Articles by Jonah Raskin

The Golden Hills of California

by Jonah Raskin
The San Francisco Chronicle
January 2006

As a boy growing up on Long Island, almost in earshot of Manhattan, I climbed to the top of the highest hills, with my whole family - my mother and father and my two brothers, Daniel and Adam. Climbing hills in July and August became a family ritual and a way of life. Before I was ten, I learned to feel good about myself and the whole world when we woke early on a Saturday in summer and trudged up Jayne's Hill or in West Hills, where Walt Whitman was born, bird watching and gathering smooth stones and wild flowers.

When I moved to Northern California in the mid-1970s, I encountered a new and different species of hills. The hills in Sonoma County, where I settled - and in Marin, as well, which I often explored - looked bigger, higher, more inviting and yet more remote, too, than the hills I had known. Driving on 101, and along the valley floor, I would see them in the distance and know that I wanted to go there and to scale them. I knew, too, that at the peaks I would turn and look back at the valley floor to see the way I had come.

But then something strange happened. I found that as I approached those hills they became more, not less, inaccessible and more forbidding. No road seemed to lead directly to any hill on the horizon. Even if a road did eventually take me to the foot of a hill, after meandering this way and that, I found fences, some of the barbed, and signs that warned me to keep out, keep off, and no trespassing allowed.

In the hills of Long Island, I would have ignored those signs and kept on walking and not looked back, either. But here I felt like an outsider - an exile from the East - and not knowing the customs of Northern California I kept my distance. I learned to appreciate the splendor of the hills from afar, and to know the seasons by gazing at the face of those hills, as though looking at a big clock that told the time of year, and whether it was winter or spring, summer or fall.

In July, which always marks the beginning of my calendar year, the hills just beyond my backyard turn brown, and then golden brown, and then an even deeper, rich and more brilliant golden brown. The colors make me think of lions in Africa, though I've never been there. A month or so later  - in August - those same hills turn orange and purple and magenta, and other colors, too, for which I haven't yet found the right words. Flowers come out and cascade down the hillsides, and I wonder how that's possible since it hasn't rained since April, and obviously no one has bothered to irrigate these huge, wild stretches of land sometimes dotted with cattle and sheep. As the days get hotter and hotter, as the land grows more and more parched, the landscape seems to become even more beautiful, and I wish that time might stop here and linger for a while.

In the dead heat of summer, when the hills make me think of lions in Africa  - that's when I know the true California, the real California. That's the California I have come to love as I once loved Long Island. I don't want to think about the rain that will fall steady for days on end and the sound of the swelling creeks. I don't want to imagine the way the hills will turn pale green, and then bright green and then an emerald green. I want the land to smell forever as it does in August and in September, too, of hay and sage, lavender and horses. I want to hear forever that eerie sort of silence that seems to sweep across the hills, making me feel strange and alone and alive.

Of course, over the years I have found ways to walk into the hills. I have found deer trails and old logging roads. I have wandered up and down the golden and purple hills, following dry creek beds, and I have stood under a solitary Oak and looked back at the valley. The view from the heights feels as spectacular as the view from down below.

Now, I know that I'm a Californian. I know, too, that I didn't begin to feel like a native by surfing, hot tubing, driving a car along the Pacific, sipping Chardonnay, or any of those other ways that Californians are supposed to define themselves - though I also did all those things.

The hills turned me into a Californian. They tested me, found me fit and read me my rights. Sometimes I still long for the hills of Long Island, and the boyhood that I spent there. But I've been away so long – more than half my lifetime - I can't remember anymore how those hills smell in summer, or what the wind sounds like when it blows across the well-worn peaks. Now, I can't help but smell the hay, the sage, the lavender and the horses - the smell of my California.