The Point: Elegy for California

Carmel River

Driving south from Oakland to Carmel Valley,
where your grandparents just retired, we stop
at Morgan Hill, and I see a surprising number
of people weighing over 300 pounds, parking
enormous cars, “Last weekend, I went to a party
and everyone was Trump.” Yes, the language,
as George Carlin used to say, is a dead giveaway.

Soon we will leave California.

You and Mom return with your shaved ice
and we drive on, passing the farms
and car dealerships of Salinas, and I think
about Steinbeck’s last visit to this land:

I went to the Carmel Valley where once
we could shoot a thirty-thirty in any direction…
I don’t mind people, you know that. But these
are rich people. They plant geraniums in big pots.
Swimming pools where frogs and crayfish used to wait for us…
If this were my home, would I get lost in it? If this were my home
could I walk the streets and hear no blessing?

And when his friends protest, he adds:

Let us not fool ourselves. What we knew is dead,
and maybe the greatest part of what we were is dead.

Then, standing on a mountain:

I printed once more on my eyes, south, west, and north, and then
we hurried away from the permanent and changeless past.

Everyone’s happy to see you, of course,
and we get the tour. The picture windows take in
the coast range and the valley below, dotted with
dressage riding rings under a canopy of trees.
But the eye returns to those majestic mountains,
the same as they were two hundred years ago,
and ten thousand. The stillness.

We spend a blue-sky day
at a country club swimming pool
where hundreds gather to eat four kinds
of barbecued meat and listen to a band
playing cover songs while a magician
makes his way from table to table performing
tricks for children. In all, I see four people
of color, two on the waitstaff. Conversations
are animated by fear and disgust—
voting for Trump, they tell us.

The next morning we drive into the fog of town,
and walk among the shops. We see a $20,000 pen,
a sculpted bronze dragon safe and key, a sign
that says “Ferrari Owners Club.” We stop for lunch.
Mom sighs and says this has become a mere
“temple of money.” When you ask what that means,
she describes the town’s past as an artist colony.

We pass galleries filled with paintings of race cars
and 19th century European street scenes.
That unchangeable past, how different
it must have been.

Small paintings of giant coastal cypress
in ornate frames—those golden frames I remember
from when I was a boy, visiting this place
with my mother. She had a few days off work,
and we slept in our car in front of the white church.

Today I hold your hand and we walk
down the Scenic Road, the turquoise Pacific
on our right, grand houses on our left. You ask
how much those houses cost, and I say
many millions. And Mom recalls a poem
by Robinson Jeffers, “Carmel Point”:

The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses—
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupine walled with clean cliffs;
No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop rockheads—
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve.

We walk down the stairs to the beach—
you hand Mom your glasses and roll
down the sand, and when you reach
the bottom, you stand and raise your arms
and say, “I’ve lived!” and the gentle waves
wash over your small feet.

Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff.—As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

We stop by the Mission Inn to see
the flock of sheep, the lone black sheep.
We stayed here once when you were younger,
running across green grass strewn with
red and yellow petals.

And we begin the drive, the long drive
back to Oakland, our smart phones
guiding us with some kind of artificial
intelligence made powerless
by the parking lot Highway 1’s become.

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