In the kitchen of the Hamilton Road house in Pittsburgh there was a percolator where the brew lurked, bubbling, boiling, and emitting the scent of burned food. Years later whenever I drove across the Bay Bridge, as I drew closer to the City, I was aware of the same smell from the Hills Brothers roasting plant on Harrison Street. Charred toast was the scented entry ambience of the City on my way to concerts at Winterland. That roasting facility no longer exists, another element of the old and treasured San Francisco that disappeared when the middle-class was purged after the century turned. The roasted odor was less pleasant than the aroma of apples from the packing plant I visited before we left rural Pennsylvania, but subtler than the acrid reek of cooked pickles at the Heinz plant in Pittsburgh where my Uncle Gene took me on a tour when I was in sixth grade. Though I was not a coffee drinker, whenever I crossed the Bay Bridge I felt as if I was entering a utopia of musical freedom.
|Mount Diablo from Acalanes Ridge|
|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.”|
|My Father: Dick Gill|
Both of my parents were born in Pennsylvania, my mother in 1926 and my father a year later. The area in which they grew up was classic small town America: Huntingdon and Tyrone. It remains that way today, though I have not seen that area since 1973, the last time I traveled that far east of the Mississippi River. In reviewing the Wikipedia articles the population of both municipalities is about the same as it was one hundred years ago. The population remains mostly white. The big industry in Tyrone was a paper mill, which still exists. Both towns were sustained by manufacturing in the past, and much of that no longer exists. I think it’s safe to say that the demographics of both places are representative of the status of most other small towns in this country in 2017.
|My Mother: Helen Gill|
My mom and dad were both educated in local high schools and met and married sometime in the late forties or early fifties. My mom was raised on a farm in an Irish Catholic family. My father’s background was Methodist, though he converted to Catholicism when he married my mom, a story that I’ll save for another time. I was born in 1953 and I have many memories of my own small town life in another little township named Roaring Spring, which is in the same area of Blair County. My dad had a small appliance and television store there in the Fifties, and if you wanted a black and white console set to watch the two available channels of news and entertainment that were available, he was the guy to see. There were no “big box” stores then.
|Tyrone in from of my Grandmother\’s house.
Smoke from paper mill on the right.
If he had been a different personality we would never have moved from that small town and my own parallel universe would have been much different than it is today here on the West Coast. But for some reason that I have either forgotten about or never really knew, my parents moved us twice; first from Roaring Spring to Pittsburgh in 1960, and then from there to California six years later. I probably will never know the root reason for those changes as both of my parents passed away in 1988 and 1993 and there is no one to ask about it anymore, but knowing my father and mother it was probably an economic decision. I’m sure my father was looking for bigger opportunities and my mother, who was also an adventurous sort, went along with it. I also think there may have been some consideration of cleaner air and better environmental health. Those little towns were always close to manufacturing plants that spewed effluvia and toxins into the rivers that ran all through that area. The paper mill in Tyrone was especially nasty. The ecological impact of paper mills is significant.
|Pittsburgh in the early sixties|
(Side note: There’s a certain irony here in that Pittsburgh itself was anything but eco-friendly in the 20th century. It was known as the Smoky City as the pollution was so bad that the sun was blocked by thick smog during the day. But by the time we moved there in 1960 the “Pittsburgh Renaissance”was underway, and while the mills still turned out immense amounts of steel, the skies were clear. Today the mills are gone and Pittsburgh is consistently rated as one of the best places to live in the United States.)
|Window of my Dad\’s store|
My dad operated a Lafayette Radio Electronics franchise in downtown Pittsburgh on Grant Street near the Koppers Building until about 1965. I recall that he had to close the store when they built the US Steel Tower and tore up all the old buildings to make way for construction. Again, I’m not sure of the details, but I remember that his job changed and that there was some stress in the family finances. He worked for a portrait photographer for a while and sold cars, but I remember him being rather unhappy because he was no longer his own boss. That discontent was the spur that led us to the big move to California in 1966.
|My dad’s pal Harry Shadle with a new loudspeaker|
That relocation was a turning point and when I think about it today fifty years later I realize what courage it must have taken on the part of my mother and father to pull up stakes and head West. We had traveled by car to California in 1963, 1964, and 1965. My mother’s brother had moved to La Brea years before and there may have also been an influence there. But I am amazed by the decision: leaving family and tearing up roots to live on the other side of the continent in a search for Opportunity. I’m sure they used every cent they had to pay for the move.
As I was reading the article I thought of my father and mother and their decision to move west. The gentleman being interviewed works in an aluminum rolling plant, the same facility where his own father worked. He gets good pay and with overtime makes about what I made back in the day when I was an Information Professional, and his money most likely stretches pretty well in Iowa compared to the Bay Area where living costs are higher. He comes across as a thoughtful person and a hard worker. He also usually votes for the Democrats, but not this last time; thus the misgivings. But it wasn’t the regrets regarding the Tangerine Tyrant that struck me. It was this sentence: “ (He) hopes his son will get an apprenticeship at the plant after high school. He is confident that his employer won’t lay off workers or shut down the plant because it has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Iowa and does specialized work that would be difficult to move. He hopes Trump can create more jobs like his across the country.”
|My father in his last back yard|
I immediately thought of my own Dad and his hopes for me when I was young. He never had any expectation that I would follow in his footsteps professionally. He urged me to go to college and worked very hard to pay for it. I was the first person among all my cousins to get a higher education. He could be a real pain in the ass sometimes, and there were always massive disagreements between us in regards to religion, but he always urged me to shoot for something greater in my life. In those days I wanted to be a writer, a dream that I have followed but that has never really led to a professional income. Never once did he defer me from that dream and ask me to do something else. He always accepted whatever I was doing to earn a living and never made a disparaging comment as to what I was doing. He died long before I really developed a profession in the true sense of the word, and I think that if he’s up there watching me from the Billy Collins glass bottom boat he’d feel paternal pride.
Unlike my father, I certainly don’t mean to be judgmental about that hardworking man in Iowa. But
|Dad in the Navy|
his statement presents a clear delineation between comfort zones. And it also expresses a dangerous expectation in regards to his assumption that his place of work will never lay anyone off or remain in Iowa for the foreseeable future. If there is anything I have learned in the last few years it’s the simple fact that you can never take anything for granted and that all things are impermanent. There is no comfort zone that lasts through a lifetime. There never has been. The “way things used to be” have never been stable. When I look back on my own life I see currents of change and passages that I by no means controlled. Sometimes I drifted. Other times I managed to steer the craft of my life and happiness and reach a place where I could take the time to convince myself that I really had reached a goal. But in fact everything is an accident. We have influence on our own lives, but to think that we are really in control is an illusion. Snafu is the normal state of being.
Joseph Campbell used to tell a story of a Tiger who thought he was a Goat. My father never had the opportunity to live out his afternoon of life. My expectation was that I would, and that I would be sharing it with the partner I met 37 years ago. The former experience awaits me, the latter no longer is a possibility. My father was a tiger. I will follow in his footsteps on a path that he never walked.
|Dad and Mom before I was born|
|Dad and Nikon in Yosemite.
I miss him.
|My mother and I at a wedding reception.
I miss her.
|What was that sound?|
|“Yeah it’s a nice ocean. Now let’s go home.”|
|My pal Finnegan|
|The Doctor\’s Angel, Evergreen Cemetery, Manchester CA.|
|10 years old|
|Split Tree Trunk, Volunteer Park, Seattle WA,|