It takes more than twenty hours of straight driving to get from my hometown in Idaho down to Santa Barbara, California. When my dad took me down for my freshman year of college, we packed all my things into his car, said goodbye to the rest of the family, and started off in the evening with the intention of making the trip as quickly and with as few stops as possible. And yes, that meant skipping hotels.
We made it a good, long way as we drove through the night. We headed west and south, down through Washington, down through Oregon. California couldn’t have been much farther south when we finally pulled to the side of the road to steal a couple hours of sleep.
It was light when I woke up. We were somewhere in the mountains, on a stretch of highway that ran through a pine forest. The trees were spaced wide apart, and fog hung beneath them, hiding all but the dark trunks from view. And everything glowed gold in the light of the rising sun.
To this day, it’s one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.
I suspect, though, that the image would not have been etched so deeply in my mind were it not for everything else that lead me there. The adventure of leaving for college. The weariness from long travel and little sleep. The cold feet and cricked back from napping in the car. None of these things change the aesthetic appeal of the scene, but all of them add some detail, some meaning that fits it to a narrative.
There’s also the fact that it was there for a only a few moments, and then I was gone and it was gone, and I’ll never see it again. Other forests on other mornings might look much the same, and I might even be there to see them. But I’ll never see them while on my way to college for the very first time. That singularity has a value.
The trees and the mist gave something back, as well. Waking up to an empty quarry or a stretch of nondescript plains would have left a weaker impression. Instead, the image was one that has stuck with me, and its momentary beauty left me with a feeling of wonder that could harden into memory.
A part of me almost wishes I could have taken a picture. Another part of me is glad I didn’t. Writing might not recreate it perfectly, but it does well enough– and I’ve got a better chance of explaining why it might have affected me the way it did when I get to use my words.