Life Signs Vital

#adventure, Australia, Britain, British Isles, Buddhism, fate, free will, Hinduism, human mind, Life, Lifestyle, meditations, Musings, nature, Oddities, philosophy, predestination, Queensland, Reflections, roadtrip, serendipity, Solipsism, Spirituality, thoughts, Travel

From the wandering star followed to Bethlehem by the Magi, to Constantine and his Latin cross in the night skies over Rome’s Milvian Bridge, for as long as any historic text can remember, humans have acted not (as they might like to imagine) independently in matters of life choice, but as a response to phenomena out there in the world. Whether these phenomena involve snapped branches pointing in a particular direction out of the tangled forest, serendipitous meetings with mysterious strangers, or even constellations that speak directly to the individual in us by spelling out our mission in dot writing, natural events have proved unshakeably reliable as SIGNS ripe for following. Other animals follow their hunger and their paternal instinct toward the rains, or the seasons, or the ocean currents. But not us. Oh no, not humanity. We follow abstract signage in the most unlikely of quarters because something in the form and motion of a sign tells us that nature exists to furnish us with little messages put there FYI only.

But in an age of scientific materialism, should we listen to superstitious signs, or let mediums self-appointed with the power to interpret that symbolic value for us. The Gypsy lady? She who lets the tea leaves/coffee granules to settle into a discernible form spelling out (in her own inexplicable way) what’s in store for each of us? She with the singular ability to divine the past, present and future, and thus able to cut a path through our impenetrable present? Hooped earrings and colourful headscarves aside, should we even listen to ourselves when something out of the blue tells us which corner to turn in life? What is it in the nature of choice, the one true act of free will we convince ourselves is ours and ours to fuck up? Are we slaves to signs, subconsciously letting them lead us on into what we think will end either in good life choices or, horror of horrors, outcomes less than desirable? Do other members of our rapidly-proliferating species see signs with quite the obsessive sensing that I seem to? Questions, questions, questions, and only vague signs there to answer them.

I wrote a woefully-neglected book back in 2007 called Signs of Capricorn. Essentially, it was a free-thinking, free-spirited, faintly philosophical travelogue based on a long-awaited return to Australia. I had left the land Down Under in 2003, instantly regretting a choice which i deemed purely my own, without any other agency. At the time, I must have figured if i return to Britain things will be different. I’ll finally, after thirty years of trying and failing, fall in love with the island of my birth, and especially those two peculiarly British contributions to the world: a stubborn class system and a maritime climate that makes the headlines most days for all the wrong reasons. Yes, my family were instrumental in my going back. Unlike the weather, they weren’t changeable and horrid. But, like the English class system, they could be stubborn.

So, in the wake on my grand homecoming in 2003, I realised I had made a major life error, and instantly vowed to overturn this disastrous decision by going back to Sydney the following year. However, as the venerable Lennon said, life’s what happens when you’re busy making other plans. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t until 2006 that my pledge was finally realised. I departed a rainy Manchester, arriving after a brief stopover in Dubai, in to a hot Sydney. The city had changed in the intervening three years. That much i could detect within moments. It didn’t feel the same. Well, of course. Why would it? And here is where the book comes into play. I threw my hat up into the air and let the winds of fate carry it aloft. And so it was that I chose to spend a month driving as far and wide as I could in search of signs.

A critical factor in all this unfolding story is that I was misinformed that my Australian Permanent Residency visa would be duly reauthorised merely by going back there on holiday. Cruelly, this was not how how the immigration system worked. Nor was this how things were meant to be. On hearing that I had not amassed sufficient residential time in Australia within a 5-year period (i was a month short), I was faced with a binary choice: by all means, stay indefinitely (thus leaving my rental home, family and beloved dog back in Yorkshire where my family call home) in the Commonwealth of Australia; or fly out of Kingsford-Smith Airport and back to Heathrow, but do so knowing the consequences. That being an annulment of my right to remain in Australia. Visa cancelled. The term Burn Bridges springs to mind (another historical instance of how signs influences the course of a lifespan, in this case of Caesar’s Roman Empire). Mainly because of my dog, I knew I was going back, like it or not. With a month’s adventure ahead, I drove north through Queensland’s Sandstone Belt and out to the Barrier Reef. Along the way, I followed roadsigns down highways where life signs clung on like the spinifex grasses that give the Outback its patchy head of hair.

On returning to Britain, I nursed a quiet devastation. My first encounter – the first of many troubling signs, you might conclude – was with my neighbour, an awful human specimen who spent his disempowered life fulminating in one garden-wall dispute after another. In Old England, where most people are packed like sardines in a tin can because the entitled few own and jealously guard huge swathes of the land, such disputes and tensions are not uncommon. Knowing that I had made not one but two cardinal misjudgements in leaving Australia (an island-continent I had reimagined as being above such petty squabbles between neighbours) not once but twice. I knew the recurrence of this poor choice must signify something. It must be life’s ineluctable way of telling me I had, in fact, made the right choice leaving Sydney. Struggling to understand why, I wrote the book as a therapy, as a means of retracing my steps in order to discover the origins of these signs, and what they could possibly mean for my life, one that seemed to be in disarray.

You can generate the data to fit the theory, but that is not true science. Or you can map the data (as it appeared along the road to the Barrier Reef on that epic trip of self-discovery), building a picture through which a workable theory emerges. First data, then theory, then test of theory. Burning rubber on blacktop, I probed the island-continent to probe the answer to why life had turned out this way. For such a dry landmass, the results were improbably fertile. Hadn’t one of the great Greeks said something to the tune of….’life is played out on an ocean of timespace, whose currents carry us of their choosing unless we find it within ourselves to take the tiller and steer a course, even though the current will still take us, ultimately, where it chooses. In short, we can infer signs in life and so effect small but significant changes in our lives, even if the grander designs, such as fate, love, accident and death are not within our remit to shape as we would see fit to?

(n.b. of course, most of us would choose to be rich, healthy and loved, and never to die).

At journey’s end, I flew back. The immigration officer at Sydney’s airport peered at the visa page of my passport and asked me if I was sure I wanted to do this. You realise that if you leave you cannot come back? Helpless, unsure if I had even found a green light on those outback roads, I timidly acknowledged the gravity of what she was saying. Somewhat bemused, she stamped the exit visa and that was that. Another chapter closed. Except it wasn’t. Once back in England, I threw myself into the writing. Stapling together every little back-dated detail on what had been a diverse but disconnected life of travelling, of living in disparate regions of the world following love over career, the unpredictable over the predictable, I tried but could not discern signs that would lead me out of this mess of my own making.

I looked around. I looked inside. I could not make sense of life’s highway code. At the end of the book, life appeared to recover. Things were looking up. England didn’t seem quite so dismal, nor quite so synonymous with personal failure and utter alienation. And then the possibility dawned on me that therapising the experience of making life-changing choices had had the inadvertent upshot of detoxifying – for want of a better word – Australia from my bloodstream of consciousness. The book flopped but thanks to reclusive and intensely introspective nature of remaking memories in narrative form (a year locked away in a room), I steered a course through cold turkey. What emerged was acceptance that i had taken a wrong turn. Moreover, that ages hence I might actually find that leaving Australia when i did was not a misreading of signs at all. Rather, it was a correct reading of the sign to leave when I did and to return three years later to make peace with the war that was raging inside for all that time. It was not unlike the signs of Outback roads themselves – the ones that appear only once, at the beginning of the backroad, and where no signposts will appear again for many, many kilometres. Following a sign laid down years before gave to no signs whatsoever until the next one appeared. The next one would appear near the end of that stretch of bitumen. It stood as proof positive that the next junction led somewhere good, somewhere new.

Signs are everywhere to be followed, and yet nowhere to be seen. We convince ourselves we take decisions independent of influence, particularly from abstractions such as physical objects (stars), chance encounters (accidents that change our lives irrevocably), epiphanies birthed from freak occurrences (a spiritual awakening on the road to Kathmandu), and the likes. But our rational minds are steeped in the mythology of the inexplicable. Knowing that every weighty little decision rests solely on our steepled shoulders, or that each one is not interrelated, represents an unbearable burden on our lives. Decisions are ours to make? Oh yeah? That I followed invisible signs to where I am now (which is no bad place) suggests some things are meant to be. That all things might, just maybe, be more bound together than our Western social constructs would have us believe.

Into the Heartland: Interstate 70

#adventure, America, California, Landscapes, mountains, philosophy, Reflections, roadtrip, San Francisco, Travel, Uncategorized, United States

Part II

Into the Heartland: Interstate 70

At Baltimore you are good to go. You are in fact as good as gone, for lying at the edge of Maryland’s biggest town is the east end of the I-70, one of America’s five 2,000 mile-plus interstate arteries. Hit the road, Jack. And don’t you come back no more. Whether Ray Charles ever found himself in Fort Cove, Utah, at the west terminus of this mind-boggling belt of bitumen, I cannot say. What I can assert with the certainty of shared memories is that it took us sweeping past its exit signs, diners, and moving landscapes all of a quarter century ago, though for all the imprinting my optical nerve did, it might as well have been last week. It’s true, we each remember events in different ways: some episodic like your 8th birthday gift of a puppy but not your 9th; others by associating that pilgrimage to Varanasi with pungent odours of incense and burning flesh on charcoal; and me, it’s majorly in Kodachrome and sometimes Ilford B&W that I sense a past with me in it. My memories can be 35mm or medium format. Sometimes the ISO is low and the pictures of bygone years well defined, while other times the light was low, the ISO high and the memory grainy.

I’m not deluded enough to think that this was the definitive road trip. Yeah, it certainly followed in the tyre tracks of beatniks and explorers who did it the long, slow spiritual way. Still, there are more logistically challenging transcontinental road trips out there. Mine was by no means the first – for the Romans were doing road trips 2,000 years ago on surfaces they had laid expressly for that purpose – nor the best – for London to Kathmandu or the Alaska to Tierra del Fuego overlander on the Pan-American Highway takes a lot of beating. That said, by whichever means (and there are many highways connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific) the Trans-America is travel’s answer to a pair of Levi 501s – original and stone-washed.

The road undulates at first, cutting a swathe past tasteless roadside attractions (like tufts of commercial hoarding growing high for the sunlight of your attention) and past tasteful wooded landscape lying peacefully beyond those pesky pit-stops and hoardings that much of the world now sees fit to emulate. The knolls of this eastern route are made of spruce and oak, hemlock and hickory. What I was saying about that photographic memory doesn’t apply to eastern America’s partially cloaked surfaces. When you cannot see the wood for the trees, identifying a hickory from a hemlock takes on a vertical challenge. But I know that, unlike the island of my birth, the American continent knows its fair share of trees extending away into yesterday. That much I do remember from my first great road trip all of nearly a quarter century ago.

The houses you see abutting the highway are not predominantly brick like ours. The residential architecture comes in different shapes and sizes, but I do think there’s more than a bit of Dutch and German influence in those lateral clapboards. Old world, but not English in influence as the structures of New England attest to.

The I-25 runs west out of Pennsylvania and that swirling nexus of a turnpike is the point of origin. West she blows, crumbling ever more through Maryland near to where the old Mason-Dixie line forms a Caesarian scar under all that concrete and vegetation.

That modern America had a traumatic birth is no exaggeration. The embryo grew subdivided in the womb of the New World. The two fetuses, one Union and the other Confederate, grew too large to either share the same womb or to be born by natural birth. Battles (such as Gettysburg, Pennsylvania) were staged around these parts for the soul of a young nation chosen by the Almighty to dwell in a land where Native American spirits were everywhere and old. This nation of epic roads might think it has matured beyond the attrition of civil war, that it has healed its deep rifts, but the divided states of America is kidding itself if it really believes it has.

Maryland is a slip of a state. We leave her as we found her: ambling past at 55 mph. On the road to somewhere, some places are merely waypoints while others are curiosities worthy of scrutiny. The industrial east, dotted with its established settlements of Europeans who made the Atlantic crossing, for the most part in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is all well and fine and handsomely endowed in many a place, but when San Francisco is the endgame of a short game, this is one quarter you don’t want to go into overtime.

Did we even stop in Indiana? As I remember it, I blinked in the passenger seat and there it was in a scene from Never the Mark Twain Shall Meet: the bridge on the River Mississippi. Jesse James and his band of brigands roamed the heartlands, earning sympathy as they robbed and plundered their way to ignominy, and him a bullet in the back of the head by the coward Robert Ford.

The state in July is hot and swampy and full of biting insects. The man at the trailer park, the owner most likely, warmed to us in that ‘hands across the water’ fashion. It was said by the man himself beaming with pride that he visited England in the age of B&W while serving as a G.I. in Germany (but probably not sharing a bunk with Elvis, who was there too). Though it was many years ago, he remembered old Albion fondly. The guy, by now he must have been sixty at a pinch, flew back across the pond (as anglophile Americans and Amerophile Englanders like affectionately to call that gargantuan body of thrashing, grey water that’s anything but pond-like) in a rickety old DC-8, which in all fairness was probably fresh off the production line in 1960-sum when he flew in it. We’re talking about the early days of transatlantic air travel as an alternative to second-class on ocean liners for the common folk. This commercial aircraft, so ballerina-light compared with the later Boeing 747, was kicked around like an old tin can somewhere high over Greenland he said. How did he know he was over Greenland? Well, That plane was shunted around so much by that old devil turbulence that it almost ended up on its side. It was then, face pressed against the porthole he was able to get a good view of the white world beneath.

Paralysed by fear, he reckoned none of those two hundred-odd passengers aboard thought they’d make it home at all far less in time for dinner. They’d come to land alright, he was sure, but not in the manner that airline passengers have become accustomed to, and nor in the manner that any self-respecting mortal would ever hope for. That’s the thing about the trauma of near-death experience. Like your faithful hound it’ll never leave your side no matter what. Keep feeding that long, long time ago event with tidbits of vivid recollection and Rex the long-haired ‘I almost died’ will keep lying forever at the feet of the survivor.

The Mississippi cuts the nation in half vertically as the Mason-Dixie line cuts her longways across her abdomen and then sideways politically-speaking. Although the river meanders under way more than one, perhaps the most visible bridge in St Louis is not one at all. Rather, it’s an arch, high as it is symbolic of westward expansion in the nineteenth century. Put there to bridge two nations – one almost an eagle and the other a puny fledgling – the Gateway Arch in St Louis is a fitting reminder that for bridges to be built and formidable barriers to be spanned, first the far side has to be conquered. And to do that, the first peoples, such as the Dakota tribe, had to be pushed back until they could be pushed no more for there was no corner to push them into other than a lousy reservation. By crossing that river whose tongue-tying spelling was recited, never to be forgotten, by generations of Scottish schoolchildren, the St Louis bridge over the mighty M-i-s-s-i-s-s-i-p-p-i spans two rather distinct hemispheres: one, the long-settled East; the other, the endless plains, mountains, deserts, canyons, badlands, and forests of the West.

Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn would turn in their fictional graves to know that these whirlpool waters of the Mississippi no longer add up to a whole lot of natural barrier. Gone is the obligatory river boat crossing with its tillerman, a nineteenth century Charon who’d take you across the Styx to the underworld that was the little-known Frontier, and for only nickels and dimes that dead men wore to cover their eyes to the dazzling light of western settlement. But the world is lost to the mystique that once shrouded it. Modern transport has made a mockery of distance, shrinking everything but itself.

On the great plains the sky weighs down the land and lays down the land. A gap-fill of blue ether over green corn, restless air over restful earth. The cornfields of Kansas open up before us. Black clouds gather overhead, chasing us west across the interstate highway that crosses the plains. Cumulo-thunderheads the size of English counties send bolts of lightning down to strike indiscriminately at hapless heads of wheat, barley and corn that sway hypnotically, and when it gusts, frenziedly, in that sea of ripening ears. At time like these, the sky hates the earth, wanting only to show who is boss.

We skirt the peripheries of Kansas City where man-size droplets of rain finally catch up with the traffic. Day turns to night. The downpour is torrential. I’ve seen this kind of rain in the tropics and where el Niño was to blame, not expecting it here. When the whole world awaits you for the first time, who’s to say what to expect?

The land is a sea of wheat and soya, barley and rape seed. To call these agricultural lands a patchwork of ‘fields’ can be misleading. When does a field become to large in area to remain a field? The highways, in another sense, are shipping lanes. You can tell from the way they all run through the unbroken expanse, unlike old England and France where roads and lanes enclose fields, forming boundaries at the limit of where some farmer Joe’s smallholding meets some other farmer’s.

Many folks are mistaken to think that the state of Colorado, lying due west of Kansas, is all ski resorts and Aspen trees bedecked with virgin snow. Much of the east of the state, and we are talking a fair dollop of land, is essentially a flat extension of the great plains of Kansas whence we came. Some way short of alpine, farmed to fuck and featureless, one could be forgiven for thinking that the cloud bank you see on the far side of the flatlands at the limit of a distant horizon is actually a bank of clouds and not the outline of the Rocky Mountains, which it turns out in fact to be.

You want natural barriers of the kind no longer afforded you by the mighty Mississippi and the plains of Kansas? Then look no further than the fake mirage at the end of the visible horizon. Like the Himalaya when you’re gazing north from the Indian Terai, the Rockies loom higher and harder as the traveller approaches along Interstate 70.

Never bowled over by annual membership of the mile-high club, I always fancied myself taking a day pass for the mile-high city, Denver. What they don’t see is that the height and elegance of youth all too often succumbs to the flabby girth of age. Viz. Denver was a mile high from the moment it was born, but these days, being that bit older, with a metropolitan population of about three million, it has to be more than a mile wide, too. Keep the day pass, around the waistline we go. That’s the trouble with road tripping: stopping for anytime can be a drag. What lies beyond has got to be better than what lies near. Isn’t that the whole point of monotheism?

We head up into the mountains near Arapaho, where the carpet reeks of pine needles dying to be let out by water that hasn’t seeped through since winter’s end, where the sloping roof peaks punch little holes in a sky of ice blue, where Native Americans are sadly gone leaving the victorious cowboys to ride on steeds whose clop-clopping rings throughout the cloaked valleys. The air is thinner up here. Sound travels faster and further than its maker could ever hope for. It’s pretty up here, a first gulp of the great West as I imagined the West to be from old Hollywood films I used to watch with my Scottish grandfather.

In a cabin in the woods (how much more quintessentially North American can you get?) we meet a father and son from Houston, Texas. The old guy sports the tapered beard ripped off Custer’s chin as a spoil of war after Crazy Horse got him at Little Bighorn in 1876. He wears boots fit for a regal cowboy. He slings those long blue denim legs over the balustrade of the cabin’s verandah as leisurely as a saddle on a hitching post. Cuban heels perched on the beam, toes pointing at the Dog star on a Rocky Mountain night spangling with American stars. He speaks of things you don’t normally associate with boot-heeled Texans, like his love for yachting and the storm in the Gulf of Mexico that near as damn buried him, boots n all, in Davy Jones’ Locker. The rest of the conversation is gone to seed, not surprisingly, as our encounter happened twenty-five years ago, and the old guy himself, unlike his impressive outline in my mind, is likely dead and gone, too.

The I-70 keeps on West from Denver through a series of national forests, then Grand Junction that might not be so grand but indubitably is a junction. Thenceforth the road runs onward to Utah where it runs out of itself around Fishlake National Forest. From Baltimore at its inception to its death (or maybe its rebirth) in Western Utah, the I-70 blazes a trail about that of the distance between Edinburgh and Istanbul. Woe betide the crew charged with the maintenance upkeep on that stretch of tarmac! It is in Denver, however, we bid it fare-thee-well. It’s time to hitch a ride on another highway north then west to California.

Five Corners of Love

America, Cities, People, Reflections, roadtrip, Travel, United States

FIVE CORNERS OF LOVE

The First Corner 

 

 

The United States, 1994: Trippin’ the Love Fantastic.

 

Part I

O.J. & D.C.

 

 

      O.J. tailed by a slow cavalcade of black & white flashing red. The few hogging the bar whose eyes were not glued to the TV screen overhead, they were craning necks and waving greenbacks on tiptoes to get served. The nation’s most notoriously sluggish motorized pursuit of a wanted man airing nationwide in this surreal drama starring a beloved former athlete-cum-film actor who happened to have African blood in his veins, who happened to have Caucasian blood on his hands, though this is something he shall subsequently deny. The year is 1994 and the United States still grapples with the question of race. Since black motorist Rodney King was beaten by law enforcement for the crime of being black, a cauldron of ethnic tension has simmered away. The overwhelmingly white crowd in this bar-grill root for America’s Most Wanted, not because he is a likely a murderer, but because he is O.J. Simpson, beloved former athlete-cum-film actor.

The whole scene unfolds in slow motion on TV while this bar opposite the old Ford Theatre, where Abraham Lincoln was shot down by anarchist and actor John Wilkes Booth some 131 years earlier (an avoidable death in a later age when paramedics would know how to keep gunshot victims alive), thrums with Washington’s beltway civil servants still wearing their work apparel.

I think it was a midweek evening when I made this one solitary trip there. So many years ago now that the view has lived healthily inside my eidetic memory. We had flown in on this the inaugural day of our round-the-world trip, my oldest friend and I. It was my first time on a continent other than the old one (not that all seven are not siblings born within a geological year of one another), and for all I cared, the America I was laying wide eyes on was a pristine one. The bar ‘n’ grill might have been rocking and Pilgrim Fathers dead for over three hundred years, but there was I nevertheless discovering the new world.

The low-speed hustle by half of the LAPD (a kind of entourage of reluctant jailers) in pursuit of O.J. Simpson was making headlines round the globe that day. Down the road from Congress and Capitol Hill, the boys from the State Department and the girls from Defense couldn’t get enough of it.

‘Go, O.J.! Go!’ they chanted. Beer swilling in one hand, clenched fist punching the smoky air with the other. This was pure America, boorish and good-natured as you like.  

‘We’ll have what they’re having, please.’

‘Can you provide your I.D. first?

‘But…’ we protested to the server, ‘…we’re not even twenty-one. We are twenty-two.’

This little flourish was bound to catch him unawares.

‘I don’t much care if you’re forty-seven and looking great for your age. I’m still gonna need to see that I.D. before we serve you a drop. Sorry, sir!’

So we marched back, my friend and I, to that hostel down the way, picked up our passports and marched back there triumphant. This moment, we imagined quite openly, would be our rites of passage.

Age verified, we could now join the throng around the TV, all wiling O.J. to outrun the police going 8 mph.

’Two JDs n coke, if you please.’

Humphrey Bogart eat your heart out. Where better than the swankiest saloon in DC to affect that Hollywood swagger, other than Hollywood itself, one supposes?

Neatly, consummately, he pours.

‘There you go, boys.’

We asked how much and he replied such and such, and such and such is precisely what we handed him. And that was the first, but by no means the last, cultural faux pas I owned up to in my long and chequered career in travelling the world.

The error of our ways soon became apparent at the next round.

‘Why won’t you serve us? We brought our passports after all.’

Snubbed by the only man in the packed bar in demand other than O.J. (but for entirely different reasons), my good friend and I got somewhat chippy with him.

‘Why won’t you serve us?’

‘Because I make minimum wage and you didn’t so much as tip me a red cent last time round.’

‘I didn’t think we had to.’

‘You didn’t think at all,’ he said. ‘You’re in the United States. In this land a bartender lives on tips, not on his wits.’

‘But we’re British,’ we answered, somewhat meaninglessly.

‘All the more reason then,’ he quipped.

Intrigued to find out what that reason was, I forced the issue and he said something about redcoats and razing Washington to the ground in 1812. Payback time.

‘Will $5 do?’

Plucking it from my hand, this bartender had our back for the rest of the evening, starting with the whisky we watched him pour halfway up a Tom Collins glass.

O.J. had had the police aplenty on his back that evening, tailing this Ford Bronco down an LA freeway to the astonishment of a watching world, though that didn’t stop the good time boys in the bar-n-grill by the Old Ford Theatre in DC from whooping him on to freedom. Never saw a black man in America so feted, though the rowdy crowd might have been cheering on the ensuing police for all I knew nor cared.