How many times did he load us into the car,
my mother, my sister and me, head south
down Auburn Folsom Road by the huge mounds
of tailings left over from gold mining days?
There, we’d pile out, he’d open the trunk,
and tell us to look for rocks “about yay big.”
“Yay big” was a different size every time—
sometimes small enough for a child’s palm,
sometimes ones that took two hands to lug
to the trunk. But my father, young, crewcut’d,
before his belly grew and his enthusiasm shrank
for yard projects, had rock walls to build.
And there they were—all those lovely, roundish
river rocks dredged from the American River,
just sitting there.
The summer men walked on the moon
for the first time, my sister and I imagined
not astronauts on another world retrieving rocks,
but Gold Rush miners lugging them in wooden
wheelbarrows, then later bucket dredges that
assembled great piles like pyramids, a field
of humped stones 10 miles long and 7 miles wide.
I didn’t know then that the river was dredged
to build a second dam downstream from the one
that created the lake we swam in, skied on,
saw as ours—Folsom.
My father was as proud of those dams
as if he’d built them himself, ones that
ended annual flooding of one of the rivers
that circled Sacramento. Years later, when
I migrated to the college hunkered down
next to the American bordered by tall levees,
my father assured me that, no matter
how much it rained, I’d be safe because
of the dams upstream.
I think of that in winter when rain pours
and the river rises fast, once again
channeling the liquid mystery of movement.
“California doesn’t do water well,” my father
would say. “It’s either too little or too much.”
Sometimes during deluges, I head for my alma mater
snuggled next to the levee and climb its manmade
steps to the top. I watch the hefty American
rush its muddy way to become one with
the Sacramento surging down from Mt. Shasta,
and, thus braided, forging on to the sea.
I think of the rocks embedded in its rich soil—
perhaps like those still lodged in moondust—
that will likely never see daylight, others tumbling
in the current that carries the stories of river,
the whoosh of watery highway,
right past us.