Sedona: Does this Vortex Come in a Tablet?

“Do you know where this vortex thingy is?” a man asks heading up the red dirt trail.  “I think it’s up in that direction.  You’ll see a bunch of people meditating.”  I cough, then walk the other way.   “Oh, goody,” he says clutching a Canon Rebel and smiling at his female companion.

Energy Tourists at Boynton Canyon

Sedona, Arizona is a spiritual tourism mecca and one of those places that people say, “You must stop and see.”  I have come in search of energy.  More specifically, in search of the energy vortexes  said to be scattered around the area.  My visit comes at a time when I’m nursing a bad cold, complete with sneezing, fatigue, fever and cough.  I have three days to see four sites.  More than enough time if I can find the, uh, energy.

The problem in locating, precisely, these “vortexes of subtle energy” is that there are no x-marks-the-spot signs indicating “here is the vortex” or “this way to the energy.”  Instead, one must read online accounts and feel their way to the right place.  One website (John and Miki’s Metaphysical Site), the one I use to find the vortexes, says: “You’ll notice that the energy is strong as soon as you get out of your car” in certain areas.  “Strong” is a relative term.

Red Rock Crossing/Cathedral Rock

The first vortex I assail is Red Rock Crossing/Cathedral Rock, located on Route 89A to the west of town.  As instructed, I enter Crescent Moon Park, pay the $9.00 fee, and continue to the farthest point where I can park.  From there, I walk a short distance along Oak Creek through beautiful maple, juniper, sycamore and oaks trees.  Fall leaves are an intense golden yellow with splotches of orange and green.  On the path are pillars, six-inches to two-feet high, of smooth river rocks stacked precariously one on top of the other that people have carefully erected.  My cell phone abruptly stops functioning and turns off completely.  I click it on several times to no avail.

The website says this center “strengthens the feminine side” that exists in all spiritual beings.  I didn’t know that energy has gender, but I’m open to the idea.  As I walk, my heart beat increases, though I am not certain if it’s the DayQuil, extra weight I carry around my midsection, or the vortex.  The prominent emotion building in me is anger.  I scream, in my head, at the other tourists who linger in several landscape photos I wish to take.  My iPhone still will not click on.

I recenter myself – after all, this is a special place and I am trying to have a spiritual experience.  Breathing in the fresh air and scenic location, I build a small rock tower.  Not as nice or elaborate as some, but it adds to the multitude of altars.  I pray and set an intention to welcome more feminine energy into my life.  Then, I walk back the way I came.  Before making it back to my car, I notice a man sitting on a log.  He grumbles, then pushes over some of the rock pillars.  Apparently I am not the only one who feels anger here.

Boynton Canyon 

Sedona Road Runner

The next center I pay homage to is Boynton Canyon, northeast of Cathedral Rock about 4 miles.  In the parking lot, I notice “parking permit required” signs.  Other cars display papers in their windshields, and after minor investigation I see an automatic pay box where for $5 a day I can get a permit – credit cards accepted.  I hate being nickled and dimed, so grumble to myself while inserting my card.  Total amount to see the two energy sites is now $14.

I follow the Boynton Canyon Trail to Vista Trail, just a short walk.  Along the way, my cell phone, which I have clicked a few times, reboots itself.  I overhear someone comment, “I don’t know where this what-ever-it-is is, but let’s go this way.”  I go the opposite direction, not wanting my experience to be disturbed.

Juniper trees jut out of smooth red boulders.  A couple in front of me points out a roadrunner off in the distance.  On this trail, I notice a vibrational hum coming from the earth.  I hear it in other places, but it sounds deeper here.  The website, which I pull up on my iPhone, says this energy center helps “balance the masculine and feminine.”  Again I feel my heart beat faster as I approach the supposed site.

I never find what I consider the exact location of the vortex, but decide my visit here is complete after saying a short prayer in an area where others are praying, meditating and even napping.

Airport Vortex

View from Airport Vortext

The third vortex is due east of Boynton Canyon on Route 89A at Airport Road.  Up a short trail, the site overlooks the city of Sedona.  I see the same “permits required” signage, which makes my masculine blood boil.  Here I decide to use the same permit from the last location – and rush through the experience less I be caught.  Not until later, do I realize that the permits are good for all locations, all day.

Before walking into the area, I center myself to see if I can really feel the energy.  I’m expecting it to hit me like a tab of ecstasy or LSD.  It does not.  By now, I am exhausted from the short walks taken in the name of spiritual growth.  I pause, breath deeply, then walk 200 feet up the path to the overlook.  Other visitors surround me, meditating, talking, walking deep in thought.  Images of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead play in my head as someone shuffles by expressionless.

This location actually has a pile of rocks enclosed in a metal cage that appears to mark the spot.  Offerings – dollar bills, flowers, personal notes, pictures – are placed carefully in between the red stones and wire.  I consider reclaiming the dollar bills, but decide karma might not look so kindly on such an action.  I have nothing in my pockets but my phone and wallet.  I thumb through it for something to leave, but find nothing.  I offer another prayer and set another intention.

Once again I experience a light, rapid feeling in my chest – my heart center – sort of like a strong cup of Starbucks first thing in the morning.  Being that this is the third time in as many locales, I determine the experience must be due to the vortexes.  I meditate, finding a nice, smooth boulder on which to sit.  The few moments I spend are filled with incessant chatter . . . from my own head.

Bell Rock

Bell Rock, Sedona

The fourth and final vortex I visit is located south of town at a pull out just off Route 179.  Pulling into the parking lot, I leave the permit from the previous day on my dashboard hoping to skirt the $5 fee (which I do).  It means I have to rush through the vortex or risk a ticket should some meticulous cop cruise the lot.

Bell Rock is a short, beautiful hike to a very “Sedona” place.  It overlooks a large bell-shaped geological formation covered in smooth red boulders and juniper trees.  The website says of finding the specific location: “Notice the twisted Juniper trees.”  I see branches twisting on themselves in a circular fashion as if growing in a slight whirlwind.  People are abundant in this location.  I notice tourists with cameras, maps, and a familiar look in their eyes – almost as if they have just spotted big game on safari.

This vortex supposedly strengthens all three of the previous areas: feminine, masculine, and the feminine/masculine balance.  I don’t notice much in this place – maybe because I haven’t paid my fair share of parking or maybe because the DayQuil is just kicking in.  Either way, I pause, then say a prayer for the land and breathe in the fresh air, red rocks, trees and land.

I come to the conclusion that feeling energy in each of the locations is nothing like drugs.  In most cases it is not even as powerful as a cup of coffee.  But, if I am willing to pause, listen and breathe, I might notice something just below the surface of perception.

Before I leave town, I catch up with my new friend, Malaika, the Australian/vegetarian/dance instructor I met in Oregon.  She has spent a month in Sedona – full of adventure – and is about to head off to Florida in a van she bought for $4500.  We review her and my adventures, misadventures, love, and loss on the road. It’s fun to compare notes.  We agree to meet along the way, perhaps for lunch in Austin or a swamp tour in Louisiana.

Timon and Me

Half way to Salt Lake City and tears still fill my eyes and run down my cheek.  I sob, then laugh, then sob again.  It’s a good cry, but my heart is breaking at the same time.  Timon, with whom I spent the last 12 hours, is back at his shelter and I am sixty miles north.  I don’t know if I will ever see him again; the woman at the desk said she would let me know what happens to him.

Timon is a dog living at the Best Friends Animal Society (BFAS) in Kanab, Utah.

Ready to go Home with you!

My relationship with the society starts with one serendipitous conversation – something I have come to cherish on the road.  Hiking the hoodoos in Bryce, I encounter a trio snapping pictures of each other – you know, two in each picture, rotating the camera, but never capturing the whole group.  I offer to take one of the threesome; they are grateful and we strike up a conversation as we walk through the amazing variety of red rock pillars.

They make annual volunteer pilgrimages to BFAS.  After telling me about their experience, I make plans to arrive the next morning.  Once there, the woman staffing the information counter tells me “there is a volunteer orientation at eleven.  If you want to take an animal on a sleepover, you must volunteer with dogs or cats.”  “A sleepover,” I inquire.

“Yes, where you take one of our animals overnight,” she says.

“Dogs,” I say after explaining my complete allergy history.

Before the end of the orientation, tears fill my eyes.  The Sanctuary overflows with love; it’s in the air and the people working or volunteering here.  I make it to Dogtown Headquarters after a wonderful vegetarian lunch in the cafeteria.  It’s dusty and hot as I drive up to the main building, which is situated in the middle of the Utah dessert.

My assignment is to take dogs for walks, one at a time so they don’t bite each other.  Andy, a Dogtown caretaker, walks with me to show me the trail.  Along the way, we swap broad stroke stories of our lives – how he ended up here and where I am going.  We also talk about the dogs.  He knows practically every one by name and each has a story, many unfortunately unpleasant.  Michael Vic’s pitbulls are here, as are dogs who are abused, neglected or sick.  No matter, BFAS provides a place for every animal to live out their life.

Jagger behind Bars

After the walks, it’s feeding time.  We prepare meals in a sink with special ones prepared by the handlers.  Andy tells me “many dogs have allergies and eating problems so we have to be careful what we give them.”  Jagger, a dog I walked earlier, eats too fast, so receives her food in an upside down bowl that slows her down . . . slightly.  Other dogs need enzymes or vitamins.  I laugh – they take some of the same stuff I do, with food.

There is amazing calmness that comes over the place after the dogs have eaten.  The ones that were barking or digging or feverishly running around are now sitting quietly, resting.  “If you’d like to socialize with some of the dogs, you can go into cage 2, 4 or 7, but don’t go outside at 7 and the dog in 4 might nip at you – it’s a nervous thing,” Andy says to me.  I choose cage 2 because it seems the safest.  There I meet Timon.  He’s a friendly, warm 2-and-a-half year old mutt.  His run mate is almost as friendly, but I notice that she is eating her stuffed toy – well, ripping it apart and then eating it.

The dogs and I talk for a while and I pet them while in their home – a five-by-five cinderblock cell with a metal gate for a front door and a cot and blanket for each pup.  This is where unwanted, unhealthy or dangerous dogs end up – doggy prison.  The difference between this and human jail is that someone else is responsible for them being here; they’ve done no crime, but suffer the punishment anyway.

Timon in the Dunes

“Have you connected with any dog to take on a sleepover?” Andy asks.  “Yeah, Timon,” I reply.  A broad smile comes across his face as he says “he’s a great dog, one of my favorites.”  Moments later, Timon and his overnight bag – a bed, water bowl, leash, doggy bags and treats – area ready to go.  We climb into my Jeep and drive to the Pink Coral Sand Dunes State Park.  The reddish-pink sand is amazing and I let Timon walk around with leash in tow.  He stays close, sometimes venturing away, but when I call him, he perks up his ears and runs back, tongue dangling to one side.  We walk and dance on the dunes for an hour.

That evening we dine at a local Mexican restaurant that happens to be dog friendly – many businesses in Kanab are, the work – I suspect – of the BFAS.  There are no seats available in the outdoor patio, so two grey-haired Texan women invite me to sit at their table.  They have two small dogs with them on their Colorado – Texas trip.  Over my chicken chimichanga and their burritos we agree on the best path forward for our country and solve several other world problems – this is another one of those moments I cherish on the road.

Timon and I head back to the hotel room; he sleeps in his bed and I sleep in mine.  Andy said he thinks dogs get better rest on sleepovers because they don’t have to sleep with one eye open.  I image that’s true and Timon barely moves all night.

Adopt me!

The next morning, we get up, have breakfast (Timon has a handful of Scooby snacks) and head back to the shelter.  As soon as I’m in the car with him in the back seat, I start to cry, then sob.  I’m not at a place in life that I can care for a dog and myself at the same time, but if I were, I would adopt this dog.  I cry all the way to the facility, while I wait to turn him back over to the caregivers, then half way to SLC.

The folks at BFAS are grateful for the half-day I spend there and the sleepover with Timon.  But I think I get so much more than the dog or anyone there.  I get my heart back . . .and it breaks as I drive to SLC without my new buddy.

An update as of this publication from the BFAS: “Timon is doing great, still living with Dixie and is continuing to go on sleepovers.”

Climbing Yosemite Falls, Almost Twice

I arrive at the Yosemite National Park Backcountry Permits office at 1:30pm.  In my hand I hold a topographic map and a copy of Backpacker Magazine with an article about a 3-day hike.  I’m proud of myself for arriving early and being prepared as it allows me to judge the couple in front who are unprepared and haven’t figured out that rangers cannot recommend hikes.  When it’s my turn, I ask for options. He gives me one, then – almost under his breath – lists several others, which sound uninteresting.

“But have you seen the weather forecast,” he asks.

“Yes,” I reply, “it’s going to rain in two days.”

“Rain and snow – up to two feet,” he corrects.

“Snow? Two feet,” I look at him as though he is speaking Chinese.  It’s September and this is California.

“Yes,” he smiles.

I mentally catalog the items in my Jeep, finding no long underwear, no wool sweaters, no ear muffs.  In fact, the warmest things I have are my jeans, a thin sweatshirt and spring jacket.

“Are you sure it’s going to snow,” I ask.

“Yes,” he smiles again.  “Next.”

As I step back slightly dazed, another couple steps up, underprepared.  I leave the building just as he says “as a government employee I can’t recommend any . . . “

Half Dome in Clouds

Determined to get to the trail head early enough for an overnight, I speed through the park to find where ‘Mr. No Recommendation’ instructed me to leave my car.  Yosemite requires all food to be stored over night in bear-proof lockers, so I move my cooler, water, Oreos and dry goods out of my car into a metal case.  Although no one else locks their container, I pull out a Master Lock and clamp it closed – I would hate to return and find my food missing.  Next, I repack my backpack for an overnight.  Do I take the laptop or leave it in the car?  Take it; again, would hate it to be missing when I return.  By the time I get to the shuttle stop, which will take me to the trail head, it’s 3:30pm. I can still hike for four hours – should be enough time to reach the camp site, which is two miles in.

The shuttle is painfully slow and the driver cheerfully narrates each section, deer, tree and grain of sand along the way.  People, happy and talkative, get on and off the bus.  Several comment, “Wow!  That’s a big pack.”  “Yeah,” I grumble at them.  At 4:30pm the bus comes to a stop at Campground Four.  I ask about the trailhead, to which the driver responds, “Cross the street and parking lot.  You’ll see a campground, veer to the right.  Then just go up.”  “Then go up,” I ask with a scrunched look on my face.  “Yes,” she smiles, closing the shuttle doors.  The shuttle pull away and I follow her instructions.

Timeline of Events
4:40pm: arrive at trailhead
4:50pm: breathe heavy
4:55pm: sweat profusely
4:57pm: stop, grab knees, catch breath
5:01pm: pass sign – “Entering Yosemite Wilderness.  Hike at your own risk”
5:05pm: stop, grab knees, catch breath, determine signal strength of cell phone
5:10pm: call National Park Service to understand lodging options
5:12pm: descend 75 feet to shuttle stop
6:00pm: unlock car, remove food from bear locker
6:20pm: check into Curry Village
8:00pm: enjoy fresh baked pizza and 7Up
 

Yosemite Falls – First Light

The next morning I’m awaken at 5am by people in the next tent.  Half asleep, I decide to make the Upper Yosemite Falls hike, the first section of the overnight hike I was supposed to take.  I reach the trailhead, by car, in no time and start the hike by 6am with a headlamp to light my way.  The switchbacks are killer.  I am sweating and breathing hard in no time, but with daylight coming and a lighter pack on my back, it’s manageable.

I rise quickly above the valley floor and witness amazing views of Half Dome and Yosemite Valley.  Switchback after switchback means I feel like a zipper going up the mountain.  Reaching the lookout at mile one, I encounter another hiker – the first – who passes me.  “Now the real climbing starts,” he says as we wave goodbye.  “Real climbing,” I question under my breath while cursing him for being the bearer of bad news.

And he’s right – as the Falls come into view, the trail gets steeper.  It’s almost comical to observe my mind while heading uphill. It runs through all the things I could be doing right now: sleeping, eating, having sex.  It says I’m too old, can’t make it to the top anyway, and should turn back now.  Breakfast – no, pancakes – sound marvelous . . . I’m sure I can find some nearby . . . if I just turn around.  I choose not to listen, but instead push onward, upward.

The next level of incline is worse than the one below.  Now, my mind is just getting in the way, so to shut it up, I employ the ‘counting method’ of climbing: each 100 steps means I get to take a short breath break.  I do this over and over, telling my head to “shut up!” many times over the course of the hike.

Arriving at the top of Yosemite Falls is breathtaking and well worth the internal battle of wits.  A smooth, grey granite deck drops off 2425 feet to the valley floor below.  A staircase – protected by a rusty banister drilled into the rock – leads to the outlook.  Looking over I experience slight vertigo.  Trees cling dearly to the face of the mountain.  Wind whips from all directions.

Matt’s Leap of Faith

Climbing a short distance back from the overlook, I find two deep dark pools fed by a river and smaller waterfall.  I make my way down to the base of these falls, snap a few pictures, and decide I haven’t lived until I jump in.  They’re protected – from going over Yosemite Falls – by a few hundred feet of river and rock.  Stripping off my clothes, I leap.  “Waahoo!” I yell, hearing an echo as my flesh hits the near freezing lagoon.  The water is bitter and, unlike my other recent naked dips, so is the air.  I towel off and shiver while eating a lunch of nuts and dried cranberries.

The second hiker I encounter that day – a 24 year old dude from New Jersey – asks about the water.  “It’s awesome,” I say, “Haven’t lived until you jump in!”  He catapults himself from a higher elevation.  I snap a few pictures of his death leap.  He survives.

I sit at the top of the falls for a some time contemplating my accomplishment.  I realize a few things: First, that my body performs better than expected sometimes, even though we have been through hell and back.  Second, my mind gives up too easy and would rather be on vacation.  Third, my soul is ablaze with love and expansion in nature.  I decide it better to listen to my soul more often as I make my way down the mountain.

Mammoth Snow

After brief consideration of lodging options – there is space available at the base of the Falls in Campground Four for $6 – I exit Yosemite via Tioga pass.  That night, I sleep soundly in a Comfort Suites in Mammoth Lakes as two feet of snow fall on the park and surrounding area.

Soaking Oysters at the Kabuki

Japantown

I arrive back in San Francisco after a couple weeks down the coast to house and dog sit for friends who are taking their daughter to Hawaii.  “Remember, Mika [the Corgi] is our first born,” they announce on the way out the door as a reminder to stay in check while ‘the cats’ are away.  The dog looks at me, I look at her, then she heads over to her favorite spot on the dining room floor to take a nap.  I think we’ll get along brilliantly!

I’ve decided to take advantage of San Francisco while I am here for the next few weeks.  I have a bunch of adventures scheduled – at least mentally – to fill the “unstructured” time (as my friend calls it).  Day one: Japantown for lunch followed by a soak in the Kabuki Hot Springs.  I have a tattoo appointment the following day, so this will be my last chance to soak or swim for the next couple weeks while my ink heals.  After walking the dog around the block a few times, I head out of the fog to Japan Center.

Boo / ブーイング

My First stop is the newly opened Daiso, which, from the looks of it, is Japan’s version of the 99 cent store.  I decide to ‘just browse’ and take a few pictures of the packaging, which is in Japanese and English.  The Halloween costumes are my favorite: witch hats, pumpkin streamers and fake noses are displayed in neat, orderly rows.  Next to them are the plastic boxes and mesh bags, which I simply must have to organize myself.  After an hour dreaming of the ways I will package my life in the rows of cute, practical plastic gadgets, I purchase nearly $19 of the junk and some Halloween decorations for my friends’ daughter.  I guess it’s how those stores get you!

I lunch at what appears to be a popular sushi restaurant where small wooden boats float around a water fed conveyer belt displaying sushi of various types and prices: eel hand roll $2.95, california roll $1.75, clam $3.95, spicy tuna $1.95, sea urchin $5.25.  Initially, I grab items I trust: eel, tuna and seaweed salad.  Then I spy two huge oysters coming around on a $3.75 plate.  I grab them thinking I have scored.  Bringing the almost hand-sized shell up to my lips, I pause momentarily breathing in the briny essence of the bivalve.  Tossing it back like a shot of Jaegermeister, I catch it with my tongue and bite it in half.  Creamy filling explodes in my mouth and overwhelms my senses.  Normally, I chew an oyster once, twice tops, and swallow.  This one is so huge, I chomp seven or eight times before letting it slide down my throat.  I gag, but prevail.

Sushi Floats

Not wanting the sushi chef to see me choke, I decide it’s best to finish this plate quickly.  Without pausing, I down the second oyster, this time attempting to swallow it whole.  It gets stuck half way down – too big to swallow – so I spit it back up.  Slimy flesh hits my front teeth and sits there momentarily.  I imagine the oyster no longer wants to go down, having witnessed what happened to its mate.  I gag; the oyster persists.  I imagine if it had arms it would try to pry my mouth open and leap to the table.  Looking around with this fistful of flesh in my mouth I’m desperate, but then devise the perfect plan: chew like mad and follow the creamy bottom feeder with a spat of green paste and flying fish eggs.  I do this, hoping, no . . . . praying, that the small salty roe will wash away the taste of sea sludge.  It does the trick, but the wasabi is hot and my nostrils are now on fire.  I toss back some hot green tea and ask for the check.  Walking through the center, I wish I could scrape the taste of dead oyster off the roof of my mouth.

I don’t know if it’s advised to sit in a hot tub full of naked men after one has eaten oysters, but I wouldn’t have listened anyway.  The Kabuki Hot Springs is a Japanese style bath house complete with showers, hot tub, cold plunge, dry and wet saunas and relaxing areas.  The establishment provides lemon and cucumber water and slices of apple during your stay and an assortment of body products for post-soak.  Every other day, one gender is allowed clothing-optional access to the facility.  The exception is Tuesday, when everyone is invited, but bathing suits are required.

Before entering, I imagine that I will encounter elderly Japanese businessmen and maybe a Buddhist monk or two.   Like Tassajara, I am surprised by the amount of, um, white guys.  I walk in and plunge into the warm soak.  My plan is this: hot tub, cold plunge, steam sauna, rest, repeat.  After a few moments I notice the men seem to fall broadly into two categories: squinters or cruisers.  Squinters peek; cruisers gawk.  Straight or gay, men do check each other out and, I think, are interested to see what other guys have for, uh, equipment.  It’s one of the reasons we dudes think we have inadequate tools; because we see one or two in the showers who are “show-ers.”

Japantown Art

I feel a certain sexual energy in the place that is hard to describe.  Maybe the oysters are kicking in like ecstasy tabs.  If the music were pumping disco or dance, instead of Buddha lounge, I might pop into the steam room for a little wank.  There is enough room for Bette Midler to perform if she chose to resurrect her bathhouse singing career.  In light of the fact that a businessman or monk might walk in one day, the management keeps the place above board.  Attendants keep close watch on the sauna and tubs to ensure a hanky-panky-free environ.  But there are still looks, glances and stares.

I leave the Kabuki slightly frustrated – damn those briny mollusks – but, find solace in Mika when I arrive home.  She is a bundle of love.  It’s really all I want right now – some unconditional affection.  We play hide and seek where I throw a ball then take off to another part of the house to hide behind a door or piece of furniture.  She seeks, all the while smiling with her tongue hanging to one side.   When she finds me – and she gets quite good at this – she barks madly and shakes her furry, tail-less butt.  We do this over and over . . . and over.

Going Home

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.

Golden Hills

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.

California Oak Tree

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.

Carmel Mission

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.

Sequoia Hugger!

Redwoods

We arrive in the Golden State just after 5pm and I am worried that we are not going to find suitable encampment for the night.  The temperature has dropped 30 degrees and fog now hugs the top of the redwoods as we continue our westward drive on Highway 199.  Reaching Jedediah State Park and Campground, we pull in and see the “campground full” sign.  We have to pull forward in order to turn around, but before anyone in the car can get a word out, the friendly, young ranger asks “looking for a place for the night?”  Yes, I reply.  “You’re in luck, we just had a cancellation.” I ask if we can we take a look at it.  Yes, he says, “but I get off in 30 minutes, so make it quick.”  We’re back in ten, paying $35 to camp in the keystone of redwood parks in northern California.

In no time, Malaika and Purdie are cooking delicious zucchini succotash using the small backcountry stove I brought along: I’m impressed by what two determined Aussies can pull off with bare minimum.  I set up camp, take a quick walk around the grounds and breathe in the sounds of people talking, kids playing or complaining, parents trying to figure how to set up tent, and RVs running generators.  I’m struck by the desire of human beings to be in nature.  Not everyone wants to be in it in the same way I do, but it is interesting that every year people pack the national and state parks with their family and friends.  It gives me hope.

I return to find Malaika and Purdie discussing America.  It’s been interesting to see the country through their eyes.  Malaika is surprised at the beauty and diversity of the landscape; she had the idea of a barren, overdeveloped land.  Those places exist, I say, but there are also breathtaking sanctuaries that people in this country have worked hard to protect.

The highlight of my evening comes when opportunity meets need.  The girls have never heard of, nor had, S’mores.  Given my food cravings, I am ready for just about anything on a stick.  Unfortunately the only chocolate in my possession at the moment is organic raspberry, large chunk.  Being that this is a S’mores emergency, any chocolate will do.  Over burning marshmallows and melting chocolate on graham crackers we exchange stories of our lives, loves and sorrows.

Footbridge to the old growth

The next morning is quiet and misty.  We’re up early and, after short debate, decide to hike a short point-two (.2) mile trail. We learn later that we have misread the signs and it closer to 2 miles.  In no time, we are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the mighty giants we call redwoods.  They shoot up out of the land like prehistoric monsters and it is easy to feel as if one has stepped back in time.  Fog embraces the canopy and ferns and tall grasses grow large and green along the forest floor.  We cross a river via footbridge and enter old growth forest, which is larger and more mysterious than its younger counterpart.

As I step close to one colossal giant, which I cannot even see completely, I wonder what we can learn from beings this large and old.  Many cultures see trees as magical beings that bridge realities and walking amongst such presence, there is no mistaking that these sequoia are alive.  I realize this is a silly statement, but let me explain: by alive, I mean conscious.  Not in the way you and I are conscious, but they are aware of us, their surroundings and the world.  I believe that there is vast knowledge accessible to anyone patient enough to listen.

Tree Hugger

Malaika tells Purdie and me about an artist in Australia who hooks up diodes to trees and then has people hug them, which produced unique sounds.  One time, he conducted a symphony by coordinating tree huggers.  To demonstrate, Malaika walks up to a redwood and hugs it as if she is embracing a long-time friend.  Wanting to hear what the tree will sound like (or say), Purdie and I move into to embrace our conifer brethren.  If you have never hugged a tree, or had a conversation with one, I highly recommend it.

Four hours later the gals and I emerge from the hike more centered and peaceful.  We race back to checkout of the campground.  Later that day, I say “so long” to Purdie and Malaika for the moment – human style hugs all around.  Sebastian, my stuffed frog copilot, takes his rightful place in the car, riding shotgun.

More NorCal pictures are available –> here

How do I say thank you?

How do I say thank you for everything you have done for me?  
  You walked with me when I was down. 
  You lent me your ear when I needed to talk.
  You showed me compassion when I had none.
  You saved my life.
 
How do I express my gratitude for our relationship?  
  For the time we spent together.   
  For watering my plants and checking my mail when I was out of town.
  For laughing together and crying together.
  For bringing me soup and NyQuil when I was sick.  
 
How do I show you I’m sorry?
  I forgot to call on your birthday.
  I didn’t show up when I said I would.
  I neglected to tell you how important you are.  
  I didn’t make time for you.
 
How do I tell you I love you?  
  For dreaming with me.
  For grieving with me. 
  For celebrating with me. 
  For being with me.  
  For the love you have shown me. 
 
To my friends, family and loved ones on September 11, 2011: I am blessed because of you.