When someone says “This is as good as it gets,” what connotation does that have for you? What about if they ask, “Is this as good as it gets?”
Through the eroding power of time and numbing experiences, these days the inputs have to be somewhat stronger to come through. Connections corrode with time and rust is simply a protective shell for the fresh parts beneath it.
I was that blessed level of empty that only comes from efforts which push us to the brink.
Spending money you don’t really have on other people feels like a desperate post-capitalistic mating ritual. Spending money you don’t really have on yourself is a perfect reminder of the relative value of currency.
By the time we realize bumps could jolt us back awake after the smoothness becomes dangerously hypnotizing, it is too late to turn around.
You should never admit these things, especially not in writing, because it is a weakness, a liability, a pox on your name and a red flag for everyone around you. But this is also a form of cowardly submission; to deny your lethal ennui is to accept that compliant drudgery is better than everything that could make you happy.
Feeling the seasons change is surreal, because it always brings with it a rushing nostalgia and a helpless terror. The smell of pumpkin pie spices and crisp, frosty mornings is universally cozy, but it also has the same plummeting feeling as watching your likely death rush towards you. We have no say in how or when it actually arrives, no gas pedal or brakes as we hurl towards the future.
Emptiness has a nearly universal negative connotation. It is forced to duke it out with its syntactical opposition ‘half full,’ which suggests that being half empty is somehow a worse way to look at the exact same thing.
My mind flashes back to that ride in the Ozarks, when fast-driving cars plowed through fluttering butterflies, when I stopped to revere a butterfly that was in a tailspin inches off the ground, exhausted and coming to terms with the fact that his left wing was irreparably broken, even though the rest of his body was quite intact. I wonder what goes through its mind, coming to terms with its gradual and impending doom.
It was an overcast day in Anchorage, like most days are there. A sea of sheet clouds unfurled across the sky, indeterminate in its heading. Did they come from the interior downward, the first blast of winter rolling in unadulterated from the Arctic Circle, or did they roll in from the Pacific Ocean and all of its wrinkled bays to the south? The summer sky in Alaska always has a silver-grey tint to it, with golden-purple undertones when the sun musters the strength to nearly break through the clouds.
I am rather fond of moments where I feel like the only human on earth. Riding just far enough down a forgotten logging road, driving hundreds of miles north of the farthest north American city and then setting off on a routine hike, placing my feet where no human has ever stepped before. To conquer the useless. To feel so small that my problems shrink alongside my sense of self (importance). To be somewhere where I do not need to see myself as a triangulated being reflected off other humans but instead can let my sensory organs be direct inputs to a brain that simply soaks them in.
“You’re a literature guy,” they always say to me. “What book should I read?”
“I’m the world’s worst literature major,” I always reply. “I just read the same Joan Didion essays over and over.” Then I either recommend one of my two favorite collections of her essays, or perhaps some Fitzgerald or Steinbeck if I can tell they wouldn’t stand for a collection of nonfiction essays from a different era.
Existing is a fickle thing, some combination of biological bare-minimums and feeling profoundly satisfied which ultimately makes us who we are. But what if you slip and fall and your biology is canceled out by blunt force trauma? What if you are watching your dog live his best life and take a golf ball to the back of the head, caught forever unawares that there was a municipal golf course just behind the fence from the dog park you’re sitting in?
Riding bicycles, you encounter roadkill up close and often. And in the rural south, you encounter an extraordinary amount of it. Like most things that we spend our lives accustomed to, I scarcely noticed this for many of my early years cycling in Texas. I only sort of noticed how much less roadkill there was in California, where there was simply far less wildlife to get killed by cars. And while biking across the continent sometime during those college years, I began to notice the regional variation in roadkill; the reptiles and amphibians of central Florida gently yielding to more mammals further from the swamps, then back to sea creatures as the floods of Hurricane Isaac dragged porpoises and fish onto Highway 90. More armadillos in Texas, and whitetail deer lying defeated, serving as prime buffets for turkey vultures.
Early in May we reached two dates that had been circled on the calendar for months. First, Hank completed his agonizing heartworm treatment. And second, my first out-of-town visitors drove and flew to Arkansas for an epic mixed-surface bike race in the Ozarks. Hank endured nearly three months of intense medicine and no elevated heartrate, a combination which forced us to bide our time until we could return to living once more. As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.
Spending too much time thinking may have its downsides, but that is only if you subscribe to the notion that there is such thing as “spending too much time thinking.” Something that I have noticed lately is the wide schism between the incredible people I have met and befriended as a result of thinking deeply and sharing openly and the situations I can scarcely fit into because I haven’t figured out how to act—in every sense of the word.
Opting out of the conventional societal funnel guarantees you only one thing: discomfort. The choice to quit an unfulfilling job is celebrated widely but acted upon rather infrequently, and the narrative of going out into the Alaskan wild to see what it is one might find there is a popular one (as evidenced by the major motion picture) in theory but equally unpopular in practice.
It is no secret that I am fond of driving, of sitting behind the wheel of a car and entering that trancelike state of focus and subconscious action and watching the countryside whir by. Driving makes everything feel right, because you are free to think deeply without feeling idle or aimless. Sitting on the couch thinking about one sentence you said a year prior feels lazy and self-flagellating; running over that line until it smooths like a river rock while driving is to be expected.
The sad and quiet two months have begun here at John and Hank’s house. Hank got his first heartworm treatment shot last Monday, which means he is strictly forbidden from getting his heartrate up for the next two months while the series of arsenic-based injections kill off the heinously disgusting worms in his body. The vet said the X-ray indicated he’s likely had these worms more or less his whole life, which is both horrifying and a slight relief, inasmuch as it means that I can put to rest a bit my immense sense of guilt at his plight.
Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about traveling to Alaska is that it is the capital of what is known as “bear country.” In much of North America, signs at rural campsites warn that YOU ARE IN BEAR COUNTRY, but what they really mean is that you cannot leave the leftovers from the night’s meal on the KOA picnic table, lest a hungry and intrepid black bear decides to slide through the buffet line while you sleep. What they do not mean is what is implied virtually everywhere in Northern British Columbia, the Yukon Territory, and the State of Alaska; that bears may appear any time without warning, day or night, food or otherwise.
I am fascinated by our variable tolerances; when it comes to solitude, silence, loneliness, or discomfort, we react violently and immediately. When it comes to monotony insidiously creeping in, we are like the frog in a slowly boiling pot of water. Maybe we start to notice it heating up, but it feels just good enough until it is far too late. Many people say that constantly moving around sounds lonely. They imply that being alone is an objectively negative thing.
The Internet Age has fragmented our minds and our lives to an alarming degree. We have lost touch with the plainness of reality and the continuity of the human experience. We find it easier than ever to Google a quote from whichever departed celebrity it is currently trendy to mourn on Facebook, yet harder than ever to adequately process the complexity of the world around us.
Any time someone takes a real, human risk and shares real feelings, answers the question “How are you?” with something other than “I’m good, and you?” they open themselves up to a world of possibilities. Oftentimes, I’ve been unblinkingly honest and had exceptional honesty, care, and friendship handed back my way.
According to the Chinese Zodiac calendar, 2018 is the Year of the Dog. Of course, 2018 is also an arbitrary number assigned to this slice of time thanks to an intricate series of military victories and astronomers surviving skeptical regimes many thousands of years in the past.
It has been a year since I wrote my most-read website post ever: So This is the New Year. Every time we look back on a memorable moment from a different era, we are given a whooshing, tunnel-vision recap of our lives since.
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’.”
Creativity and joy have been put on hold for a while now because of a certain sense of grief. Senseless tragedy happens daily, and perhaps “senseless” is a relative term, but bad things which fill news headlines continue to fill our collective psyche and burrow deep into the piece of my consciousness which is supposed to unquestioningly earn money and push my DNA onward in this world. The fittest may survive, but they are not always fit enough to relate to the outside world in a neat and rational way. And then there is the question of the evolutionary function of honor.
So often, I find myself avoiding the climax in favor of meandering melodrama. Maybe I’m afraid of disappointment, perhaps I enjoy sitting on the precipice with heart in throat for as long as possible. More likely, I enjoy lingering and making something out of nothing for as long as possible. I could fill a novella with the 48 hours leading up to laying eyes on the Arctic Ocean, such is my knack for making metaphors out of subarctic mosquitoes and so protracted is time as latitude approaches infinity.
Driving down the north side of Ataguin Pass—known colloquially as “The North Slope,” a geographic happenstance that causes oil to pool up deep beneath Prudhoe Bay in quantities that outweigh the crushing reality of life in the Arctic Circle—I soaked in the surreal sights and even less believable cartographic situation. The tundra was buried beneath two-day-old snow, tall summer grasses now brown and flickering in the breeze. It seemed to go on forever in every direction, interrupted only by imposing the imposing east-west mountain range and the cold haze to the north. The sun skated across the sky slowly, casting a blinding pastel light across the landscape.
The alarm clock came jarringly early, and with the first digitized chime came the realization that it was freezing inside our narrow room. I’d left the window cracked so as to enjoy the crisp Arctic air, and over the course of the night, it slinked its way into the room like the Northern Lights unfurling across the night sky a few hours prior. Hank groaned a deep, profound groan and did his usual morning flop, which entails a quick roll onto his back and an enormous front-arm stretch, followed by a huffing sigh and a quick return to slumber whilst his head is entirely upside down and his lips droop, revealing his impressively white teeth. I wanted to do the same, but I also wanted to see everything I could between Coldfoot and Deadhorse.
Like most things, the idea of driving to the Arctic Ocean is far bigger and fuzzier than its reality. Even after successfully covering over 5,000 miles, that last 491 somehow rendered nauseating and impossible. I extended my stay in Fairbanks a day, wondered if anyone would remember that I’d claimed I was going to touch the waters of the Arctic—and if they did, what would happen if I bailed—and started looking at various southerly destinations from Fairbanks. Much like the Canadian border three weeks prior, something about the psychic inertia of pounding out unpaved miles on the Dalton Highway felt unfathomable and terrible, even though it was a non-point-source dream that I had spent many months putting into action.
Dawson City, not actually big enough to be designated a city, is perched on the banks of the silent and massive Yukon River. To arrive here from Alaska, one drives along the breathtaking, mind-bending Top of the World Highway, a hundred miles of gravel road sliced indelicately into the ridges of roiling mountains that stretch endlessly from Alaska to Canada. After crossing the border, a driver still has nearly sixty miles of gravel road to follow before it suddenly points downward rather suddenly and abruptly ends at the river, where a haphazard collective of cones directs drivers and pedestrians where to line up for the ferry, which serves as the only river crossing until the water finally freezes over sometime in October. Then you just drive on the ice.
When I am on the road, I get asked this question more than any other. For every envious onlooker who sees Hank and I as an expression of something pure and good, there are dozens who hear what we’re doing and immediately jump to the fearsome shadows that lurk in the woods and in our minds as the silence envelops us. For much of the past three months and even more of my previous sojourns, I could earnestly answer them, “Never.” It is hard to be lonely when you are moving, when your eyes and mind are overwhelmed with newness and beauty, when your body is exhausted and your heart is full of renewed faith. Even then, they wonder. But that is so much driving, so much time alone.
I set out for our rendezvous spot, the Lower Skilak Lake Campground, at six thirty in the morning. The cabin I’d booked to wait out the frigid, rainy night appeared close on the map, but the scale of Alaska is always misleading. When we arrived, the weather was so dismal that I felt more like a soldier resigned to marching than an eager fisherman on one of Alaska’s most famed rivers. Hank sniffed around eagerly, unfazed by the rain and hot on the trail of some bear or moose smells from the night before.
Our boat guide, Andrew, greeted us eagerly. It was seven forty. I was ten minutes late and not glad about it, but he was glad to see us and had the subdued cheery nature of every man who is paid to help visitors catch fish. We loaded up the boat and I surveyed the skies and my equipment grimly. Nothing I own, and certainly nothing I packed, could keep a man warm or dry in conditions like this.
I wrote most of the following roughly a week ago while spending some time in Anchorage getting caught up on chores and rest after so much travel through remote British Columbia and Yukon Territories, but I couldn’t find the right words to tie it together and then ran out of opportunities to write for a while. Just so the reader knows, I am in a different place physically and mentally now, but it is important to share more than just the highlight reel.
The miles between Whitehorse, Yukon Territories, and the International Border seem to stretch on in a way that defies their already-significant actuality. With little to distinguish one from the next, they bleed into each other. And perhaps the rounding of kilometers into miles has a cumulative effect, so that everything is always a fraction further than imagined. A sunny morning in Whitehorse made for a lovely breakfast and hike with Hank, and the first few hours of the drive were as sun-soaked and cerulean as any day of my travels.
Time and space are two of the biggest challenges humanity faces. No feat of engineering can manipulate the passage of time in any meaningful way, and our place in space is rather fixed in a cosmic sense and rather complicated in a planetary one. Trillions of dollars are spent trying to make roads between lonely outposts, to design vehicles that can graze the surface of distant celestial beings, to build systems to transport resources from where they exist to the map points where humanity gathers.
I spoke to Jeremiah and confirmed the truck would be ready ahead of their 3 day weekend and the ensuing chaos of 4th of July and then gathered my thoughts and tried to determine the best course of action. With this stunning repair speed and accommodating kindness, I could still make my original plan of being in Lake Tahoe for the weekend. It would involve lots more driving than I’d prefer, and I missed out on spending time in LA, but it was a small price to pay for turning what could have been disaster into a mere expensive inconvenience and one of the most glorious fishing days I’ve ever had.
The next morning the sun shone brightly through the cabin windows before my alarm clock rang. Sunshine in the mountains has a certain quality, as if that few thousand feet closer to the sun creates a shimmering clarity that’s lacking lower down. The air was frigid but the sunlight had a piercing warmth even before seven A.M. Hank was still nestled next to me in his coziest sleeping position—curled in a ball with his chin resting on his tail, which gets bristly like a raccoon’s when he wants to be comfortable. I looked at him and sighed against the sunshine and my primal instinct to rise. The cold air and the bright sun competed for my response, and I chose to follow Hank’s example in spite of the allure of the pines and the sunshine.
The Grand Mesa was an unexpected delight and incarnate proof of the joys that stem from simply accepting all happenstances as they come. The climb from Restoration Land Cruisers to Cedaredge to the top of the Mesa was astonishing—you gain nearly six thousand feet of elevation in a mere fifteen miles—and by entering a protected National Forest two miles above sea level, you truly leave the rest of the world beneath you. Every corner revealed unexpected sights, both because I’d only learned of the Mesa’s existence some hours before and because I thought I would be in Los Angeles at that moment but instead was entering the glorious repose of an alpine forest.
A series of machinations led to another, even younger-looking tow truck driver appearing some 30 minutes after we first arrived. He was prepared to drive me the two hours to Grand Junction and he was short on words. I greeted him and we hopped into the cab with Hank in between us and we were off. The truck strained righteously against the weight of the Land Cruiser, and between its clamor and general state of being a tow truck (“The oldest and slowest one in our fleet,” my first driver told me), what few words we exchanged were yelled and met with the resigned silence of two people who really didn’t want to be driving to Grand Junction.
The noises emanating from the Land Cruiser’s transmission were grim. There was the uneasy whine of a transfer case that couldn’t quite disengage, the sickening spinning sound of a slipping transmission, the engine revving way beyond its comfort zone trying to convert all that heat and noise to forward progress. I limped along on the shoulder for all of a mile before calling defeat. There was no hope of advancing to Las Vegas or on to Los Angeles early the next morning.
“The middle of nowhere” is a loaded idiom. It’s a vague-yet-precise phrase that invokes a certain situation or location, which can be positive or negative depending on who says it. It offers up visions of amber waves and orange plateaus, of abandoned filling stations and faded glimpses of the past’s future. It is a place devoid of the decades of social construction required to populate a city with its traps and trappings.
The Middle of Nowhere lies squarely in the heart of America. Not geographically, though its geographic center (2 miles northwest of Lebanon, Kansas) may well qualify as such. No, the Middle of Nowhere is an idea deeply engrained in the American frontier psyche. From the times of pioneers in chuckwagons on through their great grandchildren in postwar automobiles getting their kicks on Route 66, we have been drawn toward faraway places and their implacable, fearsome beauty.
A couple of weeks ago, I began to examine the oppressive idea that, “You can’t just do that.” Whatever that is. Then the notes and memories came flooding in about people who can, do, and have just done that. The common theme among everyone who I talk to and behind all of my best days is the agency required; that we simply decide when we’re going to do something (or not), that ultimately, by dwelling just long enough on a goal or something that we don’t want to happen, the desire or fear will drive us to act in spite of inertia or headaches or depression or anything else.
I recently became aware of the improbable story of Amanda Coker. It is noteworthy in several ways. Firstly, she just accomplished something that is radically difficult to convey in words: she rode her bike 86,000 miles in a single year. Fewer than 365 days, in fact. She smashed the previous record by over ten thousand miles. Which, by the way, is about the furthest I’ve ever ridden in a single year, and that was one in which I was sacrificing lots of things to squeeze in more time on my bike. If you click the above link, you’ll find that she often puts in two and three hundred miles in a day, an amount that comes closer to my current monthly total.
I shirk at the word escapism, though my counselor has encouraged me increasingly not to attach pejorative connotations to things just because some other people do. So, if I want to escape the heart-pounding stress of angry drivers and overcrowded streets, to say goodbye to the towering steel and glass and find somewhere that I can sit with my thoughts until they get quiet and follow a linear narrative, then I should. We all should. Driving away from unpaid bills and unmowed lawns is, perhaps, unwise. But handling the basics and then heading away to find a deep peace and clarity is wise indeed.
(back to regularly scheduled programming in the Maine series)
Road trips force upon the traveler a veritable phantasmagoria of sights, sounds, and smells. The more time you spend on the road, in and out of the car, the more songs the radio plays, the more towns and forests and roadkill and signs you see, the more farms and sea breezes and oil refineries you smell. It all combines to create these oddly specific yet implacable memories, and behind a brain that still moves a tick slower than it used to, it creates a cinematic effect soaked in through slack-key brain time. Behind the wheel of an old truck, you’re content to move slowly and deliberately, to stop often and cruise slowly, to listen to wind and tire noise and music and talk radio in somewhat equal doses.
I was going to post the next chapter from Maine today. I had it 99% finished yesterday, actually, but my confidence was shaken and photos needed editing, and today I probably backslid in progress even though I finally loaded the photos to my poor old laptop. Then I got hit with headaches and that creeping, insidious feeling—uncertainty about everything I was doing, no interest in doing it, really no interest in anything at all.
Maine is an otherworldly place, though it’s very much a place in this world. Indeed, driving a few hours north of Boston puts you in this northernmost continental state where the ocean freezes in the wintertime and wealthy Nor’Easterners flood its coastal hamlets in the summer. As I pulled out of Portland, the temperature was a promising thirty degrees with the sun shining and the winds a bit less bitter than the days prior. I charted a course towards Popham Beach State Park and then Acadia National Park via Maine’s own Highway 1, the Coastal Route that zigs and zags and weaves and traverses its way northeast along the coastline. I found it interesting, if not useful, that Maine and California both prominently feature Highway Ones, both of which seem to contain some sort of primary promise in their naming conventions.
Unlike celestial bodies, the gravity of places does not depend on density or mass. If it did, I wouldn’t find myself in Bar Harbor in the wintertime or Barstow on a July afternoon. For many people, activity and a high concentration of distractions is the obvious magnetic force. Billions have decided that the strongest draw is exerted by New York and Beijing and Los Angeles and London—they allow us to never be robbed of stimuli or feel the prickling sensation on the backs of our necks that comes from standing somewhere empty and hearing a noise that doesn’t seem to come from the landscape.
Cartography is as close as man has come to performing magic. With nothing more than pen and paper, entire landscapes are altered for eternity. Languages and laws of the land occupy places according to the lines drawn on it and eventually architectural styles and corporate entities follow their lead. Before maps, the land had no way to know what was expected of it.
I’ve wanted to write lately. But I also haven’t. I’ve thought about individual readers by name or by email address and wished I had something to say to them, or even that I had the energy to reach out and let them know that I had nothing to say but hoped they were well. Then I wake up with a pounding headache and a thick fog and give Hank my best hour or two of the day before retreating to bare-effing-minimum to wait out another angsty bedtime.
It is no secret that I love my dog. Since he came into my life, we’ve steadily increased our escapades—our run mileage and distance traveled from home and hours spent reading on the couch and number of seconds he’ll wait for a treat in all-consuming focus. He is the perfect companion, and I seem to hear from readers and friends near and far who ask if I’ve read any number of volumes about the bond between man and best friend.
In some cases, the answer is yes, in others, it is no, “But I’ll add that to my list!” And I always do. Now, friends and strangers alike end correspondence with things like, “Tell Hank hello,” or “Give Hank a pat on the head from me,” which I always do. The best part of this virtuous cycle of greetings and recommended readings is that Hank has steadily taught me how to read over the last couple of months. He’s taught me a lot of other healthy habits, too.
I pulled up to one of the only sections of river that wasn’t imminently raging from the evening’s water release or still high from the morning’s power generation. The sun was sinking flatly, casting long, wintry shadows on the gravel parking area and leaves that coat the forest floor. Hank began nosing through the leaves, scurrying anxiously and enjoying freedom from the hours spent driving across northern Arkansas through the Ozarks riding shotgun in a seat he’s an inch or two too big for.
Three days ago I said I’d be right back with a few positive tales from the last week. I then spent the ensuing days milking every positive and energetic moment for all it was worth. That means riding my mountain bike small fractions of the miles and time I used to spend pounding pavement before the crash(es) and sitting in the sunshine with Hank until he and I were both thoroughly tired, followed by spending the rest of the day somnolent on the couch getting lost in a book(!)—a profound joy that I haven’t felt in a long time.
Some days my brain echoes with static and feels so stuffed with cotton balls that my favorite places feel grating and abrasive and my very existence is taxing and uncomfortable. The mere act of surviving becomes difficult and snapping out of this state of agony does not mark an effective return to productive normalcy. These interruptions are the reason entire tasks and conversations fall through the cracks. When the thickest fog lifts, it marks a return to a convincing facsimile of normalcy that makes it easy for onlookers (and even myself) to think everything is okay and that I ought to be more responsible, productive, and accountable than I’m capable of. And yet, those life-altering interruptions cause hours to disappear in tormented reverie and best intentions to become forgotten until they resurface as frustrations at some later date.
Last night, while sitting at the very pizza place that I wrote about here a few months ago, I read a story about a treasure ship that’s supposedly lost somewhere in the California desert. I chowed down on pizza after a long day spent in the Ozarks while Hank watched me through the windshield of my car and the front window of the restaurant, feeling quite sublime about the fact that I was back in Heber Springs some five months later after simply deciding I wanted to be here.
I have a plan that I’m halfway through. It’s a simple, meta plan that helps me to clearly, tangibly spell out other plans for the year. I’d call them “goals,” but that word has complicated connotations. It suggests that we would like to do things but aren’t sure we can accomplish them. It’s something we’ve turned into a hashtag and trivialized so much that the word has lost its meaning. Plans are things that we’re going to do. These are things I’m going to do.
As evidenced by the gap in publishing here, I ran into a brick wall at full speed after starting the new year so strongly. Thankfully, it wasn’t a literal wall this time. But whatever momentum and progress and discipline I’d conjured fizzled and disappeared along with the majority of my sanity and headache-free days. Another spell of miserable dizziness and brain fog triggered too much time feeling unmotivated and undisciplined and not writing a damn thing. This after thinking I had found purpose and rhythm amidst this transitory time, reason among the pain. And of course, the massive deceleration made it extra painful, as it always does.
As my writing continues to find a voice and an audience in this new year and post-crash new life, I find myself kicking around book ideas and titles more than ever before. Writing a book is becoming less of a pipe dream every day thanks to the strange and wonderful series of events that’s unfolded around me lately. Admittedly, it’s not easy to maintain the level of discipline and resolve that I can encapsulate in a few hours’ worth of writing. Between being a normal human being and having crazy brain fog and headaches to contend with, a week’s worth of resolute New Year’s behaviors quickly fizzles in favor of merely staying alive. I woke up this morning thinking that there was no way I’d be able to write anything meaningful today—my brain felt like it was full of the same billowy grey clouds as the sky outside my window, and nothing has happened lately that seems worth writing about.
We’re a bit over a week into the New Year, and it’s been a whirlwind so far. The post I published on the precipice of 2017 was my most popular ever by far, which was encouraging and enlightening. I got the cast off my hand, rendering me the most physically free and able I’ve been since June 25th. I officially have zero corporate copywriting obligations for the first time in three-plus years thanks to a hilariously pedantic ‘layoff’ by my last remaining freelance client. Hank joined my family and has dramatically altered my life for the better.
From Raleigh, heading North made for quicker progress across state lines. I made plans to move beyond the comfortable confines of North Carolina for the first time in over a week. Charles and his wife Chris both hailed from Roanoke, which promised to be the type of town I needed as I eased back into the wild. The drive towards Roanoke was one of the most stunning I’ve ever made, though its pace and setting made it nearly impossible to stop and capture the magic on camera. Sometimes God seems to orchestrate things this way, to force us to absorb it all in the moment and know that it’s something He made specially for the present observer. Steep farmland, dramatic drops, slinky mist, and a panoramic gradient sunset made for a quintessential Appalachian evening, and I spent a bit too long chasing the promise of a better vantage point to watch the sunset, which led to some interesting byways but never quite the vista I envisioned.
At this point I’ve fallen so far off the chronology train that this post is out of left field, but I figured I’d pick up where the last road trip post left off. I’m challenging myself to actually chronicle this trip before too much time passes/I hit the road again, so here we go!
Sunday night at church, the pastor did what they so often do and seemed to speak directly to me and my current situation. He did not speak with conviction or pry at a gnawing emptiness as they so often do when the message seems to hit too close, but rather challenged listeners with finding life and steadfastness in the mundane.
New Year’s Eve falls squarely under that old Socratic definition of insanity: repeating the same thing and expecting a different result. Most everyone will admit that it’s an overrated evening filled with high expectations that ultimately ends up being just like every other night, only a bit later and involving a lot more booze.
It appears that somehow my piece on Petrolicious is climbing its way back into the ranks of the ‘most popular’ stories this week, which is a huge encouragement in a somewhat grim time and certainly motivation to write something relevant for all the visitors to this site expecting to see lots more (car-related) content. Above all, it’s been a treat to meet, talk to, and hear from people who share some slice or another of this crazy journey. Last week, I sat down for coffee with Ty and Brock, filmmakers from Portland who were in Austin for a commercial shoot and wanted to catch up with any aircooled Porsche people they could find in town. What followed was several hours’ conversation on life and the experiential side of cars, with precious little attention to technical details or highbrow esoterica. It was a conversation of finding common ground and bringing new stories and perspectives to the table.
People are fickle enough on a good day. Even at our best, there are plenty of small things that can send us down emotional roller coasters of highs and lows: free brownies, traffic jams, bad days fishing, hirings, firings, beginnings, endings, spilled milk, and burnt coffee. And lately, I’m rarely at my best. That means I’m extra susceptible to the roiling, tumultuous course of any given day’s waking hours.
Something I find myself contemplating a lot lately is the slow and simple pursuit of joy across disciplines and slices of life. From driving a quirky old car that’s neither the fastest nor most comfortable way to travel to fishing with a small and light fly rod that’s not particularly effective at catching fish relative to chucking live bait with a simpler bait-casting setup to driving aging surface roads and byways, most everything I enjoy sacrifices efficiency and eschews technological improvement and numerical supremacy in favor of that great intangible—tactile joy.
Just as it can be exhilarating and slightly disappointing to finally master a guitar lick you’d revered as a kid or to meet someone you’ve admired from afar, visiting places that once seemed vaguely distant is eye-opening in the most mundane way possible. This is especially true when you travel by car and take backroads, where the signs announcing state lines are small and often hidden by overgrown trees, where you sneak up on city limits amidst forest or farm land, when you’re not sure exactly when you ceased being in Greater Pittsburgh and entered Greater Cleveland. The birds and squirrels and trees don’t know, either, though suddenly you might notice a jet black squirrel dart across a manicured farm lawn flanked by pine trees and fire-colored oaks and realize that you’re in a new ecological region.
It is clichéd common knowledge that we rarely find what we’re looking for. In setting out to submit myself to the road and all of its discomforts, I knew that I wanted to run away with my thoughts and create a space for learning and for healing. What’s ensued has been a mind-boggling phantasmagoria of new experiences and a renewed love for old passions.
“No regrets” is one of the most virtuous phrases of the Modern Age. To have regrets is to admit weakness or care in a time when strength and YOLO-ism are espoused as the correct way to proceed.
To live without regret means either that you view mistakes as wholly inconsequential or that you are so preternaturally at peace that you believe everything happens for a reason and that all of those reasons will become clear in your lifetime and will result in positive outcomes.
I’ve been tracking the car-related nitty gritty stuff on a couple of car forums that many of ya’ll probably don’t visit. For those who are interested in what all the time in between these snippets that get turned into stories are like, I’ve aggregated all those posts to-date below. Please forgive any repetition relative to my website; it’s hard keeping track of what I’ve said where!
On June 25th, I was t-boned by a car while leading my cycling team’s Saturday morning ride. I collapsed twice after the accident, and the second time I was certain I wasn’t waking up. That experience and all of the continued issues recovering from a head and neck injury led me to rejigger my priorities and bucket list a little, which leads us to everything that’s happening below…
I bought a 1984 Carrera on Bring a Trailer last month, and the details of that can be found in my Bring a Trailer Success Story.
“I just remember staring down at some papers on my desk one day and little red droplets started appearing on them. I was so stressed out at my job that it gave me anxiety and I got the first nosebleed of my life. That’s the story of how I got to what I’m doing now. Not very many people know that.”
Hunter is an absolute southern sweetheart, with one of those Tennessee Honey accents and a propensity for saying things like, “I understand” and “Oh, for sure!” He sent me a note from one of the car forums that I’ve been posting trip updates on, telling me to shoot him a text if I passed through Chattanooga. And after booking an AirBnb at 1 AM and texting him at 8 the following morning, I found myself sharing tacos and a scenic tour of the city with him. We talked about our philosophical common ground (a fun-driving convertible with a happy dog and loving woman by your side beats the crap out of a theoretically faster or fancier car any day) and our respective experiences with long distance, long duration road trips, and we talked about the much deeper things that such common grounds always seem to hint at.
One of the hardest parts of the human experience is accepting compliments. We don’t know what to say when people have nice things to say to us, we invent reasons why what they’re saying is colored by ulterior motives or is somehow not as meaningful as it might be, and ultimately we simply don’t believe that what they’re saying about us is noteworthy, because what we’re accustomed to and believe to be normal totally isn’t worth mentioning, right?
It started simply enough. After two days of sunrise-to-sunset trout fishing and bare-bones camping food, we were ready for a real meal and the luxury of a pitcher of beer and some college football on TV. In small town Arkansas, almost all of the internet reviews of restaurants come from out-of-towners who are visiting for some combination of tourism or visiting provincial relatives, which is why most of the reviews are filled with holier-than-thou qualifiers like “Finally found a place I could actually eat,” and “The one reminder of what it’s like in the outside world.” Of course, these are the exact types of people who are power users on Yelp and Google Reviews.
Much has been made of the America of yore slowly dying on the vine. This topic is as timely as ever lately as our candidates have masqueraded around the country striving to convince different demographics that they’ve been systematically oppressed and victimized in the name of economy or efficiency, that interstates and free trade are to blame for their feelings of malaise.
I was stricken by a reply to my initial Success Story on Bring a Trailer that lamented, “At 52 I am too young to have made some of these journeys back when On the Road was something you could really live without pop-up fast food franchises, endless freeways, and chain motels.” I had to think long and hard about this claim, because I often find that the more we submit ourselves to what’s been canonized as Kerouac-ian kismet, the more we find that such a world is more a state of mind than a hard and fast reality. And states of mind are devilishly difficult to suppress.
Once one turns down “the path of no return,” every event and platitude which in normal circumstances may seem insignificant takes on a certain weight. The scalding heat of an oil cap after hours of driving in the Mojave Desert, the fact that by sheer coincidence a book long left on the shelf might open right to the page that needed to be read the most—these are the things that happen when you simply decide that you’re going to spend some amount of time doing something.
Getting nearly killed by a car, or anything else for that matter, can be a magnificent blessing in disguise. It is way, way too easy to go through life assuming that we’ll get around to everything that we want to do someday, halfheartedly fearing death as a result of a vestigial survival instinct or flawed personal philosophy. Routines grow comfortable for better and for worse, and we find ourselves dulling our goals and
First-person nonfiction often relies on the premise that something extraordinary has to happen to someone in order for them to be ‘qualified’ to write or to be read. In many cases, these happenings are utterly undesirable—people survive grotesque events or experience extreme loss or spend years as politicians or rock stars—and sell readers on the premise that their perspective is enlightened.
It is little exaggeration to say that “everyone” is now discussing the imminent disruption to the social order, that in my particularly cosmopolitan slice of the quickly-growing and ever-changing State of Texas, the buzz of yesterday’s cyber conversation has spilled over into the fodder of coffee shops across Austin. Around here, the world is understood through memes, the social hierarchy is dictated silently by follower counts and equally irrelevant metrics, and the election may well be won and lost by the candidate with the best social media strategy (and it wouldn’t be the first time). There is an unspoken digital dictator that controls ‘IRL’ dynamics—aesthetics, esteem among certain social circles, name dropping when visiting cyberfamous hotspots in other hubs of hipness—and today, that quasi-democracy is being usurped and replaced by an oligarchy.
Howdy! I’m working on writing a book of stories and observations like these. Would you read it? Why or why not? It’s either that or another sophomoric, sardonic attempt at The Next Great American Novel. Cheers!
Somewhere along the way, most of us forgot that the “pop” in pop music is a de facto abbreviation for “popular.” Or perhaps we didn’t, and that’s why it is such a complicated force in modern culture. As much as popularity is the only thing that matters in middle school, as we age, it becomes a complicated word that often takes on negative connotations.
There is a popular movement in the urban epicenters of hip in this country that romanticizes the great outdoors. Like any movement that starts with genuine trailblazers, it gives way to a wider swath that imitates the most outwardly visible traits of those purveyors of cool while entirely missing the point. In this case, our latest infatuation with rugged individualism spawned the lumbersexual. Someone who looks utterly prepared to fell a tree and roast a salmon over an open fire he started without a lighter or matches, only those activities might scratch his boots or tear his designer waxed canvas coat.
The mountains are calling and I must go. I’m an avid outdoorsman, and yet I hate that phrase—an overused and misconstrued John Muirism that has been sewn into patches, overlaid on all manner of Instagram photos, and pinned to a million Pinterest boards. I don’t think I simply despise it because I have a particular connotation of it—on a patch made by one of the very cliché Pacific Northwesterners such things epitomize, a fellow who also made rings out of vintage spoons he found, one of which rings I bought for a lady friend far too prematurely, aware of the latent symbolism of rings and unconcerned because this one cost less than a decent dinner and drinks, only to watch that fling implode magnificently less than 48 hours after gifting her said ring. The patches and rings all shared space on his Etsy page, which should have been my first red flag.
I have seen a lot of sixty-plus-year-olds put on concerts. Not painful orchestral affairs at senior centers, either. From my early teenage years, all of my musical heroes were the great rockers who invented the genre and recorded albums that will never be topped. The only problem was, I was born some twenty years after most of my favorite solos were recorded in the perma-haze hanging over London and San Francisco.
In my most aimless of days, I was briefly registered as a Psychology – Spanish dual major. I learned just enough to pass tests, but never enough to be dangerous. Perhaps the most powerful memory I have of my time in half-empty lecture halls and grimly-lit clinical study rooms is the idea of the flashbulb memory. I don’t have any flashbulb memories from that part of my college experience, though. I’d rather forget it all.
A flashbulb memory is a highly detailed, exceptionally vivid ‘snapshot’ of the moment and circumstances in which a piece of surprising and consequential (or emotionally arousing) news was heard.
And there is no better example of a flashbulb memory this century than the morning of September 11, 2001. In an era where Moore’s Law is hopelessly outdated, nothing has surpassed the way that date and its imagery imprinted itself on all of our psyches.
I am overcome with regret because two Google searches I just made turned up bad news. Firstly, there are no Nepenthes aristolochioides available for sale anywhere in the United States right now. There were two available on Sunday, but at that time, the price they command did not seem reasonable or prudent for someone in my position to spend. Now there are none.
Secondly, Amado Vazquez is dead.
The plaintive echo of steel drums is reinforced by the Coral Reefers’ horn section. That particular melancholy of timpanis we’ve come to know as “tropical,” the soundtrack of so many sunburnt days and adulterous nights, is cancelled out by the audacity of the brass. The intro to ‘Cheeseburger in Paradise’ is so well-executed, it almost makes me want to amend my herbivorous habits. It’s as if Jimmy lives entirely on this thin line between irony and simplicity, a line much thinner than Seven Mile Bridge appears on a map as it reaches out to the Keys. Perhaps that is why he is regarded as a great songwriter rather than a Hawaiian-clad bozo. Because those who are wont to give credit to the ironical can give credit where it’s maybe due.
I was in my favorite book store in Texas the other night. It’s one of the biggest remaining in America. On that particular night I was looking at the bicycling section. Austin is one of the biggest bicycling cities in America. Bikes are probably my biggest passion outside of reading and writing, and yet not a single one of those books appealed to me. I fanned through the pages of several, from the one my friend who works there said is the most popular bike book to the one that had the most appealing cover. Every one of them seemed to be missing something, or had something that it shouldn’t have.
It is only fitting that I return to Los Angeles hastily and under grey and cloudy skies. I have lost whatever ancient survival instinct drives us westward ‘til we run out of roads to drive, lost the need to merge on the 10 Freeway Westbound until it ceases to be and forces you to turn north or south on the famous Pacific Coast Highway. Perhaps because my own westward jaunt did not offer me such an innocuous three-way intersection. Whichever direction I turned when I got there, things went decidedly south. But I never ended up in Tijuana.
The idea that a river has a character distinct from all other rivers seems impossibly provincial. If someone had said it to me before yesterday, I may well have laughed at the quaint half-truth the way I do when reading Mark Twain. That was before the arms of the Brazos wrapped back around me.
© JOHNTESI 2021 SITE BY ORCA