Mountain time

alta powder snow

powder snow (Photo credit: limaoscarjuliet)

A night on the train. I stayed up reading in the lounge car while the train was barreling unstoppably fast and blaring its horn somewhere up ahead. My eyes were sore but I had to read my book to the end. Then I went to my seat and rested my cheek so when I opened my eyes I could see out the window without moving my head. On the horizon inaudible lightening flashed orange and white.

I thought I’d write: California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska. Place names in quiet-town America sound romantic to me: Grand Junction, Great Falls, Spokane, an American texture. I found a poetry journal in a second hand book shop in S—, which described the American landscape as ‘fierce and sublime’. I think these place names speak to that idea of grit and wonder.

My checked bag did not make it to S— with me, however. We took a taxi at 4am to a hostel with ‘24 hr reception’ but the door was locked, and only when a resident woke to go to work and let us in, could we read the sign on the office door that said to call to be let in.

After one day, we found the Goodwill and bought warm clothes, and took a shuttle into the mountains. Because my bag still hadn’t turned up, I put plastic bags over my expensive sandals so I could walk in the snow. A little way up the hill skiers whizzed gleefully along, some little kid skiers didn’t have poles. A middle-aged man from the bus nodded to us as he skied past. We had a cup of tea in the restaurant. On the bus back the man sat with us and explained that the snow hadn’t been so good today for him, the surface had gone a little crusty with ice. Yesterday, it was more powdery, which makes going a little slower, but feels like you are floating on the snow. East coasters are used to the crusty ice, but the powder is the best.

We went back for bags and food, and got on the train around 3.30am. We went through the remainder of the night and through the day to D—. The distance was not great, but we were going through the mountains, and now ran almost constantly alongside snow, slowly winding around the curves, until it did snow outside the M— Tunnel. The train gets like home.

Another hostel. Some more reading. I was reading ‘Children of the book’ by Geraldine Brooks, and was impatient to finish. We went out for sliders at a bar around the corner.

The next day we took a bus to B—. We looked in a mystical bookshop, and I found books by the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön. Flicking through, there was a sentence that said something like, Sleeping, making a cup of tea, going to the toilet, talking to people, this is what life is.

We walked along the creek path, past the town and into a canyon. The evergreens there and everywhere were leafless although technically it is spring. The landscape then is drab-brown, pale and woody. but my life is smaller than the world, and those trees were there, intricate and fallow, and lovely in their way. Up in the canyon patches of snow lingered by the trail and in patches on the slope. Mountain bikers and joggers passed us, and down in the creek fishermen pulled lines through pools.

We lay down and read and went back to the slider bar. A man with smooth skin and a dark beard sat down at our table and announced that someone wanted to beat him up. When they called last drinks he asked if we’d like to come back to his apartment and see the skyline. My sister said, Do you have any alcohol? and he looked put out for a moment, and said No… but I do have video games. But I remembered the lecture of the Australian girl in Chiapas, and didn’t feel bad about saying no.

The next day my sister and I read across the booth in a Thai restaurant. Is this a book club?, the waiter asked. No, we’ve just been spending every hour together recently, I said. There’s nothing left to say, my sister said, and we went back to reading.

The book I finished in the middle of Nebraska last night was Wild by Cheryl Strayed about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. What impresses me is Strayed sets out not to find out who she is, but who she used to be. She finds that on the trail, she can only be herself. She ends by saying:

Thank you, I thought over and over again. Thank you. Not just for the long walk, but for everything I could feel finally gathered up inside of me; for everything the trail had taught me and everything I couldn’t yet know, though I felt it somehow already contained within me. How I’d never see the man in the BMW again, but how in four years I’d cross the Bridge of the Gods with another man and marry him in a spot almost visible from where I sat now. How in nine years that man and I would have a son named Carver, and a year and a half after that, a daughter named Bobbi. How in fifteen years I’d bring my family to this same white bench and the four of us would eat ice-cram cones…

It was all unknown to me then… Everything except the fact that I didn’t have to know. That it was enough to trust that what I’d done was true. To understand it’s meaning without yet being able to say precisely what it was.. To believe that I didn’t need to reach with my bare hands anymore. To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life… so very close, so very present , so very belonging to me. How wild it was to let it be.

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Into the desert, heartbreak at the halfway hostel

Train Wheels

Train Wheels (Photo credit: i am indisposed)

I’m on the train in the Nevada desert. The sky is a shimmering blue through polaroid on my glasses and the window like the sky from an aeroplane. The plain is everywhere the same brown-green, everything: the grass that looks bitten down though there are no cattle, the bushes. Parallel to the tracks is a highway with miniature trucks. On each side is a low mountain range touched with white snow. My sister and I left San Fransisco in the morning. First the landscape was the bay, coffee-coloured, mud silted waves; then conifers in the mountains, and snowbanks.

We stayed in a kind of halfway hostel which smelt very particularly and had a high proportion of single, male residents. One nipped out for a joint in the laneway pretty regularly (we were sitting in the front stair well on account of the lounge being closed past 11pm for staff sleeping quarters). A toothless European worked there, changing the faux satin sheets. It was kind of cozy after all, the beds were good and our room was quite warm for some reason, and there were other backpackers to laugh with. We switched to a former luxury hotel for the last two nights though and the vibe was more congenial. We stayed in the Tenderloin quarter, famous for its local flavours. The second hostel had a brochure advising to ‘use street smarts’ when walking around: ‘the TL is not so much dangerous as it can be ugly sometimes’.

A lady wearing leather pants walked along Market St and sternly called to her little dog ‘Lesterrrr, Lesterrr, C’mon, Let’s roll’, before she strode off.

I went for a walk along the lonely piney shore to look out at the Golden Gate Bridge, and surfers at the base of the cliff. The air near the bus stop smelt like blue gum.

I found a book in the Goodwill: The Creativity Book; a year’s worth of inspiration and guidance by Eric Maisel. The first exercise was to write an autobiography. I wrote it on the train. Eric said it transformed his college students: Writing a 2500 word autobiography is its own kind of creative act and looking back at one’s life is a revelatory experience. It can be hard work, intellectually taxing and emotionally draining, but it’s invaluable work and exactly the right kind of work to inaugurate our religion [of creativity]. I did find it taxing. I focused on my most shameful experiences in the hope of catharsis, and afterwards I felt, bad. But it’s done. If I was reading it and it was someone else’s story I would think, Alright, it’s a story, it’s someone’s life. I wonder if I told the truth.

My sister told me she thinks I’m more withdrawn than before; that from the time we quit our share house in 2010 I haven’t wanted to talk as much, my sense of silliness has gone, my strong will ‘evaporated’. I can account for this time, but it’s a long time to have turned away from the world, and I’m sorry for it. It’s made my head ache.

The railway line is complete, and must be good all the way along. Even in the night, that’s where we are, still going on the track, nothing visible out the black window in Nevada. Just our reflections in the lounge car. And when I put my face up to the glass, one little white light away off in the distance.

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