For the first half of 2016, I lived in Merced. I moved back up to the central valley for school, during a January wintertime. The season brought smooth, green grasses to the empty and spacious land that surrounded the small city where I lived. Restlessness and anxiety clouded my vision, for physical and spiritual confinement characterized my life in the remote city. I anticipated the confinement, but never the anxious and restless feeling, because I chose Merced as a sort-of secular monastic retreat. And so, I lived in a boxed, isolated apartment in a city as lively as an old patch of moss. It was January; the green grass flowed.
I nearly quit school. I habitually went to campus out of a half-hearted obligation to sit with friends, sometimes show up at class, and work as a photographer. A slow and paralyzing despair was hovering over me like a cloud, preventing me from truly engaging with a fulfilling vocational path. The life I had chosen, the detached, mundane life in computer engineering, was a disenchanted life. I could code easily, but my motivation had run out. My heart was absent from it. Instead, out of survival, I sat in the library bookstacks lusting over far-away landscapes and becoming enchanted by John Muir’s writings.
I was captivated by Muir, for he articulates a simple, free life in the landscape that surrounded me. Almost haphazardly, he describes a location fifteen miles north of where I lived; I was stunned. This location, named Twenty Hill Hollow, burst with life and promised renewal. Muir writes:
“If you wish to see how much of light, life, and joy can be got into a January, go to this blessed Twenty Hill Hollow.”
That caught my attention; who knew that a real blessing could be incredibly near and accessible?
Muir continues, in earnest: if you are “choked in the sediment of society, so tired of the world, here will your hard doubts disappear, your carnal incrustations melt off, and your soul breathe deep and free in God’s shoreless atmosphere of beauty and love.”
I slammed the book shut and made up my mind to visit this sacred place. John Muir, unknowingly, had prescribed his language for my own despair, like a treasure-map pointing to an immaterial gold. So one afternoon, for sunset, I snatched my camera and drove.
I headed north, impatiently rolling beyond the town into the sparsely-populated plains that parted in two by the black asphalt. My blazing red car sailed alongside the sea of grass, until, in a spot half-way between two small towns, I slowed it to a stop. This turnout was as close as my car could go because this little side-of-the-road gem planted itself behind fenced-off property, where cattle normally grazed on acres and acres of deep-green, rolling land. With no being in sight, I slung my camera around my shoulder, hopped over the barbed fence, and eagerly stood on the threshold of revitalization.
One foot in front of the other, I ascended the mildly-sloped vibrant hill. The setting sun shone brightly in my eyes and the tumultuous winter wind roared in my ears. Clouds from afar, like opaquely spilled ink on a slippery sky, began to roll in from above. The setting sun, framed by the landscape and clouds, peered through like an omniscient eye. Onward, stepping firmly: the dirt ramped up. The landscape became vertical, reaching for the clouds. Higher and higher, the world blurred and folded beneath my feet, disappearing behind me as I climbed above the masses of waving grass. The whole earth expanded as I reach the top of the hill. I stopped. I’m present there now.
This spot, this Twenty-Hill-Hollow, is in the middle of an infinite stretch of rippled green land. The sun throws its long light onto the grass, giving each long blade a halo of gold. Large hills burst up from the ground here; it is beautiful. It is a cosmological spring, bursting with spirit.
Central to the spring, a dense, immaterial pillar blasts through the bottom of earth beyond the clouds above. The sun’s light hits the beam and shoots off in sparks, setting the area around it ablaze. Energized by its radiation, the atmosphere catches fire. I stare, as if I am staring into the sun, but it is more immediate, more powerful, more charged. Light emanates, like ripples in a pond, to the near-infinite plains surrounding. This is Muir’s Twenty Hill Hollow; here lies the life, light, and joy that can redeem my weary soul. I approach it, running—sprinting. With each step, the firm beneath me crumbles into a cloud. I’m running on clouds, toward the pillar of light (or is it life?), while the sun gasps its final breath before dipping below the horizon.
I step through the clouds and sink like the sun to the ground. The final sparks fall fast and disappear. The vibrant and rippling landscape stills, becoming bounded by darkness. I hit the solid surface of Twenty Hill Hollow. That pillar, right before my eyes, vanishes. No hole in the ground, no hole in the sky. No sparks touched me, the flames surrounding grew cold, and I sensed none of the pillar’s radiance. I saw Muir’s vision, I saw it before me, but I missed my chance at immersion. New life appeared as real as a rock, but evaded my grasp.
Gone, now, was the vision. Completely extinguished. The hills surrounded me in an indifferent silence. Gray dusk covered the sky and left me in an oppressively numb solitude as the vision of joy impressed upon my memory became less real. Some form of beauty paraded itself to my mind but not to my soul. I stood, hollow as a hill, breathing deeply and expectantly. Where was the lasting joy that Muir had promised me? Where was the life? I saw the light, but I could not feel it; only its absence shook my core. I took a picture of the spot, this sacred ground, and headed home.
The next day, I showed the photo to my friends. They were shocked and jealous of the short, accessible expedition that I took. Somehow, mysteriously, they were awed at the gray-dusk picture and asked me to show them the spot. And so, we piled into my car and drove back at sunset.
I did not see the pillar this time. I do not know if my friends saw it behind my back. Yet, they were captivated and expectant, just as I was by Muir, and hungry for more. I drove them to Yosemite the next day.
I hold onto this hierophany, this cosmic pillar, although I was never truly changed by it. My despair continued to hang over me, but I learned that the world was much more vibrant and expansive than I had once thought. I held a vision where the “carnal incrustations” that Muir had mentioned could melt off. And so, I dropped out of school to quit the computer-science business and moved to the mountains to find out what this was all about.