Author: Valentine Cardinalis
Neighborhood: Imperial Beach
Occupation: Software tester
Ever since the 1800s, people have been crossing the American West in an attempt to create a better life.
I grew up in the Mid-Atlantic, and I am no different.
Most of the natural beauty where I lived had been choked off by city congestion and buried under the daily human grind. And it got cold out there. Between the concrete streets and the concrete winter skies it was a desolate, gray world to live in.
When I was a child I had the same repetitive dream of moving to California. It always involved packing up my stuff and setting out — by car, train, or foot, it didn’t matter — and crossing the Appalachians, the Midwestern plains, the Rockies, and the western desert, at last settling right here in San Diego.
I had only the foggiest memories of San Francisco and Los Angeles, and I had never visited San Diego before (or seen photographs). The mental image I had of the state was almost mythological: Southern California was where it was always sunny and everyone surfed. Hollywood was to the north, where all the people were beautiful, and to the south was San Diego, wedged comfortably between the ocean and the mountains. A city with everything you could desire: a fabulous nightlife and perfect weather and easy access to the great outdoors, if you were so inclined. Many of my friends across the country called California their home and their refuge.
I finally had my first glimpse of San Diego in the shots of an extraordinary local photographer I found online by total serendipity. I knew immediately there was something special about this place, or the person who had shot the pictures — or both. Photo after photo held a quality I had never encountered elsewhere. It was a kind of...infinite expanse, found even in the smallest grain of sand, something that made flat surfaces look interminably, unfathomably deep. It was divine and otherworldly and perfect. It was Real.
Surely the keys to the universe were in these pictures. Maybe they were in California. Or maybe I could find them by shooting pictures of my own.
So I started photographing my home state and posting my attempts on the Internet and trying to associate with my new hero — all the while thinking nothing I shot was worth a damn by comparison. And as hopes built up like a bridge against the cold Eastern skies, I finally reached a time in my life where I could move.
I struck out west, stopping first in Wyoming in the splendor of Yellowstone National Park. It was there I finally started to see that there was nothing wrong with my eyes or my camera and that the Infinite Expanse in that San Diego photographer’s photos could be seen by me as well. The city I’d come from really had been impoverished of most beauty and joy. The desperate search for meaning I’d been on with my photography had been unnecessary. Meaning wasn’t missing — it wasn’t even needed. The longing I’d felt for it was a side effect of trying to really live among all the mundane tedium of destruction that passed for human life. I had spent four hours a day commuting through dark tunnels underground to work in an uninspiring, gray office with cruel, thoughtless people day after day after day. It was no wonder I had thought myself blind — what had there been to see?
In Wyoming the open skies were smote by fire at sunset, and the sky sparkled with stars after dark like a real-life planetarium. In the morning, mountains and canyons blazed with light.
But if Yellowstone was the promised land, I couldn’t afford to live in it. I was there on borrowed time. I was barely breaking even with my finances, and with winter menacing with its wall of snow to shut out the sun, I was forced out. At last I moved to the place I’d fled to in my dreams: California. Perhaps there I’d find the promised land in that infinite expanse I’d seen in the pictures, and I’d be able to keep it.
But I’d already been to heaven, and San Diego undeniably wasn’t it.
It is pretty here, but polluted. This is a desert covered up by a tropical mirage of false green lawns, kept alive by irrigation no one can afford. The grandeur of the mountains is thrust away behind the less impressive monuments of human making: skyscrapers and factories and construction. A beautiful city, as cities go. But this is not where the gods live.
I guess it’s human nature to try to modify one’s surroundings in order to feel safer or more comfortable. There is too much that does not go according to plan in life: decay, disease, pain. Things break and die; people do, too, and no one wants to really face that fact, and everyone secretly hopes that there’s an easy fix. It isn’t surprising that over the centuries millions of people have moved west in hopes of finding a place that would welcome them more than the one they left behind, a place with a kinder, more temperate climate, one where the harsh winters of life would be tempered somewhat by everlasting sunlight. And then they built cities, to try and feel safe. San Diego is such a city.
And it is natural to look to someone else for advice on how to live, someone you think might have a keener eye, somebody more apt at photographing truth in the turmoil, of finding an infinite depth in seemingly flat surfaces and showing you the magic in everyday, cruel, ordinary life. A savior who can light a fire in the cold assault of winter.
But the more of those winters you endure, the clearer it becomes that a change in location isn’t going to save your life, and no one is going to light that fire, no matter how vividly that person can describe the landscape to you and no matter how bold their own creations. So often the ones you count on the most abandon you, or you find out they were never actually there for you in the first place, be they your own family or people you had mistakenly counted as friends. And the sun may be shining in Southern California, but the woman down the street is still dying of cancer and the man next door is still beating his children and no pretty photograph is ever going to turn their cries of anguish into anything beautiful.
I’ve gone as far west as I can, and for me there’s nowhere left to run.
I’ve now seen San Diego, the legendary city of perfect weather, and things still wither and die here like anywhere else. My fortunes have improved, but others have faltered. I’ve met the person who shot such glorious pictures of this place. The person and the place both offered salvation, deliberately or unconsciously, and neither had it to give.
And San Diego isn’t the promised land — nowhere is. And that’s okay.
Because I have friends. And the real promised land isn’t a place you can go to. It is a place within you, and it consists of a single choice. That choice is: “Here I stop running and cursing at the dark. Here I light a torch and rejoice, because the eternal summer I yearn for and see traces of in others has only ever truly existed in my own soul, and thus I may create it and carry on. But first I must stand my ground and face that only I can do this, with the help of my real friends.”
So here in San Diego I take my stand. It is January of 2009, and this is the year I stop running.