The Wandering Scientist

Just another WordPress.com site

Tag Archives: picturesque

California sun

June 11, 2014

San Jose, CA

The evening light change is gentle in Southern California. There is a sense of the sun rolling into the ocean even if you are miles from the coast. Everything is bathed in soft orange light. The sky is clean and taut, stretched like an aged cotton shirt.

I walked back to the hotel along the First, with the evening trains and buses occasionally trudging past. Elsewhere, the end of the day is hot and dusty, it feels done, a day that just wants to make it home, pull off the tight shoes and the strangling tie. This evening was wearing a linen suit, and it stopped by the cocktail lounge for a cool beer and to say hello.

Advertisements

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.

Carless in the Midwest

For two weeks, I am living out of a hotel in Urbana, IL, visiting lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Since the hotel is only a ten-minute walk from the lab, and car rentals are kind of outrageously priced, I don’t have a car. I am carless and foot-bound.

To be sure, there is actually public transit here, and the bus traffic seems to be pretty busy. But for some reason, I’ve never felt comfortable with buses the way I am comfortable with subways. (I can see where the trains go. There is only one tunnel. But when a bus leaves that stop, it’s free to roam the whole infinite grid of a city.) In any case, after arriving here I decided to embrace the fact that I will have to walk everywhere. I have good feet and good shoes, and walking is what our ancestors did, right?

Fortunately, Champaign-Urbana seems to be a fairly compact city. Downtown is within a thirty-minute walk, and Green Street (the obligatory collection of cheap booze and food within a close proximity of a college campus) is less than twenty minutes. The weather is tolerable – the afternoons are on the warmer side of things, but that’s just an excuse to get the second beer when I get to wherever I was going. The nights are outright pleasant.

Having a car always at my disposal had grown into such an attachment that at first I felt rather unsure about how this was going to work out. The possibility of walking for thirty minutes instead of driving for five was a bit uncomfortable, especially in an unfamiliar city.

However, two things. First – smart phones and Google maps make it almost impossible to be lost. I can easily estimate the route and time before I leave, and I can always reassure myself of my location and direction when I am out. Second – there is something incredibly liberating about getting to my destination and being able to simply walk in and enjoy the spot. I don’t have to scour the place for parking or worry about getting tickets or towed. Living in DC may have traumatized me in this respect.

Not to mention that experiencing the city – any city – on foot is radically different from experiencing it from a car. Doubly so if you are the one driving. As a driver, you live in a tunnel until you park the car. As a pedestrian, you are completely free to examine every oddity, enjoy every bench, and pull into any bar just because it has a cool sign. I’ve come across street art, beautiful scenes of classic urban abandon, and the spot where wild flowers are growing furiously around a railroad bridge. In a car, these things wouldn’t even exist for me.

And there is the breathing.

I feel like I can inhale these streets. The hot gravel, the dusty grass, the peeling paint, the half-century-old cars, the lived-in neighborhoods. I feel like I can take a bit of Urbana back home with me, in my lungs, in my every fiber.

Sunset in the Texas Prairie

Written: March 2, 2011

About: the Texas Prairie, which I am currently traversing

I have crossed the Texas Prairie many times. Several times by car, many more by plane. The view from the skies is actually fairly unsatisfying. The view from the car is much better, but I am constantly distracted by having to pay attention to driving. The highways may be exceedingly straight, but there is an occasional mountain in the way.

Living in Arizona, I have learned to love this tremendous, vast emptiness. The Sonoran desert is just as featureless and beautiful. There is a sense of serene personal dissolution that is almost instantly meditative. The landscape is soft, minimalist, and ends far beyond the eye’s reach. It is just a near infinite expanse of land, exceeded only by an even greater sky.

This time I have the advantage of crossing the Prairie on a Greyhound bus. I have the benefit of being only feet away from the brush without the hassle of having to steer. Instead, I have the luxury of paying attention to the scene.

The sunsets in the Southwest are renowned. As everything else in nature out here, the color scheme of a sunset is as simple as it is powerful. A sunset is made of gradients, various shades of red, yellow, and brown.

My first time in the Southwest was when I moved from Florida to Arizona, driving almost the entire length of I-10. A sunset came upon me in West Texas, and I was so overwhelmed by it that I had to pull over on a pile of gravel and take it in for a little while before getting back to the road.

In the midday sun, the Prairie is bleached. The sun is so intense and bright everything is washed out, thinned out, like a wispy water color painting. There is an indication of shapes, but the colors are but polite departures from white. As the sun leans toward the horizon, the shadows begin to accumulate in the brush. Colors return vibrant and intense. It is now a rich, thick blend of yellows and browns. Everything becomes textured. The scene becomes so saturated with colors it is almost visually tangible. It is a place to rest my eyes in peace.