When the arch in the great rock wall at Tennessee Valley collapsed a year ago today, I was surprisingly upset. I counted on that high-up window into the skies. It seemed like the Eye of God, some portal connecting us mundane earthlings who frolicked at the water’s edge with the vast embrace of the unending universe. Who would watch out for us now?
I first learned about Tennessee Valley from my friend Peggie soon after I moved to California in 1977. “You must go,” she urged, giving detailed directions for an easy day’s outing, just as she had opened up other California treasures to this East Coast transplant. Peggie, 30 years my senior, was a surrogate mother until slow erosion by Alzheimer’s led to her death a few years ago. Another rock who collapsed.
Because Peggie wasn’t my real mother, I took her advice, and went to Tennessee Valley time and again. Back then my friends and I were hardy enough to clamber from the beach up the nearly vertical slope for a closer look at the arch. It seemed, like our youth, that it would last forever.
Youth faded, but Tennessee Valley and its arch and my visits persisted. My future husband first introduced me to his parents there. The miles of hilly trails above the valley afforded good workouts with great views. Later, we’d coax our children down the valley floor’s wide, flat path through banks of lupine and sticky monkey flower to the beach with minimal whining. It was always a great outing no matter the weather and time of year, no matter the age and hiking ability of our companions. I could always count on Tennessee Valley.
So that’s where I returned when the bottom fell out. In September 2012, I was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of uterine cancer. Just days before surgery for a complete hysterectomy, I walked alone down to the beach, touching the salty water with my fingertips for good luck. A father and his two young children played tag with the incoming waves, screeching with delight just as Jonathan and our girls had done twenty years earlier. I looked up at the arch; sunlight streamed through the hole in the rock in what I imagined as a focused beam of healing energy. Tiny, mutable humans on the beach juxtaposed against the impervious and timeless majesty of nature calmed my rising tide of anxiety.
A friend had sent me a CD of Marty Rossman’s guided imagery for undergoing surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation—the holy trinity of my cancer treatment. With each phase, Rossman’s soothing voice intoned, “Imagine that you go inside to a very special place, a very beautiful place where you feel comfortable, relaxed, yet very aware . . . A place that feels safe and healing.”
Tennessee Valley was the place I chose. Every night as worry bloomed, I would put on my headphones and travel through the velvety green valley to the beach, where families frolicked under the watchful Eye of God in the solid rock. At Rossman’s invitation, I noted the sounds, the fragrances, the quality of the air, the time of day and year, the temperature. Always, I found peace, the ground firm beneath me again in my upended world.
My safe place was not supposed to come crashing down with a great rumble, tumbling into the sea at the end of 2012. But it had, just as my dependable life fell away when I was diagnosed. What could I get back now that it was forever changed?
I visited the scene of the devastation soon after the arch fell, bracing myself as I passed the lagoon at the end of the valley before descending to Tennessee Beach. The remote pinhole high up in the rock had transformed into a vast saddle of sky. It was more intimate, more inviting than before, almost a place of respite. The rock face, so recently altered, looked like it had been this way and would continue forever.
Changed but enduring. Like me.