Collage by Charlotte Muth

Cade Johnson
13 August 2019

When I think of Monterey County, I recollect it in snapshots. I think, in the same way I choose to remember the whole of this county as home, memory is selective. I grew up on the outskirts of Salinas Valley, and when reflecting on home I think of the mornings: long drives to and from school, and the changing landscapes that function as checkpoints along the way.

Pine Canyon Road is an aging street tunneled by big earthy oaks beneath power lines, funneling cars along a vast field that in the summers of my childhood grew far and wide with strawberry plants hugging the ground. Passing by, you’ll see my mother pulling over her 2002 Ford Expedition—a tank of a car—hopping out, taking me by the hand from the backseat and into the field. She plucks one from the ground tenderly and offers it to me, strawberry radiant in the decadent light of dusk.

Drive a little further and you’ll see Mo’s, for which gas station scarcity in this corner of Salinas was a selling point, and boy, did we buy! Ben and Jerry’s—never Cherry Garcia, or you’d have to make a trip back to exchange, on mom’s orders—deep fried burritos, Icee’s, doughnuts growing more stale through the afternoon, though no less desirable at 4 PM than in the morning, and gas, gas, thousands of gallons in gas. My mom befriended all the clerks at Mo’s, knew them by name, gossiped with them about the landlord. We called Mo’s the Little Store, making the gas station feel more like a provincial village shack, as my mother was able to do with any place.

And there, just across the street, a vast meadow on which horses grazed, three acres, at least. This meadow was in itself enough to earn California its nickname “the Golden State.” In high school, I wanted to grab a hunk of that gold; I locked my camera into a tripod on the roadside and waited until the sun rode the mountains like the crest of a wave, and I clicked the shutter. The picture was luminous—rays reaching down to the field, grazing the dust, casting the bushes in shadow. Even then, I knew the warmth of childhood was something so sweet, that sunsets elsewhere could be as beautiful, but they wouldn’t be home.

Keep going, and beyond the little store, beyond a horse stable and chipped picket fences, River Road and the Salinas River nearly converge and run parallel to each other for miles. On the left, stucco boxes decorate the hills at the base of the Santa Lucia mountains, the Mediterranean style homes in the gated community of Las Palmas. I went to middle school in this neighborhood, was envious of the people whose lives fit neatly into circles, clean and whole, whereas I saw mine more like a Venn diagram, off-kilter, highlighting the doubleness of my selves: the queer, inner self and the one I projected to the world to keep my own in balance.

Just past Las Palmas the trees along the river break. The foliage, pale gray and yellow this time of year, frame the winding river. To everyone’s amazement, my sister and I swam in that river once, among crawdads and tadpoles in water thick with moss. I like to think that we, too, became part of the wildlife, dissolved permanently into the ecosystem’s fabric.
. . .

Memory expresses itself as poetry—we assemble detailed fragments, see patterns like rhyme, decide how to structure our past into a cohesive block. But the poetry of home is always changing; it’s something we revisit over and over in a trip, a smell, a phone call, a refrain.

If I was asked to describe home before I left it, I might focus on the features that evoked my feeling of restraint. I could talk about the chain-link fence that separated my elementary school peers and I from the more desirable world that existed beyond the broccoli fields of Salinas. Or, in 2016, just before I left for college, the months-long Big Sur fire that locked us out of our own Garden of Eden, keeping us east, blanketing the county in ash.

It’s clear that this portrait of Salinas, written from miles away, is one soaked in nostalgia. I can indulge myself in the language of it, attempting to convey the poetry as it is now, yet I know what the result will always be: a collection of details linked together like string lights, illuminating only the feelings of a fleeting moment in time. I may not have illuminated anything concrete or enduring, but the mere ability to create light through reflection from a distance gives warmth to the memory of home.