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 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

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.