I’ve traveled to a lot of places in my life, from the back roads of the southwest to Japanese gardens and the Great Barrier Reef. And only twice in all that time have I stood in a place for the first time and felt absolutely in-my-bones certain that someone I knew, at some other point in time, had inhabited that place.
The first time I had that feeling was standing on the western shore of Loch Lomond in Scotland many years ago. I still haven’t figured out who in my genetic timeline it was, but I knew one of my ancestors had been there, had lived there. The view of a specific mountain across the lake was so familiar that it was like coming home and yet I had never seen it before.
The second time I had that feeling was today, looking for where my mother lived when she was a little girl. I had heard stories, but not many, about living down in the canyon and that there were rattlesnakes and her father worked at the pumping station. Given that lack of information, I wasn’t expecting much as I started the drive up San Francisquito Canyon from I-5.
Almost too soon, I found Power Plant #2, off to the right and tucked into the side of the canyon. The gate was open so I walked around a bit. The building was destroyed in the breakage of the St. Francis Dam in 1928; this is the plant built to replace it in the early 1930s.
I liked the details of the building, but I didn’t feel any connection to it. I tried to imagine my grandfather (who died two months before I was born, so I never met the man) walking into this building but I couldn’t get a mental picture of it. I shrugged it off and got back in the car, still heading north.
I almost missed the faded sign for Power Plant #1, off on the right side of the main road and at the head of of a one-lane paved road that lead downward. I followed it around a few twists and turns till I was at the bottom of the canyon to a tiny settlement, 5 houses in all. It was literally a wide spot in the road. I stopped the car and got out. The place was deserted, although a few houses looked like someone still lived there, the others were lifeless and empty. I stood in the middle of the street and looked further down the road and that’s when it happened. I was absolutely sure this was the place my mother lived. I could feel it.
There was another small group of houses a quarter-mile away, right next to the power plant itself, but that didn’t give me the same feeling. And the third small collection of houses, halfway up the hill didn’t match my mom’s phrase “down in the canyon” that I remember. That first little set of houses is the one place I felt matched whatever my brain consciously and unconsciously remembers of my mother’s stories about her time there. She never talked about it much, and we never visited it, although it was probably less than 50-60 miles from where I grew up.
The journey up the canyon and down to the pumping station (what she called the power plant) has got me thinking about my mother, the life she had, and the secrets she took with her to her grave. I have a few old slides from her, but no albums, no concrete proof of anything about that little 8 year old girl who I know lived in that canyon in 1940, thanks to the recently released US census of 1940.
I took one last shot at the top of the grade, looking back down at the canyon and said my goodbyes one more time to the mother I knew and the little girl I never did.