It is cold in these parts, and in the Gubbio Project a fair number of San Francisco’s homeless have spent some time on this colder-than-average day. The contrast is gobsmacking. I arrive in my tweed sports jacket, fresh from my neighborhood of high-tech corporate workers…to sit at a folding table dispensing toothpaste, socks and similar essentials. I record the name of each beneficiary in a computer. And the latter task is not as easy as it sounds. Many of the shelterees answer with a mumble or a diction that seems designed to obscure the spelling of their names. But then, I am an old guy and my hearing discernment probably is not what it was. Although when I look at the computer screen, where other volunteers have entered names with myriad spellings, all close but inaccurate, I am somewhat heartened. It’s not just me.
Nothing in the shelter is just me. Nothing in the shelter is just. I like the slogan posted on a noticeboard that declaims, simply and accurately, that homelessness is a natural outgrowth of social injustice. While true, this is probably not a winning argument for many today in America. We are mired in the belief that everyone should pull themselves up by their bootstraps. And if you are born to bootstraps, surely that is a sign that God loves you more. What else?
As I say, it is cold. Which in our luxurious lifestyle means that we fly to Palm Springs next week for a few days of presumable warmth and almost certain sun. My brother and sister-in-law are there just now, and this is sufficient motivation. That and the possibility of examining my roots. I was born 20 minutes to the west in the little town of Banning. No, I wasn’t. More like 45 minutes west in the larger town of Redlands which happened to have a hospital. But Banning is where I grew up, as one says, and I do have a nostalgic mission to fulfill there.
I want to see the snowy mountains. My childhood home was near the base of one of the ranges, slopes rising sheer to 12,000 feet on one side of the mountain pass. And to 11,000 feet on the other. And it is that other, Mount San Jacinto, that I stared at for all of my youth. It was a puzzling sight. The peak appeared to be a sort of white triangle, but when I got a closer look in summer camp, it was nothing of the sort. I knew that one intersecting mountain ridge cut off a full view of the other, creating the illusion of something like Mount Fuji. I knew this, and rejected the notion mentally. Somehow, it had to be what it appeared to be. A white-capped conical peak.
As a kid, the drive to Palm Springs was a barren affair. There was virtually nothing between our town and the resort with its palms and golf courses, except desert, literally sand dunes in one stretch. But there was a place where one could pull over, park and gaze straight up at the peak. At that point, sea level, the mountain rose in one continuous escarpment. Snow Creek Canyon is the technical name of the rockface. Reportedly, very hardy climbers could make it from desert to peak and back in a single day. For some reason, I always dreamed of doing this. I really didn’t care about the climb, just the curious experience of climbing that far. But now at age 72, this quadriplegic can only look and speculate. But I plan to do just that.
Of course there is the opposite possibility, crossing the desert pass, which is all of two miles wide, to drive up the banks of the San Gorgonio River. In Banning speak, this was the wash. A.k.a., the water canyon. The name derives from one boring reality, that the city water supply emanates from the lower slopes of the range. But the astonishing width of the lower canyon always impressed me as a little boy. Clearly water had rushed down this course in the width of a true river, not the meter-wide stream that appeared in the spring. The walls of the canyon were vertical and about 200 feet high. At least on one occasion, in 1938, heavy rains sent a true river this way, flooding out the town and sparking the creation of permanent drainage ditches made of concrete and stone.
In a way, this was my introduction to nature. And next week I hope to reacquaint myself.