Wild, Whit, The West, and I
a Travelogue excerpt for the fall of ‘09
with Trevien Stanger
When one does most of his living outdoors, the beauty and the utility of having access to doors and walls and a ceiling on occasion is most pleasant indeed. The Cabin, both as an idea and a place, is a most excellent example of this, though I’m sure the Tippi, the Shack, the Cave, the Hut, and the Lodge hold similar, desirable weight upon the outdoorsman’s mind.
And it is in this lovely situation that Whitney and I find our selves in now, comfortable and warm in this honest log cabin, nestled against the rugged mountains of the North Absaroka Wilderness, just outside Yellowstone, in Silver Gate, Montana. We just keep saying “Montana,” letting the word take slow shape in our mouths, hearing its wild breadth echo off the cabin roof, out the windows, through the gruff forest of lodge-pole pine, up against the canyon walls, and ringing out and up from there. We sit with beers by the fire, our various items of camping and hiking gear spread out and around, miles of stream and field crossings slowly evaporating out of our socks and boots, our stiff bodies unfurling and warming beside the woodstove, lounging like cats.
This cabin, called the “Cosmic Cutthroat Soda Butte Trout Commune,” is owned by a dear old friend and former politics professor of mine, who remains famous in my mind for a statement he made to our class one cold February morning in Vermont: “If I can get you guys talking about politics when you’re out partying on the weekend, I’m doing my job.” I met him outside the Radio Bean in Burlington a few weeks back, and we drank tea and shot the shit, he and I catching up, me telling him a few of my tales from my last visit to the cabin two years ago, when I’d hitched in from southern Wyoming, and he telling me of his most recent trip that featured gorgeous trout, a moose and her calf, and a blonde grizzly bear, ambling past the porch. Whitney met us after some time, and together we got out my crisp new atlas and looked at the vast swath of land between Vermont and Montana, upon which Whit and I were planning to drive my aging rock star of a 1993 Volvo 940 wagon. He regaled us with a few old tales of pumping gas in Yellowstone thirty five years ago, and you could just imagine him a younger man, holding a nozzle and gazing wistfully up toward the mountains, likely dreaming up how to one day have a cabin of his own in those daunting, golden hills. Before leaving he handed us a little print-out about how to turn the water on and be mindful of a few other quirks in the cabin, and as he walked away that evening into the crisping, amber light of late August, we received the first few rushes of excitement, and somber humbleness, that one gets when about to strike out on a Journey.
So as I lay a few more logs into the fire, perhaps I should also continue with a little more back-story to illuminate a few other areas of my life as it looks right now in this cabin. The years have rumbled along, haven’t they? I’ve been out of school now since 2005, and I feel I am entering my fourth year of self-imposed, largely self-designed graduate studies, that while these studies will not directly result in course credit in any university, I’ve got to think that some Dean of All Creation is enjoying following my progress, even helping me out on occasion.
As a testament to the power and the depth of my college education, I finished school knowing full well that I still knew very, very little. I’d been guided toward and cautiously shown so many strange, sad, joyous, wild, and dangerous territories of thought and experience in school, and it has felt like a nearly divine imperative that I not turn my back on some of those large Truths I glimpsed in those years of study. For me, this has meant that I carry a heavy, light-hearted weight of responsibility, both for myself, and for my role in this massive, on-going experiment that is Life and Mind on Earth. And this ever-present, on-going source of both daunting despair and soul wrenching inspiration, has been forcefully, incessantly leading me towards one, maniacally pursued purpose: Explore, and when possible, Write About It.
I met Whitney about two years after I’d left school. I’d just returned from a long, harrowing ten months of travel overseas, and I had moved back to the little shining city of Burlington to make some money and reconnect with some fellow artists and soul seekers. And while there was no shortage of musical happenings and explosions and spontaneously created jam sessions on roofs and in alleys and upon raging steep stoops, I felt that a of lot the ways I wanted to express Art didn’t quite fit into the louder, more raucous scenes. I needed to speak, and to summon, and to tell stories and to hear stories, to continue feeling connected to the larger Spirit that I’d felt a part of in all those other lands. I needed to make sure America wasn’t as greedy, wasn’t as blind, wasn’t as dead as so many folks were beginning to think. I needed to see if individuals on the ground and in place could really have an impact. I needed to see if there was any magic still lingering upon this continent onto which I’d been born. I needed love, real love, love of place and speech and company, love of strength and humility and self-sufficiency, love of language and story…So I started a poetry jam. And on my first day out walking around with some flyers, I met Whitney, and my story has been intertwined with hers since.
But alas, gentle reader, I feel your impatience, or rather your insistence that this e-mail / blog demonstrates some focus, some tangible threads of pertinence to your day and to your own unfolding story, and I don’t intend to lead you along for nothing. That being said, my intent on bringing you into the cabin with us this evening is also quite simple; I’m trying to check in with you, let you know we’re doing ok, and to share a few stories with you about this trip we’re on now. And while I of course always have a few grand notions that my stories may be nudging some of you toward taking loftier, more confident strides down the path of your own life, toward seizing your passions and stoking them vehemently and letting them guide you into your Greatest, Most Compassionate Self, and toward letting those feelings instill in you a great feeling of shared destiny with all of the cultures and ecosystems of this Our One Planet, (breath), I even more so just like to tell stories. Would you like to hear about how Whit and I have arrived in Montana?
Well, I’ll tell you. But please allow just a few more short paragraphs for back story, for some context, for I also don’t won’t you to think that we live in some trust-fund backed life that allows us to just up and travel and drive around whenever we please. This is a trip of duration, of intention, and direction, and this gives it all an enjoyable shape, though perhaps not a singular focus. Too often my travels and the travels of other younger searchers are brushed off as aimless wandering, of putting off the real world, of shirking responsibility. Perhaps I can show that this is not the case.
Whitney is a nurse, specifically, a baby-catching nurse, on her way to becoming a mid-wife. She began her career at age four, secretly having her dolls give birth to one another, even before she understood exactly what that meant. Three years younger than I, she’s so far spent her two years out of school as a practicing nurse in the labor and delivery wards of the Fletcher Allen hospital in Burlington (during which time we met and fell recklessly in love), and she has spent the last year living and working in Berkeley, California (during which time we’ve been mostly apart, which certainly, eventually, inspired us to take this trip.) She lives in a gorgeous house with nine other brilliant people, a very Left-Coast, open-minded, beatific home that in the last year that I know of has featured within it’s redwood walls the following: pole-dancing classes, ayauasca ceremonies, Holistic Sexuality workshops, Reiki sessions, courses in permaculture, and likely dozens of other wildly interesting and soul-progressing and earth-saving events. I visited her once earlier this summer, taking time off from my job as an adventure camp counselor, and in one great burst of loving communication while looking out upon the golds and blues of the East Bay, we decided we should drive West together this fall. Whitney worked her ass off the rest of the summer, arranged for her room to be sub-letted, and flew back home toward the East in the middle of August.
My end of things is a little harder to describe, as most of what I do is heavily imbued with my at-times elaborate and nuanced philosophies regarding work, money, and the uncertainty of the future of tomorrow, let alone months from now. But since I’ve already let a lot of these notions pour out like beer foam on my blue sweater, perhaps I’ll just rattle off a quick list of what I’ve been up to in Vermont since the New Year, all of which led me toward being able to save the money and time I needed for this trip. It reads: teaching snowboarding to children and adults; running poetry jams in two different venues; proctoring standardized tests for the Department of Education; leading a crew of tree-planters in stream restoration projects, through which five of us planted over six thousand trees in five weeks; assisting in the acquisition of solar panels for the house I was living in the mountains; planting a massive garden inside a circle with a thirty foot diameter; demolishing, reconstructing, and painting the wooden edifice of a restaurant; painting a house in Maine; and finally, working at a sweet little adventure camp in Stowe, bringing kids hiking and swimming and exploring all over central Vermont. And on one the last days before I left, while out with a handful of wild-minded children (the future adults), I swear to you through all of eternity that in a green golden meadow, I saw a red wolf, bounding away into the forest. Do you see it?
So, at summer’s end I packed up my stuff into thirds: one third remains with my Dudes in Vermont, one third went to my mother’s basement in New Hampshire, and the final third, of my most prized and important possessions (camping gear, snowboard gear, surfboard, thirty or so books, and all of my journals) was packed in my Volvo with great care, and off I went, kissing my mom and brother and sister-in-law and step-father good-bye good-bye! I drove down to Connecticut to meet Whit’s folks, pay a visit to my two dearest friends in the City, and around mid-day on Sunday, September 6th, the car packed, I let the Volvo rumble to life, slid him gently into gear, and we’ve been traveling since.
Though upon looking at a calendar, I’m amazed to see we’ve only been on the go for about ten days. But alas, much as happened, and much more will. So perhaps we should state right here and now that while I am indeed writing from Montana, I will likely not finish this story here. Instead, I will let the next two weeks of travel create for us and you more stories, so that all of this time and effort on all of our parts can speak toward some broader, more varied vistas. Agree?
The first day of driving passes with little incident, getting accustomed to our new traveling living room of the front two seats. Not until we reach western Pennsylvania, with the light draining the sky so that the arc of atmosphere above the road ahead began to resemble a great, Amish peach, did we begin to grow weary, and look for a place to stop for the night. This is a fine, artful dance I enjoy playing, either when traveling by myself or with company, especially when it is agreed upon that the pursuit of free accommodations is most desirable, maybe even necessary. On this occasion, and this whole trip actually, I am certainly putting aside some of my reluctance to pay for a decent, safe place, as I am also looking after my little lady (though she and my mom are likely both counting on her having to look after me, I’m sure.) For these reasons I am ruling out bridge underpasses, beneath piers, and condo rooftops, and we instead seek more traditional places, like rest areas, boat launches, church parking lots, and when really hard up, camp grounds.
Pulling off the highway, we follow signs for a KOA campground, which we will later realize is a nation-wide chain of very generic, crowded, RV dominated campgrounds, where despite the suggestion that camping is the activity encouraged, every accommodation and nearly every modern convenience is readily available, and nearly every person there sleeps beneath a roof, with the outdoors sealed out like a quarantine ward, thank you very much. After some gentle ambling along quiet country roads and past aging stone-walls and wide, marble-eyed horses the color of Hershey’s chocolate, we pull into one of the most visually extravagant and frenetic scenes one may ever lay eyes upon in the forests of western Pennsylvania. Instantly our eyes and the eyes of our Volvo are filled with too many slow moving, gut-bulging adult men in short bathing suits, holding either a can of beer or a horse-shoe or both; larger women congregate between the lines where one camp site ends and another begins, stirring great vats of potato salad beneath maroon canvas awnings, with just-planted plastic pink flamingos peering over with hungry, avian, Chinese eyes; and kids, kids, and more kids! Twice I swerve to miss them, as they rush at us with ice-cream cones and wiffle ball bats and squirt guns like so many pesky ships in an old arcade version of Space Invaders, only I’m not in a bar drinking and playing video games to the progressive sounds of Van Halen, I’m in a campground, tense and befuddled. We park by the check-in / ice-cream parlor / fried food dispenser, get out of the car, feeling ourselves stared at, and with nary a word between us, we get back in the car and get the hell out of there. While leaving, I do admit that despite how tacky and strange so much of this is, it’s better than all of these folks flocking to some island in the Caribbean with the burning of much fuel and the consumption of much illegal shrimp and slave-labored rum. But this theme of how people spend their time on vacation, particularly when trying to connect with the natural world, is one that come up for us daily, so I needn’t play the tape recorder of our first of many impassioned discussions about this. For now, all I can say is we declined to stay in the KOA, no hard feelings, no harmed done.
We turned the ship around and I went looking for a yard I’d seen on the way in that read “Firewood. Campers Welcome.” We pulled into the driveway to find a stout man in red flannel shirt in his thirties unloading some welding gear from the back of his black F-150. I told him of our predicament, pointing toward Whitney and the Volvo, and mentioned it might be nice if we could camp in his yard, as the sign seemed to permit. He heard me out with a fixed, concretrated, unchanging expression, his brow a little furrowed, as though he were listening to a truck engine, trying to figure out what was wrong with it. Finally, “Well, I’d guess I’d let ya tent here, but the missus would have a fit,” he said, jerking his thumb up toward the house, wherein I spied a small, round, brunette woman leaning over a sink with determined frustration, glancing up at me and her husband on occasion with little amusement. The reality that I was not in perfectly friendly territory, not in some organic farmer’s yard in New Zealand or some salty surfer’s patch of grass in California, was becoming apparent. I shift my questions instead now toward the area around us: “Is there a place you know around here we could pull in for the night, just pitch the tent and keep moving in the morning?” And so, after a few ideas, and finally even his father driving by in another F-150, a few calls where made and places were proposed, and we decided to go seek a little boat launch he knew a few miles away on a large lake in a state park. He drew me a shaky little map on a napkin and sent us on our way with unenthusiastic but genuine friendliness, our first full encounter with a stranger and fellow American on our trip.
We followed the map with little incident and arrived at the boat launch at dusk. Tucking the car in the back corner of the dusty little lot, we got out to have a look around and admire the moon rising over the dark opal water. Clearly a man-made, dammed lake, I observed the strange patterns that occasional rising waters can leave in the forest undergrowth that lined the path, much like how the sun-baked earth can appear in those deserts of the world that were once ancient seas. Back at the car, we begin what will become a beautiful, enjoyable routine that is specific to us and our car but universal to all who travel and camp from a vehicle, and it invariably looks something like this: first, we access our individual bags to grab a sweater or remove a hat, then while Whitney starts rummaging through our food stores and cooking gear, I grab the tent bag and begin setting that up. Tonight we pitch the tent together, for Whit would like to learn, but we have trouble getting the stakes in this hard, dead-pan dirt. Next I slide out the sleeping pads and lay them in the tent, followed by our sleeping bags and little pillows (hers a camping pillow, mine an old couch cushion I’ve been napping on since I was ten). The tent pitched, we lay out our cooking gear, which consists of a two burner, brief-case Hillary propane stove on loan from a dear friend, a light weight, titanium cook-set of two pots and a frying pan / lid, a gorgeous old cast-iron skillet we found in a little antique shop in Vermont a few weeks back, a wooden stirring spoon, two little bowls for eating, two plastic sporks, and that’s it. Fired up, our can of organic bean chili, with fresh mushrooms and sharp cheddar mixed in, simmers through the silence. Dark now, my little candle lantern flickers on the ground, Whit’s calm face glows softly, the crickets add their gentle din, the moon winks patterns of light across the dirt and forest edge, and in a miniscule moment of awareness, I take a deep breath, and realize that yes, I am still alive, and that yes, I am traveling again. I gaze upon Whit gazing upon the little flame. My heart aches now for her, for this, for the road and lands that lie ahead. I eat my chili with an internal smile that cannot be overstated.
Just then bright bounding headlights splash through the undergrowth, and a large white truck rounds the corner into the little dusty lot, illuminating first the long wall of trees that surround our little camp, before finally swinging in upon Whit and I, blinding us. I put up a hand to shield the lights and give an intentional look of annoyance. The driver kills the lights, bringing our little camp of car, stove, and tent back into the glow of my lantern. A sturdy, uniformed man of about forty steps out, letting us know that this is no camp site. We patiently explain that we mean no harm, and that we plan to move on first thing in the morning. Looking at his car door, I see he is with the State Fish and Game Water Patrol division, and looking at his person, I see he is armed. I’m wondering, “really? our first night and we’ve got a cop on our hands way out in the woods?” I’m not worried about getting into any legal trouble really, as we have no drugs or booze or weapons or exotic animals in the car with us, but I am worried he’s going to make us leave, and we’re tired and ready for bed. He checks and runs our ID’s with his radio, asks us a few questions, all aimed at “What are you doing?” He hasn’t seen folks living and traveling out of a small vehicle in a while. Whit saying that she’s a nurse on her way back to work in California and that I am heading there to check out grad schools, (both true), certainly scores us some points. Finally, after giving us our licenses back, his face relaxes, and he says “You both look really tired. And you don’t seem to be making a mess. I’ll tell you what…In a minute I’m going to drive back up where I come from, and I probably won’t be back tonight.” We read through the lines and thank him kindly, relaxing now that we can rest right here and enjoy our humble camp a little longer.
But this night doesn’t end here. About an hour later, just as we’re starting to drift into sleep, another truck explodes down the bumpy gravel lane and throws his lights into our tent. I dress to go talk to whoever this may be, relieved to see it is another government vehicle and not a angry local, but the truck takes off. We shrug it off and lie down again. Two minutes later, and it’s back, and as I climb out to go talk to the driver still sitting inside the idling truck, I feel rushes of teenage anger and frustration with authority. As a fellow who likes to go enjoy the world, especially all the recreational lands that are state and federally owned, and therefore also owned by me, I have had more run-ins with rangers and park managers and wardens that I can count, and they always end the same: I have to stand there and answer a litany of inane questions, until finally the puff-chested man in front of me decides there’s nothing he can do besides make himself feel important for having cornered and questioned the young man and his friends. You’d think they’d be happy that the youth goes out exploring the lands that our tax dollars maintain and that has been set aside by our ancestors as beautiful or important or both, but sadly that is rarely the sentiment shared by authority figures in this country. Decades of police trainings of how to identify a hippy or a stoner or an anarchist or a pacifist have left most men in uniform so distrustful and embittered by any young folks having free-wheeling fun in any place other than a mall or sporting event. If you’re playing outside, I’ve found, they just can’t believe that’s all your doing. And if you’re a Long Hair, still this is to be true, you’re going to get hassled. I walk up to this window, aware of all of this.
“How we doing gentlemen?” I ask, noticing there are two men in the idling truck, reading the emblem on their door “Federal Waters Protection Unit,” or some such little power poem. “What are you doing here? This isn’t a camp site, you have to leave right now.” I feel my back tense up. Looking in, I notice that these two men are both younger than I, both probably around 22 or 23. This relaxes me for a moment, as I think I’ve got a chance for them to see the truth of the matter before them. I calmly explain our plight, from the all-day drive, the intent of the trip, the directions to here, and the other fellow who came earlier and gave us the green light to stay. I’m imagining them imagining themselves wanting to do this type of trip some day, perhaps with a beautiful woman as well, and I’m imagining them imagining themselves wanting to never have any trouble with petty laws and regulations at other natural areas around the country. I finish my rap and look in on them, but rather than finding sympathetic or even human eyes, I see only badges and hours of training looking back at me. The older looking one, with his thin, incomplete beard and his khaki shirt buttoned up too tight around his stringy neck, leans over the wheel to get a better stare on me, and proclaims flatly, “Sir, rules are rules. You have to vacate these premises immediately.”
I fire back, “And I agree, but surely you two have some power to interpret the rules, and as you can see we are causing no harm, and we’ll be gone first light. Why, I’ve even worked in state parks as well, and we both know the difference between what I’m doing and some red-neck partiers or RV campers.” Nothing. They remain cowardly stoic. The one closest to me may even be a red-neck partier in his spare time, I muse, burning tires and loving his flag but not his land or its people. I’m souring on these little government punks real quick.
“Sir, you have to leave. There’s a camp ground ‘bout two miles up the road, if you hurry you can get a site before they close. That is your only option.”
“Ok gentlemen. We’ll do that. When you come back in the morning you won’t see a trace of us,” I say now, giving a look, a last attempt, to imply “let us stay, look the other way, you did your job well but I’m going to disobey you, and if you leave now with us pretending to pack up, you can save face and we can get some sleep.”
“Sir, we can come back here later with our supervisors if we don’t see you leaving in the next ten minutes. You will arrested.” And here’s the part that killed me, though not in my aforementioned, teenage frustrations, but instead now in a more mature, nuanced view that is also trying to understand these young men and even to try to love them. “We care about our jobs sir, and our government, we can’t risk our jobs on you.” Oh my heart! Of course this makes sense, and I obviously don’t want them to lose their jobs, but this approach, this cowering rationality in the face of spontaneity and brotherhood, this by-the-book failure to have compassion for another young man just trying to get some sleep during one of the great adventures of his life.
The saddest of all: for here I saw these two young men, who I believe should still be vital and hopeful and loving toward this often harsh and cruel world, and here I see that the great parasite of conformity and business-as-usual has already sucked from them the great life-force that our Creator gave us from birth. The world of rules by the book, time by the clock, and love for the law over Truth, has already gotten to these men, sapping them of their individuality, and turning them into yet another generation that can enforce the laws that prevent campers but allow destructive timber practices, enforce speed limits but look the other way at hunting limits, and generally carry out the foot soldering of an increasingly large and ugly machine that worships the monetary value of land and resources above all else. For me to be able to sleep on twenty square feet of earth, in a park that I also own, for free, does not and cannot compute in this mentality.
“Gentlemen, I can see you’re not going to help a brother out. Weak style. We’re leaving right now and I’d like you to go to, so we can pack up in peace.” I see brief flashes of understanding, a little glimpse of what we all used to know; that the adults and that brought us up aren’t always in the right, and the world they’re insisting we continue on creating is often poison to the spirit– but alas, the spark fades just as quickly, and I turn my back on them to tell Whit the great news. The truck lumbers off and I send them frustrated love and a little prayer.
We pack up quickly, me trying to tell Whit it’s no big deal, that this shit will never happen once we’re out West, and we take off for the campground. We get a site just before midnight (18 dollars), pitch the tent again, and fall fast asleep. We’re only in Pennsylvania afterall, with most of the continent still waiting ahead of us, so we remain hopeful and excited. Tomorrow we plan to make it to Chicago to see my grandma, and then the Tetons two days after that, where the real excitement and adventure is sure to begin. I drift in and out of sleep a few times, wondering about those kids, about the other youth around this country right now, curious how many others are out here now beneath the stars, taking the time to go see other states and other folks, to swim in other lakes and stroll upon other coasts. I’m wondering a lot about America, and this generation of which Whit and I are an integral part. I’m wondering about tomorrow, about the Volvo, and about the mountains. I’m wondering, and wandering, again. Time for sleep, my friend.
We wake the next morning to find that the campground is really quite pretty. Everywhere the little lots are sectioned off from one another with towering oak and maple trees, and one can see a great meadow of sparkling dew glittering through the forest that hugs our campsite. We make a pot of maté tea and a breakfast of hot cereal with some sliced apples and a few sprinkles of raisins. “They taste better if you sprinkle them in,” Whit says, which will remain a comforting and enjoyable axiom throughout the trip. For there is a great wisdom in this, one I will also return to later, and I phrase it as such: “It’s not just what you do, it’s how you do it.”
We hit the road and resume our quest, re-tracing the napkin map to highway 80 and pointing the nose of our great ship West. Perhaps a word about our automobile is in order, as he is integral part and an interesting character on our trip. This aging beauty of 1994 came to me a couple of years ago now, and I never really thought I’d ever try to take it to northern Maine let alone Oregon. But it comes from a time-honored and well-loved institution; that of the Volvo guy that has always lived in my hometown of New Boston, New Hampshire. Our town of about 4,000 folks has of course many beautiful components that give it its sense of community, but one of the most outwardly apparent commonalities between many of us is, indeed, old Volvos from Trimbur’s. Mike Trimbur, a tall, sandy grey haired fellow with a booming voice and a dead-pan sense of humor, would always (and still does, I believe) go to auctions all over New England, buying up old Volvos and bringing them to his place up in the hills. There, with time and patience and plenty of Volvos surrounding him, he’d be able to have a newly renovated and fixed Volvo ready every few weeks, while being available to work on any others that a mom or farmer or high school student might bring in to him. Since I can remember, my folks and all of my friends’ folks have driven Volvos, and the distinct sounds of their doors as they shut, their trunks and wagon doors as they open, and their robust engines as they rumble to life all stir within me the enjoyable nostalgia of a time when cars were magical and the parents who drove them giants of wisdom and personality. My older brother would later inherit my mom’s creamy, rusting white Volvo wagon when he turned 16, and as I idolized him and his friends, the image of them driving off in that thing toward town and girls and older-brother-fun has cemented within me a deep love and admiration for the modern creation that is a Volvo. “Whoa, this dude loves Volvos,” I hear you thinking, and I do.
This Volvo is a ’94 maroon 940 wagon, four cylinder, rear wheel drive champion of comfort, utility, and dependability. The paint is fading and flaking off the roof and hood in aesthetically pleasing ways that resemble the patterns formed when tie-dying t-shirts, which are of course patterns found throughout the world of fractals. The Volvo is a fractal. I don’t know if cars are adequately appreciated in this day and age any more, or if they ever were, but my car beckons you to try. Once inside, the front cabin is spacious and comfortable, with every possible control switch and operating apparatus within easy reach, and, it all looks orderly without being rigid, organized without being dull. One imagines those delightful Swedish engineers of the early 90’s, sitting in a model of this very front seat, and slowly designing this little environment with an inspiring mix of feng-shui and Nordic sensibility. The flow of qi (energy) in this four-wheeled temple would make all the gods of Asgard most proud. These lovable Swedes even added heated seats, which are heating our supple bottoms this cool morning crossing into Ohio, which Whit and I are enjoying thoroughly, listening to NPR on some really fine sounding stock speakers.
The inside of this Volvo has been packed with an intense and intentional attention to detail. For the first time, I feel connected to the long line of Dads who have been packing cars for family vacations as long as cars have been around. Everything we may need on a day to day basis is accessible, everything needed only at night for camping a little less so, and all the things I don’t plan on needing until winter are boxed and bounded, giving a solid base around which the other items can be snuggly placed. Nothing loose, nothing that can get thrown around on hard turns, and there is no extraneous matter what-so-ever.
“How’s the Panda running?” Whitney coos sweetly, running her slender hand across the dash. Lucky dash. “Just fine,” I say, “Just fine,” pushing the needle up to a daring, rumbling 68 mph.
What’s the Panda? The Volvo, of course. See, before leaving, it was agreed that the car needed a name, a personality, a spirit of sorts upon which we could add daily encouragements and prayers on the long drive ahead, much like the way all sailors name their ship. I already knew the car to be male, as evidenced by both its personality and the insignia on the grill, showing the male symbol in a grey arc behind the word “Volvo.” Next we realized that he had a certain lumbering, bear-like quality to him, and as we both loved pandas, especially after watching the “Sneezing Panda” youtube video (have you seen that ten second clip?!), we decided on the Red Panda. So, the Red Panda is our ship, our wagon, our home, and our friend, and we love him with all we’ve got. Don’t think giving a car personality does anything? Well, wouldn’t that be a nice discussion to be had during a car ride. Keep coming along?
We hum across Ohio with little incident. We settle further into our seats and our set-up, talking about the plans this evening. We are heading to my grandmother’s house outside Chicago, so the plan is to drive all day, about six or seven hours it looks like. We slice through Indiana like a dull maroon bullet fired across the prairie. The trees and hills recede in our rear-views. The flatness, the lack of contour, commences. At a rest area, Amish people are piling back into a van, (they do drive sometimes, as they make their decisions about modern technology on a case-by-case, and a community- by-community basis, asking “Will this technology help us and makes our lives better? Will have milking machines or a van for travel free up more time to take better care of children or animals?”) and as Whit and I sit on the rear bumper, the wagon door flung open to the world, eating our peanut butter sandwiches, we feel their children’s stares from behind the van windshield. These kids likely rarely see other models of living, and I wonder what they think when they venture out and see rest areas full of cheap crap, roadside streams choked with strange looking litter, long stretches of fields hidden behind incessant processions of billboards advertising things they know nothing of. Of all the confusing and strange things they see when venturing out of their pastoral communities, I hope they may look upon Whit, the Panda, and I with a sense that all is not wrong and ugly in the modern world.
After many hours we arrive on the outskirts of Chicago, on our way to my grandma’s house on the far western edge of what is called “Chicago Land.” I had been out here a few times before as a child, but as the teen years jabbed their way toward my college years, and with those still-well-ordered years fading behind me now like a far off field going fallow, I realize I have seen my grandmother, my father’s mother, very few times in my life, perhaps no more than twenty five separate occasions. With Whit reading aloud the directions, I grow excited to see this woman who used to fascinate me so with her mid-west accent and her exuberant love for me, a love that often manifested itself by way of ice cream and non-stop fun days whenever she was around.
We found her house with relative ease, cradled as it was amongst hundreds of other similar condo units in the middle of the wide, flat fields that surround Chicago Land. Every year Chicago Land grows, and every year another area of assisted-living townhouse villages is constructed on what was once farmland. But why shouldn’t it? Here we could begin a long and worthwhile talk regarding what would be the best situation for our aging populace, what types of living we should promote and encourage, but for now, I just want to hug my grandma…
We have a fine time with Grandma, eat a great meal at a local country club-type place to which she belongs, and we talk the kind of talks you get to have with someone who has been alive for over eight decades. She is particularly enthused with telling us about the times she’s driven across and against and around this knuckling continent, even opening up my atlas and looking at place names on our route and launching into stories about my father and my uncle as children climbing the Tetons and camping in Yellowstone. Here Whit and I also find what will be a recurring theme for all of our trip: that upon finding out that we are cross-country travelers, people either wistfully tell us “I always wanted to do that…” or instead excitedly proclaim “Oh! I’ve done that trip dozens of times! Which route are you taking?! I’ll send you to the best place in the whole God-damned land!”
The evening with Grandma progresses with an enjoyable, comfortable pace, albeit one with little literary merit of consistency. I’m not sure I can spin the evening into an exciting story, but I can reflect upon a few ideas that kept coming to me while hearing my Grandmother’s stories and those from her friends. The easiest notion to bring up is one that is becoming more apparent in many camps of thought that seek to heal our families and our communities, and that is the realization that American culture has little use for our elders. Studies of indigenous people and their family life, and even studies of previous generations in this country and in Europe all reveal that there was once much more emphasis put upon the importance and the wisdom of an Elder, particularly an Elder of the Land. From where the good food is found, when certain birds are migrating through, how to best care for a sheep with pneumonia, how to press and can wild raspberry jam, and on through to how this land was settled, who were the principal characters, and what sorts of stories tied you and your family into the landscape– all of these territories and more were we tended by the Elders. Obviously our relationship to land has been altered dramatically, and many of the Elder’s roles regarding day-to-day living may be less prescient than in the past, but I’m wondering if there may be more we can be doing as a culture to learn from and care for our Elders.
For on this night, I find myself wading into areas of life that I do not normally venture. We see my Grandma gaze off into pensive reveries, describing her self as a young, confident woman, smooth skinned and eager to travel. (Impermanence). We hear about her loneliness at times, watching tv in her little condo and wondering about her grown and gone children and their children, and about how she finds solace in coming to the club to play rummy with other older folks and sharing family stories with them. (Sadness, Community). We even hear several stories of my Grandmother’s open-heart surgeries, where her chest was sawed open like a fillet and her heart was bared to the light of day, and that now, her days are numbered. (Death).
And there perhaps lie the great lessons, similar to those taught to us by children: the close proximity Elders seem to hold to the experience of the Great Mysteries of Birth and Death. To look upon someone right in front of you, shimmering in the living moment, and fully realize that they are getting close to disappearing from this world, is to confront all of Life. To imagine her vanish from her chair, and feel her move into that other ghostly realm of Memory, and to already miss her, even though she sits before me now. For a moment the whole thing, this whole old world darkening and dying, just strikes me as so unbearably bleak and sad. But in the very next moment, my sip of beer is delicious, Whit’s hand in mine is soft as birth, and overlaid upon my grandmother’s slate blue eyes, reflecting in her eye-glasses, an image of Whit and I’s young, smooth-lit faces: and simultaneously, the world, the universe, just glimmers, seeing itself from one burning set of eyes to the next. A fire that was never set, and a flame that may never go out.
So indeed, such close-up, heart-wrenching inspection of large truths is to further fuse our consciousness to our own life, and in doing so, asks us to determine whether or not we are living our life in a way that honors the magnitude of it all. And to have the teacher, the guide, for these lessons be an Elder that you know and love, this can drive these lessons into an emotionally vulnerable, intuitively-driven part of the mind that is capable of learning them. Here death can become Death, letting the life breathing within and in front of you become Life. I drink a beer with my young lady and my grandma, and toast one to Life, sensing no answers or grand profundities in such a toast, and recognizing that as just fine.
The next morning the momentum continues. After helping out around the house a little bit with gutter inspections and the moving of some furniture, Whitney has Grandma and I pose in front of her house for a picture. And brilliantly, weeks prior, Whitney decided to buy an old Polaroid camera she’d found for a dollar, ordered not-yet-expired film for another twenty dollars, and here she stands, camera in hand. She takes the photo, and we wait for it to blur its way into clarity on the little square film, and the photo is excellent. We leave it with Grandma, an instant picture for her fridge of her grown and bearded grandson. Digitals shmitigals.
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