My father and I were hiking
up in the San Gabriel Mountains,
where we’d been camping
for the weekend with our Indian Guides
troop. We’d skipped some stones
across a lake, nibbled stale
sandwiches, climbed a few
trees, sung old songs around
a campfire. We all wore
decorated leather vests and
yellow headbands with fake
feathers in them. We all
pretended to know
something about the land.

As we began our descent
toward camp, my father halted
me by tapping my shoulder
and pointing out toward
the valley. For the first time
I noticed the thick brown
inversion quilt that smothered
the big, arid valley we lived in.
“What is that?” I asked.
“That’s what we breathe
every day,” he said. The other
fathers and sons stopped, too,
and looked out at the goo
that stretched all the way
to the ocean.

Few of us ever saw much
of our dads at home, so
we didn’t mind the phony
costumes. For once our fathers
didn’t smell of after-shave;
they didn’t lift the lid to piss;
they didn’t backhand us
when we cussed. We were
men together, or so we thought.
We would have one more swell night
of ghost stories in sleeping bags
before we had to drive back
down into the land of mothers
and sisters, down there in
that muck that passed for air.

We looked out at it without
ever wondering how it got there.
Our fathers, of course, had
helped put it there. And later
we would help make it worse.
We would continue to drive
and smoke and work for
companies that belched chemicals
through smokestacks —
just as our fathers had.
But for this instant
we gazed out at it
in perfect ignorance.