I first experienced it—saw it, heard it, felt it, and tasted its water—during the summer of 1960, when I was ten years old. At that time, in my memories of it, and every time I have been by it since, I have experienced it in ways that don’t reduce to those of the five animal senses, though they are involved, too. Even now, nearly half a century later, I can recall the context of my first encounter with the Truckee, a meeting that took place at the end of what I now know to have been a very special day. But let me indulge a moment to provide some context.
I grew up in Southern California. The only other place I had ever been was Texas, and this happened so early in my life that I have no significant memories of it. For me the world was the expanding suburban sprawl of southeast LA County, where new housing tracts sprang up like the spring grasses, weeds, and mustard flowers that once reigned over its landscape. It’s really a pretty drab place, especially during the six or seven month dry season, when the grass and weeds dry out and turn brown. If all of California had been like its southern part, it would be probably be called the ‘brown state,’ not the ‘golden state.’
Nature survived the onslaught of real estate development for a few years after these neighborhoods sprung up in the early ‘fifties, and we children used to catch horned toads, tadpoles, and occasional blue-belly lizards that lived in and around the spring puddles, the gutters, and the gardens that lined our back yards, thereby hastening their virtual extinction.
Mockingbirds, crows and ravens, ants, bees, wasps, and butterflies did well in the transition to suburbia, as did the drab English sparrow. Seagulls used to come inland during the rains and flock in schoolyards and parks, returning to the ocean front when the skies cleared. This was before the advent of McDonald’s and Jack-in-the-Box, whose littered parking lots would one day provide gulls with more or less permanent inland foraging sites. But back then, my natural world consisted of the San Gabriel river bed with its remaining tadpoles and horned toads, of vacant lots, of grass lawns and the gardens that rimmed them, of sidewalks, of cement curbs and asphalt streets, all laid out according to the Grid with the symmetry characteristic of things made by Man.
Once in a while my grandparents would take us for a day trip to Big Bear or Idyllwild or to the Mojave Desert. The pine forests of Big Bear and Idyllwild were the closest things to ‘lush’ that I experienced before I was ten. I used to marvel at the unevenness of their terrains—God’s geometry is fractal—compared to the linear regularity of our planned neighborhoods. I loved the fragrance of the pines, and the way the high mountain sky seemed to howl.
After school was out for the summer of 1960 my mom, dad, sister, two brothers and I went on an extended trip from LA to Northern California, and on to Reno. I don’t remember how we got there, but we wound up in the Napa Valley that summer, during the month of July. By this time the hills were golden (not brown like the ones in Southern California in the summertime), and adorned with clusters of green that I would one day know as ‘oak forests.’ It was pretty up there, but after a while, the mile after mile of golden hills dotted with oak got kind of boring, especially when viewed from the back seat of a ‘57 Ford Fairlane without air conditioning, especially when it was a hundred degrees outside and you were squeezed into the back seat with three siblings, two of whom were diagnosed hyperkinetics (the 1950s version of ADHDs).
After a hundred more miles or so of this misery, exacerbated by the smell of little-kid sweat, we stopped in Sacramento and visited a park. It was hot and humid, but there was a hint of a breeze blowing off the river that made it tolerable, almost pleasant, especially compared to sitting in that car. While I sat there in the shade, on cool green grass, I saw something that made my heart jump: It was a real, live robin. They didn’t have those where I lived, only birds with drab plumages, adapted to life in the semi-arid, part-time wasteland of the LA basin. We didn’t have birds with colors other than grey, black, and brown. I only knew about robins because they had pictures of them in Fun with Dick and Jane, my elementary school reading primer. I used to wonder if I’d ever see one, and now here one was, right in front of me.
I didn’t realize until then that robins are much larger than sparrows, almost the size of pigeons. I was entranced, watching it hop around on the grass, its orange breast glowing in afternoon shade. I had never seen a bird with so much color. Then I saw it stop and sink its beak into the grass. In a second it pulled out a long earthworm, just like the one in the picture in Fun with Dick and Jane. I don’t know why, exactly, but I felt at that moment as if the Universe had revealed something of great moment to me, letting me see in real life something that I had only experienced in a book. I am groping for words, even after all these years of reflection, to capture the excitement of seeing for myself that such things as robins could exist in the same place as me. In some ineffable way, seeing that robin changed my world. For the next forty years my life was dominated by a fascination with the relation between what was in books and what was ‘out there’ in the real world, and every time I saw something in the real world that had been foretold by something I had encountered in a book, I had a similar sense of exhilaration, though none was ever as dramatic or as awe-inspiring as the time I saw that robin on that steamy summer day in Sacramento.
We only stayed a couple of hours in Sacramento, and it must have been a little past two o’clock in the afternoon when we resumed our journey to Reno. Where Interstate 80 now runs there used to be a two-lane highway. Reno, for its part, was still a small town in those days, though it had a sign downtown proclaiming itself to be ‘the biggest little city in the world.’
I remember how we ascended the foothills east of Sacramento and how the air cooled noticeably as the oaks gave way to the pines. We complained of being thirsty, but our dad told us not to worry, that pretty soon we would drink the best-tasting water ever. As we approached Donner Summit, the scenery became more and more magnificent: Imposing gray granite walls hundreds of feet high with tall pine trees and bright junipers growing right out of the moss-covered rocks. There is a certain time in the late afternoon there when the angle of the sun’s rays gives the impression that it is shining right through the leaves of the trees and shrubs, causing a bright green aura to glow above the plants and fade into the deep blue, cloudless mountain sky. And we had entered this area at just this time of day. The air was crisp but not cold, a welcome contrast to the sweltering Central Valley, and you could smell the pines even through the window of a moving car.
I was so distracted by this deluge of new sense experiences that I forgot all about my thirst and became lost in them. I was overwhelmed by the majesty of those great, stone mountains, the endless sky, and the green things with their afternoon auras. I felt as if something wonderful was about to happen, as if a great destiny was about to unfold, as if something of vast significance was about to be revealed to me. I felt a glow in the part of my body that I now know as my navel shakra, and it persisted for several hours. In fact, to this day when I go to this place, especially in the late afternoon on a sunny day, I still feel that, but only if I don’t try to.
We went over Donner Summit and began our descent to Reno. The forest wasn’t quite as thick on the eastern side of the Sierra as on the west, but it still far exceeded in its luxuriance anything I had ever seen in Big Bear or Idyllwild. On the right-hand side of the highway was the gorge created by the Truckee River. As we continued down the highway it got closer and closer to the road, and the gorge became shallower. Soon Dad pulled off the highway and parked. We got out of the car and he started to walk over to a large, swift-moving rill bigger than any mountain stream I had ever seen. He laid on his belly on a flat rock, hung his head over it and drank the water as it rushed by. Dad was a Comanche mixed-blood who had actually worked as a cowboy in his youth in Texas and New Mexico, so for him to savor the water in this way seemed the most natural thing in the world. He looked up at me and my brothers and said, ‘Come on. It’s the best water you’re ever gonna taste.’ At this point of our trip any water at all would have been the best we’d ever tasted, so we quickly found our flat rocks and laid down on them.
Dad was right. It was the best water I was ever going to taste. It was icy cold, fed by the summer melt of the glaciers above Lake Tahoe, and fast-moving enough to be inhospitable to algae, amoebas, and mosquitoes. As I lay there on my stomach, alternately inhaling the pine-scented air and gulping the frigid, crystal clear water, I looked at the polished grains of granite sand on the bottom, which was about eighteen inches deep where I was. The water was so clear I could see every grain of sand. I looked upstream and saw the waning late afternoon sun gleaming on the calmer parts of the stream, and the white foam at its center flashing as it swept its way down the gorge. Every so often its turbulence caressed my face with a cool misty spray.
The images of the trip up the mountain and the memories of that robin I saw in sweaty Sacramento began to fade as I was carried away into the Present by the chill water and the singing of the river as it plummeted down the granite skeleton of California’s brutal backside. I continued to drink until I was nearly bloated, not because I was thirsty any more, but because the water tasted so good. I got up from the rock and sat cross-legged on a soft bed of dry pine needles, watching the river flow by, my thirst fully sated, and my spirit at peace. I felt the presence of something of incomparable force and grandeur. I felt like I was somehow part of it, not a separate being regarding it, but part of its ‘being.’ And I had this wondrous sense, as hard to put into words now as it would have been then, that everything was going to be all right.
What is it about that day that still calls out to me over the chasm of nearly five decades? I have had a few moments of similar grandeur since then, but what distinguishes this one from the ones that came later is that I experienced it while still partially immersed in the innocence of childhood. I wasn’t worried about what I should be when I grew up, whether I would be successful, or how I compared to anyone else. I wasn’t concerned about being worthy of the experiences I was having—an affliction that came with the loss of innocence—or about looking good in the eyes of men. I wasn’t feeling like I should be doing something other than what I was doing right then and there. I wasn’t haunted by guilt or shame about things I had done or not done in the past, nor was I worried about the future or what it might bring. Instead, I was confronting all these new things with the naïve wonder of the child that I was, and beheld their beauty as basic data, requiring no analysis, no intellectual effort that would have drawn me away from the immediacy and grandeur of that experience of the present moment.
And I remember it as holy. It was a moment, perhaps one of my last, of not living out of the past or feeling distracted by fear of an uncertain future, of just being present to what was there. Today, when I can make it up there, it still awakens a glimmer of the innocence of the ten-year old that used to be me. It gives me back the experience of being fully present that growing up, that living a life, took from me. I still get a sense that something wonderful is about to happen, that there is a deep, hidden meaning behind the river’s song and the howling mountain sky.
Oh, to be a child again! To experience the perfection of the universe and the divinity of our own being just by sitting next to a silvery rill in the mountains. . . The Truckee River will always be sacred to me because of that. I am comforted in the knowledge that others have surely found what I found along its meandering path down the Sierra, and that, long after I am gone, it will still sing its song.