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;

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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-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.

Life lessons from Bear Mountain, CT

“So you’re sort of going through a mid-life crisis too, huh?”  I paused for a second, peering out over the picturesque Connecticut Valley from my perch atop Bear Mountain, and casually responded, “Yep, ahead of schedule too.”  Sarah had gotten divorced four years earlier, spurring a “mid-life crisis” that took her to the summit of 5, count em 5, 14 thousand foot peaks in Colorado and the entire Connecticut section of the Appalachian Trail (53 miles) in a day.  Quite literally, a monumental life-shift had taken her to heights she’d never seen before.

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A weighty chance encounter at the peak of Bear Mountain, CT

This epic chance encounter, happening so metaphorically on a rock overlooking the whole state, had me thinking the entire way down.  The term “mid-life crisis” had been thrown my way more than a few times.  Typically, I would dismiss it or lay out the painstaking logic that led me from accountant in Houston to teacher in Hartford.  Similar to a modern-day scarlet letter, admitting to such a thing would be tantamount to agreeing that my recent life decisions were a result of immaturity or,even worse, insecurity.  The sight of this fit, ambitious 30-something helped me realize that mid-life crisis is an overly broad term.  How could a balding, disgruntled businessman buying red sports cars he can’t afford be equivalent to this woman fiercely dedicated to a mission of personal growth and exploration?

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Not all highs are created equal

Mid-life crisis, used in the traditional sense, implies a rapid, unsustainable euphoric high followed by a slow and steady descent down to the lowlands from which you came.  But what do we call a successful reassessment of what matters in life?  A period of sustainable personal growth?  The present use of the term, through the use of the undeniably negative word “crisis”, implies a lack of control and a negative outcome.  “Mid-life opportunity” more positively and accurately frames the situation.  It assumes neither success nor failure while still acknowledging an important juncture in an adult’s life.  Shiny red sports cars and marital infidelity or an empowering burst of personal growth, the choice is ours.

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Back to the lowlands or to previously unseen heights?