My magic childhood in California that I spent among redwoods and blackberries will never leave me, even as I leave it.
Tom and Casey and Nicole all thought I should steal Hershey’s, or M&Ms, but I was somehow convinced that the Otter Pops would not be missed. The keychain had a red plastic fob from the local mechanic, and a bottle opener shaped like a small fish. In our swimsuits and bare feet we’d sneak the 30 meters across the street to the Pee-Wee Golf, my illicit keys jangling in hand. It was a divine privilege, the keys to the Pee-Wee Golf. It was candy unlimited, but my moral code only allowed the thievery of Otter Pops.
If someone asked me about home, I would say that redwood berries stain your feet. I would say that it is harder to leave than to stay, but somehow more difficult to return again than to stay forever gone. Walk into the Roadhouse and experience a welcome as if you are family. Or not family, maybe, but a lover from years before who has climbed that inconceivable wall to friendship. A small bar with a large patio, because this life is lived outdoors. By the time my father sits down at a table, a beer is already on its way. The kind of bar that makes you wonder why you don’t live here, the kind that makes you wonder why you ever went away.
In the summer when I was small we’d collect plums and blackberries in wax paper Dixie cups and ask fifty cents for the perfect summer snack. Nicole and I in bikini tops before we had breasts, writing our names on our arms in sunblock so it stained our skin like tattoos. Building huge fires in the fire pit because our afternoons were empty, melting beer bottles into shapes like frogs in the hot coals. Nicole and I pretending we were built of ocean water, swimming in the pool in March long before the weather was warm enough.
Rio Nido is built of canyons, etched into hillsides of redwood groves and bay trees and ferns. Roads lined with scotch broom, Douglas fir and poison oak. A creek runs down all the canyons and slowly becomes one large creek and winds its way into our slow moving river. Dusty in the summer. Muddy in the winter. The trees are unaware that they are mountains, legends that dwarf your world and make heartaches insignificant. They only know that they block out the sun, beating their tired limbs against the sky. Sheer height. Fragile, shallow root system.
I am built like a redwood: I’d like to be more connected to this earth but I dance around as if nothing holds me. I have always been a fan of running away. I leave open wounds, thinking time and space will heal them, but the scab is still there to pick at when I get home. And even a scar is unhealed, because a visible scar is still a wound. A reminder of pain is still pain.
When I was eleven there was a flash flood and we were all sent home from school. Casey and I went home to Tom’s house, where we usually went to daycare. The road was a foot-deep coursing river. We used trash can lids as rafts and floated down the hill until the water was too deep to stand. Tom had a Ziploc of buttered popcorn flavored jelly beans, and to this day I can’t eat one without feeling the weight of wet jeans against my shins. The boys and I have clung to this memory for years, memories like the zip line we built on the hill behind Tom’s house or the little red wagon my dad took away after one too many crashes. Memories like the first time a boy kissed me, sitting in the running flood water, sharing jelly beans.
The roads here are not well lit, or well marked. Turn left at the end of the barbed wire fence. Watch the houses on the right, count one, two, three. After the red cabin with the white deck, turn left. The hill appears on your right. The road to my parents’ house is barely one lane wide. It is eroded and constantly re-patched and slowly falling off the cliff side, as all the houses in this town are. Imagine a wagon path from centuries ago, and then someone decided it could hold cars. Imagine the Donner party.
One side of this road is a cliff, one is a hill. It is etched in there, like a small scratch whose scar won’t be lifelong. It is lonely. When the rain pummels down the hillsides it collides with the edge of this scar, an earthy gutter. As a little girl I would dig trenches and build dams to invent whole water systems on the side of the road. In the lakes I’d created I would float upside down bay leaves and imagine parties of vikings, Columbus’ brigade, a family of row boats in a park. It doesn’t look right unless it’s raining, this place. It doesn’t smell like home, until the redwood leaf floor is wet, until the clover leaves and ivy gleam bright fresh green. I loved the rain so much I would carry an umbrella out in a rainstorm and fill it with water and then pour it on my head.
My parents’ home at the end of the road, a time lapsed photo of my life. Stuffed animals from childhood, phone numbers written on my walls because I have always been a scribbler. My height since age two marked on one corner, a bathroom door that has not been able to lock since a drunken high school party ten years ago. A swing on the deck big enough to give you motion sickness, on the rooftop surrounded by only trees HI MOM is painted in bright yellow, a message to my grandma in heaven.
It is hard to keep these thoughts linear, my nostalgia about my green faery youth is tainted. When you start smoking and drinking as young as many of us did, black pits seem to appear, engulfing what was good and holy and replacing parts with strange sick memories. My virginity loss stunned and stunted me. But who among us isn’t still reeling from their virginity? One day life is all blackberries and plums, and the next you are solely flesh. You can’t continue to grow up anymore, you are stuck forever in that day someone took off your clothes and your naked body ceased to be mysterious.
We used to get stoned and put an old loveseat in the middle of the road by my friends’ house, and hide from view. We spent afternoons on her deck watching cars drive up to it, counting how long it took before they gave up and got out of the car to move the furniture out of the road. We’d walk down to the pitted beach and drink stolen beers, smoke the butts of old cigarettes because we were cool. The river ran west, to that big great ocean which takes up most of the space in my heart. Before driving licenses we simply stared over the river toward it. Once we could drive school wasn’t necessary. We’d drive to the beach instead, and I still argue that the days I spent reading by that great grey Pacific shaped me more than whatever I missed of high school.
Growing up near the Pacific, every direction I think of I relate to West. West is there, so I must be going north. West is there, so I must be heading home. I smell the ocean on the wind sometimes, even in the faraway places I have lived, and know where West is. That great water runs through me, as well as the Russian River with its muddy turns and the chlorine of my childhood pool. Maybe that’s why my roots seem so shallow, so easily escaped. I leave so much my homecoming has become perfunctory to old friends — the hugs hello accompanied by a question of how long I’ll be staying this time. Even when you’re running toward something, inevitably there is something you’re leaving behind.
When a dog barks at me, I don’t doubt the dog. I assume there is something wrong with me that I’m unaware of, because a dog knows who it is barking at. It is the same for me with my magical childhood home. A magic I cannot touch, a peaceful easy feeling I can’t seem to hold onto, and I come home and see others who are able to and I can only run away in order to avoid my inability. The community I love is flush with people who would take me in if I would ever just stay. They are a family more than a town, and I cherish that about this place. But water runs beneath me, not earth. And I can no longer make believe that one day I will stay — I only know that I will always go.
Photo credit: Flickr/michael.balint