Atmospheric Gymnastics

The month of June brought the residents of West Michigan some of the most amazing skies I’ve seen in my life, day after day.  The skies put on the kind of show I once expected only in the mountains.

I should have known better, though.  When I lived in Central Texas as a boy, every once in a while a hurricane would hit the Gulf Coast.  These mega-storms inflicted their worst damage on residents of the seashore, yet they also spawned myriad tornadoes hundreds of miles inland.

Some of these twisters hid harmlessly above the base of the cloud layer, content with keeping to themselves.  Others hung in the air in plain sight of the earth below.  They danced and dipped and dabbled with the idea of touching down just long enough to carry off a house or a semi-truck.

It was as if a divine hand had reached into the heart of the state and set loose a hundred spinning tops, the way I might have done on the kitchen floor as a kid.  I remember marveling at the forces that unleashed such things, and I remember that the skies were always beautiful just before and just after the carnage.

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The Day My Wife Went Blind (Not Really)

About five years ago my wife, Meghann, and I drove out to Grand Haven, located on the shore of Lake Michigan, about fifty miles west of Grand Rapids.  West Michiganders refer lovingly to this stretch of shoreline as the “Fresh Coast”.  So I’ve heard, anyway; I don’t know if I’ve lived here long enough to call myself a Michigander.

It was May, which in certain parts of the country may connote warm air and the kind of water that invites a refreshing swim.  Here in Michigan, however, such conditions may be as many as two months distant.  No matter—a different spectacle beckoned us to the windswept beach of Grand Haven, a beach punctuated by a beautiful pier that ends in one of the many stoic lighthouses strewn like pearls on a vast necklace along the shores of Michigan’s Great Lakes.

Grand Haven Pier

The Grand Haven Pier

We came for a partial solar eclipse.  Mind you, the moon was expected to obscure no more than ten percent of the sun.  Yet ten percent was just enough to darken the sky.  With a touch of imagination, one could believe for a moment that an alien spaceship was descending from the heavens and that we were trapped in its shadow.  The reality was more fantastic than that, though.  What could be more sublime than to stand in the darkness cast by something the size of the moon, just far enough from the earth to perfectly obscure the star that gives us life, yet near enough to lift the ocean’s tides?

The eclipse occurred at sunset, so that as the moon edged ever-so-slowly in front of the sun, the sky darkened all around except for a brilliant circle of yellow and orange light that radiated from the dancing celestial bodies.  The wind whipped all around us, yet somehow everything seemed quiet and still.

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The eclipse, which my camera was not capable of capturing.  Hence, the sun appears as a smudge.

On the drive home Meghann demonstrated once again that her sense of humor far exceeds my own, and that I’m hopelessly gullible.  “I see spots all around,” she said.  “Is that bad?”  I asked her if she had stared at the sun.  She said she had, for the full hour we spent on the beach.  I was convinced for most of the drive home that she had done permanent damage to her eyes.

To further illustrate my inferior sense of humor, the joke I would have made in the moment would have been to say something like, “Yes, you must not be seeing clearly because you’ve chosen to date me.”  Bada boom.  Thank goodness I married a funny one.

*I would like to take this opportunity to advertise a near-full solar eclipse that will be visible from Grand Rapids at 2:22pm Monday, August 21, 2017.  https://www.timeanddate.com/eclipse/in/usa/grand-rapids

Tricks of Memory

Sometimes I imagine that I’m in a room filled with all of the friends, family, and acquaintances I’ve ever known.  My wife is there.  So are my parents, my sister, and my whole extended family.  Arrayed around me are many of my best friends.  Jonathan and Ronald, two of my childhood basketball buddies, talk sports with a group of my Dallas friends.  They appear to know each other even though location and time separate them; in reality they’ve never met.    

Here and there, mixed in with the more familiar faces, I also see strangers I met only once—a retired federal employee who sat next to me on an Amtrak train from Boston to Seattle, who for his entire life had commuted from Spokane to Seattle only by train; a German backpacker whom I spent the day with wandering the ruins of Tulúm in the Yucatan; or Tarzo, a Brazilian journalist who, with a strange delighted glint in his eye, spun global conspiracy theories in a Buenos Aires hostel so many years ago.

Still others may be people I saw every day for a period of time in my life and with whom I barely exchanged more than a friendly “hello”, yet whose “hello” was just what I needed in that moment of a rough day.  Pete, a math teacher whose classroom shared a hall with mine when I taught Spanish near Houston, expounds on a recent scientific discovery.  Pete made me feel welcome in a school where, as a new teacher, I knew hardly anyone. 

It’s strange the tricks memory plays on us.  Storytelling requires chronology and sequence, yet memory is only sometimes chronological.  Everything it contains seems to have happened all at once.  I was reminded of this when I returned to my hometown, Austin, last year.  The more deeply I immersed myself in this massive city that once seemed small, the more random recollections exploded in my mind.  They lit up like so many thousands of lightning bugs on a cool Michigan night, bright and ephemeral and impossible to snatch out of the darkness. 

In an instant I remembered running through the woods near my friend Albert’s duplex.  We played hide-and-go-seek and tussled with other kids whose aim was to bully us.  Those woods are long gone.  In their place stand cookie cutter houses that over time have come to look as if they’ve always been there.  Their apparent permanence makes me question how big those woods were, with their sprawling live oak trees, where the odd rattle snake slithered among loose stones.

Over time I comprehend better why generations struggle to understand each other.  While in Austin I stopped by the ice cream shop I worked at when I was in high school.  I opened the very door I had windexed a thousand times and was greeted by a smiling teenager.  “Welcome to Baskin Robbins!” he said.  I told him I had worked there too when I was about his age.  He nodded but didn’t say much. 

Then it occurred to me that when I was his age, he had yet to even be born.  He wouldn’t enter this world for another four years.  Most of my world predated his.  Hence, it didn’t exist to him.  History before his birth was a mere instant, not the long, sometimes meandering personal history I had experienced as my life.  How strange, but also how exhilarating that we get to experience life with the same newness and exhilaration as every generation that has come before us.

*I’ve decided to start blogging again.  I have missed it, and it has been far too long.  I will be rusty for a while.  I invite any newcomers to peruse through my older posts. 

Pictures of Austin:

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Crumbling Dreams: Rhyolite, Nevada: Ghost Town in the Mojave Desert

Rhyolite's school building

A few miles east of Death Valley National Park there stand the ruins of a mining town that at its peak numbered more than 3,000 people.  In a span of two years, beginning in 1905, the people of Rhyolite erected a three-story bank, a hospital, an eight-room school, a railroad station, an opera house, and an assortment of other buildings intended to accommodate a vibrant community of miners and their families who had come from far and wide in hopes of striking gold in the parched deserts of Nevada and California.  Within a mere five years the boom ended, Rhyolite’s residents began to flee, and the town began to die.  By 1920, time and the elements had set to work dismantling what thousands of people had so carefully built.

All that remains of Rhyolite are crumbling buildings and the detritus of the people who inhabited them. Old, rusted beer cans lie strewn about on the ground.   Gusts of wind blow them around like autumn leaves.  Defunct mineshafts watch the town from the surrounding hills.  Rattlesnakes seek shelter from the heat of summer and the chill of winter in the rubble of collapsed walls.  Jackrabbits bound through desert shrubs clinging to existence.  The only sounds are the howl of the wind and the scraping of beer cans against hard white sand.

The ruins of Rhyolite speak to a million deliberate decisions, vestiges of thoughts and intentions and hopes and dreams.  “Here we’ll erect a two-story school house so that our kids can grow up in this town.  There, across the wide main street, we’ll build a bank so that we may deposit our earnings and draw on them in the future.  We’ll pipe water into town, build an electrical grid, lay railroad tracks, and construct a train station so that people can come and go.”  Everything about Rhyolite assumes a future, a sustained presence, the persistence of a way of life that we know came to an end but that the town’s inhabitants saw as everlasting.

The Cook Bank of Rhyolite

The ruins of recent history are more haunting than those of the deep past.  Machu Picchu is sublime.  To lay eyes on its green terraces, its crumbling stone walls, and the towering Andes Mountains that protected it from the destructive hands of the conquering Spaniards is to experience transcendence.  Machu Picchu is a celebration of human achievement and audacity.  It doesn’t matter that in the end the civilization that built it fell and nature reclaimed it.  What matters is that people dared to build the city in the first place.

Machu Picchu doesn’t haunt me because I can’t imagine having lived there.  I have no relationship to the people who built it.  Their traditions and way of life are foreign to me.  Rhyolite is different.  I can imagine my great grandparents having worked in its gold mines, sought medical care in its hospital, deposited money in its bank.  I belong to the civilization that built Rhyolite.  It is part of my story.

About a hundred years ago a critical mass of people chose to establish an autonomous town here in the driest, most desolate desert in North America where everything on the surface—the howling wind, the dust, the cracked ground, the snakes, and the relentless sun—warned them away.  All for something shiny that lay buried in the surrounding hills.  I like to think that the works of my time will endure where those of the past crumbled to the ground.  Rhyolite dispels this notion.  Nature makes no exceptions.

A piece of art placed on the outskirts of town in the 1980s.

The Cook Bank

Inside an old train car.

The school.

Lost Footprints: Returning to the Places of Childhood

When I was a child, about once every two years my extended family would descend on a small island off the Gulf Coast of Florida called Sanibel.  We came from Michigan, Texas and Oregon.  We created on Sanibel a reality separate from the ordinary world, where we combed the beach for shells, swam out to sea, played volleyball and tennis, read and exchanged books, and stayed up late playing raucous games of canasta.  All of us gathered together–aunts and uncles, parents and grandparents, children and cousins who saw each other only once or twice a year.  Together we fashioned a space in time and place that existed only when we were together and unraveled when we parted.

What can I say? Sea gulls are always awesome.

In early November I drove my grandmother from Michigan to Florida, where she will spend the winter.  One day I crossed the new causeway to Sanibel in search of the reality I had known as a boy.  But though Sanibel remains beautiful, though the ocean laps at the shore and murmurs in the same language as when I was a kid, though pelicans still glide across its roiling surface like World War II bombers and conchs, clams and sand dollars still pile up on its beaches in infinite number, this is not the Sanibel I knew growing up.

No, that’s not right.  Sanibel remains the same; I have changed.  I’m not that little boy anymore who strolled alongside the ocean and believed it held all the answers in the world; not that boy who dreamed of quasars and nebulae, of unpacking the universe and deciphering its mechanism; not that boy who fretted over girls, wrote little poems about cresting waves and grains of sand, and wandered the beach for hours in search of the perfect sea shell.  No, I’m someone else.

Today I stroll down the beach.  The ocean laps at my feet.  I leave footprints in the wet sand and the waves sneak in behind me and wash them away, so that if I turned around I would see only an incomplete trail of footprints the waves had not yet erased.  A stranger may happen upon my trail just after I’ve left the beach, and though he could say briefly that a man had walked there, he could not tell you where that man had come from.

I feel like this image encapsulates the human experience.  We move through life leaving footprints in the sand.  Before we’ve walked ten steps the world wipes away the evidence of our presence.  Maybe we walk faster, sprint and get ahead of the deleting waves, but they always catch up with us.  We can pound the sand and so leave deeper impressions.  Our footprints may last longer, but still the lapping sea fills them in, erases them.

I returned to Sanibel in search of footprints I left there as a boy, but the ocean had long since washed them away.  It’s a mistake to believe that the places of childhood should somehow be faithful to me.  How many little boys felt about Sanibel as I did?  It was, is, will be their island, too, even as it really belongs to no person.  And that’s OK.

Osprey eating a fish.

Grandma knitting at the beach.

Sanibel Island, Florida.

Quiet Heroes: Scooping Ice Cream and Saving the World

There are in this world quiet heroes who do their good deeds in places so ubiquitous that we take them for granted.  They stock shelves.  They deliver packages.  They serve ice cream.  At home they feed and clothe their kids, care for aging parents, and pay their monthly bills.  They complain about nothing and they perform even the most banal tasks with dedication and diligence. 

Pedro was one of these people.  He was in his late thirties when I worked with him serving ice cream at Baskin Robbins.  I was sixteen, working my first real job.  Pedro had two ailing parents whom he supported with the money he earned at the ice cream shop.  I remember overhearing phone calls he would make to his parents in which he would speak in Spanish about health care costs, miscellaneous household maintenance that needed taking care of, and groceries he would pick up on the way home from work.  Pedro was a good guy.  He loved Elvis and Frank Sinatra, worked nonstop ten to twelve hours a day, and loved to say, “That’s not funny,” after every joke he told.

Pedro suffered from chronic back pain.  When he thought no one was looking he would sometimes wince, sigh and stare at the floor as if searching for something precious he had lost.  If you missed these subtle signs you would never know the pain he was in when he bent over more than a thousand times a day to scoop rocky road and mint chocolate chip into chocolate covered waffle cones, or when he hauled six hundred pounds of ice cream from the storage freezer to the display freezers in under half an hour–because he never complained. 

Though Pedro was not book smart, he had an answer for every problem or complaint a customer might raise.  Not only did he have an answer; he knew how to calm someone when they were flustered, furious or vulnerable.  I think this sort of skill derives from a kind of intelligence that isn’t highly valued in monetary terms but that keeps our society functioning from the bottom up and prevents us from ripping each other apart. 

Teenagers, college students and seasonal employees passed in and out of Pedro’s life by the dozens each year.  Many of them would start work at the shop one week and then, for a variety of reasons, leave two weeks later.  For them (for me), the ice cream shop was one brief stop on the road toward bigger or at least different things in the future.  For Pedro, it was life. 

In the summer of my sophomore year in college I left Baskin Robbins to fly out to Yosemite National Park and work as a front desk clerk at a lodge there.  While I embarked on what at the time was the grandest of adventures, Pedro remained at the ice cream shop and persisted in the sort of work he had done for most of his life.  I didn’t see him again until several years later, in a grocery store parking lot.    He smiled at me.  His mustache curved up just like it did when I worked with him.  We hugged each other and Pedro asked if I remembered giving him a mix CD once for Christmas.  “I still listen to that every day Nick,” he said.  “Frank Sinatra, Paul Anka, Elvis. . . It’s scratched up, but I still listen to it.”  I had no idea that CD meant so much to him. 

I miss Pedro.  He influenced me more than almost any adult aside from my parents, though I’m not sure he knew that.  He was the kind of man nobody talks about but everyone notices at some point in their life.  Pedro performed a thousand little heroic acts every day and asked for no thanks in return.  People like him keep the gears of civilization turning.  As Voltaire might say, they cultivate their gardens.

Travel as Distraction

I’m tired.  I’ve moved around a lot over the last five years, from Austin to Houston to Dallas to Boston to Madison back to Dallas to Lexington back to Boston and soon to Michigan.  In those five years I traveled to most of the fifty states; backpacked in Costa Rica, Mexico, and Puerto Rico; and spent Easter of 2011 on a hostel bunk in the place I grew up, Austin, TX.  All of this change and uncertainty, this not knowing what I’ll be doing a year from now, this mentality I can’t seem to shake that whatever I’m doing now will not last, has depleted me.  I would really like to just stay put for a while and learn to live without the distraction of moving and traveling.  Why have I so effectively avoided permanence in my life?  How did I become so addicted to traveling and constant movement?  

Millennium Park, Chicago

I travel because it keeps me busy and occupies my mind.  When I’m traveling I have less time to think about the future, to worry about what career to pursue or what school to attend, how I’ll pay off education loans or whether one day I’ll start a family.  All that matters is where I’ll walk today and what bus I’ll catch tomorrow morning, what cheap snack I’ll munch on, whether I’ve charged my camera batteries, packed my clothes, scribbled in my little journal, and secured my passport.  Nothing matters except these trivialities. 

Chicago

When I travel I get to meet strangers and for brief spells pretend to be the gregarious guy that I’m not.  It’s easy to find a stranger who will talk my ear off.  More often than not, all I have to do is ask someone a few simple questions and listen.  I think the strangers I meet believe that I’m more talkative than I actually am, maybe because they judge our encounter based on how long I spent listening to their story rather than on how much I actually said.  Which makes sense.  If the typical random encounter entails at best a smile and a nod, then one in which two people sit down and exchange even a few words lasts an eternity by comparison.  And since most people probably don’t feel like anyone really listens to them, a few minutes of conversation that they dominate could easily feel like hours of balanced give-and-take.

Millennium Park, Chicago

But I think there’s something more going on.  When a person I don’t even know puts his whole life on pause to sit down and talk with ME, of all the people in the world, I feel like he has approved of my existence.  He has seen me.  And in a world where I feel pretty invisible most of the time (to the extent that when I’m around a lot of people, stuck in traffic, shopping for groceries, odds are that none of them will know who I am or remember that they brushed shoulders with me in the cereal aisle or rocketed past me on the freeway), it feels good to be seen. 

Amtrak's Empire Builder, Lounge, somewhere in Montana

 The most contented I’ve felt over the last few years was riding Amtrak’s Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle, maybe because the train combined permanence with movement.  I was stuck on one train for fifty hours, slept in the same coach seat two nights in a row, and talked to the same strangers off and on for three straight days.  Yet I was also moving.  I was going somewhere.  The scenery outside the window was changing.  The urban density of Chicago gave way to the green farmland of Wisconsin, which gave way to the blackness of Minnesota at night and the void of sleep, until I woke up the following morning to sunrise over North Dakota’s golden wheat fields that undulate like a vast inland sea.  I saw the sun set over the snow-capped Rockies of Montana and rise again two hundred miles east of Portland, Oregon, where the Columbia River quivered and sparkled in the new dawn light.  I was stationary yet I was also in motion.  The train left me with only two choices: to stay on until it delivered me to the end of the long route or to get off somewhere in the middle of my journey.  That was it.  Life was simple.  Stay on or get off. 

North Dakota

Montana, approaching the Rockies.

Columbia River Gorge

Ferry and Space Needle, Seattle

Seattle Ferry and Olympic Mountains

Brainbridge Island, across from Seattle in Puget Sound.

Seattle Skyline from ferry.

Union Station, Seattle (no longer used as a train station).

It does rain in Seattle, though, interestingly, it receives only about 37 in. of rain per year, compared with 33 inches in Austin, TX and and 50 inches for New York City. The difference? In Seattle it drizzles year round. According to the National Park Service, the west-facing valleys of the Olympic Peninsula, just west of Seattle, receive 12 FEET of rain per year.

Useful information.

Puget Sound

Train Station in North Dakota on Amtrak's Empire Builder Route.

Old posts about the train trip I took from Boston to Seattle in 2009:

Amtrak: Everyone’s Here

Boston to Seattle by Rail: Somewhere in North Dakota

Minneapolis: City Within a City