Sleepaway Camp

I dropped Bodhi at the bus yesterday for his first-ever week of sleepaway camp. He had been resisting this notion for over a year when he was “upped” last year to Intermediate level at San Francisco Boys Chorus and thus, obligated to attend the “Away Camp” in Healdsburg. But amazingly, when the morning came to go, he was more concerned with not being late for the bus, than with trying to hide under the house or find some other avoidance technique.

When Todd and I were kids, we “hated” camp. I’m not sure this was originally my notion. It may well have been something Todd instilled in me. First was Camp Len-How, a day camp with the usual types of activities. It’s a bit blurry for me now but I do remember that on the second day when the carpool came to pick us up, we hid upstairs in my mom’s room hoping the car would drive away without us. Oh, how Todd hated it. Listening to Bodhi and some of his friends this year, I realized that there may be some sort of “cool factor” about hating camp or speaking ill of it. Anyone with ideas about this please share.

Our sleepaway camp was Camp Wapalane in Stokes State Forest, NJ. It was a conservation camp with a lot of science, outdoor education, as well as swimming, boating, archery and my favorite, riflery. The first year went off without a hitch, but the second year, for some unknown reason, I became extremely homesick. I cried at every meal and begged the counselors and director to let me call home, hoping to get someone to come and pick me up. Incredibly, I made so much noise that eventually someone did. My sister Carol, and my sister Nora’s husband came to get me sometime in the second week of camp and I got to actually ‘quit.’

On Thursday morning, Bodhi played with the other kids in the parking lot and a kid he knew brought him an extra tennis racket which I hope he’ll use. He smiled after hugging me and ran onto the bus with a quick wave, settling in beside that boy in the very front seat. And now I am living simply, alone in the house, time for catching up with myself, Amee away on business. It’s the first time without Bodhi here for this length of time. A step forward into time, the time when he becomes an independent person and we feather our empty nest.


Dark Canyon

We drive and drive that last day. Looking for a sign. Of Todd, I guess. Any kind of sign. We head for a stream which the guide says has more German brown trout than any in California. We enter the valley out of Loyalton and I’m disturbed by what we see. The valley has burned, completely. There is new growth beginning and a carpet of green underneath but the mountains are stippled with the jagged husks of burnt pines and the stream is clogged with giant white Lincoln logs. 

From a display by the creek we learn this is the aftermath of the 1994 Cottonwood Fire which burned some 48,000 acres of Tahoe and Toyabie National Forests. We are looking for a sign. Of Todd, I think.  We keep driving up the valley, hoping something will change and finally, it does. Seven miles in, a large gray animal runs across the road, I yell, gray fox, Bob says, coyote. He’s right, a thick one at that, its fur rich and luxuriant, not the scraggly ones I’ve encountered in Death Valley. This one looks like Shanti. Is it our sign?

I put the CD back in, Robbie Robertson and The Red Road Ensemble, one of his native American expeditions of the 90’s. The gorgeous chorus of vocal chanting transposes us into a different time. I think of “Thirteen Moons” again, Charles Frazier’s odyssey of The Trail of Tears, and reach for Todd’s well-thumbed copy to read out loud to Bob. I’m searching for a favorite section, The Booger Dance, but keep turning up a different passage which seems to want reading instead. Bear, the leader of the ragtag band of Cherokee in North Carolina, is recounting the death of his first wife. She has been trying to pull him to the other side for a year and he has been grieving through the passing of her ‘four souls.’ The last one is her bone soul and when it finally goes, he is free of his grief.

Back in Cottonwood, it’s a dark day, sunset with snow beginning to fall. Not the cheery white flakes of the hot springs, but a sad nuclear fallout on this barren landscape. Bob reminds me that the earth is like the human body, this choked river is like a central artery which has been clogged, polluted but will recover, is recovering. We are looking for a sign. Of Todd, I’m pretty sure. We climb higher and higher on the four-wheel drive road towards Bear Valley, a campground in the heart of the burn zone.

The crossroads we come to is full of places to go, civilized roads with numbers and names, but we are not in a civilized place. It is a wild place, devoid of people, wildlife beginning to reappear, no place for them to hide. We spy two deer, one tagged with a radio transmitter, they stare us down and win. We head back for the hot springs.

We’re not finished with our search but have no more ideas. Then as we nearly finish our descent to the valley, we spot an arrow pointing to Dark Canyon. Its late, we’re tired, we’ve been on four-wheel road for three hours now. What could possibly be up here that we haven’t already seen? One look at each other and we know we’ll try again.  I turn up the road and we start slowly climbing.

The road scales a pine forest on the edge of a valley and then opens up to a kind of Scottish looking landscape, open rock faces and two ridges on either side. The road is not good and gets worse, then worse. As we turn left up the canyon it becomes a rocky affair and we find we cannot go any further. We get out to explore. Five paces from the car Bob says, “I guess this is what we’ve been looking for.”  I don’t know what it is but have a few ideas. See what you think.

Is it a shillelagh, Jack McGee and Booboo’s famous phrase for discussing their private parts, literally, the Irish billy club? Or is it instead The Scream, carved from an upturned burned stump by some unknown Sierra woodcarver? Or is it Todd himself, his bone soul crying out from the burned wilderness, “Let me go. I’ve had enough this time. Don’t follow me. Let me go.”

Behind the music.

The summer I graduated college, Amee was there. She wrote lyrics for my band’s best songs that year, “Light Streams”, “Just Like Me”, “Whether or Not” – all the E-Knock hits (Boston, 1985). When I moved to the East Village and programmed rap records, it was in her living room on East 9th St. surrounded by her oil paintings and stray cats. She spent her days in the ‘running behind buses’ heat, art directing videos for John Cougar Mellencamp, John Scofield, The Fat Boys, Kid’n’Play. When I left to Venezuela, she came there and led me to La Gran Sabana with her insatiable thirst for adventure, and wrote more lyrics this time for Dogon (1988-2000), then tempted me back to NYC. There she made documentary films and I provided the score. We ambled up to the Catskills summer after summer until we found our paradise house in Woodland Valley and bought it together with Todd and Marian. Somewhere along the line I got involved with the jingle biz, we moved uptown, and on June 8th, 1991, we got married in West Saugerties, NY, a mile or so from The Band’s house at Big Pink.

When we moved to San Francisco, Amee ran the town with me and the Spirals. We funked out on Potrero Hill while in Palo Alto she opened worlds through Interval Research, rubbing elbows with Thomas Dolby, Jane Siberry, Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel. While my label, NEWdOG Records, produced ambient electronics from my studio in SoMa, Amee nourished our souls and celebrated the rough mixes. When we discovered Burning Man in ’94 (1500 people), she held down the tent while I DJ’d and tripped the light fantastic. We kept on going ’till ’99 (25,000 people) and when Mary Magdelene split into three, Amee was one of them, clad in iridescent blue wings and floating the desert with Zen and Serena – DJ Christ Superstar would not have happened without her. When I scored “The Tribe” for Tiffany Shlain and we created a living room discussion series on Jewish identity at Sundance, it was Amee who engineered the matzoh ball soup, from her own recipe. Amee discovered Music Together and suggested I get involved and start my SF center, which has remained my chief business until today. When The Sippy Cups were born, she attended the birth, coached me on breathing and often played guidance counselor to our toddler and preschool years.

Behind all the music in my life, and my life has usually been about music, it was Amee laying down the backbeat. I couldn’t survive this life without my best friend and sweetest accompaniment – THANK YOU AMEE FOR 20 YEARS!!! And I hope we get 20 more.

Possession and return.

I awake in the meditation spring. I’m sitting over a crack in the earth when Todd appears to me. He’s a ghost, a diaphanous form but himself as we last saw him alive. He descends into me, I accept him in some sort of communion and now he is with me. The mood is similar to yesterday when I felt that grace for all of the family. I’ve accepted the Todd spirit, embraced him in his pain and struggle, his warmth and humor, his entirety.

I flash back over twenty years. All the times I’ve spent escaping – in every way: the times I sat in this spring after Burning Man, exhausted from wandering the Playa night and day, talking till my tongue actually swelled up, escaping from suburban New Jersey to the farthest reaches of California, dissolving into mystical Judaism, initiated by a Yaqui shaman-for-hire, re-engaging the psychedelic teenage search, traipsing around the country in a rocknroll circus, always running. I’m tired of escaping. Maybe I’m ready to stay put. Maybe I’ve turned 50.

Late in the day, Bob and I drive to Loyalton in search of a package store and find nothing open, hardly any businesses at all to speak of. Bob finds a barroom and goes inside to see if they’ll sell to go. There he discovers eight or so senior couples social dancing to country music and a pair of shitkickers at the bar. It’s a brilliant sunset in the valley and Bob takes phone-shots while I drive.

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The Big Valley

It’s coming down really heavily on the east side of the pass as we descend into the Sierra Valley.   This former lake bed of the same origin and age as Lake Tahoe is huge, 470 square miles at 4850 feet elevation with mountains up to 8000 feet surrounding it.  In my mind it lies somewhere between memories of the TV show “Bonanza” and the distant lonesome wonder of the Black Rock Desert. Barbwire cattle fences tease electric green pastures below giant white snow clouds.

Sierra Hot Springs is the former Campbell Hot Springs that’s graced this valley since the native Washoe people visited it for its healing waters. It’s currently run as a quiet sister property to Harbin Hot Springs. I first encountered it on some dusty spaced-out returns from Burning Man in the mid-90s and have had some intense experiences there over the years.  I haven’t been here in eleven years and hope to find it unchanged.

The “Meditation Pool” is purported to have special healing properties, I once sat in it with a cancer patient who had traveled great distances to try and reap the benefits of its rare combination of natural minerals.  The long afternoon light has broken through the storm system and we’re treated to incredibly rich welcoming views. We set up camp, head for the meditation pool and find we have it all to ourselves. Inside there, breathing deeply, sitting over the source of this crack in the earth, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude and picture all those dear to me, my family who has suffered such a shock, the fragments of humanity, the tendrils of connection—I vow to retain this image and repeat this meditation.

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Rocky Rest to Yuba Pass

We awake at Rocky Rest to freezing rain and a muddy depature pulling the trailer out of the cold slime. Hoping to get to Sierra Hot Springs, we head to Downieville with a warm breakfast in mind.  Looking up on the surrounding cliffs, we realize it’s been snowing all night, just not down where we were insulated by the river. But a few hundred feet up the valley, it’s snow everywhere and big flakes coming down.

Downieville is a bust, asleep under the blanket of white, no cozy cafe to be found. We ask a trooper about Yuba Pass and he encourages us to try it. Do we have chains for the trailer? We don’t.

The storm seems to ebb for a bit making travel up the pass less scary. We make it to Sierra City, sleepier yet than Downieville, and find a sweet breakfast spot that surpasses our visions of old-time Gold Country hospitality. Tanked up on fancy coffee and breakfast porks we push up the pass. The snow gets heavier but thankfully the road is not too slick and the Highlander and trailer hold their own. We are alone in the pass and listening to dreamy sad boy twang like SunKilMoon, Red House Painters and Greg Brown. We will make it through and find the big valley and maybe it will appear to us sunlit, green, dappled with black angus, volcanic, peopled with patchouli-drenched hippies, quiet, healing, like the other time.

The North Yuba Snowmelt

My nephew, Dr. Bob, and I have embarked on a camping trip in the North Yuba river canyon of the Sierra foothills.  We’re celebrating Bob’s graduation from med school before his residency starts in Macon, Georgia.  We’re heading to an area where I last spent time with Todd in August of 2010, fly-fishing crazy.

First stop is “The Bridge,” a favorite snorkeling spot just out of town at the South Yuba River. The water is incredibly strong and high with the spring melt. Kayakers are embarking for a run down the Class V rapids. We talk about Todd’s eskimo roll class and how he said he’d do 90 at a time. Would he take this stream now? Would he survive it? We take it very carefully and just do some wetsuit swimming near the bank, not venturing up into the rock canyon which later in summer makes great snorkeling but right now is a deadly strainer.

We head on out 49 and explore some possible campspots on BLM land near North Bloomfield. The sites look great but are a mile from the river so we decide to head on to the Indian Valley area and hopefully Rocky Rest Campground on a bluff over the North Yuba. As the sun disappears in the rushing blue canyon, we find an amazing camp spot and settle in for three days in this staggeringly beautiful, mostly deserted place. We hope to do some fishing, floating, hiking, eating, talking, sleeping.

We are finding our way with each other, we’ve been two out of three and now are only two. Todd always on the horizon, with us, or outside of us, always a point of reference. At first it’s a bit uneasy, we hit a wall, we separate for a while, we find our way around it, with compassion. We are both suffering — we don’t need to increase our pain by fighting.

We get in over our heads, literally. It’s a short stretch of white water leading to a big open fishing pool. It’s harder than we think to navigate. This a dumb form of recreation this time of year, reckless. Bob’s wetsuit fills with water but he swims to shore, that’s the end of that.  We fish but the river is blown out from massive spring thaw. We four-wheel drive and hike to a mining ghost town, Brandy City, its amazing and empty and sunlit and duck-filled and heavenly and quiet. We hope to return and fish or camp there someday.