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no ghosts

December 31, 2009

I’m in the midst of my annual hibernation, that period between Christmas and New Year’s when I hole up in Simi and turn off my phone for whole hours at a time.  It’s restorative, but blog inspiration is pretty scarce, given that my most-frequented locales in the past few days have been 1) that spot just inside the radius of the open fridge door; 2) the rug in front of the fireplace, and 3) bed.  In the meantime, these are some scribblings from a couple of weeks ago, right after I came back from my Philadelphia trip.

I hopped off of a transcontinental flight, walked down to the beach, and tried to wrap my brain around the disorienting experience of modern travel.  This morning I got up and hailed a cab in an Eastern rainstorm.  Six hours later I’m home, sitting on the sand in the cold clarity of a California December, looking into the great black wash that is the Pacific.  In the scope of the continent I am now finally, utterly west.  There is nowhere left to go.

And there is a certain rawness, a certain loneliness, to this end of the country, where the ghosts of history don’t trouble us.  You don’t realize it until you’ve been someplace else.

Earlier today I was standing in Independence Hall.  We went at my insistence, never mind that we took the exact same tour last year.  It never gets old for me.  I walk into that room, the grey-blue walls and the green baize tables, and I have to stop myself from squeaking incoherently at whatever unfortunate tourist is nearby, because one of my favorite stories happened right where I am standing.  John Hancock stood up there and scratched out a signature that fat George in London could read without his glasses.  Ben Franklin sat in that chair and insouciantly fell asleep, mid-debate, day after day.  Ned Rutledge rustled around in his fancy waistcoats in that corner; Caesar Rodney strode through those doors at the eleventh hour to swing Delaware’s vote towards independence.  And wham-bam-boom, a mere couple of centuries later, here I am,  in my boots and my L.L. Bean raincoat, awestruck and dripping all over these hallowed floors.

Assembly Room, Independence Hall, originally uploaded by Dailyville.

You don’t do that in Los Angeles, not ever.  You can’t stand where the history of nations was written.  Maybe it’s easier to forget things out here.

Going on that theory, I blame Independence Hall for what happened on my plane ride home.  I was finally finishing my John Adams biography; figured it was appropriate reading for the day.  But quite to my own surprise, somewhere between the sodas and the fasten-seatbelt sign, I discovered was sobbing.  Twice.  First when Abigail died, and then when John did.  They’re two of my favorite historical figures, but still —  I sat there and cried like an idiot over people who’ve been dead for more than 200 years.

Now that I’ve outed myself as the kind of history nutjob who turns into a teary mess 39,000 feet over Nevada, this probably isn’t worth much.  But I like the ghosts.  I wish we had a few more of them in this town.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 31, 2009 3:15 am

    Just plain lovely. I have missed your blog, I’m glad you’re back even if the fridge door isn’t inspiring you quite yet.

    • Kate permalink*
      January 6, 2010 6:27 pm

      You’re still here! Hoorah!

  2. David permalink
    January 4, 2010 1:25 pm

    I once saw David McCullough speak and, at one point, he was talking about his interest in American history and the late 1700s. He said, in part, “I like the 18th century – I like the people I meet when I am there.” I think I understand completely both what you and David are saying about the ghosts that inhabit the haunts and halls of what was Colonial America.

    I was born and grew up here in the far western part of the United States. When I was a very young boy, in the mid 2oth century, much of where I lived and traveled was still wide open and wild country. I loved not only the far away American Colonial history of the East, but the Spanish and Native American history that surrounded me so closely here in the West. I would often ride a horse or hike to the top of mountains surrounding the San Fernando Valley and, surveying the countryside, realize that the views I looked out upon had changed very little since the Chumash had lived here thousands of years ago or since Father Junipero Serra had marched up the California coast to establish the Spanish Missions in the later part of the 18th century. Even the horses I rode were the descendants of those brought by the Spanish as none existed on this continent before they were imported to the Americas by the Conquistadores.

    Also as a boy, I often visited the San Fernando Mission. I loved the old church and walking the grounds, all the while imagining the sound of horses, the clank of Spanish armor, the voices of Indian children, and the Latin chants of the padres at prayers. My own family history eventually became intertwined with this particular mission. My grandparents, all four of whom came from the very old world of the Italian peninsula at the turn of the 19th century, are buried here within sight of the mission church. I have no idea of the history of my progeny in Italy in the late 18th century when this mission was founded, but my family line eventually came to this same new world, lived out their lives, and now rest in this same warm earth.

    California had first appeared in Spanish literature in 1510 and by 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo had landed in San Diego, Catalina Island, San Pedro, Santa Monica, and the Santa Barbara Channel Islands. In 1528, the ill fated Narvaez expedition set out to explore north western Florida. Through a series of catastrophes, hundreds of the Spanish and all their ships perished on hostile shores and only four survivors would eventually cross the entire continent to the Pacific coast, 270 years before Lewis and Clark, and make it back to Spain. (Paul Schneider fascinatingly documents the entire story in “Brutal Journey”.)

    Sir Francis Drake, sailing for England, landed north of San Francisco bay in 1579.

    Los Angeles itself, the epitome of a modern, thriving, bustling, metropolis had been established by 12 families in 1781 as a sleepy little Spanish outpost even as the Revolutionary War raged on a continent away. By 1804, before Lewis and Clark planned their journey, Richard Henry Dana was a merchant sailor rounding the Horn from Boston. In “Two Years Before the Mast” he relates a stirring narrative of his voyage, the village of Los Angeles, and his work drying and trading hides on the beech in San Pedro.

    In my youth, I worked on cattle ranches in central California and rode on the same wooded paths taken by John C. Fremont and Kit Carson as they explored the future state. Those same paths meandered all through the historic gold country that had caused the huge California migrations to begin in 1849.

    Just before the Civil War, many of the U.S. Army officers stationed in California met one last time before they departed, some wearing blue and some wearing gray, for the East and the impending war. As West Point classmates and lifelong friends, most would only meet again across battlefields like Gettysburg, Shiloh, and Fredericksburg. But all would remember their friendship and their “great golden days” together in California.

    The history of the west did not leave the same legacy of brick and mortar, historic Revolution, or the momentous import of the Declaration or the Constitution. It is a more isolated, quiet, and solitary history. Each time I have walked the hinterlands of this coast or trod the paving stones of the many Mission churches, I think of how lonely an outpost this must have been during the three hundred years from Cabrillo to the Gold Rush. As long and arduous as a 3,000 mile trip across the Atlantic was for the easterners, those that traveled to these shores came not 3,000 but 12,ooo miles across not only the treacherous Atlantic but around Cape Horn and twice the entire length of South America. It took years, not months, and the grace of God (Dei gratia), to get here from Europe. For those who survived to see these shores, very few ever returned to their native land. In marked and unmarked graves, from Tierra del Fuego to the Presidio of Monterey, they, like my grand parents, lived out their lives here in this farthest outpost of the New World and were buried here.

    Their ghosts are still here, even in these far western regions. Go down by the sea on a fall afternoon when the breezes of November come dancing lightly over the surf and the shadows of the local hills are long. Listen carefully and you will hear the crews of the galleons from far away Spain speaking Castilian, the wind in their halyards, and the voices of the pueblo Indian inhabitants as the mission bells call the people to vespers.

    • Kate permalink*
      January 6, 2010 6:37 pm

      Well. I stand quite thoroughly corrected. This is great stuff. You need a blog of your own, methinks.

  3. January 19, 2010 11:10 am

    This was just lovely. I’m so glad I found your blog, Katie.

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