20 August 2009
Searching for Max's Hat
Many moons ago (by my rough count around 445...but who's counting?) a friend's father gave me his hat. Max was his name (the father, that is) and his hat was one of those classic pork pie jobs seen in Steve McQueen movies of the 60's. Bluish black in color with a dark maroon and blue striped band, it added a jauntiness to my usual attire of bell bottom jeans, colorful (read: loud) print shirts and square-toed harness boots. (If you have no idea what I'm talking about, watch Easy Rider and you'll get it.)
I have always had a penchant for hats and in my teenage years the affection blew into an affectation. In search of myself -- the definition of being a teenager, essentially -- a hat was a necessary part of my persona, the final dotting of the "I" that I was. My real fantasy was to find a slightly dented stovepipe hat...I'm sure it had nothing to do with me being below average in height. But Max's pork pie was eminently more practical and one day, when Max learned that I secretly desired his hat, he impulsively gave it to me. Never mind that he thought that I and his son were going to hell in a hand-basket, he was that kind of guy.
I loved that hat: it looked spiffy and it fit real good. (Can't imagine wearing some old guy's hat? These were the pre Puricell, pre sani-wipes placed strategically near shopping carts, elevator buttons and toilets near you days. The days when sharing a smoke -- tobacco or otherwise -- was a rite of sorts. Or, so I'm told.) Unfortunately, Max's hat and I parted ways a few short days later.
Less than a week after first donning the hat, Max's son and I were taking a late night drive up Ortega Highway. For us, that road was what separated us from the sterile sobriety of suburbia and the misty mountain fantasies of the unknown. There were the forbidden hot springs, a thriving party spot for those willing to hike in the dark, bathe naked with other souls, and occasionally head for higher ground when the sheriffs would decide to end the party early. There was the semi-mythical nudist colony that we had long heard about, half-heartedly searched for and in the end left as legend. There were the divide roads. Bumpy, rutted tracks, one heading south through the Elsinore Mountains and affording sterling views of the same-named lake and another heading north to the summit of the Santa Ana Mountains, Santiago Peak. Along its way, this north divide road afforded access to the hiking and camping wonderlands of Trabuco, Holy Jim and Horsethief Canyons.
Those were the mountains that we were heading into when we stopped for the proverbial bio-break (though that term had not yet been invented). To this day I don't know why I removed Max's hat and put it on the roof of my friend's Datsun. It's normally not necessary to doff one's hat when "visiting nature" but there it was: on the roof. And there it stayed -- for a second or two, perhaps -- as we drove off.
It was maybe five or so minutes later that I realized I was hatless...it may as well have been five years. We searched and searched but the hat was not to be found. I KNEW where we had stopped but I knew not where the hat had gone. The next day, fully confident that the sun would reveal what the night had stolen, I went back and searched again. To no avail. I was desolate (well, perhaps that is too melodramatic a word) and disappointed in myself. I felt embarrassed around Max and hoped he would never ask "Where's my hat?" He never did. His son was very supportive: "I can't believe you lost Max's hat!" And so it went. Eventually the memory of Max's hat faded into the sleepy past like a paisley shirt long exposed to the sun. Only to be re-woken last week.
In southern California for my yearly family visit and my mother's impromptu suggestion to sample the wines of the Temecula Valley led us to drive up the Ortega Highway once again. My last sojourn up this road was probably some 27 years ago, long before the housing tracks encroach as they do, long before mountain bikes tamed many of the trails that were little better than game tracks, before the hot springs resort opened and closed yet again, pre-Google and pre-GPS, when the 20-year old maps and a compass were your best and only way to find your way.
Driving up the canyon again brought back a flood of mostly warm memories: the hot springs turnout (where I chatted with an amicable young ranger about the old days); the divide roads stretching left and right beckoning to explore yet again; the windy, dangerous hairpins where a friend was side-swiped not once, but twice in an evening; the long straight-aways where my hair streamed behind me, in the hitch-hiked ride of a convertible sports car; the approximate location where Max's hat was last seen.
It was the virulent and ultimately stupid political message posted on a store marque at the summit that brought me back to the 21st century. Memories are good things and we all indulge in them now and then. Take them out, shake off the dust, gaze fondly for a bit and then put them back in their box. Leave them out too long and they take on the rosy sheen of nostalgia. That sheen quickly turns to the self-indulgent, and highly memory-selective patina of "it was a durn-sight better in our days!"
Try as you might, you can't really go home again. Search all that you can, Max's hat still remains lost. As it should be.