The Tension of Memory: 1

Mount Diablo from Acalanes Ridge
Thursday morning I arose to a beautiful early Spring day. The first little hint of March warmth had emerged, and there were birds singing and Finn was restless. I took him for a long walk and gave him breakfast and then grabbed my camera bag and left him behind to travel up the flanks of Mount Diablo by myself for the first in three years. I was compelled to have a little picnic at a location that I remembered. A memory had arisen because of that last post I wrote about my father.
Mount Diablo from Acalanes Ridge

I have lived within sight of the mountain for almost fifty years, ever since I situated myself in Contra Costa County to study for my BA in English at Saint Mary’s College of California. My roots here go very deep now, probably just as deep as the roots of Diablo. You can’t help but see the mountain when you move around this area living your daily life. While it’s not extremely high (3849 ft.) it dominates the horizon simply because the rest of the geography consists mainly  of low rolling hills. And the view from the summit on a clear day is spectacular. And depending upon where you are when you are looking at it, the mountain can seem bigger or smaller, as if it is actually shrinking or growing within your own vision as you move about.

Most of the time I take the mountain for granted—I don’t go up there as often as I used to. I suppose that’s due to the fact that for many years I was busy with my job on the weekdays and my family took up my time during weekends. I used to hike there before the kids were born, and while we would go up there now and then for a picnic, years would pass between excursions. But since my kids grew up and my wife passed away memories come back to me with a sort of tension. They compel me to re-experience the old places that I haunted and to recall the events that transpired as my youth turned to middle age. Now that I have reached my sixties the compulsion to recapture memory has become a daily practice.

I don’t want those memories to evaporate as I grow older. I want to be able to savor them in the way that life should be savored. Because time is always too short. The tension of memory is like an elastic band pulling me back to my past while I remain rooted in the present. That tugging is one of the great pleasures of aging—pleasures that sometimes seem few and far between. Ageing is not for sissies.

Snow on Mount Diablo – 2009

So when I woke up Thursday morning I knew I had to go up the mountain again and I had to go alone this time. Finn was not happy about it, but I needed to do some thinking and make some photographs. And while I love being with my greyhound companion there are times when I need space for myself. I picked up a sandwich for myself at my favorite deli, and within a half hour of driving I went back in time 46 years.

There’s a picnic area just past Rock City that I am fond of. Back in the fall of 1971 just as I was starting my college years at St. Mary’s, my Mom, Dad, brothers and my paternal grandmother and I went up to that spot and had a wonderful lunch. I think it was sometime in October. It may have been the first time I was ever up there. I had just started school and was adjusting to life in the dorms and I remember I was still feeling a little homesick. My father took a picture of us all that day. There’s no date on the print but the brown grass is a giveaway to the fact that it was Fall. I remember being shocked by how hot it was in Contra Costa County in September and how dry the hills were. I had spent the last four years of my life in Oxnard living just a couple of miles from the ocean where the weather was always cool and sometimes foggy.

A picnic spot in 1971

On the far left is my Grandma Mellie, my father’s mom, who had traveled out from Tyrone PA. My mom is in the pink skirt (not the best view, but typical of my father’s humor). That’s Paul in the tree (he was always a tree climber and occasionally fell out of them) and Chris with a movie camera. (I wonder where that film is?) I’m concentrating on eating. Looks like burgers for lunch. We always ate well. Note the ubiquitous coffee pot on the camp stove that was sitting on the BBQ pit made from rocks. Back in those days coffee was a beverage you had with lunch and dinner, not something you only consumed in order to wake up in the morning. The coffee was cheap and came in a can. I hated coffee in those days. It was vile stuff. I’m still amazed that people buy the crap that comes in cans and consider it worth drinking.

A picnic spot in 2017

On Thursday I found the spot again. The oak tree that was right next to the table was very old and quite large as you can see from the photo. The tree is no longer there, but there is a stump, and the same table. I sat and ate my sandwich and it felt splendid to have come full circle. The tension of memory was perfectly balanced; I was in the past and the present at the same moment. We tend to forget the fact that we actually live in one long moment of Now. The Past is in our recollections and the Future is in our expectations while the time clock of our life ticks away the moments.

The experience of being there again felt larger than life, one of those moments when all the pieces fall together in a synchronous way and you just have to laugh at the wonder of it all. 46 years had passed, and so much had happened. For the first time in three years I felt very much at peace with all of it and realized that I was finally starting to live again. I have attached pictures to this post of what that spot looks like as of Thursday, which is now in my memory as the past while I sit here typing this post in the present moment. I remembered the older picture as I ate my lunch so I took a couple of shots from the same angle. It’s the same picnic table and the same BBQ pit, 46 years later. It was a fine old tree. I have no idea what happened to it.  But even specimens of quercus lobata are impermanent, though they can live for hundreds of years.

Looking southwest from the summit road – March 2017

After lunch I drove up to the summit and lo and behold there was snow by the side of the road on the back side of the mountain. Though a snowfall on Mount Diablo now and then is not uncommon, witnessing it is always extraordinary. The road to the summit was closed so I was unable to see the view to the east. Sometimes on a clear day you can see the Sierra from the summit building roof.The view in the other directions from the summit road parking lot was stunning, despite some haze. There is still a lot of moisture evaporating into the atmosphere and the mid-afternoon sun creates a high-contrast light that is challenging for photography.

Quercus lobata – Rocky Point Picnic Area

On the way back down before heading home I made some pictures of some of the other old oaks in another picnic area. As I was shooting I could hear cyclists whizzing down the road and sweeping around the long curves of the highway. I’ll have to go back there at another time of day to capture the good light, but I think that any time of day is a good time to make an image. Photographs are little moments of frozen time. Like memories they depict an experience from the past that still lives in the present. When I photograph I feel as if I am living in a long present moment that stretches in two directions behind me and in front of me. And that same tension that I mentioned earlier lives within the image, taking me back to the time when the experience was recorded and resonating with the memory that lives in my head. I love that tension. It makes the ordinary seem extraordinary.

When I returned home Finn was glad to see me. He always is. Isn’t that the wonderful thing about dogs? They forgive us our transgressions immediately upon our reappearance. The next time I head up the mountain, which will be soon, I’ll have to leave him behind once more, because dogs are not allowed on the trails and I want to revisit some old walking spots that I have not seen in decades. But I know he will forgive me just as the tension of memory absolves me when I return to the places that mean so much to me and that I will continue to describe in words and photographs.

Beware of bikes on blind curves
“You left me alone, but I forgive you.”


1 thought on “The Tension of Memory: 1”

  1. Ahh. I too have been having thoughts of Candace. I have pictures from this Saturday three years ago before we rode in the fog. I am seeing wild radish plants in full bloom which were some of our personal favorites because they looked like lace on a little girl's Easter dress. Good memories.


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