Boston to the Bay- Back on the train

April 15, 2014

We’re back on the train, and I’ve already noticed a change in the passengers.  We are seated in front of a group of crude truck drivers who are en route to Reno, Nevada.  On one hand, the belches and farts emanating from the rear are intrusive.  On the other hand, these folks bring an exotic body of knowledge to the forefront.  For example, sandwiched between burps, I learned that Mountain Dew registers on a breathalyzer and that grapes, “really gas you up.”  Indispensable travel advice from bona fide road warriors.

The fascinating chatter did not stop there.  Down in the dining car, a sloshed Clint Eastwood doppelgänger mused that he, “Lived in these mountains for five years.  Moved back to Illinois to save a marriage.  I tell you what, I should’ve stayed in these mountains.”  A sad tale indeed.  He wasn’t talking to anyone in particular.

As most drunks do, he initiated conversation with the first willing pulse.  A solemn, silent Native American who hadn’t changed his expression or uttered a word in 40 minutes sat nearby. Not even alcohol could pierce their cultural separation.  So, by default, the dining car attendant was the lucky man.

The attendant and the drunk Clint Eastwood-looking former mountain man’s conversation went down like this: (Keep in mind that we are approaching western Colorado and heading further northwest).

Clint:  “How long until we cross the Grand Canyon?”

Attendant:  “Sir, we don’t come anywhere near the Grand Canyon.”

Clint:  “Man, I am lost.”

Stoic Native American:  “Grand Canyon in Arizona.”

Clint:  “Yeah, but…”  (trails off)

Stoic Native American:  Gives up, stares out window.

Clint:  “Maybe I’m thinking of my next train.”

 

Boston to the Bay- Denver pit stop

April 14, 2014

It was cold when we arrived at Denver’s Union Station.  We wandered through downtown and floated a few ideas around.  We settled on walking three miles to the Museum of Nature and Science, located inside City Park.  It felt good to move our legs after sitting for so long, and we agreed that the dry cold of the Rockies was much more bearable than the wet, cold bite of the Northeast.

Upon arrival at the museum, the intermittent sleep you get from sitting in a chair for three days caught up to me as I wandered from exhibit to exhibit.  I learned some scattered facts about wildlife and Native Americans, but soon found myself asleep in an IMAX theater.  After my shameless nap, we ventured outside where the weather had improved significantly.  It was 60 degrees and sunny and the views of downtown and the mountains were crystal clear.

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We had a few hours to kill so we plopped down along the 16th Street Mall, a downtown collection of shops and restaurants connected by light-rail tracks.  I was expecting upscale shops and a peaceful atmosphere.  Instead, we found the epicenter of vagrant life.

A bearded man in tattered clothes shouted, “Hey you, with the expensive backpack, got any rolling papers?”  I thought that was an especially interesting tactic.  Maybe his thought was that if he aggressively reminded me of the embarrassment of riches Jansport had bestowed upon me then I would feel obligated to pull some paraphernalia out of my ass.  Whatever, man.

This wasn’t the only hostile situation we encountered.  Outside of a McDonald’s, a large man with a deep baritone voice towered over a disheveled man and rumbled, “I better have my money today or I break your f*cking face.”  The little man scooted off and canvassed similarly disheveled folks for money.  They must have some sort of informal credit union within the street underworld.  How do they keep track of their debts?  Is the penalty always a “broken f*cking face”?  How do you break someone’s face?

After another hour of watching the 16th Street circus, we met my friend Pete for dinner at Rio Grande.  I was confident that the Mexican food would be an improvement over what I had way back in Massachusetts.  The food was better, but still not up to Texas standards.  I’m coming to grips with the notion that Texas may be unrivaled in regard to Mexican cuisine.  What was excellent were the margaritas.  Two of those at altitude and you’re sailing.

After a relaxing dinner, I was looking forward to a full night’s sleep in a real bed. We hopped in the car and drove to Pete’s house, a Townes Van Zandt cd softly whirling us to sleep.  The Mexican food and the country music almost brought me back to San Antonio, and for that I am grateful.

Colorado Girl by Townes Van Zandt

I’m goin’ out to Denver

See if I can’t find

I’m goin’ out to Denver

See if I can’t find

That lovin’ Colorado girl of mine

The promise in her smile

Shames the mountains tall

The promise in her smile

Shames the mountains tall

She bring the sun to shining

Tell the rain to fall

It’s been a long time, mama,

Since I heard you call my name

Ah, been a long time

Since I heard you call my name

I got to see my Colorado girl again

Be there tomorrow

Mama, don’t you cry

Be there tomorrow

Now, mama, don’t you cry

I got to kiss these lonesome

Texas blues good-bye

I’m goin’ out to to Denver

See if I can’t find

I’m goin’ out to to Denver

See if I can’t find

That lovin’ Colorado girl of mine

That lovin’ Colorado girl of mine

Boston to the Bay-Day 4

April 14, 2014  Omaha, Nebraska 12:24 AM  

Just as Houston has no fall, many places have no spring.  Western Iowa and Nebraska are covered in snow.  The wind whips and swirls with ice.

Iowa was rainy and cloudy, pleasant weather to accompany a backwoods train trip.  Despite being encapsulated in a bubble careening forward at 70 miles per hour, you and the residents watch the rain fall together.  However small, there is a connection, an abstract coziness making you feel as if you lived at least one afternoon in this state.

Speaking of the Midwest, nearly every town seems to be mired in decay.  Old billowing factories give labored heaves of stale smoke breath.

Somehow there’s still life and wood-frame houses.  People cling to the life they’ve known.  There’s a forlorn, despondent warmth that forces you to respect the integrity of a people willing to suffer through winter and weather the storm of deindustrialization.  Paradoxically, these people seem to have it right, an anthropological “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude that preserves family and customs.

April 14, 2014 Might as well be January 2014–6:22 AM Akron, Colorado

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I woke up after a few hours of restless sleep.  The sun is hiding, but has left a brilliant pink remnant in the distance.  The kind of glimmer that must help the poor people of the Dakotas or Alaska get through dark, cold days.  It is white for infinity.  Little thickets of grass defiantly poke their heads out their blanket as if to say, “Is it morning yet?”.  The cold and the wind softly murmur “no”.

The West was supposed to spell promise, but all I see is snow-covered farmland.  I knew that eastern Colorado was this way, but, selfishly, I expected the weather to bow down to my schedule.

The flat land is slowly giving way to a few upstart rocky inclines.  Behind me, the sun has put its foot down and has finally broke through the tangled web of clouds that have chased our train since Indiana.

A few cows graze over the snow, taking the annoying white impediment in stride.  There isn’t much a grazing cow doesn’t take in stride.  Man has transformed this beast to a stoic machine.

Boston to the Bay- Day 3

April 13, 2014- 6 AM

Woke up beside a rail yard in Toledo, Ohio.  This little city was spoke of in reverential tones by my Mom’s small-town relatives hailing from the tiny town of Van Wert, Ohio.

Driving through the thickets and cornfields brings back memories of making the pilgrimage from St. Louis to the sticks of Ohio as a kid.  Everything was, and is still, so different from the suburban world I grew up in.

The water smells like sulphur, people believe the hymns they sing, and a chicken indolently pecking the ground can sometimes be your only companion.  It’s not about pace of life or a radical perspective.  It’s about flat ground and mile upon mile of distance between neighbors.  It’s about the fantastic inventions the mind conjures when forced to.  It’s about the personification of animals and crops.  It’s about community.

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It’s a dying way of life.  Some adjusted and moved to withering brick towns like Toledo or Youngstown.  Others go quietly, solemnly watching chicks peck over fallow land.

The train is a foreign experience, and I hesitate to call it an experience in the traditional sense.  This hurtling steel capsule doesn’t allow you to feel the subtle changes in the air or the ground over which you travel.  Certainly, you are more aware of obscure places like Bryan, Ohio, but you don’t come to truly know these places.

Miles and miles of diverse lands and people are taken for granted.  You’re given a private viewing of backyards and crumbling artifacts of antiquated industries for the negligible cost of a train ticket.  I saw a boy chasing a ball down a hill and the gravestones of countless grandparents.  What gives me the right to peer into these intimate moments and places?

April 13, 2014- 6 PM

We completed our first leg, the Lakeshore Limited to Chicago, and began a hunt for deep-dish pizza.  Luckily, there was a Giordano’s a few blocks away.  The pizza and beer did not disappoint, not surprising considering my train diet of peanut m&m’s and processed turkey sandwiches.

The three-hour layover was finished before it started.  The only tourist attraction we fell prey to were some photos of the Union Station staircase where Kevin Costner performs a few heroics in The Untouchables.

Luckily, we snagged upper-deck seats for the next leg.  Especially crucial because, you know, the towering cornstalks dotting Illinois and Iowa require a lofty perch to appreciate.

The train paused in Galesburg, Illinois, a surprisingly bustling rail stop.  A few trains were beached there and a beautiful mural adorned the station.

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Iowa came soon afterwards and, along with it, a subtle curvature of the land.  Good cheer must have overtaken the early settlers as they gazed over this pristine, virginal land stretching far as the eye could see.

It’s a wonder anyone voted to push past this fertile ground.  Thank God they did because, while the ample space and sun-soaked crops are beautiful, the soaring peaks of the Rockies and the sunny California coast are true jewels.  Man could not, would not, stop until he reached the ocean.  A human preoccupation with finishing what we have started.  I feel the same way now; satisfied with this peaceful land, but yearning for more.

Another delay.  The sky sits in pre-dawn silence, a weak light covers the land, and the fields are interspersed with brave islands of trees surrounded by a sea of fallow corn fields.  It rained earlier, but the sky and the ground have come to a tacit agreement.  The sky has ceased rumbling and the creeks have stopped jumping with rain.

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It’s April and spring still hasn’t sprung in this land.  I am embarrassed for complaining about Texas and the palm trees, green grass, and tropical temperatures of the Gulf Coast.  From Connecticut to Iowa, the landscape is dominated by grey skies and barren foliage.

From Boston to the Bay- Day 2

I spent roughly 70 hours of my Spring Break on a train traveling from Boston to San Francisco.  The following entries detail my experiences.  For the first entry, click here.

April 12, 2014

We boarded the train in Boston and so far it’s been relaxing.  The streams and dilapidated ruins of crumbling Northeast towns slowly burrow into my memory.

I caught a glimpse of the train as we curved around a bend.  For a moment, I saw the vessel carrying us forward.  In life, we tell ourselves we know what’s leading us, what’s driving us, but, like passengers on a moving train, we have a vague, elusive of what’s pushing us forward.

As soon as I reached for my camera, we crossed the bend and the train was obscured.  The train ride has been like that, brief glimpses of beauty and then onward, rushing through winter-famished trees and grey hills.

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The Northeast is remarkably uniform, but at least there’s been some sunlight.  The light warms and awakens a land ravaged by a brutal winter.  My mind has slowly drifted from the stress and rigor back in Hartford.

We stalled for an hour and a half in Albany, NY.  One more viewing of the ramshackle underbelly of a decaying upstate NY city.  I can’t imagine how life would have changed if my Dad had taken the job he was offered in Schenectady, NY back in middle school.  The brick and shattered glass, the monolithic decay would wear on you.

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Now that the day is over, the sun is eclipsed by consuming darkness. I’m left with my thoughts and the dark, vast expanse of a sprawling land.  Darkness envelops all like a deep lake only occasionally interrupted by the kindred light of a slow-moving houseboat.

I met a man working the dining car counter.  He was in his second week of training.  A dust-colored man of around thirty traded his job at the bank for a life toiling on the rails.  The man had never set foot on an Amtrak.  A desperate stab at a new life.  And then this beautiful song arrived, courtesy of Pandora, and this year, this long train ride began to make sense.

“Longer I Run”  Peter Bradley Adams

I miss the life that I left behind

But when I hear the sound of the blackbirds cry

I know I left in the nick of time

Well this road I’m on’s gonna turn to sand

And leave me lost in a far off land

So let me ride the wind tip I don’t look back

Forget the life that I almost had

If I wander till I die

May I know who’s hand I’m in

If my home I’ll never find

And let me live again

The longer I run

Then the less that I find

Sellin my soul for a nickel and dime

Tell my brother please not to look for me

I ain’t the man that I used to be

But if my savior comes could you let him know

I’ve gone away for to save my soul

From Boston to the Bay- Day 1

I spent roughly 70 hours of my Spring Break on a train traveling from Boston to San Francisco.  The following entries detail my experiences.

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April 11, 2014

Our train was to leave from Boston on Saturday morning.  Luckily my travel buddy kindly offered a place to sleep in Cape Cod, shortening the next morning’s drive.

We left Friday night at 6:45, headed for Sandwich, MA, a small town “on the cape”, as I’ve been informed is proper vernacular.  The town was tiny and reminded me of many towns and suburbs.  Grocery stores, dentist offices, schools, and houses predominated.

We ate at a Mexican restaurant, “Sam Diegos”.  The entrance had big letters spelling, “Buenos Nachos.”  I think it was supposed to be a lame play on “Buenas Noches.”  As a native Texan, sirens were sounding.  “Fake Tex-Mex! Fake Tex-Mex.”  In retrospect, the restaurant’s self-deprecating humor should have been refreshing.

In line with my dire predictions, the chips were buried in salt, the salsa was tomato paste with less zest than Tostito’s picante sauce, and the margarita was mostly water.  I sat down with Nikki and her friends, an energetic group of early 20-somethings.  Their energy and excitement to see each other conjured memories of coming home from college.  Their “present mindset” fascinated me as they fantasized about an idyllic summer on the Cape, drinking without a worry.  The kind of carefree summer I know I’ll never get back.

In another surprising twist, the conversation turned towards Nashville, Tennessee. The South was discussed in doting, romantic tones.  One of their boyfriends serendipitously met a song-writer and may have found his break.  Or not.  These are the Nashville tales you hear in so many country ballads.  I could not believe I was in Massachusetts eating Tex-Mex and discussing country music.  There wasn’t a more improbable situation.

They had dreams.  “My aunt used to write songs for Miranda Lambert.  Your boyfriend should totally call her.”  Their eyes gleamed with romance and hints of inebriation.  Small tables of hometown friends conspire to change the world in little towns across this country.

What It Takes to Leave

“No man can wander without a base.” – Bruce Chatwin

This year I quit my job, changed careers, and moved thousands of miles, seemingly dependent on little more than unfounded idealism and the structural integrity of my Honda Accord.  At first glance, this journey required an adventuresome spirit.  Upon closer examination, this may be less than true.

As a child in San Antonio, there was a creek running behind our house.  We spent hours chasing frogs, birds, and our dog Lucy.  I loved that place.  I remember bringing balloons home from the zoo and setting them free, watching them slowly float into the clear, blue sky for what seemed an eternity.

This was the first time I began to claw at the vast world.  Up to that point, my world consisted of our mountainous driveway, the healthy creek, and our looping cul-de-sac.

A few years later, we moved to Kingwood, where I spent most of my childhood.  I remember miserable weeding sessions amidst the sweltering Gulf Coast heat.  I remember sharing a room with my older brother and listening to Green Day and Bush into the wee hours of the night.  I remember late night walks with the dog, the humidity rising off the pavement as we stared at darkened house after darkened house.  We lamented that our town had nothing.  We had something, but didn’t realize it.  We had a loving, stable home.

Home is where all memories must travel.  It’s the place you journey back to with no worry of airfare or miles on the odometer.  The town may change, you may change, but that place’s magnetic hold on your imagination stands firm.  Indeed, if you hold still long enough, you can see the shadow of that mountainous drive that was really just a steady incline and you can hear the roar of the rushing river that was really just a dried-up creek bed.

“It didn’t matter where I traveled, what I saw, how desperate and lonely I might become out there passing through strange places, strange lands, because I could always return to the safety and sanctuary of home.” Kurt Caswell, In the Sun’s House

Thanks to supportive parents and a stable base, I have traveled freely.  Psychologists refer to this as secure attachment.

The first secure attachment an infant makes is to his or her mother.  Numerous studies have shown that the more secure a child’s attachment to its mother is, the more willing the child is to venture out and take risks.  A famous psychological experiment conducted by Alan Sroufe and Byron Egeland in Minnesota, found that infants “who received the extra dose of early care were, later on, more curious, more self-reliant, calmer, and better able to deal with obstacles.” (Tough,37) In other words, the more secure an environment you grow up in, the more equipped you are to leave it.

Not only does a secure home base make you more likely to venture out, it also gives you a continuing source of relief when times get tough.

At 9 pm on a cold March night, I was awoken by a phone call.  My little brother played “Green, green rocky road” for me, a song he had recently learned on the guitar.  For several months, I had been listening to the same soundtrack and suffering through the disillusionment of winter some 1,000 miles north.  That call, that song saved me.

Growing up, I never imagined feeling this way.  There was my older brother and I trading turns hurling each other against the iron support that held up our basketball hoop.  There was my little brother and I getting into a torrid fist fight.

But something incredible happens when you leave your family.  You realize how much you need and appreciate them, despite any maddening idiosyncrasies you identified along the way.  Within this realization, my brash, naive assumption that I could travel anywhere and build a fortress of self-reliance came crumbling down.  Reliance on family is what gave me the strength to make this journey.

Nowadays, it’s common to hear glorified tales of young adults giving up career and possessions to travel on the cheap.  The costs, in some cases, are low enough for nearly anyone to partake.  Why then does this movement seem overwhelmingly upper middle class?

“Any form of new organization or integration within the mind has to be preceded by some degree of disorganization.  No one can tell, until he has experienced it, whether or not this necessary disruption of former patterns will be succeeded by something better.” – Anthony Storr, Solitude, A Return to Self

This is not to say that all those that lie outside the upper middle class had difficult childhoods or that all upper middle class children had idyllic childhoods.  However, those belonging to lower socioeconomic brackets are more likely to have suffered through childhood adversity.  For these individuals, the answer may lay in childhood and crucial early attachments.  Perhaps those that have been scarred and bruised by turbulent childhoods have to make a larger leap of faith in order to trust a new culture.

The obvious counter argument is that these people have nothing to lose.  They haven’t found prosperity in their current situation, so why not make a change?  As discussed earlier, human instinct does not work this way.

Infants that are able to attach themselves to stuffed animals or other “transitional objects” are said to benefit from secure attachment to their mother.  They are comfortable connecting with other objects due to the confidence they have that their mother will not neglect them.  In the same way, those that lead blissful, peripatetic lives often do so as a result of secure attachments.  They are confident that their support system will be intact and waiting for them upon their triumphant return.

Less fortunate people have little reason to believe that their loved ones and their community will even be recognizable upon their return.

So next time you’re congratulating yourself for being an adventurous, atavistic wanderer just know that this ability likely exists due to the confidence gained from secure attachment to your family.

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With this in mind, instead of touting the perks of traveling and cultural immersion to poverty-stricken youth, perhaps we should first take time to assist them in the building of solid community bases.  Only then will they be free to wander and graze the meadows of varied cultural experience.

¹Tough, Paul. How Children Succeed.  Paul Tough, 2012. Print.

The Ghost of Everett Ruess

As has become tradition, I awoke before 4 AM and headed for the mountains in search of solitude that only a sunrise hike can offer.  I arrived happily caffeinated and ready to plunge into a sea of trails crisscrossing Mt. Greylock, a purple monster that lords over the small Massachusetts burg of Williamstown.

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I was granted the solitude I sought, encountering zero people for the first five or six miles.  Once again, I found myself in love with the challenge and silence of the mountains.  I came across several large animal droppings.  The first was a large pile of pellets indicating a large deer or moose.  Innocuous enough, I thought.  A mile further down the trail, a more human-shaped turd appeared.  From what I’d read, this indicated a big cat or coyote had been here.

For several miles, each rustling twig, each broken branch raised my blood pressure.  I clutched a rock and scanned the dense foliage.  What was supposed to be a loving nature walk, briefly morphed into the mental exercise of destroying a rabid mountain lion.

After a few miles of haunted stillness, I crossed a road.  This overt sign of society reminded me that humans are more menacing than all the cats and bears within the quiet forest.  When I reached the other side of the road, I came across a chilling sign.

A 31-year-old man had gone missing, leaving only a note saying that he wished to disappear “forever into the wilderness and to remain out of contact with humanity.”  The sign proceeded to detail his extensive mental issues and spelled out strategies if you encountered the man.

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My heart hurt, knowing that this man had been afflicted with a familiar heartbreak and love of nature.

“When I go, I leave no trace.”- Everett Ruess

People disappear into the wilderness each year, but none in as dramatic fashion as Everett Ruess.  Everett was an artist and poet, a manic-depressive capable of the highest highs and lowest lows.  He was a male with a gift for the aesthetic and the written word.  Unsurprisingly, he struggled to find a niche within the industrial 1930s.

Out in the wild and free of judgment and oppressing convention, he roamed and wrote a series of beautiful letters and poems.

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He boldly declared love for the lonely canyons and dancing tumbleweed of the Southwest.  He dreamt lucid dreams.  His poems were treacherous and vivid.  Everett was unafraid of the travails of love.  But if you listen closely, you can hear heartbroken murmurs, quiet as a rustle of leaves.

He was in love with the land.  But, like any love, his love required great sacrifice.  His sacrifices ultimately led to irrevocable estrangement with society.  His letters and poems became dark and he intimated that he might never wish to return.  Of course, this was before large-scale depressive medication and hyper-fast telecommunication, so his internal wounds were left to fester.

“As to when I revisit civilization, it will not be soon.  I have not tired of the wilderness… I prefer the saddle to the street car, and the star-sprinkled sky to the roof, the obscure and difficult leading into the unknown…”- Everett Ruess

Then, 80 years ago, Everett disappeared without a trace into the vast desert of Utah.  Some conjecture that he was killed by bandits or Indians, some are convinced of suicide, and others suggest he took refuge with a wandering Indian tribe.

“In my mind I conjured up a thousand forgotten cities, left behind by the years; sheer grey mountains; mile upon mile of bare, unfriendly desert; cold lakes unrippled by any breeze, with depths unfathomable; jungles filled with deadly snakes, immense butterflies, brilliant colors, fever, and death.  I swam in the blue seas, and in coral-tinted waters.  Through insufferable heat and incessant flooding downpours I plodded forward….These are the things I saw and the experiences I lived through that night long past.  Now it is night again–the night before I go.” – Everett Ruess- I Go To Make My Destiny, 1932

What’s not debated is that Everett was a disturbed, yet brilliant young man.  A headstrong vagabond, he wished to discover a philosophy that would liberate him from the stifling confines of an industrial society that, in his mind, had lost its soul, its direction.

Everett was lost in that philosophical pursuit.  His inexplicable disappearance leaves many questions.

Did Everett reach the union with nature he aspired to?  Did he find everlasting happiness on the banks of an undying desert stream?  Did he find love in the breathtaking space and emptiness of the desert?

His quest was seemingly logical.  Unable to find perfection in a complex, chaotic urban ecosystem, he sought perfection in an unspoiled land.  Everett was betting that complete contentment was there for the taking.  However, history has repeatedly found us incapable of finding contentment.

Artists, poets, and musicians like Everett are saints destined to die at the altar of an elusive understanding of our volatile human souls.

“Say that I starved; that I was lost and weary;

    That I was burned and blinded by the desert sun;

Footsore, thirty, sick with strange diseases;

    Lonely and wet and cold, but that I kept my dream!” – Everett Ruess “Wilderness Song”

What should we really fear?

I wonder what our chief fear should be when we’re all alone and the wind whistles through the trees atop a mountain.  Should our primary fear be savage predators or the seductive beauty of nature we seek?

Are jaw-dropping mountaintop views, the murmur of a rushing creek, and the still of a desert morning temptations too great for some?  Or is temptation being used too pejoratively?  Perhaps it’s a noble pursuit to become one with the land that birthed you.

But how dangerous is this idea?  How demented and disenchanting is this proposition?

The temptation is to give yourself to the trees, the air and the twigs.  The risk is tireless devotion to a cold, beautiful, and distant lover.  A risk that most only recognize in the seedy corners of bars or in the lust of youth.

Perhaps nature, beautiful and eternally young, lurks.  Perhaps nature waits for us to hurdle ourselves into its mysteries.  Perhaps it lies waiting for us to offer ourselves as martyrs against the injustices people have enacted on the massive organic edifice on which we sit.  Perhaps it relishes us prematurely leaving a world of understandable, loving fellow humans only to be crushed by its uncaring jaws.

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Truth is that everyone who runs from this cold world is bound to collide with the conclusion that the sweeping plains of the West or the shady, dense forests of New England are just as cold and heartless as the world they seem to spurn.

Wilderness is stubborn.  Wilderness will breathe and persist long after our feeble attempts to understand or capture it have ceased.

Our only hope is to find joy in our humanity and our shared misunderstanding of all that is greater than us.