Chapter 4

Sight is energy leaving the body                                                               Leonardo Da Vinci

On September 10, I was set up in an RV park near the Queen Mary – a luxurious spot at $65 a night. Nothing cheaper on the Southern California coast. The ‘resort’ was only acouple of miles from the house that saw the end of my first marriage in the Seventies. Looking back, it is impossible not to see how stupid and selfish I was in those days.

Long Beach House b&w

The house on Obispo street in Long Beach

After Bonnie and I returned from the little Honda Alaska camping trip in the summer of 1974, in order to save money, we shared a house with two other guys, Bob and Stan. We had the upstairs. I was teaching full-time, going to graduate school in the late afternoons and rugby practice at night. For a while, I had to endure a full-length cast on my right leg, due to a knee operation. Fair to say, I was not fun to sleep with during those weeks.

Clearly, in hindsight, the end of our relationship was spelled out. We all split up from the house in the June of 1976, after nearly two years. Bonnie and I rented a little house in Laguna Beach and began going to therapy. By December, we weren’t talking to each other. I moved out into an apartment in Costa Mesa, near the high school where I was teaching.

So a walk to the house on Obispo Street brought back memories. So did a visit with my cousin. Linda is in her sixties like me. She still lives in Thornaby, North Yorkshire, where her mother and my father were born. She is retired and, like several other English cousins, loves to travel. She brought some old family photos and we hung out for an afternoon. I was born in my mother’s home town of Sunderland, a little further north than Thornaby, near the Scottish border. My father left the English navy in 1946, married my mom in 1948 and I was born in 1949. We lived in the North for six months, at my Grandma’s house in Sunderland, before moving to London, where my father found a job on Fleet Street, at the Daily Mail.

My father’s father worked in a Yorkshire steel mill for fifty years. He was a hard man who didn’t talk much. My mother’s father was a master riveteer at the Sunderland docks for his working lifetime. He rode a motorcycle and liked to take pictures. A gentler man. This was the last generation when you really were done at age 65, ready for a bit of a rest. As a kid, I saw the North as if in black and white … stark. It always seemed to be cold up there too. The south was colorful and warmer.

After Long Beach and a dive into swirling memories of the past, I drove back to Caspers Wilderness. Nothing was calling me. I didn’t have to do anything there. I could sleep all day, if I were able to. The lack of immediate demands challenges the mind to come up with something to do, in terms of information-processing. What to think about? That can be a peaceful process. There is treasure in letting the mind drift. That’s how I started meditation, way back in the day.

The old ways were dying hard. The latent urgency, the need to do something now, hung about me like an old suit. The impulse to be somewhere, to act on something, tugged at the edge of my thoughts from the moment I woke up. It was starting to feel like an old itch … something one scratches just out of habit. Almost as if it didn’t matter what it is – just do something. I got over it, but sometimes it took a while.

I began to notice that when I pay attention, I can see when I am selling the moment short … doing one thing thing while having some other thing in mind. Doing a thing completely is the zen way of passing beyond time, but I had developed a knack for speed-reading the situation. Taking shortcuts. That was helpful at times, over the years … to cut to the chase. Certainly helped on the rugby field. A survivor’s mentality. But I missed way too many threads that were left hanging.

This feeling I have that I should be doing something, that I am missing out, is an illusion. When I take a moment to stop and take in my surroundings, these habits of thoughts run into each like a rushing crowd piling into a narrow gate at a soccer stadium. One thought tumbles into the next. On those long hikes, I began to develop a mental practice. The first twenty minutes would be taken up with seemingly random thoughts, bumping chaotically into one another. After letting that go on for a while, my current state of mind would begin to take shape. I would find bits of information hinting at a pattern that represented something deeper, bigger, something I could not put words to. I knew it wouldn’t last. I was happy with a glimpse.

Out on the road, I was beginning to get a clearer sense of how I was perceiving things. What the world out there, this or that thing, meant depended on how I was feeling. Alone, in the wilderness, it is possible to slow the thoughts down and take them one by one.

The quality of what you put out there really does determine the quality of what you get back. This could be a life-time theme, but it also works moment to moment, perception to perception. My internal state at given moment determines what I think I’m seeing. There are no imperatives in the realm of the spirit.  You can’t just tell yourself to be a better person, because when you are commanding the person you want to be, you are being a person who is not happy with who they are.

I spend a fair amount of conscious energy ‘waiting for the other shoe to drop’, not fully appreciating something that may have gone well or even something that is going well at the moment. Probably a childhood thing, growing up with such a volatile, unreliable father, who constantly did not do what he promised.

During my business career, I buried those thoughts for the most part. Being a better person is not always the way to make money. In the wilderness, I was beginning to realize that a better person is not always who I was.

For the rest of September, I worked my way up the coast in a series of state parks. I found that the propane to the fridge didn’t work, so no fridge while boon-docking (when there was no shore power) … I couldn’t run the generator all day. Cell service was intermittent at best, so I had plenty of time to myself. I was headed to San Luis Obispo eventually, planning to stay at Bob’s and seal the roof. In 2015, it had rained only three or four times in California. That, I thought when I bought the RV, was my hedge against the leaks in the roof. Ironically, 2017 was the wettest year on record in the West.

On the second of October, I was back in Long Beach by the Queen Mary, for my 50th high school reunion. I ran into some old track teammates. My first girlfriend, Carole, was there. I still remember the first kiss on her doorstep. My mom drove us to see Dr. Zhivago when I was 16. I sang “I Love Her’ to her on the bus, when we were returning from a French Club dinner. She has five grandchildren but doesn’t appear to have aged at all.

The most remarkable thing to me about the reunion was how many people I did not know. There were probably 200 people there and I was familiar with about 10 of them.  Thinking about that while wandering in the wilderness later, I realized how busy we all were back then, each of us building a little world of our own . . . as if other people weren’t even there sometimes

After the reunion, I made my way back up to San Luis Obispo and Bob’s ranch. I spent a couple of days (and $300) there with Bob, putting two coats of rubber sealant on the roof. Bob and I have been friends for fifty years. We met on a rugby field during the final of a Sevens rugby tournament. I was playing for UCLA and he was playing for L.A. Rugby Club. It was late in the day, the last game. I got the ball near our own goal line and took off, a hundred yards to the other end. The sun was almost setting behind me. Bob took off to catch me. For the whole length of the pitch, I could see Bob’s long shadow catching up to me. When he was almost on me, I changed direction. All the way up the field. Pissed him off.

So we got to know each other on the rugby field, where it is difficult to pretend. He is English, coming out from Oxford in the mid-Sixties. In 1968, Bob arrived at UCLA. We toured Australia and New Zealand with University of California Golden Bears rugby team in 1970. We started Santa Monica Rugby Club in 1972, winning a couple of national championships with teammates we recruited from UCLA, USC, St. Mary’s and Stanford.

Bob is eight years older than me. In 2016, we both see an emerging problem. What to do with folks like us who have retired but still have 25 years to go? This is going to be a problem. Not everyone will be able to live on their social security. Too old for the stress of the 9-5. Too young to settle into a rest home. One change: more and more of us are hitting the road.

While we were finishing the second coat on the roof, I got a call from another old friend. I have known Glen since high school, even longer than Bob We lived together in a house with two other guys when I first moved out from home in 1968. Glen now lived in Canada, near Vancouver, with Cheryl, his wife of fifty years. They were having medical issues and they had a vacation home in Arizona, near the Colorado river, that they wanted to sell.  I agreed to drive out there and see what I could do to get the house ready for sale.

I needed refuge from the coming record rain, so in the middle of October, Alice and I drove to Fort Mojave, Arizona. I met Evelyn, Glen’s real estate agent, at the house. She gave me a key. I was going to sleep in a building again for the first time in two months. I wasn’t ready for the claustrophobic feeling when I was surrounded by walls at night.

Fort Mojave b&w

Fort Mojave, Arizona

For the next month, I worked on cleaning up Glen’s house. I trimmed trees and cacti around the yard, pulled weeds, spread gravel, painted a gate and a wrought-iron fence, dumped three huge bins of trash and watered every other day. I watched TV for the first time in a couple of months, seeing donald trump get elected. I believe we still don’t know just how evil that guy is. He will turn out to be the most corrupt President in history.

This ‘trump world’ was not anything I wanted to be a part of. He was not the problem. He is just a self-centered,  insecure con man. The problem is the millions of people who voted for him. The subject-object orientation (I do this to that and there is no reciprocation) to the world has failed these people. Nothing goes one way. Everything has an effect. They don’t have the tools, the education, to get a handle on the predicate of the sentence (the world outside the subjective). They have a subject, and a verb, but the sentence is too often incomplete. And they don’t know that they are operating in a world of incomplete sentences.

The threshold is crossed when we all get used to the world not making sense. The absurd becomes normal. One gives up and fails to develop a philosophy. Without a way to thread together experience, without a way to deal with time, an identity has nowhere to stand. Without an identity, one is lost and will follow the loudest voice.

The subject-object orientation … using tools … is handy in the short term. But once there is awareness of something more, something invisible, something that’s everywhere, all the time … one must move on, like a butterfly from a cocoon. Awareness of the non-local universe would fill those spaces that education in other ways couldn’t reach, but that awareness lies behind any subject-object, here or there, now or then kind of thinking.

Instead, Trump supporters fill those gaps in critical thinking with faith. Inarticulate faith. A blind, blanket faith that ignores evidence to the contrary. Emotional faith. Like betting on a horse because its name is some sort of personal coincidence.

My life was remarkably different by this time, only three months in. I was beginning to realize the beauty of being out in the sunrise and the sunset, rather than spying it from afar. I liked feeling the chill in the morning and the warm desert wind at night. I found myself getting restless in the house. Feeling ‘cooped up’, I was missing the feeling of belonging to Nature that I realized had been quietly taking shape.

The world and its politics were beginning to clash and clang in my life again. I needed to get away. I had spent months simplifying my life and I was beginning to feel boxed in again. I realized how the last couple of months on the road had opened up a part of me that had lingered since the frontier days in Darwin. The ‘me’ that had escaped the decades of money-making 9-5 had seen the light and was not going back. On Thanksgiving, Alice and I took off for Lake Havasu.

Dark Desert Cactus b&w


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