Saturday, January 15, 2011

Memorial Day

It is Memorial Day weekend in Washington. The motorcycles of Rolling Thunder roar by occasionally. School is almost out. I have pictures of our travels flashing on my screen saver when I stop typing and stare dumbly at the screen for more than five minutes. I am so tired. There is nothing quite like teaching little kids to wring you out. But I have been thinking about all we have done, how we got to where we are now, and a little about what will happen next.

In three weeks, Hilary and I will be back in the Trinity Alps, camped next to a waterfall, five years after we got engaged there. I can't wait to be among the deer, the delicate dogwood flowers and to have the sound of the falls fill my ears. Six months after our engagement trip, on New Years Eve, we were married in Washington D.C. at the house of Hilary's Aunt Stephanie and her Uncle David, who through the power vested in him by the Universal Life Church, pronounced us man and wife. We had our reception in Marguerite and Tom Kelly's house, right above apartment I am sitting in now. Our families, friends, and the Federal Jazz Commission made it the most enjoyable night of my life.

Early the next morning I lay awake in bed at the Phoenix Park Hotel, after closing down the Dubliner, unable to sleep, filled with joy and ideas. Then as now I was thinking of the past and looking into the future. We had met in New York exactly a year before our wedding. We exchanged emails for eight months prior to that, brought together in the virtual world by a conspiracy of Hilary's friend Sydnee, my mother's friend Jacqui, and my mother herself. After that first meeting, we flew back and forth several times between Washington and San Francisco and I talked Hilary into moving to San Francisco in March. I proposed in June above a Trinity waterfall.

A little before dawn on New Year's Day, I began to imagine the future. My thoughts, like that waterfall, felt chaotic but beautiful and productive. The one thing I couldn't imagine was settling immediately into the same life as before. I felt that we were at an age where we needed to break away and spend some extensive time together, to have some sort of adventure, something we would hold on to, lean on, and tell our children about later in life.

When Hilary and I met, her brother, Tom, was gallivanting around the country as a Navy pilot in the Blue Angels demonstration team, so it was a long time before I met him in person. One of the first times we talked on the phone went something like this:

Tom: "Hi Mike, I have decided I want to send you to Patagonia as a wedding present."

Me: "Um...great. Wow. Thanks."

Tom: "Yeah, when I was in college, I had a subscription to the Trials of Life video series and there was this one in Patagonia where killer whales ride up on waves and snatch baby seals off the beach. It was amazing. I couldn't believe something like that really happened. I think you guys should go see it."

Patagonia had a similar pull on me because of a National Geographic article about it's harsh natural beauty and local gaucho culture. The idea of exploring the Patagonian Andes had been a latent dream in my head for years. As I lay in bed in the Penthouse Suite in a state that I imagine religious ecstasy must be like, my mind swirled with ideas. One of which came to me whole cloth: Why don't we quit our jobs, explore Patagonia, and make our way back to the States seeing as much of the Americas as we can? I even imagined moving to Washington on our return and renting an apartment from Tom and Marguerite.

And now here we are. Settled, working, and hoping to start a family.

But we have one more adventure to relate, crossing the continent a final time in a rental car. In August, we returned to Washington sticking to back roads and secondary highways. Our first stop was Servente's Saloon in Sonora, a great bar in the western foothills of the Sierra. We spent our first night on the eastern side in the quirky Victorian Hotel in Bridgeport, near the ghost town of Bodie and close to the Nevada border.

The following day we crossed Nevada on Route 50, the Loneliest Road in America, a wonderful stretch of emptiness, 400 miles of scrub desert and a few starkly beautiful mountain ranges. That night we camped high in oddly verdant Great Basin National Park. In the morning we took a hike through a bristlecone pine forest out to a rock glacier. Bristlecone pines are said to be the world's oldest living things, some exceeding 5,000 years. When they finely do die, they leave exquisite skeletons of rock-hard wood set in grasping poses that seem to express the audacity of their attempted permanence.

Later in the morning we stopped into nearby Lehman Cave and admired its stalagmites, stalactites, and cave bacon. Delicious cave bacon.

From Nevada we went through southern Utah, passing through the gorgeous Capitol Reef National Park, crossing the Colorado River at sunset, and camping in Natural Bridges National Monument. We set up our tent under a terrific lightning show. The next morning we visited the Dinosaur Museum of Blandings. It was the perfect mixture of science and whimsy: fossils, models, and educational plaques housed side-by-side with movie posters and the brontosaurus model used to film the original King Kong.

After the dinosaurs, we paid a visit to the remains of the human ancients of Mesa Verde, Colorado. These people, ancestors of the Pueblos, lived for a short time (about 100 years) in caves under the high plateaus of the region, leaving impressive stone architecture and us moderns in awe.

That night we stayed in Durango and the next day we drove through the San Juan Mountains, stopping briefly at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison before descending into my former hometown of Boulder to visit our friend Lauren. The next day we walked through my old neighborhood and found my old school unused and in some disrepair. The cover of a time capsule I remember being installed lay on the floor. Its contents are still cemented into the wall, ordered not to be opened until 2030. We walked by my old house and wandered along the creek where I used to play as a kid. I felt old and somehow it all seemed unreal. Was it really I who had played along that creek?

In the afternoon we slipped out across the plains stopping in Kit Carson, Colorado and staying at the Wyatt Earp Motel in Dodge City. We saw our first police in days on Rt. 50 in Kansas and Hilary was promptly nabbed for speeding.

From Kansas we dropped down into Oklahoma and headed east. We found Oklahoma surprisingly pleasant. That night we crossed into Arkansas and camped in the Ozark mountains.

The next morning we had breakfast at one of the most charming cafes we have ever seen, in an old general store in Oark. We spent much more time in the Ozarks than we expected. We got lost on roads not in our atlas and our rental car's GPS was even less use than usual. But it was all worth it. The Ozarks feel magically lost in time.

We crossed Arkansas and rolled into Memphis in the evening. We ate and drank on Beale Street and the next morning visited the Civil Right Museum in the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was shot. It was as impressive as it was heartbreaking. We soothed ourselves somewhat at Leonard's BBQ, recommended by Ma and Pa Benson.

We crossed Tennessee on a southern trajectory over a couple days stopping in Chattanooga for fireworks and then heading north and crossing the Smokey Mountains. We made the rest of our way home on the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive through Appalachia. The weather was rainy and overcast but it was pleasant if seemingly endless. If you are ever in Fancy Gap, Virginia stop in the Lakeview Motel & Restaurant there and order the catfish. You will not be disappointed.

And so we ended almost two years of travel and the closest thing most people ever get to pure freedom. At first, Hilary was fairly skeptical of the idea, even resistant. The idea of not working appalled her. She thought we would be just drifting around wasting our time. I tried to convince her that we would learn and grow more by traveling together than any other way. I told her we had to have stories to tell our children. "Nobody, on their deathbed, says, 'Boy I wish I had only worked more,'" I assured her.

In January, on a school night, I lay down to sleep and was overcome by a horrible feeling in my chest. It felt as if I had a small but angry rodent bouncing around in there. I checked my pulse and it was rapid and all over the place. I ran out to Hilary who called 911. While we waited I was sure I was having a heart attack and might die.

I was taken to the hospital and was assured I was not dying. I was in atrial fibrillation, the non-lethal cousin to ventricular fibrillation. Uncomfortable, but not serious. After hours of less drastic treatments, however, they decided to zap me with the defibrillator to convert my heart back into a normal rhythm. The nurse hooked me up to the defibrillator pads and left to prepare a sedative/painkiller cocktail for me. In the meantime a tech came in to do a routine check of the machines in the room. Suddenly she flipped a switch and lit me up. I heard a faint hum and then it felt like my chest had been blown open with TNT. I flew up in the bed and started shouting, "What the hell is the matter with you? Are you crazy?"

All the doctors and nurses poured into the room and surrounded me as I gripped my chest. There were a few beats of silence, everyone's mouth agape, while they figured out what had happened. Finally one of them looked up at the heart monitor and said, " worked."

"Can I still get that sedative?" I asked, still in shock. Everyone was very apologetic and within a few minutes we were laughing about it.

It is not a great feeling, thinking you are about to die, but it does clarify some things. I know that there is nothing I regret less than marrying Hilary and crossing two continents with her. I would do it again tomorrow.