The Wandering Scientist

What a lovely world it is

Tag Archives: travel

A shadow upon oblivion

Written on: March 2, 2018
About: Philadelphia, February 19-20, 2018

     Monday night I drove to Philadelphia. I set out from my home in Adams Morgan in late afternoon, making my way through successive convulsions of traffic. As I drove North, the night advanced, bringing darkness, fog, and rain.
     Fog’s first appearance often goes unnoticed, I feel. At some point, I’m already surrounded by it, unsure as to when or how the fantastical transformation has occurred.  I find myself a bit like a character in some old folk tale – I have wandered down the usual path, lost in thought. When I looked up, all was changed, and I was in a realm far removed from anything I have ever known. When I turned around, but the path was gone, and even the country behind me was unrecognizable.
     And so it went. At some point, having passed Baltimore, I had noticed the wisps of fog already grown thick. I could not say when it befell the land. This was mist country and that simply was it.
     In Philadelphia, I had dinner with my friends, brief and served in plastic to-go containers on account of my much delayed arrival. Absence makes the shared meals grow more toothsome, and as I have not seen this pair in quite some time, it was a delight.
     Our plan for the evening was to go to a blues dance, where I was slated to play the closing DJ set. Going last I find much preferable. I myself function better as the hour grows late, able to tap into a sort of wakefulness only available in the unlit hours. The dancers, too, tend to have found their groove, gotten a bit more tired and a bit less self-conscious.
     The venue was a small art space in a stark and unglamorous neighborhood. A sliding garage door took up almost an entire wall, so the chilly night outside had a noted presence inside. A wood-burning stove near the dance did offset the frost a bit, but while my friend and I hung back as things got underway, jackets and scarves were still out.
     I feel a surge of nervous, erratic energy when getting ready to play in a new space and for a new crowd, still. Maybe, hopefully, always will. So I itched for a draw of whiskey to help even my keel. On the one hand, I regretted not bringing my flask. On the other, I would have been the only knocking back, and that feels like bad form. Anyway, I felt better a couple songs in. Nina Simone and Howlin’ Wolf will always set you straight.
     In the end, we filed out into the cold feeling light and perspiring – a room full of dancers will do as well as a furnace. The fog hung along the upper floors on the narrow streets, grim and orange from the sparse street lights. “Murder fog,” I joked, and we got into the car.
     Then, dreams.
     We all woke up early, ready for our respective working days. I found Philadelphia looking rather like the Great American Novel – gray and gritty, wet from a meaningful rain, all iron and brick, tragedy and triumph monumental in their anonymity. The low sky hung on to the slick rusted roofs. After breakfast, I got on the way and drove South.
     The fog was thin in the city, but grew thicker as the highway swung low toward the Chesapeake, ever more substantial as I dipped into the Susquehanna river valley. By the time I got out on the tall bridge, the mist blotted out everything.
     I could see the pavement and the railings, and the busy traffic tunneled a path of relative clarity, so I could see forward well enough. There was, simply, nothing else – no river beneath, no river shores, no sky, no horizon. Looking away from the cars directly in front of me, all was a perfectly even, featureless, colorless, woolen absence.
     A most delicate breeze must have been coming from the sea, up along the river. Motion of the fog, of course, could not be noticed, but that tunnel bored by the cars, the narrow absence of fog, was getting pulled and stretched away from the bridge. A line of sight launched in this direction found nothing by shapeless grayness.
     This ragged, tattered shadow extended up and away. Like some ancient ghost, its ash-colored corpus drifted against the flat white oblivion of the mist.

PS I now have a Facebook author page, to whatever end you all may use it.

Advertisements

The Wandering Postcards

Written (first draft): January 10, 2016

About: New Orleans, Dublin, Grunow …

I like sending people postcards. I love writing all sorts of letters, but postcards give me a very particular kind of satisfaction – perhaps as a way of reaching out to a friend in a meaningful way even as I am on the road, away from the comforts of my own home. And so while away, I pick up an occasional card, affix a memory and a stamp to it, and drop it in a box.

It is around Christmas that I get serious, though. With a list of addresses, I scour the gift shops of whatever city I happen to be in for a couple dozen cards, then roll into a pub and begin writing.

Of course writing the cards during the holidays themselves – and then sending them by international post – means they often don’t grace their addressees until after festivities have ended. At first, this was simply inherent to the idea of sending cards postmarked in some exotic location, where I myself would not arrive until Christmas was already in in full swing.

On one particular year, I was sitting in a river-side pub in Dublin, sheltered behind a few empty pints, an array of cards in front of me. I attempted to feel some guilt about sending out my Christmas cards well after Christmas itself, but the concern felt embellished and foreign. And somewhere in that Guinness fog I stumbled upon the idea that, perhaps, writing the cards “on time” would be a wholly different experience.

I would either be rushing to finish them between work and dinner and sleep, or squeezing them in between weekend tasks. Christmas might be a single day, but mentally it takes up the whole month – figuring out gifts, working out travel details.

Away from the trouble of the daily grind, swaddled, as I was, in the comforting drift of holiday nights, my mind is freer to wander. Solo travel in particular is an experience where time becomes elastic. With the ordinary constraints gone, it is easier to appreciate both the perspective and the instant.

In every city, you can find a small round table stained dark with a thousand drinks. The lights are what they are; there isn’t anything to be done about that, so I manage. There is someone to ferry me pints to fuel me through this lovely task – I’ve been through a myriad pubs, and this arrangement should seem ordinary, but here this feels like heavenly fortune. Everything is done with a smirk, a nod, and a hip-popping lean. Memories require unrushed leisure, and these places are built on it.

Memories – that is the stuff of Christmas cards.

I sit and think on my friends. However long we have known each other, and however often we speak, it all weaves into just one incredible tapestry. Writing these cards is a rare time when I get to unroll the whole thing and marvel at its expanse.

My mind – eased by the drink, the low lighting, the foreign setting – travels back to the spots of time spent with a particular person. Back to when we drove across the desert in the night, or inadvertently invaded a museum when it was closed, or climbed a mountain to watch the sun rise over the valley because the night had expired and it didn’t even occur to us to just go to sleep.

The anchor of time cut loose, I savor these moments over and over, these radiant mileposts of my life. When I measure the distance between them and now, it is not with a sense of loss or sadness, but with a sense of greater assurance of who I am.

With every new card, I feel taunted by its blank space. Have I really known this person? Have I been a half-decent friend? Is sending them a card an imposition, unwelcome and presumptuous? Yet almost every time, the last lines become cramped, reeling and squirreling from the page’s end. Apparently, there is always lots to remember about and say to everyone.

There is an arc to these cards. They start out neat and sensible, and end up odd and frazzled. For every coherent, intelligible recollection, there is a hand turkey, a dinosaur attacking the postcard scenery, or an absurd limerick. All, however, are heartfelt in equal measure.

I sometimes wonder if the cards form a sort of jagged extended narrative. If I laid them out end to end, perhaps they would make some sort of sense. After all, they are all borne of a singular mental movement, and occasionally thoughts spill form one card to the next.

I am glad I have you to write to, and to you all I raise this pint. And this one, and this one, and this one.

Midnight fog on Mississippi

Written: December 29, 2014, in Orlando, FL

About: New Orleans, the night of December 27

Fog rose up from the night-time Mississippi in tongues like ghostly flames. A low wind drove this fog, it slid over the levy and then lapped against the squat buildings of French Market. In places, the fog piled up, rising in a wispy columns. Gnarled and twisted, they rose up until they joined the low clouds, which themselves were held up by the glowing high-rises of the Central Business District.

The docks of Algiers, across the river, were but a disjointed collection of lights and angled roofs. Someone began to imagine them, but did not quite finish, and so they floated on, primeval and hypnotizing.

The wind picked up, and the fog grew into a shapeless behemoth that charged the shore. It moved fast, and almost instantly the levy disappeared, swallowed up. The lamps glowed weakly, like distant frozen comets. The massive wave of fog breached the flood wall, broke up into a legion of shadows and apparitions that rushed into the streets of French Quarter, growing ever more invisible with every step, every leap.

As the surge dissipated, it left behind a ragged sheath of fog, showing the water beneath. It looked taut, rough, grey, and wet, like the skin of some vast, languid animal dreaming under the fantastical cloak.

In all of this, Natchez, at her night dock, appeared as if behind a ward – completely free of the fog. The water around her sides was a pure, glistening black. Her light shone brightly, their clarity made more brilliant by the chaotic and unfocused world of the fog swirling around the ship.

All Souls 2014

Written: December 14, 2014 in Washington, DC

About: November 2, 2014, in Tucson, AZ

My mother called me late at night. My grandmother had passed away. She kept her composure, but the unusual raspness of her voice betrayed the grief. We spoke briefly. She made plans to fly back for the funeral. This was not possible for me.

You always hope that this call would come at a time when you are in a comfortable, safe place. It never does. You are at a birthday party, or eating breakfast, or pumping gas. I was at a laundromat. The phone call left me wiped out and numb, but I had to stay in this place until the spin and dry cycles all finished. It seemed absurd and grotesque that instead of profound, this moment was menial and full of strangers. So it goes.

At least it was in the middle of the night, and I could escape into the empty street for some relief.

A heaving loss was lumbering somewhere beneath the surface of my consciousness, but I could not quite figure out what it was that I had lost. My grandmother had drifted into the fog of Alzheimer’s long ago. Even then, she was left behind that brutal watershed, immigration. In my mind, she had become a fable, and her departure only confirmed her mythological status.

Next morning, compelled by childhood memories, I got up early, went into the kitchen and started cooking. The sun peeked over the roofs and found me with a tall stack of bliny, warmed by the gas stove, as it had often found her. The clouds were turning red and gold, a sight to share with my grandmother. I learned to make bliny by watching my grandmother do it thousands of times.

I have previously been considering going back to Tucson for this year’s All Souls Procession. Now this became an essential, vital need.

***

A mass of humanity – thousands of people – has arranged itself on Tucson’s 6th Street as the desert sun rolled away. It had stoked the afternoon heat, but with the soft darkness drawing upon the city, everything and everyone felt unburdened and refreshed. Filling the streets as a vast flood, we have come for death and remembrance. We have come here not in sorrow, but in unity.

Many carried memories of those who passed away in the last year. Anything from a small pocket photo to costumes to large family gatherings carrying altars adorned with lights and icons. The Urn took up its place at the head of the Procession, filled with letters written to the departed.

Shared sadness turned into great joy. People formed a mad, often bizarre tapestry of costumes, masks, and painted faces. A mesh of music coming from stereos and musicians hung over the gathering. Yet friends still found each other in this chaos. Time passed in smiling conversations, punctuated with excited greetings and hugs. Then by some command, more felt than heard, the crowd shook, the drums kicked up, and we began to move. The sidewalks – the banks of this human river – were packed with onlookers, waving and cheering on those walking.

Somewhere in the thick of it, the pipers of the Tucson Highlanders blew their pipes, lofting that perfect sound of steady hearts and hallowed memories. We followed the thin ghost of their distant sound.

As we followed the pipers, the procession pulled into an underpass beneath a railroad. The entrance into narrow concrete tunnel was ringed with people hanging off the guardrails and the top of the bridge. It was a portal made of humans. The pipers drew themselves up, and launched into Amazing Grace as they descended.

The concrete underworld vibrated and bucked with the power of the music and of the people singing, cheering, whooping, dancing, stomping. The walls beat with our hearts and the lights shined brighter. Sorrow burned and evaporated away, leaving behind only the joy of remembering those we love.

The memories of my grandmother welled up in my chest, too compressed and entangled to pick them apart. Rather, I remembered her, and what it was like to be with her. This feeling pushed out against my bones, burst upward, roaring. I lifted my head and I howled. I howled and I howled I howled, with tears in my eyes, with all the sadness and the longing and the love, until it all emptied out of me, until the pipers led us out of the tunnel, back into this world, back into the crisp night, our river flowing steady between the human banks.

I was in a place removed infinitely far from grandmother. In a foreign country, in a strange desert, a small human in a giant ritual that was unabashedly grotesque and alien. Yet then I was as close to her as I have been in the hot summers of my childhood, on the cool riverbanks, in the green orchards heavy with cherries, in her small kitchen, watching her cook an endless feast for a gang of grandchildren.

Later, in the leery midnight hour, feeling fresh from a monsoon that passed through us, we found a street vendor serving up Sonoran hotdogs, in itself a small tradition. In this safe harbor, we stood around making cheery small talk with the woman while she prepared our food. On the other side of the cart, obscured by a shifting cloud of steam, a beautifully painted Katrina stood leaning on an old cab, another haunt, another apparition.

All Souls 01 (edit 800x480)

I despise air travel

I despise air travel. I’m writing this while sitting at the Orlando Airport. I am delayed by about five hours because my flight was oversold, and I took the bullet (and the generous travel voucher) so that some other poor soul wouldn’t have a meltdown in the happiest place on Earth. If you ask me, overselling flights during the holidays season is an insidious practice.

Mind you, I am not afraid of flying. I am not afraid of heights and confined spaces. I actually enjoy that kick from the engines at takeoff. Flying is, in no uncertain words, magical. Common air travel, however, stabs, tramples, and poisons every bit of this magic.

Security. I still giggle when I take off my belt and shoes. It feels like a bad dream where you end up naked in front of the gym class, everyone laughs, and you want to die from embarrassment. Everyone else is either annoyed or takes it too seriously. I guess if your day consists of hunting and eliminating a stray shampoo bottle, those are your only emotional choices.

The airports are just sped-up, anxiety-driven malls. There are two states of being at the airport. The first is madly racing through the crowd to catch a connection. The other is a slowly creeping stupor of being trapped in a glass cage for an indeterminate amount of time. If a connection is more than an hour, it might as well be some sort of slow mental torture. Simple decisions become awkward exercises in mathematics. Are forty-five minutes enough time to get a hamburger? Use a restroom? Sit down in a restaurant? Everything is gaudy and fake. Reality devolves into something shapeless and weird. You are caught in a loop, where the reality replays itself every five minutes. Every repetition is somehow both more boring and more terrifying than the last. There is the constant fear that you have somehow missed your flight, even though it’s still two hours away. The concept of “hour” has stopped making sense a while ago, though. It may have become a negative unit of time. You may become trapped here forever.

I’d recommend stranding someone in an airport for a day or two as a means of “enhanced interrogation,” but by this time they may lose their self of identity so completely, they will be of no further use. At best they’ll be able to recite the standard public safety announcement and guide you to a Cinnabon.

The airplanes are cramped. I half-expect a sturdy stewardess to put a put a booted foot squarely on the chest of a patron in the first row and push, just to see if the passengers can be compressed just a bit more, and another sweaty family covered in suitcases and Goofy neckpillows could be squeezed on board.

I am not a man of excessive frame, at 6″ and 190 lb. Not diminutive, but surely not of unreasonable proportions. Yet I still feel like most airplane seats are a prank, and somewhere, someone is giggling hideously while I try to arrange a folding tray, a book, and a scampering bag of pretzels. I’ve given up on trying to use a laptop. I just end up curled in unnatural ways, stabbing myself with hard plastic, at mercy of the person in front of me who might decide to lean back slightly at any moment and crush my delicate arrangement completely, with grievous consequences to my person and property.

Air travel is overwhelmingly pedestrian and offensive. I may extend my policy of “I’d rather drive” to about twelve hours. If I have to have another six-hour stint at an airport, I become temporarily rabid.

I hate flying. Someone, for the love of all that is good and holy, get me out of here. My flight is boarding in an hour, and I don’t know if that’s enough time to safely get a hamburger.

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.

Frozen air in Grünow

Dec 30, 2010

Grünow, Germany

My first time in Grünow, and this is as wonderful a winter as I could wish for. It has been snowing around Berlin (Grünow is about an hour North of Berlin) regularly through all December. With exception of a couple brief thaws at the beginning, it hass stayed below freezing. While there is a treacherous layer of ice beneath the snow, it’s been worn through on all the major streets. Thin sheets of ice also cover all the trees. Heavy accumulation of ice and snow has broken a lot of trees and branches, temporarily shutting down some highways and railroads in the area. Though frozen, everything has been back to normal, more or less, for about a week.

Yesterday I witnessed something I have not seen in a long time – an extra-cold front rolled through and froze the air. The temperature outside dropped from -5 C to -9 C in about an hour in the middle of the day, which is an unusual swing for the area. The physics is quite simple. When the temperature drops that quickly, past the dew point, the moisture remaining in the air doesn’t have time to condense somewhere, and so it forms droplets right in the air. This is how fog is formed. Of course, if the temperature is already below freezing, it’s a frozen, icy fog. Which looks far more ominous than regular fog.

I first noticed that something was off as we were driving home from a restaurant. I was looking at a hillside where some clumps of earth were poking through the unperturbed white snow. The country here is mostly farmland, so huge plots of snow go untouched for days except for a few animals that cross them.

My eyes followed the clumps up the side of the hill. As the hill rose, the clumps became less visible. However, they were not being covered up by more snow. Their obscurity was smoky and distant. More disturbingly, the clumps faded by the hill did not seem to end. It simply rose infinitely into where the sky should have been. There was no sky. The hillside simply extended into the whiteness that now included that whole side of existence.

As I looked around, I noticed the same whiteness creeping over the distant objects all around. Trees, houses, other roads, everything was slowly dissolving. This did not seem like a fog, or a low cloud, or a snowfall. Fogs and clouds have a texture to them, and a snowfall has movement. This manifestation was almost perfectly even and motionless in its distribution. Everything simply faded and dissolved, became erased.

The temperature continued to drop for a couple more degrees, and the frozen fog set in with greater intensity. As it thickened, all that remained was the stretch of the road ahead and the row of trees following the sides of the road. Everything else was at the most a shadow reminiscent of the object’s existence. Further out, the white fields and hillsides merged seamlessly with the equally white sky.

At first, I have to admit, this brought with itself the uneasy feelings of alarm. Things were disappearing, and even the sun itself was powerless to get through the freeze. For a while, it hung in the sky as a dimly lit token of its presence. After a while, however, even this sunk into nothingness as the sky became increasingly even. Though these feelings did not last long.

All became peace and simplicity.