me car sick as a child, we enter the Village and see the “welcome to the Carmel Valley” sign that has greeted visitors and residents for many years. This town is one of those special places that defy total explanation. Originally settled by ranchers in the 18- and 1900s, it saw an influx of hippies (including my parents) in the 1960s and 70s. Movie stars and other wealthy independents retired here, including the Brady Bunch mother Florence Henderson. More recently, wine growers have moved into the area and planted grapes on the arid, golden hills. This mix of people makes for good daytime – and nighttime – drama. Ask any resident about their life and experience in the valley and you’re likely to hear an story of love, intrigue and zany adventures.
I am surprised how comforting it is to smell my hometown. The air is sweet and full of eucalyptus, oak, and sea mist with just a hint of skunk and horse shit. I breathe deeply and chew on it as if sampling fine wine. It’s intoxicating – literally – and I feel slightly giddy. They say that smell is our strongest sense when it come to memories and with the smell of the Valley they come flooding back: good, bad and ugly.
My mother and I pull up to the Blue Sky Lodge, a gem in the heart of the Village that has been run by the same family for generations. Before we can park, a long-time family friend, Jenny, and her son greet us. They accompany us back to the cabin to help unpack. Next Abbe and Fred arrive, followed by Martha, Tom, and my father. It feels like my mom and I are celebrities returning home to a town parade. This is just one of the gifts we receive from family and friends while visiting this beautiful place.
The next four days are filled with stories of the old days and catching up on lives lived. It is fun to hear the stories from my elders who have grown wrinkled and grey. I remember when they were younger, and just trying to survive, hold together a relationship or make the best they could for themselves. Along the way they led a social change that is only now being realized. I am finally able to see my parents as entirely human – no better and no worse than anyone else on the planet. It brings me a sense of peace to have a renewed relationship with them in these years.
The only time mom and I leave the Valley, and sun, is to make a run to the Del Monte Shopping Center in Monterey to replace a phone charger that she forgot in SF. While there, I hear words cross her lips that I never imagined possible: “I don’t want to shop anymore.” I imagine it’s temporary and due to the weight restrictions airlines now place on luggage. No matter, I’ll take it! We stop briefly at the San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo (aka, Carmel Mission), one of gems in the system of missions that run up and down the state. They were built by spanish missionaries each about a one day horseback ride from the previous. We joke about robes on display in the museum (they would go well with the current pope’s fashion sense), then enjoy the beauty and quiet of the grounds.
Heading back towards the sun and Village, I realize that in fact it is possible to ‘go home again,’ but doing so has nothing to do with the location and everything to do with where you are in life.