The Price of Looking to the Sky

We take to the mountains because something is different up there.  The air is crisp, civilization slogs and slaves below you, and you’re theoretically closer to whatever higher power you subscribe to.  However, this feeling proved elusive a few weeks ago.

We awoke early, 2:30 to be exact.  My roommate and I drove to meet a few members of his church group.  We piled into a sturdy SUV and headed for Grey’s Peak, one of the “14ers” so many Coloradans covet.  I gradually awakened as the 1994 Toyota Landcruiser groaned with each elevation increase.

We hit the trail at dawn.  The group fell into a rhythm and eventually broke into smaller clusters.  I began walking with one of the faster group members.  Quickly, I was swept up by his desire to reach the top.  Soon a great distance between us and the larger group formed.

At first glance, it seemed advantageous to be ahead pushing the pace.  We felt good that we were likely to have ample time to summit not just Grey’s Peak, but Torrey’s as well.

At last, we reached the top and took a breather.  The view was expansive and would have been breathtaking in most circumstances.  However, I couldn’t forget the choice we made to break from the group.  A choice that undoubtedly was beneficial in regards to the goal of making both summits before the notorious afternoon storms and murderous lightning bolts emerged.  Still, something felt missing.

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What had I sacrificed in pursuit of this goal?  Why did this feel different that the majesty and freedom I have felt atop much more modest peaks?

I had missed nature’s subtleties.  I hadn’t stopped to feel the cool mountain air on my skin and hadn’t gathered the fresh smell of alpine trees in my nose.  I hadn’t stopped to fear escalating winds or even to ponder how much longer we had to go.

Reaching a goal does not guarantee satisfaction.  Perhaps the feeling of satisfaction is simple sum of the thoughts, feelings, and sensations experienced in pursuit of that goal.  If the only experience is dogged persistence and focus, the achievement is empty.

This phenomenon does not just occur atop mountains.  Recently, a social experiment was staged in a DC metro station.  A world-renowned violinist volunteered to play a free set littered with beautiful, albeit somewhat obscure, compositions in the middle of a busy station.  Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post noted that, “Three days before he appeared at the Metro station, Bell had filled the house at Boston’s stately Symphony Hall, where merely pretty good seats went for $100.”¹  The entertainment value of this man’s work was not a question.

Despite this, Bell was shocked to watch as, “1,097 people passed by.  Almost all of them were on the way to work…”.¹  However, a segment of the population noted Bell’s brilliance.  Weingarten noted that, “Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch.  And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.”¹  Somewhere along the way these adults became blind to beauty.

After being informed of what they had missed, many pedestrians asked when he would be playing again.  They were informed that this was a one-time experience.

Fortunately, we had a descent to look forward to.  I saw what I had missed.  The flowers, the green hillsides, the blue skies, the radiant sunshine.  Unfortunately, life does not always offer us simple redemption.

“No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused.” – Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Perhaps the path matters more than the goal itself.  We must remain aware or our great capacity to become blind to a rich and varied world.

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¹Weingarten, Gene. “Pearls Before Breakfast.” Washington Post 8 April 2007: <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/04/AR2007040401721.html&gt;

Cali at last

4/16/2014 

It was 80 degrees in Sacramento as I stepped onto the platform.  The warmth replenished me like water filling a coffee-maker.

This journey took me from grey, crumbling northeastern cities through frigid cornfields, jutting mountains, sun-soaked canyons, and meandering rivers.  Yet what I remember most is sweltering heat on an ugly platform in Sacramento.  It felt like home, but just as I began to enjoy it they called “All aboard!”.

The train continued through California’s interior, a pastoral land dotted with orange trees and green fields showering in the sunlight beneath watchful hills.  This land, just miles from unthinkable affluence, represents a hard way of life.  Migrant workers rise early each morning to toil in pursuit of a better life.

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We kept moving until we crossed the massive bridge network connecting the wide swath of Bay communities.  The skyline was a mere silhouette, obscured by a thick, smoggy mist.  The realities of getting from place to place began to wash over me as I furiously checked my phone to map my route into my brother’s Mountain View apartment.  The luxuries of the train ride were suddenly apparent. Time, movement, and direction are all decided for you.  All you have to do is sit and exist.

The trip was an opportunity for reflection.  I read and wrote furiously.  Most importantly, and all successful trips do this, I’ve renewed my commitment to adventure.  I’ve reaffirmed my belief that time spent searching for truth and knowledge amidst the backdrop of a beautiful, shifting sense of place is worthwhile.

Boston to the Bay- C’mon California

April 16, 2014

Beauty becomes burden.  Counter-intuitive as it seems, the breathtaking scorched-red mesas and gently flowing waters of the Colorado River became tiresome, almost annoying.  I felt a desperate urge to capture it all, freeze it, and hold it.  Each bend was more gorgeous than the last and each meadow stretched farther than its predecessor.

I gasped for breath, drowned and smothered by the beauty encircling the fast-moving train.  It’s a hopeless pursuit to capture everything. The mood, the light, the quiet delirium that inevitably follow a few nights of sleeping upright could never show up in a picture.  The moment is sure to scamper away, quick as a jack rabbit.

I long for more than the visual.  I want to be way out there avoiding cacti and spiders.  And this desire shall also pass.  It will fade into the Earth’s curvature like the sun always does.  Once the sun of my ambition is eclipsed by the calm of realization, I’ll want more.  And isn’t that what life is?

Seeking, finding, discovering, and eventually forsaking in pursuit of the new, the mysterious.  The aim of capturing beauty is a fruitless, yet necessary, endeavor.  We must capture beauty and coldly send it away if we are to keep living.

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Boston to the Bay- Mountains turn to desert

April 15, 2014 1:31 PM

The train is beginning to wear on me.  The peaks are beautiful and the tufts of grass interlocked with patches of snow are brilliant, but I want out of the artificial environs of this train.  I long to be on foot, breathing the crisp air for myself.

On the bright side, I’ve learned that Mountain Dew registers on a breathalyzer and that grapes, “really gas you up.”  

We are following a gorgeous canyon dug out by the Colorado River.  Conifers and shrubs are prominent along the otherwise dry, boulder strewn banks.  White tufts of water rush like graceful snow ants protecting their mound.

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Periodically, darkness encloses the train as we enter a cocoon-like tunnel.

We’ve passed the snow-covered portion and the land has begun to remind me of the dry desert lands of Big Bend I have grown to love.

The grass mesas at lower elevation seem more hospitable, stark, and real.  The snow-capped jewels of the Rockies, while stunning, never feel real.  Perhaps the beauty is too large to comprehend, simply not collapsible into the English language.  For this reason, I prefer the humble grass and shrubs of an open plain.

The difference between the western US and the Midwest is profound. Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Iowa give glimpses into what civilization and culture have wrought upon the US.  The route teems with failed habitation, factories puffing out smoke, cars and trains, a land unrecognizable to the natives of this land.

The Rocky Mountain stretch shows the audacity of incomprehensible geologic forces at work, and man’s pathetic attempt to saddle and ride a world as powerful and vindictive (rightly so) as an infuriated bronco.  The towering white peaks and the burning red sand makes an overt stand against human encroachment.

We’ve reached sharp, dry cliffs.  A land soaked in sun and shadows.  A land where bank robbers and villains lurked in caves.  A land of gold and theft, wealth and crime.  Land like this tests a man, pushes him to his brink, and brings him back with the promise of challenge and adventure.

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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.