Voice from the past


Our old Buick carried us out of San Francisco and into the welcoming mountains and forests of northern California. So many trees, so few people; but those few had built some lovely little roads. You needed no destination there because around each bend, you could stop and say: This is it. We’re here for good. Beside a river whose name has slipped my mind, we camped out Native American-style. Someone had tied a rope high up in a tree, and we used it to swing like Tarzan across the river. To maximize the fun, we let go in the middle to plunge into the rapids below. After a day or so, we were joined by a father, mother and three kids. They set up camp 50 meters from us and did all the things families do: They barbecued, played games and lazed around. At some point, the mother began to sing. She was missing a few teeth and carrying a few extra pounds, but she sang with the voice of an angel – a cappella. Her soul was her instrument; her voice was as beautiful as the woods, as pure as the river. I knew the song, a country & western prayer I’d often heard Joan Baez perform. The woman by the river was equally deserving of an audience of millions, but nothing in her voice betrayed such a wish. She didn’t waste her talent chasing fame or money. She sang only for her loved ones, for God and for herself. That was a good 30 years ago, and I have experienced and forgotten much since then, but over and over again, the angelic voice of that unknown woman from the woods keeps wafting back to me across the great river of time.

Our columnist, Helge Timmerberg, an irrepressible globetrotter since 1969, writes travel books and contributes monthly to our magazine.