08 November 2008

My New Favorite Sacred Site

The Colestine Valley, in the Siskiyou Mountains south of Ashland, is home to the Tashi Chöling Center for Buddhist Studies. When you first encounter this beautiful Buddhist temple and garden, with a 35-foot-high statue of Vajrasattva, as well as two 20-foot statues of Green Tara and White Tara, you feel fairly certain that you've left Oregon and entered the Himalayas.

Adding to the illusion, you're greeted by primitive-looking woolly creatures, which it's quite possible to mistake for yaks, but are actually alpacas.

Then llamas--the double-L kind. Then deer--lots of babies and their moms.

On October 25, my birthday eve, we drove down to Mt. Ashland and through about 6 miles of gorgeous forest road until we came to a clearing with huge poles of prayer flags flapping in the wind. A 4-story traditional Tibetan temple loomed on the hill in the distance...and a 35-foot Vajrasattva is...well, hard to miss. We walked through the gate into the gardens, then later made our way up to the hilltop, from which we watched a beautiful fall sunset, toured the interior of the temple, and snapped about 500 photos between us.

As visitors, we were in exceptional company. Over the course of the years, many great living masters of Vajrayana Buddhism have visited and taught at Tashi Chöling, including H.H. Penor Rinpoche, Dodrup Chen Rinpoche, Yangthang Rinpoche, and Yeshe Dorje Rinpoche. Currently the center is under the guidance of Gyatrul Rinpoche, a delightful lama whom I met at a Tibetan cultural festival last month.

In 1980, the great master His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche came to bless the land where Tashi Chöling now stands, saying, “Those who practice here sincerely will have the opportunity to obtain the rainbow body.” The temple's scriptural library is said to house more Tibetan sacred materials than anywhere else in the US.

In the photo above are a large grouping of prayer wheels. Tibetans use these chokhor to spread spiritual blessings to all sentient beings and invoke good karma in their next life. I had never before (in this lifetime) turned a prayer wheel, so it means a lot to me to have them in the town where I find myself for now. Until I reach the land of many prayer wheels, a bit north and east of Ashland. I have this slated for sometime after Alaska.

(Though I am ever so hopeful that when I go to Alaska, I'll be able to see Tibet from my house!)

10 September 2008

Photo Today

One from the archives...I was flipping through old photos and came across this one, which brings me a lot of joy. It dates back a bit, to a visit we paid to Santa Fe's most famous stupa (the town is fortunate enough to have several), located at the KSK Buddhist Center on Airport Road. This place has so many memories for me. I've shot it as both part of a documentary film and in hundreds of stills, and I've spent many hours in amazement, gazing at its walls and ceiling inside. Truly one of the most awe-inspiring spaces I've ever seen. It was the place that first introduced me to Buddhism, back when I discovered it in 1992. And where I became educated about it, by working in and reading books from its store, Noble Peace.

And the photo of course brings to mind my Tibetan godson, Tenzin Rigdol, who lives in exile in India and has never been able to see his home country.

Two days ago, as I hung the first set of prayer flags in my new house, on the Thai pagoda in the backyard (yes, there really is one), I realized that I'd bought the flags in Santa Fe, thus completing some sort of circle.

And tonight, as I check the clock, I realize that in the city in whose shadow I was raised, it's now 9/11. And I send out prayers for all NYers and everyone else who is still feeling the effects of that day.

03 September 2008

Photo of the Day

When I visited Portland this summer, I took a bunch of photos in this warehouse area not far from the Pearl district. I turned a corner, and this woman was sitting so wonderfully poised in her way-cool 60s dress. While my subjects are usually less in the realm of the living, I couldn't resist this bit of street photography. Ah, the punch of those orangey oranges against the neverending expanse of grey and cumulo-storm-o in the Portland sky...

01 September 2008

Graver Matters

I never thought I’d be walking around an old cemetery listening to Bonnie Raitt do a sound check, but if there’s anything this year has taught me, it’s that life brings lots of things you’d never expect, suspect, or even inspect. This odd concurrence took place today in Jacksonville, OR, a historic district not far from my new home, which had once gained fame as a gold-mining town, the first Chinatown in OR, and now as an outdoor stage for the ubiquitous Britt Festival, which brings in all kinds of national artists. Like Bonnie Raitt. Now, I’ve seen Bonnie before, eons ago in Albuquerque, and have not been terribly impressed. However, I have to say that she provided a very interesting soundtrack to my cemetery stroll. “Let’s give ‘em something to talk about,” she bellowed. Where I was, no one was particularly chatty. Except for a very annoying woman walking her yellow lab, who insisted on calling, “Here, Skippy!” at the top of her lungs, such to wake the dead. Good thing these guys were sleeping but tight…they’d been under since the mid-19th, some of them.

This landmark graveyard is divided into sections, including those for Jews, Catholics, Freemasons, Improved Orders of Red Men (a fraternal organization with rituals modeled after Native Americans’—of course, the white men “improved” on them), Odd Fellows (odder than white guys parading around as Indians?), and City “fathers” (somehow their moms gained admission, too). I spent a lot of time hanging out in the Jewish section placing pebbles on headstones, as is Jewish tradition to signify that the grave has been visited. Some had so many, some just a few…I wanted to cheer up the ones that hadn’t seen much action.

Today I also confirmed a longstanding theory I’ve had: Jew, Christian, odd fellow, or Suzy homemaker--people generally die close to their birthdays. In this cemetery, the vast majority sought greener pastures within 3 months of their DOBs, most waiting to blow out the candles on the cake first. It was uncanny. So, I guess I should eschew hazardous objects and skydiving trips during late January.

Some of these marble and granite headstones were so artful, it was like visiting a lovely sculpture garden. With lots of wormy corpuses under the art. I was so preoccupied with shooting photos and thinking about their aesthetic that that fact didn’t dawn on me until I got home: Oh, yeah, I was walking around on people’s heads… A unique facet of Oregon cemeteries is that the markers portray lots of images of the natural world, often including mountains, deer, elk, or even turkeys. One looked ever-so-much like a Thanksgiving mural. It was like “Home on the Range” set to marble.

Buddhists are often encouraged to meditate in the charnel grounds, as it is in such places that we most directly experience the mortality of our bodies, the realization that just like the residents here, we will one day cease to exist in our present form, and that love and all earthly relationships are ultimately tied to the whims of time. The crossing of the hour hand from one number to the next or the tearing off of a calendar page, and life can be radically altered or completely cease—in its current form. And thus, we appreciate the time, people, and relationships we do have as they are unfolding before our eyes.

29 August 2008

Books and More Books

After being on the road for 7 weeks, I’m now settled down in Ashland, Oregon, where I’m renting a fabulous house with huge vegetable gardens and plenty of fruit trees. It’s a bit like the Garden of Eden, without the fig leaf or that nasty little rib. Not to say that ribs don’t come in handy—I’m quite attached to all of mine.

My current fascinations are Facebook, a highly addictive site that my friend Rachel was nice enough to turn me on to, and bookselling, which is at a peak right now with the academic ingress. I love putting books in mailers and thinking of all the great classes people are taking. Education is such a miracle. Without it, we end up with phenomena such as…well, George W. Bush, for starters…

My biblophilia was piqued recently on the plane rides to and from NM (details about the United Airlines debacle when I’m in a more savage mood). There I polished off most of an amazing book, entitled Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books. You can pick it up today on Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Outwitting-History-Amazing-Adventures-Rescued/dp/1565125134/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1220046149&sr=1-1) for 88 cents, which is the screamingest of deals, as this book is an awesome tale about a young guy’s attempt at literally saving a huge part of a culture. While I was in NM, I kept reading pages of it to Margot, and we both found ourselves tearing up at the passages about elderly Jews handing down their entire lives to the younger generation via these books. My friend Tori taught me most of the Yiddish I know (and it’s stuck!), but even if you’re more than ein bisl goyische, it’s still fascinating.

The other fun site I've happened upon in my quest to find book sales was Bookcrossing.com. This is a community (of 703,000 members!) who leave books in random places so that other people may find them. Each book is tagged with a tracking sticker, so that the leaver can find out in whose hands the book ends up. This reminds me a bit of balloon launches our grade school used to have, when we’d tie tags to each balloon requesting info about how far the balloon had traveled. Bookcrossing is an international effort, so it’s exciting to think that someone from Medford, Oregon, could pick up your book and take it on a plane with them to, say, Thailand, and you could get a hit back from Bangkok. So, my new meditation is…what books most need to be released into the world for the betterment of society? And of course, an answer that springs to mind is one of my very favorites, Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer. But where to leave it? I’m thinking the front porch of the Ashland Hostel, where so many Pacific Crest Trail hikers congregate. I’m sure it could find a happy home in a backpack, all covered in dirt, gorp, and bug spray, as it should be. I’ll keep you posted on where it ends up…

08 August 2008

To the Lighthouse(s)

Cape Blanco Lighthouse

Umpqua River Lighthouse

07 August 2008

The Oregon Coast: From Yachats to Cape Blanco

Tonight my tent sits in Cape Blanco State Park, near Port Orford, OR, on the southern coast, about 25 miles from Bandon. This is one of the loveliest parks I’ve camped in: deep forest on a cliff at the edge of the beach. After dinner, I took a short walk to the trail that winds through the forest, a coastal trail that pauses to lend generous ocean views now and again, then ultimately leads to the Cape Blanco Lighthouse. As I approached the light at nearly dusk, a deer grazed in the bushes about 20 feet before me. We both looked out over miles and miles of water, broken only by a few large black rocks and a single white light. To the right was the lighthouse, the state’s oldest (1870), highest, and westernmost, circling its yellow beam around the cape. Back in 1903, it also housed the only known female keeper. Her name, of course, was Mabel.

The campsite I’ve chosen is filled with ferns and tall trees, providing a canopy against the rain that I’m sure is on its way. Yesterday was one of the gloomiest, stormiest days I’ve seen since Margot and I visited Moonstone Beach (near Hearst Castle) on the day of the tornado watch on the Central Coast in early June. Last night I passed a truly sublime night at the Yachats Inn, with French doors just 50 feet away from the crashing ocean waves.

Getting there was a bit strange… That morning, the Sylvia Beach exploded and went boom, as one of my dorm-mates, a self-described mendicant monastic, concluded at 6:30 a.m. that our other dorm-mate was some sort of fugitive and decided to confront her as she lay dead asleep. A fistfight nearly ensued, the mendicant walked out (as is their nature, I suppose), and I was left with the angry “fugitive,” who decided it was time to vent. My role was to stay in my bunk and wish that this was not happening in my sanctuary at my beautiful hotel. The drama went on and on and on, including an ugly confrontation at the breakfast table, when half the patrons left (even we literary types hate Albee first thing in the morning)…and I decided that no rest would be had unless I found myself other quarters. After having been seated at dinner the previous night with a paranoid schizophrenic who claimed to be monitored via electronic chip over clam chowder, I knew my limit was nearing.

I quickly exited Newport and headed for Yachats, a bit further south. The town itself is of the “sneeze and you miss it” variety, but the fog banks were absolutely sublime—some of the prettiest gloom you’ve ever seen, the kind that makes a photographer fall to her knees with gratitude. During early evening, I drove up to Cape Perpetua—truly an amazing place, and OR’s highest (803 ft.) paved road this close to the shoreline. On a foggy evening, it’s like the drive up a mountain in a gothic horror film. I made a stop at Devil’s Churn, where I walked the Trail of the Restless Waters, taking me from a high overlook with ocean peeking through the trees, down a switchback to the water’s edge. It’s a rocky, drama--speaking of Albee--as the sea water gets pushed over the rocks and explodes into spray. Sometimes in Oregon I feel like I’m in another country halfway across the world, and this was one of those moments.

Later, I made my way back to the motel, then took a walk into town, to the Yachats Village Market, enjoying the smell of firewood burning in the damp air and the puffs of fog hanging in the pines on the mountains all around. When I got returned, I curled up in my room, with its wood ceiling and paneling, while the ocean waves pounded into shore just outside my screen door. I lay in bed and let them loll me to sleep.

06 August 2008

Views from the Sylvia Beach Hotel, Newport, OR

Yaquina Bay Bridge, last night at dusk, engulfed in some truly spectacular fog

Perfect kite weather at Nye Beach, just outside the hotel's back door. 

The neighborhood surrounding the hotel

Three flights up, a very literary fireplace nestled in the library overlooking the Pacific

On a dark and stormy August morning...the
Edgar Allan Poe Room--not for the faint of heart (note le guillotine)

The Belle of Amherst, always a bit more sedate

If you're looking for that obscure autographed photo of Paul Valery, George Orwell, or Carson McCullers, it's most likely at The Sylvia, the best literary boardinghouse you can find

05 August 2008

Back to the Beach

Today, I am back on the central Oregon coast, to revisit the Sylvia Beach Hotel, where Margot and I stayed several weeks ago, then to make my way south by camping on the coast. The weather here is cold and stormy, and reminds me a bit of the old saying, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco,” which Snopes.com assures me Mark Twain never uttered. (Still, I like to imagine him, pipe in hand, shivering on the Golden Gate Bridge.)

A few little things have happened since my last entry.

One is a PO box and an accompanying physical address in Oregon.

A week ago, I found a wonderful home to sublet just north of Ashland. This area has so inspired me that I have decided to pause in my travels and rest here for a while, perhaps even permanently. I have very much fallen for Oregon, and the Ashland area is particularly wonderful. It reminds me a bit of Santa Fe back in the early ’90s, when it still felt like a small-town community, everyone knew each other, and a certain congeniality still existed.

Chuck Palahniuk has written a fun little volume called Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, OR, about his hometown that pretty much sums up how eccentric folks up this way can be. And Ashland has lots of wild, radical hippie energy, mixed with “rugged individualists,” hardcore Fundamentalists (don’t spin that radio dial too fast), Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers, pagans, musicians of absolutely every stripe, people who don’t mind living in isolated cabins for 6 months at a clip, brazen jaywalking deer, environmentalists, rednecks, militia, women walking down the street holding hands and singing, religious cult members, mountain-climbers, punked-out students, shrieking thespians…all of whom seem to turn up at its awesome co-op at once, quaffing kombucha and tossing organic Rainier cherries into their backpacks. It’s people-watching at its finest, and if you stop for a few minutes and eat your lunch outside on the ledge, the gestalt of the place reveals itself, somewhere between the doddering toddlers in tie-dyed onesies and the bearded hippies standing in for Dumbledore.

People seem very happy here, and the week I’ve just spent (several nights of yurt camping and others in the dorm at the Ashland Hostel) has been extremely pleasant. It feels much like a spiritual/creative/musical playground, with so many things happening at one time that it can be hard to choose. On Friday, I stumbled onto the First Friday Artwalk, near the railyard, where several galleries have shows and musicians give impromptu concerts on the streets. Terribly cool. Another night, I sat next to the creek in 99-acre Lithia Park, had a sandwich, and enjoyed a young band jamming on some blues and prog rock tunes.

I feel like I’ve discovered the place I thought Santa Fe would always be. It’s rough around the edges, sincere, friendly, deep, playful, spirited, and kind. I’m ready for this.

29 July 2008

Gnome Home on the Rogue

My home tonight is Valley of the Rogue State Park, where I've got another yurt for the evening. The park sits nestled beside the Rogue River, which makes for a highly pleasant walk, especially when the moon is full. As you pull up to the tiny little town (about 30 miles from Ashland), the first thing that greets you is one of Oregon's famous CCC-constructed steel bridges, the magnitude of which sometimes greatly overpowers the scale of the places in which they find themselves.  Above is the Rogue's majestic bridge, a great place to watch the river flow, anglers angle, and the sun glisten on the water. 

Yurts, by the way, make a fantasic dwelling space. There's something very lovely about laying on your bunk in the center of a circle and staring up through the roof into the trees and open sky. The rounded edges feel much softer than a cabin or tent (although mine has become sort of the Claes Oldenburg model...).

28 July 2008

Back in Ashland

When I look back to my last post, I feel like I've traveled hundreds of miles, both physically and mentally. I've been in Oregon for 3 weeks now, weaving a web back and forth and sideways across this gorgeous, often magical (and I use that word sparingly) place. I've never seen so much sheer physical beauty in one square on a map. Oregon dazzles me on an hourly basis.

Today I sit wi-fing in Ashland's Lithia Park on a picnic table in front of a creek with lots of old trees and rocks strewn along the banks. Children, and often adults, wade in the waters. To my right is a Japanese garden with a lovely reflecting pond. To my left, an open field where moms feed babies, teens play Frisbee, hippies get some sun on their dreads, and it's all a big happy mishmosh of recreating humanity, much as I imagine Golden Gate Park of the 60s might have been. Last night I stumbled onto a labyrinth, walked it, then headed toward the main drag, where I saw a young woman pedaling down the street on a bicycle completely naked. What a fine place to be.

I drove up here yesterday afternoon, after spending the day yesterday in my favorite Mt. Shasta-area town, Dunsmuir. No Cal is still extremely smoke-choked, and Shasta seems a bit down-at-the-heels with all those rings of brown dust obscuring her. But it was great to be back in the funky little town I love and see it still standing, like a hamlet straight out of the 1930s, beautifully preserved, but not prettied up by developers' notions of gentrification.

I was, admittedly, running on a major case of sleep deprivation. Someone could have told me that there was a black bear in a lavendar tutu ready to chauffeur me around town, and I would have said, "Fabulous." The night before, I'd camped at Lake Siskyou camping city, for which the words "unqualified disaster" spring to mind. (Or is it "unmitigated"?) Truly the worst camping experience I've ever had...enough to send me crawling back to another cheap motel. I've never seen such a massive campground in my entire life. Not unlike a massive heart attack. They had an onsite movie theater, arcade, pizzeria, grocery store...need I go on? It was a circus in the wilderness.

Unfortunately, my tent site seemed to be right at the epicenter of the action--and sound travels like quicksilver in the wild. So, just as the bambini and babies stopped screaming, the preadolescents started up, and when they were through, the young adults decided to have campfire chats about their philosophical views on such deep subjects as truck wheel rims...this at 1:30 in the morning. Then there were the young women who began blow-drying their hair at 1:45 am... Meanwhile, I'm in my tent doing all I can to practice acceptance...trying to realize that they're just engaging in age-appropriate behaviors...and quickly losing my equanimity with the passing hours of insomnia.

Finally, a deep, primitive sound began rumbling in my gut, and I was powerless to stop its exodus. "QUIET!!!" I bellowed through my tent. And, by some over miracle, I was heard, and a stillness fell over the entire campground. It was the sound of peace, of children not doing anything remotely childlike, that I hadn't heard in, oh, 3 weeks. I admit, it was among the loveliest sounds I have heard all summer. It left me to my own sweet reverie and a new meditative state: my back against the hard earth.

At 4 a.m., I slept.

At 6 a.m., they woke.

For all the skeptics out there, it truly is possible to break camp alone on 2 hours sleep with 5 little kids watching you in 20 minutes.


The previous 2 days--which I know have names...but I've been traveling too long to remember what they are--I spent driving down from Mt. Hood, into the fun town of Hood River, through some blazing views of Mt. Hood, into forests so deep that the cell goes away, over high mountains, then down into desert that greatly resembles the New Mexican landscape, then into farmland, and finally into Bend, which seems to be the Cuisinart version of all of that. I spent two days there trying to avoid getting hit by mountain bikes, marveling at testosterone in all of its variegated manifestations, and chastising myself for not having the proper footwear for anything more than the stairclimb to my hotel room. My former compatriots at Outside magazine would be shocked at the disrepair I've fallen into. Bend, it seems, shares much in common with SLO: lots of active young people, some historical buildings, a liking for good clean fun, lots of athletic possibilities, a downtown with plenty of upscale shops and restaurants, a nice body of water running through downtown. It's sort of a remote hotspot in Central Oregon--the only place you'll find for many miles with a Target, a Home Depot, and a Trader Joe's. Oregon has not embraced the big box with the same fervor that other places have, thankfully. However, it was nice to find somewhere I could buy a can opener.

24 July 2008

Straddling Oregon and Washington: Encabined in Mt. Hood

July 23, 2008

I’m sitting here at my picka-nicka table in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Mt. Adams Ranger District, Washington State, where they really still do have Smokey the Bear signage as you drive in. I’ve rented an historical cabin, originally constructed by the CCC in 1937 as a guard station in the woods of the Government Mineral Springs. This was once a popular hot springs destination for tourists and even sported a large hotel—hard to believe this far out in the wilderness, on the road to Mt. St. Helens. This afternoon I drove out of Portland, across I-84 East, until I hit Cascade Locks, the last town on the Columbia River before you reach WA state. I stopped there for a malt and hamburger at a very old school Tastee Freez-type stand, in the most glorious forested mountainous, watery setting you can imagine. Took my place in line besides the deep woodsmen wearing camo, the kids who looked like they were fishing, the Californians wearing Hollister, and a grandmother in large Audrey Hepburn shades who spent a long time talking with me about ’71 Camaros. Too much fun. I walked along the Columbia Gorge for a bit, then headed up to the mouth of the Wind River, where I discovered one really, truly couldn’t talk on a cell phone in that ambient, then took a too-short drive over the Bridge of the Gods, aptly named, which spans the Wind River and lots of lovely forest land. My original goal was to stay near Mt. Hood, though I overshot it a bit…may end of at Mt. St. Helens in the morning, which I hear is even prettier.

The cabin was remodeled 7 years ago but still has no running water or electricity. However, it’s quite attractive, and large, with a great rock fireplace in the living room and kerosene (now propane) lanterns throughout. The renovators tried to retain as much of the original concept as possible, including the flour bins. It slightly resembles my circa 1927 casita in Santa Fe's South Capitol neighborhood.

After I arrived, I spent a long time perusing the extensive oral history documentation of the very first guard who lived here with his family from 1937-1942. This brought the whole place to life, especially his grown children’s remembrances of what it was like to grow up in this gorgeous forest with bubbling streams laced through it. After dinner, I took a long walk on the Soda Dam trail, where people have summer cottages (mostly unused) in the very depths of the forest—truly Hansel and Gretel territory. (Of course, I’m thinking, “Moldiest homes on earth!”) This is a rather remote area, and in winter, is accessible only by skiing or snowshoeing in. I sipped the medicinal waters, which have an indescribable taste of sulpher, salt, rotten eggs, and several other foul, unappetizing flavors. Not sure the cure was worth the cost, I moved on.


Margot arrived very late Friday night, and we drove down to Newport on Saturday. That night, we stayed at one of the most fabulous hotels I’ve ever been to, the Sylvia Beach, which sits right on the (chilly) waters of the central Oregon coast. The hotel has a literary theme, and each of its rooms is decorated in honor of a particular writer. We stayed in the Gertrude Stein on Saturday and the Alice Walker on Sunday. They were not the comeliest rooms in the place, but both had ocean views better than we’d ever experienced—we could even see a nearby lighthouse. On the third floor is the coup de grace, a library in which you can pick a book, settle in an easy chair and hunker down with a cup of tea while staring straight ahead into the ocean. Which is precisely what I did on Sunday afternoon, settling in with a book of short stories by one of my writing teachers, Pam Houston, and feeling incredibly lucky to have been given the name of this hotel by my new friend Susan in SLO. The hotel has a wildly sweet vibe, too. Lots of artists staying there, great women working the desk, and 2 cute cats, Dickens and Keats. Newport and the Nye Beach area are classic seaside towns, and Sat. night we ate at Mo’s, a classic harborside joint downtown.
On Sunday, however, we had an absolutely amazing! meal at the Sylvia Beach’s restaurant, Tables of Content. You’re seated at a table with 7 other interesting people and fed a wonderful 8-course meal…which would be plenty, in and of itself. But what makes it truly engaging is a game the hostess plays called “Two Truths and a Lie.” Each person must state 3 facts about themselves, one of which is false. The other diners then ask the person questions to try and figure out the lie. Those who manage to fool everyone receive a standing ovation. This serves as a great way to get to know your neighbors, and our table was not only raucously loud, but also lasted the longest, starting at 7 and not quitting till after 11 pm. This was much assisted by our new friends Bob and Maggie, 2 Canadians from Edmonton who helped keep the conversation fascinating the whole night long. Breakfasts, included in the room rate, are also top-notch, and offer another opportunity to get to know your fellow occupants. Then there’s the popular post-breakfast crawl, which the maids must love, whereby you check out all the open rooms to see just what they’ve got in, say, the Tolkien…the Virginia Woolf…or…sigh…Colette…

When Monday morning rolled around, Margot and I could hardly tear ourselves away, until we both got a good case of the sniffles, and I suggested that it might just be time to book another vacation…during Christmas week. I can't remember ever looking forward to Christmas--until today!

16 July 2008

Greetings from Western Oregon

I guess I've been on the road a week now. Time does funny things when you're in funny places. I've been in funny places. Not funny ha-ha. But sehr interessant, as my favorite German teacher used to say. My departure from SLO commenced with a drive through hell, beginning in Livermore, CA, where it had been 109 degrees at 6:00 in the evening, and up Route 5 North, through a landscape that looked like any good Fundamentalist’s idea of Apocalypse (sans Jesus). Hours and hours of thick smoke blankets (2000+ fires burning in CA, most in the northern third of the state) conspired against even keeping my car vents open. Just at the point when the oxygen had completely exited my body, the sun came out, the sky turned blue, and Mt. Shasta exerted its presence like a barroom hussy. Ah, so this is what all the fuss is about. Northern CA mecca.

After a very cool few hours in the town of Mt. Shasta, where I dined at the Billy Goat Tavern and had an extremely fun conversation about the state of the artist with the proprietor of the Velvet Elephant art supply store, I stumbled around the corner to Dunsmuir, possibly one of the funkiest towns I’ve ever been to. Ever, ever. Part of the State of Jefferson, once a historical district comprising northern CA’s Mt. Shasta area and southern Oregon. The funky folk who live there still retain a certain hardcore segregationist mentality, much like what I imagine Southerners hanging on to the Confederacy continue to propound. I’d never been to the Pacific Northwest before, so excuse my wide-eyed oohing and ahhing. I really thought Northern Exposure was simply FICTION. Then I bump into Dunsmuir, a former logging village…and Yreka, an old mining town, very much retired, and now I feel like I’ve been to Alaska without ever having had a trip in a bush plane. (more about my imminent trip to Alaska to come) I spent hours taking photos, which I'll post soon, in this area, and that night, met two folks named Danielle and Kit, who encouraged me to come see the band at the local bar. A few hours later, everyone in the bar was dancing to this German blues band--I guess that's not an oxymoron ( in fact, some days, I'd say it's utterly redundant).

Next, I headed to Ashland, OR, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and scene of the crime for 5 plays/day, and lots and lots of thespian types, earnestly creative kids, cultural tourists, people tossing on vaguely Shakespearean garb...and...to my English-majoring despair...one young man who was typing a letter home and couldn't figure out how to spell Shakespeare. Ah, well...Spell check ate the spelling-bee star... I liked Ashland a lot. Passed a nice evening at the Black Sheep Pub, as authentic a British pub as you're likely to find in North America, then wandered around and drooled at some of the historical buildings. Ashland has an excellent health food co-op, many potential Obama voters, metaphysical stores (the kind that don't exist in SLO), and my new favorite bumper sticker: "One Nation Under Canada."

After 2 sweet nights, I decided to fulfill a lifelong dream, and stayed in a yurt. It was the perfect "gnome home," right on the Rogue River in southern OR, and I took several hikes along the river and explored nearby Grants Pass, which may well be the kids-on-meth capital of southeastern Oregon, otherwise undistinguished.

The next day, I decided to continue the places with kids on bad drugs theme, and headed for urban Eugene, OR, where I stayed at a "guy drinking Bud on the bed"-type motel right on Broadway and got accosted approximately every 45 seconds by the progeny of the Grunge generation, who apparently are majoring in panhandling at Southern Oregon University. I don't think I've ever encountered a city I've despised more than Eugene--and I've been to some good ones in my day, let me tell you. I hated it more than Newark and Clifton, NJ, combined. I walked around for 3 hours looking for photo ops and took all of 3 pictures! Couldn't wait to get the heck out of there.

Going for the study-in-contrasts effect, I then proceeded north and west to Silver Falls State Park, where I've rented a cabin for 3 nights in the midst of total paradise: incredible old-growth forest with trees higher than you've ever seen and a trail with 10 different waterfalls. It's in farm country (aka, the middle of nowhere), about 25 miles from Salem, not too far from Corvallis, and close to the teeny-tiny town of Silverton, where you can plunk a dime in the meter and get 2 hours of parking time. Yesterday I stopped in to an old-fashioned coffee house right on the river, where I felt like a total geek for pulling out my laptop and wi-fi-ing. (The realization that the alternative would be no Internet or cell access for 3 nights helped me bag the Thoreau trip.) The guy behind the bar was talking about going swimming in the swimming hole after work. It's a different world here. The kids who aren't on crystal meth are just so...dare I say it?...seemingly innocent. Incredibly refreshing.

Today, I did my camp chores, then drove into Salem, which is a completely different town from Eugene--very civilized and fun, with good photo potential, which we LOVE. Here, I've purchased my Alaska Milepost, helping me start planning my trip WAYYY up north. (I told you I was traveling!!)

On Friday, I head to Portland, to explore the big city that everyone tells me is just perfect for me, with Margot, who is being a hugely good sport and meeting me there for 6 days of Oregon travel.

08 July 2008

Last Day in SLO

In honor of my imminent departure, as I start my drive north into Oregon, I'd like to quote a bit from a book I picked up last night, Jack Kerouac's Lonesome Traveller (1960). He writes about traveling in CA, Mexico, NY, Morocco, Paris, and London during the Fifties, including his time as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak. I'd forgotten just how fine a writer ol' Jack could be... I found out recently that his mentor, Mark Van Doren, was also one of my mother's.

Here's a passage from the introduction:

Everything: Let's elucidate: scullion on ships, gas station attendant, deckhand on ships, newspaper sportswriter (Lowell Sun), railroad brakeman, script synopsizer for 20th Century Fox in N.Y., soda jerk, railroad yardclerk, also railroad baggagehandler, cottonpicker, assistant furniture mover, sheet metal apprentice on the Pentagon in 1942, forest service fire lookout 1956, construction laborer (1941).

...Had own mind. - Am known as "madman bum and angel" with "naked endless head" of "prose." - Also a verse poet, Mexico City Blues (Grove, 1959). - Always considered writing my duty on earth. Also the preachment of universal kindness, which hysterical critics have failed to notice beneath frenetic activity of my true-story novels about the "beat" generation. - Am actually not "beat" but strange solitary crazy Catholic mystic...
     Final plans: hermitage in the woods, quiet writing of old age, mellow hopes of Paradise (which comes to everybody anyway)...
     Favorite complaint about contemporary world: the facetiousness of "respectable" people...who, because not taking anything seriously, are destroying old human feelings older than Time Magazine...Dave Garroways laughing at white doves... "

07 July 2008

Today's Photo

So Cal Laughing Girl, Arroyo Grande, CA, May 2008

06 July 2008

I told you Michelle Malone was going to be huge, didn't I?

I'd be grossly remiss in my duties as a used-to-be rock critic if I didn't say I saw a great performance today. LP. Voice like you wouldn't believe, with phenomenal range--Joan Jett/Linda Perry. And yes, OK, Michelle Malone, if anyone's esoteric enough to actually remember her. (Whatever happened to you, Michelle?) Tearin' it up rock'n'roll. I was halfway down the block walking away and there's this siren call you could probably hear in Pismo Beach. I go back and see this eensy person, probably 4'11" soaking wet, perfectly androgynous, and I'm thinking this has GOT to be karaoke. Haven't heard anything this good in a long time. Check out the website. She's gonna be huge. Oh, yeah, rumor has it they're even from Jersey!

Speaking of rock divas, here's an awesome recent interview with Patti Smith on Pitchfork: http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/article/news/42536-patti-smith-talks-new-lp-rock-hall-inspiration
Forgive the cell photo. 
L.P., San Luis Obispo, CA, July 6, 2008

04 July 2008

Today's Patriot

Resistol, Petaluma, CA, June 2008

Self-portrait, Chris McCandless, Alaska, 1992

When I think of heroes embodying the American spirit, California native Christopher McCandless springs to mind. Chris is the hero of Jon Krakauer’s book (and Sean Penn’s film) Into the Wild, one of the most compelling volumes I’ve ever read, much because of its recounting of Chris’ spirit and that of several of his predecessors like Everett Ruess. I’m sure most people are familiar with Chris’ story at this point, so I don’t need to recount it in great detail, but by his admirers, Chris is sometimes likened to a modern-day Thoreau, a young man who set his philosophical principles to action as he wandered throughout the North American continent in his early 20s, looking for ever-greater challenges.

My own journey this past year and a half has taught me much about just how much stripping away one must to do in order to truly travel at all, both physically and mentally. Living in the modern world involves layers and layers of not only conditioning, but stuff. We have possessions and routines, habits and attachments, friendly encounters and deep personal connections, careers and business interests, family ties and people we’ve grown up with, paths we take to grab our coffee, media we can’t live without, gym routines, online websites, even shopping brands we take comfort in, no matter how “off the grid” or “nonmaterialistic” we proclaim ourselves. Yes, even those of us patting ourselves on the back for living away from the mainstream in NM do and have these things.

I had my own layers: a corporate job, a house in the country I loved, a  burgeoning 401K, walls of books, CDs and films, a history of living in the same town for 16 years, friends and acquaintances I bumped into nearly  every time I left home, a 14-year-old dog, respect in my profession... And I wasn't a rash, drop-it-all, go-live-in-a-commune type. Getting to the place I live now was a gradual unfolding over many months. I knew I needed to let go of what I did and live where I was not feeling angry, depressed, disappointed, and stifled by the oppressive status quo. Little did I know when I started how everything would change.

Saying goodbye to such familiarity is a bold step. It’s scary and must be done gradually. It’s not for the faint of heart. The pilgrims did it when they sailed away from their proper, comfy lives in England and landed on this wild continent without their soy chai lattes and their streaming podcasts. They had little but square-toed shoes, funny hats, and simple muskets like the kind Elmer Fudd used to pursue Bugs Bunny with. After taking a long look in the mirror, they realized they were set up for celebrating Halloween and not much else. But seriously, the pilgrims sacrificed a great deal, as Chris sacrificed a great deal, in pursuit of certain freedoms they simply could not find in the lives they’d grown up in.

I think many people come to realize the hollowness of life but then rein themselves in. They get depressed, angry, frustrated. They settle for tokens of supposed success, like Beamers and houses with too-high mortgages and SUVs and closets in suburbia loaded down with sporting equipment. Even if Chris had lived, I don’t see him ever having gone in that direction. Having rejected such trappings early on, he donated $24,000 of his savings to Oxfam. He then set off on an adventure both physical and psychological, gradually stripping away the layers he’d grown up with: an upper-middle-class family life, an Ivy League education, a large, comfortable house, friends and girlfriends--all the affluent trappings of a bright, young male in 1990s America.

And when those layers had come off and he found that he still had a few dollars in cash and a car, he tore up the bills and abandoned the Datsun in the desert. His challenge would then be to walk the country. And when he had succeeded in that, he gave himself an even greater mission: to live off the earth in the backwoods of Alaska. Had it not been for an honest mistake (and, OK, a distinct lack of preparation, which clearly wasn’t his style), he might well have succeeded.

I'd like to think that choosing NOT to live as an American is very American. I'd like to think that anything one can do to challenge the status quo and shake things up a bit is a gift to those around you. The huge reaction that Chris' life story has generated shows just how powerful choosing to live differently can be. 

People tend to regret that Chris died as young as he did and in the way he did (accidentally eating poisonous seeds and/or starvation). And I do too, from the selfish perspective of wishing he’d lived longer and given us more of his adventurous tales and philosophical musings. But in actuality, I believe that Chris would say that he had done exactly what he wanted to do in life, and he was OK dying in a place he loved. He had roamed farther physically, philosophically, and spiritually—had read more, examined the questions more, and connected with more strangers—than most people ever do, and at the age of 24, was simply done with walking the earth.

America is about dreaming big and exploring wilderness and taking bold chances. It's about finding what you want and where you fit. For Chris, it was more important to have engaged with the questions fully--even if it meant paying the price for eating a bad seed or berry--than it was to have sat at a dead-end job not being fed at all.

Chris's sister, Carine, has said, "I think that Chris was someone who didn't waste his life wondering what other people would think of him. He lived his life wondering what he would think about himself.”

She denies that he went out trying to find himself. "Chris knew exactly who he was," she says. "He was searching for a place in this world that he fit into, where he could be true to himself. He was searching for truth, purity, honesty. He was searching for the things that he didn't experience in his childhood."

I like to think of Chris celebrating the Fourth of July in his bus outside Denali National Park. And I like to think we all potentially have within us small vehicles set up in the Alaskan wilderness. And it feels good to be outside walking around in the glory of the natural world, then come home and huddle down with ourselves and our thoughts, a good book, a candle, a small meal. It's pretty amazing, this fact of residing. Having only a few possessions with you can make it easier to see where you're living. 

03 July 2008

02 July 2008

Photos Today

Enso Spring, Embudo, NM, 2005

Stranger, Embudo, NM, 2005

(from outsider artist Jake Harwell's studio, road to Taos, near Dixon)