New Orleans, 4/10–4/13

I am going to the Nonprofit Technology Conference, which is not, you Silicon Valley smart-ass, a contradiction in terms—but rather a mass convening of people trying to do good and people trying to sell them things. On the plane I end up seated in a row with one of each; they’re schmoozing while I stare out the window. “Anytime there’s paper, you know, that’s a chance to disrupt it, with, like, more technology,” says the consultant in the middle seat to the ED in the aisle. “It’s, like, pretty turnkey.”

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From the air I take a remedial geography lesson.

Once on the ground in New Orleans I set out on my own doomed campaign to optimize, simultaneously, for business and pleasure. The only way to even attempt this is by walking fast and a lot, often in dress shoes and often in the dark. It’s is no city for introverts—twice I sit down to eat alone and am presented with two glasses of water—but I do the best I can. Other general observations, from most to least obvious:

  • I suspect that when people say that New Orleans “feels different” from other American cities, up to 50 percent of that sensation is attributable specifically to the lack of an open container law. There are plenty more sober reminders, lately, that we live in warring and disparate feudal states—but still I am dazzled to think that in Utah you have state-controlled liquor outlets, and in Louisiana you have daiquiri drive-throughs, and both accept payment in the same almighty dollar.
  • Perhaps related: there are police everywhere—on foot, in cars, on horses with suitable names like Ace and Duke. Presumably this phenomenon is confined to the tourist and business districts, but casual Googling does indicate New Orleans has almost as many officers per capita as New York City, which is well over twice the rate of Oakland.
  • There are white seashells in the dirt, in the middle of the city, in any old gap in the pavement.
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Maybe Huck Finn had arch support. (Best thing on the river: this.)

On a tip from my first Lyft driver I decide to take a $2 ferry (“cheapest ride in town!”) to Algiers Point. I’m keen on this, to come close to the Mississippi—the muddy water lapping at the shore seems surely steeped with secrets—but the walkway to the terminal is discouraging. The concrete walls are hung with what I understand to be Mardi Gras banners but experience as sinister paintings of insane clowns presiding over the dozing homeless.

I wait at the prison-bar gate until the ferry arrives, then watch the sun set on an abandoned office tower as we chug across the water. On the Algiers side I wander the silent neighborhood by streetlight, peering past wicker porch swings into tidy living rooms filled with hardwood and books. My foodie friends sent me to New Orleans with a 20-item-long list of restaurants to try, but I will tell you my favorite meal is out here, at the Dry Dock Inn. The service is hostile and the food is from the freezer—but a man walks in and begins a conversation with the barkeep by announcing, “I’m just in off the India Star.” I’m enchanted.

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Enchanted also by the cemeteries and the mansions in the Garden District. I freely admit I like looking at expensive things … for free .. ly.

Another peculiar place is City Park. At 1,300 acres it’s more than twice the size of its New York City cousin, but as far as I can see—albeit midday and midweek, and albeit from what must be the wrong entrance—much of that is one giant, deserted, flat, and wilting lawn. There are lovely lily-choked lakes, a fancy dog park, playgrounds … however, these are scattered oases in a vast expanse of featureless grass without pathways, trails, or, in places even sidewalks. Hoping to find the famous live oaks I walk for miles in the road until my feet bleed, then sit sweating on the curb trying to improvise Band-Aids from leaves.

Go by bike, is all I’m saying.

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An interesting trio in a free library box. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Of Katrina—in tourist areas, to a tourist’s eye—there is almost no sign. It’s the last day of the conference before I realize I’m sitting in a ballroom that for 25,000 people served as the “shelter of last resort”—the phrase still used to describe it, for some reason, as if at the time it actually constituted either a shelter or a choice.

I was 18 that year, old enough to know better but perhaps young enough to be forgiven for understanding the storm to be what I saw on TV: looters, helicopters, another East Coast thing. When I get home I watch Spike Lee’s take twice through and still feel sorry that it took me so long.

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Southern New Mexico + El Paso, 1/19–1/22

My birthday is on Inauguration Day*, which means I spent my 30th mourning the simultaneous demise of my youth and American democracy. I want to make it up to myself this year, so I’ve planned a self-indulgent weekend in southern New Mexico—some time to bop around the national parks and not think about politics.

Checking out is appealing. At a stalemate over DACA, Congress squabbles its way toward a government shutdown and workdays grow correspondingly depressing. Every strategic dilemma—is the border wall a conservation issue?—comes fringed in tactical inanities: I prepare social media posts that read, literally, “Will your travel plans be affected by a national park closure? Tell us about it!” And yet, in a mind-boggling error of compartmentalization, it doesn’t occur to me to consider my own itinerary until a coworker asks me offhand if I plan to cancel.

Too late. Nothing to do but get on the plane and hope they make a deal.

A friend collects me from the airport in El Paso and we drive north. The idea that I might  still take a mental vacation dissolves as soon as we hit a Border Patrol checkpoint. A faceless voice belonging to a gun framed in the driver’s-side window asks, “Are you U.S. citizens?” Why should it even matter if I—“Yes, sir,” replies my friend at the wheel, eyes forward. “Both of you?” inquires the gun. Yeah, so I know what the fourth fucking amendment—”Yes, sir,” says my friend, again.

The agent waves us through and we drive on in silence. The sagebrush and utility poles blur by. “It’s good you’re here,” I say.

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At Organ Mountains National Monument—on the president’s hit list—the granite crags stand beckoning against the dusk and there’s not and never enough time. We hike by moonlight, watch distant sprawl invisible in the daytime haze coalesce into twinkling circuit-boards as the night deepens.

Driving out of the campground the next morning I glance into the rearview and see the ranger shutting the access gate behind us. Without cell reception I can continue to tell myself it’s only maintenance work until we arrive at another locked gate at White Sands. The shutdown is on.

Carlsbad Caverns, which would have been our next stop, is out of the question. But here at least it’s possible to nibble at the edges: we follow a few other carfuls of thwarted tourists to a spot where the undaunted dunes have overwhelmed the fence. I hear three languages spoken but the delight at the smooth swell of the sand against the sky seems universal. Three children sprint by carrying boogie boards, shrieking and racing for a tideline that doesn’t exist.

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In the end—after a detour to the excellent space museum and a night wheezing at altitude in Cloudcroft—I get my fix in Texas, where only five percent of the land is public and the state debates a reservation system to manage demand for what few facilities it has. My friend is a seasonal guide at Hueco Tanks, which helps, and after dutifully observing the informational video I am released into the park to follow him around.

In this I’m reminded again that public land is where shit gets real. A visitor ponders the difference between trash and treasure; a superintendent somewhere draws a line at 50 years, before which graffiti is not art and beyond which a soda-can pull-tab is historical artifact, not be disturbed. One man may dip his fingers in chalk and posit climbing is a religion; another might tell you in Tiwa that it is not—but there remains only one pile of rocks to share they and this is how it’s done: by my tour guide radioing in his location as we pass from one administrative zone to the next.

I don’t know enough to judge the particulars of the arrangement but feel reverence for the fact of the effort—almost as much as I do for the place itself, for the shape of the cliffs and the genius of the cactus and the wild grins on the cryptic figures painted on the rock. It’s a lot to think about, certainly more than I wanted at the outset—but even for me there are moments of silence, here and there.

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* There have been good years, of course.

Winter miscellany, December–March

Yosemite

This annual trip has trended larger and younger lately; there’s a lot of spontaneous group singing. The moment a girl unzips her puffy to reveal a sweatshirt announcing “FEMALE FRIENDSHIP” in white script is the moment I accept that I can’t hang.

I bow out to instead walk 16 miles alone to Glacier Point, watch a super-moon rise over Half Dome. The year flares out in dreamy traces of pink on the twilight, and my sharp lunar shadow follows me all the way back to camp.

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Santa Barbara

There’s a quality to Southern California sunshine that makes it distinctly more difficult to take things seriously.* Massive mudslides in Montecito are washing dead animals onto the beach; regardless, there is a beach. Donations of clothing are accepted only new with tags. I’m just a visitor and so it’s all difficult to reconcile: there is the sprawling emergency-response staging area and the old burn zones across the water; there are the red-tile roofs and crying seagulls over the pier.

In any case, we eat and we ride. Having my friends on knobby tires with slow flats hardly puts a dent in my problem of keeping up, and they’re in sight only when we’re descending. In fact, I watch one of them come with in inches of being hit by an (at-fault) car on Gibraltar. As with his last near miss, I have a clearer view of his actual proximity to disaster in that moment than he could ever have himself—but in this sunshine, at least, there is warmth enough to convert the horror of that split second to an afterglow of fierce relief.

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* A must-read, if you’re interested in this particular superstition: Carey McWilliams, An Island on the Land

Angel Island

It’s ridiculous that I’ve never been here before. Angel Island is every bit of professional park propaganda I’ve ever written balled up in a beautiful rock: transit-accessible, urban-adjacent, family-friendly, and best of all, Historically Problematic. It has ruins, vultures, flowers—all my favorite things—and it puts the city on the skyline, where I like it.

It is also, as a consequence, insanely difficult to book. So here I am with the Golden Gate Bridge framed in my tent door, all because I have a friend who is six to eight months better than me at planning ahead. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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Columbia River Gorge, 11/23–11/28

The gorge in winter remains too grim for me, but east enough the landscape opens up to a cross between California and the moon. California is in the swell of the hills against the sky; the moon is in the emptiness and the cold. We stay at a near-vacant state park (now that, only in Oregon) with tidy campsites laid out neatly behind a showpiece tumbledown barn. There’s a checkers table and free loaner bicycles, just sitting there, for anyone. The checkers I win; the bikes we ride along the river as far as the trail will go.

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On the way back we stop on the Washington side of the Bonneville Dam to see the generators, also immaculate. For some reason the interior walkways around the powerhouse are covered in plush, rainbow-striped carpet: a Fisher-Price xylophone underfoot, a Cold War bunker overhead.

Even better than the carpet—if you can possibly believe that—is a logbook of stories from people who worked on the dam’s construction back in the ’30s. I won’t spoil the whole thing, but here’s my favorite:

I accidentally drained Bass Lake. We were drilling a tunnel and it kept filling with water. So, I was brought in to resolve the problem and I got seven pumps to run 24 hours for a few days. Finally, we were able to drill the rest of the tunnel and never encountered more water. One day I travelled above the area to try and locate where the water came from. On an area above the drilling, I discovered a dry lake (Bass Lake) with a row boat sitting on dry ground! I never said anything for fear of getting in trouble.

It’s out of season and the elaborate fish ladders are empty; the viewing gallery at the bottom of the building reveals only the turbid churn of pale green water. I stand straining to see anything else for a long time before at last the middle window frames a lone Chinook.

I get only the briefest glimpse of a ghostlike apparition, a split-second impression of a silver-brown body thrashing against the current before the water rips it away. There is the otherworldly sensation of television static, the sense it was just a flickering projection of the thing I wanted to find. All the same, I’ve been trying to see something for so long I find the image burned into my vision long after it disappears. And of course all this can be as true of a person as of a fish.

Points south, 11/17–11/20

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Karl has nothing on the fog over the Grapevine: I can see only the first set of brake lights in front of me, barely, and those only when they’re on. The radio’s in and out. It’s fraught and eerie on the inside, but later on I’ll look down on the same sea of white from a deserted campground on Mt. Pinos and feel like I’m on an island in the sky.

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The same could be said of the Getty.

I’m in Pasadena to visit my oldest friend, whose toddler and I have in common a skeptical countenance and a wild enthusiasm for dogs. She dozes through most of our hike up Echo Mountain: after setting out on the wrong side of a culvert there is only the briefest consideration given to backtracking before instead we hoist her, still sleeping, over the fence. I believe this is called raising them right.

My friend’s parents have also moved south. Their new home is a topsy-turvy world in which the fort-making furniture of our own childhood has been rearranged in space and time: where the rooms overlook an ocean instead of a swimming pool; when she’s a mother and not a child. We find a camcorder and screen our ’90s-era home movies,  Python-esque productions that shake with the director’s laughter. We watch our younger selves play games of Hot Lava and Lost Kids.

The overall effect—and can you blame me? On a warm beach in a soft blue morning? Watching a school of actual dolphins?—is one of vertiginous gratitude and loss, of my heart in my mouth.

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“And thank you, every day.”

NW New Mexico, 10/18–10/22—part 2

(Part 1 here.)

Bandelier National Monument

I haven’t budgeted enough time for this place. This is obvious the second the road starts down into the canyon, where the long shadows of one wall already reach across the aspens for the other. The old-man ranger by long practice seems to recognize the error in my expression: he offers a minute-by-minute sequence of things to see, optimized—without my asking—to avoid crossing paths with the other late visitors and their loud, sticky children. That’s a professional.

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I follow his advice and have a few minutes in the cliff dwellings with no one else in sight. I can run my hands along the polished wooden ladders, lie flat in the whitewashed cave, and imagine ritual fires spitting sparks into the night.

Ghost Ranch

This is Georgia O’Keefe’s old place, now a retreat center for the Presbyterian Church. A low-slung ranch building houses a dusty museum with reconstructed pottery and unlocked drawers full of fossils; table signs in a clattering mess hall welcome attendees of a men’s wellness clinic and an art camp. I feel, unusual for me, both conspicuous and safe.

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The trails trace white-sand river washes edged with cottonwoods that light up in the morning. They traverse the base of flawless red rock walls, smooth as if they’ve been cut from butter, ascend boulder-strewn gullies and top out on the mesa. The horizon is empty and the desert enormous.

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I thought the ranch was named by its new owners for the ghost—father and son—but when night falls in the campground the wind comes moaning through the canyon to change my mind.

La Cieneguilla Petroglyphs

This is my favorite kind of BLM site: a clear sign on the road followed by a dirt lot and no explanation. And the other classic feature of a BLM site—that is, hard-eyed, meth-y men staring at me in the parking lot—doesn’t appear until I’m getting in the car to leave. I’m so pleased with this timing that I smile and wave.

The petroglyphs themselves are excellent: there are more, better preserved, than I’ve ever see anywhere else. You’ll spot one—maybe a thunderbird or Kokopelli—and be impressed enough with that, then find that dozens more materialize out of the boulder field before your eyes. Turns out they’ve been there all along.

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The World Gay Rodeo Finals

I like a nice set of three and a rodeo anyhow; this year I’ve been to a black rodeo and a Mormon rodeo and am obviously not about to miss this. Except that when I arrive—to the massive fairgrounds complex on Albuquerque’s sprawling southern edge—there is no sign of any such thing. I wander past empty parking lots, a Chinese lantern festival, the FFA barn (prominently sponsored by McDonalds), a furniture expo in teardown … no trailers, no signs, nothing.

I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve fallen for a mean Trump-country joke when I hear, on the shifting wind, the faintest notes of Diana Ross. A-ha, I think, and when I follow the sound to its source I find, with his eyes closed, clutching the microphone, under the steady gaze of the brick-house drag queen judge in a rhinestone vest, the final contestant in the lip-sync contest.

Honey, you’re my one shining moment
And if I never have another
I’m glad that I’ve known you
If I never have another
I’m glad that I’ve known you

NW New Mexico, 10/18–10/22—part 1

Through some glitch in the matrix it’s cheapest to fly in to Albuquerque one day and rent a car the next, even with the addition of a motel stay in between. I check in with a Dolly Parton look-alike, but the proprietor named on the wall plaque behind her is a Patel. In the nightstand drawer there’s the Holy Bible but also the Bhagavad Gita. Neither converts me but I’m pleased to have a choice.

At the buffet breakfast the next morning a tiny woman cooks eggs on a hotplate concealed behind a speaker’s lectern. People line up as if to receive communion; when she’s served them all and stands alone surveying the card tables she looks to be presiding over a summit. The eggs are pretty good, too.

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I rent a bike and ride three trail Santa Fe trail systems over the course of the trip. At La Tierra the locals have packed a lot of trail into small acreage, complex spiderwebs threading through the arroyos and dozens of numbered intersections. Dale Ball meanwhile has the advantage of some rock and terrain, which in combination with the altitude means I am repeatedly passed by shirtless, geriatric trail runners. Retirement looks nice.

The Santa Fe showpiece is the Winsor trail, which a friend has told me is possible to self-shuttle with $5 public transit. I’m so astounded to find this is actually a thing that the bus has pulled away before I fully register where it’s left me: at 10,000 feet, with a bite in the air and granite under my tires. This trail is significantly more technical and more remote than I would generally choose to ride for the first time alone. I pick my way down very slowly, forcing myself to come to a complete stop before ogling aspens.

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That night I find myself back on the mountain for my absolute least favorite solo-road-trip activity: hunting for a campsite after dark. There are no open spots until a cluster of walk-ins just below the pass, where after a restless night of gasping flatlander nightmares I wake to the sound of an older woman lecturing a dog.

Max is a muddy-pawed Norwich terrier who for some reason, when I unzip the door, is permitted to run directly into my tent. “Oh, sorry,” says the woman. I can see only her legs but these are making no move at all to retrieve her charge. “Did you stay here by yourself? How marvelous! Weren’t you cold? I’ve always wondered about camping.”

“It’s not so bad,” I say, extracting Max from my sleeping bag. I’m not sure I’m awake. I’ve been in Santa Fe less than 24 hours and this is the third slightly strange interaction I’ve had with an older woman walking a dog. The first stopped me on the sidewalk for help restarting her iPhone. The second asked me where I was from and when I told her exclaimed, “Oh goodness! It’s terrible there!” At the time I thought she might be referring to the Sonoma fires, but in retrospect that’s probably not what she meant.

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Santa Fe is zealously committed to its adobe architecture. San Miguel Chapel, the oldest in the country, does not look all that different from the five-star hotel across the street.

I don’t vacation internationally mostly because I don’t have time. But also because, when I think of the places I can afford to go, I’m put off by the reasons I can afford to go there. I’m not suggesting it’s wrong to rent a Thai beach hut—in fact at this point it may be the most useful thing anyone can do—but it’s uncomfortable if you think about it too hard, which of course being me I can’t help doing. It may be cowardice to turn away from that discomfort, but it’s a choice I have and so I fly domestic.

But as I sit on the steps of the old chapel, watching a high-heeled tourist remove the price tag from a dream-catcher, I am reminded there in fact is no avoiding it. There are academic terms to try on when we discuss the endless echoes of our violence to each other—racism or capitalism or colonialism or, or—but in truth none is adequate for the enormity of it, inherent and inescapable and inexpressible, every one of us subject and object, forever and ever, Amen. There is no idea like that but sin. I don’t believe in God but I believe in language, and I suspect that word may be as close to the truth as anyone will ever write.

Summer/fall 2017, reader’s digest

or: Can’t take me anywhere; I go anyway

Oakridge, 7/1–7/4

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Here my sins against stoke included napping in the shuttle van instead of riding Hardesty and getting so pissed off at Middle Fork—the most miserable, deadfall-strewn, mosquito-ridden bushwack I have ever (barely) pedaled: 57 bites accumulated while sweating it out in a jacket—that I opted for a fire-road climb over a second singletrack descent. This did at least get me to the treeline, where Oregon finally starts to look good. Also on the bright side: Alpine, as always; a fun new stopover loop in Klamath; and great company.

Emigrant Wilderness, 8/12–8/13

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Quick trip, the granite bright and the wildflowers extravagant. I would consider this my masterclass in third-wheeling but for the presence of Pickles the very helpful blue heeler, who made us four. At night we all watched the perseids smudge war-paint on the sky.

Tahoe, 8/19–8/20

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On the Tahoe Rim Trail we found a dog, a beautiful blonde husky with fur like latte art and eyes like the center of a nebula—not sorry, both are true. It was hot and collarless and wandering in the woods. I was leaving my second voicemail at an animal shelter when its owners (we assume) pulled up in an F150 and snatched the animal back without a word. “You should fucking say thank you, assholes, go to hell!” I yelled after their rising dust as the boys cringed. On reflection, this outburst stemmed from an upbringing on both sides of the pond: I take manners seriously, like a Brit, but escalate like a red-blooded American.

At camp we found … a hailstorm. We fled to dinner in town and watched rainbows over the railroad tracks.

And on Donner Summit we found a giant bonsai garden and a geocache. In it, among other things, were letters to a couple—both dead, the wife just recently—whose friends had hiked to the peak to scatter their ashes. “Thank you for being part of my memory. Seven of us have made the trek this morning to pay our respects. … We uncorked a bottle of $5 wine that tasted like $50. We love you, my friend.” Point in my favor, I managed not cry about that one until I got home.

Ventana Wilderness, 9/2–9/4

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From a dirt road pullout high on the ridge, I watched the setting sun drop shafts of light onto the crinkled Pacific through holes in a lid of wildfire smoke.  I saw my first tarantula, held my palm to peeling manzanita, and hid in the tent from black flies worse—honest—than anything I can remember from Africa. I revisited Cone Peak, under very different circumstances, and on the coast side of the mountains drove Highway 1 between the mudslides for a preview of the end of the world.

It will be alright, I decided, when it’s all over. This road, these cypress, California, will fall slowly into the sea. The whales will breach with no one watching  out where the sky and the water meet, in the same blue haze. A warmer wind will stir the palms. They’ll get too tall to be true.

In the interim, driving home through Fort Hunter Liggett, every massive, moss-draped oak was the most beautiful one I’d ever seen.

Downieville, 9/8–9/10

Concisely: I live for elevation, die at altitude; cursed Mills Peak on the way up, sang its name all the way down; didn’t want to get in Packer Lake and then didn’t want to get out. The usual.

I mostly want to note this insane candy-corn fungus. How does this happen?

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Tahoe, 9/16–9/17

Aside from the fact that its main event was mountain biking, the best part of this particular bachelorette party was that these girls were content to Let Me Do Me, no pressure. They toasted with wine and I with tea; they painted their nails while I fastidiously arranged all the polish in a spectrum. ROYGBIV.

Mendocino, 10/7–10/8

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At first the trees were radiant, benevolent. I knelt in the needles at their feet and considered praying, probably did. But later on the wind picked up—so gradually I didn’t notice my own rising unease until I lost my GPS track, stopped to pull out a map and registered the muffled howl through the canopy and crack and groan of trunks disappearing into the dark. Small branches rained down around my head as I bolted out of the woods, and though I’d planned on staying for the night I was so relieved to find the car I fled home instead.

As I drove south watching the gale flatten the parched grass along the highway, there was a distinct moment I thought to myself, this would burn like a motherfucker. When the next morning I discovered that it in fact had, there was an infinitesimal and awful moment in which I imagined I had ignited Sonoma County with my mind.

Bend, 10/27–10/30

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I don’t know why I can’t accept that it is winter here, or that I’m too slow to ride with these guys any more, but on the strength of my denial I pushed my bike through snow and hauled it over and under an endless obstacle course of downed trees. I rode literally half of what everybody else did and still was so tired by the end of the weekend that I hyperventilated at Ten Barrel when the waitress informed me they’d run out of giant cast-iron cookies. They hadn’t, either; this was  just the boys’ idea of a joke.

I shared anyway*.

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* Possibly the motto for this blog.

Ogden, Park City, Salt Lake City, 7/22–7/26

Planes, trains, and automobiles; cowboys and Indians; fire and rain

Planes

 

Outside the Ogden Air Force Base museum the planes stand serene against the hazy backdrop of the Wasatch, casting their own shade. Inside there are more—old bombers painted with pin-up girls and little Hitlers in crosshairs—and also a replica of a North Korean POW cell, complete with mad-eyed mannequins in bunks behind bars.

The placard includes a photo of three graduating seniors from the University of San Francisco. They’re sitting around a radio, listening for their draft numbers. One vaguely resembles an old classmate of mine. It’s not that I’ve never thought about this—that there was a time when men in my life would have been called away to die—it’s just that I’ve never thought about it while standing completely alone in a 28,000-square-foot aircraft hangar, citizen and subject of a commander-in-chief who Tweets in all-caps.

We could have fighter jets without the fighting, you know. There is no rule against this; we only have to decide that’s what we want.

Trains

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The railroad museum is closed but there are a few big steam engines under a pavilion outside. I’m inhaling creosote and running my hands over rivets in a pleasant state of foamer reverence when two large families enter from the other end of the walkway.

The kids scatter and the parents lean on the railing in the shade. “There used to be a train like this at the park,” remarks one woman, “but they got rid of it after a little girl fell off the top and died.” Jesus, I think.

“It was so sad,” she continues, wistfully. “I loved that train.”

Automobiles 

The little Chevy I rented is black. It’s so hot out that I burn my hand opening the trunk.

I return the car when I get to Salt Lake City—to save some cash, I mean, not because of my hand—and use Lyft. My first driver is from Ethiopia and works with refugees. I tell him about my job and he replies that in his past life he did something similar, as a reporter for Boeing’s corporate magazine. It was the ’80s; he wore a cologne called Editor. “You know,” he says, “to cover up the stink.” We have a good laugh about this.

My last driver is saving up to skip town. She tells me her family disowned her for leaving the Mormon Church. “You can’t escape LDS in this city,” she says. “I just want to go somewhere I can be me.”

The only thing I don’t love about where I live is sharing it, the attendant inconveniences of crowding in with millions of others who wouldn’t belong anywhere else. “Come to California,” I say anyway, and mean it. “California would love to have you.”

Cowboys

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At the rodeo:

  • Paragliders descend into the arena bearing the Utah and U.S. flags.
  • Breast cancer survivors release pink-dyed doves from a dozen plastic pet carriers.
  • A woman in a fuschia jumpsuit enters the ring on a pair of white horses, one foot on the back of each. She’s holding another American flag, this one on a pole with fireworks shooting out the top. After a few laps at a casual gallop they start jumping barrels that the rodeo clown has doused in lighter fluid and set on fire.
  • There are several rounds of mutton-busting, an event in which one deposits a small child on the back of a sheep, sets the sheep loose in an arena, and incites a thousand people to scream at it until the child falls off. On the Jumbotron the six-year-old winner is asked if he’d like to go again and replies flatly, “No.”
  • Horseback musical chairs is won by a six-foot-something man strategically mounted on a Shetland pony.
  • A woman is pulled “randomly” from the crowd to remove the rodeo clown’s pants with a bullwhip.

Everything about this is gaudy and absurd; it seems to lack any sense of irony. It’s awesome; it’s pure; I love it. It’s the most American thing I’ve ever seen.

Indians

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It’s Pioneer Day. I’m in Salt Lake City for Outdoor Retailer, which could be characterized as a convening of businesses that profit from public land. Either because of or despite this, depending on how you look at it, the trade show is leaving Utah in protest over the administration’s threats to the state’s newest national monuments, which contain indigenous religious sites, rock climbing, and uranium.

Not so far away is another convention, a pow-wow in a screened-off section of Liberty Park. Before this was public land it belonged to Brigham Young, who presumably took it from the Shoshone or the Ute. Now legally it’s mine as much as either his or theirs. There’s an argument to be made that this is more democratic. There’s an argument to be made it is unjust.

Those are the facts at hand but from all of them, and the flash and whirl of the fancy dancers, and the rise and fall of the elders’ chant, I’m unable to make any sense. There’s only a fog in my head and stomach, abstractions and static—ownership and inheritance and freedom and loss. It’s all significance and no relevance. It’s pulsing with the drums.

Laugh all you like, but until this moment it’s possible I didn’t fully grasp what other people mean when they refer to feeling. I’m not saying, exactly, that I understand an emotion only as the the animal chaos that precedes a thought. But when you live in language you have to wonder what it is, this antecedent. More honest? Less true?

Fire

I’ve only just reached the ridgeline when the storm breaks, in long, steady rolls of thunder I can feel in my ribs. A group of guys who passed me on the climb reappears going the opposite direction. “Time to go!” one shouts.

In all my outdoor pursuits I am accompanied by a continuous film reel of unwelcome scenarios. I’m going to get injured or lost; I’m going to run out of food, water, fuel, or daylight; I will encounter a mountain lion or a swarm of bees or a serial killer; I’ll break a shoelace, trespass on a pot farm, die slowly of appendicitis. There is literally one hazard I worry about less that other people, for some reason, and it’s lightning. This has always been the case, and sure enough as the steel-cast sky flares bright again I feel nothing but a mild interest in seeing more.

“Are you coming down?” The last rider has stopped and is looking over his shoulder at me.

“I’m going to wait for it to—”

BOOM

“No way. Listen, I’m a professional guide and I’m telling you to —”

B-BOOM

“Get off the mountain!”

” I think I’ll just—”

“Let’s go! You’re coming with us!”

I’m impressed by his intensity so I follow him. The fine dust of ten minutes ago has liquified to treacherous grease in the downpour. I’m going to eat shit on those tree roots, I think, and I do.

Rain

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I’m lost and pushing my bike up what the rest of the year is probably a double-black ski run. The first people I see to ask directions are a pair of retirees hiking hand in hand. In addition to their respective favorite routes back to town (he likes wildflowers, she goes for views) they have a variety of other advice for me, some items less actionable than others. Buy property, they tell me, retire early. Hike with trekking poles. Marry your best friend. Dance in the rain.

Minneapolis, 6/4–4/2

In Minneapolis the bus shelters face away from the street. This seems strange but presumably has something to do with snow, which I know nothing about. A few stops after I board the doors open to admit a half-dozen people with white canes, some of whom are having a truly inane conversation about what, hypothetically, they would like for breakfast.

“Well I don’t have any sausage today, so how about bacon?” “Bacon is fine. “I like it a little bit crunchy.” “How about grits?” This goes on for the next eight stops. I cannot determine if they’re trolling, cognitively impaired, or engaged in an entirely normal Midwestern conversation, and as I’m straining to work it out I realize I’ve been in almost this exact situation before. Perhaps I’m impaired. I don’t know.

Related: one of the blind women is very beautiful but conceivably not aware of this, an idea I find no less romantic for being unoriginal.


Wandering around by myself, per usual, I’m also having a hard time discerning bad neighborhoods from good ones, because they all have green trees and large yards. The freeways and river –rivers?— seem to be everywhere at once; there is nothing on the horizon; the U of M campus, where I’m staying for a conference, is on both sides of the water and all its buildings look the same. It’s disorienting.

In the bike shop, by contrast, I have the very familiar experience of standing in silence for five minutes before any of the four men at the counter acknowledge my existence—a rental rite long since passed from a source of irritation into a sort of anthropological study. When I am eventually allowed to leave with a bicycle I ride it to Theodore Wirth, which is what Golden Gate Park could be if San Francisco wasn’t. The trails are a little contrived and the locals are taking it too seriously, but nonetheless it’s a hell of thing to have in a city park. I ride the best trail last and then I do it again.

I’m across the street from the lightrail platform later that week when a girl gets mugged. I hear her scream and have an impression of her lying fetal on the ground with her eyes shut, a detail surely fabricated as I was too far away to see. The trio of young men who attacked her disappear up a steep lawn into the night. “We see you!” shouts a bystander, as if that matters. Back in our Cold War-era dorms the violence of the scene causes me to interpret the stains on the curtains as blood.

This is discouraging but I wander anyway, hit the parks, library, a museum, a climbing gym, my new-city stations of the cross. In the end the most dangerous thing I encounter is a grilled cheese sandwich with walnuts in it. Fuck.

On the way to the airport at the end of the week I ask the driver about his worst passengers—I always do this—and he unhesitatingly cites, “the low-income people, the diversity people.” I am literally in the middle of reading an article on “racial imposter syndrome” and make neutral noises from the backseat, trying to remember how brown I look or don’t look in my Lyft profile photo. It transpires that his actual objection is to mothers with very young children and no car seats, who scream at him when he declines, as his legal obligation, to drive without them. I wonder—but not really—why he couldn’t have just said that.

Compared to home the city seems less diverse but also less segregated. Somalis are everywhere, mothers and daughters gliding along the ground in jilbaab. I won’t pretend I don’t think of Dune and I won’t pretend not to find it unsettling; in truth to me there is something alien about any child who looks identical to its parent. But what does it matter, in the scheme of things? What is the rum luck of watching your neighborhood become Somali in comparison to the rum luck of watching your neighborhood become a war zone?

On the bus two laughing teenage girls had boarded from the back, shoving and yelling at each other in Somali. They sat behind an old man in a gold kameez and gleaming crocodile wingtips, his leathery forehead wrinkled beneath an embroidered skullcap. He grimaced for a few stops, then turned and shushed them gently. After that they quieted down. They might have listened or they might just have been done shouting, who can say.