The Travel Year (2011)
Although I call my blog of wanderings A Journal of the Travel Year, I'm no longer traveling as a daily habit. I'm rooted, planted, gone to seed. But there was a calendar year in which my wife Neeta and I were almost continually on the road, either to great purpose (when we moved our household from New Jersey to Washington State) or in places with names of almost magical import (Yosemite, Tibet, Varanasi, the Silk Road). I blogged from the road for as long as I could, before I remembered something I'd known earlier in my life, that blogging is less important than walking out on the streets, feeling the sun, climbing a wall, talking with strangers at a cafe. From that point I jotted ideas, kept mental notes or stopped recording things altogether and simply lived, as if each moment was so contained in itself there would be no point in remembering it and much to lose by trying. Here are some writings and pictures from that year of wonders, the Travel Year:
ON THE ROAD TO BARELY SOMEWHERE
(Originally posted May 1, 2011)
Neeta and I have spent many hundreds of hours over the past ten years driving up and down the FDR Drive to visit friends in Manhattan. It’s one of the best maintained roads in the United States, to judge by the number of tractors, steamrollers and “Road Work Ahead” signs on the shoulders, and also one of the worst, to judge by the actual roadway. There is one stretch in particular, near the Triborough Bridge, that has been invariably signaled by the brake lights of the drivers in front of you, followed by lumpy patches of asphalt, then by potholes, then by steel plates bolted across potholes too gigantic to expose, and finally by the dotted white lines between the lanes disappearing altogether and the traffic falling into a laissez-faire scramble for the hundred thrilling yards until the smooth roadway resumes. It’s been like that since I lived on the Upper East Side in the early 1990s; it may have been like that the morning I came into this world in Jamaica, Queens, 51 years ago. Neeta and I would often say to each other as we rattled across it, “This will never be fixed in our lifetimes.” But just last week, as we were in lively conversation with our kids’ grandmother, Tina, on the way back to her apartment on 87th Street, I felt a sudden chill at the absence of a familiar pain, looked out the driver’s side window and saw that overnight the FDR had become as smooth as silk, as gentle as rolling your head across the pillow. I shouted for everyone to look; Tina and Neeta were as dumbfounded as I was. “You see,” I said, “it’s happened, and we’re not only still alive, we’re here to see it. There are mysterious possibilities in life beyond what we’re even willing to hope for.” To which Neeta said, “Yes. But let’s hope they’re not all so banal.”
As you may know, she and I have just set out on a great adventure - put our normal lives on idle, boxed and shipped nearly everything we own and (starting this past Friday) headed out to spend a year on the road. Lots of different roads, actually. We are going hunting for mysterious possibilities. It’s a privilege too great to deserve, explain or make excuses for, so I will simply get on to the story.
From April 29 to May 9, we’ll be driving across the United States, from Boston to Seattle, with our two dogs in the back seat like a seeing-double version of John Steinbeck and his poodle in Travels with Charley in Search of America.
From June 13 to July 29, we’ll be stuffing the car with boots, ponchos, maps and giftwrapped trinkets for a grand circle of the western national parks along with Neeta’s mother, to seek out oases and cliff dwellings and waterfalls and geysers as well as a number of friends and relatives we haven’t seen in far too long.
In August we will rest as God did on the seventh day, but then, early in September, we will eat a light breakfast, say our goodbyes, hitch a ride to the airport and fly off on the first leg of a journey that will take us around the planet to every place we have ever dreamed of visiting except perhaps Samarkand, Easter Island and Papua New Guinea.
Well, actually, there’s some disagreement about Samarkand, Easter Island and Papua New Guinea - as well as about Timbuktu (in Mali) and Aleppo (in Syria). Neeta wants to see the great natural and cultural highlights of world history, A-list places like Angkor Wat, Venice and Macchu Picchu. She says when I drop names like Samarkand that I want to go off into the middle of nowhere. I can assure you she’s wrong, wrong, wrong. I am currently reading a book about the middle of nowhere (Into the Heart of Borneo, by Redmond O’Hanlon) and - apart from the swarms of giant butterflies - I am not drawn to it whatsoever. I would say that, rather than that, I’m drawn to the middle of barely somewhere, places now off the beaten track where people once lived, intensely and without embarrassment, a sort of life that no longer even occurs to us. I’ve done very well looking for such places in the past. I’ve rooted around abandoned mining camps in the California desert (like Calico), once-communistic utopian communities in the Midwest (like Amana, Iowa) and Israel (like kibbutz Ayelet HaShahar), traditional African villages (like Njinikom, Cameroon), as well as sleazy tourist attractions and forgotten towns and corners of towns too numerous to catalog, and in many of them was able to imagine a way of living and of thinking about life I’d never suspected before. They were places that never received the gift of the mainstream world’s intense attention, and so they have retained a hint, a whisper, the passing carnival noise of the life that once went on there. I’m frankly less afraid of the zero-star hotels, non-existent toilets and street crime in such places as these than of arriving at Angkor Wat and Macchu Picchu only to discover that, now that the tour buses have arrived too, they - like The Tudors, The Borgias and The Kennedys when cable TV was through with them - turn out to be indistinguishable from one another. If you drive around America even briefly, you learn that every aspect of human civilization, distilled far enough, becomes a refrigerator magnet.
We will see whose mysterious possibilities of travel, Neeta’s or mine, turn out to be the most fruitful and least banal. But I have to let you know that she and I, like yin and yang, have a little bit of each other’s point of view inside us, when all is said and done. I want to see the A-list, too, and Neeta was overjoyed a week or so ago to learn that the snake pit she saw with her family, when they were crossing the United States by car 45-odd years ago, is still in Rapid City, South Dakota, and open for business.
A SENSE OF WHERE YOU ARE
(Originally posted May 5, 2011, and written May 3, on the road where wifi connections were more theoretical than real.)
As I write this, we are sitting in our hotel room far above Niagara Falls. Neeta is on the cellphone making the rounds of friends and family. It’s ten o’clock in the morning and the weather is just drizzly enough to be thoroughly miserable; the few tourists down on the sidewalk hunch their raincoats over their shoulders to get from the Rainforest Café to Dracula’s Haunted Castle up the street. Across on the American side some braver men and women are plodding out to the terraces, dripping, to contemplate the falls. (They came here to see water, so more or less of it is academic.) Our room, fittingly for a town in which you give directions to people using Frankenstein’s head and a white Ferris wheel for landmarks, has an electric fireplace with little simulated ripples of flame, but otherwise seems unshakably elegant because there, out the windows that line the east wall, the long rippling line of falls are forever young, bristling, powerful … unspoilable. We can apparently ruin the climate of our entire planet but are still not infinite. We can’t keep Niagara Falls from making you catch your breath.
The demands of moving to Seattle have been kind to us in many ways. We were so busy with the movers on Friday that we were spared from hearing a single word about the royal wedding. We hopped into the car and started off toward Boston blissfully unaware that anything was more important than the trees on the Merritt Parkway. I’ve since learned to say “What a beautiful dress” when anyone raises the topic (everyone will nod) and nip all further conversation in the bud. But the news caught up with us Sunday night, and since then – on the car radio, on hotel TVs and in all these cellphone conversations – we’ve been hearing non-stop about Osama Bin Laden’s death: how it happened, what it means, what it’ll mean for Obama, how George Bush must be cursing his bad luck in the privacy of his ranch in Crawford, Texas, now wonderfully free of brush. I look up from The Diane Rehm Show, disoriented, to see the rolling farmlands of southern Ontario.
I like being disconnected from the world when I travel; Neeta likes just the opposite. If and when we reach the top of Mount Kilimanjaro I will look down at the tiny clusters of trees that mark the villages down on the veldt and think how far I am from all they represent, and Neeta will shout giddily into her cellphone, “Jen, guess where I am. On the top of Kilimanjaro. It’s gorgeous.” I think she thinks I have the recessive gene that blind bearded hermits have, but I look at it a different way: I like to be thoroughly and completely where I am. Life has many strands, but I believe you can’t grasp any of them unless you give yourself completely over to it for a generous stretch of time. In one aspect life is indeed about politics and today’s particular errands and the news from Abbottabad, but in another, lifted above that, it’s about birth and death, daydreaming and landscape, a couple just being together, cocooned in their own company, and the way you react to time and beauty when you have nothing to distract you from them.
We spent the couple of days before we arrived in Niagara in two very specific New England places, both centered around big airy nineteenth-century houses. Our friends Dan and Calvin are raising their son, Owen, in a rambling rector’s cottage in York Harbor, Maine, where you can walk your dog along the seashore in the evening as boats come in from the Atlantic. My cousin Faith Justice is welcoming the first bumblebees of spring to her backyard garden in Newton, Mass., behind a cluttered Victorian painted lady, and sitting in a little chair between the lilacs and weeping cherry, gathering her thoughts and letting the rest of the world go by. (Her husband Rob is off teaching math, and son Jaryd is hanging, watching That 70s Show, getting ready for college.) If there were world enough and time, I would love to spend a week in each of those places, with only those people. But even for travelers like Neeta and me there isn’t world enough for that.
A COUNTRY BIG ENOUGH FOR THE TWO OF US
(Originally posted May 6, 2011)
When I was 16, my dad and I drove from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, where I was going to go to college. The trip took eight days, coast-to-coast, and the country we crossed was large enough to hold ghost towns, limestone caves you could row a boat through and a museum dedicated to the wildcat oilmen of Midland, Texas … about six or seven motels, a dozen roadside cafes with their red neon throbbing in the early twilight, and at least one massive thunderstorm outside Tucson, Arizona, which washed out the arroyos and nearly swept us away. When I flew back home for Christmas, the country had shrunk to a mere five-and-a-half hours, no vaster than a mediocre Chevy Chase movie, a fairly decent meal, one takeoff and one landing. That it was the same country I had crossed in both directions, of a width that I could write down on a slip of paper in ink, I knew in my rational brain, but we live our lives in our experiential brain, and there the two places could not be reunited. The United States I have known for most of my life since then has been tight and small, but on rare occasions I’ve had the chance to revisit the other America, the one my dad and I knew, and it remains vast and mysterious and alluring.
Neeta and I spent a couple of days outside Detroit with her brother Dilip and his family, in a city where every highway is at least four lanes wide on each side and people are very proud of The Automobile. Since then, for two days, we have driven past more farms than have ever existed cumulatively in my imagination. The cows all blend together into a single black-and-white streak, and the clouds are puffy and tactile enough that you want to stick them with pins. They call the highway rest stops “oases” (which I kind of like). They sell fireworks out of huge flammable barns. What isn’t a silo, a barn or a rest stop is likely to be a church, and they will write “Jesus is Lord” in vertical call letters on the taller radio towers and in casual signs along the roadside, but this is also the land of National Public Radio: All across southern Minnesota we were passed from one small-town station to another, among liberal bastions no bigger than a feed store and a filling station. We have passed wonders of which the two coasts know nothing at all, such as the Spam Museum of Austin, Minnesota, the great falls of the Big Sioux River here in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and the Wisconsin Dells, where capitalism has responded to the beauty of two navigable river chasms by building huge kitschy sub-Vegas hotels with artificial water parks inside them. This town, carved out of nowhere in the lonely pine woods, can offer you a Polynesian Isle hotel, a Yogi Bear village, a Paul Bunyan cafe and Buffalo Phil’s, where your food is delivered to your table on the flatcars of a model train. I was raised in California listening to the Beach Boys with the sand between my toes, but there’s a part of me with a fresh bad haircut and my face buried in a copy of Boy’s Life that has always dreamed without knowing it of lifting my charbroiled cheeseburger off a train.
We are traveling, as you may know, with our two dogs, who have caught on to the notion that we are on an adventure. They ride in a big sling in the back seat completely docile, and carefully examine each place we stop as if the news might be sprung on them at any moment that this is their new home. Everyone dotes on Chiro (the beige Shiba Inu); they must touch him, they must tell him how handsome he is; in Madison, Wisconsin, last night, someone at our hotel mistook him for a contender in the dog show at the convention center. (Only the little girls, with innate egalitarianism, insist on petting “the other dog” too.) He accepts the stroking, the praise, the mistaken identity as if celebrity is the price he must pay to remain at the precise center of the universe. Sugar (the white Jack Russell Terrier), cannier, more suspicious, follows Neeta around from room to room, nursing the idea that we are taking them to these amazing hotels with the comfortable beds only to abandon them there. She figures she can’t be abandoned if she has a visual lock on her mother, and she will look up into your eyes with frank intelligence if you tell her to wait behind as if to say “Don’t think you can fool me.” Right now they are sleeping on the second Queen bed in our latest, most amazing hotel room, heads on the pillow, under the covers - partly by their own efforts, partly by Neeta’s design. They’re fast asleep, but Sugar, I think, has one eye open.
THE LOST WORLD
(Originally posted May 10, 2011)
Interstate 90 is like the transcontinental railroad of the 1860s, stretching out from the populated areas of the Pacific and the Atlantic toward some meeting point in the center. It clearly became a formality by the time it passed Rapid City, S.D., heading east and Sioux Falls, S.D., heading west. For the expanse of this one state it’s like you’ve left the United States to visit a lost world. The road shrinks to four lanes. All guardrails, signage, bridges and basic road engineering disappears. The gray crackled highway lies like a discarded ribbon across a dreamy, undulating grassland. There are no Walmarts, no chain stores, no fast-food poles straining into the air at the exits; there are hardly any motels of any sort and even gas stations are rare. On occasion the ranch or farm buildings will become thicker for a moment, and a small sign will tell you it’s a town. More often an exit is only a ramp to a two-lane road heading straight toward the horizon. No one strays onto this highway by accident or drives here if they don’t belong. There were long stretches when Neeta and I were all but alone except for a long-haul trucker or two and a pickup going from one local turnoff to the next. If I had to make it analogy, I would say that Iceland or northern Finland must be like this, at least once you get out of the grittier, more urban parts. It’s somewhere that people have lived for generations upon generations without the rest of the world bothering to think about them twice.
Of course, there were all the billboards. They followed on one another every hundred yards or so, not the sort of billboards you’d see in New Jersey (”Have mesothelioma? Bernstein & Matheson will get you the money you deserve”) but the kind that used to exist on Route 66 or the Dixie Highway before the Interstate system was built, pieces of plywood held up by wooden braces repetitively hawking cheap tourist attractions with ever more unlikely and desperate claims. See the world’s only Corn Palace (which we did). Come to Wall Drug to see the Jackalope (which we did). Visit the authentic 1880 Town and see the world champion steer (which - like the world’s largest prairie dog - didn’t quite make the cut, I’m afraid). The signs suggested swarms of tourists passing by here in some vanished epoch. I loved these kinds of signs as a kid. I told Neeta that I had once sent a letter to the National Park Service proposing they make a large stretch of the Mojave Desert into a Ghost Towns National Park and - in particular - that they close off a stretch of Interstate 15 and preserve all the billboards for Las Vegas casinos, world’s best hamburgers, hidden caverns and the like so that future generations could walk along the whitened asphalt for a mile or two and just contemplate them. Neeta said, “You and I have very different ideas of what should be preserved.” All too true, but I can’t help feeling that this carnival promise of wonderful, strange things that can’t possibly be delivered - but are coming your way if you only keep driving - is possibly the most American thing I have ever known, worthy of Mark Twain, Walt Disney and Sigmund Freud, and shouldn’t be lost.
(Neeta, it turns out, was simultaneously having a very different experience of South Dakota. After one too many billboards telling us that Christ died for our sins, she blurted out, “Do you realize how uncomfortable this whole state makes me? This has got to be the whitest, most Christian place on Earth. They’ve never seen an Indian before! Everybody looks at me like they’re trying to figure out whether I’m Native American or black.”)
When we reached the western edge of the state and the comfortably familiar western sprawl of Rapid City, we stopped to see a lovely small national park (preserving the Dakota badlands) and make a quick drive up to Mount Rushmore. I had never seen it before except in North by Northwest and ten thousand pictures and parodies and didn’t know what to expect. It is, after all, a bunch of big faces carved out of the side of a mountain and is thus the biggest jackalope, the grandest prairie dog, the most flamboyant corn palace of them all. But often the difference between the kitschy and the genuinely moving is only an imaginative choice, not always a voluntary one, and today this strange place touched me with a completely unexpected force. When Gutzon Borglum began carving this mountaintop in 1927, Rapid City was about as far away from the American population as you could get outside of Alaska. He wasn’t building Disneyland; he wasn’t trying to pull tourists off some pulsing highway nearby. He seemed to choose a place deeply within America (near the Yellowstone country and the gold-mining camps of the Black Hills), as deep and hidden as the Id, a place that no one would ever think to take a vacation. Rather it was the sort of place that you might stumble upon one day, if you happened to be traveling nearby - the trees would break and there it would be, above the clearing, like an ancient Egyptian obelisk in the desert, to startle you. This is the artist’s signature in the corner of a canvas that straddled a continent and produced a great civilization because great people like Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln had held to great beliefs. It’s true and here in this spot, indelible, even if no one ever sees it. Cool. Of course today you would have to be blind, deaf, dumb and without a single dollar bill in your pocket not to find it: The reptile gardens, water parks and Broken Arrow trading posts reach right up to the very edge of the National Park Service lands.
THE MIGRANTS ARRIVE
(Originally posted May 11, 2011)
We finished our trip from New Jersey to Seattle late Monday afternoon. Neeta had been getting increasingly overbearing in the car. “Look at Mount Rainier! It’s beautiful! No, look at Mount Stuart! It’s gorgeous!” The wind farms near the Columbia River gorge were beautiful. The trains crossing the flat farmland near Ellensburg were beautiful. The longitude and latitude were beautiful. The dogs ignored her; I couldn’t. Her enthusiasm demanded an outlet. ”We’re here. Our new life is beginning. Are you as excited as I am?” Well yes, I was - almost. Because even though our new life will hardly be normal for a while (we are going straight from a road trip to a longer road trip, with planning for a world trip in the meantime) it will take on tasks and errands and preparation for the ordinary life that will eventually follow it. I have had my disappointments with ordinary life in recent years (the magazines I work for keep going out of business; editors keep sending back my short stories with generous hand-written notes: I’m a fiction writer to watch … though evidently not to publish). I hold myself back a little from the everyday these days - once burned, twice shy - though I was once the most enthusiastic person in the room, as Neeta is today.
Travel, on the other hand, is never a disappointment. It is openness to whatever comes. With luck and a fresh start I will re-learn what I used to understand unconsciously, that ordinary life is openness to whatever comes as well. We were in any event welcomed to Seattle as warmly as anyone could ever hope to be. We hugged everybody, introduced the Seattle dogs to the New Jersey dogs, ate some of Neeta’s mother’s homecooking and began to decide where all the shipped furniture would go. Chiro, once he realized we were not driving any farther, fell into a deep, happy sleep on a sofa that I do not think he will leave until Earth’s next epoch begins.
Earlier that morning we had dropped in on an old friend for breakfast: Julia, a potter who had stayed with us five years in a row during the December ceramics show at the Old Church in Demarest, NJ, and who had then moved to Missoula, Montana, with her German shepherd Leila, never (perhaps) to be seen again. We had tried to email her without success. Then on the point of giving up Neeta had phoned her from the road, somewhere in the Wyoming ranch country, and though Julia was stuck in a transit lounge somewhere in Texas heading homeward she would be only too happy to wake up early, jet-lagged and all, to make us some breakfast. It was the kind of visit that makes travel the most worthwhile. We found her little frame house a few blocks from our hotel. Our dogs fell in cahoots with her dog. As Julia whipped up some eggs and bagel halves, a roommate popped out of one spare room and we heard tell of a cousin who was staying in another. Finally we went out to the car shed in the back yard that Julia had converted into a studio, full of light and clay and half-finished cups and pictures of the places around the world that most inspired her work - places in Istanbul and Africa that she had visited or wanted to.
Neeta talked about how difficult it must be to be a Native American in Montana (we had driven past the battlefield of the Little Bighorn that morning); Julia shrugged and half-explained that the relationship was “complicated.” I told her Missoula had already won us over, with its old cattlemen’s bars turned into college bars, the one-time movie theatres where you could see fringe music and theatre; she said not to give up on Bozeman, which was a little more upscale and (to be frank) snooty about it. By the time we were back in the car, we had begun to think of Montana the way migrants and secret sharers rather than tourists do. It wasn’t containable in the AAA guidebook anymore. It had faces and rivalries and astral lines that drew it together with Izmir tiles and Sahel basketry and old times back home in Demarest.
It’s the way we hope to see the national parks and then the world, and if any of you can help, please do.
We will be always in your debt, as Robinson Crusoe was to Friday, as Robert Conway was to the High Lama, as we are to Julia and the other friends who take us in, even briefly, somewhere along the way.
National Parks (June-July)
MT. RAINIER, CRATER LAKE, LASSEN VOLCANIC, YOSEMITE: ON GEOLOGIC TIME
(Originally posted June 27, 2011)
You can’t drive through the sequoia grove at Yosemite any longer. When the twentieth century began, a visitor to Wawona could ride his horse through a living giant, two hundred feet high and maybe a hundred feet around, born shortly after Aristotle and before Christ, which had been cut open for the purpose. He could carve his name alongside U.S. Army majors in the grey trunk of the tree dubbed “the Fallen Monarch.” Within twenty years he would be able to play golf beneath the Ponderosa pines nearby, and within another twenty or so to ride up to Yosemite Valley for the evening to watch burning embers pushed off the three-thousand foot cliff above Camp Curry, which would cascade like a glowing orange waterfall onto the rocks above the dancing hall and swimming pool. From the first moment that white Americans saw the Yosemite country they knew it was something stunning, beyond words despite all the words they would spill over it, but as with so many of the gifts life gives us, it would take them more than a lifetime to know how to appreciate it.
When John Muir took Theodore Roosevelt to see another tree dubbed “the Grizzly Giant” in 1903, scientific wisdom said the tree was 8,000 years old, older than any religious idea or written word or pyramid or city wall, born when humankind was just a rattle in the throat of the universe. I can imagine what the two of them said to themselves over their tin cups of boiled coffee. The dating turned out to be wrong but I would like to think it were not, because when Neeta and her mother and I walked through the Giant’s grove this morning it was alluring to believe our arguments and worries about hotel reservations were too infinitesimal, our life’s success and failure too tiny, history itself too small to be worth this moment, that it only made sense to surrender to the wind and the sky and the forest. Very little can kill a giant sequoia; the one in a million that struggles to maturity can’t be destroyed by a fire, rotted by disease or shriveled by a two-hundred-year drought – it may not even be killed by a tunnel being hacked through it. It will last three thousand years on willpower alone. Only when it has had enough does it release its shallow fingers from the earth and let itself fall to the ground. You can see ancient sequoia trunks all over the forest, still being burned and hacked and fussed over by tourists three hundred years after their deaths.
We three have learned to take the long view during these past couple of weeks. That’s what the national parks do to you; that’s why they’re one of the very best of human ideas – they’re so inhuman in their scale. We started in mid-June, taking our son Alex up to Mount Rainier. Then we followed the chain of snowy volcanoes down past Mount St. Helens to Mount Hood to Crater Lake (where we stayed at the rim lodge) to Mount Shasta to Mount Lassen (where we laid hands on a 300-ton boulder that had been tossed six miles during the last eruption, in 1915, and was still warm to the touch when people from the Central Valley rode up to see it). You can see these white singlet peaks, one from the other, from Washington down to northern California: the Cascade range, still active but on a time scale so vast it beggars even the sequoias. The beauty of Crater Lake in winter time is so pristine, so perfect, so finely etched it looks like an eternal jewel. All you can do is take it in. We drank water from the tap that tasted like freshly melted ice, played bridge beside the roaring fire in the lobby, walked up the rim drive and took pictures from the terrace, not knowing what else to do. But the mountain that once stood there burst apart and devastated a thousand square miles around it about 6,600 years ago, and hot springs are still bubbling up at the bottom of the azure-blue lake today, hinting at devastation to come; in geologic time, the Pacific plate and the North American plate have never stopped grinding together spraying off regular cataclysms up and down the coast. You exist both in one perfect moment and in the gears of eternity, if you have the eyes to see things that way.
We just missed meeting one 17-year-old girl who did not. Her parents and brother (very friendly people) were sitting in the stone-and-timber great hall of the Crater Lake Lodge without her. When she had found out there was no wifi, not even any phones or televisions in the rooms, she had stormed off looking for a spot where there was sufficient cellphone reception to call her boyfriend and carve a record of her fate. She finally found one outside near the kitchen wing, in gathering darkness and two feet of snow.
It’s wonderful to be a teenager, so immersed in every munchkin triumph and vicissitude that everything seems crucial – it’s another way of being awake and one with the all. Meanwhile here are we three, too old to do that any more, in the middle of a six-week journey to become awake another way.
Today to see the sequoia grove in Yosemite you must go by foot or by tram. The women who run the tram have gray ponytails and creases at the corners of their eyes. I couldn’t guess how old they are; I am sure they have been here forever; they are in an ageless middle age. They joke with the tourists, seem to ride on a current of giddy spirits. And why shouldn’t they? They have a job that requires grace rather than concentration. They spend each day of their lives under thousand year old trees. I half-hope that one day, when they release their grip on this earth, Neeta and I will move into the spaces they’ve left and find ourselves talking with the people we meet about little else but the wind, the quality of the day and the storms that may yet come.
KINGS CANYON, SEQUOIA: MY OWN PRIVATE YOSEMITE
(Written June 29, 2011; originally posted July 5, 2011)
One of the logistical troubles with a trip like the one we’re taking, from one end of the American west to the other and back again, is that there’s no one season to do it in. Unless you take two years to finish the circuit, at some point you will, in the same week, find yourself walking through barely snow-free forests at 7,000 feet and looking for shade among the saguaro cactuses outside Tucson, Arizona. We had had perfect weather all the way from Seattle to Sequoia National Park, and yesterday morning as we careened down the frightening, ostensibly two-lane highway from Giant Forest to Bakersfield, Neeta said that was all going to end: We were heading into hundred-degree-plus weather for the next two weeks, until we go up to Albuquerque or even to Rocky Mountain National Park sometime in mid-July. “Sure,” I said. “Unless there’s a sudden cold snap.” And this morning, contrary to all meteorological records and life experience here in California’s San Joaquin Valley, we woke up to overcast skies and a thermometer stuck at 79 degrees. We could only laugh. We are riding under the protective eye either of powerful weather gods or dumb luck. Neeta says it won’t be like this when we reach the Mojave Desert; I remind her it wasn’t going to be like this when we reached Bakersfield. Our friend Rishma, who lives here, says she checked the Facebook statuses of all her friends in the area this morning and they were all identical: Their status was “cool.”
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You should always have your camera out. Whooshing down Highway 99 probably talking or daydreaming, I missed taking a picture yesterday that I will always regret (so I say now), but then I found that a professional photographer named Troy Montemayor had taken it for me. (You can buy his work on a site called FineArtAmerica.) It’s impossible to tell you how much I love places like the Tagus Country Theatre at the World Famous Tagus Ranch. It’s impossible for the most part because I can’t pin it down myself. They are kitschy and absurd and not-quite-entirely self-aware. You can laugh at them if you choose to, but then you can’t love them the way I do. I think that, when I was 10, they hinted that there were tiny pockets of wonderful things squirreled away just about everywhere, so many that I might not have world and time enough to see them all. I would turn toward the driver’s seat and wonder what my dad thought of the Tagus Ranch (it being so famous he had to have an opinion). I would sip my Coke, unworried. I would find out someday; meanwhile, the road ran on. I suspect such roadsigns mean pretty much the same thing to me now, that they’re a way into a part of me that has grown neither cynical nor wise and that wants to believe there will always be original things left to uncover. The road itself holds fewer hints than it used to. It’s lined today with Quality Inns and Bob’s Big Boy restaurants that promise reliable food and beds, which are wonderful, don’t get me wrong, but are not surprising or mysterious at all - nothing I don’t know from top to bottom even when my eyes are half-closed.
(The Tagus Ranch, by the way - for I’m sure you are curious - was once a coffee shop, cocktail lounge, deluxe motel and live country-and-western musical theatre in Tulare, Calif. I can barely imagine the acts the Taguses once thought would make their fortune.)
• • •
I have been looking for a long time for my own private Yosemite Valley. The famous one is like the world’s most spectacular urban park. It has paved hiking trails separated from its paved biking trails, has places where you can buy your three-dollar Costa Rican coffee and reduced-fat coffee cake; it even has its own rapid-transit system, a set of hybrid shuttles, which are efficient and timely in a way that nothing in a national park probably should be. In Yosemite Village there are (let’s see) a mountaineering school, a photography exhibition space, an Indian village, a few swimming pools, overflow parking (!), two handfuls of stores and gift shops, and even a luxury hotel from which you can look down on the hoi polloi even as, Escher-like, they look down on you from Glacier Point. We could not escape the press of tourists from Kentucky, Munich and Tokyo by climbing a thousand feet up the side of a gorgeous mountain or standing in the spray of Yosemite Falls at seven a.m.; they were there when we arrived, asking us to take their picture. It is the only park where Neeta and I have experienced the essentially New York thrill of finding a parking space after only 15 minutes of driving in circles. Don’t misunderstand. Yosemite Valley is one of the most beautiful places on Earth and would be, even cut into pieces and shipped to seven distant points on the globe; it is a stupendous public park; but I don’t believe I can wrestle out a relationship with it on my own terms. It has been polished too smooth. Too many people know it much better than I do; too many people have told me what I can find there; there is no way to cut through the gauzy film of noise, of crowds, of mutual love, of interpretive signs, of John Muir catchphrases, of Ansel Adams photographs that separate me from the place itself.
I did better a few days later at the Wawona, a jewel-like white Victorian frame hotel that looks as if it has been dropped into a south Yosemite meadow straight from a hand-colored penny postcard. Its greatest amenity is a wide verandah on which you can sip a mint julep beneath the awnings and escape the summer heat. In the lobby are a few armchairs and a frosted-glass two-gallon tank filled with ice and water, regularly replenished and just as regularly drawn down (nearly everyone stops to have a cup). The rooms themselves aren’t literally Spartan but are at least spare, with a shower rod hanging just over a metal clawfoot bathtub, a sink the size of a large dinner bowl and a ceiling fan to keep everything tolerable. We learned much about the families in adjoining rooms just by closing our mouths for a few minutes. There was a time when those simple things – cool water, a faucet to wash from, a wall (however thin) and a breeze that would last the length of the night – were the only artefacts of civilization that could be smuggled into a wilderness in the mountains, after a long trip by horseback or wagon to a place you had to pay much in sweat, time and faith to reach. It’s not like that any longer (Wawona, if anything, has more of a parking problem than Yosemite Valley) but it got me closer to what I was looking for.
And then the next day we went up to Kings Canyon in the high Sierra. If you had asked me I would have casually told you I had always wanted to go there but somehow I never actually took the step. I apparently wasn’t alone. Neeta read somewhere that it’s one of the least visited national parks, though it is joined at the hip to one of the most popular, Sequoia. Mobs of tourists buy their souvenirs and fill their tanks at Grant Grove, where the Kings Canyon road begins, but then let it escape their imagination or wait for another day. It is a long winding drive to get there, I must admit, through national forest lands and yucca-covered hillsides, through a tight canyon mouth with the south fork of the Kings River boiling and racing seaward below you … but then you stumble upon a massive waterfall at Grizzly Flats, not a hundred feet from the road, and everything starts to open up: five-thousand-foot cliffs and roaring rivers (even one called the Roaring River) and meadows as beautiful as Yosemite’s but all but empty of roads, of turnouts and of interpretive signs. People are few and rather rangy, gathered in moody clusters in the parking lots, more suggestive of squatters or Satanists than of schoolteachers from Cleveland. And the road simply peters out in the midst of a beautiful glacial valley – a fact Neeta found so charming she told every ranger we met that she had only been to one “road’s end” before, at Ka Lae on the bleak endlands of Hawaii, the southernmost point in the United States of America.
It’s as if someone had sketched out a national park, then become distracted and gone about his business. John Muir called this a more spectacular valley than Yosemite, but there is no instruction manual and no kit; you must figure it out for yourself. And we did – or began to. We stayed in a lodge that looked strangely like the inside of a ship, like one of those small prefabricated pods they drop onto the tundra in the Arctic Circle in which you can gather at the windows and marvel at the world outside. My eyes were wide as saucers. As protestants through the ages have said, there should be no mediator between a man and his god, or by extension between a human being and the world. There should be a knowing connection as close and idiosyncratic and impervious to outsiders as the one between Adam and Eve or Roy Rogers and his horse.
TOMBSTONE, AZ.: THE LURE OF THE SINCERE
(Written July 5, 2011, and originally posted July 12, 2011)
I remember road trips in my 20s, on which – as soon as the brown haze of Los Angeles fell off the rearview mirror – all connections with the known world had been severed. My friends and I had a map, a few notions and quarters for the payphone if worse came to worst. (On hiking trips we didn’t have even that.) You were where you were, and everything that was worth finding would have to be found where it lay. I loved that kind of travel but it is now as impossible as commuting by Zeppelin or in a litter carried by tributary vassals. A road trip today is more like a moon shot: There are lots of electronics and, when even they aren’t sufficient, a home crew monitoring your progress from Mission Control. Our mission controller is our daughter Jennifer, who – when we know only a state highway number and the color of the tumbleweeds and are in need of a Starbucks – will answer her cell regardless of the hour, consult her computer consoles and point us patiently toward the baubles and shiny things we need. Thank you, Jennifer.
• • •
When we were mapping out this trip in September of last year, our pencil strayed close to the Arizona-New Mexico border, and I told Neeta I wanted to make a stop at the ghost town of Shakespeare. This was supposed to be a national parks trip (period, end of story) but after what the diplomats call a frank exchange of views, she graciously agreed. Shakespeare had been a rough-and-ready mining camp in the yellow plains a few miles south of Lordsburg, but it had been abandoned so quickly it was like the Old West frozen in amber, with dusty green bottles still on the tables and a noose hanging from the rafters. A rancher bought the land and fenced it all off before it could be cannibalized by later miners or looted for souvenirs. Gradually it became the most authentic ghost town still left, the last piece of something I had once dreamed and longed over until it was raw. I phoned the rancher to ask if we could arrange a tour.
He asked gamely, “So, when’ll you be comin’ down?”
I said, “July 5, 2011.”
At this he turned livid. “What are you, joking? I’m 77 years old. I don’t know if I’m gonna be alive three weeks from now.” He grumbled for what seemed a protracted time and before ringing off added curtly, “Call me a coupl’a days before you get here and we’ll see what we can do.”
I called him from Los Angeles but, alas, his health was in decline, so I wished him well and fell back on Plan B: We would swing farther south and stop overnight in Tombstone – the site (for those who don’t watch Westerns) of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, home of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, where the newspaper was named the Epitaph and the first thing you saw as you came up the rolling hills was the Boot Hill graveyard – Tombstone, Arizona, “the town too tough to die.”
My dad and I had spent a few hours here when I was 10 years old on the drive from El Paso to Tucson, and I was queerly fascinated. I wasn’t seeing the Old West per se, but it wasn’t a museum or an amusement park either. It was a hand-to-mouth, rinky-dink town struggling to fit within the shell of its former self. When the mines had flooded in the early 1900s and both the famous and the multitudes had cleared out, the few (the tough, the stubborn) had scraped on, earning what they could off mine tailings and curiosity seekers. Now, circa 1970, the pickups angled in in front of the saloons. The men who drove them bellied up to bars that were scratched and scuffed with 90 years of spilled whisky and unwatched cigarettes. They were regulars; they joked like they knew one another; I remember them, in denim and tooled boots, being sickly, lean, boisterous and somewhat scary. Around them, tucked into corners, were faro tables and dogeared decks of cards and photographs, all with little hand-scrawled cards explaining their importance. Every weathered building on Fremont Street had become an attic of leftover things that might draw in a few tourists, as well as a gift shop for plates, old bottles, rock samples, shot glasses, self-published books. History was unavoidable. You could hear a dozen versions of the O.K. Corral gunfight just on the one-and-a-half-block walk from the Bird Cage Theatre to the corral itself; you would know a hundred reasons you should respect Wyatt Earp and a hundred reasons you should revile him. There was something sincere beneath the rank cupidity, a real love and knowledge being prostituted before your eyes.
This time, Neeta, her mom and I arrived early afternoon, without having eaten. We asked at our motel where we could still get a good lunch in the historic district, and the clerk recommended either the Longhorn, which was good for families, or the Crystal Palace Saloon, which was (of course) a saloon. Neeta said, “Then let’s go to the Longhorn.” It was a sweet, soft, beautiful day, and my heart sank. Fremont was only a block away, but it was now closed to pickup trucks, and the parking had been replaced by stubby trees circled with pale blue flowers. The weathered grey planks and crumbling bricks that I remembered had been done over in attractive pastels. The Oriental Saloon was now a dress shop, the old Wells Fargo office (I believe) a Bank of America. My hopes rallied momentarily when a man in a red kerchief and holster belt followed us into the Longhorn. I thought he might be carrying a pistol; it turned out to be a pager. The styrofoam coffee he was sipping was notably less potent than Neeta’s margarita. The only thing that hadn’t changed was the ubiquity of cigarettes. The stagecoach driver smoked; the cowboys waiting for the three o’clock gunfight re-enactment smoked; even a few white-bearded retirees bent over their aluminum walkers smoked. Neeta said, “This town raises the national average for tobacco use, all by itself.”
It would be easy to paint the decline of Old Tombstone with too broad a brush. Even back in the day, Wyatt Earp apparently loved vanilla ice cream as much as he did prostitutes and gambling, and just a year after he and his clique had left Billy Clanton and the McLowery brothers to die in pools of their own blood, Tombstone had staged a well-received production of H.M.S. Pinafore, complete with tony sailor costumes. Still, when I read a flyer on one of the bulletin boards for the next week’s Tombstone Audubon Society bird walk I was just about ready to go. Neeta and Usha found a bench in the shade; I walked with flagging enthusiasm to the Bird Cage Theatre at the end of town, where there was apparently still a museum.
It was a small box of a building. I walked in the door and felt a shiver for reasons I couldn’t quite place. No one had lifted a finger to make the front room appealing; if it had ever been painted that fact was now lost to history. The air conditioning was loud, old and ineffective. I asked how much it would be to see the museum, and the pale young woman behind a short bar, without a trace of shame, told me ten dollars. I slid the bill out of my wallet gladly. She opened the chain and drew back the swinging door. The big room on the other side was cluttered with photographs, clippings, battered furniture and jewelry in rickety glass cases; it took a wise eye to recognize that it had ever been a theatre as well. No curator could have assembled a collection like this intentionally. It had the unmistakable aura of the luck of the draw. The inevitable little white cards gamely tried to tie each artifact to something a visitor might have heard of, but the reasoning could be terrifically convoluted and the family connections to the Earps complex. The collection was (I thought) perfectly poised to leave a 10-year-old boy confused but in awe. The boys in front of me were having a wonderful time of it; their father was darting from side to side just trying to keep up. Arrows led us down into the basement where he must have had a harder time explaining the reconstructed crib from a nearby bordello and the oft-repeated semi-nude photograph of Wyatt Earp’s favorite prostitute (and later wife). I didn’t see, but I trust he rushed them through the gift shop where the owner had set up an unusual wall of fame, with photographs and life stories of the dozen or so most famous “soiled doves” of old Tombstone. It was – I am sure by accident – a strangely progressive memorial, giving features and individuality to women whom history tended to treat as fungible commodities. I felt in a strange, small way that I had finally come home. On my way out I shouted “thank you” to the cowboy-hatted clerk bent over his Tombstone News, but he didn’t deign to look up from the paper or even grunt an acknowledgement – for which I was half-tempted to thank him all the more.
WHITE SANDS, CARLSBAD: ONE IDEA
(Originally posted July 12, 2011)
The delicate limestone draperies, lilypads and filigree of Carlsbad Caverns began to form two to three million years ago, but no human being saw them until a cowboy named Jim White in 1898. (White went on to become one of those men who, brushing against a future national park by sheer chance, let his life’s work choose him. He and his wife lived out their years in a cabin above the natural entrance to the cave, providing clean beds and hot meals for visitors before taking them down by lantern-light to see the wonders he had found.) If you grant bats the wisdom to appreciate beauty, then perhaps the first eyes to appreciate Carlsbad saw them 45,000 years before that – but for the first few million years the great passages were certainly unseen, unknown, unimagined. What kind of a universe do we live in, that’s far more beautiful than anyone will ever know? As Neeta, her mom and I walked down the mile-long paved National Park Service pathway toward what White dubbed “the Big Room,” 800 feet below the surface, through underground corridors whose ceilings soared more than a hundred feet above us, weaving among boulders the size of a cruise ship, out of deep shadows at our backs and into the promising darkness farther below, I felt the way I have in the Gothic cathedrals of Europe and the steep gallery inside the Great Pyramid: I felt enlarged. I felt shaken loose of trivia. I’ve never understood how you can stand under the sky, with all and everything above you, without sensing the enormousness of space, yet when you walk into a small piece of it, closed off by masonry walls and a distant roof or else hidden in a solid mountain of stone where it couldn’t possibly be, it makes you feel your life has been too small – in your mind if not in fact – until this moment.
As I read the interpretive signs and took in the details, though, the underground began to seem very familiar. The white stalactites hanging from the cave ceiling looked (and behaved) like the long icicles hanging from our eaves in New Jersey on a January morning. The stubby rock “fairies” in what Jim White called “the Fairyland” looked like the rock hoodoos of Bryce Canyon. Water seeped, stone weathered, life adapted, biological niches filled, monuments collapsed, sediments (in this case, flakes from our skin and clothing too small for us to be aware of) deposited themselves. Some places the clock runs fast and here excruciatingly slow: There are stalactites on the roof of a tunnel the park service cut 80 years ago that are not yet even an inch long. But the great columns and stalagmites were indeed growing and being torn down the same way mountains are and – aside from the details – the same way saguaro cacti and coyotes and human beings are as well. Things accumulate into something new and particular, then they decay into fodder for something else.
The national monument we had visited just before Carlsbad was White Sands, also in New Mexico. The first time I saw it, in 1998, I was taken in the same way I was by the caverns. In the middle of a vast desert plain stood more than a hundred square miles of brilliant white sand dunes. They ached on the eye. I thought they looked like nothing so much as cakes of refined sugar forty feet high, something out of a Lewis Carroll world rather than this one. But their only trick was that they were made of gypsum, which had been deposited eons ago in the nearby mountains and transformed into dunes in quite a normal way. I scribbled down a poem that I have carried with me ever since:
One idea – persistence
Breeds mountains and deserts, forests and oceans
And oddities that betray the secret, like White Sands
Each unique, all the same
The brilliant detail and the vast communion
It was one of those poems I’ve never been quite happy with. I have scratched out that word “persistence” half a dozen times and tried a variety of replacements, all worse. It isn’t the word I was looking for and there may not be a word, but there is a quality nonetheless. It is the quality, perhaps, that string theorists are seeking to name when they mathematically describe the whole of the universe – all fundamental forces, all mass, all physical things – as variations in the vibrations of infinitesimal strings. Or the quality the Buddha was after when he told his students he was going to reveal to them the true nature of the world and – slowly, theatrically – revealed a single blossom in his hand: not a metaphor, not an example, but one sip of the nectar, one dangling thread from the fabric, an insignificance that – to the trained eye – looked like everything in the same way that a billow looks like the whole ocean and a patch of sand looks like the shore.
I suspect that there are many ways of looking at the world – many ways of putting you and me, humans and animals, struggle and competition, death and empty space together into a coherent picture – and that the art of life (which Thomas Jefferson once described as the art of avoiding pain) is actually the art of choosing the right one. Jim White discovered Carlsbad Caverns, by the way, when he was riding line on a nearby ranch and saw what he thought was black smoke pouring out of a ridge of hills. He spurred on his horse aiming to fight the fire, and there must have passed a few magical seconds, forever frozen, as he realized he was looking at bats and not smoke - hundreds of thousands of them, spinning out of the Earth just after sunset to hunt for their food. I think I aspire to be bamboozled like Jim White, mistaking bats for smoke, stalactites for icicles, sand for sugar until when I close my eyes for a moment I can see everything in everything, even the beauty that is so far away and hidden it will never be viewed by anyone’s eyes.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN: WATCHING ANIMALS
(Originally posted July 22, 2011)
So far, Wyoming appears to be the endless yellow grassland, edged by perpetually distant snow-clad gray peaks, on which in the Dreamtime the ur-buffalo came face-to-face with the ur-angus and raised his hoof in greeting. The ur-buffalo said, “You look tasty!” The ur-angus replied, “You too!” And both agreed that, if they were to be mowed down in huge numbers for food by the ur-humans, this would probably be an excellent place to do it. Anyone who has ever worried that the United States has been built-upon and paved over beyond hope of repair need only come here (bring plenty of gas and water) to see thousands of square miles of billowing grass and scrub that has only the word of a few stray cows as evidence that human beings exist at all.
We have spent most of the past week in Colorado, a state where you could take any random 415-square-mile swath of land in the west or central region and tell people it was a national park and they would believe you: from the lodgepole pine forests and meadow-parks heading east from Pagosa Springs to the 10,000-foot-elevation plains around Fairplay to the intense twisty Clear Creek canyon near Central City. They might balk at the flat dust-bowl-ish farmlands above Alamosa, where county roads head straight as an arrow from crop circle to crop circle without the mountains drawing any closer, until at last they reached the end of the road and found they were in a national park, Great Sand Dunes, where all the dust they had just sneered at whips itself into gorgeous swirls and domes 750 feet high. The particular 415 square miles that became Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915 are so stunning I am willing to forego all the rest, though the loftiest peak among them is merely the 15th highest in the state and not even one that John Denver bothered to sing about. We spent a decent amount of time walking around its great meadows, now blanketed with purple-and-yellow wildflowers, and driving its 12,000-foot ridge where expanses of alpine tundra are interspersed with sculpted granite peaks still patched with white snow - maybe I spent a moment or two, filled with bliss, doing nothing at all with my feet dipped in one of its icy rivers - but if you were to add up the hours, I must confess, we spent most of our time snapping photographs of its animals. We listened for birdsong in the trees. We watched for movement on the slopes. We screeched to a halt next to SUVs stopped at the roadside, on the stray chance they had seen a bear. We had the telephoto lens always ready. It led to the single moment in five weeks of travel when Neeta’s mom, Usha, lost her cool. We had left her in the car at 12,000 feet, queasy from altitude, to film a small clad of elk on an alpine meadow, until she ran up after us shouting, “You will do anything for an elk!” There was some truth in what she said. We have now sworn, like semi-recovered alcoholics, that we will keep it down to a few quick ones, a few times a day, and we are so far on the wagon. But perhaps a third of the six thousand (!) photographs we have taken since mid-June are of one hapless animal or another, caught going about its business by the tourist paparazzi.
I don’t know where the interest comes from, because after all the elk aren’t playing a symphony, running the marathon or solving Fermat’s last theorem. They aren’t even mating or giving birth like the elephant seals we watched (and snapped with feverish abandon) several years ago at Big Sur. They are nibbling on grass. They are sipping water from a stream. They are sitting down, and then standing, and deciding with excruciating patience whether to do it right here or five-and-a-half feet over there. We sat one afternoon for half-an-hour until a hailstorm drove us away, content to simply watch this show of nothing; we would have gone back again the next morning if we could have been sure the elk were still there. But I have asked Neeta and we are agreed: We have no interest in watching the people we met from Oklahoma sniffing their ham sandwiches. Nor the teenagers at the shuttle stop gulping down their Diet Coke. Nor the German couple scratching their hind quarters. If as little children we were fascinated by the minutiae of being humans alive in the world we have lost the gift entirely, until indifference seems the natural response. But I suspect there is as much to be seen in watching the one species as in watching the other, and perhaps one day when I’m not paying sufficient attention I will look through my viewfinder and see a 45-year-old accountant sitting down in a chair and say, now what do you think of that? … if, having caught my breath, I say anything at all.
WATERTON-GLACIER INTERNATIONAL PEACE PARK: A LAST POST
(Originally posted July 30, 2011)
We had had a good day; I felt contented. The day before had been lost to arguing and disappointments; we had seen some beautiful parts of Glacier Park but I had let things ruin my mood. Today we headed north to the Canadian side and took a packet boat down the lake to the tiny American outpost at Goat Haunt, past sculpted mountains with green forests at their chins and the whole history of Earth’s geology bent upward and twisted and revealed in yellows, reds and deep eternal gray. The sky had started fair and ended (as it always does when you go deeper into the mountains here) with grainy mist wrapped evocatively around the peaks and snowfields, and droplets falling like a threat. We had had a full day’s worth of beauty distilled into an hour. On the trip back I wanted nothing. I put my head back on the ship’s rail and closed my eyes; the engine jittered, the cold wind brushed my cheeks, sunlight warmed me. I felt like I had in St. John in the Virgin Islands, for my 50th birthday, when I floated on my back in aquamarine water just off the beach at Trunk Bay, and all my troubles slipped away.
It was contentment as an adult can experience contentment, but there was (as there always is, with me) still something more. I had begun to wonder if I can be truly happy any longer, if I have kept that ability. Contentment comes when you are sated, when you owe nothing to the world, but the secret of happiness is more arcane, I think, some occult sort of relationship between a person and the moment he is living through. It can’t be preserved in a set of instructions, and it doesn’t come surely to every person. If you have known it at all, you must save it by muscle memory or not save it at all. As a kid I used to dream of the national parks, read about them obsessively, and when my father and I drove past the gate of one my eyes would open like distilled hunger and I would simply be overwhelmed. I harassed him into walking the trails with me; I internalized the maps; I ransacked the visitor centers. I put mystical store in even the smallest things. I knew when the date palms were planted at Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley. I knew the size of the underground lunchroom down in Carlsbad Caverns. I knew (and loved) the local soda you could buy only in the nothing town above the north entrance of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona: Cham-Pe it was called: and it had nothing to do with the park and I can still taste it today. Now I drive into these places – a worldly man, less easily swayed – and I am curious, fascinated, challenged, entertained but only for moments that slip away from me, fleetingly, overwhelmed. I go to bed at night ready to sleep. I wake up thinking of breakfast. Neeta, her mom and I have travelled some seven thousand miles in the past six weeks – a very long way, and we are almost ready to return home.
After the boat trip we still had a few hours before we had to cross back into the States, and we had no idea what to do. We had studied the American parks with a kind of formalist rigor but had barely glanced at the map of this one. Someone on the boat had told us there were two side roads not far from the docks that might be worth a person’s time. We glanced at our watches and shrugged, why not? The first was a long ten miles of bland forest but led to a lake in a gorgeous glacial cirque; it was lovely but my companions were tiring; on our way back to the main road Neeta put her face against the headrest and said, “Would you mind if I closed my eyes?” (Her mom was dozing in the back seat already.) I drove on to the second in silence. The road climbed to a tall meadow of rusty yellow grass and wildflowers at the beginning of a long receding valley. Raindrops speckled the windshield; Neeta asked if we should turn around. No, not to worry, the driving wasn’t difficult. Maybe if it got worse. The pavement ran over the rumpled hills as if cherishing every lump and sinkhole; it was completely free of engineering. So far Glacier Park had seemed like an American extension of the Swiss Alps, with roads coming to a stop at chalets tucked into elbows of bare mountain; you turned off the headlights and saw the trekkers with their sticks and brown rucksacks starting up the rock-cut trails. But this road made me think of Scottish highlands, of furze and moor, perhaps of friendly middle-aged English couples in their blue slickers and old Peugots, digging their tires out of the mud and waving as you passed … the kind of road that muddles on forever and then ends abruptly at a cottage or an inn, or some sweet small knot of people whose bargain with the world is yet unknown. A piled stone wall ran along the right side such as you might find in sheep land. Then the mountains crept in closer and just ahead, the sharpest peak was wrapped in a cape of black clouds like some German philosopher’s god, like some forgotten Wagner opera, so caught up in storms of its own making it had never known the blue sky.
The little road, I thought, was headed toward a small valley but from there I couldn’t say. I hadn’t checked the mileage. It could still be quite a ways. The rain poured. Neeta mumbled, “You promised to turn around,” but then lost interest and said only, “I’m just going to close my eyes.” Go ahead, my dear, don’t worry; I will wake you when we get there. I thought for some reason of the young Englishwoman stranded on the edge of Scotland in I Know Where I’m Going!, trapped in close quarters with the young laird with whom she just might be in love, until the storms would finally break and they would be free to go their separate ways. I drove on into the valley, singing under my breath. I suspect I will always know how to be happy, as long as a road is twisting in front of me, going farther back, farther in.
7,620 / 9,300 / 96
(Originally posted Sept. 15, 2011)
Our national parks trip is now long over, and the statistics are in. We drove a total of 7,620 miles to see the western national parks. It took perhaps fifteen minutes to figure that out, oh, back somewhere in early August; it most assuredly isn’t why I haven’t posted again until mid-September. No, the fact is, shortly before Neeta, Usha and I set off in mid-June we bought a lovely new camera (a Panasonic Lumix G-2, which I’d highly recommend to non-obsessive personalities). It weighs almost nothing, snaps photos of amazing sophistication with barely a thought, and holds sixteen gigabytes worth of images in a single bound - a fact we bumped up against frequently in our 47 days on the road. We knew that we were taking a once-in-a-lifetime journey across the American landscape, and at some point along the way our desire to record it got somewhat the better of us, became an idee fixe, an impossible standard of perfection, an unreachable goal, and in our conscientious though quixotic determination to reach it, we took slightly more than 9,300 pictures.
Now, when you have 300 pictures at the end of a long vacation, you have a photo album; when you have 9,300, you have a problem. We had come vanishingly close to the Borgesian ideal of accuracy. (In one of his stories, the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges had told of a great cartographic expedition that strove to make the most accurate possible map of Argentina. At last, when the work was complete, the paper had reached the exact dimensions of Argentina and been lain over the landscape it was aiming to document. When you looked up you would see paper instead of sky; only then did the government realize the folly of its ambition. You could still see pieces of the map clinging to yuccas on the pampas, lovingly depicting the very yuccas themselves.) We told our daughter Jennifer what we had done, and she blurted out, “Did you guys actually see anything in the national parks?” - a challenge to which our first answer (”Of course we did. Look at #1,384, your mom looking at a saguaro”) seemed inadequate. So I have quietly gone about bushwhacking my way through the photo folder to find the 300(ish) photographs I had really wanted at the beginning. I have just now emerged from the thicket. Here they are.
I can only say that it’s fortunate I finished when I did. This coming Sunday at 7:35 a.m. Neeta and I are setting off on the next leg of our travel year. It isn’t quite the round-the-world safari we had dreamt of during our quiet years in New Jersey, a trip so long (and Borgesian) that we would forget we had lives to return to, and if we ever tried to stop ourselves in Seattle again we would end up forty miles into the Puget Sound by persistence of motion. But it is still the most ambitious trip either of us has ever taken. In our 96 days on the road (and in the skies, on the rails, up the rivers and down the sidewalks) we will see a large swath of China (Sept. 18-Oct. 19), Vietnam (Oct. 19-29), Cambodia (Oct. 29-Nov. 3), Thailand (Nov. 3-9), Malaysia (Nov. 9-11), Singapore (Nov. 11-14) and India (Nov. 14-Dec. 20). We will also be in New York City on Dec. 21-22, if you happen to be around. We realize it’s kind of late notice, but if you are visiting any of these places while we are passing through, we would love to meet up. Having the chance to see so much of the world - of Earth’s evolution, of the world’s plants and animals, of human history - is of course a pearl of inestimable price, the holiest of grails to a curious man or woman, an honor undeserved or else deserved by all but out of most people’s reach. I don’t think either Neeta or I can say how lucky and thrilled we are to be taking this trip. And it is my firm intention to take 96 pictures - and not one more.
Asia (September - December)
NO BLOG POSTINGS - BUT YOU CAN READ EXCERPTS FROM MY JOURNAL