Late September 1973
It was a long hot summer and I needed to get out of LA. June Lake seemed the logical place, not too far, not too expensive, restful and beautiful. I was not expecting or even hoping for another spiritual experience, I just wanted out of LA.
The trip up was no less beautiful than before and even with the responsibility of driving, by the time I arrived at June Lake I was noticeably more relaxed than I had been in LA with it’s traffic and four Hollywood Bowl concerts a week. Certainly there is stress involved while playing a symphony orchestra concert, some times more than other times depending on repertoire, but for me the far bigger stress was the constant trips from Topanga to the Hollywood Bowl through the summer, about an hour of driving, including rehearsals and concerts it was usually seven trips a week. People told me I was crazy to live in Topanga and face that trip; they may have been right. But now I was in June Lake for several days of rest and I didn’t have to even think about traffic stress in LA.
The weather was extraordinarily clear, especially from the point of view forced on me by the chronic Los Angeles summer smog. But here there was a crisp autumn coolness in the air and the vivid autumn colors were sharp and clear. I had brought my alphorn and I decided to go up the mountain early the next morning, to the meadow beyond the stream, and play. I set my watch for 4:30 and went to sleep.
The next morning, alphorn over my shoulder, I was walking down the road past the balanced boulders and by 5:00 was headed up the trail. As I arrived at the place of the layered, faceted springy pinecones it was starting to get light. Suddenly the wind started to blow and it started to get dark again. Within minutes the wind was blowing viciously and I heard the first “crack” of lightening. It was raining hard and there was no protected dry place to be found. I was a little concerned because the claps of thunder and the lightning were getting more frequent. It reminded in me a way of diving; when I would see a shark, even though I knew everything would probably be okay, I would try to stay calm. I also remembered that in the daytime in the light there was no place where I could stand in those woods and not be able to see at least one tree that had been hit by lightning. And in the fourties, while I was there with my family, lightning had killed a man who was fishing from a boat in the lake in the rain. My respect for both sharks and lightning was deep!
The storm stopped just as abruptly as it came and when the first rays of sunlight broke through; the colors glistened, every leaf, every pinecone and every pine needle was a razor sharp highlighted image. That plus the smell of the fresh rain, the pine trees, the leaves on the ground and the ozone in the air were a prelude to what would be another encounter with thought and circumstance in an enchanted forest.
It was strange that after such an intense storm there was no mud, all the water was absorbed into the deep fibrous fabric of the rich soil. As I walked over the generations of fallen pinecones I reached the place where there were acres of pumice stones, volcanic foam, the white floating rocks I filled my pockets with in 1943. I picked up a few and put them in my pocket just like 1943, then like in 1971 I was able to loose myself in random child like play; looking for living things under logs and behind loose bark, throwing stones at trees, swinging from branches and singing and yodeling. I’m very happy that the very remote chance of meeting someone didn’t occur; it probably would have been very uncomfortable for whomever I met and for me!
The alphorn was getting heavy and I thought about finding a walking stick,
instead I picked up a small stick and used it as my toy as I headed for the
grove of birch trees to look for the R again.
When I arrived at the birch tree grove I stopped my random play and made another search for the R, I didn’t find it but I did find the J from the previous year, a little older and crustier. I had by this time come the conclusion that the tree with the R was probably cut down when the clearing was made for the construction of the ski lift.
It was time to go on to the stream and take a short rest.
The water was wonderful, I left my small backpack and the alphorn and decided to follow the stream up to where it started, which actually wasn’t very far, within a few hundred yards the stream widened and disappeared to it’s source underground. Where the water surfaced there was a dense growth of green reeds. I used my stick to spread the reeds and look for any life. There was none, only fresh, clean, clear water.
It was time to play the alphorn. I went back down stream to get it, put it over my shoulder and within an hour I was at the meadow getting ready to play. I was standing at the same place where one year before I heard the words from my friend that her son was born the same time Jan had died. I used the stick I had been carrying to help make a level spot where I sat the bell of the alphorn, stuck the stick in the ground next to the bell and started to play. At first I played themes by Brahms, Mahler and Respighi but within a few minutes they evolved into pure improvisation. As one year before it is probably far kinder to myself to remember that improvisation rather than have a recording of it. In my memory it was musical greatness!
After more than an hour of playing I made the decision to keep hiking until I reached the top, wherever and however far it might be. It was around midday and at this early time there seemed no threat of darkness falling before I could get back. Further, I decided to leave my alphorn at the side of the meadow so that I wouldn’t have to carry it. As I packed the alphorn and pulled the stick from the ground, I saw something so incredible and shocking that every aspect of my being refused to accept it. The stick I had been carrying had a spiral carved from the top down and at the end of the spiral were five notches.
Suddenly this was not the same hike I had started early that morning; my intellect and basic scientific background were assaulted and my reason was challenged to the breaking point. Quite simply, this just couldn’t be. I held the stick and tried to examine it as rationally as possible; it was old gray wood but very hard, one side of it had started a very narrow split that went practically the whole length, it was about an inch in diameter at the top and slightly narrower tip which came to a point. And it had the spiral and the notches. It was most definitely the walking stick my father had made for me twenty-eight years before. It was there, I was holding it I could see it, the only acceptable conclusion possible was that I was in a weakened emotional state and that I was hallucinating. I held it from every angle and felt the carvings with my fingers and finally, in desperation to break the hallucination I felt the carvings with my tongue. It was real! There was no more I could do to prove or disprove what I could see and feel, and I wasn’t quite sure which I wanted most. It would be easier if I could just conclude it was an hallucination but I could not, by every test I could think of I had to come to the conclusion that this was the walking stick my father had made for me in 1943.
The child’s random play was over, I was walking up, seeking the top, as high as I could get and carrying this simple stick; I was trying to get past the amazement of the event and asking myself how could this be, and to be able to start thinking about what the message was and what lesson was to be learned. Now in September 2005 in Tokyo, Japan I find myself still working on it.
I was off the trail now and finding my way back to the meadow, where I had left my alphorn and backpack was a concern; I was above the timberline and had less references to find the direction back down. At the edge of the timberline I encountered a beautiful buck with a full growth of antlers standing about twenty meters away; we both stood frozen for at least a minute looking at each other. I was the first to move and he simultaneously bolted away into the woods. What power, I could hear his running disappear down the hillside. Was he frozen for that minute in an instinctive self-protection reaction or was there a moment where we two very different kinds of beasts communicated? In light of the events of that day and the past two autumns my mind was as open as it had ever been.
The view from the top seemed endless, there was in fact a higher place to go but to go there would require another two days, climbing and cold weather gear; perhaps another year, perhaps. Getting back down to the meadow was nothing more than a comfortable walk. I gathered my alphorn, my backpack and with the stick headed back to the stream.
Something needed to be said; what had happened in this place this year and the previous two years could not go without some kind of statement. I decided on a quiet, secret and very private ceremony. I carried everything to the top of the stream, broke the stick into two pieces, took the reeds growing from in the water and used them to tie together the two pieces of the stick into a cross and I stuck the cross in the stream at the place where the water first appeared from the ground. I said a few words, thought a few thoughts and played the alphorn for a few minutes; that was all I could do. I will only say that I was very thankful that destiny provided me with these miraculous experiences and to the lessons they offered.
Coming down from the mountain I finally found the tree with the R. Time had tried to fill those spaces carved by my father and they were in fact almost filled but the size and form of the R were right, it was definitely the tree and it was definitely the R. I was very happy and satisfied to have found it.
The next few days were spent in reflection; walks along the lake, day trips to the anomalies of nature that were so rich in that region, and especially a whole day spent at the old travertine mine basking in the hot mineral baths, exploring old tunnels and in my own way trying to sustain the spiritual atmosphere I experienced on the mountain. No conclusion was made as to what it all meant and even now I have come to no conclusion. But as I said at the beginning of this essay, it’s not the answers that are the important thing; it’s the searching and growing we experience as we acquire more knowledge and information in this life.
I look forward to many more years of searching.
Tokyo, Japan. Late September, 2005