Every time I see the mountains, I remember. That’s all because of a freeway detour that takes me the long way around to get home, forcing me off my comfortable, reliable route onto a different freeway that is not nearly as smooth. Each time I curve onto this new way home, there’s a certain vantage point that I hit where the full expanse of the mountains comes into view. Here, the mountains don’t gradually appear from my blind spot as they sometimes do when I travel from other directions through this valley. On this route, they announce themselves with the visual equivalent of heralding trumpets. Imposing and commanding, they remind me that they are always there, whether I notice them or not. They stand, unmoved, a mixture of brown earth and sparks of granite, shrub trees, and transmission centers. The clouds and the contrasting colors soften the reality of the vibrating traffic and ridges of development that lead to their peaks. A reality that seems almost pretend from far away.
I grew up in Los Angeles, so these particular mountains are my lifelong companions. I know the way they rise and fold into each other, where the towers stand, and, if I look closely, where the roads lie that lead up from the world below. From some perspectives, like from a perfectly positioned parking garage or from the skylight in my childhood bedroom, the tops of the California palm trees make a carpet on which the mountains sit.
I know the time of day by their hues, especially the orange light that falls across them as the sun goes down to the west. The descending light hits the mountains like a blanket of color and shadow because where I grew up the mountains are north. North like the star, north like the compass that guides you when you are lost. It was an embarrassingly long time into my adolescence before I realized that mountains aren’t north everywhere, even in Southern California. When I was six, my mother used the mountains to teach me how to find north, south, east, and west. Standing with me underneath our 25 foot shade tree she said, “Look to the mountains and you can figure out where to go from there.”
But can they show me where to go from here? Without willing it or wanting it, as I hit that spot on this new freeway, I go back. Always. Back to the happiest of days and back to the saddest of days because the mountains are with me through it all. They are the backdrop, the meditation spot, the shape of realization in each. Their crests match the crescendo of emotion they evoke, an amalgam of opposites if ever there was one. A rush of sadness mixes with the peace of constancy and pulls forth nostalgia not just for what once was but for what once could be, stirring up the happiness and anticipation that defined so much of youth and the surprise that still marks so much of living life. No matter what, it never goes the way I think it will.
I remember the mountains from my five year-old perspective, looking out my bedroom window waiting for my friend to walk out across the street and wave to me, inviting me to run outside and play. Like kids used to do, we would sit and watch the world: the trees in the neighborhood, the shape-shifting clouds and the mountains that framed it all. Because none of that was just wasting time when we were five.
One day when I was much older than five, I looked out onto those mountains and I thought about how the ridgeline stays the same, even when everything is moving around it. The warm breeze that always blows in early autumn in Los Angeles was back again that day, making every detail of the mountains clear. It was as if I could see a leaf on a tree one mile up and fifteen miles away. And I thought, life is hard and complicated and beautiful like the mountains and every once in awhile, when the timing is just right and the season is just right, you get to see all of that in detail, up close. Whether you want to or not.
The mountains were still there the next day, unchanged, when everything else was nothing but change. On this day, I would look again onto the mountains swept clean by that breeze and think: this is the last thing you saw. This, right here -- the mountains -- these points that rise and break the softness of the clouds, just like the truth sometimes does against a beautiful white lie.
It was a line in the sky as familiar to you as to me. The backdrop to our lives from childhood onward that always announced ‘we are home’, no matter where we had been. Now it is clear that home can be hard and complicated and not always beautiful, especially close up when there are no clouds to soften the view. Home. The space that I know, that changes but doesn’t change, that is always with me even when I don’t notice it.
You looked to these mountains and to your home and you left. As I drive up the detour and the mountains come into sight, the reality that you chose to leave is the first thing I see and my memories of you, the last. There is nothing left in my view that looks pretend. It is all closer than ever, taller than ever, realer than ever, reminding me of all that was and of all that wasn’t and of all that will always be. Every time I see the mountains announce themselves like that, I commit to finding a new way to get home around this detour. I haven’t found it yet.