I've often noted that on my longer road trips I'm prone to intense dream activity. I think many factors come into play. On the road, I'm usually free of any time restraints and obligations which could produce a more relaxed state. Up early for sunrise shots and shooting often straight through to sunset my level of exhaustion and physical activity is dramatically changed. By the time I finally lay my head down my body and mind are prime for some quality REM sleep. For whatever reason I'm prone to these events, they seem to arrive with life-altering lessons that often make the journey about much more than photography.
I grew up and spent my young adulthood in Southern California. Anyone who grew up near a beach knows it's much for than a locality, it's a culture. The beach is a way of life, hence "Life's a Beach". My earliest childhood memories are infused with beach life. The distinct smell of the coastal air and coconut sunblock, the sounds of sea birds and waves crashing. Warm sand, tide pools, body surfing, bikinis, taquitos and guacamole. When I was kid, I'd bodysurf all day and sleep so well. When I'd go to bed, my body would still feel the ocean sway and rhythm. Life was good.
Eventually, I moved to Arizona but came back to California often to visit family. When my mother died 10 years ago, I came back to California to get her affairs in order. I stayed for a month then on Thanksgiving Day, I drove back to Arizona and never returned until this road trip. It was time to visit family again. Nostalgically, I felt the need to go "home". I'd decided while I was in California to take a trip up the coast to photograph. My memories of the Northern coast were that of being a child and I had two things in mind, McWay Falls and the bloom of the Calla lilies along the coast.
Even though California has had a terrible drought this year, I knew I was heading into some storms. I just didn't know how much. As I left my brother's home in Orange County early in the morning, the rain had started and would continue almost non-stop for days.
I climbed up the coast to the sounds of the "oldies" playing on the radio and the constant hum of the wiper blades. I'd been thinking about a book I was reading by Gary Zukav, The Seat Of The Soul, a book about being less externally powered and be more inwardly guided and authentic. I often struggle with the externalities but I had no idea how inwardly guided this trip would become.
I reached McWay Falls and it was pouring down so hard that I could barely see as I drove into the state park. I hiked down to the cliff and before me was this beautiful little scene. Strikingly exotic in real life. All alone, I stood there in the pouring rain content as I could be even though I couldn't photograph it.
The rain was relentless only brief moments would it stop. I decided to camp at Montana de Oro State Beach and wandered around the area most of the day then made camp and settled in for what would be a fiercely stormy night.
As I closed my eyes, I found myself in a dream. I'd been here before. It was the home or studio of an elderly woman who was a landscape painter. She lived on the California coast and painted beautiful realistic landscapes. In a previous dream, I had watched her paint a scene of a creek and water and we discussed rendering realistic rocks. We talked about painting and life, she had inspired me to get back into painting and move from still life to my own landscapes.
Since that first dream, I'd attempted three paintings and failing miserably, I discarded the works. Now, I find myself back in her presence and I know what she will ask me but I'm taken aback as I see my three paintings are now staked neatly on her art table.
"Tell me from beginning how you started each painting".
I started with the pencil and she stops me in mid-sentence. "Before that". I made of grid of my printed Hunt's Mesa, again she stops me. "Before that". I was there, in Hunts Mesa and I took the image. I'm not sure how much further back I can go. She glances at me and I then remember how familiar her eyes are. "You were more than, just there. why this image?" I'm uncomfortable in my honesty. This image, because I love it for many reasons. Sensing my discomfort, I believe she lets me off the hook but she knows.
"So you're in love with the scene, a good place to start a painting" and she smiles at me. "Where did it go wrong" I told her all the technical difficulties I had. My choice of watercolor had too much sediment, I should have chosen a more transparent hue but I thought it would stain the white paper too much. I'd accidentally spilled clear water here, which caused a ring. My background was dull and in fact to me, I'd basically ruined the painting and I threw it away.
The next thing she asked me caught me off guard. She said, "Are you being truthful?" Of course, I am. This is exactly what happened and how the painting was ruined.
"This is the truth?"
The sounds of the storm woke me and the dream sidelined me emotionally. I woke bothered and confused and worried I wouldn't remember the conversation so I turned on my lantern and in the middle of dark storm, tucked away in a beach cove, I feverishly wrote down the dream. I lay there for what seemed like hours and thought about the meaning of it all. Why did she ask me if I'd been telling the truth? I knew why I didn't finish the painting. She seemed disappointed with me. I couldn't find meaning in it.
The campground started to become light but the rain continued. I dressed and headed out to the beach edge and sat along the cliff in the rain and stared out at the ocean. This trip was different. I feel something weighing heavy on my heart. I'm missing the people in my life that I'd loved. The rain seemed to amplify the emotion.
I spent most of my day in the Big Sur lodge, drinking coffee and staying dry. The rain let up at about 4 PM, so I headed out to McWay. Just then a bit of sun peaked through and I got my chance to photograph this amazing spot. I headed to another viewpoint for a sunset shot but it wasn't to be. Back to camp and settled in for the night.
I found myself again in the artist's presence and my second failed painting is now on her table. She's not in the room but she's in another room and I can hear her on the phone. She taking to someone about a meeting or a ceremony where she's being honored for something related to painting. I start to ask her about her accomplishments but she cuts me off.
"Tell me about how you started this painting"
I already know where this is going, so I just go there. It's the Grand Canyon and it has some personal meaning to me.
"Would you say you were in love with it?"
"Where did it go wrong"
Again, all technicalities of paint and depth and rendering. The sky is wrong and the paint I used is permanent so I've ruined it.
The landscape color is too dark and the proportion of the foreground is wrong. So I stopped the painting and I eventually discarded it. We are both looking over the painting as I'm pointing to these obvious issues within the art form.
"Have you told me the truth?"
Yes, I have. I note in my response a bit of defensiveness.
Again, the cold and wind wakes me and I've now had the same dream twice in a row. I've now got a little diary going of this trip and I'm writing about the dream again. It's still raining. I head into the lodge for coffee and I realize I'm just sitting in there staring out the window at the redwoods. I've barely done any photography and the sense of loss becomes greater and greater.
I decide to just drive and get out in the air. I get my rain gear on and hike around Garrapata State Beach. No Calla lilies but still a beautiful hike and it feels good to be out. The sun is out for a bit. Thinking on and off about this whole dream. Remembering my life on the beach and my mom. I miss the smell of California and the green. I drive up to see the sea lions on the beach and spend a few hours just watching them. It starts to rain again and I need to find a place to camp.
That evening I decide to shoot near the Rocky Point Inn. The rain has stopped and I'd seen the what looked like a nice little scene that could light up nicely with low late light. I pick a point where cows can be seen in a pasture as the foreground. The wind is now blowing cold. My face is cold, hands are cold and I can barely hold still as I'm waiting for my light. Most of the time, I'm staring at the ground and thinking.
Night falls and I head back to camp. The ground is muddy, my clothes are damp and I've barely done much but tried to stay dry. I'm becoming emotionally worn and exhausted with the rain. I'm wondering if this isn't what's cultivating these dreams and my emotional state and feelings of loss.
I start the ritual. This painting on the table is of a creek and a place that yes, I love. It has special meaning to me. I tell her why I'd walked away from the painting. I told her, I've been as honest as I know about everything I've ever told her. She brings her jars, sponges, brushes and paints to the table. Her movements are serious and deliberate. She's not looking at me as she talking.
"The truth" she says, "Let's talk about the truth. You seem to put much emphasis on the truth. Your reality is based on your truths is it not?"
"I'm going to show you something" and she takes my Hunt's Mesa 20"x 30" ruined watercolor and tapes it to her table.
She loads her sponge with clean water and washes the ruined area of sediment and seems to make mud. She works at a pace, I've never seen yet I'm seeing this painting start to come alive. She lifts the sediment areas. She applies a warm glaze concoction over the background and it glows. The spilled water area is transformed into the beautiful lines within the landscape. Within seconds she has transformed and brought back to life this painting. It is stunning and radiant and the word dull is inconceivable. It IS now the painting I had in my mind.
She does the same to the next two paintings and then sets them all up for me to see. "Is this what you fell in love with?" I can't speak and I feel a lump in my throat. How could I have not seen this for what is was? I saw the flaws and walked away.
"These truths you'd come to believe in, the ones that made you abandon something that you loved. Were they in fact the truth?"
I knew we were no longer talking about paintings and I was in tears. She stood there looking at me and I had nothing to say. I knew she already knew. She said, "Your belief in so called "truths" instead of what was in your heart, instead of what was real changed your destiny and the sense of loss you feel is a life off track. You chose pride over love and you chose wrong."
I knew now why she was here. She saw it coming before I did in the dream I'd had well over a year before. She gathered my paintings and hung them to dry on a wall. I stood there not knowing what to do next. Was it over? Was it ruined?
She looked as thought she was gathering her things to leave. She seemed in a hurry and unbothered by my unraveled state. I had to know. She opened her door and let me out and I stood there looking for an answer, guidance or something. She looked at me and smiled and tapped the top of my head affectionately.
"Destiny is destiny. Love can stray off course but it eventually comes back" I walked away as she was still standing by her front door, she was organizing some papers. I turned to look back at her and she saw me. I wanted to tell her, I wanted her to know about what I loved, where my heart was, what it meant. She smiled and stopped with her papers. "Why do you think I'm here, I know"
When I woke up, I'd had tears running down my cheeks and I reached for my little notebook to write it all down. My hands were shaking and I was exhausted. My alarm had been set to shoot the sunrise but I turned it off. I had a lot to remember.
What kind of trip is this I thought. I've had some sort of life review going on in my dreams that have taken precedence over the photography. I've literally wandered around Big Sur in sort of a soggy daze with all sorts of things going wrong. A dead camera battery, getting lost, wet and muddy, California drivers. An overwhelming mood and emotion had made this trip so different, so photographically non-productive, yet undeniably enlightening in an uncomfortable sort of way.
I dressed, grabbed my raincoat and went to walk the beach. I knew my life felt off-track and I knew now how to get it back on. However many lifetimes it takes. Someday, it'll be the right time and place and I'll be here with much less pride.