On the road again

Until last week, I hadn’t left the country since March of 2011. That’s something that my immediate post-college self would have been blown away and saddened by—but he would have wholeheartedly approved of my reason for breaking that international travel fast last week.

You see, 13 years and just over a month ago, I fell in love with a BMW. It was a black, manual transmission, ’99 328i, and when it arrived one day on the used car lot of the little Ford dealership in Burien where I worked, it was like a visitor from another world. It was love at first sight; after I surreptitiously checked out the keys and took it for a lunch run the next day, it was a foregone conclusion that if I ever had the financial wherewithal to own a luxury car, this would be the one—it was so quick, so responsive, its transmission was so silky smooth, that it seemed like another class of thing entirely from my trusty little Civic hatchback, the economy of which suddenly no longer seemed like the highest virtue to which a car could aspire. The 328 struck a perfect balance between respectability and adventure: it could handle the best driving roads in America without compromise, but you could also fit four people and luggage in it comfortably.

I poked around BMW’s website, visited a couple of dealerships, and quickly decided that someday, if I ever made enough money, I was going to order a brand new one and pick it up via BMW’s European Delivery program, whereby you fly to Munich, drive your new car off the factory floor, and then go gallivanting around Europe for a week or two before dropping it off to be shipped back to you in the States. Nothing truly worth doing is ever worth doing less than flat-out, as far as I’m concerned.

It was definitely a dream deferred, though—at the time, my focus was on living as simply as possible to pay off all of my college debts and save up enough money to travel all the way around the world without flying. I saw the path that led to the BMW as antithetical to my chosen way of life, such a distant possibility that it quickly came to represent the temptation to abandon my values rather than something to which I actually aspired. I gave up on ever actually owning my dream car, but the dream never went away.

My younger self and I had a lot of adventures together in the years that followed, including, when I was 29, choosing stability over freedom and settling down in Seattle once and for all, with no intention to leave this time. That was how I thought about it—my life was a binary in which I could either have freedom or stability, but never fully both. I wasn’t going to compromise one value for the other by, for example, becoming a travel writer, which on its surface would have allowed me to keep pursuing my passions long-term but in my mind would have corrupted the travel impulse by tying it to work.

My solution to the problem was to plan on going to nursing school (I had other reasons, too, some of which were more important, but this was the aspect of that decision that’s most relevant here), which I reasoned would allow me to continue living out my binary work/travel cycle, building a life where I could have both, in full measure, indefinitely. I figured nurses were so highly in demand that I could just up and quit my job whenever I wanted to travel for months at a time and not have to worry about finding another job when I got back, plus there was always travel nursing for living abroad in one place at a time for extended periods. I signed up as a volunteer at a local hospital and discovered that I enjoyed the work, so I started taking my pre-requisite classes in preparation for applying to the UW’s 2-year BSN program.

Nursing school got put on hold, though, when I got wrapped up in the McGinn for Mayor campaign back in the summer of 2009. McGinn offered me a job in his administration after he won the election; I said yes, and I’m not sure that any single decision I’ve ever made has had a larger impact on my life. The job itself was great, but unbeknownst to me at the time, its greatest gift was the incredible network that it left me with after the administration ended and I found myself in need of a new mechanism through which to exchange my time for money.

The decision to become a real estate agent was something the undeniable rightness of which I recognized immediately as soon as the idea popped into my head. Working on commission was a deep part of my soul that hadn’t been fed in over a decade; I was ready to be my own boss; I liked the idea of being able to pay off the mortgage on my co-op apartment so that I’d be free to pursue the things I was most passionate about without being limited by money; and I figured that I knew enough people in Seattle that at least a couple of them would be willing to trust me enough to help them buy a house.

So I jumped in, not knowing what to expect and fully intending not to make my first sale for 12 months, which was one of the possibilities I’d been warned about. As far as I was concerned, if I could make my modest Mayor’s Office salary by the end of year two I’d be doing great, and if I really played my cards right I might reach a point in 5 years where referral traffic was keeping me in business without my having to go out and beat the pavement to find new clients.

To say that things went better than I could have possibly imagined would be an understatement. I got my license in August of last year and reached out to everyone I knew to let them know I was in the business in mid-September. People I knew started reaching out directly wanting to work with me; by October it was already a more than full-time job, and by December I had sold three houses already. Last Christmas I dared to dust off my old dream just enough to keep me motivated: the 328 was the only big-ticket item I’ve ever wanted that money can buy, so it became my goal. Things kept going amazingly well—at this point I’ve sold 20 houses in the last 12 months, and all of my clients have either been people from my existing network or direct referrals. My real estate career is already at the point I thought it would take me 5 years to reach, for which I feel incredibly fortunate.

This past Spring was the busiest period in my professional life to date. At some point in May, at the height of real estate’s silly season for the year, I decided that I was ready to place the order for the BMW. A few days later I was getting dinner with a good friend, and she told me about a bucket list item of her own in the Czech Republic that already had a date attached: October 15th. It was another decision that made itself—I suggested that we combine our trips, she thought it was a great idea…and just like that, taking European Delivery on a new BMW went from an abstract concept to something with a specific orientation in time and space.

On the road again

I went into BMW of Seattle, put the order together, and set a firm pickup date: October 12th, 2015. It still didn’t seem entirely real to me, though, right up until the moment this past Monday that I found myself in the BMW flagship showroom in Munich standing in front of the most beautiful car I’d ever seen, operating on four hours of sleep due to a combination of residual jet lag and childlike Christmas-day-style anticipation and separated by my hotel for the night by hundreds of miles of Autobahn and twisty driving roads leading up and over the Austrian Alps.

The car has become a symbol for me of the Hegelian synthesis of freedom and stability that is my life in Seattle right now. I used to write in my journals about my “travel impulse,” that gnawing hunger in my belly that cared less about the destination than it did about the constant meditative motion of the open road. I thought about it alternately as a subtle self-doubt, driving me on to prove that I was capable of existing totally on my own without reference to the support network that I’d had from birth to 22; an obsession with filling my life with as many new experiences as I could; and a desire to front-load my retirement while I was still young enough to fully enjoy it, a non-monetary form of compound experiential interest that’s still bearing fruit in my life to this day. As soon as that hunger went away, I thought, as soon as my appetite changed to things that were more easily accessible and that tied me to one place (a mortgage, a wife & kids), the next phase of my life would begin, with stability as the guiding principle instead of travel.

My life since the Mayor’s Office has shown me the middle path instead, a perfect balance between freedom and stability that’s driven by the essence of my travel impulse, curiosity and joyful exploration and play, but in the context of a loving, supportive community who enable me to be true to the deepest parts of myself in a way that the freedom of the open road never could. Being able to share this trip with a good friend has been wonderful, and I’m in the midst of organizing a month-long cross-country progressive road trip with different groups of friends to help me get the car to Seattle from BMW’s Performance Delivery Center in South Carolina, where I’ll be picking it up in early January (we just dropped the car off with the shipping company in Vienna earlier this afternoon, and I miss it already).

Real estate has really helped in making this lifestyle possible, not only monetarily but also by interweaving my personal life and my work life in a way that honestly doesn’t even feel like work most days. My friends have been just as important in more ways than I could list here, one of which has been helping me see that stability and stagnation are two very different things, and that it’s very possible to have the former without the latter. My life in Seattle right now feels perfectly balanced, with my need for freedom and my need for stability each helping to sustain and nurture the other.

And that’s ultimately what the BMW represents to me: the joining of what I’d previously thought of as two disparate life goals into one unified and seamless whole, just as uncompromisingly in its element on the best driving roads in California as it is on a quick trip to the store to get groceries with a couple of nieces or nephews in tow. It’s the perfect symbol for this time in my life—and I’m looking forward immensely to getting it back to Seattle in January with a little help from my friends.

Seattle to Jackson the Long Way

Seattle to Jackson the Long Way 3

This time yesterday morning found me on a densely forested trail in southeastern Wyoming, locking eyes with a mother moose out foraging with her baby about 50 yards away from me and armed only with a good pair of running shoes and a healthy sense of wonder. It was the beginning of the last day of a 7-day road trip over the course of which a good friend from Seattle moved to Jackson for a new job via New Mexico with me and another good friend for company. This was to be our last run together for a long time, and it was off to a great start. We’d caught a glimpse of the two moose through the trees towards the beginning of our run, and over the course of 15 minutes or so we’d tracked them here, to the other side of a clearing, ready to cut and run for cover at a moment’s notice if things went south. But things didn’t go south. We sat there with them for what was probably only a minute or two (although it felt much longer), relatively small animals silently observing and being observed by a much larger one, and then they went their way and we went ours, out to Turtle Rock and the best scrambling I’ve ever done before completing the loop trail back to our campsite at Vedauwoo, packing up the car, and heading for the tiny Jackson Hole Airport so I could catch my flight back here to Seattle.

I’ve done a lot of road trips in my life—the solo west-coast-bound road trip was an art form that I perfected in college, and all told I’ve logged well over 300,000 miles on the Interstates and highways of the lower 48, including 15,000 miles steering an S2000 around all the best driving roads in America—but the one that just ended, Seattle to Jackson the Long Way as I’ve taken to calling it, is tied with 2005’s seminal The Outer Loop for the best road trip I’ve ever taken. First and foremost it served as the liminal space between my friend’s time in Seattle and his time in Jackson, built around a tour of some of the most important wild places of his youth; but the trip also represented a merging of the road trip tradition of my early adulthood with the backpacking and trail running traditions that have become increasingly important parts of the way that I experience the world more recently, thanks largely to the same friend who just moved to Jackson. It was an honor to be able to share that whole experience with my two traveling companions, and to get to spend so much quality time with both of them.

And it was a fantastic trip. We covered more than 2500 miles over the course of 7 days; we car camped every night except one; we ran high-altitude trails in the mornings and climbed the tallest peak in New Mexico; we had long, multi-state discussions about religion and politics and love and money and all of the other important things in life; in addition to moose we saw or heard elk and deer and owls and hawks and eagles and marmots and coyotes and perhaps even a mountain lion; and it all happened in the American West, rolling hills and huge forests and wide open plains and long, winding rivers and epic mountain ranges that were alternately our backdrops and our playgrounds. It felt like joining my experience of Seattle to my experience of the rest of the country, connecting them physically in a way that they hadn’t been connected before, and mixing in my friends’ experiences of the same places to create a richer, deeper understanding not only of the two of them but also of the physical geography of our shared country.

The experience of seeing different places through the eyes of these specific friends, both of whom are not only seekers in the true sense of the word and important people in my life but also at different life stages from me, was very powerful. The fact that I’m much more attuned to the natural world and my relationship to it now than I have been at any other point in my life also meant that this trip was much more about communion than escape, which if I’m being honest was probably the most common theme of the travels of my college years.

Communion means different things in different contexts, but I use it here to incorporate elements of community, personal growth, meaning, and adventure and exploration, the sum of which is the same kind of interface with the divine that a lot of people find in a formal place of worship. That definition was perfectly expressed in the entirety of the run yesterday, which was a microcosm of the trip as a whole. When I finally said good-bye at the tiny little Jackson Hole Airport at the end of the day, in the shadow of the Teton Range at the end of a particularly scenic day, it served not only as the official end to my summer of 2014 but also as a send-off to a friend I’m really going to miss. I can’t imagine any better way to have said good-bye.

Southern food & supercars

Southern food and supercars 3

The Ferrari & Maserati dealership on Capitol Hill has been an oblique part of my community the entire time that I’ve lived in Seattle: always there in the background but entirely out of reach, something I interact with only through longing glances and idle daydreams. I’d wanted to make the experience that they sell a concrete part of my world for a long time—“drive a Ferrari” seems like too pedestrian a term to really do the concept justice—but supercars, as $200,000-plus exotic sports cars are known, are generally inaccessible to anyone but the ultra-wealthy. I’ve owned an S2000, which is among the best real-world driving cars ever built, but Ferraris and Lamborghinis specifically had always been my Platonic conception of automotive perfection. They functioned, for me, as little more than blank canvasses on which to paint all of my hopes and desires about what an automobile could be. In my dreams I’ve tricked salesmen in that little showroom into letting me go on test drives and then proceeded to lead police on beautiful cross-country manhunts into Mexico and beyond, but in the real world I’d only stopped to stare as they passed me on the street or admired them through the glass windows of a showroom…until this past Saturday.

The trend of drawing comparisons between supercars and supermodels is wildly off-base for a number of reasons, but one thing it does speak to is the fetishization of an unrealistic version of perfection and happiness. “If only I had a supermodel girlfriend/wife and a couple of supercars, then I’d be really happy” is the hyperbolic form of a consistent message that’s delivered to little boys starting at a very young age—my favorite Hot Wheels car when I was in third grade was a little yellow Lamborghini with working gull-wing doors, and I don’t think I have to convince anyone of the unrealistic body standards that dominate depictions of women in global media. I set up my life in opposition to perfection and exoticism immediately after college, which for me has meant experiencing as much as possible of the world around me for myself and learning to see things for what they really are rather than for what I want them to be. My relationships to women have improved dramatically since my younger days, but I’d never really stopped carrying around that little yellow Lamborghini inside my head and waiting for the opportunity to experience the real thing for myself.

I’m not alone in my fanatic “brand identification,” as a marketer would put it, and there’s a whole cottage industry that’s sprung up around slaking the desire to experience the pinnacle of automotive perfection for oneself. My point of entry was a LivingSocial deal that popped up a few months back, offering three autocross laps in a Ferrari or a Lamborghini—your choice—for just $150. I jumped on it immediately, not because I wanted to take the exoticism off of the experience but because I hadn’t yet realized my own lack of self-awareness around the issue. Should I have known going in that the experience was bound to disappoint me? Should I have seen it for what it really was instead of for what I wanted it to be? Probably—but hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.

Tacoma, in addition to being the location of the apartment I lived in for the first 7 months that I lived in the northwest, is home to Southern Kitchen, a little hole in the wall that serves the best southern food I’ve found in this part of the world. It’s one of my favorite restaurants, but it also functions as a kind of liminal space—between the cultural traditions of my old life in Texas and my new life in Seattle, between the two locuses of my personal history in the Pacific Northwest, and, since going there for breakfast has generally become a birthday tradition since I moved back to Seattle in 2009, between one year of my life and the next. I stopped there Saturday morning en route to the peninsula for catfish with fried okra, collard greens, sweet tea, and a corn cake to start my day off right—solely because of the food, if I’m being honest, but in hindsight I like to think of it as an ontological checkpoint on my way to debunking one of the Platonic forms that I’ve lived with since I was a kid.

That debunking happened in Shelton, Washington, at the southeastern part of the Olympic Peninsula in a huge parking lot on a small airfield that seemed to be used primarily as a base for several skydiving operations, one of which was practicing jumps while I was there. I showed up not really knowing what to expect but excited at the idea of F1-style paddle shifting, 500+ horsepower and ungodly amounts of torque, the most precise handling and most responsive brakes imaginable, seats that would conform perfectly to my body, cockpit ergonomics that would feel like an extension of my soul…a holistic experience, in other words, that would perfectly match the dazzling visuals, impressive powertrain stats, and astronomical price tags that were heretofore my only window into this world.

I wasn’t alone, either. The faithful had come from all over the region, including one family I met who had driven up from southern Oregon just for the occasion and another guy who owned a vintage Dodge Viper but still couldn’t resist the call—tales were swapped of the best on-track driving experiences in the country (the  Richard Petty Driving Experience in Orlando and the Poconos Raceway in Pennsylvania both got high marks), we were upsold extra laps and ride-alongs with professional drivers as we were waiting in line with our helmets on and our adrenaline starting to kick in, and permeating it all was the sound of 560 horsepower in second gear accelerating down straightaways and swerving around turns. Lamborghinis became “Lambos,” a steady procession of skydivers circling down into the field beyond the track served as an interesting backdrop to the main action, and the GoPro on the right side of my helmet pulled my head ever so slightly to the right as I stood under a canopy waiting my turn and not even trying to wipe the smile from my face.

The rules were simple: three laps around a makeshift track made out of plastic traffic cones in the car of your choice, with a professional driver in the passenger seat. When I checked in they offered me an extra three laps for half what my Living Social deal had cost me (which itself was 70% off the general rate), so being an easy mark I went for it, and got to drive the course first in a Ferrari, then in a Lamborghini…and then, when the video from the Ferrari didn’t come through, once more in another Ferrari :)

It was surprising to me how spartan the interiors of both cars were—much more S2000 than Model S, which I suppose makes sense given the focus on performance over creature comforts—but my heart was beating so fast when I sank into the driver’s seat that I really didn’t notice much aside from the steering wheel and the pedals. That first time around in the Ferrari was fantastic, mostly for the sheer amount of power that I suddenly had at my command; it’s really too bad that was the video that didn’t take (I’ve embedded the Lamborghini video below, but it was already old hat by then). The most interesting thing about the whole experience, though, and something that I never stopped to even consider as a possibility until I was right in the middle of it, was that it wouldn’t live up to my outrageously high expectations. When all was said and done I couldn’t help but think that for all practical intents and purposes there wasn’t all that much to separate my little S2000, which I bought for $14,000 when it was 7 years old, from one of these $200,000 lifestyle accessories.

Was it fun? Absolutely. But more importantly, driving 9 laps in a couple of Ferraris and a Lamborghini served to de-exoticize exotic cars for me, something that will be much more valuable in the long run. In the same way that I discovered a while ago that I’m more holistically attracted to a lot of different types of women than I am to supermodels and others who fit the general cultural norms of physical “perfection,” last Saturday I was forced to accept that in the great wide world of cars there’s no such thing as perfection, just different types of cars for different types of people…and I’m not really a supercar kind of guy.

After my last lap I returned my helmet, checked in my GoPro, and smiled as I got back in the driver’s seat of my little Fit, happy to be back home where I belonged. If I had to guess, I don’t think I’ll be dreaming about driving Ferraris to Mexico again anytime soon.

3 nights and 2 days in New York

NYC boat

New York City was one of my go-to travel destinations in college—a lot of the spare money from my various on-campus jobs either went towards road trips across America or weekends and breaks in The City (and occasionally both simultaneously). My first visit, in the winter of 2002, occurred on a Campus Crusade for Christ trip while I was still wrestling with my religion in college. We stayed at a big compound together out in Queens and talked to students at one of the CUNY schools about Jesus during the days (including a great conversation with some Jewish kids about my age that made me start to re-think some of my fundamental assumptions about my own faith), I decided pretty decisively that evangelism wasn’t for me (I’d signed up for the trip largely because it was a chance to see New York with people that I liked, but I was never sold on the cheesy little pamphlets or the numeric goal of “number of people who accepted Jesus into their hearts today” by which the group leaders measured our efforts), a group of us got onto the opening segment of The Today Show by painting the name of our school on our chests using blue finger paint, one letter apiece, and standing outside in the freezing cold at 6 am…and I fell madly in love with Manhattan the first time we took the subway in from the boroughs.

The subway itself was the lens through which I first understood the world above the street. The sight of everyone crowded together on trains that were dingy and worn but also well-used and functional and egalitarian—homeless guys trying to get some sleep sitting right next to older women in fur coats carrying bags from upscale department stores—was like a revelation, and when you combined it with the secret underground world of subway lines, train schedules, and locals vs. tourists, with its own endemic rules of etiquette and style, the metro came to represent New York in microcosm for me, grown from the same DNA as everything going on up above but more contained, so that when we emerged into the night somewhere on the lower east side I already felt a certain kinship to the streetscape and pedestrians and sidewalk vendors and huge buildings…but it was still overwhelming, and I kept going back again and again, until it started to feel like one version of home, primarily because there was always more to see, more to experience, and more to process.

I’ve probably spent a couple of months of my life in New York if you add it all up, almost all before I graduated from college. After that first experience I started looking for excuses to get away, watching for the best ticket price or flying out last-minute using AirTran’s short-lived standby fares; I went even when I couldn’t really afford it, wandering the city eating from street vendors and staying at hostels (or, once, sleeping at Penn Station and staying up all night on the subway when I ran out of money mid-trip); I stayed with my college girlfriend for a week or two one summer while she was working at a music licensing company in midtown; I was sandwiched in the middle of Times Square with a bunch of friends for Y2K; when 9/11 happened I was on a study abroad trip in Asia, and a few of us from the program did a road trip up the coast when we got back as a way of processing it from an American perspective; I flew up to see the Tribute in Light the month before I graduated…and then, after I walked across the stage and decided to move out west to pay off my loans and save up for travel and create a life that was more fully my own, my focus shifted and I stopped visiting and started to forget the subway lines and the route the M60 takes into the city from LaGuardia and a lot of the other day-to-day details, but the city itself was still burned into my muscle memory, waiting patiently for me to return.

And I did plan to return—to stay for a year, in fact, so that I could absorb the feeling of living day-to-day in a world of constant overstimulation and enjoy everything that the greatest city in America has to offer and then plunge directly into the ice bath of Anchorage in the winter, a nondescript town in the middle of the last American frontier for another year of my life…but aside from a few quick in & out trips in 2005, 2006, and 2011 I hadn’t really been back to New York until this past weekend, just a week after I finally made it out to Alaska for the first time.

The reason for my trip was simple—a good friend from high school who lives there now invited me up for a last-minute trip after he saw my posts about Alaska on Facebook, and I wanted to go and couldn’t think of any logical argument against it, so I bought a ticket. I’m really glad I did; it was a fantastic visit, and while there’s a lot that I could focus on, yesterday was really the coup de grace. We christened it “America Day,” largely tongue-in-cheek, and put together an agenda to back it up: great New York bagels in the morning from Murray’s, a trip out to visit the Statue of Liberty (which neither of us had ever been to), a walk up to the Freedom Tower construction site with a quick stop by Zuccotti Park followed by reubens at Katz’s Deli, watching the Seahawks vs. 49ers NFC championship game at a Seahawks bar (The Central Bar, in case you’re curious) with a friend from Seattle who made the move recently, and, following a craving for some good old-fashioned eastern European comfort food, late-night kielbasa and goulash at Veselka.

There were a lot of high points in the weekend, and it was really wonderful to be back in New York, but the game is probably what lends itself best to a blog post, especially in light of the social media/blogosphere eruption about Richard Sherman’s 15-second post-game interview (see here for the clip, and here and here for my favorite pieces on it so far—the second one’s by Sherman himself). Let me preface this by saying that I’m about as fair-weather a fan as they come—I was really into my high school football team growing up, but I’ve lived in Seattle for a combined total of over 6 years and never had even an inkling of a desire to go to or watch a Seahawks game until this one.

NYC flag

I went out of my way to watch this one, though—at a bar in the East Village packed with fellow Seattleites—because it was an important moment in our shared history as a city, an event with just two possible outcomes that would either leave a scar if we lost or still be talked about 50 years from now if we won, but one way or another would be something with a character and an immediacy and an interior life and a temporary sense of shared community that I wouldn’t be able to approach through Twitter or watching highlights afterwards…and I have to say, it didn’t disappoint, as a football game or a life experience. They were showing it on a ten-foot screen on the packed second floor of the bar, and for the 3 ½ hours or so that the game lasted, everyone in that bar was joined at a basic emotional level, hanging on every play right down to the last one, the legitimately historic end-zone interception that spawned the clickbait Sherman-vs-Crabtree rivalry on which probably 90% of the post-game coverage has focused. During the commercial breaks after Seattle started turning things around in the third quarter the DJ would kill the sound and blast Macklemore and Nirvana and other hometown artists to get us even more fired up than we already were, and as soon as Sherman’s fingers touched the ball and it became clear that the Seahawks were going to the Superbowl, the entire place went crazy and didn’t go back. Outside of election nights I’ve never been on the giving or receiving end of so many bear hugs with strangers; a few of the really hardcore fans jumped up on the bar and started pouring free shots directly into people’s mouths a la one version of what my life could have been like 15 years ago, and before you knew it the whole floor transitioned seamlessly into a massive dance party. It was the kind of flashbulb moment in history that should be shared, and I was glad I’d managed to thread the needle and share it with one of my closest friends, Seattleites in the room and around the world, and New York City itself all at the same time.

Once the crowd started thinning out we headed downstairs. I hadn’t eaten since Katz’s—6 or 7 hours ago, at that point—and I got it into my head that I wanted to eat at a Hungarian diner for my last good late-night meal in New York for awhile, so I pulled out Yelp, searched for “Hungarian diner,” and was pleasantly surprised to find a great 24-hour Ukranian spot (close enough, for my unrefined eastern European palette) called Veselka a block away from the bar. As we walked over, still a little drunk both in the traditional sense and from the energy of the game, it occurred to me that our day really had encompassed everything good about New York—and America itself, even if calling it “America Day” had been intended to be ironic: we’d started out at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, the first representative of the philosophical core of the American experiment and the second of the Americans who helped it succeed and continue to the modern day; that was followed by Katz’s Deli, home of the greatest reuben on earth (and some pretty great latkes, too); we participated in a temporary piece of performance art in the medium of community at the sports bar, a group of very different people coming together to focus on what they have in common instead of what separates them; and then we reached out into the grid and conjured up out of thin air a culinary experience that doesn’t exist in most parts of the world, the original form of just-in-time delivery.

It’s great to see that you’ve still got it, New York :) Until we meet again…

36 Hours in Fairbanks: An Aurora Borealis travelogue

The Mount Aurora Lodge at sunrise on the last day

The Mount Aurora Lodge at sunrise on the last day

Part I: Coronal Mass Ejection

Coronal Mass Ejection

Thursday, January 9th, 2014, 9:52 pm; Alaska Airlines flight 129, somewhere over Canada

I saw the Northern Lights once, for 5 or 10 minutes, in May of 2005 on the road into Happy Valley-Goose Bay in Labrador. That fleeting experience came at the end of 800km of a road made mostly of loose rocks that passed through some of the most beautiful and otherworldly surroundings I’ve ever experienced: pristine lakes and huge old-growth forests on every side; mining communities in the middle of the tundra; a huge forest fire that turned the sky orange for two days; an ore-red lake just outside Labrador City; and a modern-day company town called Churchill Falls where the employees lived in row houses with their families but everything else, school and stores and library and gym and restaurants and hotel and all, were contained within a single dystopian-looking concrete box in the center of town, like a sci-fi experiment gone awry or the final bastion from which the last straggling remnants of the human race might someday be called upon to make their stand against the unrelenting hordes of the zombie apocalypse, hoping against hope to survive the winter.

And at the end of all this was a little town, the furthest point to which you can drive on a road in North America and the first place I ever ate poutine; and it was briefly joined in the upper atmosphere my first night, while I was driving around looking for a place to pitch my bivy, by a shimmering green curtain of light dancing above the treetops, otherworldly in the truest sense, the visible projection of a secret unseen world of solar wind and radiation and space weather, the very appellation calling to mind comic-book images of lonely astronauts sailing the vast reaches between the planets on favorable tides, and I spent 2 more nights in the area—car camping off remote logging roads in the wilderness in the hills around the town and worrying about bears, watching from my bivy sack as the sun dipped slightly below the horizon sometime after midnight before beginning its ascent a few hours later, and enjoying the skyful of stars that came out when the weather and the lack of sun collaborated—without glimpsing any more cracks in the curtain between this world and the other.

The experience has stayed with me, though, and it holds a special place in my heart, combining as it does the African-game-park-style thrill of the hunt—in which victory is the capture of a rare experience, a thing that most people will never see and you will only if you have enough luck, which is what happens when opportunity meets preparation, and preparation in this case means a lack of guarantees, a throwing yourself into the unknown and accepting that you can’t get back what you put in, a form of one-way existential gambling—with the deep sense of inner peace and connectedness that a clear night sky has always inspired in me, going back to my childhood in rural Texas and the nights I used to spend lying on my back on my parents’ driveway staring up at the stars with the family cat curled up asleep on my chest and purring contently.

I trot it out in conversation from time to time, as I do with so many of the experiential trophies of my youth, and last week when I brought it out in a conversation with a friend she told me that this year marks the peak of an 11-year cycle for the aurora borealis. That fact was like a spark dropped onto the dry kindling of my post-election [f]unemployment—the spark became a flame, the flame began to spread, and since this isn’t 2005 anymore I checked the space weather forecasts and looked at average temperatures and number of clear days out of the year and ticket prices and frequent flier availability and hotel prices, and I signed up for text message alerts and a mailing list as the idea of a trip became a constant background process, and at first I thought that I would time it around whatever worked best for my schedule…but nature had other plans for me, and besides, that was before I learned the term Coronal Mass Ejection (CME).

Two days ago, on Tuesday, January 7th, the sun shot out an X1-class solar flare (which sounds impressive, even if I have no idea what “X1-class” signifies) while it was facing Earth head-on, something that apparently happens only very rarely. That night was also a great night for the aurora—coincidentally, as it turns out, but being a Google-educated aurora-watcher with only a couple of hours’ worth of education I conflated the two based on circumstantial evidence—and after reading all the forecasts and looking at all of the data that I could make sense of, I concluded that I’d missed what was likely to be my best bet at seeing the aurora through the end of the month. Then a delightful little email popped into my inbox telling me that the good stuff from the solar flare Tuesday night wouldn’t reach the Earth until tonight (what had actually happened on the 7th was that an earlier Coronal Mass Ejection, which had been forecast in advance, had hit the earth’s ionosphere that morning), and that the effects would probably last for 2-3 nights. The aurora forecast for the area just south of the Arctic circle tonight and tomorrow flipped from “quiet” to “extreme”, which was more than enough provocation for me—in spite of weather reports that showed cloudy to partly cloudy conditions in Fairbanks, I booked a ticket leaving two hours ago and returning via Anchorage on Saturday, two days from now.

Today at 12:43 pm I got a text message from the Alaskan aurora-watcher SMS service I signed up for yesterday with the frankly pretty awesome pronouncement “A CME has just hit Earth’s magnetic field.  Check spaceweather.com for details,” which erased any doubts I might have had about the trip and put me on an adrenaline high that I’m still riding.

I have no idea what I’ll find waiting for me at the Mount Aurora Lodge later tonight and tomorrow, or whether we’ll end up flying through the lights on our way in like the couple from Fairbanks a few rows ahead of me did on their flight into Seattle and like I would give almost anything to experience myself…but I’m really looking forward to finding out :) Stay tuned for further updates…

 

Part II: Aurora Hunters

Aurora Hunters

January 10th, 2014, 6:03 pm; Mount Aurora Lodge, in the hills above Fairbanks

My immediate post-college life plans were nice and crisp and well-defined—things like “start over from scratch somewhere I don’t know anyone,” “travel around the world without flying,” and “live in New York City for a year, then live in Anchorage for a year,” the last of which I never got around to because, when push came to shove, in Seattle I found one of the best possible combinations of urban (New York) and rural (everything around Anchorage) of any city I’ve ever been to. While I’ve spent plenty of time in New York over the course of my life, though, I had never been to Alaska until the plane touched down on a runway covered in packed snow last night at Fairbanks International. I’d always told myself that I’d never go until I could take the time off to drive here myself, but the lure of the aurora was stronger than my resolve in the end.

I’m not the only one—the Alaska Geophysical Institute’s aurora forecast website has been down or reduced to limited functionality since yesterday afternoon due to the high volume of traffic from people eager to take advantage of a great viewing window, and a lot of the lodges around town are full of out-of-towners like me hoping to catch a glimpse of the lights. I was lucky to find a room at the Mount Aurora Lodge, a truly wonderful little spot 20 miles outside of Fairbanks that’s part upscale hostel and part bed & breakfast and that I would heartily recommend to any of you who are considering making a trip to the area; the owners are wonderful, the food’s fantastic, the views from the property are amazing, and the fire is nice and warm. When I arrived last night around 11 pm I couldn’t get ahold of the long-distance cab company that services the airport; when I called Laurie at the lodge to get her recommendation on another cab company she said that her husband Jeff would just come pick me up, and I ended up having a great 30-minute conversation with him on the drive up here.

First, though, Alaska. I’m glad I’m getting to see it in the wintertime, because it’s been a great opportunity for me to de-exoticize the far polar north: it was -2 Fahrenheit when we arrived yesterday and colder than that today (it’s supposed to get down to -17 tonight); the runway and all of the non-arterial roads in town were covered in a layer of packed snow; the sun barely came up around 10:30 this morning and started heading back down around 2 pm…I’ve hit a lot of the meteorological phenomena that have always fascinated me about this part of the world, and that’s before a totally clear night tonight in the coldest temperatures I’ve ever experienced with a strong possibility of seeing what I came here to see, in addition to a sky full of stars. I now know what winter in the far north feels like— the feeling of a full breath of subzero air in my lungs; losing sensation in my fingers from taking my gloves off to snap pictures outside, and my phone dying after being exposed to the air for about 30 seconds; free-falling backwards into a snowdrift wearing full snowboarding gear and coming to rest naturally, like sitting in a recliner made of snow; hiking up through waist-high drifts to the top of a ridge and marveling at the frozen landscape in all directions; and tracking the aurora with a group of like-minded allies, joined together by the kind of fleeting but rock-solid bond that’s forged in the furnaces of lodges like this.

My fellow guests all men (names changed to protect the innocent)—Jacob, from Portland, and John, from Melbourne, two friends who met up in Fairbanks on Monday to see the lights and brought the menfolk from each of their families with them, both of their dads plus John’s brother Mike. We’re all heading back to Fairbanks tomorrow, so there’s a shared sense of urgency around what happens in space tonight; we talked a bit last night when I arrived (the CME missed the North American night—although it was apparently amazing in Norway—so I didn’t see anything from the plane, and it was totally overcast last night until 3 am, so most of the guys went to bed by 1 or 2), bonded over breakfast this morning, and then took off and spent a good portion of the day playing in the snow, throwing a frisbee around in the frozen parking lot and then hiking up to the top of a nearby ridge for a good view of the area. We’ve been warming up back at the lodge since then; the plan is for dinner around 9:00, followed by snowmobiling back to the top of the ridge and setting up camp until 2 am or so to see what we can see (or possibly hanging out here at the lodge if the colder-than-any-of-us-have-ever-experienced weather turns out to be too much).

They’re an interesting bunch of guys—John went to college with Julian Assange and is now working on a PhD in Germany; James helps his dad, who’s a physicist by trade, run a walnut and truffle farm in southern Australia; Jacob’s dad is a community organizer and an epidemiologist who makes the combination seem as natural as can be—they’re both about ensuring the long-term health and viability of communities, after all—and it’s clear that he’s raised Jacob with a similar set of values, in addition to being prone to making great statements like “sulfur once saved me from dying of malnutrition in the Bolivian rainforest.” It’s been a lot of fun spending the day with them, and I’m looking forward to heading back up to the ridge before too much longer—the sky is clear, the space weather forecast looks promising…even without seeing the northern lights, I think it’s going to be a great night.

 

Part III: The Lights from the Ridge

The Lights from the Ridge 2 small

January 11th, 2014, 4:35 pm; Anchorage International Airport, en route to Seattle

We saw the aurora last night. It was just before 2 am, we were in the common area of the lodge reading and getting up occasionally to go up to the second floor and look out the north-facing window, and most of the guys had already given up on seeing anything. Jacob’s dad Steve [all names changed except the proprietors] suggested one last walk up to the top of Blueberry Hill, as Jeff and Laurie had christened it, a little ridge with a 360 degree view of the area about half a mile from the lodge that we’d trekked out to earlier in the evening for an amazing view of the stars (I took a snowmobile ride up with Laurie, spent 30 minutes or so alone with the stars, the wind, and the snow, and then snowshoed back with everyone else after they walked up). It was around -15 Fahrenheit outside, and with a pretty stiff wind on top of that, but I’d been contemplating one last ridge walk myself to cap off the trip, so I suited up and joined Steve while everyone else decided to stay put. He headed out while I was still bundling up—there was a bright half moon out in a totally clear sky, so the reflection of the moonlight off the snow meant that visibility was great and he was easy to follow—and when I caught up to him at the beginning of the little path that led to the top of the hill he was standing still, looking back in the direction of the lodge. He said he thought he could see the beginnings of a display; I wasn’t sure, but I knew the view would be better from the top regardless, so I suggested that we keep going…and by the time we got to the top of the ridgeline it was clear what we were looking at.

The northern lights are a phenomenon that you experience differently with your eyes vs. with a camera. With the right setup and the right photographer the images a good camera can capture win every time in terms of sheer visual beauty, according to everyone I’ve ever talked to who has experience with both, but travel experiences have never been fundamentally about pictures for me; I’ve seen plenty of pictures of the aurora, but I was in it for the experience of watching them dance across the sky again with my own two eyes. My iPhone wouldn’t have been able to capture anything except a dark landscape anyway, so instead of attempting any kind of a picture I braved the freezing winds with my bare fingers for perhaps 25 seconds to do two things, both of which seemed important to me at the time: tweet to the local Aurora notification service that they were visible in the sky, in case any fellow watchers were glued to their computer screens searching for clues like the younger guys back at the lodge had been most of the night; and post the simplest and most subtly contrarian message I could think of to Facebook, simultaneously a tiny permanent blog post, a real-time connection both to all of you and my future selves, a record of me on the mountain looking at a faint green light dancing slowly and ethereally out in the cold night air, and a commentary on my tendency, which I assume others share, to focus on the superficial goal but often miss the deeper themes and experiences that underlie it: “Mission accomplished.”

It was important to mark the occasion because it was a moment in time that I’ll think back on for the rest of my life; but it was also worth reflecting on more deeply because the lights, as nice as they were and as happy as it made me to see them—especially because of the dramatic way that it happened, only at the very end, just past the point of having given up—were only one part of the equation, and frankly not even the most important part. The phrase “the journey is the destination” is so overused these days that it’s become a cliché, but like most clichés there’s truth to it, and one of the lessons my experience last night drove home to me was that just as the open road was the best part of the unconstrained traveling days of my youth and some research has suggested that planning a vacation often gives you more happiness than actually taking one, my joy these past two days has been firmly located in the thrill of the hunt, not in the trophy I have to show for it at the end of the day—even if I wouldn’t have been there at all without the promise of the trophy hanging over the whole thing. I came to Alaska to sit with nature outdoors, on colder nights at the end of shorter days than anything I’d ever experienced, to expand the limits of my experience and try with no guarantee or reasonable expectation of success to catch a brief glimpse of a vast hidden system without which I wouldn’t exist, to see the joy and gratitude of organic life translated into something my visual cortex could understand implicitly…and  it was the anticipation—riding the wave of my attachment to suffering, to co-opt a Buddhist concept—that gave the whole thing its delicious flavor, caused me to open myself viscerally to the worlds outside of what I can see and taste and touch and smell and hear on a daily basis and made my heart rate tick up, first as I stared out the window of an airplane before it dropped below the clouds into Fairbanks airspace and again as I gazed across a vast frozen unobstructed landscape on a clear starry night standing next to a community organizer and epidemiologist my dad’s age who I didn’t know existed 26 hours earlier as we shared a moment that both of us will still be talking about until our grandkids get sick of hearing the story.

But of course the experiential trophy itself is also worthwhile, and I paid attention so that I could write about it, paint you a picture with words to attempt to capture some of what it feels like to have started idly considering something on the first Friday of the year, which is also your third day of unemployment after working at one place for four years, longer than you’ve ever done anything with the exception of going to college, and even then you had breaks over the summers; to have started looking into it on Saturday, given up on it for the near-term Tuesday morning, and seen a window Tuesday night, a possible path, and changed your mind and booked a ticket on a whim, more or less, in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, 72 hours ago from where you’re standing shivering in the early morning cold, because you wanted to see the lights, true, but also because you wanted to experience everything that came along with wanting to see the lights, the discomfort and uncertainty and pushing of personal boundaries derived from that primal longing for victory and new experiences and seeing as much of the world, broadly defined, as one lifetime will hold.

So all of that is what’s led you to this ridge, borrowed rubber snow boots buried up to the ankles in the deep drifts that you and Jacob and John were jumping into around sunset 12 hours ago, post-frisbee, from the rock ledge that’s blocking the wind for you now just like it blocked the wind for you 7 hours ago at 7 pm in the pitch black when you came back and stood and watched the starry night sky, alone for 20 minutes or so and then with everyone else, when it was still just a night sky because it was too early in the evening to see the aurora, an enjoyable break during which the present was all that was important, no fixation on a possible future event, and it was the cold creeping slowly into your body through the tips of your toes that finally made you head back for the lodge for reading and chatting and dinner, the best copper river salmon you’ve ever had with fresh homemade cheese-and-chocolate danishes for dessert, so warm that the cheese practically melted in your mouth, and then settling in and waiting, checking the various space weather forecasts from time to time with the guys and reading Underworld and checking to see how many people liked your last post on Facebook, and because your toes were what betrayed you last time you swapped out your trusty Eccos for these white boots that belong to the lodge for the final ascent, because John recommended them highly, and they work; your feet are nice and warm, and so is the rest of you, wearing as many layers as you could fit into your trusty old Timbuk2, and it made you happy to hear Jeff marvel at how lightly you packed.

The ridge you’re standing on is maybe a few hundred feet higher than the lodge but that makes it the highest point in the immediate area, and you get there by walking down the long driveway past the coal-fired generators that power the lodge and across the “road” that looks more like a groomed cat track, made entirely of snow that’s alternately packed and not so packed, and then up the snowmobile track that you used this time, no snowshoes necessary since you stuck to the trail, maybe half a mile all told from the warmth of the lodge and the bed that’s waiting for you at some indeterminate point in the future, and the ridge itself, the highest point on the hill, is maybe 400 feet long, completely exposed to the wind with the exception of the sheltered little area next to the rock outcropping on the east side where you’re currently standing, facing north and sheltered from the winds whipping in from the southeast. The entire landscape is spread out at your feet and covered in evergreen trees, sloping down from the high ground you and Steve are temporarily occupying on behalf of mankind: to the south is Fairbanks, even colder than where you are thanks to its inversion layer, throwing up its lights onto a small patch of the only clouds visible in the sky; to the east is the moon, illuminating the entire landscape enough that you don’t need the headlamp you have strapped to your head but casting in particularly stark relief a frozen river winding its way through a frozen river valley; to the west is the road that leads back to town; above you is a sky full of stars, somewhat inhibited by the brightness of the moon; and to the north, directly in front of you, is the hill on which the lodge sits, with the lodge and a few houses nestled on top of it…and above them in the sky is a faint green curtain of light, shifting in intensity as it sways slowly in the solar wind.

It starts out subtly, somewhere near the boundary between objectively observable reality and your mind’s ability to influence it, but after a minute or so it becomes clear that this is what you came for, a vertical slash of pale green light that a good photographer with a dSLR could coax and draw out and talk to, but all you have is your eyes, so you do what you can and meditate on the experience, the meaning of the light, both as an indicator of you getting what you wanted and as one of the invisible forces that protects us and shapes our lives regardless of whether we believe in it, and it shifts as you’re watching it, subtly, one vertical tendril becomes two, faint enough in the beginning that it could almost be a small patch of cloud that got lost somewhere in the night sky, but then it gets brighter, and a horizontal flourish fades slowly into existence, like God underlining the sky, if you believe in God, and it shifts almost imperceptibly slowly, changing intensity and shape and position for 10 or 15 minutes, the sun slow dancing with the earth, and then it fades and disappears and is gone from your world once more, your sacrifice accepted and your journey at an end.

And you and Steve wait for it for another 15 or 20 minutes, and then when his feet start getting cold you head back down the hill, go to sleep, and wake up this morning and start heading Seattle-wards, hoping to arrive in time to catch the 10:30 14/48 and wholeheartedly in love with the world.

An Ode to the Mayor’s Office

An Ode to the Mayor's Office

 

It was the last-minute In-N-Out Burger detour that pushed it over the edge, transformed the whole thing from a series of transactions progressing incrementally towards a final goal into a self-contained, pre-existing work of performance art that I arrived at by chipping away the temporal rock to uncover the experience waiting patiently at its core, letting myself be guided by some primal unseen current in the universe that might only have existed for the space of time that it took to hitchhike from Goleta to LAX or might have been waiting patiently for me to arrive since the day I was born; it’s impossible to tell.

The plan was perfect—5 days snowboarding with the family from a little cabin in Colorado, with two full days of train travel on either side, leaving Seattle the morning of the 20th  and getting back the night of the 30th, just in time to get a good night of sleep in my own bed and then come down to City Hall for one last ceremonial farewell to the Mayor’s Office. I knew I was taking a chance, that trains break down and kids put things on railroad tracks and mud occasionally slides across roads, but I liked the forced down time, the sense of separation and seeing familiar surroundings from a new perspective and having nothing to do but read and write and contemplate the interstitial space in which I’ve been floating for the last two months.

It was just past Ventura, heading up the coast, when we finally sidled up to the Pacific. This was what I’d been waiting for the entire trip, the space where the train runs by the Ocean for a few hours before it heads back inland, and it was like being reunited with an old friend, the sea from the coastal highway but without the need to keep my eyes on the road or test myself against its curves or skip the scenic viewpoints to prevent the RV from North Dakota from passing me up and erasing my hard-fought victory over it in a mountain turnout 10 miles back.

It didn’t last, of course; just past Goleta the train slowed to a stop, the power went out, and it eventually came to light that there had been some sort of serious explosion in the engine because of something on the track and that we were going to be towed back to the Goleta station to throw ourselves upon the vicissitudes of an outlying Amtrak depot on a Sunday.

At this point the trip up the coast lost its placid tone and became something else, the travel equivalent of improvised jazz, but I needed something more, a hard deadline against which to measure myself, something with the very real possibility of failure, so I checked my frequent flier mile balances, booked a flight out of LAX leaving in 4 ½ hours, grabbed the Timbuk2 bag that contained all my worldly possessions 9 years and 10 months ago when I put my thumb out for the first time in rural New Zealand, put on the successor to the original hat that protected my not-yet-bald head from the heat of the outback sun as I rode my downturned index finger all the way across Australia and then perished overboard my first night at sea on Ragtime in the middle of my first 12-4…and I started walking, connected viscerally to a part of myself that’s been long dormant and flexing unused muscles for the first time in a long time, making eye contact and smiling and projecting a sense that they were all going to stop while repeating my old familiar mantra, “all it takes is one.”

I picked up some early travel companions, four friends from the train who were renting a car from the Santa Barbara Airport and heading up the coast to San Jose that night, and I thumbed us a ride from a young Mexican guy in an old 4Runner who took us to SBA, where I tried without success to hitch from the intersection that led from the airport back to the main road while the travelers picked up the car and took a ride out to 101 with them instead as they pulled out to head for the coast.

There are all sorts of ways that I could describe what it felt like to hitchhike in this instance, but it’s probably easiest to break it down into its component elements: the feeling of being situated firmly outside the mainstream and approaching the system through its cracks, like being powerless and all-powerful simultaneously, a very specific feeling that I hadn’t had in a good long while; the time pressure a constant presence in your brain, keeping your heart rate elevated and your mind alert, and forcing yourself to close your eyes, take a deep breath, and absorb every beautiful moment of the experience as you’re having it, smiling and waving at every passing car and really meaning it as you watch the faces of the drivers going by, the momentary glimpses of people making a split-second connection with you as they drive by and smile, wave, or look straight ahead and roll up their passenger-side window at 50 mph; giving yourself until 5:00, it should take 2-3 hours depending on traffic and 7:30’s your target arrival time, that gives you an hour’s buffer to play with; and after Jason the massage therapist drops you off in downtown Santa Barbara in his old but very well-maintained Chrysler at 4:30 and the seventh Mercedes SUV drives by the highway onramp without looking you start calling the shuttle companies, one step away from admitting defeat, wondering if perhaps you should have just paid the shuttle at the airport the $108 out the door and taken an air-conditioned ride all the way in with three hours to spare,  it’s a holy number after all, but it’s a moot point because the shuttles are all leaving from the airport or they’re leaving too late to get you to the airport on time, and now it’s a choice between standing here on the side of the highway as the sun starts to carry your chances of getting a ride with it as it sinks below the horizon or calling a cab, surrendering completely and paying the $250 that every one has quoted to you, and as you’re having this conversation with yourself you see the beat-up old minivan taxi notice you and pull over, a husband and wife team rolling around looking for fares on a Sunday afternoon or maybe on their way to catch a movie downtown, and you walk up not expecting much and ask “How much to LAX?”, and Luis, as it turns out, says “$150”, and you say “Do you take credit cards?” and he smiles and nods, and you climb in, just past 4:30, and spend the next 2 ½ hours watching your life unfold like something in a smoky club down below the street, disconnected from who you are but with a rhythm and a logic all its own, and it’s beautiful. You joke and laugh with Luis and his wife, listening to them break Los Angeles drivers down by ethnicity and driving habits and talking about their kids, 20 and 22, the daughter a CNA like you were once after she couldn’t find work when she finished beautician school and Luis telling you about his recent diabetes diagnosis and his efforts to fight it by riding a couple of horses that they keep on a friend’s ranch an hour away and giving up tortillas, symbolic of everything that anyone ever enjoyed eating in the history of mankind, and when you stop an hour north of L.A. for gas his wife asks you about your family and tells you that she and Luis have both lost their mothers, too, and traffic’s light and you make good time and the city from the back of a minivan taxi, this minivan taxi, is almost overwhelming in its size but comforting somehow, you’re wrapped in familiar systems again, and it’s then that you think “In-N-Out Burger” and the oracle tells you that there’s one a mile from the terminal and you think “style points” and “can I take it with me through security” and you ask if you can stop but it’s not even a question, and the drive-through line’s around the block so they park and you jump out and wait the longest 10 minutes of your life for a double double with fries and a strawberry shake and part of you wonders if they’ll still be there when you go out but it’s a small part, and they are, and you make it through half the burger by the time you pull into Terminal 6 and Luis writes his phone number on the receipt, 805-722-7581, and you promise to call him if you ever need a taxi in Santa Barbara again at any point in the rest of your life and breeze into the airport just past 7:00 like you own the whole thing, with a grin on your face so big it almost doesn’t fit, and you finish the burger as the machine spits out your boarding pass and wolf down the fries and shed yourself of everything but your bag and the shake, which you finish and toss just as you come up to the TSA agent who’s guarding the gates like Charon guards the afterlife, and then he accepts your token and you’re through, it’s around 7:15 or so, and you’ve won, the performance has reached its climax, and you sit at the gate listening to happy music and watching the strangers dance to it as they file past and thinking about how everything’s connected, not at some mystical religious level but because we’re all made from the same basic collection of needs and wants and experiences, just arranged in different ways, and the culmination of the entire thing, the single spoonful of sumac-flavored ice slush that you have to show for it at the very end and that you’ll be able to think about and smile for the rest of your life, is a little kid, maybe 3 years old, running around with the complete joyous abandon that you outgrow somewhere around 5 or 6 probably, the kind of primal joy that exists somewhere before language and existential angst and worrying about love and money and all the rest, with his dad halfheartedly running after him, and you spend 5 minutes or so watching him and experiencing the exact same joy, direct from him to you, and then you take off your headphones and they’re calling for you to board, you’re in first class because that’s all they had, ironic somehow, and you bypass the line and sit down and it’s over, and you’re thinking in the mind’s own language still, pre-linguistic, but if you could translate it the thought might be something like “I’m one with the omnipresent joy and beauty that pervade every aspect of the visible universe,” the phrasing of which occurs to you when you wonder what you might tell a good friend who asked you how you were feeling, in this precise moment, but of course no one does, and you nod off to sleep, and then when you open your eyes you’re in friendly airspace, home.

*     *     *     *     *

Today’s my last day in the Mayor’s Office. Endings are important to me—the last job that ended on New Year’s Eve was my first job after college, precisely 10 years ago today, selling cars to finance something that started out as a daydream and slowly grew until it became a single-minded focus and then a real visceral thing roaming free upon the earth and feeling the sun on its back and the blood in its veins and then a story in which I located some essential version of myself and then eventually just 6 words, traveling around the world without flying.

When I pulled out of the parking lot of Millennium Ford on December 31st, 2003 and pointed my Civic south down the coast I slipped out of the city alone, without a going-away party, under a blanket of the only snow I’d seen in the city in my 17 months here; when I get up from my desk for the last time momentarily, put on the Timbuk2 that I’ve had for nearly 11 years now, and walk out of the office I’ll be walking into a city where my travel money—Cape Town to Jerusalem and across the Middle East and Central Asia and up through India into China and across the Trans-Siberian into St. Petersburg and Europe and then across the Atlantic on a tramp freighter or a yacht from Portugal to Brazil and down the east coast of South American and perhaps a 3-month jaunt on a Chilean naval vessel from Tierra del Fuego to Antarctica and then back up the west coast, across the Panama Canal and the Darien Gap and up through Central America and back into my ancestral homeland until the end came, as I always imagined it, a phrase I don’t use much but that still holds a lot of power, “back into Texas on a Greyhound from Mexico”—my travel money became a down payment on my apartment four years ago, inaccessible to my wandering self, my way of doubling down but without the fries and shake, and I’ll grab some drinks with co-workers most likely and then go home and put something together for the potluck at 7 followed by dancing all night with close friends, friends who from a base of one of the most painful and traumatic things that’s ever happened to me in February of this year have helped me shape and form and create quite possibly the best year of my life, and that includes 24, the culmination of my travel impulse, which was basically me free upon the earth, rootless, with no debts to my name and an almost unimaginably, at the time, huge chunk of travel cash and nothing to do with the rest of my life but spend it however I wanted…and there are many things that I’ll miss about my time in the Mayor’s Office but this is the biggest one, difficult to translate like most feelings but it’s what’s at the heart of the way that I’ve grown inseparably close to Seattle over the course of my time here and the people I met and the community that I’m now a part of and the roots I’ve let myself put down.

I’m glad I made it back in time to say a proper good-bye. The ending, after all, is the most important part…so I’ll leave you with this video of a cute little puppy.

Have fun out there :)

Southern California

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En route to the coast, with Derek (not his real name) on his way to Tacoma next to me, young guy with Vibram 5-toes, and Sam (or hers) and Mary (or hers either) having a great conversation behind us, Sam a college student at SPU with big hippie dreadlocks, an aspiring psychopharmacologist with a deep and abiding love of Portland and all its various sister cities and Mary, older, a former hippie perhaps who now lives in Vancouver, bipolar, two women from opposite sides of the generational gap carrying on as natural as can be.

Southern California reminds me of DeLillo, Mary even talking about the bomb and the test sites in Nevada and which way the wind was blowing, linking it to autism rates in Orange County, and breakfast this morning was a brisket scramble at Nick’s Cafe in the shadow of Dodger Stadium, reading Underworld of course, with the pillow stacked on top of my Timbuk2 clearly marking me as a transient and 3 cops, regulars judging by their banter with the waitress, having breakfast at the end of the counter to my right:

  • An overweight trainspotter standing at the end of the Amtrak platform recording us on a small point & shoot as we pull out of Union Station.
  • The drainage (irrigation?) canals that run through the city, one with permanent water and trees growing in it and then suddenly the next one’s a road, filled with cars instead of water or lack thereof.
  • A huge, sprawling parking lot full of cars in various stages of injury and destruction.
  • Acres and acres of greens and trees and hoop-tented shade structures stretched out like barracks in neat little rows, the fruit and vegetable basket of America.
  • Passing north of the Hollywood hills and all of their amazing driving roads, permanently haunted by certain past and future versions of myself.
  • A big Community billboard in downtown L.A. and the attendant realization that this is the part of the world where movie stars live, like local gods of the land, drawn by the sunshine and the water and the legacy of past generations who were also drawn here by the sun and the sea, feeling hot already in your long-sleeved plaid shirt from REI that you put on in Albuquerque yesterday afternoon and looking forward to the Pacific, wanting to see it from the window of a train.
  • Roughly 30 minutes now, pulling into Oxnard, and a polite young man walks through the lounge car with a neon sign that says “Free Hugs,” smiling just awkwardly enough to be endearing.
  • The cute girls with the bicycles from the platform sitting across a table from each other chatting, late 20s or early 30s, like a scene from a Tarantino movie, and the one facing you glances up, smiles at you as you walk by, unpretentious with long black hair.
  • Following 1 up 101 now, the little inland juke between Malibu and Santa Barbara, a stretch of road that’s part of your world, familiar on some level.
  • And now you’re here, staring the Pacific Ocean straight in the face, or at least as much of it as fits between here and the horizon, with Catalina Island and a handful of cargo ships silhouetted against the boundary between the sea and the sky, or perhaps they’re oil rigs, it’s hard to tell, and it’s all yours until San Luis Obispo.
  • Strangers on a train

    Note: all names have been changed to protect the innocent :) 

    When I booked an Amtrak trip out to Colorado earlier this month I did it for two reasons: at that point a 15-day rail pass was cheaper than a flight, and I liked the idea of having two full travel days on either side of the family snowboarding trip to read, write, and relax. What I forgot, or perhaps just didn’t think about, was the fact that “the train,” as it’s referred to by its residents, is as much a temporary neighborhood as it is a mode of transportation, a loose and fleeting affiliation somewhat akin to the universal bond of the smoke break but on a larger scale, and with cramped necks and backs as side effects instead of bad breath and lung cancer. This is my attempt to capture a few of my more memorable companions for the Seattle to Sacramento leg of the trip.

    My seatmate, Tom, was the first to remind me of the social nature of trains, a big, swarthy Aussie who retired a few years ago as a police officer from the little town in the suburbs of Sydney that I got dropped off at by my first hitch in Australia in 2004 (a middle-aged guy who spent the 800km or so between Surfers Paradise and Newcastle telling me all about his detailed and very creative interpretation of Christianity). He was in the last three weeks of a 3-month cross-country tour, obsessed with America and exploring the country in little months-long bursts every couple of years or so, and his current destination was a week in a little cabin in the mountains around Salt Lake City with 6 friends. We swapped travel stories and talked about America (he thought it was a great travel deal and kept going on about how cheap everything was), retirement (his pension was enough for him to get by, but he still supplemented his income with odd jobs whenever he could; America was his only real travel destination, even within Australia, and he scrimped and saved to be able to afford his trips here), gun control (he couldn’t imagine being a cop in America and having to constantly worry about everyone you interact with having a gun; in Australia they’re so tightly regulated that the police actually go into peoples’ houses and inspect each one, assault rifles and handguns are illegal…and they have around 30 gun deaths per year, vs. our 35,000), mandatory voting (the fine’s around $90-100, so it’s easier just to vote than it is to pay it; he said some people cast a “donkey ballot” by signing in at the polls and then just tearing up their ballot, but most people take it seriously), Australian sovereignty (there was a referendum that narrowly failed last year or the year before that would have formally divorced Australia from the British monarchy and changed their parliamentary system of government to a more American one; he said the next time it goes to the ballot it’ll pass, just because the royalists are dying off and not being replaced), and my memories of Newcastle, which were mostly limited to the little movie theater where I saw The Barbarian Invasions and proving to myself that the pair of Eccos that preceded the one I have now, which were less than a week old at the time and would go on to last me until the end of the 2008 campaign, really were waterproof.

    Due to limited space you’re always seated with strangers in the dining car. Lunch on that leg was with Jose, a newly liberated (he preferred that to “retired”) jack of all trades who was now free to focus on his music and his art full-time and a proud grandfather with a wide girth and an easy laugh who fondly recalled seeing Willie Mays play at Candlestick Park once. With the help of his free flight credits during a stint working the ticket counter for United Airlines he’d fallen in love first with Canada and later with one of its female citizens, who coaxed him north from San Francisco 20 years ago after his first wife died, and he was en route from Vancouver to the bay area to visit his daughter and her family when we talked. He was diabetic, so he skipped dessert, and he gave me some bachelor food tips about making food in batches and snacking on fruits and vegetables whenever possible that came either from his present or his distant past, I wasn’t sure which. We talked about food (Christmas Eve dinner in his family is a huge feast of tamales that his daughter is probably working on right now; he also had some Native American ancestry, and he got excited when I told him about Off the Rez in Seattle), baseball (the 49ers’ last game at Candlestick Park is coming up tomorrow; his daughter wouldn’t get tickets, so they’re going to gather around and watch it on TV instead), his art (a newlywed couple on a train asked him for a poem once to prove that he was really a poet, so he made one up on the spot; the way he describes his life in Vancouver sounds a lot like a little slice of the West Village in the 60’s), and the importance of doing what you’re passionate about. Our conversation began with the two of us sitting across from each other in the dining car looking at our lunch menus and ended with his getting up to take a smoke break when we stopped somewhere around Olympia; the waitress who brought us the bill recognized him as one of the route’s seasonal regulars.

    Dinner was with Kate, 37 years old (it’s interesting how many people give their ages unprompted over the course of casual conversation with someone they’re probably never going to see again), two weeks out from having quit a job working for the Olympia transit authority and giving some serious thought to what she wanted to do next with her life en route to spending the holidays with her family in southern California. She had sprung for a sleeping compartment, and she told me that this was the only time she’d ever been unemployed in her adult life but that she felt it was worth the risk. She might want to go back and get a degree from The Evergreen State College next fall, but in the meantime she’s looking forward to concentrating on studying yoga and auditing a few classes. She carried herself like someone blinking into the light for the first time in a long time, finally unburdened and not quite sure what to do with herself yet but excited to figure it out.

    Maybe 10 minutes after I sat down with Kate at her table we were joined by an anonymous 31-year-old woman, warm and maternal, who’d moved to South Korea to marry a Korean man against her family’s wishes. She was en route to Klamath Falls with her incredibly cute 6-month-old son and her grandmother, a character of an old lady wearing an amazing crushed red velvet jacket and complaining loudly about how she couldn’t figure out how to turn the volume down on the new hearing aid she’d just gotten two days earlier. They were very different, the younger woman calm and quiet and the older woman direct and kind of self-consciously inappropriate, but they worked well together, and several times over the course of dinner the grandmother made an exaggerated comedic show of checking to make sure the baby (her 25th great grandchild, his mother informed us proudly) was still breathing. The grandmother lived in a small town outside of Olympia and the granddaughter lived in Ballard before she moved to Seoul and had spent the last four days back there visiting; we talked about all the new apartments in the neighborhood and discussed the challenges inherent in accommodating urban growth.

    When I went to the lounge car (big full-length windows lined with chairs facing out, plus a few tables for those who need to do work) to do some reading after dinner I inadvertently sat down in an area that had been turned into a makeshift bar by a couple of temporary train drinking buddies who reclaimed their seats shortly after I got there. One of them left after one drink, but I had a long conversation with the other one, John, a 67-year-old Vietnam vet and recently retired plumber with a huge nose, a buzz cut, and an ARMY t-shirt with whom I’d exchanged a few words back at King Street Station about the three different lines we had to wait in before we got on the train. Vietnam was the one thing he didn’t want to talk about; he only mentioned it to point out that all the men in his family for five generations, including his son, had fought in foreign wars, and when I said “Thank you, for what it’s worth” he laughed and said “Not much.” He was headed to Oceanside, CA to pick up his massively customized Ram 3500—$30,000 worth of modifications had taken it to 650 hp and 1140 lb ft of torque—and then further south, back to the little spot nestled in the mountains on the peninsula across the bay from Ensenada where his 26’ mid-60’s Airstream was currently parked; he told me that he’s usually intentionally very antisocial but that he makes an exception when it comes to talking to strangers on trains. A lot of our conversation was spent with him giving me accumulated wisdom from his life (don’t burn bridges you might need later; raising kids is the greatest thing you’ll do with your life; it’s hard to find intelligent people to talk to, so appreciate them when you do; don’t spend your life pursuing status for its own sake; and something very abstract about string theory and the nature of reality that I forget the details of), and when I told him that I’d majored in religious studies he asked me for some “pearls of wisdom” to match the ones he’d given me; I told him to always do what you feel is right and not worry too much about what other people think you should be doing, and he thought that was good. The huge lottery jackpot from a few days ago came up at one point, and when I asked him what he’d do with all that money, his answer came right away: a bigger trailer and a more powerful truck.

    Our rest stop at Klamath Falls was the period at the end of our conversation, and when I went outside for some fresh air I ended up getting into a snowball fight with Jenny (curly brown hair and a twinkle in her eyes) and Mary (more scholarly and reserved, with short hair and hipster glasses), two girls who were sitting behind John and me but who I hadn’t talked to until then. We were standing around by the train tracks next to a huge bank of freshly fallen snow together; I remarked that it would be a perfect time for a snowball fight, Jenny flashed a mischievous smile and said “Let’s do it!”, and for the next 10 minutes or so we ran around throwing snowballs at each other without gloves like a trio of ill-prepared kids whose parents are inside watching the game before the whistle sounded and we somewhat reluctantly got back on the train, where we added Jenny’s seatmate Celeste to our little group (each of us traveling alone) and talked ourselves to the brink of sleep, like old friends having a few after-dinner drinks except without the drinks, and me sitting sideways on my seat and peering back at them over my headrest. It was a great conversation that was all over the map but included Celeste’s inadvertently having had a long conversation with Francis Ford Coppola at a party in Napa before she realized who he was; the impact on artistic passions of needing to make money from them, and whether or not it’s worth it (general consensus: no); the process of losing loved ones to cancer (Jenny and I had had similar experiences, hers 10 years ago and mine just over 6); Christianity and its discontents; Jenny’s desire to make a living by crewing on yachts (I gave her a few tips from my experience); and her secret conviction that she was in fact on her way to Omaha to visit her brother’s girlfriend’s family for Christmas so that she’d be there when he proposed to her.

    It was a great way to close out my first full day riding the rails in a long, long time; I’m glad I picked the snowball fight :)

    Better living through backpacking, part 2: Nature, the great obstacle course

    Aasgard Pass

    Each time I bumped into something this past week with the massive bruise on my left palm it reminded me of the boulders that put it there last Sunday morning before dawn—slick with dew and moss-covered and massive, illuminated only by the light of our headlamps as three of us lost the trail and spent 45 glorious minutes clambering over rocks in the dark on a hike that marked the last day of one of the best summers of my life—and I smiled. I don’t get bruised often enough in my daily life, or come within inches of breaking a leg or tumbling headfirst down a boulder field based solely on how much I trust the placement of my left foot, and there’s something about the experience of it, the adrenaline boost that comes from knowing that you’re playing without a net and that nature doesn’t care whether you live or die, that feeds a part of me that spends the majority of my life in hibernation. It’s one of the reasons I like sales so much, I think—it’s more precarious and thrilling and in line with my basic animal nature than most other forms of work I’ve encountered.

    In 2005 Backpacker magazine rated doing the Enchantments in a day the 8th hardest day hike in America—close behind going from the south rim to the north rim of the Grand Canyon—based largely on the difficulty of Aasgard Pass, a near-vertical scramble with 2200 feet of elevation gain in ¾ of a mile that serves as a gateway into the high alpine backcountry and the Enchanted Lakes that give the hike its name. Normally I’d say that naming a pass after the Norse equivalent of Mount Olympus would be a bit hyperbolic, but climbing up Aasgard was easily the most physically demanding ¾ of a mile that I’ve ever experienced in my life, and it served as a useful metaphor for pushing myself outside my comfort zone, something that I don’t do often enough these days. It wasn’t as dangerous or quite as much fun as our pre-dawn detour, but going up as fast as I could tested my physical endurance in a way that it hasn’t been tested in a long, long time, and it always feels good to push yourself to somewhere close to your limit and realize how far away from that peak you really are for the vast majority of your life.

    I’ve always loved clambering around on rocks (climbing up the bigger ones is a lot of fun, too, but something I’ve only gotten into in the last few years), and in addition to gorgeous scenery the Enchantments had clambering in spades, from our off-trail pre-dawn adventures to the loose rocks that led up Aasgard and the marked-only-by-cairns routes over granite slabs that constituted the majority of the alpine portion of the hike. Most hikes are boring dirt trails through amazing scenery, but the trail here was the main attraction for me, technically interesting as well as physically challenging. The whole thing felt a lot like a competition against myself; I like that I didn’t escape from it unscathed, and it was the perfect way to transition formally from the playful outdoor energy of the summer to the more focused indoor energy of the fall. I’m thankful to the friends that organized it all (there were 11 of us all told, so the organizing was no easy feat)…and I’m already looking forward to doing it again next year.

    Better living through backpacking, part 1: Relaxation through play

    Relaxing, for me, is a difficult thing to do—lying on a beach for a week doing nothing makes me stir crazy, my competitive impulse tends to turn hiking into an exercise in going faster than everyone else on the trail, and when I do have down time throughout the week I feel guilty if I’m not putting it to good use somehow. It’s one of the biggest things I get from being in a long-term relationship that I have trouble accessing when I’m single—being with a partner I trust relaxes me, truly and holistically, in a way that nothing else really does. About a month ago I did a 5-day cross-hike of Olympic National Park with a few close friends, and a big part of my goal for the trip was to find some peace and quiet out there in the middle of the wilderness, cut off from the modern world. The whole hike was fantastic, but a little meadow by the Low Divide campground was where I really found what I was looking for, and that specific spot in space and time has become my new Platonic conception of relaxation in a post-Carolyn era.

    We christened it John’s Meadow, after the ex-Army National Parks ranger who told us the Low Divide ranger cabin used to be there before it was destroyed by an avalanche a few seasons ago, and it was like paradise itself—a river valley running between two peaks with Mt. Olympus looming over it like a watchtower, lush green grass and wildflowers in the full bloom of summer, a 500-foot multi-leveled waterfall tumbling down from the glaciers of Mt. Seattle to form the source of the Quinault River…I intentionally didn’t take any pictures, because no picture could possibly have done it justice and because I wanted it to stay forever idealized in my mind.

    We spent our free day playing in the meadow—I climbed up the waterfall, napped in the shade of a rock, and generally comported myself like a wild human in a world where civilization didn’t exist, and the feeling of just existing in nature completely unselfconsciously was pure bliss. I’ve spent a lot of time re-thinking my relationship to the natural world over the course of the last few months, and the big takeaway from Low Divide for me was that my most fundamental relationship to nature is that of an animal to its immediate surroundings—all of human civilization is a layer that sits on top of that, and I have a tendency to get so caught up in the minutiae these days that I lose track of what’s best for my core self, not just for the persona that I project out into the world.

    That focusing on minutiae is something we learn over time, I think—when I was a kid my whole life was nothing but joyous, unselfconscious exploration of the world around me, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve moved more towards the human end of the continuum and further away from the animal end, because that’s what it takes to exist in the modern world. I held on longer than most—traveling around the world after college was about a lot of things, but at its heart it was about climbing and playing and exploring without boundaries or limits—but my life now fits neatly into all of the little blanks on a credit card application or a resume in a way that used to be anathema to me.

    The question of freedom vs. stability is one that I’ve been wrestling with for over a decade now, and it’s gotten more and more personal and granular as time’s gone on. I realized this summer that the true dichotomy isn’t between freedom and stability over the course of a lifetime, though; it’s actually about play vs. work and the balance between the two on a daily basis. My coping mechanism after the breakup was to swing the dial as far towards “play” as it would realistically go and keep it there, and as a result the last 7 months have been among the most enjoyable of my life in a lot of ways; that revelation didn’t come into focus for me until John’s Meadow, though, and I’m still processing what it means for me back here in civilization as I start to intentionally combine play and work to create the life I want to live.

    For the time being I’m using a simple mindfulness technique that presented itself to me as I was making my way down the waterfall and my animal mind wanted nothing more than to leap from rock to rock for the sheer joy of it but my human mind, taking into account the likelihood of injury, the logistics of hiking 16 miles out on a broken leg, and the potential negative impacts on my fellow hikers, decided against it: seeing the animal path, but taking the human one. We’ll see how it goes.