Field Notes: The Mystery of Memory

“The door to the past is open. He could push it shut, latch and lock it, but he doesn’t want to. Let the wind blow in. It’s cold but it’s fresh, and the room he’s been living in is stuffy.”

—Stephen King, “Billy Summers”

Fifty years ago this summer, my sister and I took off on a backpacking trip from a trailhead in Big Sur right off Highway 1. Our destination was the Tassajara Zen Center, about 20 miles into the Ventana Wilderness, and we thought we could get in and out in a couple of days. That would give us time to hang with the monks for a while before heading back to the East Bay. We knew the Zen Center was on an arterial road that ran down to Highway 1 and we planned to hitchhike back to our car from there. That’s how I did things back then, with a lack of planning offset by a youthful optimism in the benevolence of human nature and the random kindness of the universe. In the darkest hours of our trip, that optimism wasn’t exactly broken, but it was shaken in a weird way. But more about that in a moment. 

The memory of that trip, fuzzy but intense, came back this week as I was on a day hike through Big Sur to see Pfeiffer Falls. It was the sixth day of a road trip up and down the West Coast, mostly on the 101 but also a lot of time on Highway 1, one of the most beautiful and breathtaking drives on either coast. In my mind, I started calling it Shutterbug Highway because I found I had to stop every half hour or so and snap a dozen pictures. It’s a test, Highway 1 is. It’s 55 mph on the straightaway, but you have to slow down to 25 or so on the hairpin turns, and there’s a lot of them. So you need to focus, but at the same time the craggy coast seems to be a postcard for the birth of creation and it’s a constant test to keep your eyes on the road. “Focus on the road, just the road,” I kept telling myself. (Yeah, when you’re traveling alone you do occasionally talk to yourself, not gonna lie to you.)

A Del Mar sunset

But I’m getting ahead of things. I had left San Francisco on a Monday and drove straight down the backbone of California on I-5 until I got to Del Mar, a sleepy coastal village that shakes it off in August when the horses are running at the Del Mar Track. I had a dinner scheduled the next evening with two old friends, one of whom I’ve known since high school in Wadsworth, Ohio. For reasons we won’t belabor here, we both ended up going to school in San Diego. I repotted myself when I finished and moved up north, but he stayed, got married, worked for a tech company, raised a family, and lived a fine — I would say heroic — life. We both lost our wives recently in the space of about four months, so our friendship took on an even deeper connection. As I walked around Del Mar and ran on the beach the day before our dinner, the memory door opened and a small breeze started blowing: the Saturday surfing sessions we had, from La Jolla Shores to Swami’s; 25-cent tacos at Tug’s; endless pitchers of beer in some beach dive (of which there were many); bonfires and campouts on the beach. In other words, a typical Southern California college lifestyle, in which going to class was sometimes a secondary consideration. All of it came rushing back.

But sitting on the terrace of the Pacific Coast Grill with these two old, dear friends brought back memories that were more ineffable: the seductive air and light of a warm coastal evening, the anxiety and freedom of college life, the endurance of friendship. We all looked different, for sure. But it also seemed as if we just picked up where we left off. We traded stories, tried to account for people we knew back then and wondered what they are doing now. We sipped tequila and cold beer. It was one of those evenings that made you feel full and rich and grateful.

Hanging with Jessie’s gals at Lucky’s

Heading back, I took the slow way up the 101. (Southern Californians always put “the” before the number of a freeway, e.g. “Take the 405 but not during rush hour.” Who knows why? One wag said the simplest answer is that “Southern Californians pretty much invented freeways and so we can call them whatever we want.”) I stopped in Santa Barbara for the night, where the weather is perfect and on State Street there’s probably one restaurant for every 10 people. I don’t have deep roots there, but my daughter went to UCSB and my son-in-law was raised there, so there’s a strong affinity. I did jog over to the uber-enclave of Montecito for dinner at a steakhouse called Lucky’s, where I randomly ran into some of my daughter’s friends, which was fun, especially when they pointed out Justin Bieber, who was sitting outside and being lectured to by a young woman. He didn’t look happy. Montecito is immaculate and it’s not hard to find a 3-acre estate, 10 bedrooms, ocean view, going for $35 million. But then again, Oprah’s your neighbor. At Lucky’s, my martini was cold and hand-poured at the table, and the steak was perfect.

I took off for Cambria the next morning, which quickly demonstrated the fallibility of memory. I’d been to this little village near San Simeon (where William Hearst built “Xanadu”) probably 30 years ago. My memories of it were deep and pungent. I recalled its jewel-box size, the array of craft shops and galleries that catered to the inner life, but in a unique and authentic way, as if their products were mined from dream-life itself. In fact, now I saw it as a quirky roadside stop. The craft stores seemed cliché, the galleries were nondescript and the energy level best described as ennui. Where was the Cambria of my mind? I must have taken the kernel of a day I spent there and kept watering it in my mind over many years until it grew into something that doesn’t exist today — or may never have, frankly. Memory can be objective, or course, but it’s also a way we round the rough edges of our lives and create a narrative that makes sense to us, even if it’s not exactly true. Rubbing the spit polish off some of those memories, as happened in Cambria, isn’t always pleasant, but it helps keep us honest, n’est-ce pas? Frankly, the best part of Cambria this time around was creating a new memory. Just past sunset, when it was neither dark nor light, I stood on a rock outcropping right at the edge of the water and faced directly into the wind, which was howling, bringing with it rivers of fresh fog. It was cold and biting, like the wind Billy Summers describes in the preamble to this piece. But it was exhilarating too, and I stood there, feet rooted to the rock, letting the Pacific air flow around me with an energy that was simultaneously divine and primordial. I’ll remember that moment to the end of my days.

Memories are like tide pools

By now, I began to think of myself as Neddy Merrill, the main character in a short story by John Cheever called “The Swimmer.” In Cheever’s classic story, Neddy decides to travel across his suburban town on a Sunday afternoon by swimming through everybody’s backyard pool, pool by pool. My version was traveling up the coast swimming through pools of memory, deep tide pools of my past life that were alternately placid and crystal-clear, or roiled by wind, making their contents hard to see. Exhuming memory can be alternately exciting and frustrating; fulfilling and disappointing; straightforward and mysterious.

By the time I got to Big Sur I was swimming in memories of a geography that stuns the mind and perception. Once seen, this stretch of Pacific coastline is never forgotten. Today, decades later, it lives up to every memory I have. Driving along the cliffs, I struggled to capture the scope of the Pacific; the only thing I could think of was “boundless.” I was intoxicated by the light on the water and its mesmerizing, rippling effect. I thought of Genesis and creation. 

Henry Miller al fresco

After 60 miles of unblemished coastline, I come upon a little enclave with a demure sign announcing “The Henry Miller Library.” (Miller, of course, was one of the famous denizens of Big Sur, along with, at various times, Jack Kerouac, Aldous Huxley, Hunter Thompson, Michael Murphy, Fritz Perls, Ansel Adams, Gary Snyder and many others.) It’s in a small redwood glen where there are tables and tables of books, odd sculptures, throw-off furniture, and a tented performing space. Randomly tacked to a wall is a “Notice to Visitors” written by Miller himself in the early 60s, which states, among other things, that “When you come please be so kind as to check your neuroses and psychoses at the gate. Gossip may be exchanged during the wee hours of the morning when the gremlins have left. Please bear in mind that this is a small community and news travels fast. (Carrier pigeons are provided when necessary.) God is Love — and in the ultimate Love will prevail. Remember, man is the ruler, not Saturn! Let us do our best, even if it gets us nowhere. In the midst of darkness there is light. ‘I am the light of the world,’ said Jesus. He said a mouthful. Light more light!” (This was copied verbatim; all usage, grammar and punctuation is Miller’s.)

Bunking at the Big Sur Lodge further up the road was a delight — rustic cabins tucked into a redwood grove surrounded by miles of trails. During my ascent to Pfeiffer Falls that day I stretched a few muscles I didn’t know I had, which catalyzed the memory of that backpacking trip with my sister 50 years ago.

This is what I remember: On the second day, we ran into a solo hiker with a small pack who came in from a side trail. He was quite a bit older than us, dressed in rustic, battered jeans and a plaid shirt. He seemed pleasant, chattering away and inquiring about our destination. When we told him we were headed to the Zen Center, he seemed to perk up. He asked if he could join us for the rest of the trip and, drawing on our aforementioned optimism about the benevolence of human nature, we agreed. 

He kept talking, in an increasing elliptical manner, and it became clear that he had more than a passing familiarity with the Zen Center. “I actually lived there for a while,” he finally said. “Robes and everything. Aspiring monk, daily meditation, working on selflessness. Then for some reason they asked me to leave.”

We kept walking, he kept talking. And getting angrier. He wasn’t sure why he was asked to leave, he said. One of the head monks had it in for him, he was trying so hard, a couple of the so-called masters were really just assholes, there was that night he got drunk on red wine, of course, but everybody slips once in a while (it was then I noticed his water bottle was actually an empty bottle of wine that he filled from the stream and never let out of his hand). Yeah, he says, I should go back there and make my case with that guy. By nightfall he was still ranting — now in a way that only made sense to him — and we’d become uncomfortable. This was just a couple of years after the Manson murders and when I looked at my sister across the campfire I could tell we were both thinking the same thing: maniac killer! The only reason we were able to get to sleep that night was because of the 12 miles we’d hiked that day carrying full packs. We woke up early, had a light breakfast, broke camp, and headed to Tassajara. He was quieter that morning and we finished the last eight miles in relative silence. During the last mile, he disappeared. He was lagging for a while and when we looked back at one point, he was gone. When we arrived at the monastery, we were graciously welcomed by a monk, who led us to a big hardwood table in a courtyard hosting a hot pot of tea and a big tin of tobacco with rolling papers (monks like to smoke too, I guess). He poured us tea, we rolled a couple of cigarettes and drank and smoked in a very Zen-like silence. After a few hours of hanging out, we hiked up to the road, hitched a ride back to Highway 1, got in the car and drove home.

This isn’t a crystal-clear memory; it’s more of a tide pool obscured by rippling water. Did it actually happen that way? Mostly, probably. As Malcolm Gladwell noted in his excellent podcast about the fallibility of memory (which you can listen to here), when it comes to traumatic or intense events, there is our memory and there is the truth and the two are not always the same. The essence of that Big Sur incident — the fear and uncertainty we experienced realizing our companion had left his better angels on another trail a while back — is certainly true. What’s interesting to me is that despite the intensity of that memory, which played back in full technicolor during my stay in Big Sur, it’s not my primary memory. Over the years, when I happened to think of that trip, it was more about the redwood forest, the exhilaration of that 12-mile push we made in one day, the tea and smokes at the monastery. That, of course, was the memory mill at work, rounding the rough edges and refining the narrative. Like our brains, memory is plastic. It can be shaped and molded over time. Revisiting those memories in situ does amazing things to enhance recall.

No mystery about this memory

On the final leg of the road trip, I stopped in Half Moon Bay at the Ritz, a grand structure perched on the cliffs overlooking the water. This is where Kit and I were married almost 20 years ago, creating a rich new tributary of memories that sustain me to this day. Walking the property, emotions washed over me like waves coming in from the Pacific. I could actually see Kit entering the room where we held the ceremony, a small collective gasp rising at her radiance; then I watched her walk out of the room afterward, as we did at the time, tee up a golf ball and hit it into the ocean (I followed with driver). And I watched the wind blow over her dress, leaving ripples as it does blowing over a tide pool. There is no ambiguity about this memory. It is strong and sure, like a redwood, forever rising to the heavens.

Tomorrow, I’ll fly up to Seattle to spend a few days with my sisters. God knows what kind of memory pools we’ll be swimming in then!


      1. Thank you, Russ, for taking us along on your trip of memories. Your writing is so wonderful!

  1. Thanks for sharing your journey Russ. Having driven the 101 and the PCH your descriptions bring back my own memories of how beautiful the California coast can be.

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