Mini-memoir in a Walk

Gray, murky, even soupy, fog hovered over Monterey Bay.

I looked down the canyon, craning my neck to see where fog lay hidden in hillside crotches, moss hanging off the oaks. Each of the oaks, although I can’t distinguish one from the other four kinds found in Monterey County, is valued all the more these days as they fight sudden oak death.

Seeing no promising signs of sun, I stuck my head through an old olive cashmere slipover. Dark travel cargo pants on the bottom, Skechers Old Soul shoes on my feet and my bright orange AAA backpack, the free one I got for getting an insurance quote, thrown over my shoulder. I was ready. I’d already packed a bottle of water, a small Honey Crisp apple, a chunk of Monterey Jack cheese, and a packet of quinoa and blueberry chocolate bark. I was more than ready.

Ready to walk.

Several times since I’ve lived at the top of the canyon, I’d competed this walk. Sometimes I’d trucked along with friends but usually alone with only my thoughts. Now I was ready to test my mettle again, all 14.7 miles of the loop.

Monterey and Carmel would be filled with the annual Big Sur Marathoners. Salinas would be crammed with frenzied families finishing their weekend shopping. Roads in between would be congested so what better way for me to spend the Saturday than reading, or walking. Given my recent sedentary activity driving 3000 miles followed by reading several books and knowing the new research said sitting was more damaging to one’s health than smoking, mentally I patted myself on the back for choosing to walk.

Home for a few weeks, taking care of business before I returned to Mexico where I’ve lived the last six months and will return soon, I had a full set of line items on my to-do list. As I wrote the word home, I wondered where home was, reminding me of what Fred, my Bearded Collie told an animal communicator. “Where’s home?” he said after being rescued from a barn, housed in a kennel, driven to Alabama, flown to California, and then located in several hotels with his new human companion. He didn’t know where his home was, he told the Illinois based communicator. Some days I’m unsure if I know where mine is.

But yes, I do know.

I’ve called a lot of places home through the years. Most of the locations, some in the US, some halfway around world, have been fine, at least tolerable, but none have been home more so than Monterey County. The Pacific Ocean on one side, the Salinas Valley farmlands on the other. Silicon Valley at the north and a burgeoning wine industry to challenge Napa at the bottom. A touch of Tuscany, languages from Asia, the Midwest soul coupled with Vietnam era hippies and surfers. The best of all worlds.

I finished my coffee, closed the French doors to my microunit, rearranged my backpack and strode down the lane. Tenants on either side of the motor court seemed to have disappeared for the day. The peach tree, sprung from seeds in composting mix I bought from the Last Chance Mercantile, aka the dump, has grown another foot since the last time I saw it. Either the gophers and deer have consumed the Jackson & Perkins roses I had planted years ago or the peach and plum trees have overwhelmed them into disappearance.

Dead branches on the driveway’s left should be cleared but I remember the last time I cleared them. Two trips within one week to the Emergency Room, my face swollen to mimic Dracula’s bride, due to intensive poison oak, were my reward. Where the road forks, I see the easement the irascible neighbor trimmed years ago, has grown shut, barely missing a huge pine which has fallen, likely due to pine beetle or the dreaded pine canker afflicting so many grand trees in the last several years. I refuse to linger on my memories of encounters with that neighbor, choosing to focus on positive thoughts.

Sunlight streamed through the oaks, shadowing the asphalt and creating a beautiful scene when I drove up the lane a few days ago. Often as I turn into the lane, a deer leaps across my path. Previously this time of year, iridescent yellow French Broom decorates either side. Now, the lane under the old oaks, is more barren. The long driveway is shared with another neighbor, one who believes and perhaps rightfully so, that French Broom, such an elegant name, should be eradicated given it is not native to this area.

That may be true but then what is native to any location? We are all immigrants to some degree. With the increased discussion in the last few years about immigration, often we hear folk say that if you are not Native American, you are an immigrant. If recent research is correct, even Native Americans are immigrants, given their ancestors crossed over to Alaska via Asia’s Bering Strait.

The little I know about my family’s background says they were from Scotland, Ireland, Germany but there is a mystery. My paternal grandmother’s middle name was East India. Who, in the 1800’s, long before the days of hippie names, called their daughter East India? She died within a year of my birth but the one photo I saw of her reminds me of the many grandmothers I have seen throughout India. Her skin was dark, her long hair is pulled back into a tight bun, showing only a few curling wisps around her forehead. Her birth certificate confirms the name and two of my three nephews look as if giving them an Indian haircut combined with a shalwar-kameez would allow them to pass as immigrants from the sub-continent.

Immigrants have always been significant contributors to Monterey County. Architecture is influenced by those from Spain. Culinary delights are compliments of the Chinese and Italians. Agriculture, including inexpensive produce, is the result of innumerable hard-working migrant laborers, mainly from Mexico and Central America.

At the end of my lane, I lament the way the entrance looks — not attractive but I’m not here to supervise a re-doing or maintenance. I relish a more enticing entrance, but I must remain focused on the lengthy to-do list I have. I ignore the mismatched flowers and proceed to the main road, up the hill. The neighborhood online forum has warned readers that road work on this slope needs to be completed. A sign warns drivers that it is a one lane road for a few feet.

I recall asking a neighbor soon after I bought the property, if he was concerned about the shifting hillsides. Laughing, he assured me that I’d be long gone from the entire earth before anything so hazardous or serious would happen. He was unconvincing and as sinkholes and other anomalies have occurred, I still wonder. Asphalt has cracked, leaving dangerous potholes on the hilly and curving road.

This is Steinbeck country. One story is that John played in these pastures of heaven, making them the geographical source for some of his stories. The National Steinbeck Museum is less than ten miles from here. During the annual festival, tour buses drive the road, showing visitors landscapes common to their beloved writer.

Near the top of the hill, peacocks scream at me, raising their tail feathers. Menacing huge white ones are unlike any I’ve seen elsewhere, and I’ve glad they are penned far away from my path. Again I look down the canyon, over Carmel Hill on the left, Ft. Ord on the right, perhaps the Pacific Ocean in places where the fog has lifted. A hawk soars nearby while a plane passes at a higher altitude, lowering itself in preparation for landing. Likely a flight attendant is completing the final check before it lands at the Monterey airport. “Check that your tray tables are stowed. We’ll be landing soon” a manicured voice will be saying. When I fly into Monterey’s airport, I know that if I sit on the right side on the plane, facing frontward, often I can spot my property.

I know I’ll soon be home, or at least to this home.

Home, to some is where they were born. To others, it is the address where their mail arrives.

For me there are at least two levels of home. At one level, Monterey County is home. At another level, anywhere that I find comfort is home. What I need to be comfortable is usually the same and has been found often, in hotel rooms around the world. I need natural beauty, quiet, safety, cleanliness, a strong internet connection, a comfortable bed on which to sleep and/or write with my laptop. For some people, that’s a lot of needs; for others, it is so barely minimal as to not even be considered tolerable. I can adjust to a lot more like orderliness, room service, and such but the first list will get me through the days and nights.

I recall the day I first came to the property. I’d been searching for a house to buy for several months, working mainly with one realtor. We’d looked at several properties, but none had been quite right…too expensive, too small, too large (rarely), too something that did not fit for me.

“No, you don’t want to see that one,” the realtor said, urging me onward to more conventional properties. “I was up there the other day. They had a dumpster and it was a real mess.” I insisted that we turn around and inspect it, I had a hunch it could be what I wanted. Within minutes, I knew I’d found my next home.

Then, decades ago, no houses dotted the hills. Now, a dozen or more sporadically filled the green, but turning brown soon, pastures. The Diaz family owned the canyon and its hillsides but once they scattered and sold, Mcmansions began to rise. One at the very top, perched above the road burned a couple of decades ago. The owners rebuilt, following the original plans, allowing it to look exactly the same as it did in the mid-sixties when the first version was built.

Here, at the 1200 ft. summit, the road levels out, then starts a downhill curve. There, nestled into the hillside where a tiny 1930’s bluish-silver trailer used to sit, is a new modern, also blue and gray, stick house, well designed and quite stylish. The setting is a nearly perfect arrangement according to feng-shui principles.

Coming up the hill, I meet an elderly but obviously, in good shape cyclist. He has enough extra energy to greet me as he pedals relatively easily. I know I’d have to stop and catch my breath at least once if I were walking his direction. Not only do Steinbeck fans enjoy the looping drive, cyclists love to test their stamina on it, often in groups of a dozen or more. When they reach the top, they can glide in high gear the three and a half miles down to Highway 68, linking Monterey and Salinas.

As I reach the bottom of the steep curving hill, I turn to the right, remembering when my friend Beth, and I walked the loop, seeing a family of small foxes at that very intersection.

I walk alone, rarely a car passing me. All is quiet. At a distance, I see and hear a middle-aged Asian man intently focused, driving a small John Deere tractor with an attached mower. A cement truck passed me earlier, then turned to deliver its product to this man’s property, and now was returning down the hill. I wondered about the project the man was completing, likely a small barn for housing the tractor or animals.

Owners want to live in this area as it affords them the opportunity to have horses, geese, chickens and to live the country life they’ve read about and perhaps dreamed of for years. Usually they are families. As far as I know, I’m the only single woman to live in the area. As they settle in, they build paddocks and corrals, allowing them to exercise their horses. These arrangements develop because the parents think the experience will be good for their children. Often the children lose interest soon, especially if it is not a passion supported by the parents. Barns remain empty, grass grows on the tracks and it becomes another dream evaporated.

Most of the acreages are about five acres, smaller than mine and only a fourth of the size where I grew up in southern Ohio. There, on property inherited from my father’s parents, my mother rented the fields to local farmers looking to increase their harvests each year without having to purchase another farm. Wheat one year, soybeans another, corn only when she must as she did not like losing her valley views as the crop grew higher each week.

When I reach the flatlands, I see that only driblets of water remain in the creek. Heavy winter storms this year allowed California’s reservoirs to fill and creeks to flourish for longer than usual in the Spring. Here, on this side of the hills, black and white magpies, smaller than the ones I saw eking out a living in Kazakhstan’s frigid winters, maintain their nests. Only once have I seen the magpies visit my property, a few miles away. Quail and even an occasional roadrunner are frequent visitors.

I pass what used to be called Red Tag Ranch, now just another ranch property with wooden gates, barns, and equipment. My right foot is beginning to ache so I lean against a fence post, change into a second pair of shoes I stuffed in the backpack at the last minute. The road rises a bit as it circles the hillside, allowing me to look down on a former colleague’s horse farm. I had hoped we would continue to be friends after I left our mutual employer, but she chose not to remain in touch. Our paths have diverged as I worked out of the county and country. She now chairs the local symphony board.

Looking past her property, I see a two story, Tuscan style house with occasional large rocks in a straight line in front of it. Somehow through the years, I’ve learned that these rocks are ley lines. Whether the owner/builder placed them in that order, or they found them in that location, I know not.

I trudge on past what, once, must have been a ranch bunkhouse. Across from it is a new vineyard where tourists can rent a small house for a night, wine not included. By now traffic is picking up, much of it traveling faster than the speed limit and common sense would suggest. The road is narrow with only brambles for me to land in, should I need a quick exist.

As I neared a property which had interested me to buy but had been under contract and not really available, two middle aged women stood, talking to one another over a front gate. I waved and we greeted one another. The one wearing a camel colored bathrobe leaning on her cane called, “how are you?” With uncharacteristic honesty to that question, I blurted “Tired. I’ve just walked seven miles.” Truthfully, I was not tired. Only my right heel pained with its growing blister.

“How old are you?” she questioned. How old was I? Really, I harrumphed to myself. Since when did Americans ask others how old they were? Would she soon ask my annual income, my credit score, or more? I’m accustomed to being asked that question when I’m in China, India and other international locations but when had it become acceptable to ask that in this country?

Foolishly, instead of laughingly saying “old enough to know better than to do this”, I told her my age, allowing them to ooooh and ahhhh about it. I walked onward, pondering the exchange and thinking how sad it was that any credence should be given to one my age or any age walking these miles.

Hailey and Blaine had attached a large formal sign to a tree, welcoming people to the large white tent where later in the afternoon, they would say their wedding vows. Caterers and parking valets had already arrived, parked in the neatly trimmed fields, and the music was beginning. I surmise that the many guests will have or at least will say, they had a great time at the wedding but will be glad to get back to their homes, remove their shoes, and be thankful the event is behind them. Perhaps, even Hailey and Blaine.

My jaundiced views come, perhaps from my own lack of successful marriage, but also from observations and of reading relevant data about the success of weddings, regardless of their mediocrity or elegance. I’m thankful I was not on the guest list.

Soon I pass the Grange, now turned into a pre-school. I check my feet and see the blister spreading. I rest my feet, sip some water, sit at the picnic table and enjoy the melting chocolate blueberry quinoa bark. Granges, formally known as The Patrons of Husbandry, formed in the middle 1800’s. They promoted social and economic needs for US farmers and perhaps, ranchers. Once they were prominent in rural communities, now they are only a memory in most places.

One exception is the Grange Annual Fair in State College, Pennsylvania. My friend who invited me attended each year with her family. They knew all the families camping nearby, knew who’d be bringing the largest refrigerator, the couch with the hide-a-bed. They remembered who had married whom and the names of the grandchildren as they shared cotton candy and funnel cakes, watched monster trucks, and checked the latest livestock displays.

Half a mile past the Grange, folk were milling around the Lutheran Church on this still grayish Saturday afternoon. Soon after I bought my property, I drove up and over the hill, thinking that perhaps I’d meet some locals by attending the local church. As I pulled into the parking lot that Sunday morning, four congregants arrived via horseback, making me think I had bought more into the “wild west” than I had anticipated.

To avoid the traffic, I moved to the right side of the road, passing a prim White Victorian cottage, under renovation. Only a few yards beyond it, sat a bearded man in a white van, seemingly alone. He grunted in return to my greeting as I made a mental note to recall the license number, the vehicle and his description. Would I later see any of them on some version of Forensic Files or other crime related television show?

By the time I reached the four corners, I knew my right heel was in serious trouble. What could I do but persevere? I’d had no phone coverage most of the time since I’d left my lane and I was now nearing eight miles. I had a good six more to go. Even if my phone worked, I had no one to call to rescue me from my podiatry agony. None of my friends lived within ten miles and even if I could reach them, I’d never call them to ask for help. I had chosen to do this. I should have planned better by wearing socks. Shoulda, woulda, coulda; meanwhile, I’d walk onward to my goal.

Stop the whining. Keep on walking. Figure it out. My life plan.

Now I was nearing where local history says that Steinbeck visited his Aunt Mollie as she introduced him to the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Sandstone cliffs above the flatlands were named Castle Rock by a British explorer who thought they reminded him of a medieval English fortress. Now, below them, sits a gated community filled with multi-million-dollar stucco, Spanish styled homes, complete with homeowner association rules and regulations, likely ones Steinbeck would eschew.

As I walked, I thought of my life through the decades that I’d walked this loop. I recalled lost loves, missed goals, emotions grabbing me when I had sometimes driven the roads, rather than walked them. I noted the changes in the landscape, photographing wildflowers I swore I’d never seen on a previous walk. I pondered why usually, I was alone, when I engaged in activities which gave me the most joy. I passed the country club, remembering hearing a woman from the mid-East speak there on her experiences of leaving that area for the US. I recalled my disappointment when the local World Affairs Council, of which I was an officer, declined to invite her to speak, saying it was not appropriate to have her speak to that group. Only later did I realize how conservative a group they were, and that Condoleeza Rice was the only woman who would be invited to speak to them.

I considered my options. By the time I reached the corner market on the highway tying Monterey and Salinas together, I had four miles yet to go before I would have completed the circle and be back at my home on the hill. I was not tired, but my heel was raw with a prize-winning blister.

Savoring my tri-tip sandwich from the deli, I sat outside, watching the Korean owner of the next-door gas station service his customers. When I lived here full time, frequently I purchased fuel from the dark-haired, always cheerful man. Now his hair is white, and his adult daughter provides a pet food and flower business for the local neighborhood.

Back in cell service territory, I called Uber, my best alternative to asking every deli customer if they were going in my direction and could they give me a lift. Soon I was riding in comfort up the same curvy road I’d planned on walking, up my driveway, and home. I had not met my 14.7 goal, but I knew the roads would be there for traveling another day.

Some days are for striving for goals. Other days are meant for healing. I was ready for healing.

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Barbara Cole, Ph.D.

Played with a pet dinosaur. Loves developing countries and startups. Intends to be taller and speak every language in next life.