Dispatches Tagline
Saturday, August 18th, 2012

The Lake

Saturday, August 18th, 2012: Places, Special Places.

(photo gallery at bottom)

Second in a series about places that have become special to my friends and me, as we’ve ventured there together year after year to share good fellowship, and sometimes to witness the mysteries of creation.

Good fellowship, delicious grilled food, a keg of our favorite local ale, music improvised among the trees, diving from rocks and swimming in clear water – plus the occasional romance – how could you go wrong?

To get there, you drive through a maze of winding streets and roads up the steep, forested hills above the city, over a sharp ridge then down to where the Lake lies hidden in dense eucalyptus forest filling a long, narrow valley. Fed by creek water from the surrounding slopes, it’s popular for picnicking and swimming. The western shore is a broad meadow with sandy beach and parking lot; above the lake on the eastern side, a small picnic ground lies hidden among the eucalyptus.

My first visit was 30 years ago on a company picnic with a small engineering firm that did earthquake safety studies for nuclear power plants. Our eccentric, domineering boss treated us all like his somewhat wayward children, but he was the real loose cannon. You never knew what off-color insult he was going to sling at you in mixed company. My younger brother was visiting and I invited him to the picnic.

I had a huge enamel stockpot that I used for the group meals we often shared in our loft, and I made chili, with lots of jalapenos – the boss was from Texas. But, distracted with preparations, I allowed the thin metal to overheat, so there was a solid crust of charred chili lining the pot and it ended up tasting scorched. But as I recall, we all had a great time, my young co-workers and their families and dogs playing frisbee on green grass in the summer sun with light glinting off the Lake in the background.

Years passed, the company prospered and declined with the doomed industry, and my life continued to unfold as a never-ending drama of wild romance and ambitious projects in music and art, until at the end of the decade, the loft was destroyed in a massive earthquake. In the aftermath, we survivors were drawn to the hidden picnic ground above the Lake, where we barbecued in the dappled afternoon sunlight and improvised a long, wistful dirge on African percussion and clarinet, returning often to a quarter keg of our favorite local ale sitting in a barrel of ice under a tree.

In the following year I gradually got back on my feet, conceiving a big new project, and a new beauty appeared in my life. Luckily for me, our first date was on her birthday; we shared an intimate dinner then drove to the Lake in the dark and parked near the picnic area at the head of a trail. At the bottom of the trail we crossed the creek on a wooden bridge under a low canopy of boughs.

We left the trail and found a smooth bank where we could sit under a tree and watch starlight reflecting on the still surface of the Lake. I pulled her close, smelling her clean hair, and we began to kiss. It felt like a dream, like the renewal of my world. Later we found an expensive parking ticket on the car – the Lake had a curfew – but it was a small price to pay for a new life.

We returned in a year or so, after the dream had faded and my life was again losing all its moorings, to join her large contingent of urban-hippie friends in a sloppy gathering in a larger, hotter clearing higher up the slope. Scattered tents emitted clouds of pot smoke and boom boxes pumped out a mix of the Beastie Boys and Bob Marley. There I was singled out by a swarm of mutant mosquitos, the biggest I’d ever seen, but no one else seemed to be bothered by them. More and more often I found myself the outsider at gatherings of her friends, begging to leave early.

Ultimately she dumped me, unsurprisingly when I was at my lowest ebb of self-doubt and insecurity. My friends tried to console me with another Lake picnic, this time in the cool of autumn. One friend carried a new baby, and there was even a cute single girl, a stranger who turned out on further research not to be a prospect.

The next summer saw the beginning of an epic new romantic saga, but my life was still no more stable or grounded – I was unemployed and in debt and I had broken up my last band. Within months I sabotaged the new romance by moving away to another city where I hoped to find work. Trying to sustain the relationship somehow, I returned sporadically, and we held an even bigger picnic in our favorite Lakeside grove, pulling together old roommates from the loft, co-workers from several old jobs, and the usual crew of jamming musicians. There was a group of children for the first time, and I remember one friend carried a little battery-powered fan to keep her cool – it was the envy of all of us!

From the picnic ground you could take a narrow, winding trail down to the Lake, where a rock twice as tall as any of us stood out from the shore. Swimming on this side of the Lake was not permitted, so we would wait until late in the afternoon when the opposite beach emptied and the lifeguards retired from their towers. We could dive off the rock into deep, cool and clear creek water – but sometimes we were spotted anyway and chastised by distant bullhorns. And returning, we could pick and eat wild oats among the tall trailside grasses.

After a couple of years I moved back to the area, but settled far from my old friends in a village by the sea. Meanwhile, the drummer from my old band and his neighbors had formed a mini-community around “The Grotto” in their inland backyard. We learned that the last of my former loftmates was moving to Ireland with his family, so we organized another picnic at the Lake, based largely on the Grotto crowd. The drummer had become obsessed with golf and tried unsuccessfully to interest us in drunken lessons. Saying goodbye to old friends made it a melancholy gathering, especially since they left the picnic before the rest of us and we felt abandoned.

In the summer of the last year before I moved away to my current home, a local bandleader organized a big picnic and jam session on the main meadow across the Lake. The organizer and I had never been close – I had “borrowed” a guitar player and a singer from his band so were competing bandleaders in a sense – but late in the day I was walking on a trail far from the picnic with my guitar, starting to play “Rivers of Babylon,” and he appeared out of nowhere to join me, and it turned out to be one of the sweetest sessions I’ve ever had, there by the Lake that had seen so many unforgettable moments of our lives in the city.