Late September 1971
Jan had died eight months before and his mother and I had separated three months before, she had moved back home to Amsterdam, Holland. I was in bad shape and if it was not for my position in the Los Angeles Philharmonic I’m sure I wouldn’t have survived. Now there was a two-week break from the orchestra and I had to do something to focus my scattered mind. I decided to get in the car and drive to June Lake and try and find some center, some stability to my life.
I left Los Angeles before daylight and I saw the sunrise as I was driving through the Mohave Desert; the sun appeared over a descending hill on the distant horizon line; with the car moving it gave the allusion that the sun shot into the sky then settled back to the horizon and rolled across the desert until it found it’s correct place.
I arrived in June Lake in the early afternoon. It was Indian summer and the colors were amazing. It was a strange feeling as I drove down that road to the balanced boulders, through the village and to a motel where I rented a cabin. I spent the afternoon following the places I used to go with my family in the summers of 1943 to 45; much of it was unchanged. I had been there with Jan and his mother, Margot for a weekend a year before but this time was different; this time for me it was no longer same world.
After a small dinner I went to bed early so that I could wake before daylight and find the trail up the mountain. It will have been twenty-eight years since I hiked that trail.
Before sunrise I passed the balanced boulders on the road and turned up a dirt road that I remembered lead to the beginning the trail but no trail was visible. No matter where I looked I could not find the trail and finally, I just went back to where I thought it was in the first place, and started my hike. After about five minutes the trail slowly became visible; it had not been maintained for a many years and I could only hope that I was really on that trail of twenty-eight years before. As it got lighter it was clear that it was the trail, or better put what was left of the trail; clearly this was no longer a frequently used path.
As dawn started to illuminate the sky I was anticipating the sunrise I experienced twenty-eight years before. I was not disappointed; in fact it was even more beautiful than I remembered. First came the pink, than the orange, the yellow and the explosion of gold. Because it was autumn the colors were far more vivid than in 1943. It was colder and the wind was blowing and as I looked up I could distinguish the different sounds the wind would make as it went through the different types of trees and I could hear from the sound which directions the winds were changing. Although certainly it wasn’t the same meadow as 1943, suddenly several deer appeared out of nowhere and just as suddenly disappeared; deer are not delicate Bambyesque beasts, they are powerful and very fast.
The carpet of pinecones was there again but there was more to see and feel as a 32 year old than a 5 year old. These pinecones were layered on the ground by years. The top layer was the new ones that had just started to fall, golden brown and perfect, just below were the ones from the previous year, a little grayer and starting to crumble and so about every two inches you could see the decomposition down to dark gray and black fragments and finally a merging into a rich mountain soil. They were also very pleasant to walk on because their structure created a sort of springiness. Holding one of the most beautiful new ones in my hand I wondered if it would ever be possible for a diamond cutter to copy that structure in the faceting, not with perfect jewelers symmetry but with natures slightly distorted symmetry, which at least to my eye is far more beautiful.
My heart was beating faster as I approached the grove of birch trees where my father had carved that R twenty-eight years before; not having planned it, suddenly it I realized that my quest for the day was to find that tree.
Through the next hours I allowed myself to become a child again, randomly walking, carefree and exploring everything in sight. I looked under logs to see if I could find animals, I jumped up and grabbed branches on trees and swung and I would pull loose bark from trees looking for insects. I would find rocks and do target practice on distant trees and I would find sticks and jab and explore anything and everything that seemed interesting to me. While I was being a child I still hoped I would and wouldn’t see a bear. I never did. And through all the light heartedness I kept looking for that R.
While in this mode of play I was also more or less following the trail and I had a sudden shock when in the midst of the birch trees I arrived at a huge clearing that had not been there the last time. Quickly, I saw that it was the top part of the elaborate June Mountain ski lift complex.
Suddenly I realized that I was standing in a spot where a year before I had carried Jan on my shoulders and twenty-eight years before I was sitting on my father’s shoulders. I rode up that ski lift with Jan, put him on my shoulders and walked up the dirt road that was used for the lift’s construction; the dirt road and the old trail crossed. Unthinkingly I reached down and pulled a piece of wood from old a fallen tree that had obviously been split by lightning many years before. The piece of wood that I pulled off was extraordinary.
It was about a meter long, the surface that had been facing the elements was silver gray and the inner surface that had still been attached to the main body of the tree was that golden brown color. A third of the way down was a branch about 18” long and on the inside was the rest of the branch, a beautiful taper, which had been imbedded in the body of the tree trunk. In other words I was holding a cross, a beautiful organic cross, created by nature. The symbolism of that cross at that place, where I had been a boy on my father’s shoulders and where, as a man, I had carried son on my shoulders, was deeply moving.
I was brought up as a Christian but later made the decision to seek my own answers. This extraordinary piece of wood certainly brought to mind the father, the son, and … now comes the question; what should that apex of the cross represent, the holly ghost, the holly spirit? I’m not completely satisfied with that. What is that place at the cross section between being a child and being a parent? Perhaps it is the present; perhaps the bible quotation could also be explained as that state of consciousness peculiar to our species, the past, the present and the future. Isn’t it strange how trying to move beyond a dogma often we create another dogma? I will continue looking for the answer.
I never found the R that day.
In 1989, just before I left my life in southern California, I gave that piece of wood, that cosmic cross, to a dear friend who’s daughter was dying of brain cancer, now, seventeen years later that daughter is healthy and a collage graduate; I make as little out of that as possible. I may ask for the cross back someday.