A Traveler’s Tale
[This is going to read a good bit longer, than my past update emails. The length — nor the density — was not my original intention; I just got off on one small tangent, which inevitably lead to another, and another, and before I know it I’m swinging through vines of tangency lost in the jungle of my mind. If you’re just looking for the reassurance that I’m not stuck in a prison, or curious as to a hear a few fun and interesting travel stories, skip ahead to a third way down. But, if you don’t mind my philosophical ramblings, give yourself some time, grab yourself a cup of coffee, and enjoy — it’s a wild ride my friends.]
It often seems as if we’re twigs meandering down a river. We perceive the current as time — a world out there passing us by in flux — yet we remain resolute in our conviction of our separate twig-selfdom, a lone point of fixture in a sea of relative chaos. We look ahead and see the range of mountains in front of us, we hear the sound of the waves crashing all around us, we feel the cool water rushing underneath us. Our common sense — these perceptions which we internalize from our experiencing senses — lead us to an unmistakable conclusion: the river revolves around us. Intellectually, we can see the folly in our illusion; we understand that our twig existence depends on all of twigmanity that floated before us, that disassociating the river from our twig-self is a game of futility: how can we exist in our current twig form without the river which we float upon? But alas, the power of our creation is too strong, the elixir too sweet. As we ride along the current, we build our house upon our subjective experiences — infinitesimally small slices of our interpretations of the river — thereby extrapolating these tiny slivers into what we call reality. Meanwhile, our minds, hungry for coherence and survival, can’t help but to compartmentalize subsequent experiences as confirmatory chunks of data adding to our story. This leaves us in the precarious position of playing defense, preoccupied with maintaining our own stories, often to the neglect of elephant in the room questions: like, for instance, what the fuck are we doing floating down this river in the first place?
There’s no doubt about it, reality is a strange strange thing. I’m hesitant to say I’m sure of anything, but there are few things which I maintain such a high degree of resolve as in the fact that I don’t have the faintest clue to what the hell is really going on. Here I am, occupying a position in space and time, perceiving a reality through this window in which billions of neural connections behind my eyes are constantly constructing. I have a rough understanding of some of the hows through the beguiling grace of science, but those whys remain ever elusive. As for the whens, almost all of us buy into the idea of some objective past, but could it be that time itself is just another human construct, something our dualistic minds create to simplify an unfathomably complex reality? Same for all beginnings and ends for that matter — at what point, precisely, does one thing begin and one end? Similarly, when, exactly, does one moment turn from now to then? Could it be that what we perceive as an objective past is just our collectively agreed upon subjective memories of this present moment?
I don’t know the answers to any of these questions I raise, nor do I make the claim. The only thing I do hold with any durable conviction, from a positive standpoint, is the experience of this present moment. This may seem to some — dare I say most — like a lot of philosophical masturbation to get to this conclusion. And that very well may be so; but, it is through this absurdest skepticism in which we find a seed which sprouts some very interesting, and highly pragmatic, inquiry. And that’s what its all about, after all — philosophy is not about performing some abstract mental acrobatics, but rather it is a set of tools to help us live a richer and more satisfying life.
Now, as the tide washes us ashore, we find ourselves left stranded, naked with only the experience of this present moment. Through our prior deconstruction, our old illusions lie resting on the sand beside us like the shedding of our skin. But, it is from this naked self, the eternity within this moment, which we can build anew a philosophy of life which engenders many of the fundamental qualities we seek — an experience relatively free from anxieties, regrets, resentments, one filled with connection, vitality, and purpose. In short, the experience of being alive.
The fulcrum within this philosophy hinges upon our beliefs; for is it not just our collected beliefs which inform our perceptions of the experience of this moment? These beliefs, which exist solely within the confines of our mind, they create our actions and how we interact with that world out there, subsequently which re-create our beliefs. The world out there, as we perceive it, is but a reflection of the world in here; we now can see the depth in Aristotle’s teaching, “We first create our habits and then our habits create us” — it all starts with which slivers of reality we will into perception, which seeds of belief we focus our energy into cultivation.
These ideas which I put forward, I've understood them, more or less, from an intellectual standpoint for quite a while now. But, as we all know, a vast ocean separates the lands of superficial understanding and that of legitimate knowledge — the type of knowledge which invariably leads to action — and I have spent much of the past few years as an explorer fervently rowing a small rinkity boat, determined to cross the sea and taste the fruits of that far-off land.
CouchSurfing — staying with local hosts during my travels — has been a central character in this story of exploration. It affords me the opportunity to peek through a tiny window into the reality of another, often another with a substantially different story, and see how their beliefs reflect the reality under which they operate and experience.
To describe all the fascinating accounts of the past three months on the road would be a yeoman’s task, and likely neither you nor I have that type of patience. So rather, I will recount the story of my journey through the Southwest of the United States — starting with James in Southern Colorado, and ending with my old friend, Professor Byrns, in his rustic abode outside of Scottsdale Arizona.
To say that James is an interesting character is more than just a bit of an understatement. Having grown up in Park Avenue, New York City, James was exposed to a class of wealth few of us even have the frame of reference to imagine. He received an insiders view of the puppet-masters, that tiny, elite group that pull the strings of global power. At a young age, however, he started to feel an omnipresent “pure evil”, as he put it, running through the depths of these people, so when he was only seventeen he decided to ‘opt-out’. He joined the military as an assistant chaplain and then became seduced by the comforts of fundamental Christianity — particularly interesting given his familial roots as a secular Jew. His identification as a fundamentalist Christian lasted for two short years, and after his honorable discharge in his fourth year, he set sail across the Atlantic, spending the next eighteen months busking as a statue throughout Europe. Over the years since, he has traveled the world several times over, earned his doctorate in history — specifically focusing on ‘second’ and ‘third’ world history — and collecting many many fascinating adventures and insights along the way.
Residing in an old coal-mining center that now is a dying US town of about 9,000 people, living by himself in a simple yet spacious apartment, filled with a mountain of books and walls decorated with his art, James and I talked incessantly the entire duration of my three-day stay. I was like a wide eyed student, fully absorbed by this man’s enthralling life-story. During our discussions, a theme started to surface: through recounting his experiences and citing his masterful understanding of history, James weaved together a story — quite a persuasive one — of a world dominated by an overarching presence of evil. He explained in detail his anarchistic perspective, why he staunchly believed in gun-right advocacy, and how after a long hiatus and in depth study of many of the Eastern philosophies, he returned to Christianity. Rather than the evangelical kind of earlier, however, he came to his own version of Gosticism: the belief that reality is composed materially of Evil, yet we are each able to rise above this ubiquitous spirit contained within each of us, through love, art, meditation, and the identification with that life which is eternal.
Fast forward one week later, I find myself in the lovely home of my dear friend and past professor, Ralph Byrns. Ralph, who is 73 years old, lives with his lovely fiance, Linda, 69, and his brother Jim, 71. Although Ralph spent his career as a professor of economics, his primary interest has always been philosophy, but it’s fair to say he is a Renaissance man of the first order. Now with Jim, I’m not sure exactly what he did for work (somehow with such dynamic and smart people, descriptions of ones’ CV never arise), but what was clear was that his mind wasn’t bound by the same rules and restrictions as the rest of humanity. Together, these two form a true intellectual tour de force, and through our wide-ranging conversations — from Physics, Psychology, Anthropology, Art, History, Technology, Mathematics and every blurred discipline in between — the Byrns Brothers, weaved together a particular theme: that despite all the pervasive doomsday talk — the history of humanity has had a clear trajectory — life is, in fact, improving, and that right now, this moment in time, is actually the “Best of all worlds”, as the brothers put it.
Listening two these two stories, not quite incompatible, but occupying very different slices of this whole reality pie, they were still very true and very real for both James and the Bryns Brothers. And while I stood around the kitchen island, picking at the cheese spread and sipping my chilled red wine, smiling uncontrollably over the table at the happy and engaged Byrns family, I couldn’t help but to think how strange all this was. My trip through the SouthWest, up to this point, had been a bit of a fairy tale, something I distinctly sensed that I was writing. It was not just a world out there that I was observing, it was as if I was authoring all this into existence through my observation. I knew James felt this same sense of authorship, and although the explicit topic didn’t come up, I could sense that Jim and Ralph might feel the same.
This belief, that life is like a waking dream, it was something I felt might be a valid interpretation of reality — a very sensible data point on the spectrum of possibilianism — but up to this point in my life, it was only a cute intellectual idea. But through that week of my travels, it’s as if, although I couldn't explain it, I could feel it as real. The frequency and absurdity of these interactions I was engaging in just seemed too out there. I mean, I’m a pretty ‘far from equilibrium’ and ridiculous dude myself, so you’d figure, just by chance, I’d be likely to find myself in situations where I’d be more likely to meet similarly out-there characters. But it sure doesn't seem random chance can explain the frequency of occurrences that I experienced, it was as if every person that I interacted with was such a character. A character that was placed there for my amusement, my evolution, my observation, hell, I have no idea about the mechanics at play, all I know, is that I couldn't restrain the strong feeling that they were all part of this story, this story in which I was authoring.
Six hours after leaving James’s apartment in Trinidad Colorado, the Greyhound bus arrives into the Albuquerque terminal. I’m staying with Elizabeth, Nate, and their two children. Elizabeth was a massage therapist in her prior job, and Nate worked for a non-profit, but faced with the glaring reality of paying the bills and providing for their family, they each found more ‘pragmatic’ and stable office jobs.
Elizabeth and Nate recently came back from a two week trip in Spain, they told me how alive they felt and that they just couldn't take anymore living in this same old town that they’d lived in for the entirety of their whole lives. Their days, they both said, were turning into a blur, asking themselves “is this it?”. They were ready for some change, any change, to the point that they were intent to move to Spain — despite the fact that nobody in their family spoke proficient Spanish, although they did hire a Spanish tutor for the children. In short, as Elizabeth wrote in her mission statement of her CouchSurfing profile, they were “stuck” and trying to figure out how to get “unstuck”. And here I am sitting at the dining room table with the whole family, eating an instant rice dish and salad that Elizabeth just whipped up, and she asks me, “What should we do?”.
I think a lot of people might meet me and hear me discussing this other reality I think we can strive for — this place of presence where anxieties and love are both states that we can at any time opt in, or opt out — and assuming they don’t just think I’m crazy and tune me out completely, they will listen intrigued, yet, nonetheless will still discount my thoughts as coming from a person of immense privilege. And, well, they’re right — I think that’s undeniable. I’m a white man born to a loving, tolerant, American mother, and on top of it, also happens to have a relative dearth of responsibilities which allow me to persist in this nomadic fashion which I so choose. Can a typical family with kids live a similar life of seasonal work? — probably not. Now what about a single mom living in SouthSide Chicago or a man working sixteen hour shifts in a manufacturing plant in China? Yea, sure, that’s a pretty non-existent probability, but I don’t think that’s the point. The point is that we’re each on our own path, we’re each constructing this world around us that we perceive, creating this reality with our beliefs. I think this is true for everybody; maybe we just weren't conscious of our own creation, stuck in an illusion, the misconception that we are but victims of an objective world acting upon us — but maybe, what if this was just another belief that we bought into? Although we might not realize it yet, we are all artists, the world that we experience is our canvas and the beliefs we hold are our brush. This holds equally true whether we happen to be writing this novel by trotting around the globe or by living a life of domestication: life is about the journey more than the destinations, yet often if we focus on the journey, we can find ourselves in some interesting destinations!
That’s more or less how I responded. Well, that and a few favorite quotes of mine, like that one “Ordinary people see Beauty in the Extraordinary, but it is the Extraordinary people that are able to see Beauty in the Ordinary”. From this perspective, we are all able to experience the extraordinary. To quote another, St Augustine, “God is a circle with circumference nowhere and center everywhere”. Feel free to exchange “God” for “sense of purpose and presence” if that makes you more comfortable, I totally understand.
But anyway, I ended up staying with Nate and Elizabeth for two nights. I was only planning on staying for one night, the second night was to be spent with a surfer in Santa Fe. But at the train station on the way to Santa Fe, I got caught in conversation with an absolutely gorgeous woman — long flowing blond hair, blue eyes the vivid hue of Grinnel Lake, tall and slim, yet voluptuous in her proportions. She was finishing up her graduate studies at U of New Mexico; I’m not sure exactly what she was studying because her interests were so broad, but I think it was something to do with public health policy, but I think she was going on to Physicians Assistant school in a few months in Seattle, with an interest in alternative approaches to medicine. Or something like that at least. She was also from Montana, and a huge outdoor enthusiast — about to go on a 25 day kayaking trip down the Colorado river with a group of friends. She said that the purpose behind this trip was to go excavating a lost ruin of a Native tribe that she had researched, and she described the fascinating mythology of the tribe and their rituals. Both of her parents are professors of music at the University of Montana (she’s also a classically trained musician that spent some time traveling around the world performing) and when I asked her if she wanted to visit the oldest church in the US that we were passing, and which she originally pointed out to me, she firmly said “No” because “churches scare me”. She mentioned that she was raised an an Atheist, and when I laughed asking what the hell that means, she told me that when she was five and her sister was four, her mom would hold bible classes each Sunday for them, reading out passages and together they would deconstruct and critique each passage. They did this each Sunday for three years.
You can see how we were just so thoroughly engaged for the whole day, walking around the lovely town of Santa Fe, that I felt lost in time. So I decided to ask Nate and Elizabeth if I could stay an additional night with them. I wanted to spend the entirety of the day with this intensely fascinating woman, but she was heading back to catch the train back to Albuquerque in the evening to meet her boyfriend and “soul mate” of the past two years. She dropped that one after a few hours of walking around Santa Fe, and I definitely had that internal sigh of “ah shit, well that’s a bummer”. Surprisingly, though, it wasn't that bad. It didn't really matter — I mean, I was lost in this experience, and thankful for it, and that really was good enough.
Reflecting back on this leg of the trip, a theme along these lines started to surface: that of a re-occurring archetype through this waking dream. I specifically didn't present her name, because it doesn't matter. I felt during our talk, in some way, she was a projection of an ideal of mine, that somehow I was conjuring this image up in my mind. Not to say I didn't sense her as being real as well — the moments felt so real and alive — but also, in some way, I felt as if I was dreaming this whole experience into being, it just seemed all too convenient.
Then on the Greyhound bus leaving Albuquerque, another attractive woman (I mean really, how many cute single woman ride greyhounds??) asks if she can sit down next to me. She says that I “look like” her “safest bet” since all the other seats are partially taken. She immediately, thereafter, asks me if I smoke pot, and if so, if I’d care for some of her edible chocolates. After tossing a bar each into our mouths, I then find out that she’s been volunteering on a friend’s intentional community outside of Albuquerque, that she does contracting/design work, then saves a bunch of that money and decides to live somewhere interesting until she runs out and needs to work again. We spend the entirety of the four hour trip talking about hippy-dippy themes that I’m always game to discuss. She’s heading over to Tucson that night to help her younger sister move, which is odd since that’s my destination the following day, after a one day couchsurfing stop-over in Las Crus. When I do get to Tucson, we never get to meet-up because our schedules conflict, but as I walk down the Procession of All Souls festival parade, I run into another, profoundly beautiful woman. She’s in her young thirties, she’s here on business as she’s taking her archaeological team excavating, and we talk passionately and incessantly about life, all the way to the end of the procession where we both offer our lanterns with notes to the deceased to be burned in the urn at the grand finale…
All of this is in a span of three days. I mean, I don’t know, but damn this sure sounds like some dreamed up shit to me! And I don’t even think that’s the strangest chapter either. In Las Cruces, I meet Collin. My CouchSurfing host Alysia, as she’s driving me back from the Greyhound station to her house, she tells me that she has another surfer that I’ll be sharing the living room with: “he’s a real nice guy, but super, super shy”. Okay. He did seem a bit shy at first, but once he opened up, we hopped on a three hour straight-shot bullet ride, him telling me about his struggles with the anxiety disorder OCD, what it was like for him growing up and trying to ignore his disease, and then when he was twenty years old, how he just cracked.
Colin was living in Albuquerque at the time — although he grew up in a wealthy part of San Francisco — living as a writer. He comes from a family of creative genius — and mental illness, her common mistress. So, when he was twenty years old, that one piece of sand caved his whole castle in: he left his apartment, without his wallet or any recognition of who or what he was, and wandered the streets of Albuquerque for one year. He told me he slept for no more than thirty minutes each night and he didn't really eat at all — partly because he didn't want to beg for food or accept hand-me downs, but also because he was so occupied trying to find out where, and who, he was. He told me the story of how he refused to take pharms, as he was absolutely insistent on conquering OCD himself. “My mind created this disorder”, he told me, “and my mind will fix it”.
Over the past ten years, he has been facing the demons of his disease head on, while he’s been traveling all around the world, working on his children stories which he wants to help “expand the consciousness that children think possible”. Something like that, I can’t quite remember: I was still a bit stoned from the edible that the girl on the Greyhound gave me five hours ago after all. But I was just wide-eyed and hanging on to each word as Colin was telling his story.
Now I find myself writing this from the open expanse that is the dining room / living room of the farm that I’m currently residing. It really is quite breathtaking here — my friend Manu designed and built the house. Him, his sister and their mother are the family of my old roommate’s from college. I’ve only been here for two nights, but I can tell it’s going to be a really interesting stay.
Initially, when I first arrived, taking the taxi down three miles of windy dirt roads to get to their home, climbing up and down sharp the sharp rocky slopes, I started to question the sanity of my original plan to home-base here for the next four or five months. I mean, the farm is out here — about forty minutes to the nearest city, excluding walk time to where a bus picks up. Also the internet is really slow and there’s no hot water for the shower — my western sensibilities just can’t take this for such a prolonged period, I thought! But when I started talking with Manu, I quickly realized that this feels right and this will be my home for the winter.
Manu, who’s thirty years old and describes himself as a political revolutionary, his hair tied back in braids, spent three years hitch-hiking across South America. Although he comes from a prominent Colombian family, he’s a harsh critic of capitalism and he shows his passion when he talks about her shortcomings — something that he sees on his regular excursions to the jungles, where he has many indigenous friends, and he can see the ecological and cultural genocide taking place first-hand.
Yesterday, Manu took me to run some errands in the closest town, La Virginia, about six miles away from the farm. He drove us in his old off-road truck, and right before the main street that leads to the town, he pulls over at a corner mechanic to check his tires. He’s joking with all the chicos at the tienda, then he sees a friend of his, an older man with dark leathery skin, probably in his mid to late sixties. We sit down together under the cool shade of a nearby tree, and the man pulls out and sparks a gordito — a well-nourished joint. Him and Manu talk and catch up, and I try to understand. It’s difficult for me though (Apparently my primary means of studying Spanish the past three months, reading the poetry of Palblo Neruda, isn't too helpful a methodology for understanding the conversations of others. Go figure!).
After we finish the Gordito, Manu wanders down to check on his car, leaving the older man and myself to chat. The old man tells me about how he likes his village, but it is the only place he knows; he tells me how he has been consuming marijuana daily for over fifty years, how it’s very common in his village, and how the people are happy; and he tells me about his children, two of whom are deceased and rest in the graves that lay directly behind us. He then looks down at my soft, delicate, milky-white hands, and laughs; he puts forward his palms and shows me the dirt that’s carved into his fate lines, seeking refuge under his nails, breathing life as part of him. He tells me it is part of me also, that I come from the same soil.
The absurdity of this moment was glaringly clear. Here I was, trying to listen and understand his reality, but it was just so different, I had such little frame of reference with which to try and peek through his window. Meanwhile, here sat this old man who never has left his town of birth, who rarely meets others who even have even traveled outside of his town much less to another country. And here is this gringo American, this yoga-loving, contact-dancing, spoken-wording vegetarian that works three months out of the year and then travels the rest of the time. Talk about a mind-fuck of an interaction, sheesh!
Anyway, Manu returns and the tire is now fixed. We leave and drive through the beautiful tree-lined street leading to La Virgina, seeing boys riding their bicycles with their lindas riding on the handle bars. We park and walk into a tienda that sells tools. Manu is affectionately greeted by all the store patrons. In fact, everywhere we go people know him and clearly like him; he seems as a bit of a local celebrity in fact: this quirky, intriguing guy that comes from a well-off family and education, but is still in a sense one of them. We chat together for ten minutes or so, then load up the twenty-foot long plastic cylinders on the top of his truck. After the car is loaded, We walk around the central market, stop off at a vendor and enjoy a fresh horchata, and then meet a couple of Manu’s friends that are sitting on a log behind a nondescript gravel parking lot. A younger woman is sitting at the end, with two well-built men wearing polo t-shirts, khaki shorts, and sunglasses at the end. Concrete dumb-bells rest on the dirt ground underneath them.
They ask me if I’d like to smoke with them, and I respond “seguro”. I take a few puffs of the gordito, and I find myself yet again as a foreign observer, lost in their sea of Spanish conversation, unable to comprehend more than a few words. One of the muscular men gets up and excuses himself, and over the next five minutes, two other of their friends sit down and join us. Now, as the group realizes my limited Spanish abilities, they start asking me questions s-l-o-w-l-y. Oddly, I can actually speak quite well, but understanding when native speakers talk is absolutely beyond me at this point. Now we’ve got a good interaction going, and then the first guy comes back and hands me a densely packed plastic bag, roughly the size of a medium sized saucer pan. I hand him the equivalent of twenty-five dollars in return.
On the ride back to the finca, Manu tells me that those two men we met worked for the police. Apparently, the police control all the drugs here, even marijuana. I asked him if they knew he was a “Revolutionary”, and he laughed; “of course not” he responded, “if they did, I wouldn't be alive”. I think it’s safe to say that my time here on the farm is at the very least going to be interesting.