By Julianne Homokay – Special to The Alpine Mountaineer
Hermann Hesse’s 1922 novel Siddhartha became quite influential during the 1960s, a time to “drop out, tune in and turn on,” as many Baby Boomers were overthrowing societal conventions and pursuing their own journeys to find their true selves. In Hesse’s novel, the eponymous main character embarks on a lifelong quest for spiritual illumination.
Here on the mountain, we have our own Hermann Hesse. His name is John Giarelli. He has chosen to call Green Valley Lake home, and he has encapsulated his journey toward his true self in his 2022 memoir, A Gay Boomer Story.
The book is an exciting ride through all of the selves Giarelli tried on during his world travels: Baby Boomer, gay man, hippie, lover, friend, nomad, teacher, addict, writer. He is remarkably forthright about it all.
And even though this story is about one man’s journey, it reverberates on a larger, generational level, as Giarelli was in the midst of so many iconic experiences of the 60s, 70s and 80s. He remembers exactly where he was when he heard that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. He came out while he was a student on a liberal arts campus, in the midst of protest culture. He lived in San Francisco as Haight-Ashbury was transitioning from its Jefferson Airplane-infused counterculture rock scene to a gay mecca.
As to what prompted him to put his story down on paper? “It dawned on me,” he said with emotion, “that I was writing a really important story, what gay men of my age went through.”
What gay men of his age went through included the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 90s. “We went to San Francisco with such a feeling of liberation and tolerance, and we had that until AIDS hit.” In fact, Giarelli lost the love of his life, Theodore Paul Robinson, a Ph.D in political science, to AIDS. It’s important to Giarelli that younger generations of LGBTQ people remember this history.
Toward the end of his college teaching career down in Los Angeles County, Giarelli began to tire of city life. He spent his entire adult life in cities. After he came out fully in college, he was drawn to the gay culture and the safe havens that cities like San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles provided. “That’s where the party was!” he recalls.
But after several years in L.A., “I was unhappy with how hostile the environment was, so hard to see on a daily basis people interacting in hostile ways,” he says. Growing up as a kid in Bridgeport, Conn., “every summer we would take trips up to Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine… I fell in love with the mountains of northern New England.” So, he began to explore the mountain communities of California.
After a stint in Big Bear, which he calls his “intro to mountain life,” he was craving something smaller, more off-the-grid. He describes vividly in his book how, when driving along Highway 18, “I’m not going to pass that sign again without knowing if Green Valley Lake is the place for me.” Green Valley Lake has turned out to be the place for him for the past eight years.
In terms of his writing, Giarelli isn’t ruling another book out, but he thinks A Gay Boomer Story might be his first and only book, having begun his literary life as a poet. Currently, he’s working on a one-man stage adaptation of his book, which he hopes will have an airing as early as July. He’s aiming for “an immersive, multi-media piece: music, film, art, video.” He hopes that “the 40 people in the room will feel like they’re in each decade of the book.”
In terms of Green Valley Lake, has this nomad found his “true home?” He mentions in A Gay Boomer Story the possibility of migrating to a mountain town in the Sierra Nevada mountains. “That’s always been my dream. I haven’t found the perfect town up there but, if I did, I’d probably make it a second home. I don’t think I could leave [Green Valley Lake] permanently. I’m embedded here.”
Which goes back to an adage this Siddhartha lives by that a friend once told him: “Wherever you go, there you are.” The writing of his book has been “a weird growth experience,” Giarelli says. “Is it a search for my true home, or is it a search for me, my true self?”
A Gay Boomer Story is available at Black Dog Shoppe in Green Valley Lake, Rustic Arts in Running Springs and on Amazon in paperback or as a Kindle eBook.