In the year 2000, I undertook my 2nd trip across America. My first trip was a monumental and life-altering journey in 1998, and I was once again itching to get out and experience something like this while seeing as many of the national parks as I could, so the minute that my final college education class ended in early May, my friend D and I headed out across the great empty roads of Pennsylvania, driving slowly on back roads up to Route 80 and westward to the turnpikes of Ohio and Indiana to eventually get to Barat College for a stopping point in Lake Forest, Illinois, over half a day after we set out. While at the college, we stayed in the dorms briefly, hanging out with people that d had met online before heading through to see another one of his friends in Madison, Wisconsin.
After what felt like eternal days of rains that did their number on 2nd row seats at Wrigley Field and boring little indie kids and other drains on time where I felt that we could be doing something more productive than work around my friend’s inability to ignite Internet passion into real love, we abandoned the cities and the academic institutions and headed on through the empty farm fields and plains of Minnesota and eastern South Dakota to eventually arrive at the first real destinations of the Black Hills and the Badlands.
Along the way, I was enamored with the beauty of these places, but D was becoming more and more freaked out by the isolation of the “nothingness” that he saw. Jumping ahead in the story, this wouldn’t bode well for his ability to handle the true emptiness of the American West, but I digress. For me, I was breathing it all in for the wonder of what my country really was. If I could, I would have wanted the destination parts of the trip to last forever (in this, I would agree with D that you can have some of the empty drive), but nothing is eternal, so it’s just about getting the most of what you can while you’re in it and not letting “the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy.”
In a reflection that I had written at the time, I would express that this was a place where “shadowy forests are non-existent, and nothing disguises the emptiness of these fields. Rather than driving in some Wizard of Oz scenario (“Lions and tigers and bears, oh my”), the moon illuminates the farms, and shows how empty America is when you aren’t at its edges.”
I loved that feeling of a better simpler America. Beyond the illuminated fires of Mustafar, which is how the East Coast sprawl shows up when viewed from a plane flying over the land masses at night, there is a brand new world. Out there, there is a different form of existence. In fact, out in the empty middle (Idaho, to be specific) is a place where Bill Buckner can go to hide from a world that still cares about how he misplayed a ground ball in October of 1986. Out there is a cathartic something that exists when you allow it to course through your veins.
I have to be honest; I’d love to be sitting on the patio with Bill, kicking back and enjoying life for the totality of what it is – not drowning in its worst moments.
The Wild West is not a place that is for everyone. Oh no, the sign in South Dakota that states that “we Dakotans reject animal activists. Furs, game, fish and livestock are our economy” pretty much lays it out on the line. You either get the ruggedness of a life away from endless highways filled with big box stores, supermarkets, and shopping malls, or you don’t.
You can either embrace this life, or you should go back to a place where meat doesn’t come from animals, but rather from a case in a grocery store.
And yes, it’s true (and it still is) that even if I lived and made a living in that life that I was formally rejecting despite being paid to be a part of it, I wanted to embrace my rural roots and move away from it to find something better, something purer than the smog of strip malls, the pollution of inner cities, and the snobby nature of the suburbs.
From time to time, that feeling would creep up in me. Sometimes, it would do so more powerfully than it would in other moments. It was something that I once thought I could quench with occasional Kerouac-esque drives into an America that exists for Beat poets trying to find it in some modern day Whitman style “Song of the Open Road.” And perhaps, it’s true that some of this can be done on two and a half week vacations now and then. Perhaps, it’s also true that it can be found in my songs and books and television shows and movies and in the poems of long since dead white guys who got it or at least wrote convincingly enough to make me believe that they got it, but I no longer believe that this alone is true.
At the time, I thought that there might be a direct path that could allow me to find it in my own Chris McCandless kind of way, but that’s no longer true. Chris was what he was, and for that, he inspired Jon Krakauer and myself to imagine ourselves as him and to defend him, but frankly, I do like refrigeration, showers, and the Internet a little bit too much to ever go completely away from them. Nevertheless, I don’t mind the thought of extended siestas where I can get my kicks far away from the ennui of civilization.
Who in his or her right mind doesn’t?
Now, things are much different than they were a decade and a half ago. There are permanent anchors to civilization that I have in job and home (a mortgage that it takes a serious job to pay). In addition, there is no more sense of alone as I have come to find a wife to love and to share my life with (that’s a good thing!), so perhaps the modern equivalent is that I could live some better life at the core of John Cougar Mellencamp’s musical catalog without the need to say that I’m doing it “John Cougar Mellencamp style.” I will admit to listening to his music, but I don’t think that even for a person who doesn’t care about being cool that he should ruin his remaining shreds of a sense of cool by admitting to wanting to be like Mr. Mellencamp, especially when Mellencamp is not that far from permanent lunch dates with the Crypt Keeper (after seeing him at Farm Aid in 2012, it’s clear that he gets reprieve from the grave for the occasional concert performance). The same can be said for a Bob Segar sensation of being “like a rock” or even a John Denver sense of a “rocky mountain high.”
That said, I wouldn’t turn down a trip to Katmandu or a journey to watch eagles fly so that I could give up the everyday for the slower and more powerful sense of wonder in Nature.
Nevertheless, for all that was and wasn’t on that drive west, what I saw and felt and didn’t see and feel on that drive through Minnesota and South Dakota was that I was being given an education, a survey course to make sense of this new life by immersing it slowly into the feel of the empty edges, the forests, the fields, the mountains, the isolated lakes, the steep cliffs, and the scorched desert.
And in that, I was following the words of Simon and Garfunkel as I was “all gone to look for America” while lost in my existential late twenties, dreaming of some Kathy that I could ride the bus with as she fell asleep in the exhaustion of dreaming about what’s at the end of the highway.
And isn’t that what it’s all about when you’re trying to get from the “there” that you are set to abandon for the “here” that you want to be? Doesn’t it make sense that something, anything, is out there, and for that, I don’t fault D for looking for friendship and love with fellow fans of the Promise Ring, Rainer Maria, The Get Up Kids, and That Dog. All of these years later, many of their songs sound dated and forgotten, but at the time, it was something special and unique for people who had sought it out and found it. Is this any different than waxing intellectual and sharing a million different digital pictures of slot canyons, waterfalls, vistas, and mountains with the cult of people who live and die for these things?
In addition to going out on the highways in hopes of finding America, the physical place, on that drive into the Great Plains, I was attempting to lose the last remnants of wanting to go back to England from my conscious memory and internally defining place. The only things left of the days that stretched from 1990-1996 were and are the romanticized memories and images of places I had been with people who I had been there with. No trip across this country can make me shake them, and really, I don’t want to. However, with the more road miles I put on the great U.S. highway system, the more I became removed from a need to go back to a life that could never ever be.
And what of those days? The lonely walks through the cities in search of a life that could be purchased in record stores intertwined with the futile hopes to keep consistency in the people that I had met and thought so highly of. Neither of these things completely worked out, but they provided an education and a firm grounding for who I am, was, and would be. I still miss some of the people. I still hear some of the songs. They are the background for the man I am now. I can’t say that I mind their not being here (or my not being there), but their pull is historic as compared to the feeling of now and some future then. Sometimes, late at night, the people from those moments seem so much more real, and I want to find myself somewhere that I can say hi and see the pictures and share my pictures, complete with narration, so that we can just catch up, even if it’s only for a second.
Then, I stop and retreat. Some things are historic. Some things are permanent, and so I focus on the now and the future where things go forward and not backward. It’s the only way to be.
Nevertheless, I wouldn’t be who I am without England and the English people; but all the same, England isn’t the forests, fields, deserts, vistas, and waterfalls that my life would become in the modern now that I reflect on these words. The English people have their charms and great points, but their way of life (for better or worse) isn’t the American spirit.
And really, that’s where I have to be now. That’s where I had to be in 1998, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2007, 2010, and all of those other moments that I spent somewhere out there in the inner heart of America.
Nevertheless, if I think about what it really is, for me, England is the ability to jump on a train, all alone, and go out in search of what’s at the end of the line and to not worry who is or isn’t along for the journey. England is a relationship that I had with a particular woman who changed me for all times to come. England is my time in the Air Force. Since these things are not happening anymore, it’s hard to want them to be when they can’t be.
In addition, England is also the ability to find good people and ramble dreams and stories and hopes and fears and cultural expressions of a definition of who I am, was, and who I will be, but it’s also a place where those things happened in line with another culture that I temporarily usurped in the hope that it could be me. When it couldn’t be all that I needed it to be or make sense of it in some Americanized sense of such, I needed to find something that could be me in a way that would feel it surging through my body every time I hear the extended liver version of “Freebird” raging through the guitar solo at the end.
And for that, I will always remember it and the people who touched my life while there in the fondest of ways, but it is a place as painful to me as Old Sinking Spring. I could go back to England, but it wouldn’t be there as I knew it in 1996 in the same way that New Sinking Spring will never be the world that its old version was prior to 1986.
Through it all, I must say that England was something that needed to be placed into perspective so that I could find this “oneliness” that exists only in the deepest recesses of this world America. What better place to do that than on the highways of America?
On that drive into the Heartland / Heartbeat of America that was the thousands of lakes that is Minnesota, I listened to the Jayhawks’ Blue Earth CD because, why else? We were driving through the town of Blue Earth. This was their most Americana offering in the days before the Bunkhouse LP was readily available for people to get the full-fledged country twang side of the Jayhawks. As the CD played, D stared out the windows and contemplated the emptiness of the fields, which mirrored the emptiness of the two girls who wouldn’t be his and who were now so far behind on the highways that it wasn’t even worth thinking about.
As we drove, it was readily apparent that D and I were going two different ways with what we wanted this trip and our lives to be. He wanted to be going “this way” in that he said that he could relive the Boy Scout days of bird watching in the bigger and more bountiful national parks, and he felt excited for the opportunity to see America while he was doing it. Prior to giving him the opportunity to join me for the trip, I talked about all of the great points of the last trip, but I also talked about the reality of what was out there in the middle. He quickly agreed to go, but like so many things that we do in our youth, he had no idea what he was really agreeing to. He just wanted to be going this way, which seemed to be the Kerouac way that everyone who explores that sort of literature strives to attain.
Hop in the car and go for the drive. Sing the songs, drive off quickly, meet cool people, see incredible things, and then write about it…
"They rushed down the street together, digging everything in that early way that they had, which later became so much sadder and perceptive and blank. But then they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”
Because of this, if you put the problem at its simplest, he didn’t get that America wasn’t all the life on the coasts because he was in his early twenties and had never really experienced America.
I can’t say I blame him for this faulty assumption. I too thought people were all like those people that I had grown up with when I went off into the distance to join the Air Force. I didn’t think they were all like me, but I didn’t get what it was like to grow up in the deep urban cities and the isolated rural communities at the time. This was a major shock in 1990 from the point that some guy walked into Basic Training wearing an artistic image of King Tut on his jacket (and he didn’t even get yelled at for looking like a dumbass!) up through “Black Bart” and on through to the hordes of so many BX Cowboys embracing Garth Brooks’ country twang.
Who in my America (or in their right minds anywhere) would do those things?
And I’ll be honest, I still see some of my lack of understanding of America in its totality now, even with the experience of nearly 43 years, and I see completely different shades of this country of mine everywhere that I go. The redneck stares that I felt on back roads Tennessee when I drove south in 1998 and the sense of being some misplaced white boy that needs to back-track the hell out of where I’m at are exactly the same sense of hate for the person that I appear to be. The angry, impoverished feeling of the ghetto mixed with the white-trash feeling of the trailer parks are juxtaposed against another world I could never crack, which is the power of wealth and privilege to crush anything that doesn’t have a silver spoon its mouth as it comes crying out into the world.
I’m a complicated man. I’m one in a million. I’m in a place that doesn’t make sense for me as much as it doesn’t make sense for you to see me and try to make sense of me. I’m a hairy ape. I’m lost on the freeways again. I’m looking for a way out. I just want something I can never have. When I was young, I was the King of Carrot Flowers.
So it goes.
There are places where I belong, and there are places where I don’t belong. Even I have trouble figuring it all out.
Nevertheless, there is a place that I do belong, and that’s a place where the common denominator is a love of the natural world in places that are away from the rest of the world because let’s face it; I need time with just me even if I’m with you. Be it in South Dakota, Utah, Maine, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Colorado, California, or Ohio, we are all alike when we belong in Nature together. If we’re there together, we can share whatever rambling conversations that we happen to have regarding shared experience or rambling philosophical wonder, or we can just tramp through the dirt and rocks and brush to get to our end destination.
Nature is a communal place where we can open our souls to inhale these wide open spaces and worlds. The stars above us will light our way as the streams guide us down to the flat lands and the mountains guide us up to the great views. It’s all wonderful if we want it.
And so it was that as I set out on these roads again that I was learning about the difference between civilization and wilderness from the geography on through to the spirit inside of my body.
At the time, I really wanted to truly experience “it” (I still do). As for D, he wasn’t really connected or desiring it, so I can’t fault him for not getting to attain it or any other satori that he could have hoped to find in the backwoods. He wanted Madison. He wanted Chicago. I would have thought he wanted the Haight in San Francisco. He wanted to be in New Orleans for Modest Mouse or Columbia, Missouri, for Sleater Kinney. He didn’t want to be staring at the same field for seven straight hours across South Dakota in order to get to the Badlands. He didn’t want to be told that the only differences in this picture of endless farm fields would be the Mitchell Corn Palace and the Missouri River. He didn’t want to mark time to how far Wall Drug was from where we were, and he definitely didn’t feel any sense of excitement counting things down over those last 150 or so miles to stop at a series of souvenir shops. He didn’t want to look for statues of Native American antelope head statues so that he could pull over to take pictures of them. He wanted to rock out to noisy emo like Joan of Arc while living in a world he felt comfortable in and had no desire to ever relinquish it as he went from Kodak Picture Moment to Kodak Picture Moment as quickly as possible so that he could get to the familiar things he did want in the cities of the other side of the country.
As a result, there’s a picture of him hugging the welcome to Wyoming sign. I didn’t know why at the time. Wyoming was more wilderness than South Dakota, although it’s fair to say that there was a hell of a lot more to look at while driving through the mountains of the state in a feverish pursuit of getting to Yellowstone. I couldn’t say that from knowledge driving in, but I had an idea of what I was getting into. I had been back through America the other way. I had seen California > Nevada > Utah > Colorado > Kansas > western Missouri and up through again to Chicago. I knew how this whole rodeo played out, but I took the photo diligently so that I could keep it for the posterity of some now when I could reflect on it years later.
It would be hard to express the appeal to this state that we were leaving other than to say how it came to me. One time, I was sitting on the stairs behind the Sinking Spring Elementary School, and I saw a car go by with a South Dakota license plate. The heads of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln were clearly placed on the white field, and I was captivated.
Thus, to me, South Dakota was the search for a Honeycombs cereal license plate, which I never found. This search would lead to my world record of times having borrowed the South Dakota state book from the Sinking Spring Elementary School Library as I sought to soak in all of the great things that the state with Mount Rushmore adorned to all of its vehicles had to offer. At the time, these books wouldn’t tell me anything about Kevin Costner, God of Baseball Movies, and how his parents live in Spearfish and how he owned a casino named The Midnight Star, which is in Deadwood.
They also wouldn’t tell me that one day, I would have one of my defining memories in this place, but there I was, walking and absorbing this South Dakota that I had read about. The Badlands and their hoodoos and eerie shapes were amazing as they seemed to come into being after the Great Plains fell into the nothing that existed on the other side of the cliffs. It was a welcome relief from the drive, and it instantly proved itself to be one of the great American National Parks. D was energetic in taking in photographs of things along the way at this point, but quickly, the same dried formations started to bore him a little bit too much, and we were off again, listening to Whiskeytown, who also proved to be more country twang than the indie credibility that he believed they were filled with.
At the next stop, I found that I was walking by myself since D wanted a break from the cramped car camaraderie, so he wandered down the road in a different direction to watch birds or be by himself or something. And as I walked alone, I looked and saw something happening in the faces of the people who were there before me. I glanced at those people ahead of me, and I was quietly motioned over to a secluded corner of the forest by these couple of Georgian women who were inviting me to join them to see a baby buffalo being born in Custer State Park’s wildlife loop.
At the time, I stood in utter disbelief (the beautiful kind) as I snapped my picture and stared at the spectacle as did the women. We gawked and just watched for some 30 minutes as we noticed that the umbilical cord was still attached to the mother while the placenta awaited ejection from her womb. All the while, the buffalo breathed its first breaths of pure South Dakota air in those deep green woods that stretched up and down the western side of the state, and I too breathed in a sense of wonder and understanding, a concept of life being given to me, too, as I watched the great surviving symbol of the West standing on its legs in stillness and wonder to grasp where it was and what was happening before it joined the herd to walk and graze across the prairies and mountains for all of the years of its life.
But alas, the book that I borrowed all of those times from the library wouldn’t talk about this being a “happening” in this state either. Instead, I would just have to get there to find and to see that surprise for myself. Sure, it might have reflected the “zoo” that South Dakota was, for there was and is a lot of wildlife there. The ring-necked pheasants that fly across the farm fields prove this. So does the beauty and grandeur of seeing for miles and miles on the horizon, driving up and around and knowing that the best view is yet to come, as there are deer, elk, antelope, turkeys, buffalo and prairie dogs that could be around every bend of the road or trail. If you are really lucky, you can see mountain goats there, too, which we did see for ourselves the next morning as they stared back at us.
In this, Nature is full of opportunity. There are so many options available if you are looking and listening, but the catch is that you have to be looking and listening.
How many people can say that?
On that first night in South Dakota after Wind Cave, Deadwood, Mount Rushmore, and Custer State Park, D and I would set up the tent and fall asleep under a relatively blue sky. After much persuasion and negative looks, I convinced him to sleep in the tent. He didn’t want to for whatever reason, but it was a way to stretch out that the already crammed car didn’t afford, and it was how we were going to sleep the entire way across America while we weren’t staying with people. It also seemed logical to me because we had a long way to drive, and there was no point getting uncomfortable and cramped out early in the trip. Besides, it wasn’t like I was going to fondle him or he would have to fight off fondling me or covering my head with a pillow due to excessive snoring (that snoring problem would be a different issue now).
Besides he was an Eagle Scout, and seeing as there still is a requirement to camp in tents to attain that position, it didn’t seem like I was asking him to sleep in low temperatures in high altitudes in Mount Everest’s Death Zone. I also didn’t think I was pulling teeth, but you’d have thought from his protests that I was trying to skin him to make lampshades out of his back while he was still alive. Nevertheless, he gave in to my logic – briefly.
In some kind of weird twist on everything that was blue skies and beautiful in the day, that night, the rains came back, and after 2½ hours, D was sleeping in the car. I was so exhausted that I had fallen asleep so quickly and deeply that it took me an extra hour or so to wake up after the wind started kicking in big time. The tent held firm, but it was saturated inside. I couldn’t fall back asleep, but I did have the ingenuity to gather up my stuff, and to move into the car, which didn’t last long as it’s not a comfortable sleep reclining in a Ford Escort.
From the frustration of a cramped driver’s seat, the only decision was to head to the shower building where I could at least stay dry and stretch out. There, I dried my pillow, sleeping bag, and long sleeve shirts on the electric hand dryers. It should be noted that I didn’t have a jacket, and for that matter, I didn’t have jeans (just a single pair of sweat pants and lined Adidas running pants). This seems completely illogical for camping in the mountains, but alas, my East Coast confusion said that spring had sprung and summer was almost upon us at sea level, so why would the big mountains on the western side be any different?
And there I was, and in that moment, I stared into the mirror contemplating my situation. I had no desire to end the trip early in morale or otherwise. I knew where I stood, and in that moment I declared to whoever was listening that I was not going to let this event stand in my way. If this was all the more that the heavens could test me with, then I was not going down, and so be it.
In this declaration of supremacy over the evils that the environs and the weather were trying to throw at me, I was victorious.
And so I put on my shirt, having just finished drying it repeatedly under the hand-dryer, and walked outside to the car. It was still dark, but the rain had stopped, as it did for the rest of the trip. GOD had been listening, and we were tight (fingers crossed). I went out and got D, moving this field trip inside the shower building, where he quickly fell back to sleep on the shower floor without any complaints about being told to sleep there.
I would also nod out for an hour at a time on the cool tiling, and then I would snap forward, as I would wake up again. Even in the chair, I couldn’t sleep well since I was having crazy exhaustion dreams, but I didn’t let this distract me from at least trying to nod off for any more possible sleep that I could get.
The next morning, D was not very upbeat from the rains interrupting his sleep, but I stayed in tune with the ramifications of my victory, my karma, and my general happiness with all things. As I did, I talked to all the camping people who would hear me the next morning, and the next day, as I had been doing and would do for the whole trip (at this time of year, they aren’t really occasional “campers,” but more professional travelers to these campgrounds).
This was a point I wanted to achieve since I had not done this at all for the entire last trip, and it was one place where I felt that I had failed on the trip. And with that, I took to the positive aspects of drying off the tent, sleeping bag, and straightening out everything to a working order so that I could pack it away safely in the car. With that, we could begin again on a brand new sunny day, taking advantage of the free pancakes for the opening weekend of the South Dakota park system kicked off prior to driving off into the Great American Beyond to see what came next, which if the map spoke truth was Wind Cave and Deadwood in South Dakota and Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.
Devil’s Tower was the highlight of the trip. Not that there wasn’t anything good left to see after we saw this, but hell, it’s hard to top the mountain from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There are prairie dogs, vultures, and a whole lot of woods that surround this geological oddity. You can see for miles and miles as you climb the boulders to get to the tree line.
And then, there is the ascent!
It’s vertical for several hundred feet, and the extremist climbers who do this (freely admitting to the difficulty of the climb) may make it look conquerable, but when you get to the vertical part above the boulder field (as I did) and look up, it’s still a menacing column that just juts out of the flat Wyoming plains for absolutely no reason, well at least if you look around and see nothing like it anywhere else in the eastern Wyoming landscape.
In this, there is a truth to those who climb the mountain and those who don’t. You either can do it or you can’t. It’s a 90° ascent, and it’s something your sense of fear of heights can overcome or it can’t. It’s something that your ability to technical climb can get you to the top of, or it will leave you giving up to a sensation of what you can’t do. I couldn’t do it at the time, and I can’t do it now. What’s more important is that I also can’t pay someone to put me there if I were to win the lottery (like it always seems we hear about on Mount Everest ascents for those able to pony up $65,000 or so) because I just don’t have the ability, physical or technical, to get into the gear to shimmy up the cracks. It’s a sense of purpose and accomplishment to get there and do it or not do it. You either succeed with the attempt if you set out on it, or you don’t.
And if you don’t succeed, this means you fail, and in looking at it now from the additional experience of an early 40-something perspective, I like the mathematical definite nature of that. Controlling the mathematical game is a good thing. It’s about what YOU can do or YOU can’t do. There is no short roping up to the top or assistance from outside. It’s you and you alone. I need that.
And to me, that’s the way accomplishment should be. There can’t be any points for part way like some hippie math teacher giving partial credit for getting part of the problem right, as if it were a trophy for participation. I like that sense of control and purpose in needing to get things right or having to go back and fix them the next time. Nevertheless, I do recognize and have felt the anxiety and cost that can be associated with living on that fine line. With that being said, when it comes to what this once physically un-inclined person wasn’t able to do, I like the idea of being able to take everything I’ve done physically up to this point that I’m hiking in at, and I like to be able to apply it to some accomplishment I’m setting out on, even if it’s only 1,000+ vertical feet to the top of a rocky Pennsylvania mountain.
Either I can or I can’t make the summit. Either I can keep stepping and taking the risks, or I have to turn around and come back some other time.
In the past, I’ve taken short cuts at place like Mount Washington in New Hampshire and Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park by driving to the top, and I felt and feel nothing like the sense of whooping accomplishment of those dudes and dudettes who mug for photos at the summit. In this, I get how a long distance trail hiker like this guy Lakeland said he felt after accomplishing the Pacific Crest Trail, only to see a girl crying tears of joy in that stupid reality TV way that sees her mugging for the audience on documentary video camera for her “accomplishment” of having made it to the end when she skipped the whole middle section due to being too exhausted to carry on.
There’s hiking your own hike and hiking the hike. If you claim to hike THEE hike, you better have hiked the hike your bravado is whooping up.
Lakeland did every single inch of that trail. She didn’t. She could state she did a whole hell of a lot of it, but she didn’t do what he did, and for that, she had her right to the pride of what she did, but she didn’t have the right to true completion pride or to be bragging to this cameara crew about what she said that she did but never actually did. She hadn’t put all of the effort into it (even though she did put over a thousand miles into it, which is something to be said for in and of its self, but it isn’t the whole shebang).
And it’s not like Lakeland is some narcissist, who is filled with pimping out levels of pride for what he’s done, but there are things he’s done and people respect him for those great accomplishments. He’ll talk about them, but never too much, and he’ll allow himself to feel the accomplishment in their words of praise, but it’s not like he’s asking for a reality show or to be able to write a book on it to let the world just pile love on him.
He’s just doing it because he can, and he’s hiking his hike while doing it, which is what it’s all about. What hike was she hiking anyway?
In this, the point that I’m getting at is that there shouldn’t be a “grade inflation” of sorts for what this gal did. She’s entitled to her accomplishment (and for this, she did more than I’ve done of any mountain trail or series of trails, so I don’t say this to take away from what she did). Like Bryson’s pal Katz, she had seen mountains and the trail, and sure, much else of what she was going to see would be repetitive and shades of what she had seen, but she hadn’t seen EVERYTHING. She could go home and be comfortable with what she did, but she hadn’t done what he did, and that’s where the difference is when it comes down to true sense of accomplishment if that goal is to hike every single mile of a trail. Even Katz knew that by walking out he hadn’t done everything, but he was comfortable with his accomplishment, which is how said girl should have reflected on it. Let her sleep that wonderful sleep that he and Bryson did. But when it comes to the camera guys looking for a victorious person to talk about it, then she needed to decline the right to be filmed.
Nevertheless, nobody should whitewash the accomplishment at the end if it comes up slightly less or much less than anticipated, and that includes me – unless that person can trump the accomplishment with something more.
I have seen the same sense of lying on accomplishments presented in a different way, the concrete and glass and steel world way, when a former Golden Boy at work, a man who was loved for no good reason by a boss who had hired him back despite his lying about his ability to possess the skills (in required degree) that it took to attain said job that I felt should have been mine (note - I did get hired a few weeks later when an additional position opened, but he got more hours, and he also got more perks and ass kisses from said boss).
What’s worse was that a few years later, it was determined that he didn’t have this line of credentials by other higher up people, but nevertheless, he was still given opportunity to attain the degree (as it came out to the rest of us what he had done)! However, rather than take the extended time to keep the job, he cried about the unfairness of the situation because he felt that he was such a good employee (despite being a liar). All the same, it was his lack of truth that led him to this place (both the job and the imminence of losing the job), and he thought that the love of the job he did would keep him on, but after he was exposed, nobody stepped up past the promise (which seemed more about trying to find a way to sweep his lack of meeting original requirements under the rug than about giving him a second chance). And so it was that on that set day, he was gone to more revelations of how he had allowed other people to bypass requirements to get into classes that they weren’t qualified for.
The mathematical precision of “yes” and “no” that ruled his life had left him in the place that he fell, but nothing could take away the fake sense of love he had received for receiving and giving shortcuts to other people who just wanted the piece of paper and not the work that it took to get it. After all, he was living in the delusion that it was OK for him, so why not give the charity out to the rest of the world who deserved it just as much?
But somewhere in there is a different feeling, and that is a feeling of where is the justice in this for those who strive to push it out for every inch.
And there is no answer to that.
And so, whether it’s lying on a resume, cutting out huge chunks of the trail, or finding a teacher to reward us with much higher grades than we deserve, doing this or anything in its totality and difficulty has to mean something more than doing things the easy way that involves the path of least resistance (or judgment by those who have worked harder to do things the “right way”). There can’t just be some sterile rubber trail or asphalt pathway to the top of every single trail (real or metaphorical) to remove the difficulty and provide equal access to those people who couldn’t see it without an escalator while killing the wilderness (toughness factor) in each and everything that is out there. There has to be challenging places where difficulty and separation still exists and only the strong accomplish it (or they don’t – either way has to be an option if the accomplishment is to mean something, and for that, there has to be a sense of a fair bit of people not being able to attain it no matter how hard that they work), especially if there is going to be some force judging others for the end result that they did or didn’t accomplish in trying to get to a place of true merit to determine entry into exclusivity.
Sure, there needs to be “sacrificial” places and accomplishments where people who don’t have the skill can go in and get a feel for what’s out there if they work hard to get the additional skills that will allow them to do things that are more “hardcore” style, but the places where starters and experts go are and should be different, and they should be this way for the sense of purpose that comes with working for and attaining things of true merit and purpose.
In Nature, I’ve heard this said of places like Antelope Canyon in Arizona, where the ladders and stairs are installed to give people a glimpse into what the other slot canyons of the world are like (not so much by choice, but rather by avoiding more mass casualties in flash floods like happened in 1997), but by paying for the guided tour and being given easy access, you aren’t getting the same experience that those who really can rappel and ascend can do (at least I am led to believe because I can’t yet rappel and ascend).
Take your pictures and feel your moments of nature when you are at these “lesser” places (as I did), but don’t put your victory in line with those who climb to the top / descend to the bottom and get the view that doesn’t come from a Sunday jaunt through the park – especially if you are being driven there with a truckload of people dressed for Sunday lunch at the mall.
And with that, I tip my hat, 14 years later, to those who ascended through the bear’s scratch marks to stand where the princesses or young boys were elevated to in that mystical Godlike way that got them away from the evil and potential harm that a certain badass grizzly bear hell bent on destruction and devastation was going to cause.
For me, I can say that I feel comfortable with the walk to the top of the rocks and the edge of the “tower” as far as my accomplishment goes. I don’t need to ascend and conquer this pillar to feel my sense of proximity to Nature, but for the times that I do need to attain this, I want to know that I can get the wilderness and the achievement all in one without watching other people take the escalator to the top, or worse yet, I don’t need to watch people pay to be transported to some sense of privilege that someone else who has worked hard to get a shot at it can’t receive because he or she can’t afford it..
I can live with being lapped by young and athletic kids, but to see someone short-roped around the obstacles is a whole different story (this is not in any way diminishing the superior accomplishments of bad ass climbers like Erik Weihenmayer, a tough dude who was guided up Everest despite suffering from blindness). All I’m saying is that I truly want to know, in those times when I need to kick my strength heartily to get through some section, that I had something more to give to it.
In this, I’ll stand at the top of places like the Thousand Steps and state my slower times with pride to those people who race to the top while training for marathons or multiple journeys a week, every week. I know what I did, and I know how I kicked it out, and I will serve praise to those who can do it quicker, do it with less stops, and those who can do it with less heavy breathing than me, but all the while, I will keep doing it to do it faster and harder and better than before because I know that’s what all physical accomplishments are meant to be and must be.
“More and faster…”
With any training, physical or intellectual, there is pride in accomplishment and a sense of wanting to give it more to get more on future endeavors. This is a place that transcends some need for picture taking excursions (though I do love taking pictures while I’m at the end of my every there). If that doesn’t exist, there might be some Buddhist sense of humbleness in the presence of God or Nature, but short of living out the Tao Te Ching’s principles of non-attainment, is there a true sense of being able to give everything just to have a weekend comfort in stretching the legs or the mind or is there a need to be something more than we were before we journeyed upward?
I’ll take it either way, but either way says give it all to get up.
Back at Devil’s Tower, the world is a different place. The prairie dogs still scamper, the far side of the mountain still awaits alien visitation, the vultures still soar overhead, and the rocks still surround these eerie place in the High Plains of Wyoming, and there I am, taking my pictures and enjoying my climbs on the boulders and through to my place of purpose in life. I am glad to be doing it solo. I am overjoyed to be here. At this moment, everything is in its proper place.
And with that, life is good. I look out over the horizon, and I am filled with smiles.
In addition to these geological things at Devil’s Tower, there are Indian prayer cloths that hang from pine trees. These allow you or me to get some kind of understanding to what this mountain means to other cultures in terms of the greater spirituality that I alluded to with said religious interventionist escapes.
Folklore, myth, and religion are wonderful things that lead to a sense of truth in who we are. Just ask Scott Wolpert. I would, if he would agree to have a beer and discuss archaeo-astronomy and the prehistory of America with me.
And then there they are again, those vultures looming at the top should anyone slip and fall from their ascent. But I already spoke of them. To think of them again must mean that I am worried about them coming for me. Their heads are so ugly, but they soar so majestically. I am transfixed by the way that they hover above me. I want to get a better picture, but I can’t get their proximity to pull in any closer than it already is.
And then I am done with them, and it’s all aliens again, and it would be for you too if you were to go there. You could still hear Goldie Hawn yelling, “Roy! Roy!” as she seeks to halt Richard Dreyfuss from scurrying to get to where the spaceships will rendezvous with the military and scientists, those privileged earthlings who know what’s really going on out here, leaving her to eat his dust as he seeks to walk up the platform to go on a real adventure now that he’s sans annoying and non-believing wife and kids. To go to the place that the others who are being returned have just been. Those kindly little shuffling Greys… they offer so much more hope for a better future than the minions who race through their mazes and inspire inspiration for Dave Matthews to write his best song ever.
But for all that this mountain is in celluloid history, this isn’t about extra-terrestrial contact. Instead, there is a sense of Nature here that can lead us to being carried away to somewhere better if we go here. For that, I like the idea that there are “places to play in and pray in.” We need to go to them in any way possible. We need to open our mind to the sense of wonder that comes from being a part of some special place in the universe. We need to get ourselves right in the beautiful undisturbed world in any way that we can get it. Either by walking on a couple mile jaunt through flat woods and over creeks while ascending hills to the deeper more precious and completely radical images of slot canyons, waterfall gorges, giant rocky peaks, deep mysterious deserts, ice fields, or farm fields in the local everyday here and now. We don’t need to open up access to the doorstep of this world with some kind of super highway or even dirt road. For those people who are serious, let them strap boots on and set out for an all-day adventure or an overnight backpacking trip into the backcountry from some already accessed waypoint.
For those of us who want and can set out for the distant peaks to share them with ourselves or our best friends and closest lovers, there needs to be some mountains where we can attain this.
And when I go there, and I am transformed to some place of mystery and wonder, this is my engaging in some form of astral projection except I’m physically moving as my spirit tether guides me to where it is that I’m going. This is closing my eyes and drifting my soul out into the universe to be free and to mingle with other like-minded people and the ghosts and spirits of adventurers past. This is me escaping from the humdrum of reality of the same road to work every day of every month of every year. This is me saying goodbye to the people I choose not to take with me or the obligations I’d rather not be attending to. Instead, this is me placing value in the holy cathedrals that exist outside of the city and apart from day to day interactions of row homes and community.
So let the “aliens” take me away, too. Let my “spirit guides” come and help grab my hand to pull me out on this adventure. I’m ready to go.
What could be better than a day in Nature?
And then, just like that, I am back at the parking lot. D, who never went on the hike up and around the mountain, met me at the car, and we drove off into the sunset, and the day was over, at least in how much daylight we had left, so we drove off to a campground somewhere at the foot of Bighorn Mountain. There, we lay down and went to sleep. I was in the tent, and D was stretched out in the car, the place where he would stay the entire tent part of the trip, refusing to come into the tent ever again (though he did lay on a campground picnic table one night). Frankly, I never bothered to ask him again. He was a big boy. It was his choice.
Yellowstone is a beautiful park. There’s no denying it. I couldn’t wait to get there, and so it was that we set off to drive there through the 10,000 foot high Bighorn Mountain National Forest, all the while playing games with the horizon, wondering just how far it is to those great white capped peaks against the sky.
I happily blurted out, “Fifty miles, at least!”
D just sat there staring at the immensity of it all. What can you say when the world around you just looks so impressive and beautiful. Eventually, the drive was punctuated with a Sunday morning breakfast spent staring at a sports section in a Billings, Montana, newspaper. The headlines all seemed to jump out and amaze me as if I was the only intended reader.
The now historic headlines stated emphatically that the Chicago White Sox were playing tough (history shows us that this doesn’t last). I moved down the columns of print and wondered aloud, “What did the Cardinals and Big Mac do last night? How about Nomar, Larry Walker, I-Rod, and Mike Sweeney?”
This was the only connection to a civilization that I realized all the more just how it easy it would be to walk out on.
Except for that baseball thing.
If necessary, I could move across the world, but I would need to look up the morning scores and watch ESPN or MLB video, even if I were living on some boot-shaped land mass on the Mediterranean.
We soon left and headed out towards the peaks. Eventually, we reached Cody and drove on through to the other side, looking for that grand destination that is Yellowstone National Park.
The other side of Cody is a dam where the sun shone magnificently off of the waters that rush through nearly 1,000 feet below. The water is the most amazing shade of greenish blue. All the same, the mountains are so parched in their sunburned splendor. We stare into the chasm and take our pictures.
And then we drive on. It’s what we do.
Along the next part of the journey, the roadside elk horns are piled up in a sculpture that attested to the profession of many of the locals. We moved further on, and we saw the warnings of grizzly bears in the vicinity. With that, I stated how we were without D and his 12” bowie knife! In contemplating their massive size, I realize that we would do better with a .44 magnum handgun, the most powerful weapon in the world that could blow your head clear off. Unfortunately, we don’t have that either. It’s a good thing we aren’t in the backcountry. We’d really be screwed if Yogi showed up to mess with the party.
Thus, we drive on, snapping pictures along the way, as the stereo cranks out the tunes. Everything is so full of glory. The Wyoming highway is so beautiful that the clouds manage to somehow sneak in and go gray all around us without our even knowing until it is an ominous sense of something that is going to happen. With that, there is a single question:
“Can we make it to Yellowstone before the rains came?”
Road trips across America have a way of doing this. I can remember driving the Devil’s Highway, Route 666 in New Mexico, and feeling a sense of doom with the eerie clouds overhead. Nevertheless, Satan didn’t come out to destroy everything in his path. To be honest, the only things that made the journey difficult were the Native American store owners refusing to let the honky tourists use their bathrooms while refusing some of their credit cards. Fortunately, that was a different time. People still carried cash in 1998. People could always hold it a little longer in the front unless it was coming out the backdoor rapidly.
The drive through Wyoming seemed long and tense with the non-communication between us, but before we knew it, we were pulling up to the gate and ascending into the snowy white mountains of Yellowstone. It was then that I realized that the danger of this moment was not in getting rained on, but rather in getting snowed on. Fortunately we avoided that, as it shaped up to be a really beautiful May afternoon until we pulled out of the park in a slight drizzle later that evening.
Nevertheless, between those two bookmarks of time lay a world of adventure.
So there we were, stopping to marvel at the first geyser. D was now awake from the pit stop I made to photograph those snow-capped peaks that greeted us at the beginning of Yellowstone. Interestingly enough, the snow only seemed to be on this side of the mountain and some of the other areas in Big Horn Mountain as everything else in Yellowstone is adorned in a beautiful green spring color. Even today, they make for awesome photographic memories.
At the end of this long introduction to the park mountain road was Yellowstone Lake, which is quite an extensive pool of water. In fact, the lake is so omnipresent that the park seems to figure eight around it, which we do as we go looking for the next sights that we will see.
On the south side of it, we stop to enquire as to why there are so many people with cameras and high-powered telescopic lenses pointed out at the field. The line of cars must have stretched at least a good quarter of a mile long, so it wasn’t easy finding parking to venture up to see what was going on with these masses of humanity congregated together like they were going to the state fair to hear Foreigner play.
As it turned out, somewhere out there on the horizon, roughly 2-300 yards away, lurked a mother bear and her cubs. With the naked eye we could see bumps that moved, but that was it. With my 200 lens I could still only see bumps. Then they vanished. In a zoo kind of way, it seemed exciting, but thinking about it in hindsight, I’m not sure how to describe it. There were lawn chairs and everything short of a television announcer. It wasn’t in keeping with the spirit of the trip or Nature to be there gawking at the bears, but we were there, hoping for a better vantage point of this once in a lifetime moment that you can only get in the main avenues of a National Park.
Soon enough, we gave up since the bears had no intention to move closer, which was good because some well-meaning person would have probably tried to share his or her pic-a-nic basket with them. With that temptation avoid, the bears disappeared to only God knows where.
And yes, it was an experience that you can only have in the touristy national parks. In the real state parks and wilderness areas, nothing usually comes that easily except in campgrounds where idiots leave their trash in easily accessible ice chests or dump their trash in garbage containers that aren’t nearly as bear-proof as people would like to believe they are. With this, the bears become invited guests, and then, they have to be transported away or shot for their own good when it’s actually someone’s idiocy that led to this preventable moment that is a bear that no longer fears humanity and prefers easy eats.
Call it a learning moment for people, but call it a bitter end for a bear, especially a moment that was controllable. Either way, it’s just sad.
The number of bears I have seen in my life is minimal. In 2009, my wife and I saw a bear running downhill in Dolly Sods Wilderness area while driving toward our hike. However, it was 4 years before I would see a bear again, which was when I saw a brownish-colored one road walking back in the forest that was situated a few miles from Ricketts Glen. He was very casual in his demeanor, but he wasn’t casual enough to stop to allow me to get a picture of his profile in striking contrast to the scenery around me. Instead, the Fed Ex truck honked at me on the side road and he was gone.
Prior to that, I had seen bears in my youth while I was at my dad’s hunting camp. Many of these were night time encounters with bears running over the hill. I don’t remember many of them, and frankly, I don’t count most things I did as a child toward my running total of life’s accomplishments. It’s not that they don’t count: it’s just that many of them are too old and historic to truly be remembered. It’s the same with my bobcat encounter.
Such is the way I am.
Nevertheless, later in that fall of 2013, I had one of the most defining moments of my life when I was walking through the woods trying to find Priceless Point. The journey up the Standing Stone Trail had led me across the Ramsey Path and onto an abandoned road that I meandered up and up in search of this beautiful vista (which it turns out is now on private property – nevertheless, I didn’t know that at the time). If guidebook writer Scott Brown gave it a 5+, it had to be good.
The further along I went, the more I noticed that the “trail” wasn’t maintained. The fallen limbs and raggedy forest debris made obstacles to walk around. Nevertheless, I eventually got to the top of the mountain only to find that there were no vistas in the immediate vicinity, so I started down the path in search of what would be down the way that I had yet to travel. As I went, I had to cross a downed tree, which was supported end to end on stacked rocks. The tree was a little higher off the ground than my inseam, so I shimmied over it, and when I did, I heard this "belchy reverberation." I paused and looked, and so I figured, "OK. I made it. I’m safe. It’s time to keep moving even though I KNOW that this concept that the rocks are settling again after my chubby body went over them is not a sufficient explanation for why this noise is occurring.”
A minute or so later, I heard another one of these “RRRRRRR” sounds. It wasn't a growl, but it sounded loud and close, which made me wonder stupidly again what else it was when I knew what it was.
As I did, I thought, "Hmmm... a loud bird." I wanted it to be a loud weird big bird. That’s better than what my mind told me that it most likely was, even though it in no way sounded like the “ROARRRRR” that I expected its voice to actually sound like. And even though I wanted to see what I was thinking in the back and middle of my mind that it was, I didn’t really want to see it this far up, this far out, and this isolated from any other human being who might be able to run for help if it turned out I were the slower of the 2 of us.
I'm not sure if I heard one or 2 more of these “RRRRRRR” noises, but as I did, I looked up in front of me as I heard a different type of movement, and sure enough, a bear cub was coming down a tree like the trunk of said tree was the Batpole! This chubby little bear cub was down in a woosh! I hardly got to see him, but I knew who and what he was.
Now I instantly knew with 100% certainty what the noise was in the front of my mind. It was what I told myself that it was. My bear mace was in my backpack, and I was in suspended animation as the next sense of movement came.
With that, the second bear cub on the Batpole gave me a solid backside view to which I froze in amazement and fear knowing that it was cool to see him, but the "belchy reverberation" was actually mom calling for them to get the hell out of Dodge ASAP.
I never got the camera out. I never even tried. I just gawked in amazement. What else was I to do?!!
With that, I retreated back to behind the fallen tree and got my bear mace out and held still waiting to see what would transpire. I was at least 2 miles uphill from my car, and there was no way I could get down through a rocky and steep section that would come if I made it out of the unkempt trail section I was now in. Mrs. Bear would have made mincemeat of me if that was her intent. I couldn’t wonder why she hadn’t already. Was she thinking that I had to be completely stupid to not leave when she was growing away?
Fortunately, nothing happened for a few minutes, so I held my place in the space between those 2 logs while I pulled out the bear mace to place in front of me. After a few minutes of nothing, I quickly texted my wife to let her know what I had seen (unfortunately, there were no pictures for proof – she and everyone else would just have to believe me). Even in the outback, I got it off to her, and then, I finished my thought process of what I had just seen, and if worse came to worse, there would be some idea of what had happened if I didn’t make it out of the woods that day.
Nevertheless, the noise was gone, and now, I could continue the Priceless Point search.
With that, I started to move forward again, but no sooner had I started than I heard rustling in the leaves. This seemed to be where the bear cubs had moved to. If they were still within about 50 yards on my right, then mom was still on my left side.
With this, I turned around as quickly as I came.
“I’m out of here!”
The only sane action was to move down the mountain, so I wandered down the mountain, wondering as I did if I was going to see any of them. I never did, but the bear mace felt secure on my chest in case they came out, which they never did, so I made a decision to go see Monument Rock on the retreat from my mountaintop wilderness adventure.
I was entitled to some super view to go with my once in a lifetime bear sighting.
It was definitely a moment, but it was definitely scary, too. It was the kind of moment that you can only have in the real backcountry when you choose to commune with the realer, purer Nature that exists out there.
Nobody on that road in Yellowstone would have that moment from the paved highway that ensnared the lake at the center of the National Park. I would have to wait 11 years to get my shot at it, but when I did, it was well worth it.
Later that year, I would see another bear while driving into another section of the Standing Stone Trail, which is where Priceless Point was located. I would see turkeys and deer all along there, too. In addition, I would see a coyote with a bird in his mouth, totally ignoring me as he cut across the trail back to Flat Rock at Colonel Denning State Park. I would see my first rattlesnake, and I would see a baby copperhead hiding in the rocks of the Horseshoe Trail.
I would even get to be with my dad for his first bear growl when we returned to the area above the Ramsey Path to look for Priceless Point. I knew what it was. My dad’s ears perked up as he heard it, too. It was one of those moments when the student is now the teacher, and it was only possible in some place that can only exist off the beaten path.
Here was a person who had shot a black bear in the 1980s, but here, too, was a person who had never heard one. It’s a scary sense of understanding that somewhere, on the other side of the valley is Mr. Furry Black Bear, but it’s also exhilarating and filled with the sense that here in Nature is a good place and here is a place where the inhabitants run free and wild as they are supposed to.
“Howl, Mr. Furry Black Bear! Share your face with us! Come walking out into the open so that we can wave to you and greet the potential of all that is! Teach us your mighty and all-powerful lesson!”
And then walk away quietly. I don’t want to open my $50 can of whoop ass on you. I don’t want you to make mincemeat of us. I just want to say I saw you and that you saw me and that it was a wonderful day.
Nevertheless, there are people who don’t like nature, and there are people who have even less interest in Nature. I remember driving into the Grand Canyon in 1998. It was one of those monumental journeys that everyone is told that they must makes, so everyone who does what they are told throws their family in some mega-overgrown RV in search of the Big Ditch and drives alongside everyone who really would want to go in an endless parade of traffic to get back into the Colorado River’s highlands.
And I am no different. I too threw myself in a purple Ford Escort on the same journey, and I made it to the parking lot at South Rim with the extra time that I had gained by Arizona being in a different time zone attitude than the surrounding states.
As I looked around for a parking spot, I felt more like I was at a tailgating party at a Jimmy Buffett concert. Kids were playing Frisbee, dogs were running around, people were sitting in lawn chairs, and there I was, wandering past the fencing to get past this parade of insanity to arrive at a view that could leave me overwhelmed in poetic appreciation while all of these people seemed more interested in stretching their legs after a long drive than stretching their minds around erosion’s millions of years of work.
As I walked through it all, I half expected to see coolers with beer cans strewn everywhere as people walked out dressed in pirate costumes while carrying fake parrots on their shoulders. Would someone still be wearing Spuds McKenzie T-shirts in 1998?
Fortunately, I didn’t have to endure this sorry trip back to the 1980s, but it wasn’t far removed from it as I still had to endure a giant mall parking lot in the middle of northern Arizona.
The whole thing felt like the part in The Guilt Trip where Seth Rogen and Barbara Streisand are staring out at the Grand Canyon, unable to stare for 10 minutes before they are bored and need to move on.
And I thought to myself, “How could all of these people not care for what else is there?”
At its closest, the river is 5 miles away. The cliffs stand 4,460 feet above the river at the Bright Angel Trail, which is 7.8 miles downhill. It’s not like anyone was asking these kids, adults, grandparents, and hikers to go into the chasm with Lassie beside them for good measure. It was all about taking in the moment of the seemingly endless field of view in the foreground from the top of the cliffs looking down.
And with that, they didn’t care that the looming “purple mountains majesty” in the background vanished into the haze. They didn’t stop to see the figures on the North Rim wave back at them to thank them for showing up. They just weren’t people like me who just felt the overwhelming sense of smallness and miniscule time that I represented compared to the eternity it took to carve this paradise as I, a nearly 30-year old man sat staring out into the distance of My America, wearing a Homer Simpson shirt that would soon be ripped on a rather sharp branch.
They were bored and boring. They were my fellow visitors who just checked the Grand Canyon off their list after taking a few obligatory pictures.
With that, I swore that only 2 things would bring me back to South Rim again. One was the fact that I would show it to my wife when I met her if she hadn’t seen it already (this happened 12 years later in 2010). The other reason was to see it from river level. Barring that, I’ll never go back.
I’ve made good on that promise, so far, and I prepare to keep my promise.
This is still better than my regard for Niagara Falls. I’ll never go back there. The buildup of civilization and tourist hell that surrounds these 3 waterfalls is truly evil. Described as more of a carnival than a cathedral in Ken Burns National Parks, I completely agree. I’ve seen it flow free in summer, and I’ve seen it frozen over in winter. There’s nothing left of this once great natural wonder that is left there for me. If you want it, you can have it, and you can call it nature, but don’t you dare call it Nature unless you do so while you’re there. That way, I don’t have to hear you ramble about the incorrect and sacrilegious.
Think about it; the river’s force has been slowed down, and the barrels have gone over the edge. What’s left to do to destroy it that hasn’t been done (I’m sure there’s more, but I don’t want to give the forces of capitalism any ideas on how to make that happen)?
Fortunately, as a person with a wife who has seen Niagara Falls, I don’t have to create a concession to take her back to the Canadian border to see them, and frankly, she seems to be OK with that.
Instead, I’ll take her forward to see the other waterfalls of this world that we can call our own. Whether these flowing falls are in Ithaca, the Poconos, Sullivan County, West Virginia, or some other location along the way, there will always be better options until we get to the next set of mega ones in dream destinations - like the ones that adorn the paths of Yosemite or waterfalls like the ones that were on the back trails of Yellowstone, which offers quite a variety of waterfalls to choose from.
Back at Yellowstone, the land where so many of those magnificent waterfalls were, D and I drove on, detoured by the snow covered roadway ahead, we stopped momentarily at a gift shop, traveling on with Cool Blue Gatorade and trail bars in my stomach for the all so important fuel. We stopped at a Geyser trail with names that sounded like Hell’s fury erupting on earth. The cauldron bubbled and the steam floated up and away, drifting across in the wind. The trail moved onward as the buffalo stood and grazing silently as the tourists stopped to take a quick look, before they shied away in boredom to the endless paparazzi attack on their privacy.
While they were there, I just watched, trying to explain to those people all around me that you could stand close if you didn’t make sudden movements or act like a complete asshole to provoke them. Nobody listened. Their zoom lenses sufficed, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because when it didn’t, they got up closer and closer with a million clicks. With that, I envisioned someone being kicked into the stratosphere because that’s what an angry buffalo does to those people who annoy it.
Moving further along the trail, I served as the photographer for the families looking to all be in the soon to be framed vacation picture. I was only too happy to do this as it was the only way I had pictures of myself at places on the last trip (and certain spots along this trip). This to me is just good citizenship (and as I said, it’s the only opportunity for pictures without that “selfie” feel to them).
Next up was the upper canyon views of Yellowstone Falls, a waterfall that stands higher than Niagara, and in my opinion is a far more gorgeous a view (even if Niagara didn’t have all of the buildup). Yes, Niagara is prettier than a junkyard, but its infinite beauty has been compromised so much that it’s almost negated in worth, which is the greatest crime of all.
As per usual, D and I split up, hiking our own separate ways (something we did whenever possible so that we didn’t get overloaded by too much camaraderie). At this point, I went and took lots of pictures while he wandered a trail that I later wandered in part. I proceeded to take pictures for others, as these Germans took pictures for me. The further along I went, the more the mountains seemed to slide off straight down after a slightly sloped start, falling down hundreds of feet into the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. It was scary, but it was also impressive in such a way that made you sense that there was no better feeling than being here to watch rainbows appear in the canyon. In the end, it was all about being glad to be alive in this here and now.
Upon coming home, I would be asked by a girl that I worked with if I had thought about throwing myself off of any of these peaks. If I had any doubt before, this kind of clued me in definitively that she was beyond help and un-dateable, even if she were throwing her naked body against mine, which she never did, but it wasn’t a thought that was ever too far out of the question. Nevertheless, her statement also made me realize that no matter how close I may have walked to the sheer dropoffs, I was alive, and I had survived my fear of heights, so there was no need to be afraid when I was in control.
At that moment in time, a fact that was largely attributed to times like I spent in Yellowstone, I felt that I was completely in control of my destiny. All of the negativity of the “real world” was behind me (or in front of me if I lost my grip on this new reality), and I had the world and all that was in store for me there, in this national park and in life, to look forward to in the coming days, months, and years – if I wanted it to be.
I’m not sure what became of her, but frankly, some people are even so far beyond help that an endless vista, a waterfall, and a natural wonder couldn’t even touch their unhappiness.
I hope I never reach that point or a point in my life where associating with miserable people like that is ever a necessity or interest of mine.
Along the way to Mammoth Hot Springs, which is a really cool step-like attraction where the geyser water trickled down to the valley from the hilltop, we passed elk, the burned out remains of a forest fire past, and a river of rapids where salmon could be seen fighting the current – provided that it was that particular season.
The traffic in these areas is hellish and rather contentious. Apparently, it sucks to be on a family vacation if you can’t maximize the time that the guidebook tells you that you have to see these 25 different sights in 2 day. Thus, after cutting off someone who wanted to turn left from the right hand lane and pissing them off something fierce (what can I say if you don’t know traffic laws), we made it to Mammoth Hot Springs intact and remotely sane.
The site itself is really cool, but in pictures it looks so much bigger. The book I had with pictures of this wonder were taken artistically and convincingly enough from the right angle that they made it seem like it was 20 stories high, but in reality it only stood about 10 stories high tops. Maybe this is why after we left it, I drove us straight into Montana (who knew?) and searched out the “real” Mammoth Hot Springs (which we already had seen – go figure). When I came to what I thought was the entrance, I found out we were actually below the place that we had seen. However, I did get a whole bunch of pictures of elk lounging on the ranger station lawn, as well as some other elk that were grazing on the lower springs.
Unfortunately, these images of the monster elk began a series of pictures I would lose on the next day in the great bald eagle picture debacle. These would include moose pictures, a second huge waterfall picture, pictures of me sitting on boulders in a rocky section of the road, a dam whose waters crashed over a waterfall, which was very picturesque, and then the final pictures of Yellowstone, which included Old Faithful.
Along the way to take these soon to be lost pictures, we reached the Yellowstone geyser field. As we did, the drizzles began. With this, we skipped them and pulled into the parking lot of the huge hotel after stopping to gawk and photograph the second and final group of moose we would see on the trip.
And in this monument to architectural wonder, I embraced my tourist side too, as we walked to find out of its giant log cabin presence when the next eruption at Old Faithful was going to happen in order to get prime viewing place.
With eighty minutes to go…
D was not keen on staying just to see “water and steam.” I was very vocal on the idea that I did not come that far not to see this geyser go off. As I own the car, I won out to the unstated but implied sense of a certain action that could be done to him.
As he pouted, we killed time by eating and talking to these women who worked at the gift shop burger joint. These women remarked about their lives, other campers, and the death of someone who died climbing a peak relatively nearby.
The young one kind of shook her head at us. I guess we were a mismatched pair looking back on both of us. D stood 6’3, and I’m 5’7 on most days I don’t feel like stretching it another inch. We looked very different other than that as well. D was all indie looking in that thrift shop hipster way, and I was in whatever state of I don’t care, I am on the road, leave me alone, white guy in t-shirt and gym shorts kind of way.
I was also so energetic and optimistic about the road. D was mopey and up his own ass toward anyone that wasn’t as hip as he was. In addition, the rain, as well as the feeling of being freaked out by the isolation exhausted him to the point where he would have teleported to the civilized world of California in a heartbeat. However, what he didn’t know is that Nevada would not help this out at all, and to be honest, I didn’t know how bad this would get for him.
I don’t think gift shop girl meant anything mean by it, but I think she sensed the tension that permeated through from the trip. It wasn’t necessarily brimming over, but it was more and more omnipresent as we went along. My friend that we would stay with in Biloxi noticed it right away, as did my other friend in San Francisco. I am sure that D’s relatives noticed it when we stayed in Los Gatos, but then he wasn’t really around them since he was on their computer (this was before the world went 4G, so he would definitely take advantage of a wired world option). I don’t really think they minded or had great illusions about him talking to them about anything earth-shattering, but I do think that they noticed he wasn’t very in tune with this idea of the road that takes over if a trip like this is to succeed.
And so it was that we saw Old Faithful, which was the bomb diggity. Literally. Blasting high into the air, we watched the steam pour out of the Earth’s vents while a million flashbulbs exploded in brilliant fireworks everywhere. Afterwards we left, driving through towards the Grand Tetons in the dark.
It was cold and wet, and very dark on the windy roads that night that we left Yellowstone. I didn’t want to drive into the Tetons that night since I wanted to see the sights and take tens of photos of the peaks to have for memory sake, so we camped in between the parks and waited for morning light to break.
Wouldn’t it be just a little ironic to state that after all of this hullabaloo that I would lose the pictures that I took of this great national park and that D didn’t care enough to take photos, so I had nothing that could replace them with?!! And as a result, wouldn’t it really be ironic to think with how important and meticulous that I was with all of my pictures that I would have (almost) no original pictures of Old Faithful?!!
That night outside of the Grand Tetons we camped in 40-degree weather at a campground that was still closed for winter. All the bathrooms were locked, and this gave me the privilege of being able to say that I know how to shit in the woods from personal experience. Not that everyone cares to know, but oh well. Some people do. Other people even write books about it.
And as you go on and you get into big mountain country, the bear signs begin to appear, and with that, there is an exciting feeling that I will get to view a grizzly, though in the back of my mind I hope it’s not in the middle of the night. Fortunately we didn’t see any. Unfortunately we wouldn’t see any up close either (after the quasi-sighting at Yellowstone) all trip.
When we drove through the Tetons the next morning, it wasn’t as impressive as it would have been had we went there before the other side of Wyoming. It wasn’t new and unique, since we had been through Yellowstone and Bighorn Mountain National Forest during the days that transpired before.
The rocky tips of the mountains looked beautiful, however. There was a huge lake, Lake Jenny, serenely resting in front of them as we stared through the trees over the lake and gazed upon the white capped peaks.
I’d like to say that I remember more of the park than that, but I really don’t. Such is the product of pure exhaustion from a whirlwind driving tour through a park. The car gets you where you’re going, but the car and the fact that you’re in it for so long getting here, there, and everywhere, just seems to detract from the wilderness nature of a cross country hike.
Thus, the truth is here and it’s clear: for all of my desire to be in Nature, I was just a tourist getting a taste of the natural world’s highlights while so many other people were just wandering back along footpaths into the recesses of a particular park in their singular-minded preparedness to have a minimalized quest to see something instead of so many things in a bigger journey to see everything.
And here is the other truth: if I was only ever going to see the highlights of trip, what was the tension and frustration of being cramped into a car with the wrong passenger doing for the things that I was actually going to get out of this trip?
At the time, the only answer is the sound of an engine roaring as we went on and on and on down the park’s road.
By the time we got to Jackson Hole on the other side of the park, it became time to dry out the tent and to clean out the car. It also allowed for time apart in that D went his way, and I went mine. By this point, the sense of being overloaded with just one other person was building, and the pressure needed to be released, so this is what we did to manage that.
An hour later we were on the road out of Wyoming. We were headed rapidly towards Idaho, when D sighted a bald eagle. I pulled over for a picture, and recalled that on the last photo, a goldenrod-filled field on the outskirts of Jackson Hole, the camera had made a noise like it was rewinding. What it turned out to be was actually that the film being was pulled taut at the end so that some of the unusable film was pulled onto the photo frame. I didn’t know this, and so I opened the camera to change it out, but what I really did was expose the film.
Adding insult to injury, I then pulled all the film out trying to get it out, effectively killing all my photos in the exposing sunlight. At the time, I didn’t want to believe this, but in actuality. I knew the answer, and for that, I should have thrown the film into the trash. Instead, the rest of the afternoon was spent trying to find a 1-hour photo spot, which isn’t easy in Idaho. Even in Pocatello where the state school is located, there weren’t any real malls, at least there weren’t any to find in the year 2000. However, we did find a strip mall, and in it was a photo shop, where the proprietor told me that he would check the film and only charge me if it showed something.
A short while later, just as I feared, the film didn’t show anything, so I politely thanked him all the same and headed off, trying to shake off the frustration I felt at my stupidity and loss of photographic memories.
In hindsight, the pictures I took looked so beautiful at the time, but how were they compared to what I saw in real life all of those years ago? What about the waterfall and the geysers? Is any of this as beautiful as it was then? Would having those pictures have changed anything in what my mind stored or was there some other need in having proof that all things existed as based upon what I could capture on film? And as I think of this, my mind conjures up Images of friends and places so long ago, things never captured so they were lost in the recesses of forever or long enough to go back and get them again since my mind can no longer wrap around the image of who or what they are.
And off we went, heading towards the emptiness of Nevada and all the nothing it entailed, driving rapidly (as fast as 100 mph) in the flat desert wasteland, stopping hundreds of miles later to watch the clouds envelop the sun in the last hour of sunlight. Then we drove off again towards Ely, Nevada, eventually deciding to stay there overnight.
So there we were in the Hotel Nevada, checking in there for sole purpose that they had Internet connections and gambling privileges, where we could celebrate D’s 21st in style.
D had been in a desperate state from not having checked his e-mail since being in Madison, which was where he faced the wrath of an over-zealous library lady who timed his connection out at a half hour. As soon as he got in, he connected to the World Wide Web, and I focused in on the first of several Budweisers and productive time spent at the one-armed bandits. Of course, I lost everything I put into the machines, but it didn’t matter since I was there to absorb the Western culture of this town located on the intersection of Routes 50 and 93.
Soon enough, D began to set into his own beers, and when a short hour and a half had passed, he was well soused, and needed to be put to bed in his first happy mood in days.
As I helped his stumbling self to the hotel room, I felt as if the tables had been reversed and all of those young days of being a reckless drunk were beyond me, and now it was my turn to do the same things that others once had to do to me. Nevertheless, I wasn’t done with my drinking and gaming, so I went back downstairs with the thought that life is short; why sleep?
Thus, I sat back at the bar, and in a weird bit of kindness, I looked for my basket of pretzels. They were with the guys next to me, who offered them back without my asking. Then we started talking, and they told me of their lives, which had brought them to Ely, Nevada, as well as what life is like in a small town in the middle of nowhere. Brett and Bill were a talkative and friendly pair, and sitting there, being bought shots and beer, since I was the guest, was definitely the happiest point of the trip from a non-nature point.
It felt good to be talked to, liked, and interesting. After all, isn’t this why we talk to anyone anywhere ever? As we rambled about nothing, I would have liked to have traded D in for either or both of them. Whatever it took, I would have done it if I could, even if I knew that I couldn’t. And yes, there is something about fitting in anywhere. I don’t know if I looked like I belonged, or if I didn’t, but at that time, it just felt good, so the point was to flow into it.
And with that I did.
And somehow, just like that, the drunken conversation that we were having transitioned into the music of Hank, Senior and the 3rd but skipping Junior., hunting and my future teaching profession, and somehow randomly quoting e.e. cummings in the middle of this. Granted, it probably would have been a more victorious story if I were chatting to some gal who wanted to take me upstairs to ravage my body with much-longed for affection, yet there was something right in being on the barstool with a couple of Western dudes at that given moment in time.
And I was happy. I was in the right place at the right time, and I was living life as a road trip dictates that it happen.
Damn all else.
This was the same feeling as the fact that to be in the right place at the right time for the rest of the trip meant taking pictures of old couples and anyone else who needed their photos taken along the way, even if it was less than altruistic to do it for the reason of getting my own photo taken in all of those non-D moments that the trip seemed to consist of. It was right to talk to and meet people, even if it was only in few minute bursts here and there. Besides, I couldn’t pack anyone up to keep forever and forever and ever.
Everything was grand, and when I finally had to stop drinking because I knew that the first hangover in ages was on top of me and looming in the morning, not too dissimilar than the fear of what would happen that first Basic Training morning, I went to sleep spinning with the knowledge that I was here where I was meant to be.
I was somewhere on the Loneliest Road, headed towards something that I still did not know, but I was pretty certain that it was something worth seeing and experiencing.
So I woke up hung-over. This is no real surprise. I predicted it, I knew it was coming, and yeah. Here it was.
The hotel’s breakfast was made up of a few egg shreds and toast, plus some soda to kick the caffeine intake and re-hydrate myself. I went back upstairs in the middle of breakfast, and I tried to make myself purge the night before into the toilet bowl located directly under where I was resting my head. Nothing worked, so finally, I swallowed some Tylenol and a hell of a lot more soda, and then the idea that I could move towards something on that given day finally took over the thumping headache that I was feeling.
Eventually, D appeared, hung over as well, but moving, and we set out for the day, wandering the grounds and hallways of the building, which was a scenic residence where all these famous people from the early 1970s (and the more modern Steven King) had once stayed. When we were done, we made our way outside with all of our belongings to greet the day and push off across Highway 50.
I was decked out in my Boston Red Sox best for some reason that shall to this day remain unknown to me. I say this since we were heading towards the sweaty hot desert (which used to be the ocean floor) that is Great Basin National Park. We were going hiking, and I was wearing a $90 Pedro Jersey.
Go figure. Sometimes you wonder, sometimes you know.
Alas, we drove on past the prison that Brett (or was it Bill) worked at, going towards the middle of a raging furnace that was void of anything but parched earth. We made it to the end of that long stretch of highway, and through to the park’s entrance on the strength of Widespread Panic’s new disc, which I had bought after hearing one song (“The Waker”) play in a Madison, Wisconsin, music store. Unfortunately, that was the only good song on the album. Along the way, I skipped back to that song, and hit repeat a couple of times, and then we were there in the park pursuing the journey to whatever it was that made this a national park.
As expected, the park didn’t really feature much in the way of mega attractions like Old Faithful, El Capitan, or Delicate Arch, but there it was, waiting for us, so I led our little road trip party in, and we went up to the desk, and sought out information about the cave (Lehman Cave) that was the central attraction. It was $8 to get in, and D refused to pay this having paid $8 to get into Wind Cave. His rationale was that he absolutely knew that he had seen anything a cave could possibly offer. So once again, we split up, and I decided to hike up the hill directly behind the cave and visitor station, just to see what was out there while I was killing time. Other than some dried up vistas, not much else was there, but I will say that the parched earth and hill that I was walking on offered a small challenge, so I hiked up for what was meant to be a small jaunt, which was going to kill an hour of time.
Because it was so short, I didn’t take water. I also didn’t take a compass, and there I was in my Pedro Martinez jersey, which after my Mark McGwire shirts, was my most prized clothing possessions. I looked every bit the baseball fan I was.
I also looked like an accident waiting to happen.
With that, I wandered around and around, and just like that, I reached the top of the hill in under a half hour, staring at what was at the time a nameless white-capped peak, which would later come to be known by its proper name as the 13,000 foot Wheeler Peak. It was a beautiful and picturesque hunk of mountain, and I was exhilarated at having made it to this point in my journey, knowing I could turn around and be down the hill and back at the visitor station in 15 short minutes.
That said, my thinking was all too incorrect and short-sighted.
One hour later, I was back at the visitor station. I had contracted a sharp prickly thing (only GOD knows what it was) as I walked the fencing to find my way out of the maze that I had gotten myself into. Fortunately, unlike the afore-mentioned Homer Simpson shirt, I still had an intact jersey to wear for the rest of the day.
And yes, I had gone wide coming down the mountain.
Yes, I no longer had any idea where I was when I was up there on the side of a mountain that looked all too alike.
Yes, I knew that if I followed the fence and kept Wheeler Peak at my back, I could make it down as I had been trained to do when I used to go hunting with my dad.
And yes, I finally did make it down, but not before running myself ragged and dry, catching branches and stickers on my shirt.
And yes, I was filled with the thinking that I should have had my head examined for staring out on this whole jaunt, which leads to wonder and stress that culminate in a person like me thinking, “Am I going to make it out of this whole thing OK?”
But then came the miracle, and I found construction workers at a cottage who I enquired about directions. They gave them to me, and I made it into the visitor station out of breath, begging the kindness of the ranger woman, promising her eternal karma and stating emphatically that I was stupid and would be so grateful if she would just let me go on a later trip.
It wasn’t like I could deliver those things, but what the hell? I could at least offer!
She looked at my dumbass self and with permanent karma already flowing through her, she spoke kindly to me.
“Get a drink, relax, and you can go on the next cave tour.”
So I did, and she went on with what she was doing, thankful she didn’t have to rescue me or bag and tag me.
In the end, the Cave tour was all right. Yeah, being in the cave was neat, but the patrons were imbeciles that made me seem like a genius in comparison (isn’t that the way it always works?). One of the great truths of the universe is that just because a person is in a national park doesn’t mean that said person has any concern or interest in the actual nature that is included in the park. To illustrate this truth, these people would ask questions that ranger gal had just answered, and she would nod and shake her head at their stupidity, which wasn’t too different than how the woman at the desk must have been speaking about me wandering around the hill behind the visitor center.
At least the ranger gal had me to talk to in between their stupid remarks. I wanted to know! I liked it here! I was interested in what she had to say! Hey, I could have been interested in her! There’s nothing like a gal who is into Nature to hold you tight and keep you warm at night (though it’s another truth to add that I never had a chance with her). I’m sure I was more annoying to her than they were since she probably smelled the desperation on me, a scent that overpowered the sweat and stank, but that’s OK. My interest in nature was sincere.
I really do mean well.
The caves did feature an extensive maze of tunnels, which took me into several amazing features and also past areas that were closed off due to the graveyard nature they had come to take on from the Native Americans who had used them for sacred purposes. Other than that, they were pretty bog standard in their stalactite / stalagmite presence. This isn’t to say that D was right about having been there, seen that, but it’s probably fair to say that the $8 he had would have been better applied to buying a CD by Modest Mouse than in walking around bored out of his mind.
When I left the tour, I started talking to these Southern Californian gals who were on the tour about the road trips we were collectively on, and though I would like to say that 1 or both of them offered me a night of desert passion in exchange for some of my Granola Bars, I cannot speak truthfully to the cause. What I can say is that they informed me that my hopes of entering Yosemite were dashed since the roads that went in from the eastern side were closed off unless a vehicle had chains on its tires. It didn’t take much thinking to realize that my driving abilities in the snows that fell in flat rural Berks County Pennsylvania were marginally sufficient at best, so I didn’t need to be driving in deep frozen big ol’ mountains in the outback of California.
We bid each other goodbye, and I rejoined D, who was now back in time with the trip, and just like that, we were pulling out again to head for our next stop, somewhere down the line.
I can’t say that there was much else to do on this God-forsaken chunk of land that is eastern Nevada, but off we went in search of something that was out there to make the best of our time together in this park. This mission would motivate us to drive up to the 10,000 foot road that led to the peak of Mt. Wheeler. The still snow-capped summit looked ominous in the distance as our eardrums popped and our cameras flashed. In the blink of an eye, we too veered off into the distance.
It was so incredible to look across Nevada and to know that even here, in the absolute nothingness of the world, even here was something beautiful. Here were some good people that I wanted to be around, here were some of the places that something inside of me needed to experience, and here was some truth that I was being introduced to in some way that I would remember this journey, one day, years later, and it would change who I am and would be as well as what I thought about this journey.
It felt so long ago that I was at home, and it felt so far away from us ever going home again since we had not even made it to the Pacific Coast yet. I knew that we had made it a long way, and I wanted so badly to know that D had the possibility of enjoying himself, even if it was only to just shut off his whininess. Nevertheless, I had long since given up even trying to convince him that this hunk of the world could offer his interests in life anything. As we headed out across the highway, he was nearly salivating for his Uncle’s house in Los Gatos, even if it was only for the Internet connection.
At the time, this destination seemed so far away. I knew we were rapidly heading towards California, and we would be there within the very near future, and with that, we would have to get in touch with his uncle, or the absolute worst possible scenario would happen to D, which was that we would have to find something to stall us on the way in.
The only place I could think of was Lake Tahoe, so I pointed the car off for there, and we commenced our journey again.
The journey to Tahoe was one that would take us back through the town of Ely, on towards Eureka and then to Austin. It was another “empty” desert drive that seemed to go on forever. Even for me (the more optimistic of the two of us), the beauty that I would see at points quickly became lost in the sleepy isolation and rain of Nevada.
Such is the reason that this highway is called the Loneliest Road in America.
As drizzle intensified, it was clear that something was coming to a head. With that, the rains started to patter harder against the windshield, and with the drizzle drops of rain, there came the clouds and the threats of all things really heavy and nasty. Fortunately, things let up just enough in Eureka to take pictures at the sign welcoming us to the one mile stretch of mining civilization.
There are memories of a place in the Nevada desert. They fill the pages of another story (Eureka, Nevada), which is the story of the last decade and a half of my life (and then some). They are the words that reflect the Toiyabe Mountains, the stars over Western skies, and the most life-affecting decision of my life. They are a place of absolute peace and certainty and direction. And while they are in the past, they are in the now. That night, August 27, 1998, was the moment that would change my life.
The next morning I awakened, packed up the tent, and headed off towards the east and all that it had to offer. The desert of Nevada looked different in the day. I drove off, and the first town that I saw was Eureka, Nevada, which I only noticed for the sign that stated that I was entering into it.
“The Loneliest Town on the Loneliest Road”
The great poet e.e. cummings once wrote:
This expressed his belief that nobody sees things the way that you do. This had become my way of life, my expression for being. Suddenly, subconsciously, it all made sense. This town would become a symbol of whom I was. It was a place that would set forth the idea that I was being taught everything I was learning, both in college and peripherally through life, to be a teacher.
The only question was, “Who was I going to be teaching?”
Two years later, I reflected on this place that sat behind the haze and rain of the moments.
In its early days during the 1860s, Eureka came to be as a result of silver strikes in the Silver State. By about 1878, the town had grown to be quite large as 9,000 people had come to live there, frequenting the saloons, gambling parlors and dens of prostitution, and the three opera houses that the city was full of at the time. Eureka was once so big that there were five volunteer fire companies in its premises. Apparently, they were necessary if life got out of hand.
At the height of its grandeur, Eureka processed 700 tons of silver, gold, and zinc in a day, sending them across America and to companies that operated abroad as well. However, by 1879, things were changing as floods caused the price of charcoal to drop, which saw the Carbonari, an Italian charcoal burner’s association, go on strike until they were ambushed. In the ensuing battle, five of these men died and many others were wounded. This signaled the beginning of the end, and in 1882, peak production occurred. By 1891, the most important mines were shut down.
Now when people look at what Eureka was and what Eureka is, it’s hard to tell the difference, since many of the buildings are refurbished to look exactly like they did when Eureka was a bustling world of excitement, prosperity, and hope for hearty men and the women who love them. Somewhere in these buildings and hills lies a town, a shell of its former self, but definitely not a ghost town. It is a town that still exists and tells its story provided that the person traveling through wants to listen rather than to just keep driving through.
The only question is whether anyone wants to listen.
There was only so long anyone was willing to listen to the call of Eureka’s history in the rain. Thus, our stop off ended all too quickly end, and with it, the Ford Escort would be thrust back into nowhere land for a good 70 miles before hitting Austin. Fortunately, this time, it had pictures of the memories of it.
At the time, in the back of my mind behind the music we were listening to and the sound of the tires on the road, there was a different reflection of what I felt about myself and who I had become. Sure, I was feeling very good about being in Eureka since it seemed to represent so much of everything that I had come to embody in my life, but something else was growing darker and more alone.
Sometimes loneliness isn’t “one-ly.” Most times it’s just being all “alone.”
I can’t say exactly what it is, but in about four years of being back in America, I had grown deeper inside myself and though I found many people to associate with, I could not name two people that I would take with me on a desert island if stranded there. This trip with D confirmed how choosy that I needed to be the next time that I set out on the highways of America again. It is true that I could take someone and their spouse, or I could take someone I knew, but I had spent so little time with any one person, I didn’t even know who I could be with that wouldn’t kill me if they couldn’t handle my stinky feet or bad singing, let alone my general nuances.
This is where I had come from the once great, passionate moments of travel and affection that had made my life feel like it had purpose and meaning when I traveled to all of those little old English places that I went with T. For that reason, it was hard not to romanticize and get all nostalgic to the things that I had lost in the transition of my life.
There were points where I was surviving and almost thriving in the isolation, coming home long enough to make contacts and to exist in my own chosen America, somewhere out there on Route 50, and there were other points where I felt so dead inside. This isolation and one-liness that I was living out came to exemplify this rainy highway, which despite some really beautiful pictures of sunsets that we sneaked in, was marred by the fact that I had no desire to sleep in the car in the middle of a rainstorm. I had no desire to see if the flickering lightning would crash down upon us.
I no longer really had any desire to be with D on this trip, but sadly, I knew I had to make the best of it since there was no airplane to send him home without me.
And when I thought about that, I had to think about the reality of this situation. We had to get to somewhere, and I brought this idea up to outright refusal and hostility.
Now, I also had no idea why D would fight this idea to stay inside a hotel (other than cash), but in a situation like lightning, I just felt it was obvious that being in the car wasn’t a good alternative to anything that ended up in a building.
Perhaps, he was running out of money, but he never did say why he wouldn’t pay for the hotel. All the same, when I paid, I guess it didn’t matter anymore if we were going to be in a building or not.
Trips are filled with many unexpected expenses. Before that hotel experience, I would shell out $2 a gallon for gas in Austin, an exorbitant amount at the time (the most I had ever paid in America), and I would pull the car over in Fallon to find out the price of a hotel, which was met with stiffest unstated resistance to its cost, and then a silent ride to another rest stop where I asked what was wrong, and just like the time before it, I would get no answer.
I no longer had any idea what to say or what to do. I just drove on, paying for the hotel room in Sparks (outside of Reno), where D went and played the slots, and I lay in bed, reading Into Thin Air before I prepared to get a decent and restful sleep. With the stress of future time to Los Gatos and San Francisco, I didn’t get as much sleep as I would have liked. What I did get was civility in being apart from D long enough that we were talking comfortably by the time he returned to the room as if nothing had ever happened.
So it was the next morning I woke up knowing that I had some added sleep to a sleepless trip (but sleep is not what we go on these trips for!). Things seemed a little mellower at the moment, so we packed up and headed into California slowly. Along the way, we were searching for some welcome to Reno sign (The Biggest Little City on Earth), which we never found as the city just sort of happened, so we pulled over to eat at a Denny’s.
It might have been greasy, but at least it was cheap.
As we drove into California, the day drug on and on. We did stop in Tahoe, where my car was coated with asphalt in the wheel wells, a fact that carried on until the day that I traded it in for a Chevy S-10 truck. It was like a scar that I proudly showed off anytime that it was mentioned, and it was mentioned a fair bit.
In Tahoe, we looked around the lake a little bit, and we saw the important spots such as the hermit’s house on the island and the places where we could go walking in the water. Along the remainder of the drive, we stopped for more food, looked in a lousy record store, and beat onwards to find our way out of the construction maze all around the lake, and headed into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which would eventually lead us to Sacramento and downwards to Los Gatos.
The imminence of civilization at the far side of the emptiness of our drive was nice, well at least until my head exploded while were driving down a huge mountain and escaping from the altitude. As the pounding commenced, I wondered and concluded if this was as bad as the drive down out of Bighorn Mountain. In the end, I couldn’t decide, but I did decide that it was not near as interesting to see since there was no beautiful canyon and river to drive through.
As soon as I could, I pulled over to a gas station, and like the wuss I am, I moped around while eating ice cream, and I read Baseball Weekly until I felt I could drive again. At the time, there was a sense from D that he hoped I felt better, and perhaps, it was kindness, but most likely, it was just a need to cover this last stretch of ground.
As our car drifted out onto the highway, a million other cars whizzed by, going right and left, east and west, north and south, and into the great wide open. The interstate is a place of going. There is no being. It’s all just the places between. Quickly we joined them, and so from there we went through all of the grand wind farms of Southern California, which I didn’t get a picture of (which made me want one all the more).
I can’t say why I didn’t take the picture. I just didn’t think to pull over. Nevertheless, the wind farms were an incredible sight. They just go on for miles with their blades spinning in the setting sun as they stand on top of the golden hills of the Golden State looking down and out.
Looking at them made me feel so mellow, like a hippie or an Environmental Science teacher. I would have liked to think this showed I learned something from the class, but the reality is that I just learned that wind is better than fossil fuels. The size of base that these towers need devastates the mountain top, and the blades plays hell on the birds that soar through the areas. In the end, there is nothing good that man does for the environment. I guess that Dante just needs to make sure that he never thinks about the lobster when he does what he needs to do to support a large population’s ability to live and work and feed itself in the new economy.
Like everything else that came before us on the journey, the windmills were gone and the golden fields of California appeared as we descended out of these hills and left the drive to take place across a more everyday horizon. It’s impossible to doubt the beauty of the golden fields, but as viewed from a highway, a person cannot find them as interesting as he or she does the Rocky Mountains for very long.
It’s just not possible.
And the drive went on like that. And it went on. It went on some more. Then, it went on a little bit longer. Finally after what felt like an eternal final stretch of the drive, we made it to a gas station where we got the final directions into D’s uncle’s place. Comparatively speaking, we got there in no time, and after we said hello, within 10 short minutes, D was on the Internet, and I was talking to his cousin, who was cool enough to give me plastic pages for my baseball cards.
The whole family was really nice, and his uncle was a really laid back California mellow type person, doing his computer work from home in his shorts and T-shirt. As we went to sleep that night, at the slightly less than halfway point in our trip, I asked D what he expected and wanted to see with the rest of the trip. I knew that he had a few concerts that he wanted us to go to, and I was down for that, but there wasn’t much left for him other than to retreat to the old familiar things like CD and book shops in a different town or to be on the Internet in a different time zone altogether.
During the conversation, I tried to explain to him the things that I feel when I am on a trip like this. There was no parallel or dissenting discussion let alone an explanation for what had already transpired. He nodded appropriately, and that was that.
As our conversation ended, I told him that I would put him out on his own in San Francisco so that he could enjoy the Haight while I drove up to the Muir Woods during the day time hours of the next day. Surprisingly, he dissented to this positively since he wasn’t sure he could spend a day in San Francisco. I looked at him with surprise knowing what I did of all of the cool hipster things that exist in the city, but when faced with a definite answer, a person doesn’t question these things.
He just flows with them because an argument with irrationality isn’t worth having.
Things almost changed in my schedule the next day. In a fleeting instant, I thought I could make it to see the Giants play the Expos in their brand new (at the time) park. There just seemed to be something about maybe getting to see Vladamir Guerrero hit one into McCovey Cove, but that was not to happen since we got moving late. This was due to a sudden emergency tire change that we found out about when our oil change was occurring. The threat of an air bubble bursting was just too much to contend with, so everything was squared away, and we headed on up to the Muir Woods and Point Reyes.
On the way up the coast, we stopped at Stinson Beach, which was where I first saw the Pacific Ocean some three years earlier. It was chilly, and the bikinis weren’t really worth looking at, though I must admit to peaking at a few because there’s always something worth looking at when it comes to gals in bikinis.
As that time too ended, we headed up the coast, driving on another never-ending journey through the fields and forests, hoping to eventually make the “what looked like a” short trek, and we arrived at the lighthouse that the map had promised us.
When we finally got there, it was a blustery day, and the winds, which were up near 60 MPH, had shut down the lighthouse. We were able to walk out to a souvenir hut and to stop to check out the flowers, the cliff-side views, and the whale skull, which were available to gaze down at while going to the lighthouse. Nevertheless, the winds were brutal, and there was a definite hoping that our hats and glasses weren’t blown into infinity. Unlike the weather station on Mt. Washington, this hut was not chained down, though it probably could have benefited from it. As with all of our other treks, we took our pictures and headed back to the car.
And like that, we left on towards the grandest woods I have ever traversed, singing along with the car’s stereo, which was Rainer Marie’s “Atlantic” (Maybe I’ve lost my faith in history, and the only thing I believe in now is the sound of the Atlantic…) as we sped off on the windy country roads.
Of all of the songs that we played, it was truly the song of the trip, in that it was something we both liked, and though it was funny to bombard him with Alan Jackson, The Dixie Chicks, and David Allan Coe (lest we not forget Garth Brooks) when the shitty college white boy angst noise got too much and it became my turn to pick a tape, those songs didn’t quite sum up the trip quite like that song did.
Eventually, we reached the Muir Woods, which were almost dark, so my pictures reflected this lack of vibrancy in their eternal shadows. Once again, I had hoped D would have liked them more than he did, but I think at this point he just wanted to be in the familiar confines of a city (and not a forest), so we traipsed around the spectacular opening corridor, and we left for the Haight since he deserved to find his version of happiness somewhere.
Alas, that was not to be either.
We parked and went in the biggest new / used record store in town (Amoeba), and he refused to go in. I didn’t know this right away since I was already inside looking around. His refusal was based on the fact that they asked him to give up his postal carrier bag at the door. This was too much for him to do. So I got a few CDs, looked for a few for him while he waited outside, and eventually, when I finished, we ate and wandered around town looking for smaller record stores that would respect his right to be unencumbered in his desire to walk in wearing a bag that was big enough to steal half the store.
Unfortunately, they were not to be open or even there. The big store had put them all out of business. It was Amoeba or nothing. At the time, things like this mattered since it was pre-Napster and Amazon.
Oh well, I thought.
Pout pout, he thought.
The ironic thing was the next day that I spent with K, and he went back around the city looking for music by himself, he ended up in there anyway. He even gave up the postal carrier bag in a moment of utter hypocrisy or just the willful feeling that the torture can end if he just capitulates in the moment.
What do you do? What do you do?
I know what D did.
So we ended up back at the home base, doing nothing much except for a little packing to get ready to leave the next morning, as D went on the Internet, and I watched Baseball Tonight on ESPN, which as we all know was (at the time) the greatest show in the world for the 6 months that it was on (now, there’s a whole baseball channel: MLBTV).
And just like that our drive ended, and we headed up towards San Francisco where everything natural would shift to the sights of the city. The joys of the parks were now a thing of the past as the strain of time and change and difference were taking a final death toll on the friendship that I had built up in several visits and many letters with K (but that’s a whole other story). Instead of optimism and excitement, there was just another sense of travel that would need to be accomplished before we got to Biloxi, Mississippi, to see my friends W and H and their son. And as it occurred, I thought about her changes, my changes, and our changes, and the distance between us, both in who we were, would be and all things.
It was sad, but it was something that was to be.
For now, there was just a chance to stretch out and rejuvenate before we got back in the car to drive down Big Sur and across the Southwestern desert like a bullet from a gun, fired through the heart of Needles, Tucson, and off through El Paso and toward Big Bend National Park. There was so much yet to come, but nothing comes before it does.
At the moment, I was just happy to be out of the car.