The Wandering Scientist

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Tag Archives: exhaustion

I love you, highways

Written: May 20, 2013

About: driving around the United States

American highways, I love you.

I do not mean this in a cheap, tired, greeting-card way. Not in the way of lust. This is not a childishly romantic story. I want to sit with you and watch the world age. I want your dust, your gravel, your grass, your revolving skies, your sunsets and sunrises, your deep silky nights and the blazing afternoons.

I do not know the moment I fell in love with you. It may be that I have always loved you, even before I met you. I do know the moment I knew. I looked into your eyes – the eyes of a diner waitress at a truckstop somewhere in the California desert, perhaps outside that bastard Barstow – and could not look away. You served me home fries, greasy eggs, and a side of five hundred miles of hot gravel. You were perfect in that moment. You have always been and always will be.

I know you are not some mindlessly naïve teenager. This is not an adventuresome memory vending machine, press a button – get a pretty postcard. There have been rough times. There was that one time a tire exploded on a big rig on I-75 in Florida. The shrapnel sheared the side mirror clean off the car right in front of me, and showered my windshield with hard burning rubber.

Once, on I-84, in the mountains between Portland and Salt Lake City, I got caught in a vicious, slushing snowstorm. The snow stuck to the road in thick layers, whipped up by the eighteen-wheelers into a foam that coated my windshield, leaving me blind as I was approaching a turn. I could not see, but I had to star turning. If I turned too early, I would be mangled under the truck. If I turned too late, I would plunge into the frozen crevasse. But I was graced with a safe journey, and here I am, saying to you, I love you.

For every dark moment – blinding fog on the bridges East of New Orleans – there is a myriad wonderful ones. I know not to take you for granted, I know you cannot be reduced to any one thing, and I know to take the sparks with the storms.

There is the sun rising over downtown Baltimore, and then setting over the Georgia swamps. The Texas prairie, the cliffs of California, the red soil and the brilliant blue lakes of Shasta mountains. The first time I drove West, I saw the sun setting in Texas, somewhere between El Paso and San Antonio, a particularly empty part of nothingness. That was the first time in my life that I had even approached the desert. The view was so stunning, I simply had to, had to stop. I got out, leaned on my car, and watched you slip into darkness. You were flawless.

I love you, highways.

Rocketing along a busy interstate in California, pulling over on the shoulder of a deserted Arizona highway, I feel unconstrained, I feel my own. With the point of origin many miles behind and the destination whole tanks of gas ahead, I feel detached from the minutiae, solidly in the immediate right now. In your vastness I have found the realization that I am both infinitesimally insignificant and brilliantly my own. Out on the road, the sense of self comes into the sharpest relief.

The air is rushing by, I’m chasing clouds, and my lips settle into the slightest upcurl. Lane markings skipping by like blips on an old record. Truck stop coffee and gas station hotdogs, a sense of carefree lightness. Thoughts take on the long shapes. There is a sublime rhythm to this experience, a heartbeat of the tires bumping on the pavement, the long continuous breath of the wind humming on the edges of the car. This is the place. This is the place I want to be, and I always miss.

I love you, highways, and I will never stop.

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Steel City Blues 2012

Written: April 2, 2012, in DC

About: Pittsburgh, March 2012

I have recently taken an extended break from blues dancing. It was not for the lack of love for the dance, or an injury. In months prior, I have found myself drifting along a bland trajectory through the dances, often feeling powerless to change my direction. This experience was even more frustrating because I had been feeling more connected to the art and the music. Yet the dancing itself seemed to be slipping away.

I had also wanted to get to know the people with whom I had been spending all this time. In the midst of a dance party, when the music flows thick and loud until you are too tired to stay on your feet, it is all too easy to just slip from dance to dance. You get to know the beautiful intricacies of someone’s body, but hardly see the elegant folds of their mind.

I dubbed it my blues fast and intentionally went to dance events and did not dance. It was excruciating at first. I did not realize just how ingrained this routine has become. Sitting at home on a Thursday night as the clock ticked past the hours of Backroom Blues felt surreal. Then came the meditative acceptance. I would sip whiskey at the bar and chat with the dancers taking a short break. The last couple weeks were filled with practically childish excitement.

I decide I should come back with an overload, and so I decided to return to blues at the Steel City blues exchange. Two days of practically nothing but dancing, drinking, and friends, all else optional.

And Blues, she took me back without a moment’s thought. The draw was instantaneous. When I got to the first dance, the air was already thick and heavy. The walls were dripping with music and low lighting. I went up to the bar and asked for a shot of vodka. The old man on the other side looked around, picked up a wine glass and filled it half-full. She must have missed me, she really did.

I closed my eyes for a dance and the swirling time took me into the late midnight hours. It was all rhythm rhythm sway. It seemed like all it took to get through the evening dance was a single breath and a single pull on that vodka. Then it was off for the blues late night.

The place was pulsing. It was hot and sweaty and alive as hell in there, and no one would stop. Everyone was submerged in the music and the dancing even when they were not on the dance floor. The blues pooled and coiled on the floor, drawing everyone into the deep end. You could sit on a sofa with your feet drawn up, but the blues would snake up the furniture legs, wrap around your waist and shoulders and pull you back in, pull your head under into the sweet dream.

I switched to the whiskey flask in my back pocket. Beads of sweat roll over my eyes and my lips. I lean out the window and timidly kiss the dark beyond. She is cool and coy and lovely. Runs her fingers up my spine and through my hair. Before I can blurt out something about love and immortality, she silences me with a single finger tip on my lips and then slowly, deliberately, pushes me back on the dance floor, pushes me back under the swelling tide of blues.

Blues, that sweet junk, it flows into a familiar vein freely and easily. It never left. All along, I have been right here, in this embrace, on this breath, on this beat.

The heat and fire of the dance floor are hard to bear and I escape into the soft blanket of the deep night to cool off. We sit on the sidewalk and blissfully talk for what seems like hours. Or maybe just a few minutes. It is hard to tell the time. The mind wanders off in the company of someone close. Another dancer comes out of the building and starts playing a harmonica while meandering about place, between cars and people. Everything is framed by flashing marquee lights.

I have rearranged the time.

The trip does not end on the drive home. It does not end on the sweet goodbyes, or the midnight kiss, or the dinosaur Mr. Rogers. The breakfast of Elvis and pancakes is not the finale. Neither are the arresting Catholic cathedrals. These are all at the center of what happened. Warm layers wrapped tightly around the core, where all is good and peaceful and I am not alone.

I rearrange the time so that everything ends with me taking a rest on a shaded lawn on a clear afternoon. The grass is soft and cool and a perfect compliment to the flawless blue sky. A gentle conversation floats over us like a lazy balloon. The sun is enjoying its afternoon stroll through the clouds as much as anyone. We lay and we talk.

And then I am home.

A Santa at Mardi Gras

Written: May 16, 2011, in DC

About: Mardi Gras in New Orleans

“Time to pick myself out of this mud,” I thought. Mostly, in a metaphoric sense, but a bit in the direct sense, too. I had to walk through a muddy lawn to get on the highway. Yes. Walk. Highway. At about four in the morning, dressed as a jolly Santa Claus, I am crossing the Mississippi over the Route 90 bridge in the emergency lane on foot. In a few moments, flashing lights of a police cruiser will be upon me. I know I’m far from the weirdest that the NOLA cop has probably seen, but I’d like to think I have registered at least a few clicks.

About twenty-four hours ago I was about as happy and exhilarated as I could be. I had arrived in my new love – New Orleans – to spend the weekend before Mardi Gras with someone who had completely blown my mind. I rode in on a Greyhound bus with a crowd high on dreams of jazz. I was blues-dancing on a balcony on St. Charles. Over the next twenty-four hours, I will be completely crushed as my connection to this person is utterly shattered. In an act that is both unintentional and heavy-handed in its symbolism, I will be wandering around a cemetery.

At the moment, I’m just here, at the point where the strange, the miraculous, and the terrible waves all collide and crest. I’ve been abandoned. I’ve lost most of my money. My credit card blew away into the river and no one is answering my calls. Somehow I have the apartment keys, but can’t afford the cab ride there. The buzz of the party and the alcohol is wearing off. Now it’s just me and this cold, cold bridge.

The simultaneous juxtaposition of the two extremes – complete happiness and complete heartbreak – is bewildering. My mind reels, unable to comprehend the scale of what is happening. At times like these, it’s best to simply focus on walking. Breaking down – in a pour of tears or alcohol or both – threatens to destroy me in a way that would be unrecoverable.

It’s best to just focus on the immediate reality, and the tighter the focus the better. There is nothing to be done about lost loves and money when you are wandering the dangerous streets alone. The cop picks me up and puts me in the back of the cruiser to drop me off on the other side of the bridge. I try to chat him up but barely make any sense. He points me toward Bourbon Street and peels out of the gas station.

Of course – of course – this is where the most interesting part of the evening actually begins. The city is still full of people – as it should be in New Orleans – and even away from Bourbon Street I come across groups of people in the mood to celebrate. In my giant Santa suit I’m the thing to celebrate. People rush up to me, give me hugs and ask for presents. Everyone takes pictures and videos. Lascivious posing with a gay couple. Gang signs with a crowd of street thugs. A group of college students some of whom turn out to speak pretty good Russian. Family people (yes, in New Orleans even family people can be out until five in the morning drinking). I don’t have a single picture from that night, but a myriad of stranger have stacks of them.

Interesting note. When asking for presents, most people asked for world peace. Maybe it’s because when one is bathed in the drunken and cozy glow of New Orleans, it is hard to ask for anything else. Maybe we are not entirely doomed as a species.

In this manner I walked the length of Bourbon Street. Hung around on a corner with three flirtatious black guys in nice suits and then got into a cab and made the final (and affordable) ride to the empty apartment. I opted to walk the last few blocks, greeted by the sun and the neighborhood rooster.

And I just stood for a moment on an empty street corner.

With the rising sun, the sweet afterglow in my heart, and the presence of New Orleans thick and saturated all around me, this moment was simply right. It was joy, terror, exhaustion, hope, dream, soul… Naked, honest, utterly vulnerable. Everything rolled up, pressed together, distilled and purified like the finest spirits and the dirtiest sweats, the moment was flowing into every nerve ending. This is why I had come here, this weird, twisted, right moment.

On being away

Jan 24, 2011

En route to San Francisco

I’ve only been home for a few days, after a dash across the Atlantic and a mad time in New Orleans. I’ve gotten a bit of a somewhat regular sleep schedule – being back in Tucson after a near month absence has obligations that I didn’t expect but appreciated. It was a lovely comeback and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Yet that didn’t last long – I drove to Phoenix and jumped on a plane heading to San Francisco, with only a few things, about four hours of sleep, and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, on loan from my roommate. The story of a young writer bounding around the country, immersed in the road and the blues, had a certain irresistible appeal.

I’m in a bit of a conflict with myself over all this. Somewhere in the back of my mind I have the quiet desire for little more than a pair of warm rounded shoulder to lean on, the sort of embrace where you can easily miss an hour or a whole afternoon because you merely blinked… Strange that this is exactly what I’d found among all the thousands of miles. Life, of course, is strange and unexpected in its best moments.

The other part, of course, is the one jumping at the road, the side that keeps the bag by the door at all times. There is a mad allure to the road, some sort of predatory instinct to keep moving, to constantly search for new friends, places, tastes, visions, and stories. I don’t mean the stories of my adventures, but rather the stories of the people I come across. The road is lined with innumerable hearts, and each one has got words in it. In precious moments they open up and speak. Most of the time, the communication is not verbal, but much more subtle and accidental. It’s another traveler slumped on a bench. It’s a shy loner awkwardly sitting at the bar. It’s the kindness of strangers and incredible coincidences. The desire for these things becomes so zealous that sleep and food begin to slip away from me.

After several days on the road I find myself exhausted. I sometimes forget to eat, and sleep is minimized. When I do sleep, I actually sleep better than ever. The hours of rest are short, but an implicit understanding between the mind and the body make the most of the brief respite. The body finds reserves of energy that I could not imagine even days earlier. I find myself in the sort of spot where I simply have to keep moving. I feel a hard physical crash thudding right behind me. I just know that as long as I have something to do – work, conversation, dance – I can keep going almost indefinitely. So I keep standing, grinning. A great sense of freedom is to be found in this delirious exhaustion, and this sense makes all the misery worth the while.