A Trip with Grandma Along the Santa Fe Trail: Do We Still Tell Stories?

Grandma, Pecos National Historical Park, New Mexcio. The park protects the ruins of a 17th century Spanish mission and a 14th century indigenous pueblo.

Much as a star’s mass curves space and pulls the cosmos toward it, so history leaves depressions in the land and in time.  It tugs at us.  On approaching a battlefield, a crumbling military outpost or the detritus of a dead empire, we sink into a temporal well.  We sink and then we plunge without warning.  The weight of a place and everything that happened in it crushes us.  People lived here, we realize.  They washed in these streams, cultivated maize in these fields, had babies.  They lived, they fought, they died, yet their works linger in the land.  Their thoughts pervade ours.  They are still with us.

My grandmother taught me how to read history in a landscape.  I was eleven years old when she, my mother, my sister, and I drove from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Grants Pass, Oregon to visit my Uncle David.  On that trip I saw the west for the first time.  I remember that the Great Salt Desert blinded me like new snow, that the immense salt pan glowed and that to walk on it was like walking on light itself.  I remember that the mountains that ringed the white desert seemed close enough to touch.  When I asked my grandmother how far away they were, she said, “miles away.”  I was enthralled.

On that trip she and my uncle taught me about distances.  They taught me to see stories in the land, evidence of volcanic cataclysms in Crater Lake, the imprint of pioneers and Native Americans in the relics they left behind, in the persistence of their ideas and lifestyles, and in their descendants who walk among us, who are us.  On that trip, eighteen years ago, I learned how to listen to the land.

In the summer of 2009 my grandmother and I took up where we had left off when I was a boy and lit out for the Santa Fe Trail in her light blue Buick.  We clambered over the ruins of old U.S. army outposts, meandered through the mountains and high plains of New Mexico, and stood atop Bent’s Old Fort in Colorado and gazed across the Arkansas River at land that more than one hundred and fifty years ago belonged to a Mexico twice its current size.

My grandmother knows history in a way that I believe becomes rarer with each passing year.  She knows history as someone who has lived it, studied it, immersed herself in it.  She has strolled through fields where tens of thousands of soldiers fought and died.  She has visited the tombs of men and women who nudged civilization in this direction or that, for better or worse.  She always told me that to understand an era you have to try to place yourself in the context of the people who lived within it.  My grandmother understands history in a way that demands internalization of its lessons, the cultivation of an awareness of the past that a thousand Google searches cannot provide.

Google doesn’t tell a story.  People do.  Cultures and societies do.   Do we still tell stories?  Or have we lost the narrative and therefore weakened our links to generations we never knew directly but who laid the foundations of the world we live in?

Fort Union National Monument, New Mexico, a frontier outpost built in 1851 by the U.S. army.

Fort Union National Monument, New Mexico.

Fort Union, New Mexico.

Bridge over the Rio Grande Gorge, near Taos, New Mexico. Much of Terminator 4 was filmed in this area.

Rio Grande Gorge

Don't mess with me. I have a massive cannon! Bent's Old Fort, Colorado.

Bent's Old Fort, Colorado, along the Arkansas River.

“Would You Like Whipped Cream, Nuts, and a Cherry?” Thoughts on First Jobs

I remember it so well.  I interviewed at the Baskin Robbins on Stassney Lane, in South Austin, wearing navy blue shorts and the first white polo shirt I had ever owned.  I was fifteen.  I didn’t know how a person was supposed to conduct himself in an interview, and it didn’t matter that I was seeking a job that involved little more than scooping ice cream and blending shakes.  It would be my first job, and that fact alone made it the most nerve-wracking interview I would ever endure.

I got the job.  Whatever I was supposed to do to come across as responsible, earnest, and hard-working, I did.  I had worked for a mere two weeks when the manager foisted upon me the unwanted responsibility of closing the store with another employee, Candace, who had been hired the same day I was.  The owner, Boyd, told me I was supervisor for the night.  Candace and I proceeded to leave the store in pristine shape, only to mess up arming the security system, thus triggering the alarm, an automated midnight call to the owner, and a groveling apology from me to him.  “It’s OK,” he told me in a cracking voice.  “This is how you learn.”

I loved working at Baskin Robbins.  I’ve had lots of jobs since then.  For one summer in college I worked at Yosemite National Park, checked people into tent cabins, and hiked to my heart’s content.  I tutored elementary kids in Austin, substitute taught, and finally taught high school in the suburbs of Houston and Dallas.  But none of these jobs brought me the exhaustive satisfaction and sense of mastery that I enjoyed while working at Baskin Robbins.

What did I love so much about serving ice cream?  I loved giving people something they yearned for and that made them happy.  In few jobs do you see the immediate results of your work, but when you serve ice cream the reward comes the moment you hand a little boy a chocolate covered ice cream cone with a fat scoop of Rocky Road balanced on top.  He smiles at you, thanks you, yanks the cone from your hand, and scurries away to join his friends at a table where already they’re making a spectacular dripping mess.  So that’s one thing I loved: instant reward for providing to my customers instant gratification.

I also loved the job because it was perfectible.  If I could master the routines that sustained the store, learn by heart how to prepare every item on the menu, memorize the prices plus tax, and assess the quirks and needs of each customer who walked in, I could achieve perfection.  I knew which customers wanted a server who smiled, which ones wanted efficiency and nothing more, and which ones needed someone to talk to and had actually come for conversation more than for ice cream.

My favorite customers were the regulars.  One man, with a long grey beard and tired eyes, came in every day and ordered a single scoop of vanilla ice cream.  And every day, with those tired eyes, he asked me to ask him a question that would yield a story from him, maybe about how when he was a kid his father used to come home early from work every Friday and treat him to a single scoop of vanilla and a movie.  He wanted me to cheer him up and coax out reminders of the happy boy who still peered out at the world from behind those tired, lonely eyes.

One woman, who wore elegant business suits and huge glasses with thick, rectangular lenses, came in every Friday after work.  She ordered the same banana milkshake every time, and she said hardly a word to me or any of the other teenagers who worked at the store.  But though she was quiet, she smiled uncontrollably—and sometimes, even giggled—when we asked how her week had gone (to which she responded with a hushed, “good.”) and wished her a good evening.  When she skipped weeks and failed to come in, we worried about her, and we told her so the following week when she kept her appointment with our store.

Of course, I wouldn’t do this now, being much older and more mature (ahem), but as a teenager I also knew when a girl wanted to flirt, when to embellish my scooping skills and technique with unnecessary flexing of my (admittedly) skinny forearms.  Thank goodness standards for strength and physique were different when I was a teenager.

I scooped dutifully.  I didn’t steal.  I mopped floors, scrubbed dishes, replaced three gallon bins of ice cream by the dozens every night.  I secured the day’s earnings in the safe, armed the alarm, and made sure every counter in that ice cream shop was spotless before I left each night with my fellow employees, knowing with near certainty that we could not have done better and that the owner would walk into perfection the next morning.

First jobs teach us a lot about people and life.  Service jobs in particular confer on us the privilege of seeing every day a slice of a thousand different lives from a thousand different walks.  The people who live these lives come from poor, middle class, and rich backgrounds.  Some are happy, some are sad.  Others literally walk to your store from a nearby mental hospital.  In such jobs we work with teenagers who attend different high schools and run in different social circles, older veterans of the service sector who have gotten by on low wage work for most of their lives, and owners who have toiled for decades to create their idea of the perfect business.  I would rather not imagine how impoverished would be my understanding of people had I never worked at Baskin Robbins.

Image Credits:


Falling in Love with Mountains, Pebbles, and Waterfalls: Our Relationship with Place

Yosemite Valley, Merced River, El Capitan--Yosemite National Park, California. I love Yosemite's meadows as much as I do its mountains and cliffs.

Most of us have memories of falling in love with someone.  And I’m not just referring to that first love that often occurs in high school and never goes away.  No, I’m talking about finding the first perfect love, or what at the time seemed to be perfect, when we were mature enough and experienced enough to recognize that we had stumbled upon something that would never be repeated and that would be with us forever, even if that intangible “something” must persist only in recollection.

Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California

I hear people reminisce about such relationships all the time.  In some cases they’re still with the man or woman who helped create such happy memories.  Often, though, there is an underlying tone of longing and regret that accompanies the remembrance of something lost.  Such people talk about how idyllic it all was, and how nonetheless there were also moments of pain and sadness that acted as counterbalances to the more euphoric periods.  They speak at great length of how they felt, how they behaved, how reality itself was transformed by their contact with this other being.  They remember the strangest details, the most irrelevant and trivial facts only because such minutiae coincided with their fleeting encounter with contentment.  It may be that one day at lunch a loose strand of hair dangled over their lover’s glacier-blue eyes and somehow made them especially attractive.  Or it may be something as silly as the name of the waiter where they had an incredible dinner one night.

Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California

I have no such memories, at least not in connection with one specific girl.  I’ve been in love before, but I’ve never been in what seemed to be a perfect relationship.  When people  tell me how in love they are and how wonderful everything is as a result, instead of thinking back to a time with someone, I think of my relationship with some place.  I think of mountains, snow, sheer cliffs and waterfalls.  Images of undulating green meadows and towering sequoias stream through my mind and I am inundated with thoughts of lying alone next to rushing rivers, swinging my legs over bottomless canyons, or sitting in rocking chairs talking to curious strangers and random tourists.

I recall standing for hours in Yosemite Valley peering up at moonlit cliffs to see climbers flash lights on and off all through the night, or standing in the same spot during the day convincing myself that I could actually see these people working their way to the top of their climbing routes.  I remember anonymous little pebbles in the river that fascinated me for no reason at all.  I think of staring captivated at the glint of the guard rail at Glacier Point, 3,200 ft above Curry Village, riding the shuttle round and round the valley for no reason except that I had nothing better to do, or wading up and down the Merced one day and coming across a middle aged woman with a wide smile doing exactly the same thing.

From the trail to the brink of Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park, California. Most of the rest of the photos are from 2000 and were taken with a point and shoot film camera.

These memories are my point of reference when anyone speaks to me of being in love.  It’s odd, really, because I went to Yosemite with this naïve, romantic notion that I would find a girl there and we would fall in love.  If my boyish fantasy had been realized, I’m sure that instead of always speaking obsessively (and monotonously) about nature, I would spend my time remembering that girl and the relationship she and I had together.  I would do so with a smile, and perhaps I would let escape a hint of regret over losing what seemed to be so perfect.  I would not forget the cliffs, the waterfalls, and the odd people I came to know, nor would I fail to remember what a wonderful place Yosemite is, but these memories would be dimmed, and they would rest concealed in the shadow of other memories.

But as it happens, I did not fall in love with that girl, though I’m sure I might have had I gone about things differently.  So instead of speaking today about how she and I met and how I’ll never forget our time together, I talk yet again of inanimate cliffs and stoic monoliths, as if I had fallen in love with a park and not a person–because that’s just what happened.

From Eagle Peak, about 3,000 ft. above Yosemite Valley.

Half Dome and Tenaya Canyon as seen from Glacier Point.

Vernal Falls, where the Merced River drops over a 317 ft. shelf before calming down and entering Yosemite Valley within about another half mile.

Yosemite Valley as seen from Half Dome, about 5,000 ft. above the valley. There's a much better picture of a similar view in the May or June 2011 issue of National Geographic.

North Dome, during a winter of rock slides and avalanches.

The only picture I have available at the moment of the Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls. See the buses parked along the road for scale.

For more national park photos, see the following recent posts:

Tuesday Photos: Oceans Soothe the Soul; Giant Iguana Attacks Caribbean Bathers

As much as the visual aesthetic of the water itself, the sound of breaking waves soothes the soul.  The ocean does two things that are paradoxical.  Like the grandeur of the mountains, it reminds us of our insignificance.  In spite of this depressing truth–or rather, because of it– the ocean in its vastness fills the heart with hope and wonder.  I see again and confirm again the existence of eternity and infinity and recall the unlimited possibilities that saturate the universe.  Yes, infinity reveals itself in all things, but for my primitive human mind, few natural phenomena convey the infinite like the ocean.

Maybe it’s best that I don’t live near the ocean and can only view it for days at a time when I travel.  If I walked along it every day, maybe I would forget to fear it and I would only love it.  Then again, maybe the ocean is too immense and too erratic to forget that in the end it thwarts even our best efforts to hold it in our minds, to understand it and to tame it.

On a serious note: Please beware giant man eating iguanas.  (Read the previous sentence however you like. 😉 )

Iguana scampering among the Maya ruins of Tulúm, Yucatán, México; also snacking on unsuspecting Caribbean bathers?

Western shore of Cozumel, México.

My favorite stretch of coastline: Big Sur, California.

Pacific City, Oregon Coast (my other favorite stretch of coastline!)

Cannon Beach, Oregon Coast. The beach is so flat that as the tide recedes it leaves a thin film of standing water that turns the beach into a mirror, so that you feel like you're walking on top of another plane of reality that is an inverted version of our own.

Cannon Beach, Oregon, at night. Note he Big Dipper in the sky!

Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica.

The above picture was included in a post I published in April titled, “The Many Worlds Theory of Travel: A Week in Costa Rica”.

Mendocino, California, where I saw my first huge waves (~20 ft.) when I was younger.

Seattle as seen from a ferry docking at Bainbridge Island, across the sound from Seattle.

Arctic Ocean, Barrow, Alaska. Sooner or later I'll write a post about the eccentricities and beauty of Alaska. It still dazzles me that in July of 2006 the ocean near the coast remained frozen.

“This Is My Island”: Fear and Confusion in Toronto

When I travel there are certain disasters or near-disasters that I hope never befall me, but when they do, I’m glad I experienced them: three little kids on a crowded street in Buenos Aires trying to slice open my backpack to steal whatever tumbled out; three grown men, one drunk, cornering me and trying to rob me on a Buenos Aires subway during rush hour; getting lost in a strange neighborhood in Seattle that may or may not have been dangerous.  I’m glad of these moments because they are the ones that stick with me over the years.  They are the ones that get me questioning and wondering about the nature of the place I’m exploring and the people who inhabit it.

One such episode occurred in Toronto, when I took a ferry from downtown to the islands that mark the eastern end of Toronto Harbor.  There, on the largest island, I strolled among happy families picnicking on the green September grass, kids splashing in fountains and screaming from rollercoasters, and adults biking along the paths that meander through the island’s forests and green spaces.  Centre Island is a place of unbearable lightness and gaiety that, while you’re there, comprises your whole world.  But as in all public spaces, at any time of day, there are also secluded spots where danger may lurk and where strange things may happen.

Around mid-afternoon I approached the western shore of the island to gain a view of downtown Toronto.  I got to within one-hundred feet of the shore and smelled cigarette smoke wafting in the wind.  Though I couldn’t see the source of the smoke, I could hear the laughter and cursing of the young men from whom it emanated.  I thought nothing of it, high-stepped over the tall grass that lines the shore and hopped along a series of half-submerged stones out to a boulder that afforded a view of the city to the east.  The CN tower soared above the pristine condos and new high rises that speak to the vitality of a prospering and burgeoning metropolis.

I crouched on the boulder, not quite large enough to sit on, and pulled out my camera to take pictures of the ducks paddling by against the backdrop of the city.  I thought I was alone, but soon I heard from behind me the sound of twigs snapping and grass crunching, followed by a series of splats, as if someone were slapping the water with the palm of his hand.

I turned around and saw a man in his twenties standing on a stone between me and the shore.  He was staring at me.  Neither one of us said a word.  The man looked at me, then at the rock on which I was crouched, then at the trail of stones leading to it from the shore, as if he was pointing out to me that to go anywhere I would have to leap into the lake.  He rested his eyes on me again, and with a blank face he said, “Hey man, how you like this island?  It’s nice, yeah?”

“Yeah, this view is awesome,” I said.

As if he hadn’t heard me, he said, “This is my island.  I love it.”

He hopped toward me and crouched on a boulder beside me.  He looked at me again and said in a whisper, “This is my island.”  He paused, then, with a sweep of his hand and a nod toward the shore, said once again, drawing out his words, “This is my island.”

We sat there in silence for what felt like half an hour, just the two of us, the water lapping against the shore, the trees swaying in the breeze, the cigarette smoke still wafting in the wind and mixing with the smell of algae that saturated the air, and the disembodied laughter of the young men coming from beyond the shore.

I was scared, but there was little I could do about it, knowing that this man’s friends were nearby.  I guessed that he wanted to exercise power over me, to threaten me with confusion rather than with overt gestures of menace or force.  I felt like that poor toad little boys poke at with a stick yet which they can’t quite bring themselves to crush.

I had calmed down and accepted my circumstances when the stranger asked where I was from.  “Texas,” I said.  “How about you?  Are you from Toronto?”

He laughed.  “No, I been here a year.  Came from Nigeria.  But this is my island.”

“You have a cool island,” I said, and on hearing this he stood up and hopped along the stones back to the shore.  He turned back to me and said, “You’re cool, man.  I like you.  You’re cool.”  And he disappeared among the tall grass and the trees swaying in the wind.

For some reason I felt elation over having formed some kind of meaningful bond with a man who at first frightened me.  I wished I’d had more time to talk with him, to ask how he came to Toronto, what it was like to start a new life in a foreign continent, to leave home, maybe for good.  More than anything, I wanted to know what exactly our whole encounter was about, and why I liked this man who had toyed with me and gone out of his way to scare me.  Why did it gladden me to think that I had somehow earned his respect and approval?  Approval for what?  For existing?  Or did I misinterpret the whole encounter?  Maybe he was just lonely and wanted company.  I don’t know.

*Buenos Aires and Argentina: It occurred to me that I gave two examples of sort of bad things that happened in Argentina and Buenos Aires.  I want to clarify that Argentina is one of the safest countries I’ve ever traveled in and that these two incidents are as likely to happen in a big American city as in Buenos Aires or anywhere else in Argentina.  I just had bad luck, or I did something to mark myself as vulnerable.  Good friends of mine (who are argentinos) live in Argentina.  They’re kind in the way most of the people who live there are.

What on Earth Is This Blog About?

I have no idea.  I’ve posted enough essays, vignettes, and what I’ll call blurbs that I should have a sample of writing large enough to reveal a pattern.  But the only pattern I can discern is that I love to talk about everything.  I love to show people things as I see them and ask if they see them in the same way.  I love to share the enigmas that perplex me, even if by doing so I won’t solve them.  Maybe I don’t want to solve them.  Maybe I like that they’re insoluble.  So what I’ve ended up with here is a sampling of essays about travel, ideas, people, places, mysteries, and topics that fall into no simple category.  Jorge Luis Borges once wrote:

A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.

I run my fingers over the contours of the world.  I rest my eyes on its sunsets and its snow-capped mountains, its white beaches and its emerald seas, its glittering skyscrapers and its rickety favelas.  I try hard to listen to people rather than talk, to let their words, their experiences, and their wisdom settle like fresh snow on the jagged landscape of my mind.  And through it all I’m really trying to understand myself, which I hope will help me understand everyone.  So maybe that’s what this blog is about.  It seeks to answer two questions: Who the heck am I?  And who are you?  (as opposed to, “Who the heck are you?” or “Who the heck do you think you are?”  Sorry, I’m trying to be funny.  If I can match Borges at nothing else, maybe I can at least be funnier than he was.)

Please talk to me.  I want to hear from you.  I don’t know much, but I know you can teach me a few things.  And thank you.

It’s time I created some structure for this blog.  So here’s my plan:

  • Beginning next week, I’ll post Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.
  • I’ll devote Tuesdays to pictures (usually falling under a theme).
  • Thursdays I’ll usually post something short of my own, but when life gets busy I’ll share favorite quotes from favorite authors.
  • Saturdays I’ll post longer pieces, usually all “authorial” sounding.  Some will be essays, some will be stories, others will be travel narratives, and still others will be, well, random miscellany.  I’ve noticed that when I write these sorts of pieces, they tend to hover around 700 words in length, so that will be my goal.

Today, I want to share Argentina with you.  These photos are from a summer I spent traveling there while I was in college:

*These photos are sized wrong for my homepage.  For some reason the edit option isn’t working, so I’ll have to re-size them later.

The Andes near the Argentina/Chile Border

Iguazú Falls, along Argentina's border with Brazil.

Iguazú Falls

Iguazú Falls.

Northwest Argentina, near Salta.

Purmamarca, el Cerro de los siete colores ("the hill of seven colors"), Northwest Argentina.

El cerro de los siete colores.

Convent in Salta, Northwest Argentina.

Cathedral in Salta, Northwest Argentina.

This one is actually from Santiago, Chile.

Fatal Wanderings: Thoughts on Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild”

Ruth Glacier, Denali National Park, Alaska

*I wrote this in 2006.

Recently I read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.  Therein Krakauer tells the story of a young man named Chris McCandless who upon graduating from college leaves his family and friends, hits the road in his old Datsun and severs all contact with his origins.  His parents don’t even know he has left until they try to visit him at his former home weeks later.

Into the Wild is that story we all know so well of the youthful vagabond who wanders off into the unknown in search of himself and those old clichés: truth, beauty, and meaning.  And as in every other similar tale, the desperate wanderer believes in his core that his quest is original and that his path is untrodden, that his journey will yield the answers he’s looking for and that solitude will set him free.  He doesn’t know that others have already been where he’s going and that many have not returned.

Chris’s naiveté and youthful enthusiasm fuel a two year trek on foot through the western United States.  He camps in deserts, hops trains and sustains himself on little more than small portions of rice.  Human contact consists primarily of hanging out with vagrants in shanty towns or pausing briefly to earn money at menial jobs.  Chris’s ultimate goal is to hitchhike to Alaska and survive on his own in the bush.  In the end, he makes it to Alaska, and after living for months on berries, roots, birds and squirrels, he dies of starvation–alone.

Somehow, despite how perfect this book is for me and my personality, I managed not to read it until yesterday.  Why “perfect”?  First of all, because I love tragedy; second of all, because for more than a decade I believed, like Chris McCandless, that solitude was the answer to my questions and the salve for my pain.  Only within the last two years did I finally realize that solitude was in fact the source of my problems.  Let me qualify that.  I’ve learned a lot by avoiding people and in many ways have grown as a result.  But in the broader analysis my misanthropy only deepened my wounds and heightened my discontent.  As a direct consequence of my worsening condition, I came to believe even more firmly than ever that distance from others was the solution, so that avoidance became self-perpetuating.  “The farther I go,” I believed, “the closer I’ll come to finding the answers I seek.”  You see, you know you’re in trouble when you believe that the solution to your problem is actually its very cause.

To highlight the pervasiveness of this self-destructive mentality, Krakauer lists a number of other vagabonds who disappeared and eventually destroyed themselves following what they believed was their calling.  In 1981 Carl McCunn, a Texan, starved and froze to death in the Yukon Territory in his attempt to become intimate with nature.  John Mallon Waterman, a skilled climber, was swallowed by Alaska’s Ruth Glacier in April of 1981.  Gene Roselline’s death came later in life.  In 1991, at the age of 49, he stabbed himself in the heart a full thirty years after beginning his experiment with life outside of modernity in Alaska.  And to demonstrate that these personality types have always been with us, Krakauer tells us of Everett Ruess, who forsook society and in November of 1934 ventured into Utah’s Davis Gulch, never to return.

Alaska, between Anchorage and Denali

Certainly, only a minority of such people die, but many of those who remain and who never shake their habits end up miserable and alone.  In short, they don’t find that thing we’re all looking for: happiness.  Happiness has no residence in the desert, nor does it exist in lasting from atop a mountain.  Isolation has its benefits, but only if he who embraces it returns to society after a time and integrates whatever he has gained from his experience into a lifestyle that includes other human beings.

To put it bluntly, people like Chris McCandless may learn a lot from their recklessness, but they do so at the expense of a full and happy life.   Ever notice how people who have a lot of friends and who don’t turn their backs on love are less likely to dwell on those burning questions that often lead to such misery for the loners among us?  It’s no coincidence.  Human contact engenders security and well-being.  It reduces the need to know all the answers.  To most people, that probably sounds like common knowledge.  But whatever some may say, we aren’t all made of the same stuff—at the very least, that “stuff” is arranged differently in each of us, so that what is “common knowledge” to some is foreign to others.

Edward Whymper writes:

Still, the last sad memory hovers round, and sometimes drifts across like floating mist, cutting off sunshine and chilling the remembrance of happier times.  There have been joys too great to be described in words, and there have been griefs upon which I have not dared to dwell; and with these in mind I say: Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are naught without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime.  Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end (Krakauer, p. 200).

Whymper was a mountaineer.  Like most climbers I’ve known, he uses climbing as a metaphor for everything.  His message?  Yes, take risks in life.  Take on dangerous challenges and expose yourself to the elements, but do not do so blindly without an eye toward what may come next.  Pause and consider alternative paths that entail adventure and hold mystery also, yet that are less likely to annihilate you.  Climbing Everest is a legitimate goal for the well prepared, but make the ascent knowing that rock and ice alone never cured anyone of depression.  Try talking to someone first.  Besides, there are other ways to seek transcendence.  Everest isn’t the only mountain out there; it’s just the tallest.

*I was a little more didactic in my writing back when I wrote this… College wasn’t far behind me and I think I was still strongly influenced by writing essays and long analytical papers.  It’s fun to see how your writing and thought process change over time.  Anyway, I thought this post was appropriate since I’m moving tomorrow.

The Wisdom of Innocence

I wonder sometimes if the simple wisdom we attain as kids is often superior to what we think we know as adults.  Because then, when we were young, it was all so new, and since we were experiencing the world for the first time, new experiences came to us pure and unfiltered through the minds of others.  No one had yet told us how to think and discriminate.  The first sunset we saw must have been the most beautiful we’ll ever know, because we saw it for what it was: illuminating, mesmerizing, mysterious.

Now that I’m older, I rank sunsets.  I can tell you that yesterday’s was more beautiful than today’s, and that the best sunset I ever saw was over Yosemite Valley, in California, when the sun found a sliver of sky on the western horizon through which it lit from below the clouds hanging over the valley and set them aflame.  I can tell you how the normally white cliffs surrounding the valley glowed orange and curved toward the sky like a tidal wave of molten lava about to break on the fragile green valley below.

But how can a sunset over Yosemite compare to the first one I ever saw, when one sunset was all sunsets and all sunsets were beautiful, when ranking was neither necessary nor possible?  Then again, maybe, when I’m struck with awe, I’m actually recalling my first experience of it and I’m feeling it as strongly in the present as I did when I was a boy.  Maybe awe is a state in which we forget to pick apart what we’re seeing, to rank it, to categorize it, to place it alongside other experiences and judge it against them.  Maybe in that moment we slip back into our childhood selves and see the world for what it is.  That feels right.

Always On the Run

My elementary school used to put on a carnival every spring.  There would be food, a dunking booth, a petting zoo, and a place where you could have your caricature drawn. In the music room, students created a haunted house out of butcher paper and flashing lights.  Outside, near the front office, parent volunteers would paint stars and rainbows and other colorful images on your face.  White canvas booths lined the parking lot, and within them artists sold paintings and crafts.  If you grew tired of the bustle of the carnival, you could always cross the street to the nearby park and spin on the merry-go-round or bob up and down on a see-saw that no longer exists.

What’s odd is that instead of participating in all of the fun and games, I would wander around until I found a certain girl that I liked.  Then, once I found her, the two of us would initiate what eventually became a sort of annual tradition.  She would chase me around the carnival for hours.  We would run into the school building, through empty hallways and classrooms; then we would emerge onto the playground, scamper up and down slides, around swings, climb monkey bars, only to end up back where we started, in the thick of the carnival crowd with all of its noise and boisterous energy.  At regular intervals we would both stop and take a break, standing within ten feet of each other, panting and out of breath, eyes locked together saying everything our mouths were unable to say.

I never let her catch me.  I always maintained a pace that would keep us within ten to fifteen feet of each other, but never, not once, did I allow her to penetrate that fuzzy boundary.  And I wonder now, as I did back then, what was wrong with me that I prolonged the chase and never allowed it to reach a conclusion?  Every year it was as if we resumed the whole endeavor anew, beginning where we had left off the year before, only to leave things unresolved again.  We both understood the rules.  Each of us knew when and where to find the other.  These rules of the game were implicit, unspoken.  We communicated through eye contact and nothing more.

In the end, nothing changed.  The little girl never caught me.  Why not?  Because I could acknowledge my fascination with her, yet I could do so only at a distance.  I sought her attention, yet at the same time I fled from it.  Now I realize that’s the story of my life.  I run from things.  No, I don’t run from things so much as from people, from relationships.  Not only because I’m often scared, but also because I enjoy running.  I love being chased.  It always gave me a sense of power.  Make others chase you, avoid being caught, delight in evasion.  But you see, the problem is that eventually those in pursuit give up on chasing after you.  They disappear and wander off in pursuit of others who play more fairly, who understand that eventually, you have to be caught.  And long after they’re gone, you realize that you’re running all alone.

*This post is actually five years old.  Honestly, I don’t feel much like writing lately.  My apologies.  I’d like to say something about what it feels like to leave Texas, again, not knowing exactly what I’ll be doing three months from now, but I don’t have it in me.  I feel confused.  And sad.  Texas is home.  Rather, it used to be home.  Words seem kind of inadequate at the moment. I may just take a break from WordPress altogether.  We shall see!

*Update: I’ll keep posting, but maybe more like once a week from now on.  That’ll do. 🙂  Thanks, everyone.

National Parks Cure Melancholy

I don’t have a long, polished post in me for this weekend, so instead of writing something I’m going to share some pictures of national parks.  Over time I would like to profile each park I’ve been to, but for now pictures will suffice.  Whenever I’m sad or just plain grumpy, if I think of the leaping waterfalls of Yosemite, the sublime emptiness of Death Valley, or the convoluted chasms of the Grand Canyon, usually I feel a little better.  I’ll be back next week.  Have a good weekend.

Monument Valley, Navajo Nation (not a national park, but it protects sacred beauty in the same way)

Denali National Park, Mt. McKinley, Alaska

Redwood National Park, California

Yosemite National Park, California

Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park, California

Yosemite National Park, California, looking down Tenaya Canyon from atop Half Dome (taken with a film camera in 2001)


Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

Arches National Park, Utah

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Death Valley National Park, California