San Luis Visit

Too much time on my hands and a computer close by can suck me into acquiring more knowledge from the web than I really need. Genealogy has been a lot of fun for me because so many family histories have been documented and charted that I could search forever and not run out of new discoveries. The study also draws me to ancient times and peoples of whom I cannot so easily relate, even when I am related to them. I learned this past week, for example, that my grandfather a dozen generations ago, William Stone, was the third governor of Maryland. Much googling and copying information into my own family tree sent me into a mood of obsession with this history project that I started several years ago.

So I loaded my truck camper, Rocinante, with food and gas, and wandered out into the central valley for a couple of days. I’ve been camping around the shore of San Luis Reservoir for years. As a volunteer for the state parks department, I can come and go from the park for free throughout the year. It’s kind of like owning my own giant lake, and if I leave my laptop home, it’s an escape for my mind.

The fishermen are usually the only ones to come out to the lake this time of year. They tell me the striped bass bite all year round. But as I watched what they were catching, the biggest was only about six or eight inches long, and they must be eighteen to keep. I don’t know if they really come here to fish, or, like me, to escape from the great indoors. I talked fish story with one of the older fishermen, Juan. He told me of his life in Palo Alto, working for the Stanford Linear Accelerator facility for many years in the maintenance department, primarily painting the facility, which had afforded him a home in Palo Alto, a ranch in Los Banos, a retirement pension, and free college for his three children. He started life in California as an immigrant day laborer and wound up prettying up particle physics experiments. I told him that’s a great fish story, how he had such a small piece of bait to throw into the lake of life and managed to pull out such a comfortable living for himself and family.

I stoked up my portable propane campfire after dark and watched the skies for another hour. Lots of stars with no heat shimmer to them, so they sat more firmly in place than on warm summer evenings. At dawn, as the sun pinked out over the horizon, I could see a ground fog had developed during the night. The early low sun made the fog look like an explosion, the physics of light gone mad with color. I slurped a couple of cups of coffee and took a long walk up an edge of the California aqueduct, which enters the lower San Luis reservoir on one end, and exits on another. Even with the sun higher, the air held a chill. On my return walk, I watched the long shadow of my own legs spread out across the empty fields.

To the north of the reservoir a few short miles is the national cemetery where my parents are buried. I seldom drive out there. I suppose it was my preoccupation this past week with genealogy that prompted me to go visit their headstone for a few moments. This is a big cemetery, yet on Saturday morning, I was the only living person in it. Just me, surrounded by acres of memorial plaques laid flat on top of the ground to facilitate easing landscaping maintenance. There is a stark beauty to the place, out among these barren hills that back up against the Gabilan Mountains. Most of the year the hills are brown, but this day they were quite green from recent rains. I went through a tangled litany of thoughts, prayers, memories, tears, and blessings. In my genealogy studies, I have traipsed through a few cemeteries, looking at names and dates and taking photographs of ornate old headstones, and am slightly moved with reverence. But in this one where my parents lay, the feeling is much different.

I know my mother’s tattered and well-read Bible is buried there with her holding it in her arms. When my sister and I arranged for her burial, we couldn’t think of anything more appropriate than that, because it meant so much to her. Years of sickness, beginning with a severe case of rheumatic fever when she was four years old, had kept her close to the edge of life and death. On one side she was such an inspiration to all, while she faced the other side with only the promises of scripture. I suppose, then, that when I go out to the cemetery knowing this, I lose all sense of pride and ambition, and wonder to myself what is the purpose of my own life and whether I have mis-lived it. Maybe I’ve been fishing in the wrong spot for too long.

Once I left the cemetery and the closeness of memories and thoughts, I drove on into town, Los Banos, on back roads through farm country. The tule fog was so thick. I could not really see the earth, the ground, the road, except for a few feet ahead of me. It was as if a cloud had been placed over my eyes for me to contemplate my own path, rather than the world surrounding me. Maybe this was how my mother had seen life, a constant fogginess that required a divine outlook in order to find any peace or cognizance of any reality, a tendency to spiritualize everything she perceived. I’ve known of others doing the same.

I try to avoid mythologizing or spiritualizing the physical universe about me, so that I can see life fresh and new as much as possible. But some days, such as this one, I fall into a specialized way of seeing and feeling. I don’t diligently look for signs of another life beyond the veil of this life. When such an experience comes, I give it consideration, like a traffic sign, then move on. Visiting the cemetery on Saturday seemed more like a road block than a traffic sign.

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