Distractions

poppies

Big Sur March 14, 2016 courtesy of Jerry Melnick

 

Ignore the sheer cliffs

Of uplifted land

New from the ocean floor

Rising eastward against the aged continent.

View instead the luminous bounty

Of nature’s fresh spring,

Poppies.

A Journey West, Part 5/5

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Highway One Santa Cruz, early morning fog

My last night, again too anxious to get a good night’s sleep, I rise early for my flight home. The fog is in along the coast. Overnight chill permeates the distinctly scented air. Stately redwoods stand in silent observation as we merge into Highway One’s rush hour traffic.

Much as I dreaded the journey, I feel nothing but happiness that I came. Spending time with loved ones wrenches me, lingers like a lump in my stomach. Good that aircraft exist. A hundred years earlier, anyone traveling this far left loved ones behind forever.

San Jose airport. I say goodbye to my first born, swallowing back tears. Again I am thrust into a sea of humanity also venturing out into the world. Security is less stressful, boarding less crowded. Maybe I’m slightly inured.san jose copy

The gods smile on my seating, this time next to a window and not over a wing. My forehead presses the glass as the lumbering beast leaves ground and the wheels thump into the plane’s belly. Below spreads San Francisco Bay, San Jose, and streets, buildings, cars, and lives growing smaller by the moment. In striking resemblance to a circuit board, a network of roads, industrial complexes, and neighborhoods form the landscape below. Each serves a critical function, interdependent, vital, alive. Civilization, California style, 2014.

Last distant view of the Pacific. Goodbye salty spray, kelp-scented air. Long gray-blue line beyond jagged dark blue mountains. Horizon.

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Delta–Mendota Canal (left) and the California Aqueduct (right) near Tracy, California. Courtesy Ian Kluft

Soon the vista below changes to a patchwork of brown and green fields in the inner valley. Aqueducts glimmer blue-green. Bare brown hillocks become the southern Sierra Nevada range.

Across Nevada and then Utah, I marvel at the extent of this desolation. I’ve seen it all before, drove it more than once, but this time it seems even more a wasteland than I had previously considered. A handful of places feature a circular green patch and make me wonder who would struggle to pull water from the depths to grow anything in such a place. Even across New Mexico, the vista unfolds in desert tones of gray, tan, and ochre.desert copy

For the first time, I feel fear for us as a nation, for people everywhere, who confront the loss of rain as land slowly turns barren. For all our irrigation trenches, dams, and pipelines, in the end we are powerless to stay Mother Nature’s hand. Without fresh water, we can’t survive.

The land greens slightly in central Texas and by the time my commuter flight to Northwest Arkansas circles for landing, fertile green fields and thickly wooded hills welcome me home. Unlike the West Coast, the Ozark plateau is among the oldest land masses on the continent. I feel its old bones in me, welcoming me, holding me close in its eroded creek bottoms and smoothed down ridges.

Safely landed and walking to my car, I hear a familiar chorus of crickets and katydids. The air smells of cut hay and crushed weeds. For all my anxiety and curmudgeonly angst, I’m glad I went. I’ve been reintroduced to a world wider than me. I’ve shared a brief happy time with people I love and who love me. I’ve plugged myself into the Pacific for a deep charge of my psychic batteries.

I’ve been renewed.

A Journey West, Part 2/5

sc wharfThe narrow coastal rim west of the Santa Cruz Mountains is a world unto itself. Rich with moist ocean air and ornamented by unique flora, the land asserts a majestic presence in spite of roads, cars, houses, and other degradations inevitable in the presence of human population. I’ve been to Santa Cruz and its suburbs of Capitola, Soquel, and Aptos four or five times, and each time is a refreshing reminder of this unique environment.s c cliffs

All of it leads to the beach and  sheer cliffs eroded by towering waves. Stretches of sand crop up, narrow but pristine, fed by the constant motion of water. Detritus of the sea collects in meandering lines—kelp with rubbery flat leaves, seaweed in tangled blackish masses, bits of shell, and freshly exposed critters burrowing back under the swept-clean surface. The land gently rises from the shore to sweep up the slopes to the ridges of the densely forested mountains.

coast live oak

Coast Live Oak

madrone

Madrone

eucalyptus

Eucalyptus

Tall palms dot the neighborhoods and commercial districts, delineating their unique architecture against a backdrop of coast live oak, coast Douglas fir, the enigmatic Pacific madrone, wax myrtle and bay laurel, and the ever-present clumps of towering invasive eucalyptus.

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Coast Redwoods

Here and there remain the native coast redwood standing as lone sentinels or in surviving groves on the steep hillsides. Everywhere the hand of man has interspersed the natural plantscape with domestic shrubbery and flowering plants. But much of the native vegetation also blossoms in vibrant color. Blooms in every shape and hue grace parking lots, highway medians, ditches, and landscaped surroundings of shopping centers, gas stations, and random shops.

chamise

Chamise

The University of California at Santa Cruz takes pride of place at its higher elevation overlooking the town and bay. The cleared sunny south slopes of campus host a more drought-resistant chaparral vegetation with manzanita, scrub oak, and chamise.

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One of many campus walkways over redwoods surging up from ravines.

Beyond the expanse of land claimed by state parks, ranchers, and the university are groves of redwoods deeply nestled in sharp ravines and stretching to the sky up steep slopes. From the road along UCSC’s east side, a panorama of the Monterey Bay opens its glorious expanse to the viewer, breathtaking in its fingernail-moon arc southward.ucsc view

I would be happy living here, I think. The community is joyously liberal and rebelliously semi-heathen in its irreverent embrace of life. Homeless people around the wharf and other public places might catch the tourist off guard, but there’s no implied threat if the request for money is denied. Seaside attractions, aside from the string of restaurants, coffee shops, and lodging, include an amusement park with Ferris wheel, fun house, and roller coaster. At a safer distance from the occasional tidal shift or storm surge are shops and stores favoring every conceivable interest. The sprawling imprint of human settlement stretches for miles.

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View seaward from Ginny’s deck

A climate that rarely climbs past eighty degrees in the daytime or drops below forty degrees in the coldest night tempts me. My friend Ginny’s front deck faces the distant water from her perch halfway up a mountainside. From her hot tub or deck chair, I contemplate the fog bank lying like a thick silver blanket along the shore. On clear evenings, I watch the sun send its red-orange flare across the distant waves. I watch the whitecaps break at Soquel Point.

me & ginny

Ginny 1972

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Me 1972

The miracle of close friendship never fails to amaze me. After forty-two years since we were cute young travelers to the Great American West, we’ve stayed friends. She left Northwest Arkansas for New York and then retired to California. Together maybe a total of two months in all that time, we start our conversation as if we’d never been apart. Her habits are familiar—the gurgle of her espresso machine starts the morning while I sit staring out at the foggy dawn. We giggle over her silly cat and talk about our plans for the day. I marvel at her ability to thrive in such a claustrophobic environment, but then, my God, she spent a couple of decades lawyering in New York City.

There are two key points that keep me from seriously entertaining a relocation plan. Money. And population density. People literally live on top of each other. Ginny’s home at nearly $2000 per month (plus utilities) is the top floor of a house divided into three living units. At the back fence mere feet away begins another house, perched higher up the hillside but close enough to hear conversation on their front porch.

Single family homes are palatial estates costing millions or small, side-by-side 1930s cottages with questionable structural integrity and still worth many thousands. If I cashed in my sixteen Boston Mountain acres with over 2000 square feet of home space and spring water, plus my two commercial rental properties in Fayetteville, I might end up with enough money to buy a house trailer in Santa Cruz. Okay, maybe a 1940s bungalow on a postage-stamp lot.

In spite of the occasional gut wrenching journey for the sheer pleasure of existing for a time in this other-worldly Shangri-la and the intense joy of sharing a few days with my kids and Ginny, I think I’ll stay put in the Ozarks.