Smelled Like Teen Spirit

Barbies

Back in the 90s, the days of Grunge, I lived in the hood — City Heights, San Diego. I liked the music of the times very much. I even went to a bunch of concerts and listened to it on my boombox in my garage on the weekend if I was working on an art project. In those days I was busy with the famed and immortal “Barbies Battle of the Bands; Benefit Concert for Cellulite Victims.” For what it’s worth, if you ever think of making a sculpture with Barbies, don’t. Mattel has LOTS of rules about that. I only got so far as making the instruments and stages and designing costumes for my two bands — The Black Widows (punk) and I think the other was The Bottle Blondes (girl band). All that remains of the monumental project are the guitars and parts of the drum kits. It was fun, but when Lucio, a little neighbor boy, came up to hang out with me and draw pictures one Saturday and asked, “Aren’t you kind of old to play with Barbies?” I began questioning myself. Otherwise, I was teaching and hiking a LOT and didn’t know I was on the cusp of getting a great job (1999).

My next door neighbors had teenage daughters, and the oldest was about to turn 15 which meant, as they were Mexican, it was going to be time for her Quinceanera, a fancy ball to mark the entry of a girl into womanhood. It involved a BIG party. None of us in the hood were wealthy (ha ha) so I didn’t know how that was going to go. I have never been to one but I heard stories and read journal entries from students over the years. It is a BIG deal.

One of the biggest events of the Quinceanera is the waltz.

A Quinceanera in Pasadena — really, aren’t those every little girl’s dream gowns?

After months of practice for the waltz, the moment finally comes during the reception. It is assumed that the Quinceanera (young woman) prior to this date has not been able to dance with anyone before. It is at this time that the Quinceanera will dance the waltz with her chambelan and accompanied by her damas and other chambelanes. This is a major highlight of the celebration. Other important highlights will follow such as the toast and the cutting of the cake. (Source)

So…there I was one late afternoon in November, I was in my little house grading papers with my six dogs hanging around, and I heard uncharacteristic music coming from the front yard. Huh? Strauss and giggling. Strauss and laughing. Strauss and “No, pendejo. ¡Asi!” More laughter. After a while, I decided that I REALLY needed to put my truck in the garage, right? It was an emergency. As I walked to the garage I saw one of the loveliest pictures from my life in the hood. All these kids, wearing the baggy-jeaned, Dr. Martin, grunge fashion of the times, had a boombox set up on the girl’s mom’s car. It was pumping out waltzes and they were practicing.

I loved it.

P.S. That girl later bought my house!

Swinging Doors

Last night I read about how a Chinese worker’s house had been uncovered by archeologists in Utah. More than 11,000 Chinese worked on the Transcontinental Railroad and many more in the mines throughout the west. When I got back from China in 1984, and ended up in San Diego, I became very curious about these Chinese when I saw so many Chinese things in the local antique and junk stores — and in the random rural museums. I even had the thought that maybe I was reincarnated from one of these Chinese immigrants and I thought of a story in which a person reassembled all the remaining possessions from a former (Chinese) life. All of these things would be — for that person — a doorway to the past. It’s still a good story, but I think it’s been written. The OTHER problem with it is that the protagonist had no where to go with that except collecting a bunch of old things. None of them would be a key to the answer or reveal anything about his/her past life. He or she would simply have a nice collection of Chinese antiques.

Which kind of happened.

The swap meet I used to go to with the good-X often had Chinese antiques. It’s where I got my “coffee” table which isn’t a coffee table at all. It’s a dining table for a family to sit around on low stools. I ate from such a table dozens of times. One day, wandering around Laguna Beach with a friend, I walked into a junk store to find the front pieces of a Chinese gown from the late 19th/early 20th century on which fabulous cranes had been embroidered. “I don’t know, $70?” said the guy.

The person I was with said, “That’s a little high.” (I didn’t think so, dirty though the pieces were)

“$40?”

And then, recently I got two early 20th century scholar cabinets at the local flea market.

That isn’t all, though. In San Diego there was (now re”juvenated” and turned into a tourist destination) a part of the downtown area that had been San Diego’s small China Town. I discovered it one day soon after I moved there and was wandering around the city, which, in 1984/85, had no Sea Port Village, Gaslamp Quarter, Horton Plaza, etc. etc. by which people know the city today. I’m glad they resurrected this part of the city, though. It deserved it.

My own neighborhood in San Diego — City Heights — was (is?) a low income neighborhood where many recent immigrants were first settled for a few years while they found jobs, their feet, their lives. At the time I moved there, the Main Street — University — was lined with Asian supermarkets, general stores, and pharmacies. For me that was very good. I could walk along and smell the strange musty smells of a Chinese/Vietnamese drug store. Smell is a powerful doorway to the past.

In Northern California, in the old mining town of Weaverville, is a “joss house,” or Chinese temple — in this case a Taoist temple. It’s amazing as is its history. There are temples all over California, but this one, in the middle of a forest?

So, my daily reality is filled with Chinese objects from the past — the distant past in a couple of cases — and my own past in others. I like that. I love their symbolism — personal to me, the memories of my own life they contain and the symbolism that’s intrinsic to the objects, not to mention their beauty. BUT, if I had a Chinese former life I think it was in Guangzhou from 1982 to 1983. If we live long enough we get to collect all kinds of amazing former lives.

Sitting here, typing this, I have photos in front of me: a black and white photo of my dad, my Aunt Martha and me in front of my Aunt Kelly’s little house in Lakewood, CO in 1964; a mostly blue and white photo of swirling clouds over a less famous view of the Eiger from the Jungfraujoch in Switzerland; a photo of me and one of the people from my past who’s still in my present. In the photo (though we don’t know it) we are at the beginning of a life-defining journey, entering a doorway to an amazing experience that is now the past. ❤

“I Want to See Mt. Palomar in Snow!”

When I was a kid in school in Nebraska, I was always excited when the Weekly Reader showed up. It left a big impression on me that lasted a long time, like until now long time. One of the great things I read about was Palomar Mountain where the Hale Telescope sat. Once the Good X and were living in San Diego, and I realized WHERE that was exactly, I was excited to go see the telescope. I loved space. We went soon after we found our apartment. It was great.

When our first San Diego winter(1984/85) rolled around, and I read that there were 12 inches of snow up there, I wanted to ski the trail from the campground to the observatory. It was one of our first back-country ski trips in Southern California. I learned a lot from it.

First, Southern California plants thrive in winter and die down in summer. Second, most of the 2.2 mile trail to the observatory was lined in brush meaning we had to stick our poles in the manzanita and sage scrub. It was ludicrous, hilarious.

At that point, I didn’t even know what those plants were except an enormous pain in the ass. As we neared the observatory, the trail was cleaner.

Higher ground, finally a decent trail to ski.

The ferns that grow along the upper trail were dormant and the pasture was wide. In the fullness of time (years) I would see the mortreros in the rock along the trail where the Indians ground acorns and I would know that the trees around me were mostly Coastal Live Oak and Jeffry Pine but I wasn’t there yet.

It took a long time to get up there, and though it was an insane caper, it was fun and the sight of that beautiful dome rising from a snowy landscape took my breath away.

We decided not to go back down on the trail. Parts were steep and narrow with almost no means of controlling a downhill ride, no room to turn, no place to plant poles. We took the road — which, up near the top had not been plowed.

As we careened down the mountain, whooping in exhilaration, we passed a family who, having heard there was snow up there, had brought their equipment for a fun California day. This consisted of a cooler, a couple beach chairs, a beach umbrella and a couple of boogie boards. This wasn’t irony; this was serious. As we whizzed by, one of the kids yelled out, “Hey mom, THAT’S what we should be doing!”

That was my first experience with the Southern California phenomenon of “going to the snow.” Many, many years later, when I was teaching Critical Thinking through Nature Writing and my students had to go “out” into nature and write about it in their journals, I read many sweet and funny stories about my students’ first encounters with the glorious white stuff. Most were surprised that it wasn’t softer to land in. Others were surprised it was so cold. On days when I took a dog or two up to the Lagunas to run through snow drifts on the Garnet Peak Trail, the Sunrise Highway was always lined by cars filled with people who went into the “wilderness” only about 50 feet for the experience of winter. Lots of people filled the back of their pick-up truck with snow and put small snowmen on the hood.

Today I took Bear and Teddy out to the Refuge. I’m still a little friable physically. The knee isn’t quite right and the groin muscle is tight and achy, still, but better. I was worried Teddy would pull too hard in one direction and Bear in the other, but no. Bear walked with me so I didn’t even feel her on the leash. Teddy is starting to understand what a leash walk is. It was perfect. All day showers have been coming over the San Juans in waves of air-brushed clouds of snow that obscure everything and go on their way. The three of us walked most of our walk in just such a miraculous shower.

Skis are not the only way to love snow.

Skiing Cuyamaca Peak — Cougar Tracks

A year or so after the Good-X and I moved to San Diego (1984) we bought a 1972 VW camper van with a pop top. It was an awesome vehicle (until the block cracked) and we had a lot of fun with it. We also had moved our skis with us from Colorado. We had heard — though we wondered how it could be true — that the mountains east of San Diego sometimes got enough snow to X-country ski.

Sure enough.

The first time we went up there was with a couple with whom we were friends and from whom we rented an apartment. We went to the Laguna Mountains. Of course I had no idea at that time that the valley in which we skied that day (on 8 measly inches of snow!) would someday become as familiar to me as my hand, or that I would learn to regard those 6000 foot “hills” as mountains. I was, I admit it, a Colorado snob. Now I know.

From my high valley even the highest 14er rises only 7000 feet from the valley floor, no greater gain in elevation than the top of Cuyamaca Peak from San Diego. In fact, it’s just the same. I learned that a mountain is a mountain in relation to the land from which it rises, regardless of how a mountain is defined by geologists or geological surveys or Alpinists. I’m not a mountain snob any more. The Colorado fetish with 14ers now seems a little silly. If you want oxygen deprivation hold your breath. 😉 I’m joking. I know there’s a lot more to it than that.

Today when I look at Windy Mountain or Pintada from the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge I see snowcapped hills that rise 5000 feet from where I stand. Mountains, but…

There are two ranges outside San Diego, separated by one of the innumerable fault lines that criss-cross California. Between the two is a narrow valley with a fissure and a spring that, in time, I got to know well. The ranges are the Cuyamacas — in which I lived for eleven years, and, just 10 miles further east, the Lagunas, in which I hiked and skied. The Cuyamacas have a leash law. The Lagunas do not.

Sometimes you see photos of San Diego looking east from Coronado Island. You see ocean, town, bay, city and, behind everything, a snowy mountain. That mountain is Cuyamaca Peak.

Cuyamaca Peak with snow on it

The second time the Good X and I skied in San Diego County we headed to a trail head at Green Valley Falls (fantastic falls in spring and in a wet summer, idyllic with pools and slides to play in, drop down, swim in, wade). We parked, paid our $5 day use fee, strapped on our skis, and headed up a trail we knew nothing about. It wound around the north side of the mountain to the west where it looked down on San Diego and the Pacific Ocean. We climbed, and climbed and climbed until we got to where we could see San Diego, but that wasn’t all we saw. We also saw fresh cougar tracks.

I didn’t know anything about mountain lions then except that they are dangerous. I had no knowledge of that world yet and little curiosity. We high-tailed it down and headed home, stopping on the way to watch a movie and have dinner.

Twenty years later, I would live at the base of that mountain and see it on fire. Later, I would see that far western slope with fire weed blooming. I would hike the trails in the Laguna Mountains in all weather, and ski to the top of Garnet Peak against all sanity and all odds. I would see a mountain lion.

Garnet Peak (a fun hike in the Laguna Mountains) in the winter of 2003/2004 after the Cedar Fire, oil on canvas.

The skis in the featured photo are just like the skis I took with me in 1984 from Denver to San Diego. They are — were — wonderful back country skis. They needed to be waxed which I liked because I could control the “slide” depending on my adventure. I found these old skis three years ago in a thrift store here in Monte Vista. They aren’t my very skis, but when I saw them they seemed to call out, “Get us OUT of here!” I had not had my hip replacement (second one, different hip) yet and I wasn’t moving very well. I was with my friends. We’d gone for lunch but weren’t ready to go home, so we visited a new thrift store in town. Without thinking, I reached for those old skis and cradled them in my arms. Elizabeth said in a soft voice “Are you going to ski, Martha?” There was so much pity in her eyes that I set the skis back where they were and went back to shopping. I returned to the store alone a few days later, forked over $30, and brought them home. They stand in my studio along with many other very personal treasures from my life. In a way, that room is my “medicine bundle,” my little trove of talismans.

Looking back on my first forays into the San Diego mountains, it’s funny to realize all the things I didn’t know yet. Makes me wonder what else I don’t know yet.


P.S. I’m writing my ski stories because writing the stories is how I figure things out. Now that it seems I’ve reached the end of this moment in my life, I want to see it more clearly and understand it better. I hope it’s not too tedious. ❤

Borrowing a Surfboard

Lifetimes ago, I went to the beach often. I liked it best in the off season (obviously) when there weren’t a lot of tourists. My favorite San Diego beaches were Coronado — where you could walk forever and which had a dog beach at the north end, and Ocean Beach because of the town and because of Dog Beach. For taking kids to the beach for a swim and dinner cooked on a hibachi, La Jolla Shores was best.

At the south end of San Diego beaches is Imperial Beach which has the misfortune of being at the mouth of the polluted Tijuana River. The estuary down there is a wonderful wetlands, and Imperial Beach is (was?) the only beach town not gentrified out of normal reality. Ordinary people live(d?) there. IB is also the beach where I surfed that one time.

Yes ladies and germs, I surfed. No, I didn’t stand up on the board.

It was an incredibly hot early September afternoon. The Boys on Bikes had come up to my hood which was 10 miles away from where they lived — Imperial Beach — to go ride BMX at Mission Trails, but it was just too hot. “Let’s just go home and go to the beach.” So, we did. They piled themselves and their bikes into the back of my truck and we headed back down the coast. Then, “Martha, you want to surf?”

Well, yeah.

“I can get a board,” said Greg.

We got to IB and commenced driving up and down the streets ostensibly looking for Greg’s friend’s house. Finally we reached a house with an open garage door. “This is it,” said Greg. I stopped the truck. Greg and Jason got out of the truck and went to the garage where they untied a surfboard from some ropes that held it hanging from the ceiling.

“My friend won’t mind,” said Greg, loading the board in the back of my truck. We were off to the beach.

The waves were about 2 feet and breaking cleanly. Not bad for a person surfing for the first time.

They immediately began telling me what to do, but I pretty much knew from watching guys surf for the previous 17 years. I’d also boogie-boarded (sort of fun) and body-surfed (a lot of fun) a lot so I had a little understanding of how to catch a wave. Those things are not surfing, but they are still informative.

Jason and I went out with the surfboard. Jason demonstrated and then it was my turn. The wave came up behind me — I saw it — and I was on the board on four legs. The wave came under me and took me in to shore. I rode a couple of other waves in the same way, but by then it was even too hot to stay at the beach and we didn’t have anything to eat or drink. Jason had been buried up to his neck in sand, which was funny until it got hot in the sand. The vibe was all “Let’s take back the surfboard and go to Mickey D’s.”

We washed the board at the end of the beach where there was a faucet, loaded it back into the truck and went back to Greg’s friend’s house. He and Jason took the board into the garage and hung it up.

It was then I realized we’d “borrowed” that surfboard and we hadn’t been looking for Greg’s friend’s house at all. We’d been looking for a board we could “use” for a little while.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/08/09/rdp-sunday-beach/

There But for the Grace of God…

My brother was homeless off-and-on during his adult life. It was mostly because he couldn’t keep a job and he couldn’t keep a job because he was an incorrigible and belligerent drunk. He was also a masterful con artist, especially toward those who loved him. I’ve written about him a LOT here on my blog and while I probably DO have more to say, I don’t think I want to say a lot more. It did give me a slightly different perspective on homeless people, however. I came to see that there are people (like my brother) who’d rather be homeless than contend with their habits and who will use the concept of “rescue” as a way to manipulate others.

The summer I was on medical leave from teaching (having had a nervous breakdown, the summer of 1994) I was sitting in front of the sainted Quel Fromage on Washington Street in San Diego. Quel Fromage was a coffeehouse of the pre-Starbucks type. I spent a lot of mornings there that summer and had become part of the little community of regulars who ALSO spent their summer mornings enjoying that spot in the San Diego neighborhood of Hillcrest. We got so we kind of “knew” each other. The tables were fenced off from the main sidewalk. I was sitting at a table next to the fence.

One morning as I sat at a table, drinking a latte and drawing, a homeless guy, who had a beautiful border collie, came by and put two dollars on my table. “I’ve wanted to give you that for a long time,” said the guy. “Buy yourself a coffee.”

It was a stunning moment.

I know, personally, how close that reality is at any given moment. That crazy (literally) summer I nearly lost my house. Until my disability was approved, I had no income. I had recently been divorced and my ex closed “our” banking account — an account that was money I’d earned. I was at the point of standing in line in strange little buildings to pay my bills with cash. I was selling things so I could buy groceries. One of my neighbors bought lots of my stuff and never used it. I got it back when I was on my feet. I knew ONE thing in those times; I did NOT want to lose my house. A lot of reasons, but probably the big one was what would happen to my six dogs????

One of my students in 1996 was a homeless woman with PTSD. She was scary, but determined to get off the streets and become a counselor. I taught her in a freshman composition class. She liked me, and well she should because only two years earlier I’d nearly been her crazed neighbor on the street. I GOT her situation. The counseling department of City College was awesome working with her and over time, she calmed down. She saw she could do college. She saw that people were going to accept her. In the middle of the semester she was awarded a therapy dog — a Belgian Malinois. This was important because she’d been raped twice. The dog would protect and calm her. She was living in the back of her pick up truck. Social services was working hard on her behalf to find her a real shelter. Soon she and her dog moved into a converted motel room. Little-by-little.

The Malinois came to class with her. They always sat beside the door in case she had to escape. 😦 One day while they were taking an exam, and the woman had forgotten to tie the dog to her desk, it walked up to me in front of the class and lay down at my feet. I felt honored, and the dog’s gesture solidified a long “friendship” between me and this woman. One of the things I found while I was organizing “The Examined Life” was a letter from this woman telling me she’d graduated from San Diego State with her MA in social work, was working with homeless women who’d suffered traumatic experiences (war, rape, etc.) and she still had the Malinois. ❤

Homelessness changed drastically during the “Great Recession,” which will be remembered as “The Minor Economic Blip” when held next to what’s happening now. Still, the result of that for many families in San Diego was homelessness. At the time, I had students who lived on the street with their mom and siblings and were using government financial aid to put food on their family’s “table.” It made for some pretty awful classes as students who are not there to learn are difficult to teach. Over time, some families were moved into special housing — one such situation was an abandoned dormitory at San Diego State that was slated to be torn down.

In the immortal words of Jello Biafra, “We have a bigger problem now.” Homelessness in the economic reality of COVID isn’t just a bunch of people like my brother who would rather live under a bridge than, well, anything else, the guys who’ve discovered they make plenty of money panhandling so why work? (Truth) Now it’s communities of working people living in cars.

People are always looking for “the answer to homelessness.” There is no answer. The reasons for homelessness are as varied as the individuals living on the streets. Money alone won’t fix it. Education alone won’t fix it. Substance abuse counseling won’t fix it. But everything together can help SOME people. And, among the most troubled souls, there are angels.

~~~

P.S. In my blog, I have chosen to write openly about the mental crisis I faced. It was terrifying at the time, but in the grand scheme of my little life, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. As Henry Miller wrote in one of his novels, we might fear the abyss, but if we have the courage to fall, we will discover what we need to discover. When I recovered, I was greeted at my job by comments like, “It’s Lazarus!” and not given enough classes to support myself. People no longer trusted me, even after 13 years of exemplary work, and it became clear that I had to find a new job. People think things like clinical depression is contagious or something. I don’t know. In any case, there are so many people out there (out here?) who’ve fought that good fight and emerged stronger and more aware. I wouldn’t be me now if that terrible summer had not happened and, honestly, I wouldn’t want to be anyone else than the person I am now. ❤

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/08/06/rdp-thursday-homeless/

Goethe’s 250th Birthday

August 28, 1999, the end of my first week teaching writing at San Diego State, my teaching dream come true, I was going meet my good friend, Denis Joseph Francis Callahan, at Pacific Beach. Our plan was to eat sausages at a German restaurant. We were celebrating — well, Denis was helping me celebrate — Goethe’s 250th birthday.

Before dinner, we took an end-of-the-day walk on the beach. There in the near distance was an immense beautiful sand castle with candles burning in the windows. Dusk had arrived and the light from the candles reflected on the water left behind when the shallow waves retreated. It was marvelous.

“Goethe’s birthday cake,” I said to Denis.

On our walk back, Denis said, “Would you mind pie instead?” in his Staten Island accent. In Denis language “pie” = pizza. I thought, “Why not? Goethe loved Italy.”

Caveat: I didn’t take the featured photo.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/07/30/rdp-thursday-sand-castle/

Dancing While White

As we all now know that for a long time in San Diego I lived in a racially mixed neighborhood. I was the mixture. Any-HOO this is not another post about racism. It’s a post about vari-colored people living their lives and having a good time spontaneously in the most ordinary place in the simplest way.

We also know I loved disco. We might also know that I like film — especially, probably, French film. Back in the late 90s/early 2000s there were still places where a person rented video tapes. The one I frequented most was Hollywood Video on University Ave and 52nd street in San Diego, basically down the hill from San Diego State and just when I made the right turn into the deep “hood” where I lived.

One afternoon on my way home from school, I stopped in Hollywood Video and found it nearly empty. Yay! They had an amazing selection of foreign films. Netflix doesn’t compare to what that little outlet of the chain store had. There was a market for foreign films there because the “hood” was one of the first places people landed after making their “world migration.” In my neighborhood were many refugees. Some from Afghanistan, some from Somalia, Ethiopia. Others from Thailand and Cambodia. French is still a “lingua franca.” (ha ha)

So there I was, looking at the French films, trying to pick one, and suddenly I heard Michael Jackson’s voice coming out of the giant screen in the back of the store. It was his great disco album, Off the Wall.

I hurried back, expecting a good video (I wasn’t disappointed). Another woman was there already, a black woman about my same age (that would have been late 40s). Michael Jackson was just starting to sing “Rock With You.”

“That’s when Michael Jackson was good,” she said.

“He was still black then.”

“You got that right, sister!”

We high fived and danced together until the song was over. Yeah, she was better.

Ice Cream Freezer

For months and months and months after he’d seen the old ice-cream freezer in my house, Mikey wanted to make ice cream. I always put him off because I didn’t really KNOW how to make ice cream. Finally I read a recipe in the cook book my Aunt Martha had given me so I knew. It was just — as I always believed — frozen milk with other stuff added in. Then came a day, one of the best days of my life and maybe one of the best days of the boys’ lives. On the way home from the BMX jumps, we stopped by the store where I bought salt and everything we needed to grill burgers and roast marshmallows — and make ice-cream. Mikey was over the moon, plus I was letting him sit in the middle front seat of the Ford Ranger so he could shift. Really, when is life better than THAT???

I know not every late-30s/early-40’s woman hangs out with a half a dozen kids, but we were friends.

Mikey and his brother lived about a block from me, up the alley. Their friends from school hung around on weekends. I had a truck. The BMX jumps were at the urban wilderness park where I hiked. The rest is history.

We got home from our hot afternoon — August 15, 1992 — and I set Mikey up with the ice cream freezer. I gave Jason a can of WD40 so he could see what was up with the old Ford in the back of my back yard. Jimmy disappeared and I found him in my room writing a story on my Macintosh (old school, black and white screen, etc.). Mike Smith — the tragedy of the long story that was our lives — was still around and he just helped out generally. Mike Smith was a natural athlete and a charismatic character with a prescient home tattoo of flames on his ankle.

I was still making the video of the boys at the jumps, so I hauled out the camera and video taped that late afternoon as part of the film we were making. It’s all on videotape in my “studio” play room, whatever. I also took still pictures that evening and I”m happy I did. It turned out to be a very important day for everyone in that yard.

And the ice cream was good. We put strawberries on top and Mikey didn’t even mind being pretty much the only guy turning the crank.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/07/12/rdp-sunday-ice-cream/

“Place of Grace”

Prize to anyone who can find the San Luis Valley on this photo.

Most of Colorado is wilderness and I don’t have access to it because 1) much is inaccessible and 2) I have mobility problems, but it’s OK. Where once I thought “I have to see it” now I think, “I have to leave it alone.” I’m happy walking in semi-remote, semi-wilderness areas. I’m happy skiing on a golf course. I don’t think this is all the result of arthritis. A lot of it has to do with working for more than a decade in an urban wilderness park.

In 1988? 87? I first visited Mission Trails Regional Park it wasn’t a park. It was just 5000 acres of emptiness left over from WW II. The main feature was Old Mission Dam which had been built back in the day by the Kumeyaay Indians to supply water to the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala. I didn’t venture in very far — just enough to see the November version of the San Diego River (“You call that a river?” said a Swiss student of the trickle that is the river most of the year)

Old Mission Dam


I started hiking there every day. No one was there. There were some trails but not many. It was just a lump of wilderness surrounded by San Diego and suburbs. It was a landscape I didn’t know and I began learning it, but the first thing I learned was that we never know even the most familiar landscape. I hiked there nearly every day for more than 20 years, in all weather, all seasons, all times of day.

In the early nineties, we started seeing road-graders at work and sticks marking some major construction project. Ultimately we learned that HWY 52 was going to cross the northern boundary of the wilderness because, by god people have to go shopping and go to work.

For a while we made a quest out of pulling out sticks and mildly “monkey-wrenching.” Then, construction stopped for a short time when they found the bones of prehistoric horses. Of course that wasn’t enough to stop progress, so once enough bones has been excavated that they could be studied, it all began again. My wilderness was being cut in two and the former silence was filled with graders and trucks going backwards and forward. Still, once the road bed was graded it was a while before they began real construction. There was a lull in “progress.”

Circumstances led me to the top of South Fortuna in the wee hours of a December morning. That dark night Molly and I danced down a hill, enjoying silence and stars (not easy to see in San Diego). The NEXT day they finally began real construction on the road. After that it would carry cars.

Molly and I were there for the last silent night.

Part of the road deal included “mitigation” — acres given by the city to what would become the largest urban wilderness park in the United States. One Sunday afternoon, pure coincidence, I happened to see a few people wandering aimlessly around a small mesa near the intersection of Mission Gorge Road and Father Serra Trail. I went over to talk to them and that led to me being a member of the board of directors of the Citizens Advisory Council that would build the park. They needed someone who actually KNEW the landscape. I was to be the liaison between the board and the rangers, the board, the rangers and a volunteer organization that I would organize. The visitor’s center I “helped” build became a model for visitor’s centers all over the country. I would have a voice in the educational programs presented in the Visitor’s Center. I would organize volunteer tour leaders who would teach people how to care for that fragile landscape and teach children how to “see” it. To people who don’t know it, the coastal sage chaparral really looks like NOTHING.

“My” park was the first of its kind in this country. When the Garden of the Gods in Colorado wanted to build a real visitor’s center, they looked to ours. When I see signage on trails in my valley, I’m seeing echoes of “my” park. Parks like Mission Trails educate people to love and care for the wilderness. I’m proud to have been a part in establishing it and protecting it. Godnose those acres gave me so much. That they are not now a mall, freeway and water park is partly due to me. That’s the thing in my life I’m most proud of. I helped preserve 6000 acres of “wilderness.”

And it preserved my soul.


Now I live in a truly wild place. I sometimes think of it as my reward for the good things I did during my purgatory years in San Diego. Every time I go anywhere — Penitente Canyon, up one of the Frisco Creek trails, the Big Empty, anywhere — I see what I am able to see because of my apprenticeship at Mission Trails Regional Park. The whole time I was there I thought I was missing Colorado. The reality is that “my” chaparral was teaching me how to see and where to look so I could come back.

“This lovely being, which is alive to its last recesses and understands every feeling, soothed me, it cured me of my pains, and finally, when I had fully understood my love for it, it taught me freedom.” Carlos Castaneda, Tales of Power

The title of this blog came from Beth who left the words on a comment on one of my blog posts.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/06/13/rdp-saturday-wilderness/