Matthew Lickona 10:22 a.m., May 24
Tijuana Estuary NP, Imperial Beach, CA
Ever since the 1800's, people have been crossing the American West in an attempt to create a better life.
I grew up in the Mid-Atlantic and I am no different. Most of the natural beauty where I lived had been choked off by city congestion and buried under the daily human grind. And it got -cold- out there. Between the concrete streets and the concrete winter skies it was a desolate, gray world to live in.
When I was a child, I had the same repetative dream of moving to California. It always involved packing up my stuff, and setting out--by car, train or foot, it didn't matter--and crossing the Appalachians, the midwestern plains, the Rockies and the western desert, and at last settling right here in San Diego. I had only the foggiest memories of San Francisco and Los Angeles, and I had never even visited San Diego before (or seen photographs). The mental image I had of the state were almost mythological: Southern California was where it was always sunny and everyone surfed. Hollywood was to the north, where all the people were beautiful. And to the south was San Diego, wedged comfortably between the ocean and the mountains. A city with everything you could desire: a fabulous nightlife and perfect weather and easy access to the great outdoors if you were so inclined. Many of my friends across the country called California their home and their refuge.
I finally had my first glimpses of San Diego in the shots of an extraordinary local photographer I found online by total serendipity. I knew immediately there was something -special- about this place, or the person who had shot the pictures, or both. Photo after photo held a quality I had never encountered elsewhere. It was a kind of ... infinite expanse found even in the smallest grain of sand; something that made flat surfaces look interminably, unfathomably deep. It was divine and otherworldly and perfect. It was Real.
Surely the keys to the universe were in these pictures. Maybe they were in California. Or maybe I could find them by shooting pictures of my own.
So I started photographing my home state and posting my attempts on the internet and trying to associate with my new hero, and all the while thinking nothing I shot was worth a damn by comparison. And as hopes built up like a bridge against the cold Eastern skies, I finally reached a time in my life where I could move.
I struck out West, stopping first in Wyoming in the splendour of Yellowstone National Park. It was there I finally started to see that there was nothing wrong with my eyes or my camera, and that the Infinite Expanse in that San Diego photographer's photos could be seen by me too. The city I'd come from really -had- been impoverished of most beauty and joy. The desperate search for meaning I'd been on with my photography had been unnecessary. Meaning wasn't -missing-; it wasn't even needed. The longing I'd felt for it was a side effect of trying to really -Live- among all the mundane tedium of destruction that passed for human life. I had spent -four hours a day- commuting through dark tunnels underground, all to work in an uninspiring, gray office with cruel, thoughtless people, day after day after day. It was no wonder I had thought myself blind; what had there been to see?
In Wyoming, the open skies were smote by fire at sunset and the sky sparkled with stars after dark like a real life planetarium; in the morning, mountains and canyons blazed with light.
But if Yellowstone was the promised land, I couldn't afford to live in it; I was there on borrowed time. I was barely breaking even with my finances, and with winter menacing with its wall of snow to shut out the sun, I was forced out. At last I moved to the place I'd fled to in my dreams: California. Perhaps -there- I'd find the promised land in that infinite expanse I'd seen in the pictures, -and- I'd be able to keep it.
But I'd already -been- to heaven, and San Diego undeniably wasn't it.
It is pretty here, but polluted. This is a desert covered up by a tropical mirage of false green lawns, kept alive by irrigation no one can afford. The grandeur of the mountains is thrust away behind the less impressive monuments of human making: skyscrapers and factories and construction. A beautiful city as cities go. But this is not where the gods live.
I guess it's human nature to try to modify one's surroundings in order to feel safer or more comfortable. There is too much that goes unaccording to plan in life: decay, disease, pain. Things break and die; people do too, and no one wants to really face that fact, and everyone secretly hopes that there's an easy fix. It isn't surprising that over the centuries, millions of people have moved West in hopes of finding a place that would welcome them more than the one they left behind, a place with a kinder, more temperate climate, one where the harsh winters of life would be tempered somewhat by everlasting sunlight. And then they built cities, to try and feel safe. San Diego is such a city.
And it is natural to look to someone else for advice on how to live, someone you think might have a keener eye, somebody more apt at photographing truth in the turmoil, of finding an infinite depth in seemingly flat surfaces and showing you the magick in everyday, cruel, ordinary life. A saviour who can light a fire in the cold assault of winter.
But the more of those winters you endure, the clearer it becomes that a change in location isn't going to save your life, and no one is going to light that fire, no matter how vividly that person can describe the landscape to you, and no matter how bold their own creations. So often the ones you count on the most abandon you, or you find out they were never actually there for you in the first place, be they your own family or people you had mistakenly counted as friends. And the sun may be shining in Southern California, but the woman down the street is still dying of cancer and the man next door is still be beating his children and no pretty photograph is ever going to turn their cries of anguish into anything beautiful.
I've gone as far West as I can and for me, there's nowhere left to run.
I've now seen San Diego, the legendary city of perfect weather, and things still wither and die here, like anywhere else. My fortunes have improved, but others have faltered. I've met the person who shot such glorious pictures of this place as well. The person and the place both offered salvation, deliberately or unconsciously; and neither had it to give. But in looking back over the errors I've made while running, I've realize that -I- do.
While I was busy struggling to photograph my world and turn pain into wonder with tricks of light and get in the good graces of someone who I thought did it better, I was -ignoring- someone wonderful. Her name was Cris (www.whosclimbing.deviantart.com), and she was a photographer too. She saw what I was doing, and thought -I- was the one with the keen eye. She started shooting pictures inspired in part by what I was doing and what I was cursing as "not good enough." And then she became good; -really- good. And that entire time, I wasn't -there- for her. I looked and I commented, sure, and I wrote her, but I wasn't really consciously -there-; my mind and heart were elsewhere seeking answers and friendships where they couldn't be formed instead of being present for someone who actually -wanted- to be my friend and -valued- what I did. Someone who gave me a beautiful gift simply by being herself, a gift I wasted.
That is the very carelessness that creates so many of the winters we fear. That absence, that refusal to take care of the people we can while we beg for someone else to take the weight off our shoulders. Maybe if everyone tried to be a hero instead of waiting for one, we'd find someone was there to lighten our load after all. Maybe not. Either way, it wouldn't matter: at least we'd be there for ourselves, instead of absent from our own hearts in our wanderings.
Cris wasn't the only person I neglected either. Every ounce of energy I spent looking outside myself is energy I denied someone who deserved it, a true friend. Every step spent running away and raging that nobody tried to save me is a piece of my life that I wasted forever.
In my case, no one is here to save me. And San Diego -isn't- the promised land; nowhere is. And that's okay.
Because I have friends. And the real promised land isn't a place you can go to. It is a place within you, and it consists of a single choice. That choice is: "Here I stop running and cursing at the dark. Here I light a torch and rejoice, because the eternal summer I yearn for and see traces of in others has only ever truly existed in my own soul, and thus -I- may create it and carry on. But first, I must stand my ground, and face that only -I- can do this, with the help of my real friends."
So here in San Diego I take my stand. It is January of 2009, and this is the year that I stop running.