In 1983, after struggling for years to fix my broken marriage, I left my husband. Thus began a year of ugly confrontations that were emotionally wounding and psychologically damaging. Depressed and confused, I vented to a friend one evening on the phone about how brutal everything had become.
"You need to come to Cherry Valley," he said. "You need to come walk along the creek with me. I have an extra room. Just leave it all behind and come here."
This man, "G.K.," was a fellow writer and poet. He wasn't asking with romantic intentions. He was offering me sanctuary at a time when I desperately needed it. I took him up on his offer. I lived in Chino at the time, and I had no idea where Cherry Valley was. I thought it would take me half a day to get there. Turns out it was an hour away. Pulling off the freeway onto Cherry Valley Boulevard—as I do now to come home—I was amazed to find an immediate change in landscape. Acres and acres of green rolled out before me, under a cerulean blue sky dotted with white fluff. In the distance, I saw horses, cows, goats and ponies. A gradual increase in elevation brought me to the foot of a mountainous area covered in oak and pine and chaparral.
G.K. lived in a small house behind someone else's house, but that tiny house had a tiny spare room. I was so exhausted when I got there, I laid down on the bed and slept for hours in that sun-filled room. It was early spring. When I woke, the scent of something lovely greeted my senses before I even opened my eyes; G.K. had placed a jar of wild lilacs beside the bed while I slept. Years later, reading Walt Whitman's poem "When Lilacs Last in theDooryard Bloom'd" immediately took me back to those precious hours in Cherry Valley. It is a poem I would not have discovered had it not been for G.K.
That evening as he made us something for dinner, I perused his bookshelf and discovered Loren Eiseley. He couldn't believe I'd never been exposed to this man's love of nature, his unique writer's voice full of wonder. "I've led a very sheltered life," I kept reminding him. "But you're so smart, you'd do so well in college," was his rebuttal every time I said it. This exchange became the initial foundation for a plan I would implement much later.
The next day we both rose early, and after cups of tea and a hearty breakfast, we made our way along a dusty, single-track trail under a canopy of ancient oak trees to a small stream. We walked for hours, talking about humans who are kind and humans who are cruel and what motivates people to choose either response to the world. "You would learn a lot about that if you took psychology classes," he said. "But you would learn the same if you studied literature." That night he read me poems by Whitman and Wordsworth, plus some of his own, at my request.
I slept with the words of giants nestling down into my brain.
When I left Cherry Valley two days later, I was a changed person. Not perceptibly; no one who knew me would have seen any difference. At least, not at first. But by summer I had made a plan. I would go to college and study literature and become a teacher, giving me summers off to be with my kids. It was a life decision of profound magnitude, and it began with a few short hours spent immersed in the beauty of Nature and the wonder of words.
Before I went to college, long before my divorce, I was an author and freelance writer. It would be a long time before I could pursue that life again, what with raising my four kids as a single mom while attending college full time and, eventually, working. But what better place to return to now in my retirement? G.K. left long ago for Arizona. We haven't seen each other in many years, though he has followed the progress of my education and career, and he knows how much his gentle prodding back then has meant to my life. There are other friends here now, other writers. And this place has changed very little in three decades. I can still find the stream, when it is running, and the ancient oaks continue to hold their shady limbs over any weary, despairing pilgrims who happen along. They are there for joyous travelers as well, I have found, those of us whose sojourn has brought them full circle to return, with gratitude.
I love this place. I want to walk for hours under those oaks, and I want to write up a storm, to use all those words that took root in my brain decades ago, and use them well, to inspire and encourage and comfort. This is the place for it, don't you think?