In 2004, we pulled up all of our stakes, stuffed everything we owned into a bright yellow Penske truck, and took off for Northern California, my first time to live anywhere outside a 100-mile stretch of I-35 in central Texas. It was thrilling. I thought that coming to northern California would light my literary fire, make me want to stand by crashing waves on rocky shores and write write write, burning with inspiration courtesy of Steinbeck, Kerouac, and Frost.
Instead, I found myself wanting to lie down on the grass in Golden Gate Park, basking like the pond turtles in the Aboretum, sunning myself in a drowsy torpor for hours, periodically extending a hand or foot for maximum sunning experience.
So it was with great reluctance in 2004 that I sat myself down to write these first paragraphs of this moving experience. There was a literal move, from Texas to California, but there were also deeper moves. Emotional moves, generational moves, life-changing moves, I-can’t-believe-I’m-living-in-the-land-of-earthquakes-and-urban-mountain-lions moves…
Our first time around in California, we lived in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge. Well, not the shadow, but it was visible and large just outside our home and the foghorns rattled the walls. I sat and wrote next to an uncurtained picture window, 10 or more feet high, which looked out onto…eucalyptus, mostly. A grove of tall, fragrant, short-lived trees planted by the U.S. Army decades ago for reasons that are murky to me. Their drooping shapes have taken over this tip of the peninsula, where it leads to the Golden Gates.
My mother, who formed the last in a line of visiting relatives just after our move, noted with surprise that the bridge itself is not golden, but an unexpected deep orange-red, the color of smoldering sunset. I told her that the “Golden” probably refers to the arms of land that reach out from juxtaposed peninsulas, striving to touch one another’s once-golden shores across the San Francisco Bay. The shores were straw-colored with seagrass, a soft gold you can still see in areas that the U.S. Army and other improvers of the early twenthieth century didn’t cover with introduced plants.
But looking at eucalyptus through that picture window and peering through that dense grove, I could get a tiny peek at the bay. I liked to think of it as 'the sea' because that idea suited my literary pretensions better, but it’s really the bay. In the evenings, we would go to the beach, throw rocks at the waves, chase “eagulls” (as our second son, my then-one-year-old, called them) and listen to foghorns and sea lions. This trip a block from our home was a long way away from Austin's 100 percent humidity, 90 degree heat, pestilent mosquitoes, persistent drought, and a single decent hike-and-bike trail around a murky polluted lake designed to serve a metropolitan populace.
Things are, as I thought to myself almost every minute -- and still think -- very different here in California. Bigger. Deeper. Richer. Delineated. Just like that bridge.
I noticed the first difference when I opened the morning paper. This was back in 2004, when we still took the paper, didn't get our news from Twitter or online news sites. It was the San Francisco Chronicle. Some of the writers approached the lyrical. There was an apparently endless series on wine, which I hadn't spent a lot of time thinking about, coming from the land of Shiner and Lone Star. The comics were limited, and some were older than my great-grandmother, with a sensibility that made her seem hip, even from beyond the grave. The advice columnist was Dear Abby, except it was really her daughter Jeanne. Then there was Liz Smith, whose raison d'être publié had mystified me for at least a decade.
But it wasn't the lifestyle pages that magnetized me. It was the headlines in the front two sections. Killer whales attacking humpback whale calves in Monterey. Divers arrested for scoring too many endangered red abalone. Mountain lions wandering around elementary schools in Palo Alto. Kite surfers fearing great white sharks during an epic surf from the Farallons to the bay. This metropolis—this cosmopolitan, world-class, world-renowned city—is a wild, wild place. Back 'home', as I periodically referred to Austin, the headlines would be about the heat or the drought or maybe Spamarama, an annual celebration of a canned meat product held next to the above-mentioned polluted inner-city lake. But wild? No.
Sharks. Whales. Sea lions. Red abalone. Otters. Seagulls. Falcons. Mountain lions. Seals. As I wrote this, I was listening to a woodpecker clack against a tree. Every night, walking along the bay, we'd see a pair of sea lions that liked to hang around a pier near “our” beach. We'd see ducks and seagulls and herons in an adjacent wetland and what I think were cormorants. Pelicans flying low, in tight formation, gliding in bodily stillness over the currents.
In Austin, excitement was seeing one of the two white swans that inhabited inner-city Town Lake. Here? We might as well have been walking around with grassy straws or hay poking out of our hair, a family of country mice awed by the big city and the Big Nature, still doing the tourist thing and going to Pier 39 to ogle the sea lions. But it’s not the big city that’s the pinnacle of awesome here, although it is mighty and vivid and historic and marvelous. It’s the Big Nature. That's what left me moved.
Moved enough, in fact, to come back again, seven years after our first departure. Older, more childed, greyer, and very, very different in less visible ways. But still so dazzled and startled by all the wild around me. And still falling in love all over again every time I see that bridge, painted like a smoldering sunset.