Have you ever found yourself in a landscape that transforms you?
I recently returned from one amazing day spent driving through Marin County, which is across the Golden Gate bridge, north of San Francisco. I went with a friend and her tiny daughter, who turns 3 in June. It was so lovely I’m counting the minutes until I can get back on the plane for the six hour ride from my home in New York.
Marin is bathed in golden light, its velvety hills a mix of Ireland, Scotland and Vermont, dotted with black cows and brown horses. Thick groves of redwoods. A winding road that led us through Dogtown, pop. 30. (The official sign later hand-lettered, amended to 31, 32, 33…)
I felt like a chorus in a Joni Mitchell song.
We stopped in Point Reyes and bought ice cream. Four men asked me to take their photo outside the Western Saloon, which looks exactly as it sounds.
I posed them in the narrow doorway of the saloon. “You look like a rock band,” I told them, and they laughed. Until they looked at the photo on their Iphone.
“We do! Great photo!” one said, delighted.
Thick afternoon light coated the red bricks and the emerald-green California I highway sign.
The last place that had so profound an effect on me was Taos, New Mexico. Like Marin, it’s a favorite of some big name celebrities — Julia Roberts lives there, at least part-time. Taos is tiny and filled with eccentric details. (Yet, like many of these idyllic rural areas, almost a quarter of its 4,700 residents live in poverty.)
Here’s a recent essay about Taos from The New York Times:
I had come to this far-flung desert town to write a memoir about searching for traces of one of the heroes of my English adolescence, D. H. Lawrence. Taos was the only place where Lawrence had ever actually owned a house, and I suppose, as a visitor, I was hoping some of the inspiration he had drawn from the land and people might rub off on me. I had imagined the landscape would all be bare desert and mountains. The last thing I had expected was to find it reminding me of England.
But all around town there were grassy fields, tussocky, mostly flat, with patches of shorter grass where horses and cattle had grazed. They were no different from the fields back home where I had grown up, playing soccer with friends, walking the dogs, rambling, sleeping out in summer. This one near my apartment was no exception.
An unexpected sense of intense familiarity with a foreign place has been felt by other travelers in other lands, but I was surprised by how completely at home I felt in this field: the long grass, the faint scent of hay, the trees hissing softly in gusts of breeze. Of all strange things, this meadow in Taos had exactly the same rough grass stalks, feathery at their tips, as the field next door to my childhood home in the Cherwell Valley north of Oxford. And the path, beaten smooth as hide, was just like the path that ran through that field, too. And the tremendous ribbed trunks of the cottonwoods that ringed it were like the boles of old English willows.
The day we arrived in Taos I ran out and bought a tie-dyed tank top, astonishing Jose, then my boyfriend of only three months, (now my husband, 12 years later.) In New York, he’d been dating a woman who appeared buttoned-up and conservative, a WASP — me — who showed up on dates wearing turtlenecks.
Who, suddenly, was this hippie chick?
Blame it on coming of age in the 1970s, but I’m often deeply happiest in a place where I can ride horses, pick up fossils from ancient riverbeds and let my eyes roam across empty miles. Where the air smells of dry earth, old stone and sagebrush and eucalyptus. Where the light is so exquisite I’m torn between my camera, sketchbook — and simply letting it soak into memory.
I found the same qualities of Taos and Marin — of light, rugged landscape and timelessness — in Corsica. I wept when I left, in June 1996, and dream of returning to explore it much more.
How about you?
Have you been somewhere that so moves and touches you?