There’s this mystical place above my hometown in California. Santa Barbara is cradled between the coast and a small mountain range, on top of which you’ll find Knapp’s Castle. The first time I came here I was a teenager and probably with my parents. I hung out with them a lot then. At some point I decided I didn’t get on too well with people in high school, and around senior year at seventeen I had all but checked out just waiting for my diploma.
Not long after that I left, and since those days I’ve seen my fair share of the world. Chateaux and palaces included, and by no stretch of my imagination is this Knapp’s a castle. In fact, I’m not sure anyone really knows the extent of what this ruin used to be, probably just an ordinary house with an extraordinary view over the valley below.
On the other side of the mountain it’s easy to forget that California is dying with drought. In Santa Barbara, life is still pretty lush. The coast is lined with green grass, rose bushes bloom at the Mission, and the houses of the Upper East have front yards filled with perky hydrangea bushes still affording them some privacy from the street. But looking over the other side from Knapp’s, the hills are dry and desolate. I won’t flatter them by calling them gold, to me they are brown and in plain sunlight they have no luster. They lay there dead like tinder waiting for that giant called nature to start a fire, shadowing paradise on the other side with smoke.
The heat wave early in October only made the drought more evident. Mike and I had been enjoying it the week before playing volleyball on the beach in the evening. A month before that I had seen him in Paris as he was passing through for a wedding, and before that it had probably been years. After high school graduation we ended up on the same trip to Greece and to be honest it wouldn’t surprise me if we didn’t get along too well considering as I mentioned, I didn’t get on with anyone back then. It may or not all go back to an incident at fourteen in the carpool line when he attempted to light a small piece of my hair on fire, and a subsequently rude and speculative note about him I scribbled onto the desk in the physics room.
But then this magical thing happens in your twenties where you get to go out into the world and do some real living. You can become a whole new person if you want, or maybe the person you always were. Someday down the line by chance on the other side of the world or right there in your hometown you reconnect with people from your past and find out maybe you have more in common than you thought. Things like photography and cameras for example. Oh…and those hundreds of memories from the first half of life as you knew it growing up in the same little piece of paradise. Perhaps even the reasons that made me a little miserable here so long ago. Those are just the kind of things that led me up the road to Knapp’s with Mike this evening.
The climb is steep and quick — radio stations cut out and the climate seems to change a few times. Up “the pass” you turn off onto a winding road to who knows where, I’ve never seen it through. Somewhere along there is the trail that leads to Knapp’s Castle. Sometimes you find local photography students staging cringe worthy photoshoots here, fancying themselves some kind of Helmut Newton. Other times there are high school students drinking and smoking pot. This time it was just me, Mike, two cameras, and a six pack of beer, probably due to the storm that seemed to be rolling in all day. In hindsight it does seem like a good place to get struck by lightning.
But let me tell you, what a spectacular place to watch a storm. The same clouds that dimmed the day lit up in an Indian summer sunset like a neon sign. Flashes of light turned it all to white for split seconds at a time. I wasn’t sure how distant the storm really was, counting the seconds it took for thunder to chase the lightning, something I learned from reading Thunder Cake as a little girl. I wanted it to be far away so we could stay and watch it as long as we wanted. Everything kept changing colors and purple mountain majesties from the National Anthem suddenly made sense to me. I wondered if lightning would strike the ground, if it could start a fire in these dry hills. Speaking of which, Mike never did manage to light my hair on fire that afternoon as Freshman. Now in this moment, his hands running through it, I wanted to press pause on everything.
Just as I wished, the rain never touched us here that night. It just fell on the thirsty valley. The lights from the cars moving through it twinkled below like the earth and night sky had changed places, until before long in the dark they were all we could see. It could have been ten years ago, it could have been ten years from now. It might have lasted hours, it might have lasted minutes. I don’t know which, and I don’t need to. What matters is that I’m glad it was. From a ruin, we made a castle in the sky.