“No matter where you are in America, a Wal-Mart truck goes by every twenty minutes. I’m convinced of it.”
I ran at midnight, an easy 2.5K made more challenging by running harder. It is colder now, and my neoprene climber’s hat came out of summer storage. The Pleiades were rising in the east as I walked toward the creek. Old friends, those bright stars.
Greetings Alcyone, Atlas, Asterope. Lovely to see you back again, Maia, Merope, Pleione. This early morning becomes you, Electra. Light my way against false footfalls, Taygeta and Celaeno, fair harbingers of the bull, the hunter and his unfairly immortal dog. I will see you all in Cima.
And into the dark.
Some nights strip it all away. Some nights I am between lives. I ran down San Pablo Avenue, headlights blinding me to everything but themselves. A train down by the bay shore sounded its horn, and I was 22 years old again, more than a thousand miles east, train whistles waking me where I slept by the side of the road.
Take a map of the US that shows landforms, and look for the most distinct demarcation there not consisting of ocean. You will find it along the east side of the Rockies, a sudden and dramatic rent in the continent, two miles of relief. All my life before that night was east of the divide, and most of my life since far to the west, and that night in transit I lay a few short miles from the crest, in the deceptive flat surround of Cheyenne. No one knew where I was. I wasn’t all that certain myself. I had about forty dollars in my pocket. In my pack were a sleeping bag, a knife, a book by Bradford Angier, a chunk of pyrite.
I watched the stars. I woke with each passing train, each loud clatter of jake brakes on the interstate, and when the sky turned pale in anticipation of a cold sun I blew on my fingers to warm them in those moments when I did not have my thumb out. The cars were few that morning.
Life is a series of nights like that one, though few of them present things to you so plainly. One is always leaving an old life, heading for an unknown new one, and carrying nothing of real value between them. One is always watching the cold stars wheel, in a solitude even the best company salves only a little.
Thinking of driving over Tioga Pass, cruising the Blue Ridge Parkway, or checking out Old Faithful?
Take your passport.
Americans may need passports to board domestic flights or to picnic in a national park next year if they live in one of the states defying the federal Real ID Act.
The act, signed in 2005 as part of an emergency military spending and tsunami relief bill, aims to weave driver’s licenses and state ID cards into a sort of national identification system by May 2008. The law sets baseline criteria for how driver’s licenses will be issued and what information they must contain.
The [newly mandated federal ID] would be mandatory for all “federal purposes,” which include boarding an airplane or walking into a federal building, nuclear facility or national park, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told the National Conference of State Legislatures last week. Citizens in states that don’t comply with the new rules will have to use passports for federal purposes.
One begins to wonder why they don’t just barcode us and be done with it.
Hat Tip: Making Light.
A dozen pebbles, and a tablespoon of sand
Worked down into my boots, bright spots of rock and sand
And cursing as I fumbled with my laces, pulled
my boots off, turned them over: a cascade of sand.
Golden-mantled ground squirrel startled by the noise
forgot his begging, panicked, ran across the sand.
His eyes were stars. Last night, a forest full of stars;
I watched them turn all night. We lay there on the sand.
Has this earth always spun breakneck? I watched it turn
and dizzied, slipped time through my fingers, so much sand.
All night, I watched the meteors rend the sky with fire:
A dozen pebbles and a tablespoon of sand.
There is a range I visit in sleep, a sharp fold in the Earth, that runs from Stockton toward Shasta in the north. It is tall and narrow, but gentler than the Sierra Nevada east of it. Conifers cloak its summits, the soil beneath them thick with decaying needles and redwood sorrel. In life there is no range there but the little Sutter Buttes, but a dozen times the last two years I have drifted off and found myself there, hiking the trail that runs along its crest, looking down on the dry-grass valley between the Dream Range and the Sierra. These mountains catch storms off the Pacific and streams flow down their faces, comfortable and familiar towns along the foothill banks. I have been visiting for a decade or more, in a time in which California has been increasingly gutted, and yet no dream developer has leveled my dream trees to build dream homes.
We waited on Saturday for the mechanic’s shop to open, walking through the leafy Seattle suburbs, and the landscape drank my heart. I remember what this is like, I thought, the bright soft green pressing up against every square inch of sunlight, the moisture in the air, each mild depression in the earth filling up with water. It was the landscape of rural New York, or at least New York with a layer of tall conifers grafted above it. There water flows year round. The summer air does not rob the streams, and creeks narrow enough to step across rarely merit names. That familiar childhood claustrophobia, the sense that the long view was near-unattainable and even then glimpsed only through the woods, made my skin crawl a little even as I relaxed into the green, picked blackberries from parking lot brambles.
When I was in my teens I dreamed a lake. It fit into the Central New York landscape more seamlessly than does the Valley Dream Range, my sleeping mind painting in more cautious strokes in those days, but still it was wholly dreamed, and consistent from year to year. There was a town near the lake, a few white clapboard buildings nestled in the roadside woods, and a narrow strip of pavement running from the town into a lake park. The notion of wild land outside a park was unfamiliar to me then, a child who sat impatient at age six in traffic at the entry gate to Yellowstone, the crazy Absarokas close enough to touch and yet I looked restlessly at the far park hills. In most dreams my lake was almost as remote. I dreamed of being in the town, an errand or two away from getting to the water, needing to make calls from a broken payphone or buy lunch for the hike, and waking just as I crossed the road, ready to enter the park. But there were nights when I reached the lake, a placid, unprepossessing piece of water, and walked around it to the far side and past the rise beyond. There was a cliff, and at its base a cobbled stream flowed braided silver. Beyond the stream was miles of bare badland soil, ravines and buttes and crenellations to the horizon, the long view hard-gained.
I was born almost upon a glacial lake. Ten minutes’ walk, the way I walk now, would have brought me to the shore. Had the doctor cut the cord and carted me to the hospital roof I would, through blinking fogged and amniotic eyes, have seen it shining down below in the low afternoon sun of winter. I have swum in it but seldom, spent only a few hours of my life able to reach its water. Still it is an ancestral home, like Olduvai. It is the place from which I sprung. I recognize it on sight. I know of no other lake like it. It is distinctive even from a thousand miles up, posing a question to the sky I have tried my whole life, and failed, to answer:
After my first few years of living in a city, the usual pubescent complaints preoccupying me, my parents dragged me out shopping. They stopped at a nursery, an unusual thing for them. I disappeared into the stock out back. There was a row of red maples, stout saplings in 15-gallon cans. I walked between them and stopped, surprised. Someone had hauled them there in rough rows for minimum wage, thinking of lunch and his sore back, and yet I walked into them as a bored child and became a monk pacing a pleached arbor, a startling sudden calm in a time when calm was rare. I was surprised. I walked again through the temporary grove, and felt the calm again, until my evening-impatient parents found me and we went off to buy groceries.
I think sometimes that the landscape is superfluous to my pursuit of it, that I could love a New Jersey ragweed lot as fully as a roadless sagebrush valley. I have borne places in my heart for years, the verge of Buttermilk Falls the day before I left New York, when I cut off a lock of hair and burned it, and then returned after years and been unable to find them again. Did they exist at all? Mid-Hills aflame, my Buffalo commune refuge from my family now a vacant lot, forests I loved razed and neighborhoods fallen to the dozer blade. The one place in New York the most like home gone now, the heart cut out of it when my grandmother died, the trees and hills still there, the roads still there, my family still there but the spark gone out. And yet I roll through those hills in dreams too, a child again and impatient to see her.
Not long after I left New York my visits to the dreamed lake decreased in number. By two years on, or three, they had stopped altogether.
Beyond that dreaming range lies a narrow dry valley, and east of it the big Sierra Nevada, not too different from its waking self. East of the Sierra starts the desert, though not the same one as in life. At altitude the rocks’ color changes, the trees thin quickly, and a thousand inviting trails emerge from the forest to thread through sinuous red rock. I start out on those trails and awake. Farther east, around the location of Fallon in the waking world, a desert valley holds a familiar town, a mix of Tucson and Moab with perhaps a little Santa Cruz. I have visited that small city many times. Some nights I move to that dream city, and am making copies of my new house keys when I awake.
There is a lake there, sometimes. I have camped along its shore, paved with round granite cobbles the size of cars. Sometimes I am alone. Once I camped there with two much-beloved friends, one dead, the other living in a life now forever separated from mine, and we lit the backpacking stove and found sandy places to lay our sleeping bags. A ranger showed up and told us we needed a permit, and I went to get one, and I had sat through almost the entire required orientation before I woke up.
A week ago: we realized that our decision of the week before that I would stay home to take care of the rabbit instead of going to Seattle as planned — a decision prompted by the lack of boarding slots at the House Rabbit Society — was perhaps not exactly the right decision. After our friend Andrea volunteered to check in on Thistle from time to time, we made new plans. I would drive up to Seattle with Becky to visit her sister’s family and then I’d drive back a few days later, and she’d fly back a few days after that.
Wednesday: realized that my schedule would not likely permit a visit to Nina. Sent an apologetic email explaining such. Accidentally sent the email from Becky’s account, which scared her given my choice of subject line: “Some Sad News”. Consoled myself by deciding to call Auguste for a coffee visit on my way through Oregon heading south, perhaps with a stop at Powell’s Books. Asked Auguste for his phone number. Got some work done. Cleaned house. Went to sleep. Had fitful dreams populated by bitter abandoned rabbits.
Thursday: Put a year’s supply of food and water and a toy into Thistle’s cage and locked him in. Left house painfully early, drove up I-5 to Weed with a visit en route to a blasé woodpecker in a rest stop south of Red Bluff, and then passed through one of my favorite parts of California on our way over to Route 97. Headed north into Oregon through Klamath Falls, rolled into Crater Lake NP around 3:00 in the afternoon. Committed various wilful and wanton acts of blatant tourism. Slept on ground in a forest after reading myself to sleep with The Snoring Bird by Bernd Heinrich, which took some time seeing as it’s a fascinating book.
Friday morning: Drank coffee. Drove to wildflower area. Took some photos. Drove to next wildflower area, this one with a short hike involved. Had forgotten to secure gear in camera bag at previous stop: dumped expensive camera and more expensive telephoto lens onto dusty gravel parking lot from about waist height. Annoyed nearby parents with small children by responding to incident with a short, guttural Anglo-Saxonism. Determined camera, lens still worked. Went on wildflower hike. Fed mosquitoes. Marveled at greenness. Moved on, took more photos of the lake. Harassed innocent corvids. Left park and headed toward Eugene.
Friday noon: stopped at roadhouse on road between Chemult and Eugene, intending to buy coffee. Found that owners had preserved the recipe for the Best Baklava Ever, said recipe having come from owner’s Cretan grandfather. Bought baklava.
Friday, remainder of day: drove from Eugene to Seattle, pausing for an hour and a half to savor the zero MPH average speed of rush hour in Portland. Likewise savored the increasingly insistent blinking of the dashboard alternator light, beginning just south of Tacoma. Made it to Mercer Island, ate dinner, played with kids.
Saturday morning: took car to garage. Verdict: alternator failing. Briefly considered trying to nurse car home over two days. Realized this would probably involve semi-permanent stay wherever the alternator finally failed, probably in Albany, Oregon. Revised plans yet again: I would come home as scheduled, but via other means, and Becky, whose schedule was looser, would get alternator replaced and enjoy leisurely solo drive home in a week.
Saturday afternoon, evening: took Whidbey Island Ferry to appropriate island. Drove, got coffee, hiked, checked out campgrounds, waved wistfully from the Port Townsend Ferry terminal in the general direction of Nina, ate best salmon ever and best mussels ever in Coupeville, made scary noises in abandoned army fort to make three-year-old niece shriek in delight. Drove the long way home through Deception Pass, incidentally bringing me to the northernmost point I have occupied in my life at 48°27’45.02″N.
Sunday morning: arose painfully early. Drank coffee. Went back to bed. Got back up. Was dropped off at Seattle Amtrak station twenty minutes before scheduled 9:45 AM departure of Coast Starlight. Boarded Coast Starlight at 10:50. Left Seattle at 11:10, approximately 25 miles per hour.
Sunday afternoon, evening, late night: Sat on train in Tacoma. Noticed great blue herons along shore of Tacoma Narrows. Watched more green. Thought of things the oddly familiar green made me feel. Determined to write something or other about it. Sat on train in Olympia, Centralia, Kelso-Longview, Vancouver. Reflected that regardless of the town, each one, like most other such in the US, chooses to display its butt crack to the railroad. A trip across country on Amtrak would likely give one the impression that the USA is populated mainly by rusted out junked cars, with distinct minority populations of ominous discarded barrels and torn sofas. Sat on train in Portland. Did not call Auguste. Sat on train in Oregon city, Albany, Salem (which presented an unusual manicured face to the tracks), Eugene. Realized in Eugene that Coast Starlight also goes through Chemult and Klamath Falls. Wished in vain for unscheduled baklava stop. Slept for a few minutes after leaving Klamath Falls. Woke to watch the moon illuminating Mount Shasta.
Monday: Dawn in Redding. Train was variously on time, an hour late, or three or five hours late depending on which Amtrak employee one asked. Sat on train in Red Bluff, Chico, Yuba City. Arriving in Sacramento, it turned out that “three hours late” was the correct answer. Luck held: my connecting train to Richmond waited across the platform when I got off the Coast Starlight. Rode past mouth of Pinole Creek, coffee in hand. BART train was waiting for me at Richmond Station, cab at the end of the BART ride, rabbit at the end of the cab ride.
Tuesday morning, 12:52 AM: coffee finally wearing off, having had two hours of sleep since Sunday morning, I am going to bed.
One of the nice things about living in a place where the earth is thin-skinned. This is a geyser at the north end of the Napa Valley.
These perfect strings, unbowed and yet singing
the music of the spheres, a symphony
of light on folded fabric, light that drives
all things before it endlessly and slow.
These ancient seeds to ride the crests. They ride
the troughs, they fold themselves inward and hard
against the nothingness, they fold themselves
and wait, only a flickering, sluggish spark
banked well against the ages. Given just
a bit of damp, their fire rekindles staid,
deliberate, an epochal reveal
unfolding, filigreeing. A chaos
from old, entropic order they distill,
life prised from mathematics’ bony hand.
The line between sleep and wakefulness is indistinct at the best of times. After four hours’ driving in the dark on roads not visited for a decade, peering into unlit corners of the woods hoping for an empty space and finding none, dark massifs looming and receding with only a void of stars to betray their contours, the boundary can vanish as eyes in the wooded verge when the low-beams pass. A lifetime spent not getting lost, or at least not badly, and twice in an hour I found myself turned around on the June Lake road and heading back the way I came, without meaning to. One had best go back to the point of origin. I went to Lee Vining, took a breath, filled the tank, then tried again.
And in the campground, another bout of getting lost. The Off-Roaders have enjoyed the place to death. Why go fifteen feet out of your way when just enough space exists between those pines there to make a new, more direct road? Twice, ensnared in a web of two-rut, I thought of simply parking, sleeping until either daylight or the horn of a blocked F-350 woke me, but I found a place to make a cup of tea, to roll out my sleeping bag in pine needles and pumice.
Pumice is an aerosol inverted, a suspension of air in stone. South Pacific sailors have encountered massive drifts of it vented into the sea by volcanoes, pebbles and stones and rocks afloat in conglomerations ten miles long and a few feet high. They appear solid, but step out onto them and they part beneath your feet. The sea will swallow you up. And so I should have known better than to try to sleep on a mountain of pumice, landlocked as it may have been. Land did its best to swallow me.
At 8500 feet each breath brings just three-quarters the oxygen of a breath at sea level. Come up from sea level in a day and the body strains to adapt. I lay motionless on my back, my heart pounding, Cassiopeia above me and curling westward. My eyes strained to adapt as well. The moon was new and dark. Only stars lit the landscape, and though there were thousands more at altitude the day’s fire smoke masked their light. There on the surface of the earth, thin air alone and pines between me and the faint stars, noise off the highway two miles east, I waited for sleep.
Sleep did not come.
Or if it came it came suddenly, with vivid dreaming of reclining on the surface of the earth beneath the Jeffrey pines, smoke-masked stars casting pale light on my upraised hand, the galaxy a pumice raft of light afloat in a sodden sky, and me in conversation with myself. Or was it me? There seemed two people there, not me alone, and though the other flitted in and out of mind like a postponed task forgotten, his presence, or hers, was still distinct. Call her her. A discrete person, there or created out of mind’s whole cloth, and keeping me awake at that. I rolled onto my side to close my eyes, to smell the soft breezes that coast along the ground, rich needled humus and the butterscotch of Jeffrey pine bark, and she would tap my shoulder and remind me. Open your eyes and watch the sky.
I must have been dreaming. I must have. There was no one there with me, no task assigned, and yet aside from her soft whispered reminders the dream was wholly unimaginative. To lie on the ground in a particular spot among the trees, to fall asleep, and then to dream that you are lying on the ground in that spot beneath those trees? A possibility prosaic enough that it is extraordinary. The pine branches fifty feet above blocked swathes of starlight, and the breeze played around the nape of my neck as the tarp crackled beneath my sleeping bag, a meteor streaked from the White Mountains to disappear somewhere near Tuolumne Meadows and I jerked alert, and then her nudge and a voice telling me I had work to do.
There is a third possibility, of course, a straddling of the realms of wakefulness and sleep. This could have been some sort of fugue, a mental trauma, the nervous grief and isolation and excruciating love of the last months boiled over in my head in a froth of metaphor. I am no mystic, or at least I am not when Coyote is not in the room. I already think in broad and capitalized terms about Purpose, about Time and Love, about The Land. No need for hamadryads or devas: even skeptical and sane I can pan the landscape’s placer for bright meaning, discern the personality of place. But she was there, and real, or dream-real, or mere star-story froth from this aching tête brûlée, she was telling me I had work to do.
I had to fall into the land. No mean feat, this. Even with my skin ripped off this year, as porous to the land as I was that day, to meld into that pumice-land would have exfoliated me to the bone. I tried my best, once I understood what was being asked of me, and yet each time I thought I had melded with the land a nudge and voice would tell me that I had only fallen asleep. To meld one must sleep, but be conscious of one’s sleeping: to mind well the skin-boundary between viscera and vastness, but forget which side of the line you’re on. Mere sleep stops up the sleeper’s ears, deprives the land of voice. My voice, or hers, or the ten thousand things I hear only when awake? I don’t recall. Maybe all of them. Six hours or more I lay there, Cassiopeia spun one-quarter turn, until I saw the beginnings of dim light toward the east, and then I fell asleep for real. I dreamed improbable events with people I had not seen in years, placed myself two thousand miles from the pines and pumice, and woke for real when raven’s metallic hork rang above my head. A Steller’s jay stood on my food cache and when I rose to chase it, the least chipmunks raised a shrill alarm, but not for me: a red-tailed hawk had swung low over the spot where I had slept, and curved around the base of the far pines and on.
Hartley Springs campground. Arrived in camp at 10:10 pm after lackadaisy attack. I am up and up in the Jeffrey Pines, not far from where Becky and Zeke and I camped at Deadman Summit.
Arriving at night, after dark: disconcerting. The campground is a warren of two-ruts, none seeming right, and I’m not even sure I’m in a formal site as opposed to some place they put a picnic table temporarily.
Heated water. Now drinking genmai cha. In shorts and t-shirt still: a cool breeze, not unpleasant. Becky would call it “freezing,” but not “fucking freezing.”
Road noise dissipating. Bed made under a blanket of stars and pine.
How long has it been since I’ve seen the Yosemite high country? 10 years? Too long.
Called Becky from Lee Vining, at the lake visitor center. It had just rained, and sagebrush smell hung in the air thick with violet-green swallows. A fire toward Bridgeport: smoke in the air for hours. I got to the lake’s south shore around 5, sat and decompressed — record time this time. Near-instantaneous. As with the visceral whomp of the great granite domes: like a sledge to the chest. I could not breathe fully. So beautiful. Sublime. And so close.
Kestrel on fence post along 120 east of 395 as I headed toward Nevada. Not all the way of course. Slanting light and music on the stereo, and me heading alone into the interior. If there were a heaven, it would consist of such a moment infinitely dilated.
So odd this short time for the landscape to sink in. It takes usually two, three days for the city skin to slough off, the armor to be shed. I suppose that makes sense. These past months have stripped me to sinew. The bear need not pull off my skin this time.
So quiet here, save the distant thrum of long-haul truckers on 395.
Violet-green and cliff swallows, California gulls, of course ravens. Ospreys are said to be nesting on the tufa offshore, but I saw none. Tomorrow, perhaps. Instead, I sat and watched the storms across the lake, lightning hitting Bodie and a sudden front thrilling the gulls, taking my hat. Two minutes in advance of the front, a barrage of small waves.
I haven’t been there for 20 years, and when I lived in the area it was always difficult to find the time to get to Capitol Hill, so I didn’t get there often even then. But I still found myself tearing up to find out, via Jennifer, that DC’s Eastern Market burned down last week.
I don’t have a lot of unambiguously pleasant memories of living in DC, but Eastern Market on an early Saturday afternoon was among them. I’m glad to hear they plan to rebuild.
I hope they don’t cut corners on the renovation. That place had charm.