Somewhere between Atascadero and Morro Bay,
Toro Creek Road makes its way up out of the valley,
over the mountain and back down
and over a bit more to the Forty-One running east to the coast.
My son and his wife spent just under three years
living here where the public part of the dirt and gravel
comes almost completely unraveled and then
makes its way up another mountain on private land.
In the span of three years, they saw deer and turkey
strut across the roads and fields between ruts,
caught bobcats killing their chickens, rattlesnakes in the yard,
and had a huge black bear prowling around just outside the kitchen.
Hidden in low branches beneath the squawking scrub jays
and camo’d for his chances at hunting turkey,
Ben twice saw a mountain lion slipping through the shadows
along the trace road leading up to the ranch.
Both of their boys were born here
while they lived beside the tiny stream coming from the springs
that seep from the ground and then follow their way down
beneath the pines and coastal mountain oak.
I have come here from Kansas to help Ben clean the house they are leaving.
In mid-afternoon in late August, we take a break,
make our way up the broken road then down a steep incline,
taking our time and moving carefully to the stream.
Water clear enough for drinking tumbles and gurgles over a stone lip
set among overhanging roots that droop their way to lower rocks.
A boulder the size of a truck rises up from the side,
its lower edges calcified and smoothed just above the surface of the pool.
We step into the stream, feet searching for the safe seams.
Ben moves into the deep but I pause for a moment,
feeling the cold working its way into my knees
while he sucks in the shock that always comes with such as this.
I look up through the trees, wishing the angle of the sun could find us here,
send some warming rays against the rocks of this tiny pool.
Lacking the faith it takes to move the sun or mountains,
I join Ben in the deeper cold of this good fountain.
Chest deep, we laugh together, feel the edges of ancient stones
and the soothing swirl of water drawn from the earth itself.
Water beads on our beards, mine gray with a few dark specks,
his thick and brown, not yet wrecked by the thirty years between us.
We talk about another dip we took together
in Kentucky’s Red River of the Gorge,
father and son, man and man, on an autumn day
over twenty years ago and two thousand miles away.
We climb up and out of the pool for a while,
move stones and pebbles and sand to form a makeshift dam
that in only a few minutes raises the water level by a few inches.
We step back into the deep water.
After the in and out, the water seems somehow a bit warmer
and we take turns bending our backs
against the soothing surge of the tiny waterfall,
marveling at how a stream this cold can feel this good.
After lingering a bit longer, we step from stone to stone,
climb our way up through the woods and back to the road.
Though there is still work to be done and other stories to be shared,
this alone is worth all the traveling we have done to get here.