Life is fleeting. It’s good. It’s bad. Then we vanish. It’s pointless one minute and precious the next. Who knows what it’s for? It has to be obvious to you by now that we’re not designed to comprehend the unfathomable mystery of existence. For the rest of your life, people will tell you that everything happens for a reason. How do they know? Everything happens. That’s all. Reasons are human things. If you have reasons, you’re borrowing them.
I once threw a TV out of a window into a trashcan for no reason. Maybe I had a reason, but I can’t remember. I didn’t think about where it would end up. I was young. These days, I try to construct fully-realized reasons for doing things. Lately, for example, I’ve been hermitting to heal myself. I’m on Palomar Mountain writing this. I like it here. I’ve been twice in the last month. It’s in the northeastern part of the county, probably not too far from where you’re reading this. You could turn off the TV and get here before the game or show or band you’re half-watching is finished distracting you.
It doesn’t feel like Southern California. I’m seated on a tree stump with a notebook, alone in the middle of a vast coniferous forest of incense cedar, silver ﬁr, spruce and oak, roughly 6,000 feet above sea level. Some of these trees are hundreds of years old and hundreds of feet tall. The black oaks’ changing colors at this time of year are something to behold. The air is fragrant with foliage and soil. Silence is punctuated by bird chirps, a woodpecker tapping somewhere, breeze-stirred leaves.
I’ve encountered no other humans today on the network of trails winding through these dramatic forests. I feel like I’m getting away with something. Only $8 to park, and I get all of this awe-inspiring, verdant beauty to myself? I like when they say that word on NPR in that MacArthur Foundation spot: A more just, verdant and peaceful world. On Palomar, it’s possible to imagine a more verdant world.
It’s one of the highest mountains in San Diego County, and the winding road to the summit is popular among bicyclists and motorcyclists. Cars should be cautious. There’s a pleasant little vegetarian café called Mother’s and, of course, the famous mid-century Palomar Observatory, worth a visit to see the telescope and groovy, early-’60s design. Best of all, the state park lives on, even after some campsites were temporarily closed last year when the park became the victim of state budget cuts, and even though its survival is now at stake.
Off the tree stump, walking again, I meander through a thick grove of shimmering, sun-illuminated bracken ferns. There’s some movement below the trail and I catch sight of a family of wild turkeys gracefully, intensely making their way down to Thunder Spring. A little while later, a young deer sees me across a meadow, meets my gaze for a moment, and then bounds off into a grove.
I feel connected here to the spirit of legendary hermit Nate Harrison, a former slave who escaped captivity, found his way west and made Palomar Mountain his home in the early 20th century.
And I feel inspired here by Lord Shiva and his ascetic retreat to the summit of Mount Kailash to become immersed in meditative isolation. Palomar is my Kailash: I derive from its serene majesty an empty mind and recharged soul. If you’re a San Diegan looking for a place to take a walk or sit and contemplate, you really can’t do better. In another few months it will be a winter wonderland up here and every bit as magical.
Turning away from the world to find peace with yourself on a grand mountain like Palomar could lead one to think, “Who needs the company of people?”
Palomar Mountain does.
When heroic citizens joined together to save the park from the chopping block in July, they succeeded, but it wasn’t a one-time event like saving a cat from a burning building. The park saviors made a deal with the state to offset budget shortfalls with funds from public donations—that means funds have to be continually raised to keep the park open and maintained.
And we need company, too.
Isolation is an illusion. Look at a few American champions of it: Bukowski said he preferred when people weren’t around but ended up happily married; Thoreau was not as self-reliant as you’d think from reading Walden; Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire was a lyrical report on his extended retreat in Arches National Park, but he didn’t stay there—he became a pioneer of environmental preservation. Even Palomar’s famous recluse, Harrison, befriended local Indians, joining their ceremonial dances, and greeted visitors to the mountain with gourds of spring water. And even the great ascetic Lord Shiva eventually gave up his isolation to marry his beloved.
My reason for being here is not to escape civilization. Rather, it is to gather calm resolve from the abundant life force of this enchanted mountain forest and then do my best to manifest its strength and wisdom in whatever I do back in the world.
And the first thing I’d like to do on my return from the mountain is encourage you to take a brief moment to send a few bucks or more if you can to friendsofpalomar.org, the noble nonprofit devoted to saving this magnificent place ad infinitum.