29 June 2008

Mile 1,038: Land of Roadside Attractions

The Northern Arizona desert was more like the desert I had imagined: huge, flat, mostly featureless. And big. Did I say big? Yes. Hours of driving and you seem to be right where you were when you started.

The quintessentially American culture of the roadside attraction seems to flourish along the I-40/Route 66 corridor like nowhere else. It seems like a natural, if bizarre, evolutionary response to the presence of a road through the middle of a whole lot of not too much in particular. Largest-Ball-of-Twine type outposts seem to sprout like weird blossoms to attract travelers, like flowers draw bees. Instead of taking pollen, we leave money. Or so they hope.

The Meteor Crater drew me in; something about a huge rock hitting Arizona tickled a response in me. However, they had planted a huge multistory Meteor Crater Education Center on the crater's rim, along with a $15 entrance fee. Given that the Grand Canyon is $25 for a week, I thought of this as - literally - highway robbery.

I got back on I-40 and rolled on for a while, just watching the billboards. I kept seeing signs for Winslow, and it rang sort of a faint bell. Winslow, what do I know about Winslow, Arizona? I racked my brain for Winslow history (and resisted the urge to Google it from my Blackberry) until a snatch of music floated up from, I think, my limbic brain: "Well I'm-a runnin' down the road tryin to loosen mah load..."

I knew what I had to do.

The image of the Buddha standin' on a corner in Winslow, Arizona seemed sort of funny at the time. When I got to downtown Winslow, however, I discovered a "Standin' on a Corner" Park, along with not one, not two, but three "Standin' on a Corner" gift shops on the three corners of the intersection, with the "Standin' on a Corner" statue occupying the fourth.

I got out of the car clutching the Amida Buddha in my hand. From a loudspeaker mounted on one of the shops came the sound of Glenn Frey singing "Take it Easy"from the Eagles' first album.

I can only assume it played, on a constant loop, all day long.

I snapped a quick picture and fled.

I hate the fucking Eagles, man.

I drove through an impressive storm and crossed the Navajo Nation, stopping briefly to buy my cheapest gas of the trip ($4.05 premium!). My mission was to reach Albuquerque by nightfall, so I poured on the speed.

As I neared the city, I decided I really wanted something more luxurious for the night. I wanted - oh, say it! - a Jacuzzi. And at that moment hove into view a sign for the Comfort Inn in West Mesa. Free Wireless! Hot Tub!

I floored it.

This is what I got in Albuquerque for $10 more than the Grand Canyon Motel:

The difference between the Comfort Inn and the Grand Canyon Motel

I set the MacBook up on the desk (actually a separate piece of furniture at the Comfort Inn) and it worked like a champ.

Showered, put on clean clothes, ate, collapsed. End of a good day.

the trip so far

Mile 575: the Grand Canyon

The sun comes up really early in Arizona.

The Grand Canyon Motel

Maybe it's the whole Daylight Savings thing (Arizona doesn't observe it). And maybe I'm just used to the sun coming up through coastal clouds. Whatever it was, I was up at about 5am after a tossy-turny night.

When I woke up, my computer was still spazzing, but I decided I had plenty of time to figure out what that meant for my job, so I packed up, checked out, and wrote some postcards over a light desert breakfast. It was still cool, but I could feel the heat of the day coming on. Even the waiter was like, "I try to tell these people how much water it takes to digest these big breakfasts, but they still want eggs, bacon, pancakes..." I bought a gallon jug of water and headed for the park entrance.

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised at the crowds, even at 8:30 am: a week before July 4 at one of the great tourist attractions in America, if not the world. Why a dozen busloads of Koreans chose that morning to arrive at one of this country's premier holes in the ground may forever be beyond my ken, however. I considered making for the North Rim, but that would take hours and get me there in the main heat of the day. I had nothing but running shoes, no water in a carryable size... and no real desire for an expedition, anyway. I just needed some peace and quiet. I headed to the trailhead on the South Rim furthest from bus parking: Grandview.

Once the aging frat boys got finished bellowing into the canyon (why do Americans always seem to do the most cringeworthy things just when foreigners are watching?) it actually got pretty tolerably calm. I hiked a couple thousand feet down and found a little cleared area that led to a cleft in the rock where I could sit and not see - or be seen by - anyone else. This was about as much solitude as it seemed I was likely to get.

My chill meditation spot

I did some breathing meditation to quiet my mind and clear out the jangling energy of all those tourists. Once I settled, it was actually not all that distracting to hear the occasional snatch of conversation or sound of boots on the trail. The hugeness of the canyon tends to be a pretty effective sink for human disturbance.

I wondered for a bit about my constant need for distraction - with my computer and Blackberry safely packed away there was nowhere to go but inside, and I had some time to catch up with all the various dramatic changes of the past months. So many things had just come to a close, and the new phase of my life hadn't even revealed itself in all its details. I was, literally, sitting in limbo, in open space.

Most of what passed through my mind under that rock is non-bloggable stuff. What I can say about the experience is that it represented the clean break that merely leaving San Diego did not achieve, with all the packing and rushing about. It felt very much that my entire life up to that point had brought me to that quiet place on the cliffside, and I hung out there for a few hours before moving on.

The car was warm and welcoming. Still with the music off, I headed back out on the open road. The deep quiet was refreshing, and the vistas of the Kaibab and Coconino forests uplifted me - there had apparently been a recent fire, and blackened trunks were intermixed with bright green saplings.

It's incredibly clichè to say that change is the only constant, but the things that seem so simple and obvious are things we so often ignore.


Mile 525: crashing at the Grand Canyon

I was only able to keep my speed down for so long, plus once the price of gas climbed down from its Southern California high point I felt a little more free to let my foot drop a little. The GTI is such a driver's car, and I just enjoyed feeling the open road. I didn't even play music at all that day, just watched the scenery change.

It was a little surprising to me how nice the high desert is. I was expecting kind of a blasted landscape, but there's actually a fair amount of green growth, and the hills are strikingly beautiful. There is an almost physical pleasure to looking out across broad vistas; maybe something about the eye focusing out as far as it can. We did evolve on the savanna, and probably there was a security and comfort to being able to see long distances.

Anyway: pretty.

I finally rolled into the environs of the Grand Canyon just as the sun was setting.

Sunset outside Tusayan

All the hotels near the park were filled up, and ridiculously expensive anyway. I turned around and headed for the crossroads town about 20 miles back, but not before seeing elk. Elk!! I didn't get a pic, since it was too dark for my little Cyber-Shot, but the sight of large mammals cheered me enormously.

There was plenty of room at the little Grand Canyon Inn in Valle. They even had low-cost singles in the "Motel," which is apparently under the same management. All I wanted was a bed, so I went for it, and $49 sounded pretty good at that hour.

This is what $49 gets you at the Grand Canyon:

My ghetto motel room

What you see is what I got - I mean, behind the door is a little toilet-shower and an ingenious combination of sink, dresser, and desk. And that's it. The ubiquitous TV, of course, but that was just an annoying waste of a corner to me.

I was tired, and loopy from the high altitude, and I just wanted to crash. I dropped off my overnight bag and went back out to the car to get my laptop. Rather than close the door and have to unlock it again, I left the door open, and left the key in the room.

You can see where this is going. I said I was loopy.

Fortunately, I had opened a window rather than run the Eisenhower-era air-conditioner, so it was a relatively simple matter to slip the screen and climb back in. I set my laptop on the sinkdresserdesk and got my contact lens kit out so I could give my eyes a rest.

Now, atmospheric pressure is closely approximated by the hydrostatic pressure caused by the weight of air above a given point. As elevation increases there is less overlying atmospheric mass, so that pressure decreases with increasing elevation. The pressure in a closed container - say, a bottle of contact lens cleaning solution - remains constant.

You can see where this is going.

After I cleaned up the contact lens fluid off the keyboard of my MacBook, I noticed that the mouse-click wasn't working anymore: it could only do "secondary-click" mode. Then, I noticed the keyboard itself wasn't working.

Epic fail.

I quickly powered the laptop down and turned on the ancient nuclear-powered air conditioner to try and reduce the humidity in the room to absolute minimum. Then, I spent a fidgety night trying to sleep in the super-arid, high-altitude environment, reflecting on how much I distract myself with technology. I had had this big plan to live-blog the trip, using Jott on my phone, Blogger Mobile and Wi-Fi hot spots, all so I could keep the few friends who follow my blog - most of whom I've been in regular contact with anyway - up to date on my latest twists and turns.

Maybe it was time to cut myself off for a while. And what better place to do it than at the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River?

I slept. Eventually. A little.

the trip so far

28 June 2008

Mile 145: kicks on Route 66

A big part of my trip would follow the old Route 66: swallowed up by I-40 in most places, segments of the old road still exist, running through a series of Western towns. I knew a lot of areas were preserving and restoring their parts of Route 66, so I followed an impulse and jumped off the 15 (freeways still retain the definite article inside San Bernardino County) at Victorville, Calif.

Route 66, Victorville Calif.

It was cute, though there was that air of high-desert freakiness that always makes me think behind one of these doors in a future serial killer. I strolled around a bit and met a lady named Rose as she caught a smoke outside her storefront-church-slash-thrift-store.


I think she picked up on my I don't have to work, not a care in the world vibe - she told me "I can always tell when people are happy and joyous inside." And, I mean, sure: happy, joyous, why the hell not? Not like I don't have things on my mind, but I have pretty much been trained from birth to be an optimist... and what's more joyful than having a mostly-full tank of gas and an open road calling?

She wanted to talk about Jesus, but I had Buddha in my pocket, so I wished her well and moved on.

Buddha on route 66

the trip so far

Mile 0: escape velocity

It's amazing how many odds and ends accumulate when you stay somewhere for even a brief time. I spent a big chunk of the morning corralling little bits of my life and stowing them in an organized way in the back. I determined not to travel the country with a car filled to overflowing with stuff like the Beverly Hillbillies. Better to start later in the day than regret it down the road.

I had decided that I wanted to leave from OB, both to say goodbye to my old neighborhood and to mark the start of my trip exactly at the coast. I got this wild hair to carry a bottle of ocean water from the Pacific to the Atlantic - I don't even know for sure what it signifies, but it seems to be something like bringing that essence with me as I travel, then releasing it when I get to where I'm going. So I gathered water, and said goodbye.

Mile 0

I brought the statue of the Amida Buddha from my altar along with me, as a kind of touchstone and also a subject for photos - traveling solo doesn't give you a lot of opportunities for portraits, and also I wanted to do little things with the Buddha like people do with stuffed animals as they travel.

One amusing thing that happened right at the start was that my Blackberry internet connection failed, which I was counting on to be my map. Would I have to buy a map, or trust road signs, or worst of all ask for directions? I took it as a sign (as I tend to do these days) not to worry and just trust that everything would work out. And so I just took off up the 15 freeway and settled in to the number 3 lane, trying to keep my speed below 70 as California drivers whipped around me on both sides.



Days of goodbyes have come to this. In a little bit I'll point the GTI east and start a journey with no map and no real destination.

Today is the summation of a myriad of small steps leading inexorably to this conclusion and no other. I don't even pretend to have it all figured out, but I am absolutely convinced that there is no way I could be doing anything else.

For those of you following: I will do my best to blog from the road. Pictures will have to wait for longer stops where I can get to a hotspot, but at a minimum I'll try to post via Jott from wherever I am.

Come with me.

22 June 2008

If it's supposed to be a "Secret," then why did they write a book about it?

It's my last week on the West Coast. And of course, California is beautiful: the smothering heat that is scorching the rest of the Southland becomes just, like, normal summer weather by the time it's cooled by coastal San Diego winds. It's just about perfect.

My responsibility for my last week of work is to wrap up my few remaining projects and get everything set up to work remotely. They haven't been able to replace me (or even find a candidate) so as a result they're letting me work from, well, basically, wherever I want. I still don't even have a clue - literally - where I'm going to go first, let alone where I will end up. So this creates the room for me to explore where I really want to be and what I really want to do, in a way I couldn't do as calmly if I were stressed about money. It's like "somebody" wants me to take this trip...

I've always taken a very gingerly approach to "fate" in my life. I was raised lapsed Catholic, with the basic watered-down Italian and Irish folk superstitions that many of us got as kids. I came up with the idea that my late father was "watching" me (from somewhere) and generally had the luck of a fatherless boy: I got into scrapes (usually of my own design) but something always saved me from serious misfortune. As I grew up and rejected religion, I strongly cast all that stuff aside... but kind of kept a little DMZ in my psyche so I can still access the part of me that accepts fatalistic thinking. The feeling that everything happens for a reason has proved too deeply rooted to shake, though I disagree with it rationally. Instead, I have more sort of a peace treaty between my rational and pre-rational minds: never use the woo-woo part to make plans and important decisions, but for things I can't figure out, it's OK for the pre-rational mind to trust that there's some underlying order in the universe, and that it serves me. I do not "believe," because that seems more of an intellectual exercise. I don't think about fate or destiny with my discursive mind - not out of some idea that it will "break the magic" but rather that the nature of belief kind of excludes conceptual thinking. It feels kind of like riding a bike - don't go too far in either direction.

I've watched in a kind of dismay as the marketing phenomenon known as The Secret has filtered out into American society. Propelled in no small part by Oprah Winfrey, the human Energizer Bunny of trends, the hype surrounding the book(s), video(s) and associated impedimenta of productization (The Secret 2008 calendar! The Secret toilet paper!) have created an enthusiastic base of supporters - and an equally rabid backlash (why is it that everything in America turns into two opposing teams?) that I find pretty much equally cringe-inducing.

On the one hand you have the starry-eyed, I've-got-it-all-figured-out smugness of the Secret initiate, who blames everyone for their own crappy luck - why won't those Darfurians quit focusing on what they don't have and see themselves already eating food and not homeless? On the other side are the dour conservatives who believe any insight not written in the Bible or the Wall Street Journal is a priori crap. Neither of these groups is a team I want to be on.

My rational mind believes in the power of positive thinking, but knows you can't change the physical world with a thought. My pre-rational mind is infinite, always in the Now, and knows all stories have a happy ending. My rational mind believes that if my pre-rational mind keeps me happy and in a cheerful state that I'll be more resourceful and handle things better -- leading to a more positive outcome.

It works for me. But please don't call it a Secret...

11 June 2008

creating "the new society within the shell of the old"

I don't vote.

It's not easy for me to say that, because I have always taken my voting rights very seriously... ever since voting for Walter fucking Mondale in my first-ever election. But I didn't vote in either of the two primaries California had this year, and I have no real intention to vote in November.

I chose, very consciously, to withdraw my support from a society I see as immoral and a system that I feel hoodwinks people into thinking they have a voice. The vote is rigged ten ways from Sunday: not necessarily through outright stealing of the election (though that has happened and will happen again), but by controlling what candidates get on the ballot, through using the money primary to marginalize outsiders, and through the whole superstructure of finance and control that makes legislators pawns of the power elite.

It's clear that neither of the men who are running for President has any intention of making any change to the imperial policy of the United States to order the world as it - and it alone - sees fit. In 2012, and in 2016, we will still be in Iraq and threatening other nations in that part of the world - barring of course, some cataclysm almost too awful to think about and growing more likely by the day.

The possibility of the United States going through some kind of awakening -- of all its citizens, elites and plebs, suddenly realizing that our current course can only end in tragedy for ourselves and for the world -- is so remote as to not be worth considering. I mean, if there were some movement, even the blastocyst of a fistula of an embryo of a movement, in that direction, I'd give it whole-hearted support. But there is nothing like that. There's TV and sports and the quadrennial reality show we call Election.

So I'm out.

At 5:04 EDT today, 11 June 2008, an Aer Lingus jet left JFK for Dublin, with a connecting flight to Rome early tomorrow morning. I was supposed to be on that flight. My plan was to leave this sick, sad society behind and make a new start in the country of my ancestors. For a whole host of reasons, I chose not to go. And it's still not clear why, but I had - and have - a strong intuition that my karma lay in these here United States. A big reason for my upcoming journey, uprooting myself from a comfortable existence in "America's Finest City," is to find out why.

Since I was a teenager riding the Hi-Speed Line into Philadelphia and walking to the Wooden Shoe bookstore to soak up radical literature, I've been searching for a different way. And through college and communes and back-to-the-land in Hawai'i I've tried to find that way, so far without success. But as Edison once said after yet another of his experiments went wrong: "I have not failed at each attempt; rather I've succeeded at discovering another way not to invent an electric lamp."

It really might take the total collapse of American society to shake things up to the point at which they can change. And I've dreaded it every time I've come to that conclusion: with all the guns in this country - and the increasing number of well-trained, hardened warriors coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan - a new American Civil War would make the breakup of Yugoslavia look like pro wrestling. But we are headed down the Slip-n-Slide to disaster at an alarming rate, and there has to be something on the other side of that - something other than a new Fascism and culture war - for people to look towards.

There is another way - a uniquely American way - for us to live with each other. Consumerism and the lust for power has deformed the ancient spirit of community and turned people into drones who work until they drop, then go home and narcotize themselves with drink, with drugs, and with American Idol. It does not have to be that way.

I'm going to be thinking a lot and talking to a lot of people all across the country about what that might look like. Eurocommunism won't work, not will Latin American-style socialism or any other system that works in different countries. Deep in the cultural DNA of this country, however, is the ethic of cooperation and struggle that brought us the eight-hour day, cleaned up the slaughtehouses and began the still-incomplete work of extending full civil rights to women and people of color.

The question - and it's an open question to me - is whether anything, even a full-blown apocalyptic collapse of society, can reawaken that spirit, if only on a very small scale.

I'm very curious.

08 June 2008

The Pursuit of Happiness

A lot of friends and acquaintances have had the occasion to ask the perfectly reasonable question of why I wanted to give up a good home in a beautiful city on the Pacific -- where I have nice friends and associates, a decent job which pays well, health insurance and all the trappings of middle class American existence -- in favor of life on the road and an uncertain future.

(They usually don't use highly caffeinated run-on sentences like the foregoing, but you get the idea.)

Part of it is for the same reason that dogs lick themselves (because I can!!), but the overarching reason why is very personal, and has to do with the quest I have been on since I was self-aware enough to think of such things: I want to live a good life and be happy.

That quest has taken me in a lot of different philosophical directions and to a lot of destinations on the Earth. I think of it as kind of a winding path that has trended in the same general direction. There was a period where I thought the key to a good life was self-knowledge and spiritual discipline. I studied Zen under a renowned master and practiced about as diligently as an attention-deficient slacker could. Then, I spent a number of years of my life learning, so that I could earn a decent income - never as an end in itself, but what I saw as a necessary means to an end at a time when I was lurching from job to job in an island economy. Then I entered a period of my life where I sought meaning in being a good partner and supportive boyfriend: again, not as the be-all and end-all, but as an important step I felt I needed to take.

It seems to me that a good life is lived by giving your gifts fully in the service of some greater good. Some people find that good in family: I see that as a noble and appropriate purpose, though one that will not be mine, for biological reasons at least. Others find it in religion, or in a career. I have never been especially religious, though I would say that I am fairly intensely spiritual. And, as far as a career goes, it's hard for me to imagine that I could find lasting satisfaction in a job, at least as the Anglo-American economy is presently constituted. I find the world of work far too reductively focused on abstracts like profit and productivity... and in any regard, the things I think of as valuable (equality, justice etc.) are not really market commodities.

This journey, for me, will be a time to break out of my routine so that I can meditate deeply on what my true gifts are. In addition, I intend to leave myself open to inspiration as to how I can give those gifts in a way that will help create the kind of world I want to see... or, in any case, somewhat slow the slide into barbarism and brutality that I see happening day by day.

I'm trying really hard not to pre-judge the outcome, though it's not like I haven't thought long and hard about these issues. I have the gift of communication - this makes itself manifest in my ability to speak multiple languages and also to explain complicated technical issues to others in an effective way. I am widely-read and curious about the world, and history: I feel I have a pretty good understanding of this historic moment and the underlying trends -- and this understanding is not limited by either an America-centric or a Eurocentric perspective. And above all, I have a real desire for social justice and want to play some small part in creating a world that works for everybody.

It may be that I somehow find a job that pays me to harness my gifts in order to create social change on a massive scale. More likely, I will have to put the pieces together in a more ad-hoc way: a job that supports my values along with some sort of part-time occupation in organizing, speaking writing... who knows.

Jefferson declared the right not to happiness itself, but its pursuit. Aristotle held that a happy life could only be judged so after death; until then, as Solon admonished Croesus, a man could not be called happy, but merely fortunate.

I have been fortunate to have lived a life that has allowed me to learn a little about what brings lasting happiness. I am very fortunate to be in a position where I can actually act on some of the things I have learned.

06 June 2008

"They hate us because of our freedoms"

This just in...

"Confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators are to be arraigned at Guantanamo on Thursday before a military commission, ahead of a trial later this year. "
Aiiiight. That's probably a good idea. Rule of law, and all that...

"Even acquittal would probably leave the men in U.S. custody indefinitely. The government has determined them to be "enemy combatants" and serious threats to the United States and its allies."
Um. Yeah. OK.

04 June 2008


I have made the transition - everything I own now fits in the back of a 2005 Volkswagen GTI. I was dreading it, but the feeling is one of surprisingly enjoyable lightness and freedom. This is probably what the Roma and Pavee feel - nothing tying you down, the road beckons... if I could fit a bed into the GTI, I might never get an apartment.

Gave notice for June 27, and I have every intention of being at the Grand Canyon the next day.

Watch this space...