Back East

Again, Joan Didion:

Part of it is simply what looks right to the eye, sounds right to the ear. I am at home in the West. The hills of the coastal ranges look “right” to me, the particular flat expanse of the Central Valley comforts my eye. The place names have the ring of real places to me. I can pronounce the names of the rivers, and recognize the common trees and snakes. I am easy here in a way that I am not easy in other places.

I’m thinking about this after spending ten days “Back East,” first in the Hudson Valley, then Boston and Providence, ending in New York City. We never speak of “Back West.” It’s “Out West,” someplace we go to, from Back East– where we came from. This is the popular narrative. So few people I know in California actually were born there. They all went Out West—it’s a destiny foretold in a thousand stories and films.

Back East, I’m easy in ways I’m not easy Out West. The beauty of the golden Sonoma hills, with their copses of live oak dotting the landscape, is someone else’s comfort. They look right to someone else’s eye. To my eyes they’re foreign, exotic—scenes an early California landscape painter might capture.

Having never expected to live in California, having never even entertained the possibility for most of my life, I’m astonished– and delighted– that I live here now. I always imagined I would eventually return to Maine. Or that work would take me again outside the country, perhaps back to Asia. I liked being an expat. When I moved to San Francisco in 2008 it was a serendipitous combination of work and escape. Wanting—needing– to escape from New York and a particular life I had led and lost, San Francisco fell into my lap, the right place at the right time. I’m grateful for the job that moved me here, and for the life I’ve found here. Yet this, too, is a kind of expat’s life. Out West, not Back East.

Images that remain strong in my mind:

Endless summer evenings driving my father’s red convertible through the rolling back roads of Sewickley Heights, so dense and green in their leafy affluence.


The walk through the pine and birch woods from Small Point to Popham Beach in Maine, a walk I dubbed the Transcendental Trek. Popham Beach itself, still to me the loveliest beach anywhere, where on hot August afternoons we would walk at low tide to the small island where a Bates student had been swept off the rocks and drowned forty years ago. Later I learned our family friend Dick Sampson had been the professor along on that ill-fated field trip.


The views from Camp Dudley Road in Westport, NY—Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains of Vermont stretching out to the left and the Adirondacks to the right, across gentleman fields of just harvested hay, the rolled bales standing as reminders of other, older times. (Once when skiing with Adam high on the Matterhorn, I banally commented on how beautiful the glistening white Alps were. He replied, “not as beautiful as the views from Camp Dudley.”)


Cresting Under Mountain Road connecting Millerton to the hamlet of Shekomeko in Pine Plains, Duchess County, the not-so-far off Hudson out of sight but its presence felt in the dips of the intervening hills and valleys. I drove over this hill every day for more than a year when working at Aperture, no two days alike—the sky always changing, the color of the trees in autumn, lilacs in spring in old farmyards, snow blanketing the fields in winter. Crows on falling down fence posts. My address was Willow Tree House, Country Route 22A, Pine Plains, New York. On the field adjacent elephants from Barnum & Bailey had once summered. My porch was entwined with Dutchman’s Pipe, its heart-shaped leaves forming a shady cocoon of old-fashioned benevolence. (I imported Dutchman’s Pipe to my San Francisco garden as a reminder of that small house and those other times. It’s thriving.)


The view across the Hudson River from Midwood’s back porch, the river slate and cool, the Catskills black against the horizon, no human touch intruding. The civilization this place, this view, implies.


Old country roads in the Berkshires. Memories of the Red Lion Inn, of what might had been.


Lake George in the summertime.


The Hudson River from the Scarborough train platform. For ten years I stood on that platform watching the river, and opposite, the Palisades, in all its changing seasonal raiment, wonderful even in the frigid winter when the river was frozen over and the wind felt straight from the Arctic. The Hudson Line is one of MetroNorth’s glories. Anywhere else in the world it would be designated a Scenic Railway. I never denied when charged by my ex that the only reason we lived on the western, Hudson, side of Westchester County was because I preferred the river commute to the city.


These are my unifying images, landscapes that look right to my eye.

Cities, too, bear witness to easy familiarity. I feel more at home on Washington Square in Greenwich Village than on Union Square in San Francisco, where, after nearly eight years, I still feel like a tourist. Living for ten years at 24 Fifth Avenue on the corner of 9th Street, the streets of the West Village resonate with close familiarity yet. Not much has changed. When I think about walking over to the French bakery on West 4th Street when David was just a toddler, it feels like yesterday—yesterday thirty years ago.

I rarely return to New York without walking down Madison Avenue from the mid-80’s all the way to Grand Central. I walked there last Monday, stopping in, as always, at Crawford-Doyle, the most civilized bookstore in the city, an old and reliable friend. There’s nothing like this stretch of pavement in San Francisco: handsome older couples arm in arm, expensive women in Chanel and Harry Winston; teenage girls in Hermès boots and perfect blonde hair, Italian or French as commonly spoken as English.

What is it about these landscapes of our youth that remain so indelible? Why should I find more contentment in the pine bordered rocky coast of Maine than in the sea stacks of Mendocino? Why should the Pacific look different to my eye than the Atlantic? Is it actually a physical impression, or is it the associations I bring to each?

I’ve been lucky to experience many other great landscapes far from my familiar territory. Milford Sound, the Lauterbrunnen Valley, hiking the jagged ridges of Montserrat near Barcelona, the frozen Jungfrau, Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges with its giant tree ferns straight from the Jurassic Period, the Outback of Western Australia, Hudson Bay. Would I trade any of these for a summer afternoon on Islesboro Island? In a heartbeat.

Today I’m working hard to create new unifying images in my life. I may have found one, one that sparks joy whenever I stand at the lookout in Sea Cliff at the end of our street and look across the Golden Gate to the Marin Headlands, the Pacific opening out to the west. The view is becoming familiar, a part of where I live. I swim in the cold water below. I know China Beach and the coastal trail leading away from the lookout to Lands End and Ocean Beach. I can make these images right to my eye. I love walking over in the early evening—always my favorite time of day—and watching the sun set with the sky ablaze over Point Bonita. Sometimes we see dolphins off China Beach. They never fail to thrill. Sometimes I swim near them—unnerving but reassuring. It’s said they keep sharks away.


Here, too, is where I’ve found happiness in marriage. Ocean Beach will forever be where I walked with Brenda on an early date, finding sand dollars, getting to know one another. I held her hand. A new beginning.


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