26 May 2012 § Leave a comment
We drove through Sacramento yesterday. At the city limits I remembered that Heeth’s father lived there, and that years ago I promised myself quietly that if I ever passed through, I would look him up.
Quietly because I didn’t know if I had the courage to do it. Quietly because Heeth’s mom doesn’t talk to me anymore. Quietly because uncovering old wounds hurts. There’s a dull ache in the middle of my body, where Heeth lives now. The Kenai cemetery on all but the nicest days is miserable and loud from airplanes landing next door. My hurt is much quieter.
“Thomas A Tyson” said the white pages. He was the only one listed. I pulled off the freeway, second-guessing the name of the man whom I’d never met. At the expense of Heather’s patience, I called the number.
Thomas’ brother Eric picked up. I spoke in jerky, emotional bursts, not knowing what to say. I double and triple checked that I’d found the right family. I mentioned Heeth and nearly lost it.
Get it together, Sean. It’s been more than ten years. What’s your problem?
It sounded like Eric wasn’t on the best of terms with his brother, but was happy to provide a number to reach him. He asked me exactly one question about his nephew. “Did you know him down here, or in Alaska?”
I dialed the number Eric had given me, knowing I was reaching out to the person I’d intended but still nervous. What would I say? It’d been ten and a half years since Heeth’s suicide, and years more since Thomas had much to do with his son – which was not a biological relationship; DeLia (Heeth’s mom) often referred to her son’s sperm donor, whose name began with a J, as being the cause of the greatest blessing in her life (mothers tend to say things like that), and Thomas as his “father,” or the one who was there for him, taught him what he needed to know, listened, etc.
The voice on the phone was young, lively, and half-interested. Like a schoolboy asked for a favor he didn’t feel like living up to, Heeth’s dad listened to me choke over uncertain words of recognition, to my reaching out to an unknown person related to a story I’ve not loosed my fingers from, and replied in a rehearsed tone, “I’m in the middle of family business.”
He wouldn’t be available for a week. A coffee was too much for him. Too little for me.
Of course. He’d done his healing. How could I have the audacity to bring up other family business when he’s working on more? I accepted his rain check, said it was good to talk to him anyway.
“Yeah, I can see that,” he responded.
I didn’t let the tears fall. I replaced the bricks and mortar I’d punched out of my wall a few minutes before, hung up the phone, and started the car. I got back on I-80, and kept going.
26 May 2012 § Leave a comment
I should just write a travel book. If Theroux and Chatwin could do it, why not Talbot? I would be the young opportunistic punk who took his youth to write something he thought extraordinary to become famous.
I have stories. And I keep hearing that if one doesn’t share the knowledge he gains over the course of his life, then his life is a waste of existence; so I might at well share them.
I wrote at a table outside an ice cream shop I bought no ice cream from, waiting for Heather to forgive me for entrancing myself in a bookshop in the middle of her tour of her first home away from Calgary. She had showed me a writer’s magazine featuring workshops and conferences presumably as motivation for my quest to make writing more of a career than a lifestyle.
I ignored her outright.
Not on purpose; had she brought me a copy of Rolling Stone, or a Twain title I didn’t own, I would have surely given her my full and happy attention. But I avoid writing progress like I do tourist gift shops in big cities. I buy my postcards at grocery stores.
Anyway, noticing that I wasn’t interested in her offer, she trailed off (which I felt bad for later), and I dove back into the self-deprecating-yet-elitist philosophy of the old traveler Theroux:
“In the best travel, disconnection is a necessity. Concentrate on where you are; do no back-home business; take no assignments; remain incommunicado; be scarce. It is a good thing that people don’t know where you are or how to find you. Keep in mind the country you are in. That’s the theory.”
– from ‘Ghost Train to the Eastern Star’
When I finally crawled out of my craving to hop on a train and returned the book to the shelf, she was gone.
I walked outside and sat down across the street, feet barely in the sun, feeling the late morning breeze wafting down Broad St., and waited for my beloved to find me.
Nevada City pines for its past while the cars parked on its sidestreets grow sleeker and more expensive. Chocolate shops, wine tasting rooms, art galleries, fine restaurants, and yes, many wood-paneled, grainscented bookshops live where businesses always have – in the perspectives of car hubs and under the fingers of curious children.
I was beginning, in fact, to be a fine day for business, 10 a.m. and bustling under the springwarm sun, when a man wearing thick-lens glasses walked out of the The Gray Goose, which according to the sign is where the margins between the sublime and the ridiculous live, tapped the overhead sign in some feat of accomplishment, perhaps for being tall. His whole six-foot figure dressed in greyscale slop, but he made and kept eye contact with yours truly until a breath later he asked “Want to hear a bad joke?”
I replied out of automatic curiosity – “I’d love to hear your bad joke!”
“What’s the difference,” he asked, “between Mick Jagger, and a Scot – you know, someone from Scotland?”
He gave me no time to answer, or think.
“Mick says ‘You! Get off my cloud,’ he sing-songed the Rolling Stone lyric for me, off-key. “And a Scot says ‘McCloud! Get off my ewe!”
The latter accent was a bad Mel Gibson as William Wallace impression, but I laughed anyway, and tried to remember the difference between an ewe and an emu.
By the time I admitted to myself that I didn’t know, the man had disappeared, my company replaced by Heather walking out of the ice cream shop. The perfect reason for me to put down my pen. Distractions abound on mountainperfect days, and no one has time for writing then.
22 May 2012 § Leave a comment
Moab: Less cool than in 1998 when last I visited for the week-long canoe trip down the Green River. There was a Jeep Jamboree that weekend – Wranglers with tags from all over North America parked in sales-lot lines in front of restaurants and mobile homes. I don’t remember the McDonald’s; I must have blocked it from my memory to remember Moab as the desert adventure town of lore.
Climbers, mountain bikers, backpackers, and river rats we Boy Scouts all were to some extent, exploring what of our native New Mexico offered our teenage thirst for adrenaline. Our thirty-something mentor Anthony, an EMT from Albuquerque and avid single-track rider, on stage at our scout meetings, told us stories of sandstone arches and curvaceous canyon walls that – he later told a few of us in relative privacy (in the shadow of 1000′ red cliff) – were “sexier than a woman’s hips.” I wondered if he ever said that to his wife.
He spoke of sleeping through the early 80’s in the bed of a Nissan nears Canyonlands National Park, biking and rappelling his days away, fueled by oatmeal and ramen noodles. He’d go into the wilderness for days by himself, “when I was an idiot,” on Friday showing up at a friend’s trailer with a six-pack to let them know he was still alive.
I was hooked. Envisioning a desert town with at a gas station, a general store, and just enough mobile homes to house the ex-groupie cashier, her various boyfriends and speech-impaired children, Moab was the place I wanted to spend my summers, armed with a bike, a backpack and rock shoes, to get away from the wide world of you-must-do-this and you’re-nothing-if-you-don’t-do-that. I wrote my own list of must-do’s; on it were ambitious goals like buying a Jeep with big tires and mastering downhill switchbacks on a bike without using brakes. Landing on top of one of Arizona’s Monument Valley pillars from a skydive and BASE jumping from there was number thirty-seven.
In 1999, a year and a half after the Green River trip, I moved to Alaska instead of Moab. The list only grew. There was snowboarding and ice climbing, there were glacier-fed rivers with rapids to run. One could walk for hundreds of miles without crossing a road, climb mountains yet unnamed, disappear.
Instantly, Alaska became home. The place I would live, leave, miss, and return to for adventure when she called, like an ex-girlfriend who wanted presence without strings. I was happy to oblige. But the Southwest to me childhood memories still. Sweet nothings. Could-have-beens. Possibilities. Future adventures.
The few times I’ve returned to Moab, Durango, the Pecos Mountains in New Mexico, have been in passing, usually en route to Alaska. I’ve had a few days in the area each time – to climb granite, perhaps a 14er, hike up Pecos Baldy, mountain board deserted jeep trails, but Time is the persistent mistress pushing for divorce. Alaska calls; my work is up north, the salmon smell their streams, and I must follow, catch and sell them to keep traveling.
And what does it say that I have not returned to the Four Corners, where my love for the wild cultivated into the need to see a little bit of everywhere, including cities fantastic beyond my dreams of what civilization is capable of? That I have ignored my roots for bigger mountains, deeper snow, and less mountain culture pretension?
Have I kept my fears too close? Would I end up staying here for years like Anthony did, doing only what I loved, even if it meant I couldn’t travel internationally? Do I just not love it enough? Or so much that I avoid it?
The “Moab guy” at the breakfast café Love Muffin, with his North Face shorts and tattoos of mountainscapes, tells his friends of massive waterfalls in the San Juans, canyoneering in slots nearby, and how excited he is for the shower when he’s done. It seems like his whole life is embedded in the layers of red, orange, yellow, white sandstone that surround us.
In my mind I criticize him and all of the other people here who wear the same clothes and talk the same shit, have tattoos in the same places, who wear trim beards and Chaco sandals. The girls wear tank tops, hair back, ripped muscles and Chacos too.
Culture reinvents itself everywhere. People are attracted to places based on natural surroundings, or in the case of cities, for lack of them.
Heather tells me that I blend in here. With my techie pants, unshaven face, athletic body. I am complimented and disappointed. I don’t want to fit in. I love these places differently. I love them so much that I won’t commit to staying in just one. But I don’t know the curves of the canyons like I could. I just visit them, love them, take their love, and keep going.
The wilderness knows me like women know me, and I know both equally, emphatically, passionately. We complete lifetimes in hours, days, weeks, and move on. Those I hold for longer – the Pecos, Alaska, Emily, Katie, now Heather, affect me deeper, call louder, love harder. I project their impact outward, learn [about myself] only what applied directly to them, such as how to find a good handhold, what line through a set of rapids to take, how to respond to hard questions, or how to take a compliment.
The parallels run for miles, I’m sure. But I’m in Moab with Heather only for a day or two, and we must adventure. So I’ll adjust the straps on my Chacos, and we’ll be out the door.
13 May 2012 § Leave a comment
Road trips mask themselves as journeys from point A to B, plus a smattering of magic and loneliness to make them unique. After all, driving 14 hours from Asheville to Kansas City wears out one’s sense of time as well as reality.
We reached the Mississippi River two albums after sunrise. Mark Twain mumbled something from my backpack as the car dipped behind Independence Arch at 65 mph.
Last time I rambled through there, I had parked at the fancy church, walked underneath the arch in ceremony (finally, the West!), and then north to explore the old train depot. I found an industrial district made of blood-colored bricks crying streams of sulfur for its past lives and busyness. On concrete stoops were erected tents with travelers snoring inside. Graffiti adorned the reachable surfaces in subcultured harmony – intricate two-to-twenty spray-can pieces complemented their neighbors’ space with sharp lines, smooth shadows, and fonts that reminded me of Boba Fett.
Before dawn we followed a dirt road for miles to find the stars. They were all there, south of a Missouri highway town, sparkling brighter even than when we last looked up in Panama, which seemed lifetimes ago. Trip-hop beat its way out of the Subaru’s window, and Heather and I danced in crisp air and blankets, open and naïve to the emotional sinkhole that would be Kansas.
Days later, we left my history behind. A childhood friend from Alaska who’d finally stepped out of the toxic setting of his development lives life in Kansas City in much the same fashion. My father just divorced his third wife, insisting to a fault that he has to take care of himself now. For 25 years, both my friend and my father lived in staccato sketch animation, whimsically flipping between the fluid extremes of right and wrong.
Witnessing their next steps of evolution helped me realize another consequence of my nomad lifestyle: with every new place I visit, I grow. Up. Out. Apart. Not everyone does this. I can only refer back to the me that knew them for so many visits before they see me for who I am now. I compensate for the distance between my loved ones and I with our shared pasts. When we sit at a kitchen table with our memories and abuses and bonding laid out in a game of dominoes, each of us are trying to fit us back together, number by number, shared experiences in threes, spinning on our metal bolts at different speeds.
I wanted to thank them, individually, sincerely, with love for those they hurt when they saw the numbers didn’t match anymore. For going with their hearts, whatever happens from there. The ripples undulating through their worlds will be fierce and fantastic. Someday someone will thank them.
13 May 2012 § Leave a comment
As the belly dancer tied her sash around Joe’s waist, he shook his leg trying to wake it up.
She wore dollar bills tucked into the straps of her sequined top, which wasn’t abundant enough to cover the suction cup effect of silicone breasts. Joe followed her hip movements as he recovered from his handicap, the whole restaurant watching cross-legged, in his lumberjack plaid and schoolboy-parted hair, smiling and not at all embarrassed. Our applause afteward was genuine – the 12-year-old took in the experience like an open-hearted traveler, and we three – Stuart his father, who the dancer took a quick liking to, Heather, and I sat enjoying our Moroccan feasts, admiring the young man who’d been everywhere already.
We cruised through Denver in Stuart’s Maserati under dying streetlights and past hipster bars with inevitably great tap selections. It was by far the fanciest car I’d ever ridden in, Stuart’s recent birthday present to himself, and begged the driver to ride comfortably. At 140 miles an hour. Anything less in that sleek monster was a sin – if only cops recognized that.
That afternoon we’d traded travel stories and artifacts from around the world. Joe brought me pieces of his treasure while his dad gave us a photograph tour of a trek in Nepal. They reminded each other of where and when a carving came from, told us of Egyptian towns bulldozed for archaeological excavations – undermining of the present permitted by a government that saw more value in its nation’s distant past than in its culture now.
They’re going to Peru this summer, and Joe was adamant about my joining their expedition up the Amazon. I told him I would love nothing more.
Heather and I landed in Salida, Colorado, which for some reason is pronounced ‘Sa-lye-da’, similar to how Alaska’s displaced coastal town Valdez is pronounced ‘Val-deez’. It seems white people have problems with the Spanish language.
She on her iPad – both the bane and boon of my philosophical compass – found among the town’s accommodations the Mountain Motel, a peaceful and kickin’ spot with wood-ceiling cabins that inside feel both like city studio apartments and remote self-built lodging. The view is a liquor store, but the atmosphere and the festive, friendly owner, Irene, were convivial enough to keep us here another night.
But just one? I feel like I could live here; drinking and writing by morning, adventuring afternoons and nights. ‘Salida’ translates to ‘exit’, or ‘departure’. From the lives I’ve chosen to lead and pursue, staying in this high mountain valley for a while would be a welcome recovery.
On our way to breakfast, an old cowboy mistook us for someone else, and as repentance invited us into his church. They were giving away free stuff – a garage sale with cookies instead of cash. Heather and I walked out with full stomachs and festival gear. I grabbed a LEGO man on the way out. A local climber headed up to climb Denali told us of some spots around town to climb.
Since we first traveled together – nearly a year ago – we have found magic more consistent than polka-dotted. I’d like to think it’s been because when something feels out of balance, when the energy is wrong, or something in us says ‘no’, not only are we usually in agreement, but also are open to the next possibility, unknown as it may be. When an idea – a place to stay, a city, a theory on how people work – feels right, we know it immediately. We know we’re not settling for less than what we’re searching for.
Individually, we want nothing more than to thrive. It so happens that we do that together.