Monday, October 06, 2014

Taking the lonely way home

 Injured is a strange, somewhat hollow place to be. It's not a crisis and it's not even sad, really, but it does feel like losing a form of expression — like a painter who's been temporarily stripped of her palette of colors. I've become accustomed to expressing myself with movements through the world — I leave footprints on the trail, therefore I am alive. When I'm limited in my movements, there's a quieting in my voice. I become less of a participant and more of an observer.

After I hurt my knee, my parents assumed that I wouldn't join them for the annual trip to the Grand Canyon. I assured them that Fall Grand Canyon meant more to me than just another rim-to-rim hike — it's always been about spending time with my family, in a setting that feels more intimate and natural than the typical craziness of the holidays. So I set out for Salt Lake City on Wednesday, after rejecting reasonably priced plane tickets in favor of the long drive. Even in my own mind I couldn't quite make up justification for this, except to admit a rather ridiculous response to my injury. Like a painter holding a crude chunk of charcoal, I was curious to see what I could draw with my car.

 The goal was "no freeways" and I started sketching in Stockton, since the Bay Area is effectively a maze of freeways, and it's a little too ridiculous to try to find a way around this. The sun came up over the parched Central Valley, and I thought about an article I recently read about California communities where taps had gone dry, entire towns running out of water. On this morning there was an eerie stillness to the air that enhanced the apocalyptic progression of my daydreams. I started to feel uneasy about it all so I turned on NPR, where the news was, of course, about the tricky politics of water rights.

 Highway 88 provided a winding escape into the Sierras, where traffic dissipated almost entirely and a sudden chill pierced the air. I kept the window rolled down anyway, until my skin was pocked with goosebumps and my ears and cheeks were numb, smiling at the mountains.

 Before the 2009 Tour Divide I used to travel with a view mainly fixed forward, but now when I drive I find myself looking up, most of the time. This shift in perspective was dramatic enough that I noticed —suddenly my immediate space took on astonishing depth as the familiar foreground of storefronts and road signs faded against a dramatic background of forested slopes and jagged peaks. I'd nearly forgotten there was any point in my life when I didn't let my eyes drift upward and visualize running and climbing along the ridges that outline the sky.

 A screaming descent down the eastern slope of Sierras, followed by a short diversion through civilization via Carson City, brought me to U.S. 50 — the Loneliest Road in America.

 Ever since I traveled this way last autumn, I've wanted to ride a bike across Nevada via the Lonely Highway. With an average of only one town every hundred miles, desolate basins, a steady progression of steep passes, and not even trickles of streams from which to siphon drinking water ... it would be a difficult but beautiful tour.

 I spent an hour pondering all of the places I'd like to ride my bike when I'm strong enough to ride a bike again. Then I spent another, more anxious hour pondering how I'd cope if I couldn't ride a bike ever again. Life is, after all, unpredictable, and such abilities can be lost permanently and without warning. Even minor injuries coax contemplation on the root of passion — if passion could continue without one's chosen medium, or if it would just wither away, like cracked paint on a forgotten canvas.

 I think about buying a motorcycle and using that instead. I think I would love piloting a motorcycle, and I'd cover so much ground. But as my mind continues to wander, and I imagine crashing my motorcycle and not surviving, I don't even really care that I'm dead. I don't want to live in that world. It's not a happy thought and not even a complete one — of course I believe there's more to life than bicycling. There's more to it every day that I visit a friend or work on a book project or order the 2014 reissue of my favorite Modest Mouse album, "This is a Long Drive For Someone With Nothing to Think About." There's more to it right here, right now, amid the frozen-in-time quirkiness of Austin, Nevada. It's just that these are the kinds of thoughts that escape the filter when I'm driving the Lonely Highway.

 I listened to an NPR segment featuring an interview with Ann Druyan, who helped produce the gold record that was launched into space on Voyager in 1977. The record is the ultimate mix tape, a montage of Earth sounds, languages, music, and analog images, currently hurtling through space as a lonely but enduring record of life on this world. Druyan described the love story surrounding the creation of the record, how she became engaged to the executive director in the process, and they were married two days before she laid down to meditate and record the impulses of her brain and nervous system for eternal preservation on this record. Her husband died years ago, and it's going to be another forty thousand years before Voyager passes another planetary system. The odds that this tiny craft is ever found and decoded by some distant being in the far future are astronomical, beyond contemplation. Still, Druyan marveled at the notion that these sounds of her body in love will endure on this uranium-plated record for billions of years, long after the sun swallows Earth. As she described this, tears were rolling down my cheek, and I didn't even really know why I was crying, but it was a beautiful notion.

 Shadows grew long again. I stopped at the pullout of a dirt road to walk for a bit. I had to strap on a skin-blistering hinged brace and prop myself up with walking sticks — the joint still has that weird feeling of instability that makes me reluctant to put all of my weight on it without support. So I clickity-clacked along the flat surface and let my eyes gaze up at the distant ranges, scaling dusty slopes and sheer cliffs in my imagination.

 I crossed into Utah on U.S. Highway 6, which I remember well from a road trip when I was a junior in high school, and my friend Adam planned an intrepid Friday night adventure to the "West Desert." We swung around mountain range after mountain range until it seemed like we had reached the western edge of the world, and the sagebrush-dotted plain of the Great Basin stretched out like outer space in front of us. Rich took out a cigarette and blew hazy puffs into the air as four of us sat on the hood, watching the sun set, and my blood was coursing with so much wonder that I thought my heart might explode.

Even after thirteen and a half hours, with another day's light fading and the cold cup of coffee from Ely nearly drained, I wasn't quite ready for my trip to be over. My sister called shortly after I turned onto a small road hugging the western shoreline of Utah Lake. She told me she was coming over in a half hour, so I punched on the gas, grinning as I wheeled around the tight curves of another empty road. The lights of Provo sparkled across the indigo void of the lake, and civilization still seemed a long way away, but I knew I'd be there, soon. All things — injuries, long drives, uranium-plated gold records — must reach their conclusion, eventually. 

3 comments:

  1. It doesn't matter which paint ( running shoe's, MTB, Car or motorbike) we are using while painting
    (recording) our canvas ( life story), what matters is that we keep on painting by any means !!!!

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  2. Wow! That's covering a lot of ground, mentally.
    As one who has toured, extensively, by m/c, I can highly recommend it. It fits neatly between touring in a car, and bicycle touring. You'd have to be a little familiar with mechanical things, but not as much as you might think. Try www.advrider.com for a taste.
    I've killed the subject of bike touring so won't do that again here but, if you don't want the hassle of insurance, maintenance etc., there is no better way to see this world. If you can be lucky enough to avoid the urge to make mileage and just go where you will, all the better. U.S. 50? I don't know.....
    This was a really good read, and it's enjoyable watching your travel-jones.....evolve.
    Hope your visit goes well.

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