Chapter 13

A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything. – Malcom X.

I remember being sure, once upon a time, that it couldn’t be that easy to be blessed. I knew, in my heart, that I, for one, did not deserve it. That character, that socially deformed renegade who had faked and side-stepped his way through the business world into old age, had run his course. Handling the world was never going to be my thing. Finally, just being in the world was enough .

I had discovered, lurking in the shadows, secretly layered into the landscape I grew up in, was the conviction that I would find redemption in various sorts of self-destruction. In the mountains and the forests, in the cliffs and the canyons, I had seen clearly that it was only me that was in the way of understanding my place in the world. I was worth whatever I thought I was worth.

The road to Aspen was easier than I anticipated. A gentle slope. Along the way, I visited a couple of old teammates. Bill, in Grand Junction, bought me my first bottle of vodka when I was a freshman at UCLA. He helped Bob and me start Santa Monica Rugby Club in 1972. John, from the North of England, lived in Parachute. He was the scrumhalf on our first championship team.

On the 12th of September, I pulled into the downtown driveway of the house being cared for by Jerry, the President of the Gentlemen of Aspen. They were putting on their 50th Aspen Ruggerfest. I had been there in 1972, winning the 5th Ruggerfest with The Pumpkins. This year, the age brackets ran up to The Over-50’s, who platooned substitutes every five minutes. Even with those old guys, I was surprised by how few people I knew. Mine wasn’t just another time, it was another era.

Aspen b&w

Ruggerfest is a very social week in Aspen. Parties everywhere. I realized that I had not been in such an environment for years. At first, it was puzzling,  seeing all the beautiful women in torn jeans. I thought it was just very casual in a mountain town. But the torn pants did not go with the five-thousand-dollar jackets and the thousand-dollar shoes. I realized that it was supposed to be a statement of some sort. Back in the world, it was all about signals. All the women did it. The jeans were for sale that way in the shop windows.

After Aspen, I followed the better part of valor by driving around Independence Pass. My 20-year-old Tioga Arrow had performed well so far, but the risk wasn’t worth it. We, more maturely, took Interstate 80 and then Interstate 25 to Colorado Springs. From there, seven hours hard driving into big desert winds got us to Alberquerque. A couple of long days.

Three days after leaving Aspen, I was sitting at my brother’s bedside. We worked at talking for a couple of hours. When I held up fingers in front of his face, he couldn’t tell how many. Diabetes had robbed him of his eyesight. Jim talked about what he had been doing in his mind. He was a victim of his emotions. When he recalled an old girlfriend, he cried. When he recounted his latest imaginary meeting with a celebrity, he laughed. I held his hand and sat there. Before I left, I asked him if there was anything he wanted. He said, “To be cremated next Tuesday”.

I stayed at Western Skys RV park, outside of El Paso. I got to know Rosa, the manager, and her two sons … one in college and the other just graduated from high school. On the drive to and from downtown, where Jim was staying, it became clear to me that this weight, this guilt about having lived a life of indulgence while my brother suffered horribly, was just a part of who I was … like my broken collarbone that now sticks up on one side, or the corner of my eye socket that wasn’t stitched back properly, or the arthritic knees … I could go on. I sat with Jim for as long as I could for a couple of days. I saw that he recognized, too, when the time had come for a visit to end. We had to be careful. We were holding on to something fragile.

Driving with the wind, back across the New Mexico desert, I felt as if I were emerging from the landscape. From what I had seen that summer, it seemed the next logical step in the evolution of this magnificent earth. Awareness. The planet was waking up. I was waking up. I could not separate the two. The first step is to see what a mess we have made of things. Then it is time to see another way.

It occurred to me, as Alice and I wound our way through the canyons of southern Arizona, that words have become so powerful for us that we have forgotten what to do without them. We are losing our sense of the sacred. We want to wrap syllables around the experience of the numinous, to use language as a lever to access an experience of the divine. We want to feel the joy all the time. But words are not meant for that. The best words will ever do is point. The underlying assumption that naming something keeps it the same is an illusion.

Jean Piaget, psychologist, showed through his legendary studies in child development that logical and mathematical operations result from the internalization of operations originally executed externally, with solid objects. We have to think with ‘things’, before we can think without them. Survival depends on learning how to operate in the world. Contemplating the wonders of the universe comes later … and can only be thought about in terms of the language we created to deal with ‘things’. We don’t have a way to think about something that is everywhere, all the time … that is no thing. We can’t see something that is everywhere, all the time … where would we be looking from? Grammar is designed to remove the ambiguity when perceiving the world … an ambiguity that must be re-experienced in order to be removed.

The most insidious habit is the desire to know … all the more so because it appears to be the most successful approach to taking care of business. That’s why language started in the first place – to keep things the same. This is what binds us to the earth and obscures Paradise. When we grow up, we each have the opportunity to become a unique mirror to an unspeakably wonderful reality. One day, we will laugh at that feeble period in our history when we believed the meaning of life could be manufactured. Heaven is still there, waiting, unknowable, behind the veil of grammar. One has to be older, I believe, to understand all this and to realize how awareness punctuates experience.

But awareness is fragile, like my time with Jim. Awareness will spill into all the cracks … and we will turn our eyes from what we don’t want to see. Real awareness is almost too personal for us to talk about. Out of the gate, I only see things that are important to me. The awareness that shimmers over the Grand Tetons at dawn, skimming over icy mountain lakes and whistling through the tall pine trees … the scale I had experienced that summer, put my tiny point of view to shame.

Runner on dunes b&w

As I watched a storm pour rain on a patch of desert in the distance, I felt a warm appreciation for my age and a deep gratitude for being older. Ironic as it sounds, we each have to outgrow our initial identity, like shedding a skin, or leaving a cocoon … except this is a disintegration of a point of view. We all learn that nothing is good or bad all on its own. We know that karma is real and life is short. We understand that, eventually, we get what we deserve. As we watch the body grow older and do less, we learn that who we are … the spirit that is aware of all this going on … is ageless. This is growing up.

I have been aware of something just beyond the normal senses, a numinous world, ever since I can remember. Most people have had a similar experience along the way. I have always had a sense that there was more going on somehow. As a child, I was happy just to play there. As an adult, I wanted to know.

Crossing the Colorado river, returning to California, it was clear to me that I would never know, because I would have to separate to look. I saw too that being enlightened and feeling enlightened were different experiences. Being enlightened is not feeling enlightened all the time.

I remember when I saw my first Zen teacher, Thich Thien An, at the doorway to an extension class at UC Irvine. Thich had escaped the purge in Viet Nam. He was smoking a pipe. My friend and I thought he must be a phony. Why would an enlightened being smoke tobacco? Looking back, it’s as though I was expecting him to be drifting a foot off the ground and surrounded with a glowing light. In the first class, I asked him what he thought about the TV program ‘Kung Fu’, which was popular at the time. He said he hadn’t seen it, he was too busy teaching and driving on the freeways, fulfilling his duties as the resident monk at the Los Angeles temple.

What to do with what I had seen on this journey of thousands of miles, wandering through the mighty folds of the northwestern landscape, was a uniquely personal decision. How do I want to see things? How do I live behind the scenes? Growing up is just the beginning, once we have found our own path. We are always on the road.

Alice by the River Bank b&w

As I pulled into Palm Springs, from where I began a year ago, I remembered the last day of that first Zen class. At the end of the semester with Thich Thien An, we gathered at the Los Angeles temple, in front of an altar which was decorated with flowers, incense and a statue of Buddha. It was time to ask questions of the master, expecting an instant, hurricane-force transformational reply, as was legendary in such situations. Personally, I was concerned about the altar – the worship, the placing of personal power outside oneself … all those Seventies psychological clichés.

“Is it possible,” I asked him, “to reach enlightenment without ever having heard of Buddha?”

“Buddha never heard of Buddha”, was his immediate reply.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 12

“This world is but a canvas to our imagination”.                           Henry David Thoreau

I can imagine how taking credit for the eclipse worked for the Egyptian priests, back in the day, when they used such occasions to instill the fear of God. It would have worked on me. It would seem natural that someone who could turn the day into night should tell me what to do.

Tetons 7 b&w

From the granite of the Tetons and the frozen lava of Idaho, I drifted down to the red rock of Utah and Arches National Park. My experience was still rooted in the power of the landscape. I remember touring some of the ancient stone circles in England. I have a book that points out that features of the landscape surrounding these circles of stones often resemble super-size human features, esp. a pregnant woman lying on her back or the dominant presence of a mountain. In Utah, the Hopi Indians considered these arches to be sacred, portals to spiritual dimensions.

Arches 8 b&w

I loved having these grand ideas, but I was brought down to earth on a regular basis. I left a window open while driving and lost a piece of the blinds; I left the step out again; I forgot to put the clock away. I had to get more gas. When I was backing out of the RV space in Moab, I clipped a faucet that was standing up in a corner, crushing the plastic cover for the dump hole. Fortunately, I didn’t damage the faucet. Literally another half an inch and I would have torn it out. As simple as my life was by that time, it still didn’t work to take anything for granted.

I was near the end of my circle of the northwest. After the rugby tournament in Aspen, I was going further south to see my brother in El Paso. Hiking around the arches for hours in the soft morning light, my thoughts became cloudy and my true intentions worked against each other when I thought about Jim. I had stifled how guilty I felt, deep down … I only knew how undeserving of success I felt at times. I had never been clear about that.

Jim is younger than me by four years. He was an emotional kid. I remember, when he was about six years old, he cried while watching an episode of ‘Wagon Train’ during which a young girl sang ‘Silent Night’. He was a brilliant actor in high school, winning all sorts of awards. While studying acting in junior college, he attended a summer ‘drama’ camp in Northern California. At the camp, he took acid. This was the Seventies. Everybody took acid. I had been taking it for a while, even playing in rugby tournaments. For me, the experience seemed to turn me right side up. For Jim, it went the other way. He appeared to slip over a mental edge.

He didn’t get around to furnishing his apartment that summer. Clothes strewn everywhere. He stopped showing up for classes. He lost his job. This was the time of the draft. Almost all my friends ended up in Vietnam. I thought that if Jim enlisted, he could avoid the war and get himself sorted out. I drove him to the recruiting office. After barely making it through boot camp at Fort Ord, Jim was assigned as a cook to a base in Germany. One night, as he was being pressured by a sergeant on an overnight shift, Jim lost his temper and unloaded on everyone. He was shipped back to Letterman hospital in San Francisco and diagnosed schizophrenic.

When I picked him at Letterman in 1976, his hands shook constantly from the effects of the Thorazine … which he stopped taking immediately. He found a job in Long Beach as a janitor and obtained a degree in Theater Arts from Long Beach State. He participated in Community Theater. After about three years, he lost his job and began to fall downhill. Eventually, my parents took him into their home in Costa Mesa. Unbelievably, my father would take him out and drink with him. One night, Jim apparently pulled a kitchen knife on my father, who was dangerously obnoxious when drunk. When he wandered into the neighbor’s house by accident, Jim was arrested for trespassing. My mother was afraid to take him back in the house, so he sat in county jail for a year. She was clearly in pain from the guilt, but felt she had no choice.

When Jim got out of jail, he made his way to El Paso. I think it was because he didn’t want to be a burden. He lived in downtown El Paso for 25 years, in an old apartment building with a roommate on the other side of the bathroom. He wrote letters every week and I visited every couple of years. He survived on Army disability pay. During every visit, I would point out that he needed to take of care of himself. Walk. Climb stairs. Exercise. He seemed not to have the heart for it. I watched diabetes gradually take hold of him, while he refused to go to the V.A. During his lost years, he had crashed his motorcycle and the handle bar had ripped into his stomach. They reversed his large intestine. He had, at another time, driven the bike off a cliff and broken his hip. He believed he couldn’t walk. In his mind, he was done. He had given up.

I would sit by his bed while he told me stories of imaginary encounters with old girlfriends and celebrities. In his mind, he is married. His wife was away. He didn’t care whether anyone believed him. He was bed-ridden and nearly blind when I saw him last. I had tried to get him to get to use a cd player, so I could send him books on tape. That didn’t work. When I asked him what he did with all the time, he said that he took trips in his imagination.

I had always wanted to do more, but sometimes an hour with Jim would drive me around the bend. I had brought him out to California to visit his sisters, back when he could walk. I didn’t have any money to help. I felt like a failure as a big brother. I was supposed to protect him. I had spent my whole life just looking out for myself, while my little brother’s life came apart. I could imagine how alone Jim must feel. I felt like such a jerk feeling so impatient with him.

As I illegally crunched my way over the surface ecosystem of the national park, looking for the right light, guilt streamed out of my heart and blossomed into the canyon around me. I was never a good person. I had stolen lunch money from the counter of the pie shop as a kid in Darwin. I cheated on homework at Dulwich College, where I felt I was in way over my head academically. I avoided the ‘O’ and ‘A’ level exams in England by going to California. I always took the easy way out. In my first marriage, I never really put Bonnie first. I was too busy being a rugby star. I didn’t finish the Master’s degree in Applied Behavioral Science because I was getting divorced. I never finished anything. I talked my second wife into marrying me, before she was ready, before she caught on to what a bastard I really am. I pressured her to have children and it turned out to be twins, really locking her in.

For years, as a manager at a Mercedes-Benz dealership, I took advantage of people, taking some of their money for my own. Looking back, it was like three-card monte. Consumers didn’t stand a chance. For most of my life, I have been able to see weakness in others quickly. A plus on the rugby field, but not so much in personal relations. It felt natural to take advantage. And, of course, back then I dealt with the guilt I could see by drinking every day.

I grew up taking short cuts, ignorant of any character lesson involved in doing a thing the right way. I had heard about it, I suppose, after all I was an English Lit. major in college, but I was busy surviving. It poured over me that I had not been a nice guy. I had been selfish beyond belief. Karma was going to crush me. I was a useless mess.

Arches 0 b&w

I saw how I had maneuvered and manipulated the world into a shape that I imagined would work for me. I didn’t trust it on its own. That shape was only in my mind. For years, I had been unwilling to let go of these secret beliefs. I did not deserve an easy world. If anyone saw who I really was, they would punish me and take everything away. If I let the world be, it would hurt me … or, at the very least, I myself would disappear. Every time I looked for my place in the world, I had to slog through this mess I had made of my identity. I had stopped looking after a while.

Wandering in those magnificent desert canyons, I disappeared into the grander scheme. Stripped of the history, there is an ‘I’, an identity, that we have in common with everything.  I could not feel the Bigger I, but the vista took my breath away. There were no boundaries. I felt as if I were riding the edge of a wave that stretched out forever. All the power behind me. All the unknown in front. My regular senses were useless, since all they did was measure things, including me.

I was a spirit dressed in habits.  I had to have routines to make sense of the world. I saw how the world took the shape it did because of me. Layers of identity that I had wrapped around me over the years fell away. There was no need for any more of that. I wasn’t competing for survival anymore. I wasn’t going to anywhere. I was coming from somewhere. A heaviness eased out of my body. Letting go of a layer left me in more doubt … just as I was afraid it would. This was how I was holding the world together. But mixed in with the uncertainty was the undeniable experience of relief.

In my advanced age, I had a sense that this was as good as it was going to get. Being a part of it all for a little while. The being that lay behind all the noise. Wanting to know that I am a part of it all the time will never happen, because I separate when I go to look.

It was as if my whole summer piled into those three days, hiking through the arches. There was a thrill to seeing who I really was, even though I had to struggle through such a mess to even catch a glimpse. I knew I wouldn’t remember the experience itself, but I would never forget how I thought about it afterwards. I grew up believing that I am the subject and the world is the object. I would always remember that moment when I absolutely knew that wasn’t true. For a time, I felt a part of it all … as if there were no further to look. I could see nothing that wasn’t me.  I recall thinking that there were no words that would work … joy, treasure, destiny, bliss … words break experience into bits and pieces, not even coming close.

Sunrise over Salt Valley b&w

I had been in the landscape long enough to pull back the curtain of my individual history and see with unburdened eyes. I knew there was more, but it’s like trying to look at the back of your head. You need a mirror. The landscape had been that mirror for me.

As I watched the sun rise over the Salt Valley on the last day, I was filled with the unmistakable feeling that there was so much more that I did not know. My mind was open and there were no words. I had journeyed for a year, just to catch a glimpse. For a moment, just a moment … so fast there is no way to count … I saw why there was nowhere to go and nothing to have. My breath was the light and darkness and my soul was vibrating to the presence of the universe. I knew it wouldn’t last. That was life. But I was good to go for now.

Chapter 11

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?
Robert Browning.

Glacier Park, the crown of American landscape, sits high on top of the Rocky Mountains in Montana. Sitting at the end of the Going-to-the-Sun highway, in my imagination, I try to see these layers of sedimentary rock compressed under a vast ocean, as they were for millions of years. I can’t do it. My mind won’t bend that far. I was 6600 feet up. This is the dimension of the formation of planets, of stars bursting and galaxies winding into being. On this scale, I am beyond microscopic. In this dimension, I am just an idea.

Glacier rock b&w

Early one morning, in the shuttle on the way to the top, I sat next to Philip, an extra-ordinarily bright ten-year old. He was outgoing, confident and friendly. He explained to me that he was traveling the world with his parents. They had flown from Australia to San Francisco and bought a 36-foot RV. In the last year and a half, they had circled the United States and Alaska. The last six months of their trip across Canada was taking them back to their starting point. He was sure that he had learned more than he would have in two years of school. I guess it depends on what you want to know.

The fires were reaching down into the states as Alice and I drove south, east of Pocatello. The entrance to Yellowstone was crowded. I decided to move on south to catch the total eclipse from Craters of the Moon state park in Idaho.

I talked to my sons on their birthday. They are currently in the center of the storm, when it comes to operating on the world. Eric is a lawyer, working as a consultant to real estate firms in San Jose. He wants to be general counsel for a tech company. His girlfriend just moved in with him. Alex is a mortgage banker in San Francisco. He was living with his fiancé, who worked as the Art Director for GoPro. On the 15th of August, the boys turned 31 years old. My advice to them had been just work their ass off until they were 35, then put their heads up and look around to see what their options were. Making big decisions in one’s Twenties almost always leads to revision. This was not my grandfather’s world. My grandads worked one job each for fifty years. In my time, I have made a living as a teacher, a counselor, a salesman, a business manager, a marketing consultant, a photographer and a writer. It is gradually becoming accepted in our culture that, unlike in medieval times, one is not what one does for a living. This opens up a bigger way of seeing things.

Craters of the Moon state park is in the middle of Idaho, near Arco, the first community ever to be powered by a nuclear reactor, beginning on July 17, 1955. I slipped into one of the last spaces in the park, $37.50 a night for five nights. Directly under the path of the eclipse. No power or cell service. Just Nature and me, waiting for the ethereal, angelic light that would linger over the valley as the sun disappeared behind the moon in the middle of the day.

Crater path b&w

I hiked all over the park, looking for the best spot to capture what I was sure would be an eerie, once-in-a-lifetime light. I went too far climbing up amongst the ancient cylinder cones. Too many miles. The morning after, I could barely get out of bed. Age (I was 68 then) had tapped me on the shoulder earlier that summer, by the river. I had intended to cross a stream, bridged by a fallen tree trunk, to get a shot of a waterfall.  It is the kind of maneuver we used to make all the time as kids. Start forward hard, letting motion carry you to catch a branch on the other side. Once upon a time, I would not have thought twice. Unlike the me of old, I was hesitant and thought about it for a while. I made the step ok, but I failed in the quality of intention to get to the other side. I had no momentum. I pulled up short. I felt utterly useless for a split-second and then fell into the river. For the first time, it flashed across my mind that I was getting old and that I would, one day, be too frail to do much of anything..

Craters b&w

By 11:30 am., I had my 600mm lens set up on a tripod, so I could swing it up at the totality and not have to use a filter. A passing ranger had given me a pair of ‘eclipse glasses’, so I could prepare for the moment. The gloriously weird light I was expecting did not fall over the valley. It just got dark. And cold. I abandoned the wide-angle lens and swung the big telephoto up just in time. Too soon or too late and sunlight would burn out the image. It was a moment. That’s all we photographers want.

Eclipse

After the eclipse, a ranger at the park suggested a free spot to camp, across from the Bridger-Teton National Forest . So I turned north-east to Wyoming. I found the bumpy, gravel road across from the park that led up to some camping spots, hidden from the highway. No facilities. But I could see the Tetons … and it was free. Once again, propane to the fridge would be handy. I wandered down to the Cunningham Cabin, once home to western pioneers whose fondness for wide open spaces became almost a religion.

Cabin b&w

Driving back and forth to the park, the front end of my RV began to wobble on the windy gravel road. Turning too quickly or touching the brakes too hard produced a frightening chattering of the whole front end. Visions of nights in a hotel and a bill for thousands of dollars danced in front of me. Was it the steering? Maybe it’s the rotors. Wishful thinking. In Fillmore, Utah, I did stop by the Jiffy Lube and renewed Alice’s juices: new fuel and oil filters, replaced oil, steering and differential fluids, filled tires, cleaned windows and vacuumed the cab. $268. Worth it … after a year and 17,000 miles. They said they couldn’t see a problem with the brakes, but to be sure, they would have to take everything apart. There was no money for that.

Alice in Utah b&wMeanwhile, I heard more horror stories about Yellowstone traffic … major road construction. Labor Day weekend did not seem like a good time to visit. Besides, on the road, problems have to be addressed. At home, in the city, it is easy to arrange the habits of a day so that we bypass issues that may be lurking in the background. Often for years and years. You can’t do that on the road. Something noticed, and not addressed, will undoubtedly bite you in the ass, sooner rather than later. I did not turn east into Yellowstone. Instead I went south, to Moab, Utah.

On the first day of September, I pulled into Goose Island campground, next to the Arches National Park.  I signed up for three nights at $7.50 a night – 50% discount because I have a senior pass. The ocean did its thing up here as well, coming and going over this area more than two dozen times … leaving a landscape blanketed in iron oxide. For weeks now, although Alice and I were 6000 feet up, we had been driving along an ancient ocean floor. As it retreated, that ocean had left some fascinating rock formations behind. That’s where I wanted to find some pictures.

First, I had to face facts and fix the front end. The one thing I didn’t ask Jiffy Lube to do was rotate the tires, even though I did notice they were wearing unevenly in the front. So that was the first step. The manager of the tire shop in downtown Moab clearly knew that would solve the problem. $36. Too simple for me. Again, that kind smile.

That evening, watching the soft, dark red glow shimmer off the rusty cliffs along the river, something that was not happening occurred to me. It’s not a common experience – to experience something that’s missing. You have to come across an empty space in your mind and somehow recognize the shape … what was it that was there?

Tetons and lake b&wWhat I was missing was pretending. Changing schools so often as a kid, I developed the technique of copying others, often without understanding why they were doing what they were doing. In my early adult years, I became an expert at looking like I knew what I was doing. I was a high school philosophy teacher at age 21. Can’t get any more pretentious than that.

I knew the power of ‘acting as if’ I were already the person I wanted to be. But there is a learning curve, during which we would rather not have people pointing out our failures. Lately, when I looked inside, I was missing the tension that accompanies the waiting to be discovered as a fake. It was no secret these days. I obviously did not know what I was doing much of the time. No need to hide it now. There was a calm, quiet freedom in that. Part of me, from deeper down, was leaping into that space.

Chapter 10

“You cannot get behind consciousness” – Max Planck.

Crossing into Canada was a simple matter. Being in an RV, I thought that I should be in the ‘truck’ lane. The customs officer smiled at me kindly as he returned my passport, with a reminder that Alice was not a truck. That smile must be universal, acknowledging the less mentally fortunate. Maybe it’s a new Canadian – American thing. Perhaps all of us trapped in trumpland deserve such condescension for letting it happen.

It was Canada Day when I crossed over. My plan was to visit some provincial parks. I love riding along the roads in British Columbia. The teal rivers tumbling down the ravines are dribbles of the power that once ripped open the earth. Millions of years. Right before my eyes. It is like winding through the folds of the earth, wrapped up in sheets of granite that were torn apart by glaciers. It is a ravaged landscape.

Coquihalla River b&w

 

 

Turns out, the pass I applied for online was only for ‘national’ parks, of which there aren’t many. Provincial parks cost more than American state parks. And they were crowded. In Canada, they have a real appreciation for the sun. Reminded me of England. Sun-bathing, they called it. People everywhere. Traveling between the parks was expensive too. Gas cost almost twice as much.

So my return to British Columbia was a bit of a letdown. For the first time since I had been on the road, I fell into a bad mood. What was I doing, thousands of miles away from home? Wait. Where is home? Am I going to do this forever? Where will it lead? I thought my stay in British Columbia might not be that long after all. But where would I go after that? Was I just doing something stupid, once again?

After a couple of weeks in the provincial parks , I pulled into Glen’s driveway in Abbotsford, B.C. He surprised me with an offer to take me out to his favorite fishing lodge, in Bamfield, on the west side of Vancouver Island. I left Alice in his driveway. Two hours on the ferry, two hours crossing the island on the highway and then two more hours on a dirt logging road. Glen, Cheryl (his wife) and I arrived in time to share a steak dinner at the lodge with half a dozen retired police officers. I slept in a tiny shed, with two beds and a portable heater.

Trolling b&wAt 5:30 the next morning, Glen’s friend Jonathan took us out to sea. Jonathan is the varsity basketball coach at Vancouver high school. He is also a professional fishing guide in the summer and has worked with Glen, as a fellow guide, for years. It was cold and overcast, but the water was calm. We trolled around the islands, without disturbing the seals and the eagles. When a fish hit the line, the guys would haul it in and give me the rod for the last few meters. It didn’t seem fair to say that I ‘caught’ the fish, but I ended up with a couple of salmon. Fishing is not my thing. Something isn’t right with watching these beautiful big fish bleed on the boat deck. For food, understandable. But for sport, something doesn’t seem fair. These animals are minding their own business. Who are we to bring in boats, radar, multiple fishing lines with weights and flashers? The guys do freeze and eventually eat their catch. On the second day, Jonathan and Glen caught a couple of 30-40 pound halibut … worth a couple of thousand dollars as food. I took one frozen filet of salmon back with me and never could bring myself to eat it.

Eagle diving b&wWe went out the next morning and I took my camera. The eagles appeared to have territory about every two hundred meters along the coastline. They watched the fishing boats carefully. When Glen threw a little pink salmon back into the water, the local eagle was on it in a flash.

Being out in the elements, after stripping me of a hold on the past, restored a connection to the world around me. Out on the water, following the tide around the islands, it is impossible not to feel a part of everything. Everything is more powerful than you are. You can never dominate, you can only fit in. Out there, it seems like such an obvious lesson.

Waterfall b&wOnce again, Nature sorted me out. This time, instead of mighty forests and rushing rivers, it was the power of the ocean. It doesn’t take long to realize, travelling in the Northwest, that water is the essence of life. Frozen water ripped passages through granite, making valleys that foster seeds. Evaporated water feeds the new life. Rivers return the water to the sea. Nothing stays the same. It’s impossible not to see that this is how it all works. One element depends on the next. It is a continuous stream, not a mess of bits and pieces. Out in the ocean, my soul fell back into place.

I realized that, in a larger sense, I was home. This was it. I came all that way to be reminded. I was losing my self in the maze of concrete and steel, the veins of the city. I was disappearing in the piles of people that slogged and drudged their way along the freeways – the complete opposite of a mountain river. In fact, it was clear to me, there wasn’t any other place to go. The cold air streaming into my lungs. The mighty roll of the tides as the ocean breaths in and out. The songs of the birds and the splash of seals sliding into the water. The call of the eagles to one another along the shore. I fell into a chord that I could hear in my heart. I saw how what I thought of as my life was temporary, like a train waiting in a station. I would be moving on. All that is was poured into the little vessel that was me, for a little while. I was made up of the same stuff as the elements. We had vibrations in common. As above, so below. The ocean … the clouds … the glaciers … the rivers … it was all the same stuff. That stuff filtered into the earth and fostered life. Thousands of miles away from what I thought was home, somehow I belonged there.

There is a note, a vibration, a feeling, a state, a realization … that is Heaven on Earth. Those early mornings, out on the water, slipping between the islands as light filtered over the horizon, filled me with a spirit that was tangible, that I carried with me to sleep at night. The edge of my mind opened to a larger world, behind the sights and sounds, the here and there and the me and you. For a while, I was everything.

This was the experience I had been looking for. Since I was a kid, I knew it was there to be had. By this time though, I had to work my way back through 60 years of learning to operate on the world by being a separate identity, instead of being in the world as a part of something greater.

After a week in the Canadian coastal wilderness, I said goodbye to Glen and Cheryl, hitting the road for Mt. Vernon in Washington. I was not ready to go south to the cities. I heard the mountains in Montana calling. I ran into Eggi again at Ocean Shores. She was preparing to go to La  Push, on the Olympic Peninsula … one of my favorite places. She says that the TV series ‘Twilight’ was filmed on that beach. Having had my fill of the ocean for a while, I crossed into the middle of the state and sat for a couple of weeks by Little Diamond Lake.

I made plans for the rest of the summer. At the end of July, I would head for Glacier National Park. Then I would drive south to the Tetons and Yellowstone, eventually making it to the Craters of the Moon park to catch the eclipse. From there, south to Aspen in early September for the 50th Ruggerfest. I had offered to photograph the tournament for the host club, the Gentlemen of Aspen. The president of the club offered me his driveway for the week. From there, I would go further south to Texas and visit my brother. After that, I would return to Central California, making a loop around the Northwest.

That August, it seemed like the whole world was on fire … or at least, the western North American continent. The firestorms would last the rest of the season, from British Columbia to Los Angeles. Following a record year for rain, the earth was primed to burn. I spent the rest of the summer avoiding thousands of acres of forest fires.

Smokey Dawn b&w

I read about the Going-to-the-Sun highway, in Glacier National Park. That looked like the next stop. From the ocean to the mountains … which were once under the ocean. An observer up there stepped into the middle of millions of years of history. That was where I was headed next.

Going to the Suh highway b&w

 

Chapter 9

When we are no longer able to change a situation,                                                            we are challenged to change ourselves.                                             Victor Frankl

The middle of June found me at Crescent Bar, in the middle of Washington state, a tiny town built into a bend on the Columbia river. It got windy out there and a gust snapped a bolt holding up one side of the awning. I made the acquaintance of Mac, the park maintenance supervisor, and he gave me a long screw that I managed to fit through the holes. Gravity held it together.Columbia River b&w

I did my laundry, took a shower, checked all Alice’s fluids and cleaned the windows. A 24-foot RV is just enough housework. Any more probably would not get done.

I was still being pushed around by the weather and there was a big storm headed to the Northwest. I called a high school friend who lived in Mt.Vernon with her 89-year old mother. She said it would ok to hunker down in their driveway and put up the tarp. I thought I had the leaks taken care of, but I was learning not to take unnecessary chances. The price of being wrong was too high. If water seeped down into the walls, the mold could drive me out of my home by the end of the summer.

Sandi and I knew each other in high school but not well. We were part of the group in high school that took the advanced placement classes. That’s how it went for me when I joined a new school. At first, I would join the juvenile delinquents. (Must be something about me … maybe they are more accepting.) Then, after I had a chance to play whatever sport was in season in that country, I would begin to hang out with the ‘jocks’. Finally, after a couple of months in classes, I would find a place among the smart kids. I was too ‘rough’ for the scholars sometimes, too erudite for the jocks and too sensible for the hoodlums. Sandi was one of the smart kids. In high school, she was too wild for me. I was shy. Coming out of puberty in an English boys’ school, I did not know how to relate to her. She was a force, looking for guys who knew what they were doing.

I saw her at the twenty-year high school reunion. She was teaching in Europe and traveling the world. I saw her again at the 50th reunion in Long Beach. She invited me to stop by, if I were ever up in Washington. The rain started when I pulled into their driveway in Mt. Vernon. I climbed onto the roof and tied down the tarp. Then I joined Sandi and her mom, Joan, for a beer on the porch, which I could tell was an evening ritual on their part.

Horseshoe Bay b&wSandi had a car, so we drove to the ferry in Anacortes and took a trip out to Friday Harbor. I was thrilled to be back among the islands. But it wasn’t the solitary, dramatic feeling that marked my first time in the sound, when I was young. Then, it was a new experience blurring the distinction between inside and out. This time, there were people everywhere and formalities to follow. It was much more of an everyday thing. The main cabin of the ferry had jigsaw puzzles laid out on some of the tables, so that shifts of passengers can work on them, while they take for granted the spectacular display of the world around them. Still, it had been the ambition of a lifetime to get back out among the San Juan islands. Something invisible seemed to fall into place.

Mt Shuksan b&wAfter the islands, Sandi drove us in her little Ford up to the mountains, where there was snow. In contrast to the desert, where life is languid and stretched out, the Northwest is in your face. The weather wraps you into the landscape. The mountains are higher than you think, the trees are greener and the rivers louder. In the desert one almost feels left behind. In the forest, the earth fills the senses and it is impossible not to feel a part of something more.

After a couple of days, Sandi took off for Hawaii to visit her ex-husband. I moved to La Connor, Tom Robbins’ home town. Some of the coastal towns in the Northwest have a timeless feel. Fishing boats, tied to the pier, peek out of the fog in the early morning. Brick buildings, reminiscent of the 1930’s, solidify the old downtown. Signs with faded colors call out to a new generation of summer tourists.

Lone Tree sunset b&w 1There was no cell signal this far out, but I didn’t mind. There were plenty of pictures to be taken. I recalled that Eggi had said that she wouldn’t go out to these parts. She said she couldn’t live without knowing she had access to the Internet.

Reflecting on the contrast between Sandi, the adventuress with the flaming red hair and Eggi, the careful ex-techie. It occurred to me that each of us sees the world at a different frequency. As we move through life, what resonates to that frequency catches our attention. It’s easy to forget that there’s a dial. We don’t have to stay stuck in the frequency we started with. By the time we realize that, it usually takes some work and a little sacrifice to change.

In the middle of June, I retreated from the rain once again. This time to Little Diamond lake, in the middle of northern Washington. While coming up the coast, I had been caught in the traffic around Seattle. It is as bad as L.A., or San Jose. It is forecast that, in less than five years, traffic on the 405 in the heart of L.A. will average 10 m.p.h. We are in collective denial in the face of these burgeoning problems. California, food producer to the world, is drying up. Oceans are rising. Poles are shifting. donald trump is president, for God’s sake. What used to be wrong is now normal. What used to be facts are now just opinions. How can we expect to move forward, when we are creating a world in which reality itself is debatable? In a universe where each observer creates their own world, we need a social contract to get anything done. We have to get back to trusting each other. Denial, projection and fear … dominant forces in the mal-adjusted individual … have woven their way into the fabric of everyday life.

Diamond Lake b&wSitting by the calm lake, waiting for the rain, it was impossible not to see the mess we are making. I was reminded of my young days, when I would stride down every corridor that popped up: getting lost, hitting dead-ends, wandering in circles around the rubble… until, eventually, I found a way that worked. After exhausting every alternative, it is time to grow up.

As it is with the individual, so it is with everybody. As above, so below. These days, too many of us are growing old without growing up. Growing up means being responsible for what you think, what you see and what you say. If we would all just do that, we could get on with it. There really is no blame.

I had left everything behind in San Jose. Not just my family, but all the stuff, with which I was familiar. I disposed of all the representations of memories like old medals and trophies, clothes I never wore, a pile of old magazines for which I had photographed the cover, hundreds of books and a collection of old furniture. Remnants of a previous life. Everything I owned now fit into my 20 year-old Tioga Arrow.

A feature of this transitional experience is that the end is unknown. I can’t travel forever. I have to end up somewhere. If the end were known, I would already be there in my imagination and I wouldn’t really be floating unattached. In the same way, if I haven’t fully let go, then I’m not really on the journey yet … because I am literally what’s left after all that stuff is gone. That experience – letting go of all you know, not knowing what comes next, is pure movement. There is nothing for the mind to hold on to. There is only being alive. I was in the transition between one state and the next. A bardo. In the bardo, the usual rules don’t apply. A bardo is the blank page that separates one story from the next. If there weren’t any spaces, there would be nothing to see.

So often, we only tumble into transitional times when we have nothing left to lose. We certainly must be prepared to lose it all, to let everything go, if we want to change, otherwise we are not reaching out to the new stuff with all our might. When we feel like we have nothing to lose, we are open to something completely different. Most of us find it hard to give up something for nothing, but the bardo, the state in-between, must be dealt with, if one is to change. The experience of ‘un-attachment’, of letting go, is as important to our development as the will to get to a new place.

Driving East Washington b&wWe are our habits, so the process feels like losing an identity. New habits need space to grow. When we are guided by our old ways of seeing, we may miss what is right in front of us, because we are busy looking for something we can only see in a rear-view mirror.

By the end of June, my spirit was restored. The agonies of the Western world were behind me. I was ready to cross into Canada and visit Glen. I had no way to know that I was going to be taken even further out of myself. I just knew there was no going back.

 

Chapter 8

Chapter 8

Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing.                                Lao Tsu

Even with a few months experience on the road, I was nervous about heading north. All the things I didn’t know were bound to catch up with me at some point. I was getting used to not knowing where I might spend the next night, but the growing familiarity with uncertainty did not make it any more comfortable. I was dedicating six months and all my money to see if I could take decent landscape pictures.

I am a good sports photographer. Worked full-time for years. But I did not see myself as patient enough to wait for the light to unfold across a landscape. Landscapes are the ultimate in slow motion. And there are so many great landscape photographers. Of course, I wanted see if I could do it, but I also wanted that experience I had been missing … the first time I felt myself to be a part of something bigger. That feeling had faded over the years, but I still had the knowledge that it had rocked my soul.

I felt a tug when leaving Nancy. Neither of us said anything about it being our 35th anniversary. But we both knew. Ever since I was a wild kid in Darwin, I have been periodically required to seek forgiveness. If you can’t forgive me my trespasses, then we’re probably not going to be friends for long. I’d like to think that I am kinder and more considerate in my old age, but I have collected some karma along the way. Out on those desert hikes, it occurred to me that somehow the photographs and the writing … my attempts at creating stuff … are applications for redemption.

Calistoga b&wDriving the road into Northern California was like diving head-first into Nature. I read somewhere that the human eye can distinguish a hundred shades of green. They were all on vibrant display after the record rain. Calistoga is shady streets, natural storefronts, mud baths and mineral springs. Something growing everywhere. Images of blowing sand and dust fade. Vineyards flow the length of the Alexander Valley. Up and down the rolling hills. The elements of the earth and sky transforming into some of the best wine in the world.

Paths b&wI love how the light softens as I travel north. In the Southern desert, the sunshine is savage. There, I can almost hear the sharp light tearing at the landscape. Here, among the redwoods, the light wanders in quietly, slipping silently between the massive trees and sliding along the glassy rivers. There are no horizons in the forest. Waiting for the light takes patience. It doesn’t just jump at you, as it does down south. The sun’s rays fall, like a light rain, in between the hundred shades of green.  In the desert, the light arrives suddenly and bounces off the landscape. In the forest, the light, like inspiration, shows up in its own good time.

We cruised through Garberville and the Avenue of the Giants, through Eureka, past Trinidad and up to Oregon. By the middle of May, Alice and I were parked beside the Klamath River.

By the river, the early morning breeze drifts in through the bedroom window like the breath of the earth, full of fresh smells. The light seeps in through the trees, as the sun grabs a hold of the planet again. Without question, dawn is the best time of the day. All that is to be is loaded up and ready to go but hasn’t happened yet. The light is new. The promise of another day. This is why I like the big windows in the back.

Klamath from bedroom window b&wI stayed in a couple of Thousand Trails ‘resorts’. They were ok. Too much regimentation. Too many rules. People with bossy attitudes patrolling in golf carts. Often too far out of the way. I liked the Oregon state parks. They are more peaceful. Still learning, I nicked the rear corner again, backing into a space. I missed the fridge in the state parks, because it didn’t work on propane and I was still hesitant about running the generator for too long … just because it was something I had never done.

I had finally figured out how to use my smartphone as a hotspot and, combined with Verizon’s Unlimited Plan (which, of course, is not really unlimited), I was able to get on-line in some out-of-the-way places. Later in May, despite the infamous ‘Grey Days’ (coastal fog), the Oregon coast was getting crowded. Once again, I had forgotten about a holiday – Labor Day weekend.

I finally managed to find room in a Thousand Trails park near Humbug Mountain, in a space across from Eric, who was playing bass in a band at the local casino and next to Eggi, a laid-off Silicon Valley executive who had taken off to see the world in a brand new Mercedes Class C.

I went for a walk along the beach with Eggi … and her little dog. She is anxious to have everything planned six months ahead. In fact, she seemed quite anxious generally. She is a 53-year old ex-software engineer, who got laid off and decided to hit the road. I admired that. She seemed to be wound a little tight, but she acknowledged that letting-go is the purpose of her journey. She had plans into the Fall, reserving places to stay weeks ahead of time. She had programmed a ‘terabyte’ of movies to pass the time.

After our walk, Eggi asked me if I wanted a beer. I said sure. As the sun was going down, she walked over with a bottle of Corona and a pint glass of beer. She stepped inside Alice and handed me the Corona. We sat at the table. Eggi had come to California from Germany about fifteen years previously, directly to a job in the software business. She was emerging from a morass of job loss, house-selling and relationship breakup. I had respect. I could tell from the jar of cigarette butts outside her door that she wasn’t finding it easy. I suspected that throwing herself to the invisible winds would not have been her first choice.

I thought that Eggi might loosen up after a couple of beers, but it turned out that she meant it when she asked me if I wanted a beer. Her attention wandered during conversation. When she talked, she was careful what she said. After a while, I found the conversation tiring. I could tell what she was going to say next. I like direct conversation. I enjoy hearing from other people about the unique way they are dealing with the challenges we all face. I enjoyed swapping road stories, but part of Eggi’s way of dealing was not to go deep. I respected that. We could be friends, but we weren’t going to be close.

Oregon Beach b&wOn Grey Days, for which the Oregon coast is well-known, the light and the lines are all mashed together and there is nothing to notice. Rain was coming to the coast by the weekend. I decided to shoot across Oregon and Washington to Quincy, by the Columbia river, in the middle of Washington state. 362 miles. The Thousand Trails brochure cites “300 days of sunshine”. The weather app. shows no rain. I booked it for 14 days. I was fed up with the fog.

As I pulled away from the coast, mindful of Eggi’s anxiety, I stopped at a ‘Les Schwab’ to check the tires. Turned out the rear inside tire was virtually flat. I chatted with Scott, who replaced it, and he was kind enough to check the other tires as well. All the rear tires were low.

After a couple of hours (and $142), I drove further up the coast to Walmart and re-stocked ($44). For the fifty years I have lived in this country, I don’t believe I had ever stepped into a Walmart before I took to the road. What was I thinking? Everything was cheaper. I could get milk and RV tape in the same place, as well as a McMuffin … as long as I weren’t in a hurry.

Life is a particle when it’s looked at and a wave when it’s left alone. When I am operating with the bits and pieces of this world, getting from here to there, dealing with this and that … it’s all about particles … things and straight lines – everything in its time and place. When I am doing nothing, going nowhere, I experience only waves. There’s nothing at the top and bottom of a wave. Like the swing of a pendulum, the sweep of a deep breath or the space between the beats of my heart. Waves come and go, always in motion. And for there to be any awareness of motion, there must be stillness, every now and then.

Leaf and water b&wI had discovered a need to stop once in a while and let the life tumbling behind me catch up. A moment spent doing absolutely nothing at all is like the zero in mathematics – a point around which everything can spread out and make sense. This is how nothing is something.

I was still feeling my way on the road. Still bumping my head on the cabinets, forgetting to close a window, latch a door or take in the outside step, but I was beginning to notice that there were times when I just wasn’t bothered by all that stuff. The surrounding landscape swept me up. At those times, I felt like I was part of the same stuff as the earth, the sunlight and the wind that rushed up the river. My coveted, treasured little ideas of myself dissolved and I felt so big my head couldn’t contain it. As if I were all there was.

Chapter 7

Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.                                                                                                                                       Steve Jobs

By the third week in February 2017, the worst storm in a decade was battering the West Coast. I stayed in the sun. My time ran out at Oasis Palms, so I moved to a ‘resort’ closer to the Salton Sea.

Paragliders b&w I woke up on a Saturday morning to see a parachute in the sky, floating passed my window.  Turns out, the park had a little airstrip and was a weekend gathering spot for paragliders. I enjoyed spending a couple of days taking pictures.

I also had time for housework. Alice was cleaned, inside and out. I used the pressure washer I bought to prepare Glen’s house. Emptied the tanks. Took on more water (had to bleach the tanks again as a result). Ran the generator. Checked the battery. Pressure washer worked fine from an inside plug … still discoveries every day. Toilet bleached. Floor wiped. Windows washed. We were good to go.

 

Sevens Day 1 01 b&wAt the beginning of March, , Alice and I took highways 46, 5, 58 and 15 over to Las Vegas. There I met Ian, a photographer friend from England. We were there to photograph the USA Sevens rugby tournament. I had been the tournament photographer for years, back when I worked for Rugby Magazine. When I joined a start-up in 2008, I turned the official duties over to Ian. He had turned that referral into a full-time job, shooting rugby all over the world. I was not official anymore, but I liked to hang out. The food in the press box is usually pretty good. I provided some pictures for a couple of friends’ web sites.

Alex engagement b&w

From Vegas,  I crossed California again to San Francisco. My son, Alex, was going to propose to McKenzie, his girlfriend for five years, on the ferry from San Francisco to Sausalito. He wanted me to sneak on the ferry and get a picture. I captured them from the second deck of the ferry, as several people moved to give me room. All those people applauded the happy couple.

I was glad to have that time with family, because the West coast was heating up and I was keen to get on the road north. I wouldn’t see them for a while. I was looking forward to spending more time in this new state of mind that seemed to be opening up for me. A connection to something bigger. Mind has to be our key to the universe. Bodies only go so far. Mind, when all the noise settles, is unlimited. ‘Experience’ only happens in the mind.

My interface with the world was taking on a new character. I still had to take care of business – I nicked a vent cover on the roof in a reckless attempt to drive through an In ‘N Out burger … I scraped an interior wall pulling the ladder out of the storage bunk … I broke the toilet handle – but such maintenance was becoming routine. And, because my life was so much simpler, I could put that world aside every now and then. I was re-designing my life, letting it fall in line with larger forces. The size didn’t matter. Me or the Universe. There was a vibration that felt familiar.

When we wonder, what’s it all for, aren’t we talking about design? Robert Frost asked “If design govern in a thing so small” as a moment when a spider catches a moth on a flower. Is it all designed, down to the smallest detail? Does design even determine what I see, what I think of next? Or is it all just a random mess? Einstein’s answer was that God does not play dice with the universe.

I bet we are designed to become better people, to live in the spirit of things and to merge our individual identities at some point, as they were numinously merged in the past, before words. We have all had some sort of experience of that unified field behind it all, the non-duality – moments in art, music, sports, love … when time seems to disappear. That experience is not compatible with taking care of business and using tools. One needs to separate one’s self from the environment to operate on it. The best we will find is a rhythm. We can wonder or we can do. As spirit in a body, we are made for both.

I spent some more time in the wilderness, catching up with what was going on in my head. On May 1st, as I prepared to hit the road north, I felt like I was throwing myself out into the invisible winds. As it happened, May 1st was our 35th wedding anniversary. When Nancy and I said goodbye that morning, neither of us mentioned it. The price of getting along was not to reach back. I had already uncovered what an asshole I had been at times in my life. I was beginning to unravel the layers of guilt and self-deprecation to let a lighter energy seep through. Almost as if my real self were being called out by the landscape. Like Nancy, I just wanted to move on and get over it. I was emboldened by the first six months on the road. I would do more stupid things, but I knew I would fix them, or get around them. Somehow make do. I still didn’t know what I was doing much of the time, but I didn’t care about being sure as much as I used to. I had accepted that I would not ever be able to drive the world into a manageable size.

For a long time, I had been imposing a structure on reality that eliminated the view, because I was going somewhere in particular. Now it felt like I had blinders on. No regrets. I felt like I had to do it at the time.

I was lucky enough to live through all that. Now I had a chance to go back to basics. I had caught a glimpse … a note of what was behind the globe-trotting child, the rugby player, the teacher, the salesman, the husband, the father, the thought-less jerk … I could go on. There was something that always seemed to be new and yet had always been there. Something looking, not something seen. That’s who I was. There could be no path that would lead there, because there was nowhere to go.

So it was ironic that I was headed to the Northwest to find out who I was these days, but I suspected that the mountains, the forests and the rivers would put me in my place. I had felt that way before up there. On the ferry to Victoria in British Columbia. I was seventeen, on a rugby tour with UCLA. Early in the morning, standing at the bow facing a stiff, chilly breeze, threading through the islands, I had a feeling of belonging that I have never forgotten. At the time I wondered, how can that be? I had never been there before. I had been around the world, but the Northwest had a sound all its own. I felt like a tiny part of something magnificent. In a way I didn’t understand, going north was going to be like going home.