Big Bend Day 3- Just Don’t Collapse

After 24 draining miles, we still had 8 miles and 1,800 meters to climb.  Blue Creek Path, a winding trail through a dry creek bed, would be our path out.

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After two miles and multiple thoughts of collapsing, my little brother spotted massive caves adorning the rock walls above.  His initial request to scale the wall was not effective.  A combination of thirst and lack of oxygen flow to the brain resulted in an emphatic “hell no”.  After some hankering and a slow restoration of our senses, we agreed to fight the underbrush and make our way up the canyon.  While my older brother prudently hung back, Max and I climbed slippery sediment to a large, dark cave.

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Potential Bear Hibernaculum

We were uneasy as we imagined the animals inhabiting the dark shelter.  In a dim-witted last effort, we pressed on.

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Dark cave, why not?

We found a sprawling empty cave.  The enormity and dark shadows of the ancient room mesmerized us.  We basked in the shade and echoes of the immense caves and then headed back towards the trail.  Max taught me how to slide down slippery rock using my left foot as a rudder and we scooted right down the mountain.

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Hey Max

The next five miles nearly brought all of us to our breaking point.  In a moment of weakness and spite towards the unending upward terrain, I shouted something to the effect of, “make it stop!” and kicked a powerless shrub.  Heat, rocks, and elevation will change a man.

Still, the great expanse of this place captured our imaginations.  The scale and distance of Big Bend alters the way you think about limitations.  Land, rocks unending.  Sky floats forever.  Time stands still at the altar of infinite space.

As we reached the downhill portion of our journey, we reflected on an amazing test of our resolve and the unmatched beauty we witnessed.  We even appreciated the ten-mile section of the hike through the barren desert flats.  We will always grasp the effect of pervasive dirt, wind, and sun on life.  We now fathom the great oppression and beauty of miles of nothing.

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Big Bend Day 2- Sand, sand, cactus, cactus

“It has been said, and truly, that everything in the desert either stings, stabs, stinks, or sticks.  You will find the flora here as venomous, hooked, barbed, thorny, prickly, needled, saw-toothed, hairy, stickered, mean, bitter, sharp, wiry, and fierce as the animals.  Something about the desert inclines all living things to harshness and acerbity.” Edward Abbey, The Great American Desert 1977

Fast-moving low clouds filled the canyon.  Any fog from our angst-ridden sleep dissipated as we soaked in the mystical display.

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Low clouds over the valley

Around mid morning we reached the basin and entered ten miles of sand and desert that would erode our willpower step by step, grain by grain.

The sun beat down on us for hours and the weight of our water and food began to take its toll on our shoulders and feet.  Eventually, I focused in on my brother’s paws, watching them trample rock after rock.  I hardly looked up and when I did I was dejected by the slow-moving vista.  Miles of harsh flora stood between us and Homer-Wilson Ranch, our resting place for the night.

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I’ll always be a Texan

The only signs of life were an occasional deer track, some baked horse turds, and a large tarantula.  We felt frivolous for worrying about monsters of the forest when we saw so few critters.

By late afternoon, the drudgery of the desert had us disenchanted, openly questioning the use of this thirty-two mile trek.  In travel, and often life, you must pass the point of initial frustration to gather new experience.  We pushed onward for a few miles until we reached Homer-Wilson Ranch.

A spectacular red and orange sunset glistened off the towering canyon walls.  Behind us we saw the distant peaks of the Chisos Mountains stretching far into Mexican territory.  We headed up a hill and watched daylight slowly pale.  We scanned upward and saw the black silhouette of a man with a Cowboy hat striking a contemplative pose atop the cliff.  A perfect caricature of the American West made the long walk worth it, even if the man turned out to be somebody’s humdrum grandpa and not John Wayne.

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Here’s the payoff

Big Bend Part 2- A Dark, Starry Night

We arrived around 3 pm.  My older brother walked to the Park Ranger office to secure a park permit.

Shortly thereafter, I wandered in and stared at an ominous life-sized mountain lion replica.  I read the facts: 139 sightings this year.  I moved over to the book section where my paranoia feasted on a book entitled “Death in Big Bend.”  I read an unfortunate excerpt of a man who caught a mountain lion stalking his campsite.  The man threw rocks in the cat’s direction and shouted profanities.  Why they felt the need to inform us of the man’s profane language was beyond me.  As if rugged pumas have tender sensibilities easily offended by coarse language.

Long story short, the man survived only to strand himself on a lonely icy peak with no way down the following year.  Yes, Big Bend is perilous.  Thirst, mountain lions, and bears are just a sample of the fates that may befall a man.

We drove a few water jugs and some food to a stash point that we aimed to reach the following night.  The stash point was just a bear box atop a canyon gazing over an ocean of desert terrain.

We hit the trail at four pm, well aware that daylight was fast evaporating.  Our joking references to savage puma attacks did not seem as funny when a glance at the map revealed that we would be searching for a safe plot of land in complete darkness, guided only by headlamps and whatever crude judgment we had acquired over a handful of other wilderness hikes.

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Darkness fast approaching

Around six pm we were enshrouded by black and more stars than I cared to count.  Darkness is a different entity here.  The closest full-sized town is at least one hundred miles and Ft. Stockton barely qualifies as a human inhabitation.

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And….curtains

We lurched forward through a canyon bestriding a dry creek bed.  The moon lit the canyon just enough for us to realize that our surroundings looked nearly identical to the big cat exhibits at the zoo.  Giant rocks, light shrubbery, and taller trees dotted the bowl-like enclosure we stubbornly trekked.

Another check of the map revealed that we would need to settle for the first flat spot we found or risk several miles through a shoddily marked desert trail starting at the basin below.  We flailed around the brush until we found an even piece of ground.  We pitched our tent and tied our food to trees some 400 meters away so as to avoid collateral damage from opportunistic creatures.

I hardly slept.  Each rustle, each broken twig, awakened me.  All throughout, my little brother slumbered away.  After what seemed like days, morning light arrived.  We survived and, just as importantly, our food and water stood intact.

Big Bend- The Drive

Despite an ambitious plan to leave at five am, we stumbled out of my Aunt’s house in Boerne around eight am.  The drive to Big Bend is a seven hour drive west into the desolate confines of the Chihuahua Desert.  The park runs across the U.S.-Mexican border for over one hundred miles.  Soaring peaks abruptly jut from a lonesome bed of dirt, cactus, and scrubby grass.

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Stunning

Driving through this vast expanse of nothingness made the world seem so big.  One stoplight towns, abandoned taquerias, and the rubble of once elegant Spanish style brick homes reminded me that some, just hundreds of miles away, endure in a very different reality.

Little things on a road trip stand out.  I pressed scan on the radio dial and the numbers kept moving until they stopped on the only station in range, an abhorrent frequency wave of battered country troubadours who nearly drove us all to insanity.  We settled for my little brother’s iPhone spitting out Bob Dylan tracks in soft whispers because my Mom’s 200,000 mile warrior of a Sequoia did not have the right inputs.

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Road trip!

I saw nothing but open road, desert, and a couple of sleeping brothers.  This was the solitude I needed after surviving the cacophony of a middle school science room for months.  We all tried on my Mom’s sunglasses and we looked equally asinine.  A road trip with just the brothers is as close to childhood as I can get.

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Look at those clouds

Up in Smoke

The glass was caked white like dried snow.  The inside smelled of something pleasant gone and faded.  The box of baby clothes on which it sat trembled under the modest weight.

The space was theirs.  Theirs to utter idealistic nonsense that still felt like magic.  Theirs to fart and spew visions of grandeur in the same breath.  Free to bask in the warm, unfiltered light of an unsecured bulb.  At least until supper-time was called and they dutifully ate their peas and were told not to lean back in their chairs.

Where did it go?  On through the chimney in search of two more boys to enchant?

He grabbed a box for the moving van.

Mom and Dad were up playing cards by the light of a flimsy lamp.  So enthralled by their game, they did not notice his arrival.

Not until the glass flew.  A shatter.  A shutter.  A grin on a rigid corpse.  Ashes.  Up in smoke.

Blue Sky, Hard Road

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Since I learned to drive,

I loved to watch the land fly by,

Learned to drive from Dad,

Jerking forward, halting abruptly,

Someday I would drive,

Drive as far as wheels could fly.

 

 

The vast Pacific,

The vast moment,

Beautiful, elusive horizon,

Destiny before my eyes.

 

 

Leaving quiet desperation,

A secure path,

An unexamined life.

 

 

I casually waved,

Like I was nothing,

 

 

I cried,

Cried at years wasted,

Years wasted on a life not my own,

Tears over road-weary words,

Words of demons, nightmares,

Words of chasing dreams,

And the life I chose.

 

 

Sunlight gleamed off the windshield,

Blue sky, hard road

Blue sky, hard road.

 

 

Crumbling Hartford,

What will winter be like?

Factories gone,

Dusty buildings, soot and blight.

 

 

Friends, family a phone call away,

No Sunday Cowboys games,

No comfort, no familiarity remains.

 

 

Hartford,

Just as cold,

Just as dreary,

In bed, aching lonely.

 

 

So I climbed a mountain,

Wrote until my voice was bold,

Walked until my feet grew cold,

Drove until my story told

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Montreal Day 1- Today I Was Violated

11-9-13 Montreal, Quebec

I woke up at 5:45 and packed rather lightly, cramming my goods into a small, olive green Jansport.

I made an unsuccessful foray into a National Park, only to realize that it was just the site of a few Revolutionary War battles.  Battlegrounds bore me.  Places set aside in order to make sure that nothing significant occurs there again.  If the event was truly significant, should we really be worried about modern developments overshadowing it?

Did I just make an ignorant blanket argument against all forms of historical preservation?  Yes, yes I did and I am not ashamed to admit that it stems from fatigue and malnourishment.  An intermittent night of sleep, Dunkin Donuts, coffee, gummy bears, a banana, and another cup of coffee are all that bolsters my shallow argument.

Let’s talk about the US-Canadian border for a bit.  Being a Texan, you would think I had seen the full spectrum of power-drunk assholes but the Canadian border was remarkable.

Maybe it was the unkempt beard, the Texas license plates, and my short-term employment in Connecticut, but I was interrogated and searched like some sort of devious miscreant.

The short, squatty French bureaucrats questioned me as if I was trying to enter with WMDs.  “Turn your ignition off.  Step out of the car.  Pop the trunk and unlock all doors.”  All doors, as if I had some magical fifth door on my Accord and if they asked sternly enough I would open it for them, uncovering a wealth of contraband and clandestine documents.

“What is your occupation?”  “Where do you teach?”  Did you leave today?  What time did you leave?  Do you have hotel reservations?”  With each additional question, I became convinced of my duplicity.  All of this coming from a country where the mayor of the largest city readily admits to smoking crack cocaine!

“What are you going to do here?  Can I see your reservations?”  I showed him a confirmation email on my grotesquely cracked i-phone screen.  He took the liberty of scrolling through my phone as if I had some “detonate Canada” quick app.

It is funny and pathetic that I became so worked up over this triviality.  My friend and former teammate Darsh Singh, a Sikh, routinely received this treatment just traveling domestically.  All because he looked different.  Can you imagine going through this every time you traveled?

It was offensive to have someone search your car and belongings, thinking they would find something.  That’s the difference between a check and a search.  So, in short, I am a spoiled white male who infrequently feels violated but today I was unexpectedly violated by a couple of Canadians.

The Costumes We Wear

I always had the best costume, an expert at disguise.

” I’ve walked these streets
In a spectacle of wealth & poverty
In the diamond market
The scarlet welcome carpet
That they just rolled out for me”

Uh oh, Natalie Merchant pandora. Brings me back to Lubbock, Texas where my Aunt Brenda and I would listen to everything from Tom Petty to yes, Natalie Merchant. “Carnival” transfixed me. Natalie’s tragic walk through the sad carnival resonated with my 8 year old soul. Ashamed that my first spiritual experience occurred at the hands of such a feminine artist, I stuffed the feeling into my back pocket.

That feeling would outgrow every back pocket, every pair of pants. Basketball, accounting, money. Eventually, and sometimes quite rapidly, these things lost the requisite meaning to obscure my true self.

As a child, my favorite animal was the wolf. Grey fur, the trademark howl, and those bright, white fangs were all nice throw-ins. However, I loved the wolf because I empathized with the slander exacted upon its character. Wolves were tortured souls in desperate need of a second chance.

Years later, I remember gazing out the window as our family zoomed south on US 59 to a baseball game or perhaps a museum. My forehead, my eyes, were pulled in by the 15 mile stretch of slums hugging the interstate. The interstate stood rigid, never acquiescing to the ghetto’s call for affection, attention of any kind. Like a distant, busy father the highway had places to go. No time for stopping, embracing.

I wondered what happened in those neighborhoods, what the hungry child thought as he lay awake.

Did he, like me, long for that girl in home room he had been crushing on since elementary? Or did his mind process the poverty and uncertainty surrounding him?

Did he dream about the NBA just as I did? Or was it closer to a burning desire?

Did his stomach growling clinch both the stomach and the heart or did the physical ailment of hunger stomp over any emotions?

His family left starving, forgotten, how did his Father feel? Was his Father so starving and forgotten that he forgot there was an alternative?

Did children, gazing through dirty clothes lines out to the indifferent highway, see the callous, carnival procession?

I believed that, for the wolf and the starving children of Houston, my feelings of sympathy and concern would better the condition of the suffering.

Years passed. I still read grisly newspaper accounts of murders, robberies, with well-hidden remorse. I searched for Wheatley, Sam Houston, Jones High School, all the tough schools, as I scanned the high school box scores each morning. I secretly rooted for them, holding the misinformed idea that my concern, unaccompanied by action, made a difference.

College came and went. Had fun. Did nothing.

I started an accounting career. Still, these feelings, concerns, lay dormant in my back pocket.

It wasn’t until I volunteered with Junior Achievement that I started to shed the costume. These kids, the same kids I worried about, didn’t need my concern. They just needed someone to witness their genius. The creativity, ambition, boldness I witnessed told me exactly what I needed to know.  I needed to rip my feelings, concerns out of my back pocket, shred them into a million pieces.

Just like many adults and, in my case, children, I was once an expert of disguise.

Why I Write

I write as an act of gratitude.

I write to apologize for discovering so late.

I write to go somewhere, I write to go nowhere.  I write because it helps me move.  Helped me move thousands of miles.

I write with my socks on.  I write in a tent with wet, smelly feet.

I write to see thoughts occupy a page.

I write because it provides a perfect blend of control and spontaneity.  Not quite like a railcar off its track but more like a car on an unknown South American mountain pass.

I write because I know my frail condition.

I write in anger, the pen driving irrevocable stitches into an innocent page.

I write because of a feeling had while writing a poem about Allen Iverson in fourth grade.  I write because that poem sucked and I’ve always been the petulant type who seldom enjoys something he’s not good at, except this time I did.

I write for my 10th grade English teacher.  The one who cried when I told her I was transferring.  I write because she’ll never know how much it meant for someone to care in a high school of 4,000 students.

I write because it’s rare for anyone to understand on a deeper level than my physical appearance and spoken words.

I write because it doesn’t require someone’s permission.

I write out of insecurity.  I write because it’s brave.  I write inviting judgment, criticism, or just plain indifference, hoping for the former and usually receiving the latter.

I write to capture a desolate feeling in a Radison Inn somewhere on the West Coast.  I write to describe the lump in my throat the next morning. I write to describe a subpar continental breakfast in a dark hotel dining room.   I write to one day remember being awake, writing at 5 AM in a strange city on the East Coast.

I write to avoid wasting life on cheap weekend thrills.  Vodka, shouting, mediocre dance moves,  all that shit I used to love.

I write for the process.  No longer do I write for results.

Substance is joy.  The essential matter can always be arranged, rearranged.

Experience grows, sensations arrive, words appear.

Burlington Part 2–The Accord Motor Inn

Note:  This is Part 2.  Click here for Part 1 of my trip to Burlington, Vermont.

The Accord Motor Inn

After five hours of slumber at the modest Accord Motor Inn, I woke up at sunrise.  I peered through my tented windows and saw an old church next to an old cemetery.  A one-stop shop for existential anxiety.  Delirious and lacking all mental acuity, I drove in circles trying to find Burlington’s miniature replica of Stone Henge.  I failed.  (Pathetically, six hours later I realized I had been to the original Stone Henge just a few years prior.)

I eventually parked and wandered into Panera Bread, the only decent establishment open at 7:30 in this college town.  I ordered, hurried to the bathroom for a much-needed splash of water across the face and then brushed my teeth.  I laughed at the irony of needing to find a “decent establishment” for a temporarily homeless man to brush his teeth.

It’s Such a Beautiful Day

My next task was to salvage some dignity out of sleeping in a car.  Every hotel was sold out due to the annual Vermont International Film Festival, a realization I did not have until I was bombarded with posters on every corner.  I bought tickets for the first show of the day, a short film called Magnetic Reconnection and the feature film, It’s Such a Beautiful Day.  Both films exposed our pathetic, ephemeral lives quite well.

Through use of simplistic, effective animation, It’s Such a Beautiful Day chronicled a man named Bill slipping into dementia.  As Bill’s memories faded, his perceptual awareness became sharper.  Bill’s clear observations reached an apex on a sunny day in which he finally saw the full beauty of a gorgeous California flower in bloom and the brilliant texture and striking green of individual blades of grass.  At the low point of what we consider healthy human consciousness, Bill experienced zen-like mindfulness.

I was immediately struck by how relevant this was to my earlier struggle to appreciate this town’s beauty.  The electronic shutters slowly receded and the large glass windows revealed a resplendent sun over Lake Champlain.  It’s such a beautiful day, indeed.  This played on repeat as I spent the day biking around the lake.

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It’s Such a Beautiful Day

Burlington, Vermont:  The Best of the Rest

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