Water and Air: A Day Swimming in Barton Springs

Last Saturday I drove three and a half hours from Dallas to Austin with the express purpose of swimming in the cool waters of Barton Springs.  I swam for about an hour in the morning, then lay in the shade of sprawling oak trees on the hillside above the pool.  The smell of cedar, the splashing of swimmers, the regular rattle of the diving board as one kid after another leapt skyward and belly flopped into the turquoise water—all of it, every sound, every sensation massaged my troubled mind and smoothed out the kinks left there by working and living.

Barton Springs Pool--68 degrees year round

For two hours I lay on that hillside.  I slept.  I woke.  I listened to grackles posing their long drawn-out question, “Huuuuuuuuh?  Huuuuuuuuuh?  Huuuuuuuuuh?” with the persistence of small children.  I laughed at squirrels scampering up and down tree trunks in a game of hide-and-go-seek that to them may not have been a game.  When I grew hungry I walked a half mile to the Green Mesquite and gorged myself on beef brisket, turkey, chicken, rice and pinto beans, all drenched in barbecue sauce.  For dessert, I savored peach cobbler in the smallest bites possible.

Barton Springs Pool

After strolling around the hundreds of acres of parkland that surround the springs, I returned to the pool around 7pm and swam in the soft glow of dusk.  The pool gradually emptied of people.  At 8pm the life guards blew their whistles to announce that they were retiring and that those of us still in the water were on our own.  I floated in deepening darkness.  I heard other swimmers splashing and laughing occasionally, but for long stretches I felt I had the spring and the trees, and even the glowing sky, all to myself; that I existed in a world half water, half air, where all I knew was the sound of the wind jostling the now-invisible trees hanging over me and the leaves answering the wind with a million tiny claps that sounded like rain droplets tapping the ground, where I could hear gentle waves lapping against the concrete edge of the pool, producing a sound like that of a dripping faucet, with the drops alternating from high pitch to low pitch: drip, drop, drip, drop.

I straddled these two worlds, above and below the water.  I was immersed in them both, one cold, one warm, and I felt them both at the same time.  At once I felt warm and cozy yet cool and refreshed.  And for an entire day I thought about nothing but green St. Augustine grass, oak trees, turquoise springs, children flying kites, beef brisket and peach cobbler, the breeze running its fingers through my hair, and the sun warming my skin.  No stress.  No worries.  I thought about saying goodbye to it all, maybe for the last time. I returned to Dallas the next day.

The busy diving board. Unfortunately, the poor guy did not complete his back flip and smacked the water back first.

Squirrel territory.

In Search of Happiness: Recreating the Past

A few years ago I read an essay by Paul Theroux in which he wrote that we spend our entire adult lives trying to rediscover those moments of perfect happiness that we had as children.  To this end, we gravitate toward certain types of people, places, and experiences in an effort to recreate those tiny, intangible slices of perfection that lie strewn across the landscape of our youth like fallen leaves.  Now, I’m not in total agreement with Theroux’s thesis because it implies that our search must always yield nothing but clumsy approximations of what once was.  It also assumes that everyone has a happy childhood, which of course is not the case.  Moreover, I’m sure most people share with me the belief that we can match those childhood memories by creating new, equally blissful ones as we age and mature.  But at the very least, I think he’s on to something.

My best memories from childhood are of family road trips to Michigan, Florida, New Mexico, Colorado, California, Oregon, and Montana, together with weekly visits to our local Barnes and Noble.  Although in the beginning I was always a little annoyed at how long it took to reach our destination, eventually I came to appreciate the journey itself at least as much as the arrival.  Long drives taught me patience and nourished in me a love of idle thought and contemplation.  Too much patience can lead to excessive idleness, just as too much idle thought and contemplation can lead to inaction, anxiety, and depression.  But if tempered, each of these tendencies can be a good thing.  I know for a fact that I still haven’t achieved the proper balance, but I’m working on it. 

As with road trips, initially I hated going to Barnes and Noble every other day, every week, but before long, an hour or two in that bookstore every few days turned me into an explorer.  My parents would wander off to their favorite sections, my dad either to the science fiction or the technical isle, my mom to the art section.  They would look at my sister and me and say, “About an hour.”  Usually that one hour would become an hour and a half, and that hour and a half would become two hours.  After about fifteen minutes I would hunt down one of my parents and ask, “Can we go now?”  They would always answer with a concise, unsympathetic, “No.”  It was after those first fifteen minutes, once I knew there was no way out, that I began to really explore the bookstore and the mountain of information and excitement it had to offer.  At some point, our trips to Barnes and Noble became my favorite part of each week.

Now, at age thirty, the one thing I yearn for most of all is travel, and I don’t mean travel by plane (although I fly quite a bit), but travel by car, or bus, or train–the kind of travel that allows me to see in greater detail what lies between my point of origin and my final destination.  This kind of slow travel allows an opportunity to become acquainted both with the countryside and with other people in a way that air travel generally does not.  I learned more about human beings in one bus trip from Yosemite National Park to Fresno, CA than I’ve learned over the course of weeks spent in some places– because travel by bus forces people to talk to each other for extended periods of time.  It provides a perfect opportunity both for “idle thought” and meaningful conversation with strangers I’ll see only once in my entire life, but whom I’ll never forget.  These are people, and more importantly, types of people, whom I never would have met had I not set foot on a bus. 

And since I can’t always be on the road, usually I satiate my hunger by heading to the bookstore and perusing the aisles for something new–some book or author I’ve never noticed before, or even an old book I had long forgotten about.  In other words, the two things I want most of all are to travel and to read–to wander into bookstores and lose myself amidst an endless maze of books and knowledge and wisdom, to make my away through the arteries of our country and our world in search of interesting places and interesting people.  In short, I want to recapture my youth.  I want to be happy.

Austin, Texas: Live Music Capital of the World?

Downtown Austin from Auditorium Shores

Austin sits at the center of Travis County like a radiant sun that illuminates all around it.  It tugs people into its orbit and, as massive stellar objects are wont to do, the city alters the fabric of reality and bends perceptions.  Are you sad?  Go to Austin, dance in a club or sway to the beat of an outdoor concert and you’ll find happiness again.  Are you angry?  Go to Austin, swim in its soothing springs and you’ll emerge cleansed and eager to forgive whoever wronged you.  Are you lost?  Austin will help you find yourself.  Do you want to get lost?  Austin can help with that, too. 

Music courses through Austin’s streets, reverberates off of its sky scrapers, and saturates most anything that passes through the “Live Music Capital of the World”.  On a loud Friday night even the Austin hills seem to resonate with the music that wafts in the air from Sixth Street, the pulsating heart of the music scene.  I used to read Austin’s boast that it was the “Live Music Capital of the World” as a joke that everyone was in on.  We natives repeated it with an implicit wink and a knowing smile.  To be sure, Austin has long been an incubator of musical talent, and for decades musicians and their fans have flocked to the city for its unique scene.  But capital?  Of the world?  That struck me as hyperbole. 

How things have changed.  Now Austin hosts two of the biggest, coolest, and most tweeted music festivals in the U.S..  More than 70,000 people attend the Austin City Limits (ACL) Festival on each of three days in mid-September.  200,000 people from all over the world flood Austin each Spring for South by Southwest (SXSW) to witness an entire city transform itself into one gigantic concert venue, where bands are as likely to perform in grocery stores as on big stages to big crowds.  The SXSW music festival grew to be so large that it spawned an accompanying film festival and, later, an interactive festival featuring social networking technology.  According to TIME Magazine, the film festival threatens to eclipse Sundance, long the hotspot of the indie film scene.  The Interactive Festival is one of the few of its kind.  The story goes that Twitter went mainstream when attendees at SXSW tweeted en masse about what was happening there.   

Stevie Ray Vaughn Statue

Yes, music has long been in Austin’s blood, but when I was growing up here, in the 80s and 90s, you could wander most parts of downtown outside of Sixth Street and miss that fact.  Austin’s music scene contributed to its eclecticism and confirmed it as a bizarre kind of place where dreamers fought against the odds and strived to live off of their art, playing in whatever venues would book them, and in some cases living on the streets with little more than their guitar cases to accompany them.  Now, wandering the streets of downtown on a Friday night, everywhere I go I hear at least the faintest echo of a song.  A country performance at Threadgills, south of downtown on Riverside Drive, floats over to me more than a mile away, on the far western end of Auditorium shores.  Loose melodies and muted drum beats rise from the city.  A drawn out guitar chord resonates in the wind.  For a moment I imagine the city itself is the instrument and that 800,000 people strum one of its 800,000 strings. 

Austin’s rise in the national consciousness thrills me.  I’m glad to see it grow and thrive.  Better than to shrink and stagnate.  Austin has changed, but at the center of the new people and buildings, subdivisions, restaurants, and festivals that accrue to the city, Austin retains its core identity.  At the center of the bigger and richer Austin lies the city’s soul, a seed crystal that alters everything it touches.  Everything new conforms in its own way to the best of what is old.  True, more people share in certain finite resources, and if you told me that on some busy days there is more skin than water in Barton Springs Pool, I might believe you. 

Barton Springs Pool

Nevertheless new blood injects vitality into this complex ecosystem, and public spaces set aside when the city was 1/10th its current size accommodate a metropolitan population of nearly 2 million with admirable ease.  By all means, come to Austin.  Austin will welcome you with open arms.  Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, Austin wants to get to know you.  Are you a hippie?  A suburbanite?  A hip professional?  Austin has a place for you, yet wherever you end up, you won’t be far from people who are entirely unlike you, and unlike in most cities I’ve come to know, you’ll be glad of that fact.  That is the essence of Austin: contradictions coexist side by side in harmony. 

 

I’ll post another essay or two about Austin soon.  I’d like to focus more on the recreational side of the town: its springs, its green belt, its parks and cliffs.  To be continued…

Happiness Through Forgetting

Every once in a while, I’d like to walk down the street and not recognize the towering oak tree spreading its contorted wooden limbs in all directions, showering the ground with fallen leaves.  Sometimes I’d like to come upon something familiar as if I were seeing it for the first time: an earthworm writhing on the pavement after a hard rain, a white kitten playing with a ball of yarn, a verdant green meadow aglow in the resplendent light of a star I have yet to identify.  Yes, if I could open War and Peace for the first time, indefinitely, I would be forever happy.  If I could wake up each morning and forget that I had already seen more than eight thousand sunrises, and if, upon lying down to sleep at night, I could gaze through my window at the full moon and realize for the first time that its face has the appearance of Swiss cheese, then, maybe then, I would be happy, and I would never grow old.

In my next post I’ll write about a trip I took this weekend to my childhood home, Austin, TX, and what it feels like to hostel in your own city, to play tourist in the place that breathed life into you and made you who you are.  What is home if the people who shared it with you have scattered to the far corners of the earth, if when you return you walk its streets alone, you swim in its springs alone, alone you dangle your legs from cliffs and alone you peer at the lakes, forests and hills of your youth?  And if the places of youth greet you with confusion or indifference, what then?

Here’s a preview picture:

Loop 360 Bridge over Lake Austin, Austin, TX USA

San José’s Nightmares: Arriving at Night in a Foreign City

I board a cab outside of San José International Airport and sit in the back seat with the windows rolled down.  As I wend my way through Costa Rica’s sprawling capital the wind clutches at me with ethereal fingers that smell of car exhaust and a mysterious odor I can’t quite place.  It’s an odor that is unique to every city.  When I return home after a long time away, the wind and the scent of home it carries with it collide with me as I leave the airport.  The weight of home bears down on me in humid gusts saturated with a lifetime of memories.  Home wraps its airy arms around me and knocks me about like an old friend annoyed that we’ve fallen out of touch.  In like manner the San José wind buffets me, screams at me, and with these gestures and its smell of otherness it is the first of the elements to announce that I’ve arrived somewhere new.  “I don’t know you,” it says.

A soft layer of clouds presses down on the city like a padded lid.  The cottony sky glows red, as if the city below were aflame and on the verge of destruction.  Mountains surround San José and stand black against the reddened sky.  Through the window I see pedestrians scampering across busy streets.  They run, they pause, they dodge headlights.  Somehow they manage to ford the rivers of traffic.  Cars honk and squeal their brakes.  Police sirens wail in the distance.  I pass block after block and they all look the same to me, with the same ten story concrete buildings, the same plazas, the same people milling about, the same bands playing the same music in a never-ending repetition of the same park.  I imagine that the city sleeps and that through the windows of the cab I’m seeing visions of its nightmares. 

At night the whole world shrinks around me.  My only reality is the city itself.  It’s as if I’ve woken up beneath a thick quilt and in my hands I hold only a dim flashlight.  I may point the light in any direction but I will see only the checkered underside of the quilt and the red glow that the quilt reflects back at me.  I don’t know where the quilt ends and where the outside world begins.  I may thrash about.  I may crawl first in one direction and then another, yet the edges of the quilt will elude me.

I arrive at my hostel and I fall sleep on my bunk.  Monsters populate my dreams and strange faces parade before my closed eyes.  Morning comes and the city wakes with me.  Its demons retreat into the shadows that pool beneath buildings and trees and lamp posts.  Slowly the sun rises and dapples the urban landscape with light.  It splatters reds, blues, whites, and yellows on those same ten story buildings from the night before.  Parks glow green and trees spindle upward toward the sun.  Plazas and the people milling about them acquire detail and stand out from one another.  The sky no longer presses down on the city; now it soars and opens clear and blue above me.  The mountains that loomed darkly last night now cradle the city in their verdant lap.  San José makes sense now.  It exists in the wider world.  What I thought were its demons dancing around me were in reality my own demons projected on the unknown.   

I feel confusion and menace of this sort on arriving in any new city at night.  The place could be Chicago, New York, Buenos Aires, Santiago, or Lima.  Maybe I’m walking from a Greyhound station in Portland, Oregon or stepping off the train in Fargo, North Dakota.  In each case, at night, I feel the weight of the unknown bearing down on me.  The slight twinge of fear I feel on these occasions is electrifying. 

San José, Costa Rica

 

Park, San José

 

Site of the old San José Airport; now el Parque Sabana

 

Be a Traveler

When I go somewhere new, I don’t want to be a tourist; I want to be a traveler. To tour is to touch the surface of something, to understand its general outlines, to arrive at a condensed summation of what it is. To travel is to penetrate deeper, to discern the nooks and crannies of a place and to become aware of its beautiful and ugly imperfections. It’s not the postcard picture that defines a place. The lifeblood of a place is everything the postcard leaves out. The postcard says nothing about a city’s slums and ghettos, or the people who live and toil there every day. A city that is stripped of its inhabitants, with their daily comings and goings, their problems, their hopes, their fears, and their dreams, is an empty shell, a vacuous ghost town. In a word, it is dead.

Iguazú Falls, Argentina

Likewise, one view of one sharp mountain peak leaves out the expansive range that peak is a part of. To understand the scope of the range, we must traverse its rugged contours, peer over its abrupt precipices, drink of its fresh lakes and rivers. Only then can we arrive at an intimate understanding of its immensity and scale. But even this understanding would be incomplete without an attention to the details: the trees, the mosses, the flowers, the birds, the bears, the marmots, the lizards, the bats, the bugs, everything that goes unnoticed, a favorite rock to lie down on, a gurgling spring, a misshapen tree trunk carved in the form of Richard Nixon’s face. Even with all of these details, we exclude a multitude of others. The mountain range’s features are infinite; its wealth of discoveries and marvels boundless.

The Andes, near the Argentina/Chile border.

When I arrive in a new city, or even when I arrive in a familiar one, I want to stroll its streets as just another pedestrian, to smell its air and watch its people as they go about their routines. I want to know their wishes and understand something of how they live. I want to talk to them in cafes, in markets, in plazas, and in parks. I want to see the uglier side of town, to know the vicissitudes of local life, and to learn about local preoccupations and partake in local customs. Anywhere I go, I want that place to tell me its story through the mouths of the people who live there, through their music and their dance, their laughter and their smiles, their tears and their sorrow. Let me decipher old buildings with my eyes, touch their decaying structures with my hands, read their history in the flaking paint and crumbling brick of their aging walls.

Drink it all in. Experience it all. Don’t let the opportunity to see something new, to feel something strange, disconcerting, and unexpected pass you by. Seek out the unknown, throw yourself off balance, challenge your conception of the world. Grow. Be a traveler.

Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park, California, USA

Near Poás Volcano, Costa Rica

San José, Costa Rica

You Could Be Anyone and Go Anywhere: The Beauty and Violence of Planes and Airports

This photo and all that follow are from Founders Plaza, overlooking Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport

Near Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport there is a park called Founder’s Plaza.  From here you can watch planes take off and land, you can have a picnic, lie on the grass and stare up at the sky, or close your eyes and listen to the thunder of jet engines and feel their vibrations course through your body.  I’ve seen couples in this park, families, airport employees, aviation aficionados, and, occasionally, police officers when someone has wandered too close to the security fence that separates the park from the airport. 

Sit on a bench here in Founder’s Plaza and you will see the entire airport spread before you.  From here the immense terminals, the control towers, the fat jumbo jets, the baggage cars, the ground crews and the runways take on the appearance of a miniature lego-set.  For a moment it stikes you that a child may well have assembled the entire contraption, but then the roar of jets taking off and landing dispells any such notion.

The planes come and go with such frequency that you might expect a collision here and there, a miscommunication that might place two planes on the same runway, one landing, the other throttling toward take-off.  Yet perfect order reigns here.  The catastrophe is a predictable non-occurrence for being always averted.

The airport screams destruction.  Close your eyes and listen as the smaller planes rev up, first with a metallic whine, then a high pitched screech, until finally they explode down the runway.  Close your eyes and you might imagine that you stand at the epicenter of a dozen earthquakes cascading outward one after another, flinging the crust of the earth skyward like a bed sheet flapping on a clothes line before a storm.

The larger planes are quieter to the ear.  They rumble like distant thunder and propagate their power through the ground, so that you tremble with them and glimpse through their dissipated vibrations a knowledge of destruction collared and tamed for human purposes.

You could be a passenger on any one of those planes going anywhere in the world, bound for London, Paris, Seoul or Istanbul.  You could be any one of those tiny faces staring out the window at the flatness that surrounds DFW International Airport, at the big blue Texas sky that hangs over fields of parched grass yellowed by winter.  Maybe you see home.  Maybe you see nothing more than a random airport fit only for a layover of minutes or hours, or even a day if the weather is bad elsewhere on your route, if the pilot has taken ill, or if your plane has suffered a mechanical failure.

You could be anyone and go anywhere.  And for the duration of the journey you could be nowhere at all, suspended in the netherworld between departure and arrival where only the roar of the engines, the vibration of your tray table, and the clouds gliding by remind you that you’re in motion.

 

Concrete Entanglement in the Lone Star State

You can read the identity of a place in its transit system. How people get around a city says everything about who they are, the nature of their relationships, their shopping habits, how they have fun, even where most of them come from and where they’re going. If someone asked me to choose one feature of Texas that is emblematic of its identity, I would point not to its capitol building, whose dome looms larger than that of the U.S. capitol, nor to cowboy hats or oil rigs or the ubiquitous longhorn. No, I would point to its highways that unravel outward from every urban center and ribbon the state from east to west and north to south. I would rattle off the major interchanges, the nodes of this sprawling vehicle transmission system: the “High Five” in Dallas, the I-35/290 interchange in South Austin, the Beltway 8 Interchange in Houston. These knots of crisscrossing freeways rise from the Texas landscape as cathedrals might in many of the world’s great cities. And although they may be primarily utilitarian, they are also a profession of faith in and allegiance to a way of life, to a culture of cars and commerce and absolute freedom of movement.

A degree of artistry suffuses these monuments to life by car, most visibly in the symbol of Texas chiseled repeatedly in the massive concrete supports that hold flyovers aloft. Whereas elsewhere one might best appreciate the scope of a metropolis from a hill or from across a majestic river or lake, here, in the Lone Star State, a similar view may as likely be had from an overpass climbing and curving several hundred feet into the clear Texas sky.

These interlacing symbols of the Texas state of mind are by no means static. They evolve over time, and new ones grow annually out of the earth, as if vast tectonic forces continually heaved them skyward like mountains rising from the plains. The beginnings of an interchange are messy. Sounds of jackhammers and earth movers fracture the air. Colossal concrete pillars litter the terrain and dust wafts in the wind. A cacophony of horns honking and brakes squealing forms part of this chaotic birthing process, until finally a finished work emerges and the vitality of a populace flows through and brings the steel and concrete giant to life.

To some the highways of Texas may be a blight on the landscape, walls of traffic and noise that segregate one part of a city from another. They foster anonymity, lack of cohesion and a feeling of perennial displacement among the population. The impersonality of urban sprawl prevented me from ever feeling kinship with the DFW metroplex. I was always a stranger here, and the city, a clumsy behemoth only dimly self-aware, never cared that I existed. Yet since I was a little boy growing up in Austin I’ve seen our sprawling highway infrastructure as representing possibility, vitality and the irrational exuberance of a state on the move. Driving I-75 through Dallas or I-35 out of Austin I felt as if I was joining a society of nomads thronging along an asphalt ribbon of nowhere, bounded by somewhere, leading anywhere, so that the highway was an interstice between states of permanence. As a tree-hugging conservationist I’ll always argue for more trains, subways and denser urban spaces, yet the cloverleaf interchange will forever remain an entrancing symbol of the frenetic energy of my home state.

The Many Worlds Theory of Travel: A Week in Costa Rica

 

In March of 2011 I traveled to Costa Rica to escape the chaos of Dallas and swim in the warm, green waters of the Pacific Ocean, peer into steaming volcanoes and immerse myself in one of the friendliest cultures in all of the Americas.   I planned to travel alone, but what began as a solo trip quickly morphed into a social adventure.   Saturday morning, during a layover at Miami International Airport, I met a Harvard MBA student named Faith who, like me, was traveling alone to Costa Rica.  We agreed to visit a volcano together the next day, and Faith invited me to join her and the rest of her friends when they arrived later in the week. 

Manuel Antonio

Meeting Faith set in motion a chain of events that introduced me to a platoon of boisterous Harvard MBA students, occasioned a whitewater rafting trip on the Chirripó River in the Costa Rican rainforest, and made possible an overnight stay in Manuel Antonio, a small town on the Pacific coast where the rainforest stands tall and Capuchin monkeys leap about high in the canopy before swinging to the ground eager to observe people observing them.  Here, in Manuel Antonio, cliffs loom high over the Pacific, rocks thrust out of the green water like fins of ancient sea monsters frozen in time, and waves crash against the rocks and cliffs in their perennial quest to prove the dictum that nature is both patient and persistent in its pursuits, and that nothing, not even the hardest stone, outlasts eternity. 

Manuel Antonio, Pacific Ocean

 

I enjoyed the three days I spent with the Harvard crew.  Their numbers included six men and three women.  Seven came originally from India; one, Faith, from the Philippines; and one from St. Louis.  I laughed with them.  I joined in conversation about health care, auto insurance, education, love, power, fame, and ambition.  With Gaurav, paddling on the Chirripó River, I felt like I forged the sort of bond that only shared physical exertion affords.  I’ve never been around such raucous laughter and fluid conversation, in which some set of unspoken rules governs the group’s collective behavior.  Everyone gets a hearing.  Everyone understands that most, though not all, of the topics of conversation fall in the category of banter and so merit a degree of lightness and jocularity befitting banter. 

El Volcán Arenal

Yet at times I felt like the outsider I in fact was.  I’m a school teacher, not a Harvard MBA, by which I don’t mean to signal any sort of elitism on the part of my companions.  They were kind people, and they graciously included me in their group.  They simply exist in a different world.  They strive after different goals.  Drive and discipline as much as intelligence explain the trajectory of their lives.  As a group they share circumstances and experiences that only members of their group would understand. 

Manuel Antonio

When the loner in me took over, I left the group and wandered the beach at sunset.  I talked with local restaurant owners and beach bums.  Enrique, an extreme biking aficionado who bore all over his body the scars of his pastime, compared relationships to “la guerra” and marveled at the power women have over men.  Late in the evening, still in Manuel Antonio, I sat alone on the beach and sipped a bottle of Imperial beer.  I breathed in the heavy salt air and stared at the surf rolling in.  The whites of the breaking waves glowed phosphorescent in the moonlight.  Palm trees cast shadows across the white moonlit sand and boats winked their lights at me from the sea. 

The Central Highlands Near San José

In Costa Rica I wove in and out of different worlds: physical worlds, social worlds, internal and external worlds.  In a span of three days I was a loner wandering aimlessly in a foreign country; I was a school teacher laughing and singing American rock classics with Harvard MBA students; I was a foreigner talking in Spanish with a local about the travails of relationships, or with a restaurant owner about his road trip seventeen years ago through the western United States.  I was also a nobody sitting on a moonlit beach with eyes closed, listening to the ocean whose roar cancels out everything else in existence and becomes the one true thing in this world.

The Harvard Crew

In case there was any danger of my remaining in the trance I had fallen into on the Rich Coast, soon after I returned to DFW reality served up a dose of the harsh truths that govern our day-to-day lives, the truths that society determines and perpetuates.  At school on the Monday after my trip, in the course of a conversation about careers and goals, one of my most thoughtful and perceptive students asked, “What profession could be lower than teaching?”  The ocean may roar in Costa Rica, but whatever truth it contains remains hidden from view here in the big city.  It’s around here somewhere, but you have to look pretty hard to find it. 

San José

Central Highlands, near San JoséSerene park inside the ruins of the the cathedralBird of Prey near el Volcán Arenal

Ruins of a Cathedral in Cartago, near San José

Serene park inside the ruins of the the cathedral

Bird of Prey near el Volcán Arenal

Amtrak: Everyone’s Here (Boston to Seattle by Rail)

And so they are: professors, vagabonds, business people, teenagers, families with children, the lost, the lonely, the desperate. All of them are here. In one car two academics discuss health care. In another a woman talks software design on her cell phone. In the lounge car a twenty-one year old college student holds forth on everything under the sun–music, guitars, literature– but he is especially keen to describe Florida thunderstorms and hurricanes, and the fact that until this moment in the Montana Rockies he had never seen snow fall, “the act of it,” he says, “I’ve seen it on the ground.” There’s also Courtney, who is returning to Sacramento, CA from Wisconsin after a three-year absence. She’s lonely and lost. She can’t find a job. She misses the friends she left behind three years ago in California, just after graduating high school. Everyone on the train treats her as if she were their daughter.

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This good will is the best thing I take away from this one hundred and thirty-hour trip back and forth across the continent’s midsection. Most of these people would never cross paths anywhere else in life–not at work, not aboard an airplane, certainly not sitting in gridlocked rush-hour traffic. Each person normally lives in his or her own separate universe. But on the train universes dance around one another and for the duration of the ride share a continuum. They operate on the same laws. They merge. The journey is cathartic, confessional. People mostly get along.

Still, there remains an exception to all of this goodness and conviviality. In this bizarre multiverse of differing personalities and backgrounds there exist a few heartbreaking cases. There are people, only a few, with nothing and no one, who lack either home or destination. Some of them brood quietly. One man, who sat behind me and happened to stay at my hostel the night before, talked to himself incessantly from Seattle to Spokane. He spun conspiracy theories about the “diabolical people from Seattle”. With every step down the aisle he moaned and whimpered like a wounded bear. He clutched at his hip and grimaced. He shrieked in his sleep and jolted awake as if from a nightmare, only to find that he was still living one. I wish I knew what to say beyond providing a description. I can’t omit this encounter because it was too real.

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So to make myself feel better I’m going to imagine that this man will get his life together. He’ll call his brother in California (whom he mentioned in his dialogue with the ether). He’ll get a job, an apartment. He’ll see a doctor and somehow manage to pay for hip surgery. His nights will be restful and he will sleep without pain, without grunting and panting all through the night. I imagine that he’ll wake up early each morning, shower, brush his teeth, dress in dark slacks and a button-up shirt and, with a quick sigh, leave for work. No doubt he’ll complain about work–the monotony of it, the feeling of being a cog in the inscrutable machine–but beneath the surface he’ll like the routine and the meaning it gives to his life. And he won’t worry about diabolical Seattleites, and he won’t rage at the world. He may even come to like it. Or so I imagine.