The Castalian Springs

 

 

 

 

 


About twenty miles east of the airport, into the mountains, a small hand-painted sign announces the New Callia Springs & Rock Shop: 1 mile. A small red arrow points north onto Farm Road 13, a gravel road that ends at the advertised property, or so I expected. I was returning from an exhibit over the mountains at Camp DuVent and turned off the state highway onto the gravel road near the sign. My car never handled hills well; the radiator on the other hand protested way too much. I pulled onto the grassy shoulder, grabbed my plastic milk jug and started walking toward the New Callia and its so-called springs and rock shop.

It was two days from Easter, the cusp of spring. I may have missed the season's coming completely had I not been stranded on the mountain and forced to walk that one mile to fetch water for my car. The road was narrow, and judging by the tire ruts, two cars passing in opposite directions rarely, if ever, happened. Fernbush, huckleberry and western redbuds grew up on both sides of the road, from small, shallow ditches on the road's east and west sides. Oregon ash, western birch and pacific willow grew tightly together at the rising side of each ditch. A canopy of branches, wild grape vines and Spanish jasmine met above the road in the middle.

It was barely spring, and the branches and vines growing within the trees stretched across the road, forming a tunnel of green. It couldn't have been less than twenty feet high from the road to the apex of the arch. The sun shone through in spots making the ground sparkle as though Gulliver or God had dropped a pursefull of coins. Wind passed lightly through the tunnel and smelled incredibly fresh and fruity like strawberries or honeysuckle. The umbrella of vines and branches was like a cave. Strands of grapevines and jasmine reached downward like gently blowing stalactites.

The gravel was fine and grainy and crunched when I walked. If not for the moisture and the gravel's soapy hue and texture, I could have believed I was walking on sugar. Maybe Gulliver dropped more than his purse. Larger pieces of limestone the size of apricot pits and small crabapples filled up the row between the tire ruts, but I stayed to the side where walking was easier. The ditches were full of young blackberries just starting to pink, on the verge of bulging out of their ovary drupelets.

Most of the blackberry bushes still had many of their white blossoms as did various other types of flowering plants. Within the week, the spring blitz will be in full force. Shrubs, grasses, trees, flowers and other botanical life will come first, then the insects will uncloak, emerge from uneaten or unrotted cocoons and feast on the fresh green. The swarms will come; the very parables of pestilence we've been expecting will come in May and June with mayflies and junebugs taking over the valley until man's devices kill them or they are eaten by other species a leg up on the food chain. Nature's timing is merciless. Immediately after laying eggs within the earth's folds and wrinkles, the martyred parents slowly digest within other creatures or melt into the asphalt of the new highway. Next spring their larvae children will uncloak, eat a few acres of gardens and woodlands, kill or be killed over mating rights, consummate lineage and then be eaten by each other or the next generation of higher bug life. But many will wander, enticed by man's own encroachment, onto the highway and desiccate on the burning asphalt or the grill of a speeding Buick.

 

It was cooler under the canopy. Already well after four in the afternoon, the warmest part of the day, and I was just warm enough under my jacket. The temperature was a mild 70, or thereabouts. Above the canopy or out by the highway it may have been warmer, but the heat was soaked up in the trees and shrubs around me. The leaning afternoon light leaked through the branches in such a way that I felt like jogging. Deep measured breathing was the afternoon's most sentient benefit. With air so pure and cool, every cell wanted to feel it. Every fiber of muscle, sliver of bone, knot of gristle and strand of hair wanted to breathe. It was like intercourse for every organ but one. Every tired or sluggish cell woke up hungry, stretching, smiling as though the daylight was reaching through the windows, the ceilings, the floors and thawing out the room as warm as your bed: blankets sliding onto the floor and the new made air filling you with energy and life.

The ground began to slope downward for about 200 yards ahead of me when the trees broke apart and the sunlight shone brightly onto the narrow road. A meadow opened there and the urge to run overtook me and I began to run. I jogged faster, feeling the air expanding within each lung. It moved through my chest and down to my legs and feet that began on their own accord to run faster and faster down the gradual hill. I pulled in as much air as possible through my mouth and felt for a moment that I wouldn't make it to the clearing, to the sunlight. Not since my youth have I run faster or with more passion than those painfully addictive seconds through the tunnel of leaves to the open expanse of springtime. My arms pumped faster with every stride longer than the one before, my pace driven harder by nothing but impulse and pure, wet adrenaline. I must have looked ridiculous dressed like a salesman I imagined, flailing a milk jug against my hip feeling completely absorbed by the valences around me, above me in the canopy and in the atomic spirit of the air itself. By the time I reached the sunlight I was coughing, breathing was painful, my nose ran as though it were afflicted with a crop of ragweed. My spontaneity surprised me, it seduced me in the burgeoning, blitzing, rushing optimism of spring.

The meadow was ablaze with dandelions and cornflowers. There was hardly any grass at all, something I hadn't noticed until I slowed down, rested upon a knee and caught my breath. But I stood too soon and too quickly; the dizziness almost knocked me over. I let the milk jug fall beside me, sat down on the sandy road and leaned back on my elbows. Even in spite of the sunshine the ground was refreshingly cool. The air blew in quick circles around me as it did within the trees. It was a good run; it was like being a boy again running through a field in Indiana , plucking dandelions for my mother who would hold me in her lap and blow the white pistils into the wind. But it wasn't until I was older that I could blow off every hair-like petal without her kneeling behind me, resting her chin on my shoulder and blowing off the petals that my boyish lungs left hanging on the stem. And even after her death, the dandelions and the fields and those ludicrous boyhood wishes still hung around floating in the wind, floating with the dandelions' hair-like petals to secret folds and wrinkles in the earth.

There are no mysteries more intriguing than the past. It is a mystery of science of art and of human behavior. My life is no less of a mystery than the one that holds me here in Valencia when my childhood is a thousand miles away. It is a mystery that cannot account for my past and wonders why there are no photographs in my wallet, no portraits of friends and family in my house or on my desk at work. Like my memories, I am becoming invisible. As each day passes I can feel my memory and my history compressing as if I were in a glass bubble sinking deeper and deeper into the heavy sea. Soon, nothing will remain of me but my beginning starting over every morning.

The cusp of spring makes me question why the past is more mysterious than my memory which is unable to endure the preserving nature of a photograph or a song or a field of cornflowers and dandelions. Even in Valencia the camera stays pouched in its cover somewhere in a closet or a drawer with other just-in-case items like matches, candles, thumb tacks, bits of string, buttons and batteries.

I cannot face my past any more than I can my future and the present consequences of time that annoy me with remembering what is impossible to resuscitate. My fate rests in some passive-aggressive anomaly that is imbedded indelibly in the folds and wrinkles of my mind. I am the Robert Herrick of a new dispensation: the self-sequestered man unable to live outside of Valencia 's security, familiarity and faithful anonymity. Valencia , Mangan's Sister, the artist's spirit and myself have formed a symbiotic relationship—we are included in one another's food chain. We are the four points of a star; unable to touch unless we are folded and our points merge into one burning sphere.

 

The rock shop and springs rested at the base of a small hill. Several pine trees and the largest white oak that I have ever seen were shading an old well around which sat several white iron benches. The joints and seats were rusted of course, but I sat down anyway; the setting was irresistible to ignore. It reminded me of the patico at the mission. The well I think was just a man-made convention of the resort's designers—nothing more than an adapted gazebo made to fool visitors into sitting near the source of some mystical, enlightening spring. It could have been a spot for the ancient Athenians had it been in Greece . It was inspiring nonetheless. And it was nature's rhetoric, not Aristotle's, that persuaded me to sit a spell, to rest from my jog.

The benches faced out, away from the well so if the muse decided to come forth it could inspire without ever being seen. But the muse is rare these days. The Castalian Springs on Mount Parnassus is just as dry as the well at the New Callia Springs and Rock Shop. The place was deserted. Business must have dried up with the springs a few years ago. I suspect they were natural hot springs since the entire region gets at least 14 inches of rain each year, at least the eastern parts do. But maybe New Callia was too far west, just beyond the crest of the mountains, in the arid zone. The clouds for some astronomical reason stop raining once they reach the pinnacle of the mountains. They just turn off and go quiet as though they were entering gang territory not wanting to violate a truce or something. They just pass quietly eastward toward Wyoming or Montana where they open up again.

The muse is a hard thing to catch. I waited for it while sitting at the well. I didn't have more than two hours of daylight so I knew that if it was coming it would have to be soon. The wind was picking up out of the southwest; I could smell the valley. Perhaps the muse would come in a fragrance. I could hear the wind moving faster, gusting like waves at the beach. Perhaps the muse would come in a sound. Maybe it would come to me through some special wavelength that the empty well was perceptive of—good thing there was room on the bench.

It appeared as though everything had dried up in New Callia. The only inspiration that came to me was the last thing I heard on the radio before turning off the car. Static. It was like some fuzzy martian language coming from my car radio and meeting unmixed from both sides of the mountain. After sitting at the well, waiting for the muse, I decided to get up and walk around the old place; but no sooner than I stood up and turned toward the property, did a dozen or so swallows fly up out of the well like a derrick gushing oil. The birds flew off in tight formation around the giant white oak and over the rooftop of what may have been the rock shop. Within a beat it was quiet again. Even the wind was still; it followed the swallows around the tree and over the tiled roof. The muse had come and gone before I could even say hello, introduce myself, ask a question or voice a concern. It did little else but startle the hell out of me. I felt like a child pestering my father for the same favor again and again and again before meeting a loud and reproaching "No!" But as a child, I'd have understood the message but not the messenger and ran off sulking, vowing to never speak again. This weakness has never left me. I am always left alone awaiting that still, small voice I've been told about, told to prepare for. But inspiration however it comes is always lost in its own volume and then scrambled in my inept ability to receive it.

On both sides of the giant white oak were bare patches of earth, presumably the parking lot. I doubt that more than three cars could have parked on either side of the tree, without blocking each other in—gridlock here seemed preposterous, especially now, being nothing but a burial ground of memories.

A busy day at the rock shop would definitely have consisted of several carpools. The place was probably never more crowded than the library. Maybe the artist had been to New Callia; maybe the gargoyles too. If the Castalian Springs offered a newness of life, maybe the springs here in New Callia offered the same cleansing refreshment. Maybe the artist and the gargoyles came to verify the claim and indulged. Maybe they absorbed what was left of the springs and are still waiting for its effects.

 

I walked around to the side of the largest building, hoping to see the remnants of the hot springs . The back of the building was fenced in but I could see into the bathing area through the cracks and seams in the boards. A couple of tables and chairs like the iron benches around the well still stood nearest the back wall where I suspect the clubhouse and the locker rooms were. The tables were bare and dirty but not as rusted as the benches around the well. I guess they were painted more often. Several cast-iron chairs were strewn about in no apparent order, all standing but one which was tipped forward with its legs sticking in the air. The spring itself was nothing but a swimming pool, the standard 25 by 15 yard variety, but this one didn't slope in the middle, there was no end deeper than the other. It looked like a giant wading pool made out of dark granite slabs and no more than three or four feet deep at any point. I guess it was built to simulate nature and to accommodate so many gallons of hot, spring water and so many pounds of steeping bathers. I doubt there was much lap swimming or any type of horseplay. But I'd have loved it here. I would have dragged a cast-iron chair into the middle of the pool, strapped myself in to keep from floating away, and just poach until I was completely relaxed, until my vital signs were barely readable, until my strength oozed out of me leaving me languid and lifeless as though I had just given birth to thirty pounds of triplets. If I'd have stayed much longer, my skeleton would still be there today in the dried up spa. Stranded motorists would see something strange through the fence, come to investigate and find my remains strapped into the rusted iron chair. They'd probably think I was tortured to death and that my flesh had drowned and dissolved into the drain in the middle of the pool.

The other building had two large glass windows on each side of the front door. The room was divided by two wide bins about waist high, partitioned like a chess board. I couldn't see within the compartments but I imagine they were once filled with a bunch of rocks imported from more geologically impressive areas than Valencia . I'll bet that every rock and gem shop in America sells pieces of volcanic ash and slices of quartz and obsidian and amethyst scooped out of geodes. Sellers gather gem stones from remote parts of the world no where near their property lines. And every stone is polished, glowing like fireflies or costume jewelry and sold as an indigenous beauty found along the roadside and merely buffed against the shop owner's t-shirt. Some of these concessions sound like travel brochures from states across the country that position themselves as the everystate, a little like Florida, a little like California, a little like Texas or Colorado . Even Nebraska advertises its beaches and ski resorts. One of these days I ought to go there just to kick back by the surf and catch some rays. I could hang my snapshots on the library's bulletin board and tell people I went to Key West for the week. Won't they be impressed?

I finally found a water faucet at the back of the rock shop, but it didn't have a handle. But surely by now my radiator had cooled enough to coast the last twenty miles downhill to my home. Dusk began its decent and I had to start walking now to reach my car by nightfall. Passing the giant white oak and the well on my way up the gravel road made me feel a little nostalgic like I was leaving my boyhood home in Indiana . I guess its only natural to feel a bizarre intimacy before leaving a resting place, knowing that you will never rest there again, that you will never notice the same sandy patterns on a bench or a tiny spider that hung beside you from the jut of a rooftop, that you'll never see the same tree against the same sallow sunset or think the same thoughts within the same context that you did under those conditions. Even loneliness is nostalgic when you depart from its influence at times throughout your life. I guess being stranded, being broken and unable to escape can be a good thing sometimes.

I might never again have that urge to sprint down a gravel road, and if I do I might be too old or ill to even stand up. It was a good thing I almost fainted from the run. It was good that the swallows shocked the life out of me. It was good to see the chair that I was chained to, that held me under boiling water until my flesh slid from my bones as easily as a stewed dinner hen.

It can be good knowing one's fate. But would it change one's behavior enough to avoid mistakes, to prevent living, from being true to one's nature? If a moth knew its fate, would it suddenly become adverse to the lamp or the candle that will eventually kill it?

 

Sometimes I wonder if my soul had a face, what would it look like. Would it resemble the gargoyle that I sometimes see in the morning when I look into the mirror? And would it then keep me from being who I am, being true to my nature, or would I simply ignore it and withdraw deeper into my own world here in Valencia and end up like the mayfly or the junebug stuck like a seed in the mud? Without seeing the face of my soul, I wonder if my walks would have more or less meaning, if being stranded on the highway would reveal different mysteries, if inspiration would avoid me altogether or simply show me answers to other questions, highlighting other aspects of my character that might lead me away from danger even though it is danger itself that I am drawn to? What manner of death is more peaceful or less certain than the one we choose for ourselves, the one we anticipate while walking through a canopy of trees or yielding to a desire to run, to flee, or giving in to the need to sleep, to sleep deeper than ever before, deep enough to never wake up, to see the face of one's soul drowning, voluntarily in a peaceful spring?

I wonder if the moth knows that the light will kill it, or if the mayfly or the junebug know their very nature is to suffer and die. They will forever die following their own foolish natures, their own foolish inspirations. I should be glad that man's nature is more noble than theirs, that the inspiration we seek comes from more divine mysteries, for more divine objectives. And if the inspiration that comes is according to our wishes, then maybe being stranded along the highway or within Valencia is a fate worth knowing, a fate worth wanting regardless of how often it leaves us stranded and alone. We would have felt the depth of its wisdom. We would have felt its rush.