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.

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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.

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- 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

Part 1: Mount Washington

Writers note:  This is the first part of a multi-part series detailing a 3 day trip to Mt. Washington, Acadia National Park, and Portland, Maine.

The Drive

With ambitions of scaling the highest peak east of the Mississippi River, I woke up at 3:45 AM and headed for Mt. Washington, New Hampshire.  Once darkness passed, I was greeted with a pleasant New Hampshire sunrise.  Eventually, I took a back road for about 15 minutes in search of a gas station.  The hunt was well worth it.  I ended up in the picturesque town of Milton, NH.  The service station was sitting alongside a quiet lake.  A mist was visibly rising from the water.  I spotted a lone fisherman, undoubtedly enjoying the quiet of morning just as I was.

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Just enjoying the good life

I continued through to the White Mountains.  It was one of those drives where you have to resist the urge to stop at every scenic vantage point.  Most likely your destination will be just as beautiful, if not more beautiful, as these stops along the way.  The small towns of New Hampshire appeared just as I’d imagined the Northeast.  Old cottages, bed and breakfast inns, beautifully adorned brick facades beckoning you to stay.  Out my windows I was surrounded by rolling hills with periodic views of the rugged White Mountains, the northern section of the more well-known Appalachian Mountains.

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Even still, I couldn’t resist

The Climb

I arrived for what I thought would be a relatively easy 9 mile roundtrip hike to the summit and back down.  Everything started as expected with a well-formed, albeit a bit rocky, path.  Verdant low-lands, the sound of water rushing down through glistening streams.  This easier portion of the climb allowed me to take in more cultural aspects of the park.  I heard a number of foreign languages.  German, French, Chinese.  I haven’t yet decided if the propensity to see so many foreigners in national parks is an indicator of nature’s power as a great unifier or a sign that foreigners spend entirely more time outside than the notoriously sedentary American population.

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The gentle rush of flowing water

The luscious low-lands transitioned into a steeper climb, made much more difficult by rocks covered in wet moss.  Thankfully the path was equipped with wooden ladders to aid with some of the more impassable terrain.  I kept moving and eventually eclipsed the tree-line, catching a glimpse of what was ahead.  I stared up at a quarter mile of a highly inclined jumble of rocks with no clearly marked path.  This daunting task conjured up a scene from the movie “300”, where Leonidas meets Ephors.  An unrealistic and greatly exaggerated analogy that made complete sense at the time.  For a refresher, take a look at the clip through the 1 minute mark.

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What up clouds?

After scaling infinite rocks and successfully conquering Ephors, I made it to the summit.  At the summit, the weather was flipped upon its head.  The temperature was in the low 40s with a rippling wind of around 30 miles per hour.  The entire area was quite literally in the clouds and visibility was reduced to almost nothing.  I hid behind a sturdy rock and devoured my gourmet lunch of PB&J, trail mix, and water.  The stifling clouds combined with the strong winds created an eerie celestial atmosphere.   Kind of like if you got to heaven and there was no God or any visible change in lifestyle.  Just a hang-out spot draped in a white cloud.

It was windy, here's proof.

It was windy, here’s proof.

 The Descent

After a few more hours of hiking, I made it down around 4 pm.  The 7 hour hike had me exhausted so I decided to make some progress towards the ultimate prize, Acadia National Park in Maine.  I drove for a few hours and settled on resting my head for the night in Augusta, ME.  For dinner, I chose gluttony and devoured a whole pizza in my hotel room, passing out before 9 pm.

Photo Gallery: The Best of the Rest

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Copland Track

Alarm clocks went off early Friday morning and somehow we were able to stumble out the door.  We met our friendly Kiwi friend Paul and headed for the rainy West Coast of New Zealand.  The drive was beautiful and included a jaunt through snowy, beautiful Arthur’s Pass.  We also passed rain forests and fields full of grazing sheep.  Quite the ecological buffet.

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Snow-capped mountains

After a roughly six hour drive, we finally arrived at Copland Track with reasonably clear skies.  We all counted our blessings and headed for the hut, where we would be staying for the night.  Huts are man-made shacks placed at intervals along well-established tracks.  Most of the major “tracks” or hiking trails are equipped with these lodgings.  Fitting convenience for such an active country.

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Self-incriminating, I know

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Not all those who wander are lost…yet.

The trek was beautiful but was not without wrong turns and tough choices.  At one point, we thought that the first hut had been removed and that we would have to trek 20 km that night to get to the second hut.  We eventually found the first hut while under the threat of enveloping darkness and heavy rain.  We cooked a very basic meal over an open flame and played some cards that night.

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Not exactly encouraging weather

Sumner Beach

The next day we woke up late, filled our backpacks and headed a couple of miles out of town to Sumner Beach.  We walked around the beach for a couple of hours and explored some of the caves along the shore.  The ocean’s vastness immediately grants you perspective on how far away you actually are.  I felt like we were on a different planet.

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Sumner Beach

For dinner, Max introduced us to his favorite Indian restaurant.  It was there that I first met stuffed naan.  Naan, for those less familiar with Indian food, is  a leavened oven-baked flatbread.  To me, it’s alot like an Indian tortilla.  It’s even better when stuffed with meat and dipped in curry.

That night we joined Max for his farewell party.  We had a great time watching the college kids play their favorite game, “Danger Can”.  The premise was simple.  Stand in a circle, take turns crushing a can of beer on your forehead while chanting, “Danger Can, Danger Can, Danger Can.”  Inevitably, the can explodes on someone’s forehead and everyone goes nuts.  Awesome.  We were almost positive we would not be ready for our 7 am hike, or tramp as the locals call it.