You can't go home again…
I was twelve the first time I ran across that Thomas Wolfe chestnut and it didn't make much sense to me at the time. Why? Is my house going to get bulldozed? Are the communists going to invade and take over town, like they did in Red Dawn? Because that would actually be kinda badass.
I was, of course, missing the point entirely. What can I say? I was raised on The Dukes of Hazzard and The A-Team…insight and imagination weren't my strong suits.
Wolfe's famous line, however, is one of those things in life that makes increasing (and depressing) sense as you grow older. You can’t relive the past, recapture the glory of your youth or, in some cases, even recognize the place that you used to call home.
So Much for Progress
If I were to tell you the name of the town I grew up in and explained what my childhood was like, you'd find it hard to reconcile my description of the place with its current condition. I grew up within an hour's drive of San Francisco, but my town had one main street, a post office, a pizza parlor and a little store imaginatively called “The Little Store.”
When we moved to town in the mid-70s, it was a small chunk of the past—all rolling hills and derelict walnut orchards. My youth was, essentially, one long blur of playing in the dirt, drinking warm beer in the woods, chasing chickens and getting shot by farmers—this was back when you could give kids a double-barrel blast of rock-salt and their parents would just shrug and ask their kid if he'd damn well learned his lesson about chasing the farmer's chickens.
In other words, it was about as fantastic a childhood as they come.
And then it started to change. In the mid-80s, town houses and condos sprung up where empty fields used to sit. One summer they tore down the old gold rush-era blacksmith's shop downtown. Other "improvements" followed. They clear-cut the eucalyptus grove behind the little store, they started pulling out the wooden boardwalks downtown and they started talking about how great it would be to cover all those empty hills in new homes.
At Home With the Dead
Even as a teenager, none of this struck me as progress. I bought my first mountain bike and began riding further into the hills in an attempt to get away from it all. That's when I first started visiting Rose Hill cemetery.
The hills around our town had once been full of coal. For a time, beginning in the 1850s, the Black Diamond mine was big business. These days, people think of California as all beaches and blondes and hipster bars, but most of the state is just so much rock, brush and weeds, and the living hasn't always been easy. Two hundred and fifty souls were laid to rest in Rose Hill cemetery before the coal ran out and damn few of them lived to see the sunny side of 28. The number of graves for infants and toddlers is sobering, particularly when you get to reading the causes of death inscribed on the cracked marble tombstones: "cold", "flu" and "fever". You know, the kind of stuff you can cure with about 50 cents worth of Advil today.
I guess the idea of a teenager hanging out in an abandoned graveyard is something of a cliché, but I wasn't huddled there amongst the graves for the clove cigarettes and the goth glory of it all. That abandoned graveyard in the hills, with its crumbling gravestones and rusted iron railings never changed. I can't tell you how much that meant to me.
All That’s Shiny and New
I left town when I was 18 and, aside from brief and infrequent visits, haven't been back for any length of time. I pulled in last night, however, for my 25th high school reunion. I haven't said boo to anybody from high school in just about all those years. But this time around, when the reunion invitation showed up in my mailbox, I held it for a while and thought, Why not?
Not a whole lot of us actually showed up for the affair. The folks I'd liked when I was a kid, I still liked. The folks who seemed like tools way back when, pretty much seem like grayer, fatter tools today. We shook hands or gave awkward hugs. We listened to Run DMC and Aerosmith and AC/DC at ear-splitting volumes, and within the time it takes to finish a couple beers and some mushy salmon, it was over and done with.
I had a day left in town before I headed back to Oakland to catch my flight out.
I got up this morning, borrowed my big brother's bike and went for a ride. I took the long way to the trailhead. At times I had to stop to get my bearings. I might as well have been in Timbuktu. All the cool, old spooky Victorian-era farmhouses were gone, each of them replaced by a McMansion. There's a pharmacy downtown now. Which, I guess is progress since the little store I grew up with only sold beef jerky and jumbo packs of menthol cigarettes, but still…A RiteAid? And there's lots of cement. Everywhere. And a jumbo-sized bocce ball court. I ask one of my friends who stayed in the area about it. "Oh, yeah," he says. "Bocce ball is kind of a thing now. It's big."
Bocce ball? Seriously? What the fuck? I'm not against it per se, but when did that happen? And why did it happen? And who are all these yuppies rolling balls around the sand? Did I mention the labradoodles? They're everywhere now. When I was kid you had a duck-hunting dog. Maybe a pit bull, you know, if you leaned less towards hunter and more towards Hells Angel. But a friggin' poodle?
I keep pedaling till I hit the trail. There's a golf course lining the first half-mile. I stop and wait for a dad and son team to rumble past in their cart, and I hate them with an intensity that even I realize makes no sense at all. I put my head down and turn the pedals. Soon I start seeing quail and gopher snakes. The click and whoomph of the golf course fade away and its just me and the hard-packed dirt and the coyote scat. The old hill—that long, steep one that used to suck mightily still sucks today. I'm oddly comforted by that fact.
I amble along the ridgeline until I reach the clump of trees that marks the cemetery. No one's here. Nothing's changed. It's just me, the cows, some lizards and the dead.
I lie down there in the weeds and squint my eyes. If I do it just right, I can almost pretend that everything is still here, right where I left it. I can almost believe that I can go home again.