A Journal of Life Pursued

Archive for the ‘Adventure’ Category

“…not of the world of me.”

In Adventure, Philosophy, Religion on November 10, 2015 at 6:11 pm

I had coffee with a friend last week, a novelist. I’d just read a draft of a new book he is working on. It’s a historical novel, set in the middle east in the fourth century. It deals with, among other things, the rise of the early Christian church. Although my friend was not aware of it, I know a thing or two about that place and time. I liked the book and was expressing my enthusiasm.

“You know,” I said, “the major world religions, those that were founded, came out of either the hot desert or the frozen mountains.” He looked at me intently. “And we know,” I opined, “that the desert breeds madness, and the mountains, isolation.” He said he’d never thought of it that way. But I had. “Nobody,” said Mohammed, “becomes a prophet who was not a shepherd first.”

There is that old adage that one is either a beach person or a mountain person. (I guess it’s like being either a dog or cat person.) In this context, perhaps one is either a desert believer or a mountain believer. I know my generalization is not entirely correct. The Buddha came out of the Gangetic plain, but his philosophy got the most lasting purchase at altitude. There’s no such thing as beach believers as far as I can tell, other than golden surfers, but that is a different strain of worship.

If pushed, I’d have to declare myself a mountain believer. That will come as no surprise. That is not to say, however, that I discount desert madness as a practice in insight. Not that one would want a steady diet of it–it didn’t turn out so well for John, the Baptist. It is no surprise that William James’s great work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, is subtitled, A Study in Human Nature. Give me the mountains and what comes out of them, that is my nature. This is not to say that the desert doesn’t hold appeal. My first trip abroad as a young man found me eating with a family of Bedouins in the Sinai. If the desert was in the offing, I wanted to be on the move like those people.

Three years ago while hiking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal I came across a holy man living in a cave, attended to by his sister. I paid homage and received a blessing after making a small donation. His cave was filled with iconography and statues. Outside the wind roared; prayer flags flapped. I showed a picture to a friend. “That’s not what I expected,” he said. I think he was expecting something more like a cartoon in the New Yorker.

The isolation of the mountain believer can be dangerous. The Dalai Lama claims that his nation fell to the Chinese because the remoteness of the Tibetan Plateau had made them a backward country, to use his words. Perhaps. It is more likely the Chinese would have invaded regardless of the degree of modernity Tibet had achieved. But dangers persist, regardless, national and human.

Belief without empirical evidence is fundamentally an effort in delusion. I suspect the mystic would not argue with this, the madman wandering the desert with the wild beasts, the recluse scraping by in the mountain enclave. I am envious of such commitment. Go up Cold Mountain and find the great Taoist sage, Li Po: “You asked me what is my reason for lodging in the grey hills: I smiled but made no reply for my thoughts are idling on their own; like the flowers of the peach tree, they had sauntered off to other climes, to other lands that are not of the world of me.” Flowers of the peach tree, indeed.

Restlessness is a god of liberation.

In Adventure, Life, The Examined Life on November 4, 2015 at 6:31 am

I have no notion where I will be this time next year. This is not a statement of philosophy. I’m not suggesting one of those squishy notions like, We have no inkling what the future holds, or, Embrace today, for tomorrow may never arrive. Nothing like that. It is a simple fact, I have no idea where I will be this time next year. Next spring, Carole and I are moving into our Airstream trailer and will become nomads.

I do not trust most things to be as they appear on the surface. I am not a skeptic nor a cynic, necessarily. I simply know that things are most often more than they appear. On its surface, this is a trip to explore North America. I’ve seen a good bit of the world, but not as much of home as I’d like. We plan to rectify that. It’s not an original idea, the road trip in search of America. The majesty of the purple mountains and all that. Too, I am a traveler. I have been a traveler all of my adult life. This pending road-trip makes sense in that respect. But these seem surface explanations.

I started thinking along these lines when it occurred to me that in 37 years of marriage we have owned and lived in six houses. The longest stay in a single dwelling was not quite ten years, when the kids were little. I have never served in the military, never moved from base to base. Nor did I work for a corporation that sent me hither and yon. Six houses, six moves, all of our own choosing. Spring will be six years in our little place here on the water in Maine. And now we are picking up and going. Again. Packing up our few belongings, renting out our home, and heading out for parts unknown, as Twain referred to such adventures.

Restlessness is a god of liberation. Tucked deep into the twists and turns of our deoxyribonucleic acid is the urge to get up and get going. That is what kept our ancestors on the move, out of Africa to all points north, south, east, and west. Most of us have grown adept at suppressing this urge, myself included. Yet there are tell-tail signs that I’m not completely successful at this suppression business. There is boredom, for instance. Boredom is the road sign you notice on your journey to a quiet ending. If you notice it at all. Liberation, on the other hand, creates a ruckus. Say no to quiet endings.

And then there is repetition. Repetition is the agent that removes what I call our innate peripheral vision. That is, as a young person the world is broad and the horizon expansive. We are born with full peripheral vision. But the very repetition of existence triggers the lessening of that world, the shortening of the horizon. Day-in and day-out becomes the sum view of things. My shit detector begins to beep when this starts to happen, when the edges move in. It appears that it takes six or seven years for me to hear it.

* * *

 I haven’t posted here in over a year. For those of you paying attention, I apologize. I am sorry to have just walked off like that. But as you now know, I have a basic aversion to repetition and I was beginning to repeat myself. And, yes, occasionally I grew bored too. Stay tuned. There is adventure ahead.

The Benefits of Opium

In Adventure, Travel, Writing on February 19, 2013 at 6:00 am

Perhaps we should consider travel as metaphor? Another travel vignette:

A Sadhu, Holy Man of India

A Sadhu, Holy Man of India

Dhdhundaly, Rajasthan, India:

By mid-morning the village elders in Dhdhundaly were comfortably quite high—and anxious to get at it again.

No sacrament, no wine, nor bread–but opium, consumed in liquid form, concentrated and filtered, like a stoner version of Mr. Coffee-the-Divine. As this is India, there must be a spiritual reasoning at work—consequently, with a flick of moist finger, an offering to Shiva is made. The priest-elder pours the dark liquid into his cupped palm. It sits high and brimmed, like mercury might sit. He offers his hand to the squatting man on his left. The squatting man sips, then slurps it gone. Smiles follow. With the palm refilled, another offering to Shiva, and the next man is offered the mix and so on until it was the priest-elder’s turn. A deputy takes over and offers the elder a righteous palm-full. He sucks it down in one shot, like a thirsty sponge. He exhales and shakes his head. He makes noises like a horse in early morning stable. Again, he motions, as if to say, “Hit me.” I notice how red-rimmed and stoned his eyes are. There is an electricity in the air. We are sitting behind a wall in an open garden, the morning grows damp with humidity. The elder smiles at me and twists the ends of his moustache. He instructs his assistant that his guest not be overlooked.

Alas, in liquid form opium takes a month or more to work its magic–so I am told. One must be a faithful practitioner to really enjoy its benefits. Benefits? Why just look at him, says my guide. The elder is over 70 years old. See how young he stays? He seemed to be looking through me by this time, deep into his practitioner-addiction nirvana. I sip. The liquid is bitter–then, being the good pilrim, I brace and finish it off. Stoned smiles all around. A tin jar is passed containing golden nuggets of raw molasses. I am advised that it absorbs the bitterness and is sweet on the tongue.

If you should ever ponder the difference between tourist and traveler, know this: the tourist doesn’t drink the opium.

Birth of a Pilgrim

In Adventure, Memoir, The Examined Life on February 6, 2013 at 6:00 am
Mountain Man, Jeremiah Johnson. (No Robert Redford.)

Mountain Man, Jeremiah Johnson. (No Robert Redford.)

I am fond of the word pilgrim. For instance, I used it here just yesterday: “Travel, for a pilgrim on the road to the examined life, can be as important as the books you’ll read.” Recently I closed a correspondence with: “I’m not sure if any of what I’ve said is true or even accurate–I’m just a pilgrim.” The first time I recall hearing the word used not in conjunction with Thanksgiving was in the Sydney Pollack movie, Jeremiah Johnson. That was 1972 and I was seventeen years old. It is meaningful that I remember. The movie had a profound impact on me. In it a grizzled old mountain man named Bear Claw Chris Lapp (played perfectly by Will Geer), upon first meeting Johnson (Robert Redford) says, “You’re the same dumb pilgrim that I been hearin’ for twenty days, and smellin’ for three!” And later, toward the end of the movie: “You’ve come far pilgrim.” To which Johnson replies: “Feels like far.” Bear Claw asks, “Where it worth the trouble?” “What trouble?” Johnson replies. (The movie is based on the life of mountain man, John Garrison Johnston–or, as he was better known, Liver-Eating Johnston.*)

I was so captivated by the landscape portrayed in the movie that I sat through the credits to note where it had been filmed. I had to go there, wherever there was. The Unita Mountains of Utah. The following summer I took my first plane trip, leaving home in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and landing in Salt Lake City, where I made my way into the mountains. Consequently everything changed for this pilgrim. Everything. A life of curiosity pursued was hatched.

As an aside, the word pilgrim is related to the word peregrine, from the Medieval Latin, peregrinus, meaning wanderer, or migratory. It is the word we attach to our fastest falcon and is, in my imagination, a visage of feathered purpose and ability.

George Santayana said, “The mind of the Renaissance was not a pilgrim mind, but a sedentary city mind, like that of the ancients.”  This captures the spirit and intent of the word for me. The “sedentary city mind,”  it would seem, is a mind that knows it’s place, recognizes the task at hand, and moves toward accomplishment. That is how things get done. The mind of the pilgrim, however, is restless and its profile is one of longing, of motion, perhaps aimless motion, advancing toward a grail of the imagination. To the kid  in the theater in Ft. Wayne, the message was clear: You are not a Renaissance man, you are a pilgrim, and it is time to cast off the fetters of suburbia and its expectation of confinement.

My worldwide perambulations have tapered off, but the mind remains unfettered and still roams widely. There is no rest for the pilgrim. Perhaps, I hope, you understand this?


* Johnston as scout led a party through Crow sacred territory. (Some accounts say it was Sioux territory.) Consequently, the Crow Nation declared war on him and sent its best warriors to kill him. Despite repeated attempts, year after year, the Crow braves failed in their mission. Johnston killed them all. The legend holds that he would slit open the dead warrior, remove the liver and take a bite out of it, leaving the organ behind, his intimidating calling card. The movie depicts the transgression, depicts the attacks, but fails in complete veracity by leaving out this business of liver snacking. That’s too bad. I would have liked Redford to show a bit more belly fire in his roll. If this sounds too Hollywood, it well may be. The very nature of mountain-man Johnston’s life is such that pinning down the truth is near impossible–a fitting end to a pilgram’s tale.

The Road from Machu Picchu

In Adventure, Memoir, Travel on February 5, 2013 at 6:00 am
Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu, Peru

Travel, for a pilgrim on the road to the examined life, can be as important as the books you’ll read. For some, travel trumps everything. I understand that, and for many years practiced it accordingly.

My daughter, Allie, a kindred spirit, lived in Peru for six months in 2006. At the end of her job there I flew down to visit and travel with her. I hired a guide and we made the pilgrimage through the Sacred Valley, stopped in Cusco, then took the train to Rio Urubamba, the village at the foot of Machu Picchu. I thought you might be interested in this little vignette from that adventure. I found it in a journal of that period, a recovered memory.

Allie, the train to Rio Urubamba

Allie, the train to Rio Urubamba


The bus back to Rio Urubamba from the summit of Machu Picchu carries about thirty people. It is a precipitous journey from the summit. The road switches back along the dusty 8km route maybe 15 times, plunging here, leveling there before dropping again. The trip down takes approximately thirty minutes.

We–Allie and I–arrived at Machu Picchu for sunrise. Our guide ushered us through the ruins and, four hours later, after

Huayna Picchu

Huayna Picchu

the tour and Allie´s summit of Huayna Picchu, we took the bus down the mountain. I looked over my shoulder at the receding ruin and could not help but think that I would never see it again. Dark mood.

At the first switchback a group of young boys waved at the bus and hollered. We waved from our seats. They were dressed in bright orange capes, traditional-looking outfits, and shook their arms in the air. They were animated. The bus trudged on leaving them in a cloud of dust. They closed their eyes and covered their mouths. At the next switchback one of the boys reappeared, again shouting and waving his arms. I thought it curious. The bus continued down the mountain. Then again he materialized, seven or eight minutes later at the next switchback–and again, appearing out of the forest, waving, shouting, then rushing downhill into the jungle, an orange blur. After maybe a dozen turns and untold vertical feet we came upon the bridge across the Urubamba. He darted out from the left racing against our flank and rushed in front of the bus, charging across the single-lane wooden bridge, arm extended as the bus roared on. Alas, on the other side, the driver stopped, the young boy jumped aboard, not even breathing hard, and shouted into the bus. He extended his purse. We bus passengers, amazed at his feat of running down the mountain, chasing and beating the bus, dug into our pockets and dropped our coins into his hand. I held out a candy as well. He looked at me and smiled. His eyes were big and brown and he snatched the candy and moved past us down the aisle. He sang goodbye and disappeared into the crowd at the station to a round of cheers and applause. This is the stuff of travel, I thought.

Oh, the places you’ll go…

In Adventure, Travel on January 14, 2013 at 6:00 am


The travel section of yesterday’s New York Times reminded me that I was once a traveler. The specific article prompting this observation is called, The 46 Places To Go in 2013. Of the 46 places listed I’ve been to eight. That is not a bad average, I guess. I used to be a regular and steady country counter and was full of myself a few years ago when I had to have more pages sewed into my filled passport. Bragging rights no longer motivate me, and the travel bug, as some call it, has lessened, albeit, all but disappeared. As I said I was once a traveler, which is like saying, I was once a dancer but don’t have the legs any more.

(Perhaps some day we will discuss the distinction between the traveler and the tourist.)

In the same Times section is an article by Paul Theroux (b. 1941) called My Travel Wish List. The piece was tagged, “The Man Who’s Been Everywhere, Except These Places.” I was pleased to discover that I’d been to at least two places on Theroux’s wish list, places he has yet to visit, Bhutan and the Seychelles. (Seychelles travel piece.) He also comments that he’s never been to Maine’s northern-most, and remotest county, Aroostook; nor has he climbed Maine’s Mt. Katahdin. (“Come ‘on, Paul. I’m a Maine Guide, let me show you!”) I’ve admired Mr. Theroux’s writing for years, and applaud his curiosity-driven life.

“Travel is a state of mind,” he writes in his essay collection, Fresh Air Fiend. “It has nothing to do with existence or the exotic. It is almostfresh.air.fiend.001 entirely an inner experience.” To the non-traveler this might seem odd, even contradictory, but it rings true to my experience. First travels taught me the artificial nature of conventual education. History, geography, language, literature, culture–they all combine into a monolithic “inner experience” when one travels. “Experience and travel,” wrote Montaigne, “these are as education themselves.” Travel of the right order affords one a unique perception regarding the net of experience. In that way it is not unlike a hallucination, where one caresses the stars while sipping champagne. Odd things are perceived, understood, and accepted, transforming the traveler. The world will forever be perceived differently henceforth.

What happened? Where did my passion for the world go? There is no answer at the ready for that question. Travel has been as important to my life as the books I’ve read, if not more so. Is it, as a friend suggested, that in coming to Maine I arrived at my destination? Perhaps, but that seems too pat an answer–and does not lessen the sense of mourning. Perhaps the restlessness of a younger man has been exhausted–at least the physical restlessness. I find this answer close to truth and sadly disconcerting, for I value the quality of restlessness and think it an attribute worth cultivating. It seems not much of worth is accomplished without a healthy dose of it. I do not know an antidote, nor think one likely, for this condition. I find it quietly upsetting and do not think too long on it.

I invite Mr. Clemens to contribute the last word:

1244“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Thanks for reading,