On Friday night, Heron and I joined our family in the Willamette Valley outside of Portland, Oregon, where we drank so many pinot noir that I felt like my blood had literally been turned into wine. It was my first time in the valley, and I was surprised to find that it reminded me so much of my home in New England. In the photo above, you can see the thick fog that hugged the grape vines at Domaine Serene, a fantastic winery with some earthy and complex pinots and a dry rose. It rained the entire weekend, but I enjoyed it. The fog enveloped the entire scene, and it forced me to examine what was right in front of me, and I was in the moment and focused on family and friends. Below you will find some of the photos I took in the Willamette Valley to highlight some of the places we drank and ate.
What struck me about the Willamette Valley is how green it is. My brother-in-law went on a run, and he came back and said he felt like he just ran through a jungle. The views are lush, and the rain warm.
We drank a lot of wine, but we did something that I never did before: an olive oil tasting. It wasn’t my idea, and we almost went to a local brewery instead, but I was so glad that I stuck around for the olive oil tour at the Oregon Olive Mill at Red Ridge. We tried olive oil in official tasters, and what I learned was that when tasting olive oil there is a peppery, almost spicy taste at the finish. I had one olive oil that hit me like I had just ingested a bunch of pepper. We had a lunch after the olive oil tour, and everything was drenched in olive oil, including coconut ice cream with a bit of sea salt.
The rose above was taken on the grounds. Someone who is a part of my family pointed out the rose above and said: “Take a photo of that rose. It’s Mother Nature at her finest.” Hope I did it justice.
Final shot is of a hazelnut. At the bottom of the olive plants, they use hazelnut shells as ground cover.
I grew up in Clinton, Massachusetts — a small town in Worcester County. We were once the crowning achievement of the Industrial Revolution, and the factories from the Bigelow Carpet Factory are still on Main Street, serving as a reminder of a former life. I love Clinton. I still have family there, and I have incredible friends there. That town has helped me become the man I am today, but I couldn’t wait to leave when I was a kid. It’s not that I disliked the people or thought it wasn’t a great town; it’s that I hated the snow; I hated the cold; I hated the small-town nature of my childhood existence. It just wasn’t where I wanted to live long term. I needed to find my home, and there were two places I knew where I wanted to live: Florida and California.
I started to develop this fascination with the idea of paradise. I started to think about the ocean, the sun, and the weather. I thought about Florida and California, and I built these ideas of these states as the key to happiness and success. That once I moved beyond the cold winters my life would be easier, more peaceful, and free.
So I went to college in Florida, and I lived there for four years, and I studied creative writing in Miami for three. Now I live in California — the place where I thought would be the most free state in the country — and I’m about to move to San Diego. What I’m trying to say is that I understand what it’s like to live in a place that most people consider paradise. I know what it’s like to live in a city where tourists line up, year after year, with their cameras to take photographs. I know what it’s like to take for granted the beauty that surrounds me and become accustomed to beautiful weather that you almost feel oblivious to the flowers blooming almost all year round or standing on the beach only to turn around and see snow on the mountaintops. What I’m trying to say is that I’ve spent the last ten years of my life chasing paradise, and I’m no longer looking for it. I’ve found it, and I can’t imagine ever leaving it. It’s obviously a state of mind. It’s a place that I can find in my writing. It’s my family. It’s music. Even though it’s so obvious, it’s important to remind myself that paradise is not a place. That’s what is on my mind this week.
Here are some quotes from writers on paradise:
“It is better to have your head in the clouds, and know where you are … than to breathe the clearer atmosphere below them, and think that you are in paradise.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” — Jorge Luis Borges.
“Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring–it was peace.” — Milan Kundera.
Before I tell you about the coyote, I want to share some good news on the publishing end. This week, I have the cover story at the OC Weekly. The piece is called “Notes From the Underground Economy,” and it’s a story I’ve been working on for months. Really, since about September. I’m proud to share this piece, and it was an amazing learning experience. Working with Gustavo Arellano — editor of the OC Weekly and voice of Ask a Mexican — was a great honor. Also, last week, I had a piece come out at the LA Weekly that seemed to be received well. It’s about losing and rediscovering the California Dream while driving on Route 1 and features Joe Clifford. It was awesome to write, and I was so pumped the LA Weekly ran it. It’s one of my favorite pieces I have written in the last few months, because it felt true — to me at least. Check it out: Route 1.
So now to the coyote story…
One of my favorite spots to go hiking in Southern California is El Moro Canyon in Laguna Beach. First, the drive to get there is extraordinary. When I want to head to El Moro from Long Beach, I take the PCH, passing through Seal, Sunset, Huntington, and Newport Beach. I love driving along the ocean and listening to music. Well, this time I decided to use the ride to listen to an audiobook. And for some reason, I felt like listening to “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu.
Well, I found this “read” fascinating, as I’m sure most people do, because of the ideas of “stratagem” — winning a battle and conquering a kingdom while appearing as if you did nothing. Never appearing weak — and if you appear weak, let it be a simulation to disguise your prowess. It was fascinating. I loved the idea that if you’re a general that receives praise or criticism, then you’re doing something wrong. You should accomplish your goals perfectly, and you should win the battle in a way that allows you to win from afar — to allow the enemy to defeat itself (though it was really you).
So I got out of my car at El Moro, and the wind was just whipping cold air. Sun Tzu was running through my mind, and I figured I would meditate a bit on the lessons of Sun Tzu and how I could apply them to my life. I started walking up the trails, and I could see the white-capped ocean off to the West. I was running the ideas through my mind, and I started to think about how to give the impression of quiet confidence. I remember hearing a line about appearing like a hawk: calm until the moment of attack. Once the attack comes, then you must act decisively.
Clearly, I’m trying to think about these ideas in abstract ways. How would I react to a threat? That’s when I realized how alone I was in the middle of a canyon. There was no one around me, and I remembered seeing a video of a mountain lion attacking a man. Of course, mountains lions don’t really want to bother with humans, but the fear gave rise to the image in my mind. And I recognized this fear as weakness.
I kept walking in the trails, and I watched the birds fly in and out of the trails. A couple passed me, and they said hello. It was peaceful. I was watching jack rabbits hop out of the brush. Then I came up to the difficult part of the hike. A steep and long incline to the top of the mountain. It was too cold to sweat.
Finally, I got to the top — a long even stretch that overlooks Laguna Beach and the Pacific Ocean. I yelled out to the quiet expanse of the hills. In a few steps, I noticed a guy walking from the other side of the mountain. He stopped and told me: “I just saw coyote about 50 yards away. He was just looking over the hill. Thought you would like to know. He’s a big one.”
Well, he left, and I have to admit this: I debated whether to keep walking. I was a little bit intimidated by this giant coyote. In my mind, the coyote took on gigantic proportions, foaming at the mouth, waiting behind a cactus to tear me a part. I started to think about how I was going to defend myself. What about all that shit from “The Art of War.” Fuck that, I thought, what can I do against a giant coyote?
I was scanning the brush and the trail, and then something jumped out at me…a jack rabbit. Man, I was losing my composure. Then I saw an old woman, maybe about 75, approaching from the opposite direction with two walking sticks. I stopped and tried to extend to her the same courtesy as the man I passed earlier.
“There’s a man back there who just told me about a giant coyote coming this way,” I said
The old woman looked at me and smiled. “Coyotes in the daytime?”
“That’s just what some guy said.”
“I’ve seen them at night,” the old woman said, “but I’m not scared of them.”
Then she just kept on walking, maybe even at a faster pace than me.
I walked back to my car the rest of the way amazed that some old woman was less scared of a coyote than me. It’s amazing how fear can manifest in our minds, control our reactions, and if there is anything I still have to learn is to not let fear control my emotional state. I feel like this is an important lesson for a writer…somehow. Maybe just for a man.