Category Archives: Life Philosophy

Borderland

The drone hung low in the sky as the road curved back to Fort Davis. It hung in the sky on a faint line tethered to the ground somewhere out in the desert. A mile away…fifty? It’s hard to judge distances in Texas.

It was white and metallic. It was a lurking thing and a lonely-looking one, too, in an odd way — this man-made bird up there with the kestrels and an occasional passing cloud.

High desert plains

High desert plains looking back at Marfa, TX

Lonely road outside of Fort Davis

Lonely road outside of Fort Davis

Famed and desolate Pinto Canyon road outside of Presidio

Famed and desolate Pinto Canyon road outside of Presidio

I first saw it a week earlier as we drove north from the U.S. border town of Presidio. We climbed over the mountains and into the high desert plateau on our way to the bustling railroad town of Marfa. It was further off then but still waiting in the air, hovering high above the purple mountains that frame the town.

This isn’t quite like the killing drones we’ve been hearing about lately. It’s for surveillance along our border with Mexico and is officially called an “aerostat” or “drug blimp,” as locals dub it. During the day, this faceless bird stays motionless. At night, it combs the border with its infrared sensors for body heat, tracking suspicious cars with its eyes above the clouds.

It’s pretty spooky.

Marfa's old courthouse

Marfa’s old courthouse

Old theatre

Old theatre

Old hotel

Old hotel

Local flavor

Local flavor

Of course the weirdness has worn off on locals. Now the drone is just a part of the landscape; a new cloud in the sky that formed soon after 9/11 to make us safer.

Maybe it has, maybe it hasn’t.

What’s more certain is that things in West Texas are different now. Continue reading

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Thanking The Turkey

Yesterday was one of my favorite days. I don’t think I’m unique in loving Thanksgiving — there’s just something about the ritual of sitting around a table with people, be they friends or strangers, sharing food together. I like passing the potatoes. I like the community. I like the idea of us collectively taking a big breath in as a nation and thinking about what makes life truly rich.

Nothing says thanksgiving like a homemade sign

A great looking table for fifteen

After-dinner fiddle and folk songs

The most beautiful pie

Last year, I spent Thanksgiving fresh off the trail, having spent two weeks camping in Utah’s canyon land, and was amazed to wake up to warm toes and hashbrowns in Prescott, Arizona.

This year, I was just at the bottom of the hill at a friends’ house here in Tamworth, New Hampshire. They have a wonderful bond with their neighbors and so all were over for the good meal. Most of the food, in fact, was all grown by them in their shared garden — potatoes, beets, celeriac, squash, brussell sprouts, kale, onions. The cranberry sauce was made from berries harvested up the road (in the local bog!) and even the turkey had been raised and butchered by them.

Taking down this season’s turkey pen with gratitude and some relief

Farm stand all boarded up for winter

Cows earlier in September watching me watch them

New eating technique: get inside the trough

We’ve even got locally-grown mushrooms (these are “blue oysters”)

And locally-made biodiesel to run our farms! 

The funny thing is how normal this has become to me — to be eating what you grow and raise. I knew nothing of plants and animals when I lived in Chicago. I couldn’t tell you growing seasons for vegetables. I paid no attention to how far my blueberries had traveled to my table. I didn’t know that cucumbers are sort of spiky and I certainly had no clue how to kill a pig.

More poignantly, I can recognize a change in my relation to meat. I see what I eat as animal now — not just as a strange, never-living protein object. The fine bones in a salmon’s muscles remind me that he once fought his way upstream. The chicken once tucked her head into those buffalo wings. The fatty bacon strips were once a pig’s belly, laying lazily in the mud. Continue reading

What We Leave Behind

“We create stories and stories create us. It is a rondo.” — Chinua Achebe

“If no one knows you, then you are no one.” — Dan Chaon

I’ve been in New Hampshire almost three months and there is plenty to say about this place, work on the farms, and various other going-ons. But, I’d like to dive into something else tonight.

I started writing this a few weeks ago. It’s about my grandmother. She passed away in April and would have just celebrated her 91st birthday. I’m living in her summer house now in Tamworth, a small town on the edge of the White Mountains. I’ll save the rest of the catch up for another day…

Tonight, going through her books underneath the grandfather clock, I discover more than a library of novels. It is a library of a life. There are cards in pages from old friends, daughters, grandchildren. “Mom, we thought you’d like this one,” tucked into a book on tennis. “Went to the bookstore together in search of a good story for you,” a note from Jenny and Steve reads, “it was fun spending the time thinking of you and what you might like to read.” “To Joan,” writes another Steve, “I have so enjoyed our friendship over the years. You are truly a special woman. I hope you enjoy reading about my year in Vietnam.”

Then there are her own notes. Raven’s Children was “written by a young man met in Chocorua tennis tournament, Sept 1993.” Or, sometimes, there’s just a record of outside opinions — under Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code: “Sus + Jacques think terrific; Chele Miller did NOT enjoy.”

But what really gets me are the notes she has scrawled in pencil on the covers of two Red-Tails in Love, A Wildlife Drama in Central Park copies. “Do NOT give away,” says the paperback. “Please return,” says the hardcover. Curiosity gets the better of me and I steal the hardcover up to bed to read (it’s pretty good).

A year ago I sat at the table behind me and talked to her. I had brought a recorder so that I could get some of her stories right (and have her voice telling them). What was it like growing up in Boston and Honolulu? To be the star of the Cambridge Skating Club and recite the words to Aloha ‘Oe?

There’s just something about the way she could tell a story. I’ve listened to that recording a few times since she died. There’s some relief in hearing it — hearing her humor, the cadence of her voice, how she would put things.

On the recording you can hear the rhythmic ticking of the grandfather clock (as well as the washer going and a steady hum of a lawnmower). You can hear me leave the recorder on while we sit back — interview over — and she starts moving around the kitchen, asking my Mom something, telling me, over the sound of a faucet, that it’s nice I care to know these things.

I’m here now with the same clock ticking, the lawnmower, the washing machine, the faucet — all are here, but she’s gone. She’s buried in a cemetery down the road. She’s next to a boulder that used to be in the driveway; a stone her late husband Bill used to always back his car into (another good story of hers).

They say we don’t leave this world with anything but ourselves, and that’s true. But there are things, many things, we leave behind.

Continue reading

Pele’s Island

Well, I haven’t written a word about my two months on the Big Island. I could blame it on the sparse internet and the black hole of cell reception that was my corner of the world but I’d be lying. I wanted a break; a chance to just feel out the place and see what emerged.

The issue now of course is that so much has happened, in my outer and inner life, that I’m at a bit of a loss for how to say it all. How can I describe falling asleep in my Kapoho shack, the tropical nighttime music of coqui frog, ocean, and confused rooster just outside the screen crowing at the moon? How can my words show you the dirt road twisting through the lush mango grove only to open onto the dry wasteland of a raw lava field? Can you see the tiny ‘ohia tree with its red blossoms emerging from that new rock?

I told my uncle my quandary when I made it to his house in Honolulu in April. How do I say it all, uncle? “You don’t,” he told me. He’s right, of course. You just “talk story,” as the locals call it, and let the stories go where they want to…

An active crater at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

A Kapoho shack

A pink blossom covered road, tucked away in Waipi’o Valley

The first thing that hit me about the Big Island, stepping off the plane from cushy L.A., was its rawness. Clocking in at under a million years old, Hawai’i is the youngest of the Hawaiian islands. (The oldest, Kauai, is six million.) Both originated from volcanoes and coral polyps where a new species might be introduced once every 20,000 years. (If you want to read a really dramatized version of this creation story, check out the opening chapter to James Michener’s 1959 classic novel on the islands.)

The Big Island is still in the active volcano stage with three of its five volcanoes going strong. You drive around and get to know places by what used to be there. “Oh, here was Kapoho town,” they say, and all you see is the gray black of the 1960 lava that took out the railroad, the general store, the homes, the cemeteries, everything. “Oh, here was the Royal Gardens, the famous black sand beach of Kaimu with its shady coconut palms.” Now, where there was ocean meeting sand, there is dried a’a (Hawaiian for “stony rough lava;” pronounced “ah ah,” like the sound you would make if you had to walk barefoot on it) extending for a mile to the sea. Continue reading

I’m Transcontinental

Well, I’ve made it to California.

Five months ago I sat with my Mom on a pier overlooking the Boston harbor. Last night, I walked down the long hill to Black’s Beach in La Jolla, San Diego and touched the blue Pacific.

View from on top of the hill (photo by Stacy Williams)

Sun beams over Black's Beach (photo by SW)

Beach walkers at sunset

Surfer boy and gull

It is a beautiful and overwhelming feeling to be here. From my drive west watching the country change to my time in the four corners (Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico), I feel, as the writer Annie Fitzsimmons says, “simultaneously powerful and insignificant.” She was talking about Arizona, its landscape and mystery, but I think it captures well the transcontinental journey.

I’ve been here over a week and it still hardly feels real. I left the quiet, snowy mountains of New Mexico on a Monday, found my first palm trees outside of Tucson that night, and then saw the ocean the next day. I ran to greet it in Santa Barbara, the Channel Islands luringly visible on the horizon.

Leaving snowy New Mexico

Black and gray silhouettes and pier

Under Scripps Pier #1

Under Scripps Pier #2

I’m in San Diego now, camped at my friend Stacy’s amazing grad student apartment on the edge of the ocean that I still can’t believe qualifies as University housing. I can hear the waves as I write this.

There are lots of things that can stir my soul but nothing comes close to water. I am a fish. Before this year, the furthest I’ve lived away from something I can swim in was four miles, and even that seemed far. I completely understand the man in Big Fish whose wife finds him in the bathtub one night, soaking while still in his pajamas. “I was drying out,” he tells her. (It also is one of the most touching scenes between a husband and wife, I think, in film.)

And more than just any water, I am near The Ocean. I can smell the salt and feel the faint moisture in the air. I can watch the surfers run to the waves and start to climb them. I can end my day and watch the orange sun descend below the horizon as a dolphin, feeding close by, watches too in between its breath and dive. Continue reading

The Secret To Life Is Two Things

“And what’s the secret to life?,” I ask Gary one warm December night, half-joking, half-curious what he’ll come up with.

Gary's self portrait, hanging up in his trailer-turned-art-studio.

We’re sitting around the table at the ranch. Gary’s lives next door, and is the only neighborhood drunk (and there’s many) Ella would allow at the house when her daughter was growing up. That’s because the man’s got charm. He may be “pretty pickled,” as Ella puts it, but there’s still just something about Gary.

So when he comes a knocking on the kitchen door, we’re quick to let him in, pour some whiskey, break out some homemade bread, and sit down to hear a story…or two.

Small portion of Gary's collection of "antique" cars and trucks and semis and trailers and caterpillar construction equipment...

He’s six and he’s growing up, “a mountain boy,” in Northern California with his “Pa” and brothers. They’re dirt poor. They wake up and it’s “three punches before chores” so they can learn to fight right with their fists. His father, on the stoop of their shack, leans forward in his chair to look at the fire and ask him “Boy, is that coffee burnin’?” And that’s all Gary remembers about that.

He’s ten and is ready for his own life. He leaves the shack and goes out into the woods. He survives and finds his way around mountain towns. He learns to drink at thirteen from some “Canucks” in southern Oregon. He turns sixteen and goes to San Francisco to join the Navy. He sees it as his ticket to the world. On his tour, they stick him working in the naval ship’s boiler room. He loves it.

Old bus circa-1950s to fix up and take his art on the road

Continue reading

“It’s a Great Place to Meet Someone”

I wrote this a while ago but held off posting it. Now, on the eve of starting my journey West, this feels like the right story to share…

I didn’t know Tyler well but we were a part of the same family of sorts in college. A really rambunctious, adventuresome family — known affectionately as “PWild” — that loved to take incoming freshmen backpacking every fall.

I got my first taste of PWild as a nervous, wide-eyed freshmen in 2003 when they bused us off to the wild woods of Kentucky to hike around for a week. I came back dirty, confident, and with the key to fall quarter freshmen happiness: friends.

I was hooked, became a counselor, and was out in the woods every fall for three more years to help a bunch of really great kids jump start their own college experiences.

Along the trail in northern Minnesota - 2004

"The Rock" at Northwestern after PWild got to it - 2004

Exploring Michigan's UP lakeshore - 2006

PWild was more than just these trips to me. It became my lifeline in college. It was my bat phone to like-minded, loving-life people who knew when to take a break, when to get serious, when to reflect, and when you were in need of just a really good big spoon. It’s also the family that showed me what a marvelous place the woods can be and how it can open you up in ways that is sometimes harder to do in the day-to-day spaces of life.

This spring brought devastating news that Tyler, a former PWild counselor too, had died in a sailing accident. Words can’t really express how news like that hits you. The overwhelming feeling was this: “please no, not Tyler.”

Because Tyler was special. He was warm, fun, smart, strong, handsome, and wise. Most importantly, he was someone who, in the instant you met, you knew had a grasp on life. He found joy in everything and everyone. And it radiated out through his big smile — one friend called it his “soul shine.” Continue reading