Whither Thou Goest, I will Go
In the summer of 1992, time stood still. Others might not have noticed this phenomenon, but I experienced one perfect day, deceptively simple. I lived only in that moment: safe and loved and happy.
My wedding vow to Erik contained the promise, “whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge,” and as an Air Force wife, I came to know all that those words entailed. Erik’s first assignment was to a small Air Force base in California. I enthusiastically moved to the golden state with expectations of grand adventures, yet found myself not near Los Angeles, nor San Francisco, nor anywhere fascinating like that, but in a little town in the middle of the state called Atwater. The town was dismal. It wasn’t special geographically, culturally, or historically, and its only claims to fame were its small military base and its proximity to Modesto – the birthplace of George Lucas.
However glum my initial expectations of an Atwater life of an Air Force wife might have been, our location turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Centrally located, we could fill up the car with cheap gas from the base and drive in any direction to find someplace special. We didn’t have much money, so this became our regular weekend entertainment. We would spend one weekend at Half Moon Bay, another in Muir Woods, and another sight-seeing in Santa Barbara.
So it happened that on one of our trips to Yosemite National Park, we discovered what would become my happy place – physically and figuratively. With almost no money for the journey, we bottled tap water at home to quench our thirst on our excursion and stopped for fresh oranges at a farmer’s roadside stand. These were meager provisions for the day’s expedition, but we were happy to be together – driving, listening to music, and exploring – so we didn’t mind.
We stopped in the little town of Mariposa, not far from Yosemite. Observing the small wood-frame buildings lining the main road through town, I imagined how the town must have looked in the days of the Old West, when two men might have faced off in a showdown on that very street over an argument in the saloon or a case of cattle-rustling. We chatted with some of the locals who told us about the town’s history and how it had been a gold-mining town during the great rush. One aging shopkeeper kindly provided us with a gold pan and collection vials. He winked and reminded us that most of the gold had been found long ago, but he told us he thought we were a nice young couple and he hoped we would find something in the river nearby.
“Who knows?” he mused. “Someone’s got to find something. Might as well be you kids.”
We drove a short way out of town to the point where the Merced River runs down from Yosemite and crossed the rusty, rickety bridge, just wide enough for one car. Since Erik drove a Jeep, he didn’t hesitate to drive up the steep, winding roads lining the cliff that faced the flowing river. We parked mid-way up a very large hill (or very small mountain, depending on how you look at it) and walked down to the river. The sublime beauty of the river took my breath away. The riverbed glimmered with the pyrite, or fool’s gold, and the mica that coated it, magnified by the reflection of the sun’s golden glow. For the tiniest fraction of a second, I thought that maybe the river was full of actual gold that would put an end to our financial difficulties forever, but as geology was a hobby of ours, Erik and I quickly realized that this wasn’t the case.
We raced down to the water like children anyway, lost in enthusiasm, and began to collect as many of the little fool’s gold and mica flakes as we could, carefully coaxing them away from the sand and into small glass vials. We mused about how much our collection would be worth if it consisted of real gold, and we spent hours enjoying the sun’s gleam on the water and glistening riverbed. As a warm breeze embraced us, sounds of our laughter and moving water filled my ears, and cool water rushed over my bare feet as my toes sunk into the sparkling sand.
While the sun began to set, casting long shadows and tinting the scenery with amber hues, we hiked back to the Jeep and drove further up the mountain to its highest peak. I don’t think I could make that steep, dangerous journey now, but then, I was fearless. When we could progress no further in the vehicle, we walked the rest of the way to the peak. Lush greenery stretched out below us in every direction, and the river wound below like a shiny, slithering snake. We sat on top of that small mountain as the sun set, eating oranges, and lamented that we had not found any actual gold, but honestly – it didn’t matter. As night tinted the Western sky with shades of orange and purple, Erik held me in his arms and we watched a lunar eclipse together. It was as if the heavens had proclaimed this as a special day. We might as well have been on top of the world. It was just the two of us, and nothing else mattered. Contentment does not seem like an adequate word to describe the deep sense of well-being, love, and connection to nature I felt at that point, but it was a state of total, utter contentment. I had journeyed up a mountain to find blissful nirvana at its peak.
|The rusty, rickety bridge that marks the entrance to my happy place.|
|My son jumping into a deeper part of the same river twenty years later.|