I Love the Smell of Carlsbad in the Morning

1378737_10101142388366443_1076405455_nWhere the road is:
That’s the place for me
Where I’m me
In my own space,
Where I’m free –
That’s the place I want to be

– Dan Hill

October 10, 2013. Early morning.

My original plan was to stay the night in Pecos, Texas, but true to the nature of walkabout, that didn’t pan out. So here I am holed up in Carlsbad, New Mexico, at the cleverly named Carlsbad Inn.

The Carlsbad Inn sits on Canal Street. It’s not a bad little place for the price, which is going to be slightly elevated due to the fairly impressive hole in the ground a few miles down the road. Not a bad little place at all. Except for the AC unit. Carlsbad’s in the Chihuahan Desert, making the days very warm and the nights pretty cold, and thermostats ridiculously hard to regulate. The room was nice and close when I first entered, so I switched on the air. Which proceeded to turn itself off and on at ten minute intervals throughout the night. Like a bike chain slipping, accompanied by a shotgun blast. With a jolt. A jolt so pronounced that it shook the whole room, each minor earthquake threatening to dislodge me from the bed and deposit me on the floor. I woke up. A lot. What is more, since I was in the desert, the temperature outside dropped like a rock as soon as the sun went down, so I woke up this morning with Jack Frost nipping at my pretty-much-everything, not to mention what may very well over the next few days turn into a beauty of a head cold. We shall see…

They say that the first step toward recovery is admitting you have a problem. I am a coffee addict. No, that’s not my problem. I didn’t have any. That was my problem. Having admitted as much, I decided to hit the bricks and see if I could track some down. A Chevron sign in the distance, peeking over the roof of the motel next door, seemed a promising target, so I headed off to find it.

Canal Street is a busy place at 7:30 on a Thursday morning: people off to work, kids off to school. The pedestrian proceeds at his own risk, dodging schoolbuses and tardy employees at every street corner.

Sign-reading is a favorite pastime of mine. You never know what pearls of wisdom you’ll discover. Like my favorite of all time, outside a fast food joint in Marietta, Oklahoma: “It’s time to eat y’all!” Demonstrating the importance of punctuation. Canal Street did not disappoint. A couple of doors down to the south, a Chinese buffet heaps upon its fare the highest praise it can muster: “Costs less than a trip to China.” The Best Western, two blocks north: “Welcome Lt. Governor John A. Sanchez, DJ tonight.” One wonders if they’ve told the LT exactly what’s expected of him. And the No Whiner Diner, outside the Stagecoach Inn, warns the ladies to watch their hair, because “it’s fly fan season again.”

I finally reached the Chevron station, which was strewn with fake cobwebs and laminated Jack-o-Lanterns in honor of approaching Halloween. As I stood at the counter waiting to pay for my cup of slightly watered-down lifeblood, I noticed a box of Peeps (if you don’t know what these are, you have my sympathies…and probably a lower cholesterol count than me) shaped like ghosts. It occurred to me that it’s possible to find these things in almost any shape these days. They ain’t just baby chickens anymore. And then the lightbulb really went off: custom-made Peeps, little family portraits in sugary marshmallow fluff. What greater gift could one give? “Here you go, Grandma–eat yourself for Christmas!” “Happy anniversary, dear–at least it’s not another power tool…”

To be continued…

Sitting by the Side of the Road in the Middle of Nowhere

DSC_0693
A journey of a thousand miles oft begins with a face plant.

This is by far the most misunderstood adventure upon which I have ever embarked. My parents, for example, seem to take the whole thing as an indication that my marriage is falling apart. I mean, why else would a guy need time off on his own? I’m pretty sure they’re picturing me holed up in a whorehouse somewhere, drowning my sorrows in loose women and perhaps a little booze. No idea where that image is coming from, mind you; apparently it’s just who I am…

Or perhaps I simply misunderstood them, and what they’re really afraid of is the chance that I’m out to end it all. Life, that is, not the world. Mine. I suppose this is what I get for using my words. Vulnerability–the word’s really been put out there lately, and it’s an important one. It requires a willingness to disclose, to say the things you’re really thinking, really feeling, even if they’re not completely kosher. Even if they sound a little nuts. Keep the men in the white labcoats on speed dial, you know? It’s our failure to acknowledge the crazy that makes us truly crazy. It’s called sympathetic magic, folks–naming something gives the speaker power over the named. We defeat our demons by talking them to death. I am not suicidal; I am self-aware. Enough to know when I need a break.

I’ve also been encouraged to go out and find the “freedom” I’m looking for. But that too misses the point. I’m not looking for freedom, because I’m already free. Rather, as a happily married man, I am free to choose to not be free. At least in the sense of being able to do whatever I want, whenever I want. That’s really the point–if there is a point–of this whole endeavor: how to not be free. With a smile.

Everybody talks about “following your heart.” Which is all fine and good, except it means different things for different people, or for the same people at different times in their lives. It’s not just a matter of picking up and leaving whenever you get the urge. True, the heart is a lonely hunter, but it can also be a stupid one. Given half a chance, it’ll drag you all over the damn place, like a deranged dog after a panicked squirrel. Which is to say that interacting with one’s heart is as much about knowing when not to follow it.

Sometimes (and this applies more often than not in my case) following my heart is about getting out of the way and allowing my wife Tammy to follow hers. After all, I wouldn’t even be on this little excursion were it not for her willingness to do that for me. Which brings me back to my parents and their concern for our failed romance: if I did not love my wife more than the world itself, I wouldn’t be out here by the side of this lonely highway, staring at the mountains, listening to the muffled explosions in the background, and thinking for all I’m worth. I have to be true not just to myself and my heart, but to her and hers as well. Eleven years, coming soon to a theater near you. Ups, downs, good times, bad ones–we’ve spoken of our love, of our periodic unhappiness; we’ve acknowledged the specter of divorce which–let’s face it–hangs over every married couple, whether they admit it or not. We’ve confronted the upsides of marriage and its downsides, and we’ve emerged the stronger for it. Tammy has encouraged me to learn more about who I am without fearing the consequences, to be true to myself no matter who my true self turns out to be. She let me go, out here, by myself, to find myself, so that I can be myself with her. How do you not adore a woman like that?

That is why I’m sitting here by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere: I need to rediscover the joy of living the life I’ve chosen for myself, of belonging in my own skin again. There’s some debate as to whether I’ll find myself or re-create myself, but either way, my self’s out there somewhere (or in there somewhere), waiting…

To be continued…

The Journey Begins…

1385445_10101140482106603_1934094100_nLife’s like a road that you travel on
When there’s one day here and the next day gone
Sometimes you bend, sometimes you stand
Sometimes you turn your back to the wind
There’s a world outside every darkened door
Where blues won’t haunt you anymore
Where the brave are free and lovers soar
Come ride with me to the distant shore…
Life is a highway…

– Tom Cochrane

3:15 PM. October 9, 2013.

I’m sitting at a roadside picnic area in West Texas, halfway between Fort Stockton and Pecos on US-285. The Dustmobile waits patiently to one side, resting from what has been little more than a long drive. My laptop screen catches the sunlight and blanks out, requiring close concentration as I type. It is an interesting metaphor: I have no idea what I’m writing, because of the glare; meanwhile, I have no idea what I’m doing out here. My end-game is pretty much to end up somewhere–nowhere in particular and anywhere at all. The problem with setting out to find yourself is that, since you start out with no idea where you are, you don’t know where in the world you’re headed.

Behind me, some five to ten miles away, someone is blasting–a rock quarry, perhaps. At intervals, a low rumble rolls across the distance, given form in a towering plume of smoke, clear-cut and mushroom-like. As the minutes pass, the cloud is caught up by the wind and begins to fade, bit by bit, floating away, insubstantial, as if it had never existed, a figment of my imagination.

I left home around 7:30. The air as I pulled out of our driveway bore the crisp chill of an autumn morning. We don’t get too many of those in Central Texas; I donned my leather jacket for the first leg of the trip. Lost that by the time I reached Goldthwaite, some 83 miles west; the windows went down around San Angelo; now, I alternate between breeze and air conditioning for temperature control. As always, my left arm has long since passed the roasted stage and is fast entering burn territory–one of the hazards of being an open-air driver by preference. By the time I get back, it should be nice and lobster-esque.

This trip, this walkabout, is all about randomness. Life is too well-planned, too well thought out, too scheduled. I’m out to break free of that, if only for a brief while. The whole point of the walkabout experience is to cut ties with the regular cycle of day-to-day living and strike out on an existential tangent. My first opportunity arrived quickly, and I seized it…and ended up in one of my favorite places: the middle of nowhere.

1385877_10101140471892073_1384246605_nDecisions, decisions…

To be continued…

Gettin’ Outta Dodge

DSC_0742Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

– Robert Frost

I turned 36 on October 12, 2013. For some reason, it hit me pretty hard. I know, weird, arbitrary number for a mid-life crisis, but that’s life. Right?

Tammy came to me about two weeks shy of The Day and asked what I wanted for my birthday. To which I responded, that I wanted her permission to leave. I needed to get away. I needed to go walkabout.

1391601_10101140469636593_349934953_n

This is that moment, the one that tells you you are loved: after nearly 11 years of marriage, my wife trusted me enough to let me go. Without knowing where. But then, I didn’t know either. There was no plan; there was no set itinerary. There was just Dusty, me, and the road. Any road. Nowhere to be, and plenty of time to get there…

1385445_10101140482106603_1934094100_n

What followed were four days of highway-induced healing, New Mexico-style. Here’s a tip: if you’re ever in need of a rest cure, go to Lindisfarne. And if you can’t afford the plane fare, go to New Mexico. It is the fix for what ails you, whoever you are: mountains, desert, the open plains–whatever gets your blood pumping, it’s there. Or, if you’re like me, and you love it all, well…welcome home.

Over the next few days, I’ll share a few adventures from my journey, along with some of the lessons I learned, beginning with how to live with myself in this life I’ve constructed. Sometimes you have to step outside of it all in order to remember how much you love being on the inside.

1385877_10101140471892073_1384246605_n

Two roads diverged in a wood. Cheers to Robert Frost for offering the best definition of life ever devised. But here’s the clue: it doesn’t matter which one you take…so long as you take it with open eyes and an open heart.

Happy travels, my friends!!
And even happier homecomings!!!

Curiosity May Have Killed the Cat, but At Least He Died Happy

DSC_0693The Road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

– J.R.R. Tolkien

In my mind, every map is a treasure map, every road a potential pathway to the end of the rainbow, and life a never-ending search for that elusive pot of gold.

These are the voyages of the Dustmobile…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAInto the Scottish Highlands

Nothing entices like a fresh stretch of highway. Confronted with an atlas and a brand new day, I feel like a kid in a candy store. This is my Christmas.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn the road to Melrose

Some roads are for driving, some for walking. All are for taking.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn Holy Island

There will always be a reason not to take that first step: work, family, the Demon Responsibility. Whatever. Don’t listen to them. They don’t matter.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALost in rural Arkansas

The only thing that matters is this: life don’t last. So live the hell out of it. Drive the hell out of it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADusty in Monument Valley

These are the voyages of the Dustmobile,
its continuing mission to explore strange, new roads,
to seek out new sights and new intersections…
To boldly go where no Toad has gone before.

726px-An_artist's_impression_of_a_Pioneer_spacecraft_on_its_way_to_interstellar_space.

Happy trekking, my friends!

Becoming Holy Island, pt. 2

The first time I went to Holy Island, I went as a tourist. I was there for about four hours, most of which time I spent dodging the giant crowds of fellow tourists–folks with dogs, folks with kids, folks with dogs and kids–an infestation if I ever saw one. Then we were off, beating the tide…because we still had to drive to our Travelodge outside of York, with a stop at Whitby in between. Needless to say, this fly-by-night schedule afforded little opportunity to really see the place, especially since the place was fairly well obscured by the people crawling all over it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The Holy Island market cross, complete with Celtic wheel design. Some say this is a holdover from pagan times, symbolizing solar worship; others, that it is symbolic of Christ, the “sun” of God, hanging on the cross.

The second time, I went as a researcher, fresh from the reading room at the NLS in Edinburgh. This time we stayed for a full week, leading up to Christmas. I was there to gather information for my Master’s thesis. Several years before, while working as a youth minister in rural Missouri, I had stumbled across the Venerable Bede and his saints. Like so many others before and after me, I fell in love. I became convinced that these ancient Christians, the “Celtic Christians,” with their standing crosses and illuminated Gospels, were the key to everything superficial about 21st-century religion, an impression I carried with me right into graduate studies, onto a British Airways jet, and across the causeway to Lindisfarne. I came in search of answers; I came in search of Aidan, Cuthbert, and their band of medieval holy men. And I found them…in a manner of speaking.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
St. Aidan, founder of the Lindisfarne community in 635, stands outside the priory ruins.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Cuthbert of the Farnes. This sculpture of the saint in prayer stands within the priory walls. It conveys a sense of spiritual agony that is difficult to describe from a distance, as if the statue itself were in pain…

Given the total absence from the island of any vestige of the tourist trade–even the shops lining Marygate were closed against the winter months–we (well, I, anyway; Tammy was overcome by the cold) rambled about the place in solitary fashion. On the original visit, I hadn’t had the time to explore the priory ruins. This time I did so at my leisure, and completely by my lonesome. Throughout the hour I spent knocking around the structure’s reddish-tan remains, not another soul crossed my path (at least not one visible to the eye). There is an air of liminality about the place; whether that is inherent in the locale or is experienced due to conditioning–a sort of spiritual backward masking, if you will–I leave to the judgments of more impartial observers. For my part, I believe in friendly ghosts…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Solid as they must be, dating as they do from the 12th century, the delicate stonework and soaring archways impart to the walls an air of fragility, as if they might tumble away if looked at too forcefully…
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
A glimpse…perhaps, of eternity?
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Through a gap in the ruins, Lindisfarne Castle beckons. After it fell prey to Henry VIII’s Great Dissolution in the 16th century, stones from the priory were taken by his soldiers and used in the castle’s construction.

Another of my favorite quotes, this one concerning the spiritual history of the island, comes from a BBC documentary series entitled Memorable Leaders in Christian History. In the episode on Aidan, Andy Raine, a member of the Northumbria Community, described the spot as soaked in the devotion of the early saints: through them, the seeker is offered “a blank check of…prayers that have already been prayed that are waiting to be cashed in on.”

Cuthbert's Island
A memorial cross stands on Cuthbert’s Isle, a small island separated from Lindisfarne by some 60 to 70 yards of water. According to legend, the saint for which it is named would withdraw here (and beyond, to the one of the smaller Farnes farther out into the sea) to indulge his hermit’s nature and commune with his God.

I leave you with this blessing from Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica:

Thine be the might of river,
Thine be the might of ocean,
The might of victory on field.

Thine be the might of fire,
Thine be the might of levin,
The might of a strong rock.

Thine be the might of element,
Thine be the might of fountain,
The might of the love on high.

Until we meet again…

Becoming Holy Island (An Interlude)

One of my favorite descriptions of Lindisfarne comes from the 17th-century Legend of St. Cuthbert, with the Antiquities of the Church of Durham, by Robert Hegge (1599-1629). Given its limited access, governed by the rise and fall of the tide and the consequent filling and emptying of the estuary separating it from the mainland, Hegge wrote: “In ancient description it was an island but twice a day, and embraced by Neptune only at full tide, and at Ebbe shaked hands with the Continent.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The tidal estuary at sunset (which, in December, is around 3:30 in the afternoon). Today, a paved road connects island to mainland; in the days of Aidan and Cuthbert, the crossing was marked by a series of poles (still present) set into the sand of the estuary. This original route is still used by pilgrims following St. Cuthbert’s Way, a long-distance walking trail tracing the saint’s journey from his previous community at Melrose to his new home on the island.