Saturday, August 25, 2012

Grinning, hollering, flapping my mit...

Things were beginning to look familiar in Minnesota. Trees and corn and cows, just like home. I grew up in New York, though I rarely say that's where I'm from. Not because I grew up in the unexceptional hills and holsteins part and I'm avoiding the 'no, not that one' conversation, but because I have no particular loyalty to it. I'm from wherever I got on the train, wherever I've thrown my bag. You can't go home again. I don't even seem to be trying.

My host in Minneapolis took me around on a motorcycle, showing me the holes in the various walls, setting me up with friends of his for drunken spelling bees, pointing at the giant spoon. Honestly, I was just glad to be on a motorcycle. My first time and I was doing a poor job of being cool and reserved - grinning, hollering, flapping my mit at passing motorists. I looked like the kid who had just come from the Lone Ranger's birthday party. And in the Twin Cities at midday during the week, one has the feeling of being in a racing arcade game: the generic sky-scrapers, the token and interchangeable pedestrians, the sky the shade of tv-screen blue. There was hardly anyone outside, either walking or driving on the spotlessly paved streets.

"Where is everybody?" I shouted over the wind and the motor.

"This is everybody," he said.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Prairie Drifters

Roads, rails, rivers - I have to have something moving underneath me.

I bought a rail pass in Portland which was good for 15 days and 8 trains, anwhere I might want to go served by Amtrak.

Granted, that put some limits on destinations, but that didn't really matter very much given my purposes. I like motion, the rocking chassis of a machine conveying me onward over the continent. I like the manageable, packable life. I like the ever-changing background of faces. I like the many inconveniences and delays. The unexpected turns and accidents, the fervent possibility of mild cataclysm. A few nights before leaving, I heard a second-hand story of a cross-country train re-routed thru Wyoming, where the old lines buckled under the carriages and the engine jumped the line. Miles from any platform and hours from a relief train, the passengers had to disembark onto the prairie and pass the night inside a cattle shed. The lucky devils.

Many people say they like travel when in truth what they really like is arriving. I like the process of getting there moreso than the place itself. I would go to India if I could find a compelling enough means of conveyance. So I chose a city I had never been to - Minneapolis - and set course. There was really no great reason for being there, only for going.

The train crested the western slope of the Rockies and began its descent to the plains.  I feel accomplished whenever I cross the continental divide. It is like coming into another country. Or rather, it is coming into another country. The plants and animals are different, the waters flow the other way. The land of origin is now irrevocably behind, and before you is an open scape of grasses, wheat, sheet metal towns and fence wire loping off to the horizon.

The Great Plains, are sometimes contemptuously viewed by those who favor sudden shifts in altitude as a bland and featureless place, like the middle chapters of a period romance novel, best skipped over so as to get to the more exciting parts. Point your finger out directly in front of you and sweep your arm in a long arc. There, you have traced the horizon.

Growing up, some of my best friends were trees, which gave me the notion that happiness involved being rooted to a place. Why anyone would choose to live somewhere a tree could die if left unwatered mystified me.

However the prairies, far from a lack luster footnote of geography, are the defining feature of the continent, and hold no small sway over what it means to be of this land. Think of 'America the Beautiful.' Sure, there's the sea-to-shinging-sea part, and that bit about purple mountains, but think of the amber waves, spacious skies, fruited plains. If we were an island - like Britain or Hawaii - we might have had a national identity allied with the sea. Yet I've been to towns within spitting distance of salt water - Orick, California, Sedro-Woolley, Washington - where the bars still hung with rodeo memorabilia and patrons swaggering under belt-buckles. These men who drank gawdawful beer and never called home anywhere near a roaming buffalo, yet whose speech was of cattle and diesel where geography would have suggested winds and tide. The pattern may be seen again in mountain towns and hill towns, and towns wrapped up in forest. If there is a town in North America that does not have its bar of wrangler wannabes I've seen it on no map.

The comparison is frequently made between the prairie and the ocean. I can see it, and I agree that my sentiments are largely familiar to those I have felt at the shore. They do have some commonalities. The spareness stirs wonder at what lay across and no matter how far back one pushes the horizon, yet it goes on. My childhood opinions have changed. Those early ideas based off arboreal contentment I've realize are ill-suited to the bipedal. I no longer see the plains as territory to get across - a long stretch between good lattes -  but to enjoy the crossing. Everything that ever thrived here survived because it moved when the season required. The buffalo, the Indians, wild horses, antelope, wolves, even the grasses themselves, scattering by wings, burrs, and fire and shifting stalks in the wind.

The train comes to a stop in Havre for several hours to let a freight train pass. An old, coal-fired engine sits beside the tracks in a fenced-off area. The thing is an industrial behemoth, all wheels and gears and black with the promise of manifest destiny. Compared to it, the amtrak passenger service looks like a line of over-size lunch tins. The passengers go about the station, chatting, stretching their legs. One particularly fit traveler pulls out some sort of excerise device and executes an abdominal workout on the pavement. There are a surprising number of smokers, who enjoy a first then a second cigarette until the crew drains the septic and the stench drives us all aboard, save the few for whom this is the final destination.

I've come to enjoy the plains, yet am still surprised when a train pulls into a prairie town and people get off. I always expect the reverse. There's that old-rooted prejudice coming out again.

The train goes on, eastward over the prairies, and I sit and watch the darkness go by.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

From the Vault: Maine

Promiscuously reading

The best of insults sting for their accuracy. As evidence I submit the following.

"Are you a handyman?" she asked.

"In what sense?" I said.

"Can you do anything or do you just talk about books?"

I'm sure that I can. I will tally my talents. Let's see:
- I can sing while playing the ukulele, guitar, and if the wind is right, on flute as well
- I can tell a joke twice to the same person and get them to laugh both times
- I consider San Francisco and New York to be within walking distance of each other
- I can say 'yes', 'no', 'please', 'thank you', and 'very large beer' in no less than five languages

I possess, in short, nearly all those talents that make one appear incomparably magnificent to an eleven-year old, and exasperatingly directionless to an employer.

I've never been to the left bank of the 1920s, but I imagine it was probably full of such types as myself. Despondent wanderers, swishing their drinks, talking Art and God and all the other celebrities whose parties we're never invited to. Criticising the bourgeousie because we envy their mental and financial stability. Lamenting that all the good stuff has already happened and there will never again be anything as thumpingly good as Moby Dick, much less the Bible.

In other words, moaners. The sorts of people I can't stand precisely because I resemble them too much. I don't mean to compare myself to the likes of Steinbeck and Hemmingway - the moaner I like the moaner I don't - merely to their company, which must have been rife with scribblers of mediocrity. The lesser moaners, whose wretched stuff exists mostly to justify the less-wretched works of others. The ones such as myself, who failed even as they believed so fervently that literature could deliver them they consider writing as prayer.

Yes, I talk about books, as priests do God, as old men their vanished youth - obsessively, longingly, enviously.

So I fled for Portland and Powell's, that mighty cathedral of literature, before Seattle and its biting accuracy could get me down any further.

On my first trip to Portland, some 6 years ago, I visited for a week, 6 days of which I spent in Powell's. If I go to Portland and I don't visit Powell's I might as well have never left the rail station, or airport, or however I came to arrive. If it weren't for that bookstore, the city would have very limited appeal to me.

I feel safe, secure within it. A maggot buried in the apple. Wandering the aisles, reading promiscuously from the various titles of which I've never heard, bringing the older copies to my nose and smelling the different odors of paper and binding.

I wish I were a book myself, sometimes. A treasured thing, observed and appreciated, contributed to -  as I write in the margins so might others write in me -  argued with, despised, dog-eared, quoted, re-shelved, and re-read, appreciating and depreciating, placed amongst other titles with our pages whispering stories, then misplaced, misunderstood, burned or pulped.

Which, in sum, I suppose is not much different than the lives of the aged. In which case I might get there yet, if I can find other things to do to fill my years than just talk about books.

En-route to Minneapolis. More-or-less because it is there, and for no greater reason than that.

The 60s Psychedelic Trip

Supposedly, good writing does not begin with quotation. The author should first posit a stance, then later defend it through his own experience and the experiences of others. Otherwise it's robbery, making the author appear non-comittal, evasive, mysterious, hiding behind others thoughts so he can avoid having his own. ("I despise quotations! Tell me what you know." Good old Emerson. So quotable even when incensed.)

Personally, I enjoy quotations. They make me seem smarter than I am. I don't see what really makes a piece less good for starting with someone else's words. I think of it as a way to honor their wit. Afterall, no one makes words, they are borrowed. Writing is just arranging language. When a phrase is particularly well-knit it should not just be dropped because someone else said it before you could. What a tragic waste of language that so many sparkling aphorisms, biting cynicisms, redoubtful boasts, and moving praises could be heard but once.

So I'm going to use someone else's words to begin. The herbalist and traveler Juliette de Bairacli Levy had written she preferred 'to travel as a winged seed.' The image has stuck with me as someone who literally allows herself to drift with the wind, clutching an umbrella or a starched whimple, or else paper-thin in a stiff breeze. During her life she preferred to never travel a distance further than her feet could have carried her in a day. I like that creed well, but my morals are more flexible. Seeds can travel so many ways, even hitching rides on airplanes and cargo ships. Afterall, dandelions didn't blow across the Atlantic against the Jet Stream, and burdock didn't catch a lift from an obliging whale. The wind is such a fickle thing, dropping one wherever. I'd rather be a seed with barbs, one that doesn't wait for circumstances to change but releases itself at just the right moment.

For the next stage of travel, I had consulted craigslist rideshare to see if anyone might be driving cross-country. Now that I've flown, taken the train, and walked it, I have yet to drive the distance. A long car trip might be nice. So I found a 12-passenger van driving east to Minneapolis, charging $100 for the way. Estimated arrival time 4 days. Scenic route guaranteed.

It sounded good enough to me. I called the number, explained what I was looking for, heard what they were looking for, and we agreed it sounded a match. From the conversations, I knew exactly the type they would be: butter-fed Mormon types, fresh out of Bedford Falls, listening to Up with People all the way.

Mark, their liason, met me up in Capitol Hill, up from Pike's Place. He matched, very much, the idea of a suburban father from a movie about childhood roadtrips in the 1960s. Bermuda shorts, socks and sandals, bucket hat, polo shirt, middling and middle-aged, sunk with years and paunch. He carried a messenger bag over his shoulder. The side pocket was stuffed with maps of various American cities: Albuquerque, Santa Monica, Santa Fe. I liked him.

We waited for the remainder of the group at Cal Anderson Park. It was a warm day so the lawn was full of folk who carry their lives in hand bags and backpacks and wrapped up in blankets.

"Does anyone have a cigarette I could buy?" a woman said.

"Cigarette?" I said.

"I shouldn't have said buy," she said, rushing over. "I meant bum."

I passed her the pack.

"I don't know where they are," said Mark. "I told my friend in Spokane we would be there by 7. So long as they show up in the next half hour we should be on time."

They arrived 40 minutes later, tattooed, pierced, and grey of face. Hardly a jolly looking bunch. All save one, the driver, who did resemble a Mormon with his incurable smile, albeit a Jack Mormon with his bandana, slight beard, and glass pendants strung about his neck. A flop-eared dog trailed from a leash he held.

"Leif," he said.

"Like the navigator?" I said.

"Exactly. Is it OK to have the dog in the back with you?"

She seemed quiet, and there would be plenty of space with 12 seats and only 6 passengers. "I don't mind," I said. This is part of the vagaries of travel.

After some ten minutes of impatient pleasantries and route discussion - the barbed seed cannot steer the beast to which  it's burred - we got to the van. It was a chevrolet 12-passenger, spray painted purple with some artistic graffitoed flourishes above the tail-lights. The side door was a bright green sheet of plywood, bungie corded in place.

"Now this is something like a 60s psychedelic trip," said Mark as he opened up the front passenger door to load up. Angling for nostalgia, I thought. The man ought to work in real-estate. I got in, grappling around the bucket seats to find mine, on the floor.

The back was all open floor-space, strewn with food wrappers and bags piled up around. Silly me for thinking a 12-passenger van meant a van with 12 seats. I looked for a way to secure myself. There was none. So I leaned against the stack of baggage and stretched out my legs.

"Don't lean against the door," said Leif, noticing my proximity to the plywood. "It's not easy to put back on when it comes off."

Two of the other passengers pulled out a tin of green leaves and a device legally sold for tobacco use only. They began the preparations of their ceremony.

"Are you planning on smoking?" I asked.

"Not cigarettes," they said, wide-eyed and offended.

We pulled into a gas station. "Gas money," said Mark, reaching back. I handed him $15, then thought better of it and got out of the van. He gave me my money back and pulled out my bag. I had made it a block with the 60s psychedelic roadtrip.

"Good luck," he said. "Safe travels."