Monday, August 8, 2011

One year later

            For most of last month, I was in the Mt. Shasta area and the Marble Mountain Wilderness, helping to teach classes at the Headwaters Outdoor School. Both places are impressively beautiful, deep green woods and crashing creeks, craggy ridge lines and diving valleys. I saw many animals and their sign: bears, deer, elk, osprey, hawks, woodpeckers, a fisher, the ubiquitous squirrels. In the Marbles in particular there are giant old growth trees who have never faced the saw and stand monolithic, almost too large to grasp.
            Near the end of my time there I got the chance to climb Mt. Shasta with some of the apprentices and instructors from the school. Somewhere during the climb I began to draw parallels to the transam - how this great mass of stone, clothed in glaciers and ice rime and snow, rising as it does from the undulant forest, seems insurmountable from its flanks; and yet step by step we climb, kick our crampons into the steep snowfields and raise ourselves until we meet the spired summit. Even now, having done it, the four thousand miles of the transam seem daunting, but it was accomplished, by one pedal stroke, then another.
            After I came back from the climb and the school, something seemed to haunt me as I went about my duties at work, repairing rigging and waxing boat hulls. In part it was that the outdoor school operates, at least during the summer, much as I want to live, in a tight-knit community where my connection with nature readily deepens - I was sad to have left that. Still, there was something else, and as I thought about it I realized it was the year anniversary of the beginning of our bike trip.
            In many ways a year seems as monumental as a mountain, an old growth tree, a continent to be traversed. It tends to mark the outer limit of our vision for the future - beyond its bounds everything goes into soft focus, the shapes of possible events and even ourselves become vague.
            The trip was so vivid, so intense, so impactful, often in ways I couldn't describe. It has been with me all through the time since I returned on the train from the East, and it will be with me while I live. I already know that it is one of those experiences which marks one indelibly. It still seems fresh, undeniably real, not the misted half-recalled moments that a year's passage often makes out of memories.
            So it was startling - could a year, that wide swath of time, really have gone by since the advent of the trip, since we dipped our rear wheels in the Pacific and looked East and started peddling?
            There have been other moments that stand out along the year's course; I would never call it wasted. Yet compared with the condensed intensity of those transam months, the time since might almost seem vapid. My time in the woods with the outdoor school is in a similar vein as the bike trip - I feel the intensity of connection between myself and the landscapes I inhabit. I have tried to live simply in what I've begun to think of as the interstitial times - that is its own kind of goal - and write. But it comes to a year on now and it seems as if I ought to be setting out again.
            In any event, here I am. And if I have learned anything from the transam it is to appreciate small things, a warm place out of the weather, a cup of hot weak coffee, someone looking out for you as you start down the steep slope of a pass. These are part and parcel to me of living by paying attention, of digging into life and sucking out everything one can.
            I went back and read through all our blogging during the trip and that is what I came away with: the impression of intensity, and relish. Through all the difficult times, the frozen fingers and damp clothes, the burning legs, the sweltering sun without cease, the brick-hard winds, and through all the good feelings of drinking tea with friends in a warm trailer, the hard deep sleep after a long day of sun and workout, the satisfaction of an avocado-bologna-jackcheese-tapatio wrap - there was a deep underlying feeling of relishing it all. I didn't relish the death of the dog on the canyon road in West Virginia, but there was something so intense about being a part of that, seeing and hearing it die - it is the experience I relish and would not give up. Many of my posts seemed melancholy in tone on the surface, a sense we tend to associate with loss. There was a kind of loss there, but a healthy one - a stripping away of the muffling shroud we so often place between ourselves and sensation, exposing the burning nerve of experience.
            Therefore, on the anniversary of the start of the trip, I try  to think on relishing being alive - whatever perturbations of work and such arise, relish them too, as I can. A year ago I could not have foreseen what intense impressions would pierce me in the coming months - what will next year bring?

            PS As always, thanks to Dave, for being the best brother, an inspiration.
Dave and I got matching tattoos of this design, a gothic labyrinth reproduced in Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

New Adventure Update from Dave

Hello all,

It's hard to believe, but I've been in Chicago almost a month.  I've gotten pretty well settled in here; sometimes I laugh to myself at how easily everything has fallen into place.  I imagined weeks and weeks of struggle to find a job, a place, furniture, all the little necessities of indoor living and cooking that I wasn't carrying on the bike trip.  As it turned out, I had a job 4 days after arriving and a room in an apartment 5 days after that.  It really gives me a sense that this is the right place to be. 

Many of you have heard that I'm working as a bike messenger.  There's a lot more to that story, but in the interest of brevity I'll say that I'm enjoying the heck out of it, and it (hopefully) pays enough for me to get by.  I've been soaking up all the impressive architecture the city has to offer, and I think that I'll stick with my M.O. on this blog and let the pictures I've been taking do most of the talking.

But one last (lengthy) thing before pictures....

I feel I need to mention all the people that I'm grateful to amidst all this life change.  It's difficult to limit it to a short list, because there are so many people who have helped keep me confident about my decision to come here.  I feel like an academy award winner with too many people to thank for the time allotted.  Well, for better or worse there's no orchestra or commercial break on this blog to shut me up, so here goes......

First and foremost, Mom and Dad.  I don't know if I have ever observed two parents so willing to let their children take flight into what often seems a dark and stormy world.  I once had an intensely emotional dream in which I had children, and I felt the awesome weight of concern for their safety.  It was a fleeting experience, but I think I understand something of what it is to release your young into the uncertainty that lies beyond Home.  We all knew that my and Neale's trip carried some inherent danger.  I am so filled with gratitude that you both took that fact in stride and gave our journey your blessing. 

To Elliot, Sus, Ben, Garrett, and Arbel:  Before I called any of you to tell you about Chicago, I was half expecting to hear disappointment that we weren't going to see each other as soon as we planned.  I apologize if I underestimated you.  Without hesitation, you all let me know how excited you were that I was following my gut and doing something risky.  It was really a lesson in what great friends you all are to me.  We all miss each other, but that's secondary.  I can't tell you how much it means to me that you all have my best interests in mind, first and foremost.  And it lifts my spirits to hear about all the amazing things going on in your lives!

To Georgia and Tessa:  I couldn't have done it without you!  You were both so generous to open your home to me and share couch, food, computers, tv, advice, laundry machine, halloween costume items.... it was everything I needed to get off on the right foot here!  And I can't tell you how much it helps to have friends in town. 

To Neale:  Your last post expresses so much of what I feel; the first meal I had at Georgia's without you was a little somber.  I too feel the absence of something that had been unwaveringly present for months.  I too have been reflecting on the closeness we had, like no other closeness since birth.  I get that overflowing feeling in my chest when I think about everything we've been through, and the mutual releasing of each other as we start new adventures.  I think the adventures you are embarking on are in no way less exciting than mine; what's next for you with this wonderful mix of writing, boat living, and wilderness teaching?  I'm eager to see where all the threads of your life are leading. 

Thank you again to everyone who has offered a kind or supportive word.  And now for some pictures from the messenger life.......

Lunchtime! I found that pre-made lunches always end up not being enough food.  Now I carry ingredients so I can make as much as I feel like eating- much like how Neale and I ate on our trip.

The Thompson center.  30+ story government building that's all one room on the inside.  Pretty impressive open space in the middle of the building- apparently makes for nightmarish heating and A/C bills.

Evening on the Chicago River

Staring straight up the side of 333 W. Wacker.  This one goes all the way too the moon.

So many buildings with great reflective images

Sometimes I inconspicuously take pictures of people.....

Chicago's underbelly.  A lot of the streets downtown have two levels- one on the surface and one underneath.  Quite a bit of the new Batman movies were filmed down here.  Kinda fun to ride my bike around and play make believe....

The Sears (now officially named Willis) Tower.  I like to think that Bruce Willis bought the naming rights just to feel awesome about himself.
Critical Mass- the last Friday of the month, hundreds of cyclists take ride together around downtown because, well, they want to show that they can.  I rode with them for a couple blocks, but after getting used to dodging cars and buses, pedaling slowly around with no obstacles to avoid actually got a little boring....

Monday, November 1, 2010

Thoughts from the train

Dear Friends,
This is another long entry, but it was what I put down while on the train by myself, heading to California, and records my thoughts around the end of the trip. Thanks for reading and for all the good thoughts during the journey.

    We go down through close caves of trees hung with moss. We leave behind the settled quiet of the swamp broken by the screech and trilling response of mating owls, the air in the root-woven trees like cool breath from an earthen mouth. From that to dense car-run highways, the crumbling walls of plantation gardens. The road widens, we fly on concrete bridges above estuaries, the air is rimed with salt. Months since we've smelled that, ocean in the throat. And then we are there, and we run down the packed sand and into the wet swaying glass of the Atlantic.
    The trip began with hastily packed bags, a short wait in the train station before departing into restless sleep, waiting for the sun to rise on Oregon. In a travel analogue we spend the day in Charleston and then rush off to the station to box bikes, check bags, board and glide through the South's humid night. A lay-over the next morning in Washington DC, where we walk the mall in a giddy travel-dream, eat a meal and buy a blanket, board again in the afternoon. The familiar lolling of the head on the seat back with the swaying of the train. We listen to a Bruckner symphony in the near-empty observation car while the moon rises like a gold dollar through the silhouettes of trees.
    Morning mists up out of Indiana farm country, the cut fields, watering lines standing derelict on their spoked wheels, close-clouded rain. The trip rewinding like a tape, images we had absorbed now speeding in reverse. How the houses seem blank-eyed and lonely in the fall, how their lights burn on the hills in the dark with the cold interstices between them. The breaks of silent trees overhanging the edges of fields, russet colors muted in the gloaming. We cross back to central time and add an hour we had lost three weeks before.
    This feeling of rolling our wheels backwards, as if they had played out a string all across the continent and we now had to recover it. This feeling of loving land and not wanting to live in it, only hoping it goes on being. Land I carry with me, its dust in my lungs, chaff in my bones. Land that entered through my senses and embossed its own image in my brain. This feeling of all this land stored up in me now, time and sensation laid up in loam.

    We pass Gary, Indiana, and can see the thoroughfare we took through town, where we remarked on the city's decay, this modern ruin of gutted hotels, crumbling boxes of cement, rebar going to powder; bushels of acacia and other weeds springing out from fissures in the sidewalk; the downtown buildings lurking and drab with soot; the billboards reading Isn't it Gary's time? It is not Gary's time, Gary's time has come and passed, in this strange accelerated deja vu, wherein the distant past and the present seem to be passing beside one another at speed, wherein it seems we could search Gary's streets with binoculars and find ourselves peddling there.

    Through Chicago's south side rail yards we recognize our route again, forgettable casinos and drive-through cigarette shops and interstate highway signs now familiar landmarks. Downtown scrapes the clouds beside the lake, water the color of rock flour. Dave and I coming close to the end of our journey together. During the lay-over, I shop for a few days of food, much the same as we have done, except it is only for me, a half-portion.
    Back at the train station we eat together a last time. Dave's bike is out of its box, realigned, ready to carry him and his few possessions into this next adventure. I am going on West, to retrace our path towards Lincoln, Nebraska, but this time more alone than almost any other time, deep in the gradient of alone-ness. For the past three months we have been in each other's presence more constantly than in any relationship in my life but mother and babe. We have shared equally the contents of my camp pot, slept beside each other in my tiny tent each night. At the gas station we place paired coffees and rolls on the counter; we often order the same thing for lunch without conferring. We have settled into a scrupulous balance that goes without saying, that comes from a love which has no ulterior motives, only the furthering of one another's experience. In this adventure we have had a each other to redouble our experiences; what we saw and felt reverberated through the other and vice-versa; the waves we ride rise higher for the other's consummate waves. As Steinbeck says in Travels with Charley, I put this down here for the record, though only those who have experienced it will understand it.
    This is a love, like the love of this land, this continent, that revels in it, and also must leave it, must let it go. This fidelity is one that knows we share the same path at times, and at others are separated by miles or oceans. This is brotherhood that begins in blood but goes beyond it. Now I ride over far fields and mountains to my own adventures, solitary again, but always knowing  what has coalesced between us.

    Here is a memory that has stayed with me all through the trip, and which in many ways has defined it for me: blistered August day in eastern Washington, in rolling hills of thick burnished wheat. No water and no wind. Sky as blank as a cheap plate, white sun, the slopes unmarred except for the road, or once in a while an abandoned house, a stilled tractor. The heat like an invisible wine press, squeezing sweat from us, the reflection from the bright chaff on all sides. Steep climbs breathing the oven air. In the labor, and the wondering, what the purpose is of all this, I look ahead. There is Dave on the road, the road that runs straight, rising sharply up a hill to end at the glass edge of the sky. I am feeling like getting on, getting done with this, finding water, and shade. Ahead, Dave is slowing and taking out his camera. In the midst of this heat and intense work, he is slowing and raising his arm to record the inhospitable beauty of the place.
    Having come back to the Pacific, and an existence at times more settled and more fraught with distraction, this is the memory I hold close and carry with me.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Beards and fun times in D.C.

We decided early on in the trip that grooming our beards was a chore that neither of us felt was necessary.  Here are a couple of pictures of the lengthening progress:

Beginning of the trip at the train station in San Jose, CA.

About halfway along the journey, our beards are long enough to collect plenty of dew on a foggy Iowa morning.

By the time we reached the East Coast, our beards had taken on a character that we most commonly observe in Civil War era photos.  Just our luck that on our Amtrak trip we were granted an 8 hour layover in our nation's capital.  We found ourselves compiling a photo essay of our lighthearted romp through The District of Columbia.....

The End of This Road

Hello all!

As many of you have heard, we made it to the coast at Folly Beach, South Carolina on Wednesday.  Below are pictures from the last few days of our trip.

I have a bit of an announcement here at the end of the trip.  It looks as though I may not be coming back to California straight away.  Neale and I are in Chicago right now on a layover between Amtrak trains.  We are about to part ways; I've decided to stay here for a while.  We passed through here almost a month ago to visit my friend Georgia, and for a few weeks after leaving town I was having dreams about moving to Chicago.  I've decided to go with my intuition here; it's rarely plausible to move to a new place simply because of an inexplicable desire, and I feel fortunate that I have few enough commitments right now that I can go for a change like this.

The plan is to stay with Georgia while I look for work.  If I can find something that will support me, I'll start looking for a place to live and may not be back to California for a while.  If I can't find a way to make a living, then I'll be on a train back home a lot sooner.  The hardest thing for me about this is the fact that I won't be able to see all of my family and friends; I really miss you all and I promise I'll be back someday.  I'm really grateful to everyone I've talked to about this decision for all your support (especially Mom and Dad!).

Neale will be on his way home on the California Zephyr in a few hours.  We both really appreciate everyone's interest in the blog so far, and we may use it to keep you all updated on future adventures.  Thank you all so much for your words of encouragement along our journey!


Out brewery hopping in Asheville with our cousin Paul.

Downtown Columbia, South Carolina

Left to right:  Neale, Dave, and our cycling buddy Taylor.  We met her much earlier in the trip, parted ways for about 2,500 miles, and found each other again in Virginia.  We rode the last week of the trip together.

Taylor, Dave's handlebars, and Neale heading for our campsite in Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park.  South Carolina's only Nat'l Park and the newest addition to the park system.  It's situated in a river floodplain that turns the forest into a swamp about 10 times a year and is home to some of the only remaining old growth forest in the Eastern U.S.

Cookie time!  We've been using our Grandma's "Cowboy" cookie recipe to make giant, hardy cookies at most anywhere we've had access to a kitchen.

Cotton fields

Last evening of the trip spent biking, near Ridgeville, S.C.

Dawn of the last day.

Dave's bike at the Atlantic

We made it!!!

Pizza Celebration!

Neale at the Charleston waterfront.  Fort Sumter is in the distance.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Pictures from Milan, OH to Hendersonville, NC

Sunset in central Ohio

Crossing from Kentucky into West Virginia

Nuclear power in West Virginia

Foggy West Virginia morning.  Eerie and dreamlike; it almost didn't felt like another world.  This was the morning we saw the dog killed on the road.
Looking back on the West Virginia hills from the first ridge we climbed in Virginia.

Wide open valleys in Virginia
The Blue Ridge Parkway.  469 miles of scenic, ridgetop road from the Shenandoah Valley to the Great Smoky Mountains.  We rode on it for the better part of 2 days to Asheville, North Carolina.

Autumn in the Appalachians

Rushing along the Parkway

The adventurous Joneses emerge after a night of lightening and heavy rain, unashamed of long underwear.

More Appalachian views from the Parkway

Neale and Black Mountain

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Appalachia & our story arc

Bear with me on this one - it's a little long. Thanks, Neale
    As we've crossed the country it's been easy to think of our trip as a story - with its archetypal beginning, middle and end. In the first act we passed through Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, into Wyoming; surmounted our first high climbs along the Columbia gorge, the Bitterroots, and over the Continental Divide; met the young and rough-hewn landscape of the west. After leaving Yellowstone we really seemed to hit our stride; we were waste deep in the trip, crossing the broad and sparse plains of Wyoming and Nebraska; we transitioned into the plain states with the Bighorn Mountains and Black Hills for punctuation; we washed no laundry between Missoula and Lincoln; we met no one we'd known beforehand between Portland and Mahomet, Illinois. The latter slope of this middle arc landed with two easy days of biking between each welcoming home of the friends and family we visited; heartwarming company and days of rest.
    The third act begins, I feel, with our turn south from the shore of Lake Erie in Ohio, departing under cold clouds and imminent rain. For several days we struggled ahead through the chill and wet, while the landscape which had flattened in Illinois began to roll again. We were approaching Appalachia, and fall was coming on. In the Celtic year, which begins and ends on Halloween, this is the steady slide towards winter, darkness, death, the dormant seed of new beginnings.
    From the southernmost point of Ohio we passed briefly into Kentucky before crossing the Big Sandy River into West Virginia. Here were the rusted bulwarks of industry, the drab rail cars laden with the black dust of coal, the massive hyperbola of a nuclear plant spewing steam. We followed the river up into a steepening and rocky canyon, the water the color of murky antifreeze. Lodging became difficult to find; there were no campgrounds; the motels seemed an afterthought, a strange affectation of the coal mine towns, nearly lost in the shadowed throats of craggy ravines. Blank faces met our searches for places to lie down. We were thankful to have brought enough food into a wasteland of gas station convenience stores.
    Poverty evident and unhidden everywhere: the winding highway lined with prefab houses set on shelves carved out of the canyon-side, half of them undermined by rust and rot and abandonment, or burnt to shells. All these meager homes with their signs posted - private property - no trespassing - this paltry space guarded covetously, and at every fence dogs snarling. We were lucky if there were fences; some dogs lunged within ten  feet of us before being snapped back on their chains; others were simply loose and came charging into the road after us, while, hearts pumping, we raced away to avoid a dog's teeth on our ankles or his head in our gears.

    A morning in Kermit, WV, comes up slow and gray through the mist. As we bike away from our motel room, two men in coveralls stare at us from a car wrecking yard where they are loading a totaled mini cooper onto a trailer. The hand of one man leaps into the air like a startled bird when I wave at them.
    The land is getting more sheer, the ravines more confining, the grades steeper. Are we in Appalachia? Unlike the boarders of states, this region has no signs to say Now entering . . . This landscape seems illusive even to naming; these canyons reject all but their cliff-view, their cold streams touched by sun only at midday. We ride through the morning stillness of a forest turning to earth by the fall.
    Our two-lane highway is punctuated only at times by speeding cars, barking dogs. We begin a climb up a hill, curving around a wall of rock and small tenacious trees. Above us on the hill sits a small mobile home tacked to the cliff with a short steep drive dropping to the road. As we pass, a raucous alarm goes up from the unseen dogs there, and pounding down the drive, muscles lithe under rippling hide, comes a stub-nosed dog, with a throaty growl that hums in my bones. My legs are already pumping; he is plummeting right for me. A burst of speed puts me just ahead of his trajectory, but I can hear him: his growl as thick as meat, his huffing breath, his nails on the road; he must be right at my rear wheel. I push up the hill faster, legs churning, coming alongside Dave who looks at me startled.
    Then around the curve flies a gray SUV, a flash of metal, a single frame in a film; I hear the wet crack of chrome, like a tree snapping in high wind, like a glacier calving, like all sounds we know to mean a stringent severance, and I look back to see the dog laid out and spinning along the road like a plate on ice. His ears raised in the wind of his death-turn as though startled or listening. I look ahead not to crash, and I am around the curve, and then I am stopping because I can't see; I am weeping. I am weeping in that way that there is nothing else one can do. Dave comes and helps me move off my bike and across the guard rail; I am still curled over with this sudden weight. All along this road, all across the continent, we've seen and smelled and felt the death of animals on the highway, their carcasses newly killed or decaying, and though we've had some small part in it, our responsibility seemed minute. Yet here we are in this dank canyon and have seen it happen right before us, and more, have been the cause of it. No blame but a simple fact: if we had not been there the dog would be alive.
    After a while we compose ourselves and ride on; there is nothing else to do. The mist seems laden with weighted feeling, this darkening season. Soon we are both ravenous, as if something in our guts is screaming for us to live. My mood swings into a crazed euphoria. The yellow leaves and bark of trees, the smell of wet stone and loam, everything is crisp and vibrant. I want to call everyone I know and cry into the phone Danger! Danger! Danger! Not to instill fear, but to remind us all of the danger that lives like a slick on our skin. We are never free from it; life would not be without it; and it's as if the awareness of this close danger makes everything I see, every moment important, imbued with drinkable detail and experience.

    We passed on out of those close mountains of West Virginia into the broader valleys and craggy ridges of Virginia and North Carolina. I was glad to be out from those cold ravines, into the landscape most often associated with Appalachia, in all its brilliant colors of fall. I carried something with me there though, that came from the death of a dog on a highway in a dark ravine, a lesson which I feel has been reiterated across this trip, what Robinson Jeffers called "experience and ecstasy," being engaged with living, its spectrum of pleasure and discomfort, especially because it can end soon.
    We're now staying with family near Asheville, in what might be called the denouement of this story, but up there on the crest of the Appalachians, camped beside the Blue Ridge Parkway in a thunderstorm, lightning cracked directly above us, shook our bones and blinded us, and curled in our tent we kept our eyes open, to look into the darkness before our sight returned.