Echoes and Howls
I like the sight of tumbleweeds blowing across the plains, the throbbing sound of wind howling and pausing to catch its breath, the look of a long white line drawn on a strip of asphalt as it cuts through the endless landscape—a meager attempt at taming the untamable. I like the manner of speech amongst those who frequent these places. It is laconic and loaded, and always has what urbanites might call an “accent,” and which they might call “talkin’.” These places suggest a certain hardness of living and resilience of flora and fauna, and they invoke in me a feeling I often describe as “cozy” because bracing oneself against the elements typically involves flannel, fires, and whiskey, all of which conspire to create a no-bullshit version of coziness. Of course, many people think of abandoned places and hellish weather as something out of a nightmare, but perhaps this explains better than anything else the difference between me and “most people.”
I have spent some stretch of time in limbo, feeling dutifully handcuffed to the incomplete story I began telling the last time I wrote, and yet unable to complete it because I have still yet to visit the site of the grief and horror which I reflected on. I have then experienced the strange and blessed shift from grief to observation, wherein I am able to hold the contemplative piece of my soul at arm’s length and stare at it, as a Mayan sacrifice might’ve as he watched his own heart beat its final few beats outside of its right place in his chest. As always, against all odds, I have managed to piece together my life and persevere, as humans do. The intervals and particulars may vary, but inevitably we find ourselves returning to ‘normalcy’ after some time grappling with whatever perturbs us.
I finally put myself on the road again, which meant passing through Amarillo and obliterating tumbleweeds at eighty miles an hour, pausing in Texas’ unknown red dirt canyons for mountain biking and moments spent feeling so small as to realize that nothing is insurmountable in light of our relative scale. It meant short hours of nightmarish sleep in cheap motels, teeth clinched and grinding neurotically even though I feel the most whole and relaxed that I have in a long time. Early alarm clocks after late nights, the subtle throb of a jawline that worked overtime while the rest of me was unconscious. Hank eagerly loading up and hopping out, gas station snacks, tanks of gas, and cups of subpar coffee. There is a certain rhythm to each of these movements, which are unforgettable and also immemorable, all melding as part of a larger symphony.
What motion means for me is a loss of self and also a heightened sense of it. “Just passing through” means you can try on a hat or two, pay closer attention than normal to a stranger’s words, and retell the stories most central to your narrative until you land on a version which seems true. Visiting certain places means catching up with old friends, meeting digital ones in person, and reveling in chance encounters with strangers until the beer glasses are empty and the music stops. It is all a phantasmagoria of volition, wherein you decide how much to share and set the tone for meaningful conversations and immediate trust levels that most people would bristle at.
It is beautifully life-affirming to meet people who are better at photography or writing than I will ever be, who are tucked away in different corners of the world, working in different genres, creating for different reasons. It is literally intoxicating to meet people who say with complete seriousness that they do not perceive any given experience as entirely good or entirely bad, to hear an idea you have been idly contemplating perfectly enumerated by someone else. Most of us will never be published or read, heard or seen by more than the most fortunate few. And that is heartbreakingly perfect.
“What’s the worst thing that has happened to you in the last few years?”
The answer was surprising and rich, and was only usurped by the question being turned back at me. How often do you ask someone a question and yet have no answer at all should they ask you the same thing?
Type 2 Fun is my favorite feeling. Type 2 Fun is anything which does not feel particularly fun in the moment but is remembered fondly later. This could be a grueling bike ride, camping in subpar but beautiful conditions, agreeing to join someone for a road trip which involves lots of slog and minimal payoff, or toiling over life’s hardest questions endlessly. Type 2 Fun is the antithesis of mindless self-indulgence. It is anathema to bright lights and loud noises, unless you innately despise those things and yet choose to dive in hoping that there may be something valuable gained in reflecting on your time in the heart of darkness. Virtuous suffering teaches us how to shirk comfort in favor of growth.
[Through a cigarette]: “The difference is, you actually like your family. That’s why Halloween is my favorite holiday. You don’t celebrate it with your relatives, you hide your face and hang out with your friends and get really drunk.”
Over time, I have refined my ability to live and embrace a life filled with Type 2 Fun. This does not just involve cold nights sleeping in the back of a truck or embarking on bike rides up brutally steep mountains, but also requires staring my suffering and mistakes in the eye until I learn something new about them and about myself. It means that when someone asks “What is the worst thing that’s happened to you lately?” back, that you identify something specific, like being T-boned by a car while riding your bicycle, but then backtrack because after spending so much time refining the narrative, you have found not just a silver lining but an overarching virtue in the suffering and chaos it invoked. Losing relationships or a job or a sense of up and down is far better than losing yourself. I would not be sitting here answering that question if all of these things hadn’t happened. And I truly cannot put into words how happy I am to be sitting here.
“I don’t mean to make this political, but can I just say…”
The feeling of eye contact so piercing that it gives you butterflies and hurts a little bit.
Anywhere the Southwest is still wild, the coyotes are there. They prowl the open plains under cover of darkness and in broad daylight. They seek opportunity, they watch everything. Coyotes are dogs by another name, dogs that are not fed, dogs that have been eating the raw diet since well before it became fad. Many ranchers and hunters shoot them, even though fur is long out of fashion. It is mostly a sorry sport, but it makes them feel better to say things like, “They kill my cows,” as they drop another close cousin to the Labrador retriever that is riding shotgun in their old Ford.
“So, I think that’s my answer, but it’s funny, because aside from the horrible physical and mental effects, it actually made my life better. I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you if it didn’t happen. I wouldn’t have Hank. I wouldn’t have less money and more experiences. I wouldn’t know what the Arctic Ocean feels like. I might not have ever found out that you exist.”
I spent a long time being convinced that people who prefer big cities were somehow missing something, and wishing that I could just show all of them what I see in the world. And it may be true that most humans need fewer distracting stimuli in their lives, but as countless wise men and women in Alaska and the Yukon told me, it is good that so many people prefer to live in a select few urban areas.
City, suburbs, or mountaintops, all humans need and deserve more time to think. There is a nervous thirst for new content in newsfeeds, an uneasy drive to jam headphones into ears and consume podcasts, a basic magnetism towards entertainment—and all of these cause us to miss the point. What the point is, of course, is the subject of much debate among those who take the time to do things like engage in lively conversation.
The Southwest is the landscape of movies and of nightmares. Plateaus hover like mirages above the plains, mountains slash through the horizon, and the solitude threatens to amplify one’s thoughts. Passersby wave as they throw a reckless cloud of dust up from the gravel road, and cattle groan with resignation. Beauty is obvious here, but occupation is subtle.
“You know, it hurt to breathe, my heart was kinda gurgling, but I didn’t want to be a burden to anyone so I waited a few days to see if it went away. Then I got taken back into the hospital, and that’s where these scars come from.”
The mountains hold a truth that applies to everyone. What that truth evokes in them varies, but they elicit a visceral reaction from every single person. Many are uncomfortable with being humbled, some dislike non-essential physical activity or uncomfortable climates. And fewer still seek this out.
“It’s so flat and boring out there. It’s so far away from everything and there’s nothing to do.”
The Canyon doesn’t really announce its presence so much as the rolling grass plains suddenly drop away, unable to resist the gravity of the situation any longer. From the precipice, it is horrible. It plummets and gouges and writhes through the landscape, and it threatens to claim the life of anything careless enough to ignore its stature.
“Is that really in Texas???”
Once inside, the Canyon envelopes you. It is less windy and warmer, and it feels more like a mountainous landscape on the horizon and less like a place you could slip down and slide into oblivion. The hoodoos beckon and beg to be climbed, the red dirt whispers more temptingly than any woman ever has. “Take that turn a little faster. Climb a little bit higher.” The prickly pears threaten to do what the silty soil won’t.
Between these walls, sound doesn’t echo, it falls flat. Inside the Canyon, the rest of the world is up high and far away. The wind blows up above and creates a lid, and the silt and scrub suck the sound out of the sacred dry riverbed. This silence lets thoughts echo through your mind, leaves space for the wonder and worries that we usually drive out, the silence lets you hear. You can hear yourself breathe, you can hear rockslides a dozen miles down the canyon.
You have to fall a little bit in love with a lot of things to know the fullness of that feeling. It’s a system of checks and balances. Those eyes will place a heaviness on your heart even through photographs. That stretch of singletrack will slingshot you to singularity, and the soaring price of Bitcoin and the plummeting nature of your checking account will matter far less than the sound of the wind whipping through evergreen needles and the temporal reality of straddling a bike atop a remote mountain ridge. You’ll wonder if she is a good enough reason to move there, you’ll hate yourself for thinking it, you’ll remember a different time in another place. Then you pull your foot off the ground and let loose from the brakes, and gravity brings you back to earth. Slowly, and then all at once.
Type 2 fun is a slippery slope. Virtuous suffering can create a feedback loop, wherein you reject happiness wherever you find it. What can be learned from simple joy or delirious gladness? Soak it in briefly, finish the beer, tip well, and leave. Wear that longing well. Seek something that you know you can’t find. And envision yourself standing at the top of a slippery slope, and then do whatever it takes to get yourself there.
Somewhere down the road is a Motel 6 where hookers run away from their clients and their pimps push them back to the door, where you call the cops on the situation and they bungle their opportunity to make a difference while you watch through a peephole.
“Which way did she go?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
It is a nightmare, but it is real.
The high plains of Wyoming are rarely snow-covered. Not only is the area surprisingly arid, but the winds are so persistent that they may sweep all the snow clear across the state even as it falls. Within a few days, nothing remains except for the spots where snow’s progress is halted by windblocks or obstructions.
Humans are gluttons for the punishment of missed opportunities. It is impossible to fully shut off that morbid curiosity, which wonders what could have been or what the price of Bitcoin is since you sold it because a larger checking account might qualm your depressed self-loathing. And then there’s the self-loathing for thinking that a larger checking account might make anything better. I cannot reconcile how little I care about money and how badly I wish I’d trusted my understanding of the human condition instead of listening to my own misplaced anxiety. Even he who cares little about money would like more of it.
It is a short climb, but a very consequential one. The caliche is slick and crumbly, and the palm-tingling, throat-lumping feeling is more life affirming than a million days of not doing this. The group of mountain bikers is strewn behind like a trail of breadcrumbs, each of them giving up somewhere along the way, except for the one perfect stranger who helped me to climb to the top in spite of all the fears that laughed in my ears like so many facets of conventional society, urging that assimilation is easier and better than whatever it is you’re doing.
I hoisted my knee up over the edge and we stood, above the Canyon once more, fierce winds howling in our ears, reminding us just how precarious standing atop a slick hoodoo is. But, everything is precarious in its own way. Is it not better to bring that to light instead of trying to hide it in the shadows?
When we reached the bottom, they invited me to keep riding with them, to stop at Braums in Canyon, to convoy back to DFW later that night. But I had ridden many miles already and Hank was ready to be moving, and so I thanked them and then realized I left my backpack at the same spot the first of their crew decided he could climb no higher, several hundred feet above where we stood. So it was settled.
Red dirt and windmills spread as far as the eye can see and then well beyond that. Like the mountains, this landscape threatens the wavering mind. The silence gnaws, the subtlety pries. Distance is measured differently, because each home needs lots of land to grow the cotton that clothes us all. It is a noble and democratic pursuit, growing cotton, because everyone wears clothes. Why should some dress in suits and make handshake deals and unexamined mandates whilst others wear t-shirts and cook the meals and walk the dogs the suits are too busy to cook or to walk? Are the trappings of success worth the high cost of earning them? The cotton farmer doesn’t worry about this, because he simply bales the raw material and sends it to market. It is not his problem who wears it or even what garment it becomes. I wonder if any of the people in Sutherland Springs were wearing clothes made from the cotton growing here.
Every time I walk into a new bar or another coffee shop, I get a little better at telling my story and at making eye contact, and I am so excited by how many random moments and forking paths we are faced with every day. I am still coming to terms with the fact that people read my writing and enjoy it, but I embrace that burden gladly. I will wander the country for two weeks to find one true thing to say, to understand even slightly better how it all works. If anyone is going to listen to me, I want to do as much research as I can.
A 2 PM beer is usually my nightmare, until I drink one casually under perfect circumstances and am pretty much in heaven. Maybe we just need to call more circumstances perfect. Who decides the difference between an ideal situation and a subpar one, if not us? And for the Type 2 addicts among us, isn’t a subpar situation ideal, too?
Goodbye, cruel world.
Familiar three-light-towns come into sharp focus as Highway 287 maintains its Southeasterly zig across the Texas panhandle. I recognize my surroundings, the quaint pie stores and antique shops and long since abandoned filling stations. I am home, and a new wave of emotions washes over me as I realize it. I see culture where others see a disaster. But I am also known around these parts, even though I am not really known at all.
Super! I don’t recognize this author. What a transformation! Brilliant! Really. This is beautiful, brilliantly constructed prose delivering pleasure with each word and sentence. I’ll immediately reread for the pure pleasure. Thanks John. Happy Holidays!
Happy Christmas, John and Hank. Keep writing over the holidays please!