Jacob in Eden (Early May 2019)
Three weeks before he was wrestled to the ground at Sanctuary Ridge, Jacob Peterson was in California, above the rim of a glaciated granite valley at the golden hour before sunset. Weighed down with a black bag full of camera gear, he was chasing light. It was the final stretch of his ascent. He contemplated the apex of the massive, pockmarked wonder known as Sentinel Dome. Like a glowing gray geological onion, it shed layers of stone as big as parking lots.
He wore reflective aviator shades. Tall and trim, he wore neon sky-blue bicycle shorts. Unruly white chest hairs seeped from the neck of his yellow tee shirt. His calves were well-defined, but his biceps flabby. A slight belly pushed on the snug yellow shirt. He gulped from his stainless-steel water bottle that sounded near empty. Looking west at the Sierra foothills, he stroked the patchy beard that only had substance on his chin. The hair was several inches long on his jawline but with gaps between them like a comb with missing teeth. The salt and pepper threadbare mustache lay over his lower lip but did not connect to the tuft on his chin.
He leaned his stuffed pack against a Jeffrey pine the wind had bent nearly horizontal. He sat on a boulder, the quartz flakes sparkling in the late sun. He took off his wide-brimmed canvas hat and wiped his almost bald pate with a small towel. The long thin hair below the crown was a mixture of auburn dye and gray, tied into a ponytail. Carrie said he should go on one of those makeover shows.
He unzipped his pack and looked over the carefully arranged set of lenses, filters, camera bodies, and old Kodak film boxes—the yellow packaging faded and worn. He blew the dust from the mirror of an old black and silver Nikon F2 and attached a 50mm lens. Old school, no zoom. He shot some hand-helds of the reflections in the meandering Merced nearly three thousand feet below.
He pulled out a leather journal. Marking his place near the middle of the book was a photograph of Carrie. Her long blonde hair was wet, bangs in her eyes. Her outer silky red blouse was unbuttoned, revealing a threadbare white tank top that was stretched to the limit. Placing the photo back into the journal, he wrote with a mechanical pencil:
I stand in awe as I survey the continuous and distinct features in the sanctuary’s varnished granite, each sculpture giving way to another, overwhelming my senses. Looking west into an explosion of orange and red, I watch the water pour from a hanging valley like an avalanche and tumble over a shorn igneous wall, crash over heaps of broken boulders, and spill onto the valley floor with great violence and finally flow into the Merced River, which courses out of the valley gates and through El Portal.
He carefully and gently put his collection of words into a Ziplock bag, then deep in the pack. Seeing that a cloud was enhancing the colors of the sunlight, he reached for a wide-angle zoom to lay hold of the living kaleidoscope.
He set up his tripod, placing it just a few inches from the surface to record some of the glacial polish in the foreground. Wanting crisp sharpness through all distances of the image, he set the aperture at f/16. Maximum depth of field.
The sound of footsteps and singing came from the path below. A deep female voice that cracked slowly said, “Hello, young man. What a beautiful evening.”
He continued to shoot the scene without turning to look at her. “It is.”
“Do you see how the light is dancing over there to the east—on the wall of the sliced dome?”
“No,” he said, still not lifting his eye from the camera’s viewfinder. “I’m trying to capture the sunset.”
Hearing her come up close, he turned and saw two women with long silver hair, each wearing sleeveless white dresses. The taller, darker-skinned woman’s hair was in two braids, each tied with a band adorned with feathers. There were deep lines on her face. She walked over and knelt beside him. “The native people called the sacred dome ‘Tissiak.’ Do you know what that means?”
“I don’t remember,” he said with some impatience.
“‘The face of a young woman stained with tears.’ The sheer rock face tells Tissiak’s story—her strife with her husband.”
Looking down as if to avoid the sight that so enamored the women, he returned to his camera viewfinder. “I guess I’ve read about that somewhere.”
“Do you see the streaks from the lichen and how the sun is activating them?”
He adjusted the tripod to capture the last glimpse of the sun. “Thank you for sharing. I need to finish my work.”
The other woman stepped closer. “Sometimes the sun is saying, don’t look at me. Look around you. The land is speaking. That’s what my father would say.”
“You photographers,” the taller one said, “are so obsessed with bottling the light in front of you that you miss the light behind you. Have a good evening, sir.”
“You, too,” he said and watched the women continue toward the summit.
He looked briefly through his lens at the last light of the sunset, then abruptly put away his equipment. He swung the pack over his shoulders and began his descent into the darkening dusk. He never did look at Tissiak.
Echoing his hero John Muir, he called the valley a temple and cathedral. Those who lived there in the time of Lincoln called their home Ahwahnee, “place like a gaping mouth,” but to neighboring tribes and the first white people, they were the Yosemites: “those who kill.” But to Jacob Peterson, the word Yosemite triggered inexpressible nostalgia, like Eden.
After about a half-hour of walking with a headlamp, he arrived at the lot near Glacier Point, where he had parked his faded silver pickup. He put his pack in the rear next to the cooler, then took off his hat and laid it on the seat next to him. He turned on the ignition and fished his filmy driving glasses out of the glove box.
Struggling to stay awake as he drove back to the campground, he cranked the volume on the CD player. Allman Brothers live—”Whipping Post.” Blues guitar jam part. He tried stomping his left foot and bobbing his head. As he came into a patch of fog, he strained to see. He leaned forward, his lips almost kissing the wheel. The music stopped as a call came in. Startled when he saw the phone number he’d grown up with. He swerved over the rumble strip, the tires vibrating.
“The Old Man. What?” He let it ring and coasted into a roadside parking area. Holding the wheel and leaning back, he took a few deep breaths.
He chewed on some jerky, then shook his head when he looked again at the missed call notification. After making arrangements for the next day with Carrie, he got back on the road. She would meet him at the gallery to hear his presentation.
Ten minutes later, he slowed down as he came to El Portal, a tiny village on the Merced. He pulled into Mariposa Flat RV Park then along the river into his site, his headlights shining on a vintage but weathered Airstream trailer. The word “Milagro” was painted in black calligraphy on the dirty and dull aluminum next to the entry door. When people asked him about the name, he said, “It’s Spanish for miracle. I’m just waiting for a miracle. Aren’t we all?”
When he entered the darkened Milagro, he turned on the light and threw together a quick peanut butter sandwich. He then went back outside, pulling out his phone and activating the flashlight. He reached into one of the storage compartments in Milagro’s belly. Next to a box of books was an antique wood chest with brass hinges. The chest, about the size of a microwave, the mahogany stained a dark and reddish. The coat of clear lacquer was now yellowing. The word “fragments” was written across the side, apparently with some kind of wood-burning tool. He brought the chest inside, set it on the table, and pulled off the lid. He reached for a brown leather album marked “1989” and skimmed through the pages. Near the back of the album was a photograph of a shirtless, thirtyish woman, her arms crossed, her hands on her breasts behind her long, wavy hair. She was flirting, her lips forming a kiss.
He removed the photo from the album and set it on the table and began to write in his journal about the next day’s presentation. When he finished perfecting his talk, he flipped off the overhead light. He sat in his bed, using the light of his phone to look at the picture again, then closed his eyes.
When Jacob woke the following day, the photo was on the floor. He picked it up and brought it close to his face. “Damn, I miss you.” He found some clear tape in his junk drawer, took the photo with him into the bathroom, and attached it to the mirror.
He got dressed, made scrambled eggs, and emerged from Milagro. He walked across the road to a log structure. The sign read Portal of Beauty. As he entered, a woman in a tie-dye shirt with bobbed black hair looked at him over her reading glasses as he entered. “Can I help you?”
“Angie.” She reached out and shook his hand. “I remember you from way back—in the ’90s must have been. The bar at the Cedar.”
“Ah yes. I did some work with the National Park Service. I’m interested in a property. I’m going to be a summer instructor at the Chapel Gallery.”
“Good for you. Looking to make El Portal your retirement home?”
“I’m only sixty. I love it here—it’s my Eden, but I roam. I want a small storefront to establish a base here, but I’m on the road a lot: Kings Canyon, Redwoods, the Coast. Making images.”
“I can show you a place tomorrow at 11 AM. It has a loft above the retail space. Here’s a folder with some info and pictures.”
The cover of the folder read. Set up shop at the gateway to the Great Valley. Financing available. Leafing through it, he said, “This looks good. I’ll get you a deposit by the end of the week.” He headed for the door. Turning around, he said, “Angie, has this town healed?”
“How so?” she said.
Angie paused, looking away. “That’s not something one recovers from.”
Go to Episode #8