On clear days when I was a child, I'd look up from the playground at my school, or out the window of my mom's car, toward the top of Snively's Ridge along the south edge of the valley. There in the distance, I'd see something, though I wasn't sure what—in fact, it was so small against the line of hills that sometimes in between glimpses I thought I'd only imagined it. But, no, the next time I looked, there it was: a little white dot up on top of the hill. I imagined some sort of tower, a lonely castle fortress where some distant king looked out across his domain.
I came to find out when I was a little older that it was a fire lookout, which didn't really dampen the romantic nature of my imaginings, just changed their focus a bit. I thought of some vigilant park ranger up there by himself, watching, watching, watching, to keep everyone safe.
For years and years I looked up at that little tower and wondered what it looked like up close, but I never got closer than four or five miles away. The trail up the ridge was too steep, too long, and I was too much an indoor child. This past February on a trip back to visit Juliette's parents I finally decided to make the climb, and in the early chill of a Thursday morning, found myself trudging up a narrow, rocky trail in Garland Park. It took me the better part of two hours to hike the three miles or so from the parking lot by the river, and in the end I discovered that the tower itself is set back on another hill behind the ridge, called Pinyon Peak. There's no public access, and so the closest I could get was still a few hundred yards off.
So, I took this picture, then turned to look out across the land around me. There was a little breeze, cool against my skin damp with sweat from the climb, and no sound but a bit of birdsong, some leaves rustling in the wind, and the sound of my own breathing. The sky was clear, just a few wispy clouds making ribbons in the sky to the southeast. I could see east past the Village, southwest to the Highlands, and to the northwest all the way to Monterey and Seaside.
I stood there a while and looked and breathed. Eventually I started back down, as I had promised to meet up with everyone that afternoon and still had a bunch of places to find and photograph. I didn't reach the goal I had in mind for that morning, but what I got was enough. I'll get there some day.
We had been there all day, piling rocks one atop the other, and the dam was really starting to take shape. Who knows whose idea it was—things have a way of coming together when no one is paying attention. Here and there a tadpole darted between the shadowy places between stones and algae, tickling our feet as their tails and little legs brushed past us. We laughed, splashed, hollered, and kept building.
At last the dam was done, the river deepening behind it, tinkling and rippling over and through it. We took off our shirts and lay in the little pool, letting the water wash past us. It was cold, even in the heat of the summer, and we sat until our lips turned blue.
I have a vague memory of coming to Garland Park with my aunt and my brother, and a man who might have been my aunt's boyfriend, but who could just as well have been a friend. He was tall and lean, dark of hair and skin, with long arms and legs, and a Spanish-sounding name like Luis or Carlos or something. The trail from the parking lot to the waterfall is a bit over a mile with a small incline—no problem for me now, of course, and I've done it dozens of times by this point, but for a bookish and whiny five-or-six-year-old, it was a bit much. At one point either I or my brother—I can't remember which—got tired and demanded to be carried.
The hill isn't too bad even for a desk jockey like my modern-day self, but as I remember it, Carlos-or-Luis-or-whatever perspired like I'd never seen a person do before. (I'm sure that having an extra thirty or forty pounds on his back contributed to his exertion.) He wiped his brow with one palm and flung a handful of sweat along the side of the trail. I can't remember his name or his face, but I still remember the gooey glisten of the droplets as they landed on the dirt.
I can't remember now if it was before or after the end of high school. Juliette and I went to the swimming hole at the end of my street with two friends. At first I just sat on the edge of the chalk shelf and let my feet dangle in the water, while the others went straight in. The water was always chilly there, and the trees and the hillside never let any sunlight down to warm us. The other boy—also named Mike—started talking about shrinkage. He was one of those rare few back then, back before "geek chic" was a thing, who could enthusiastically love obscure movies and made his own stop-motion videos and always had a pop culture reference at his lips, and yet he was still cool, authentically cool. Much cooler than I was.
"Shrinkage factor 15!" he exclaimed.
"You have a scale?" I asked. "Like, a measurement? What does 15 mean?"
"Dude, I just made it up right now because it was funny."
"Oh." Right. Duh.
Juliette's friend, a girl who lived around the corner from me, glided through the water scooping up clumps of algae in her hands and flicking it at us playfully. "Gross!" one of us shouted.
"It's just pond yuck," she said matter-of-factly. "It's fun to squish it."
I don't remember when I actually got in, but at some point I must have decided that hanging off to the side looked worse than taking my shirt off in front of two beautiful girls and a guy from the swim team. I imagine that other kids were just as insecure back then as I was, but I didn't know it then. Though, I guess they didn't know it about me, either.
Cold water, shrinkage, pond yuck, insecurity. That's what I remember. It was thirteen years before I came back to the swimming hole, but by then the river had moved and the rock was naked under the sky. Somewhere else along the river, kids are still flirting and playing and feeling weird, but not right there anymore.
Sunrise on El Caminito
I drove up the windy road to the top of the hill, my headlights not going far in the twists and turns. When I arrived and got out of my car the sky was just beginning to brighten with false dawn. My breath steamed in the cold air and I shoved my hands in my pockets to keep my fingers warm. I stood there for over an hour as the sun rose.
I knew I'd been at that spot some time before--long before--but I couldn't remember when. It's an odd thing to look out at a place and have it feel familiar and strange at the same time. Maybe it was the perspective--we always lived in the canyons, and the valley looks different from the heights.
I looked out at the little crossroads and the track winding off into the distance, and I wondered where it went. This place, it's in me in a way that nowhere else ever has been. When I was a child I knew a lot of the secret spots that only children do, but even still there are things I don't know about it. If I had stayed, how many more would I know? But then, I stopped exploring before I left. With a job and a family and not much time, would I have even thought to look?
The Octopus Tree
My friends and I used to play in this tree. We'd climb up and lie on the bent over trunks, or sit under it and throw leaves at each other. I wanted to lie under it and take a picture looking up into the branches, but the path had completely grown over with brambles and poison oak, and I couldn't get through. I was happy to see that the tree was still there, but sad to think that no other kids have been lying under it on a lazy summer afternoon, dreaming new dreams. But, who knows? Maybe some day some kid will find a new way into the little clearing, and the story can start over again.
Robles del Rio
I found out over the summer that the Robles del Rio Lodge had burned down. In fact, it happened three years ago, and I had no idea until I went out of the way to visit the neighborhood. I'd never been inside before, and it seemed odd that I wouldn't get the chance now.
Would the news have hit me differently if I'd lived there when it happened? I wonder.
Over the summer we went back home and visited Juliette's parents. I took the opportunity to go back to my old town and work on my "It Forgets You" series some more. I used to come to this swimming hole a lot when I was young--it's right down the street from where one of my friends lived. I hadn't been back in years. I stopped hanging out with that friend, and then I moved away. The fence around the outside has a bunch of signs I don't remember and there's a new bench. The river is the same, though--here, at least. After all the floods and dredging and new channels, this might be the only part of the river I still recognize.