I’m sitting, like always, in a coffee shop right now, waiting for photos of a political event that I shot last night to upload. There is construction in the coffee shop that brings smells of industrially processed furniture. And, as a worker drills a hole into the wood, cutting one chunk in half, a subtle woody scent flashes for a second. It’s disturbed by loud drilling and cutting noises, which hover loosely and distanced in my mind, because that wooden smell opened an old memory more immediately.
I stop grinding my teeth for a second, release the omnipresent tension in my body for a moment, as I imagine old pine needles trampled on a dusty forest trail in the spring. It is a partially shaded trail, with a golden-brown glow, that I walk on alone. It is a memory only from this past weekend. But my mind skips back further, six years ago, in March 2016, to a lake that I drove to alone, exploring, before heading into Yosemite. It was Cherry Lake, an empty spot that I saw on a map. I can only remember the fact that I was there and only experience fuzzy nostalgia that chooses this moment rather than all the rest. The details of the memory scatter sparsely. I do not know why I was there, only that I feel lighter remembering it.
On a Thursday morning, I drove two and a half hours to Cherry Lake, bringing my camera, backpack, and an old stickered Nalgene water bottle. Through the trees, a dammed reservoir dropped down, with small, round, multicolored mountains layered in behind the landscape of the lake, and some fluffy clouds rolling around above the tree line. The lake was empty, with no people in or around it at all, so I parked in an empty parking lot and walked, alone, down a path that dropped off at the shoreline. Or, at what was the shoreline, before the lake’s water had receded significantly; larger rocks dotted the shore, as a form sand that had yet to become granular. I walked across the partial lake to what used to be the center, to a dried-up island covered in trees. I stood, walked in a circle, sat, and probably ate a sandwich, where the trees on the island contrasted the sandy shore.
A fear crept over me as I sat on the island, hiding through the trees in this isolated place. Or maybe I just became aware of a fear already there. So, I finished my sandwich and I walked around the island; feeling supernatural, I tried to root out this fear, finding where it came from, as if it were a spirit living on the island. Finding nothing, I walked back, off of the island and towards my car, hopping on sand-colored rocks, making my way slowly, as my fear faded on the island.
I aimed, for the rest of the day, towards Yosemite, where more people crowded the valley, and the sunset sank with welcome. But Cherry Lake, in those moments surrounding my entrance to the island, locked itself into my mind, because there was a silence underneath that fear, surrounded by a beauty that I came here to see. And that fear ceased. The pine trees continued to stand, smelling, as they do, like pine trees (or some type of coniferous plant), and they continued to catch the glowing mid-day light, the lake continued to ripple in the wind, and the ducks in the water sat purposeless; there was no suggestion of fear here. I just knew that I liked being out in nature, where I could watch my fear with a curiosity that dissolved it.
The end of the lake was too far to reach today anyways, I thought as I walked towards my car. And there, like all of these trips, I wondered what I was doing in the woods, with nothing to do, escaping to finally be relaxed, to undo the tension built into my body, to finally feel myself, while everyone that I knew was getting on with their lives, with goals and dreams and things to get done.
My memory, here, skips to the entrance to Yosemite. And then to walking around the valley, shooting stuff for sunset, and then, on a Thursday evening, driving home. But that’s not the memory locked into my mind, the one I recall whenever I think—and smell—pine trees, when the muscles of my body relax, and the world slows its spinning. Where Yosemite excites with grandeur, Cherry Lake sits silent and empty, reluctantly receding its dammed waterline, exposing its island that catches some crisp afternoon light. It is a silence exposing what is already there, a recession of thought, to stare at fears only to watch them dissolve. So the pine-tree smells remind me of a tension abandoned on an island, of a life rolling as slowly as the clouds in Cherry Lake. This is what remains fixed in my mind.