Thursday, July 15, 2010

Freeways and Footpaths: Different Forms of Pilgrimage

A week ago Sunday I qualified as a Freeway Warrior, having driven some 1900 miles from Oakland, California to Minneapolis in about three days. Aside from the brief detour through the University of Utah campus in search of a Marriott there, all of it was on this country's great interstates.

I basically took 80 East to Des Moines -- and turned left onto 35 North. The only traffic I encountered was on the Iowa/Minnesota border, then again outside of Northfield, Minnesota, home of two colleges, five railroad tracks, and a grain elevator. I went to one of the colleges in Northfield, Carleton, and I suspect this traffic jam was staged to make me slow down and pay attention to the place that has been so formative. Finally, there was traffic getting into Minneapolis itself, but as we crested the last rise and gazed on the skyline of the city, I found myself suddenly in tears.

Many of the pilgrims coming into Santiago tear up when they cross under the portal of the old walled city, graduating to full weeping when they see the lantern of the great Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella. I was not one of them -- which was good: someone clear-eyed needs to lead the way forward. Hopefully, someone who is not crying like a baby.

But here's the question: how is pilgrimage like or not like a road trip?

First, you have more space in the trunk of a car than you do in a backpack. That's a huge relief. I find myself camped out in my loft waiting for furniture to arrive. But aside from space, the discipline of packing is the same: I needed to anticipate everything I would need and weed out everything I could make do without.

Even so, I left a tiny altar in Salt Lake City of "stuff" I'd packed that I could clearly see I would not need for the road or for the camp-out. I arranged it ritually, left it on the floor, took a mental snapshot -- and never looked back.

By the end of the first day, I was confident that I had everything I needed for the journey. Just as on pilgrimage, I knew after a few days what could be left behind and what needed to remain. And that feeling that I had everything that I would need gave me great hope.

Second, freeways are like footpaths, even if the pace is faster. I basically did about 80 mph on 80 East: 80 on the 80. I figured that if I did two states, one set of mountains, and a time zone each day, I'd probably get there in three days. The first day, I passed through California and Nevada, crossed the Sierras, and entered into Mountain Daylight Time. The second day I passed through Utah and Nebraska, crossed the Rockies, and entered into Central Daylight Time. It got me to Minneapolis on the third day -- but I confess I was looking hard for a set of mountains in Iowa and southern Minnesota.

The countryside is vast and stunning: a car is the way to see the West. The Nevada deserts, the Utah salt flats, the Wasatch Mountains (which you do not cross, as they run east-west -- the only range in the country that does so!), the horses in Wyoming, the Black Angus cows in Nebraska, the pigs in Iowa: I saw it all, under clouds as spectacular as the terrain. Yes, there was "weather," particularly as I left Nevada. But the high desert stretches out so far that I could see blue sky beyond the hail. And like pilgrimage, I ached for that view over the next rise.

As on pilgrimage, I attended to landscape and skyscape and weather in ways that I do not usually.

Third, as on pilgrimage, I attended to my body in ways that I do not usually. I was somewhat anxious about driving by myself. I knew I was tired, and I suspected that cumulative exhaustion coupled with the ache of saying goodbye would hit as soon as I started driving. Yes, I wept my way out of California, but crying keeps you awake. I quickly learned how much coffee I could drink to stay awake without stopping at every next rest stop! And when I felt tired, it was time to eat. Food sends that extra jolt of sugar and adrenaline into the system when you need it. I gave myself peanut butter crackers like communion wafers: they kept me alert.

Finally, I depended on traveling companions to keep me attentive. Just as on pilgrimage, I depended on the people I was with, so on the road, I came to know the people I was traveling with. I'd lead for a while, then drop back and let the car behind me forge ahead. We all quickly knew the "jerks" on the road: speeders and lane-changers, non-signalers, slow drivers, and just plain road cretins. I just passed them. Truck drivers became my friends: they always signaled, they always slowed down on a hill or a hailstorm; unfailingly, they watched. I watched them, and I watched with them. And when I drove off at a rest stop, I silently blessed my pod of fellow travelers, offering a prayer that we'd make it safely to wherever we were going.

Then, there were my companions in the car: Lou Harrison's lyrical compositions for chorus, violin, and gamelan, "La Koro Sutro," which became the way I started each day's drive; author, poet, and Catholic writer John O'Donohue reading his lyrical book "beauty," which became my morning meditation; brilliant post-modern author David Foster Wallace's book "The Broom of the System," which may represent what O'Donohue charges as the "ugliness" of contemporary writing. But which I found enthralling -- and, at 17 cds, inexhaustible. These traveling companions got me through the hours and the innumerable miles.

It's different than hiking with a buddy, and I dearly missed Lisa, my companion on Kili and the Camino, as well as John, Jan, Sonja, and Dave from the Chemin d'Arles earlier this summer.

Finally, distance: it's important to notice. "There" is not "here," and it was important for me to notice the difference. Friends urged me to have the car towed along with my furniture, but I needed to mark the miles.

So, I'm "here," via freeways, not footpaths.

The right path for this pilgrimage.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Here... and There

Gertrude Stein famously said of Oakland: "There is no there there." She wasn't stuttering; she had simply failed to find a heart in the city, a center that held it together. Although I like to agree with Stein in most things, I think on this matter she was dead wrong.

In protest, Oaklanders fashioned a flag: a white outline of the Oakland Tribune tower on a green background with the word "There." at the bottom.

There is a heart in Oakland. It may be different for different folks, but it's there: Lake Merritt, Jack London Square, the Farmers' Market every Friday morning, the Coliseum, Raider Nation, Eastmount Mall. For me the "there" of Oakland was walking around Lake Merritt in earliest morning, as the sun was rising and the citizens were out taking their exercise. Asian couples walking vigorously together; black teens in training; white women walking and talking like pigeons; the ever-present Canadian geese who came through on the flyway -- and stayed. Every time I walked the Lake I could feel the city alive and waking.

There's a "there there," but you won't find it from a distance. You have to be there. More accurately, you have to be here -- not there -- to find it. The heart of a city never opens to those who consider it from a distance. The heart of a city opens only to those who walk its streets, gather with its people to celebrate a holiday, mourn a verdict, protest a policy. When you are here, there's a "there there."

And now I am here: Minneapolis. "Here." I wrote the word on my calendar the day I arrived. I hadn't known when that would be. One morning I drove out of Oakland on Interstate 80 and started driving east. I knew I'd turn left at Des Moines, but I didn't know how long it would take to get there. Or here. But the road beckoned; the weather cooperated; and the landscape was enchanting. At the end of three days of hard, luminous driving, Oakland had became "there" and Minneapolis became "here."

People say of Minnesota or Minneapolis what Stein said of Oakland: "there's no there there." Particularly Californians can never fathom why anyone would leave California. These people have been telling me: "Do you know how cold it gets in the winter?" "Do you know how hot it gets in the summer?" "Do you know that the mosquito is the state bird?" Yes, I know all of these things. But I also know what one knows only when she is here: there's a "there" here.

Maybe it's the view of the city skyline from the bridge I run over every morning. Or all the people out up and down Nicollet Mall on a warm summer night. Or the Mississippi as it cascades over St. Anthony Falls. Or that feeling, when heat matches the humidity, that you are in something that's alive.

Here. I love it.