A long uphill is both the ultimate scourge and the gateway to another consciousness. When you’re hauling yourself and one hundred pounds of steel and camp supplies and gas station groceries up a half mile non-stop stretch of hairpin switchbacks, hearing your breath hiss through your nostrils in industrial rhythm, feeling your muscle fibers slowly liquefying into their bath of lactic acid – it’s in moments like that your mind and your memory sort of clutch at anything they can, like a man haplessly grabbing onto exposed roots as he tumbles down a rabbit hole. You might remember, spontaneously, outside of all context, something you haven’t thought of even once in more than half your life. A specific piece of dialogue from a specific episode of a 1991 cartoon show. A cruelty you visited upon a peer when you were too young to spell your own name. The color and weave of your second-grade music teacher’s socks. One moment on an intercity bus when you thought of telling someone for the first time that you loved them, and didn’t, and the entire mental dry-erase board of calculations that were involved in that decision. On a truly brutal uphill climb, your entire life flashes before your eyes, complete down to the last moment – but slowly and in no particular order.
Yesterday I remembered this unsettling short story that everyone in my class had to read one day in 3rd grade. There’s a wise elderly woman who cares for many small children. One day the children catch a dove and, apparently restless of their caretaker’s expansive wisdom and authority, decide to use it to lay a prank on her. “I’ll show her the dove in my hands,” says the ring leader boy, “and ask ‘is this bird alive or dead’? If she says it’s alive, I’ll kill it and she’ll be wrong.” So the children all go to the woman and the boy asks whether the bird is alive or dead. She responds “It is as you will it.”
This story was unsettling to me on several levels. First, that its protagonist is such a twisted sadist that he volunteers to crush to death a living bird – with his bare hands and in front of an audience – for the sole sake of making such a mind-numbingly petty and frivolous point. Second: what is supposed to be the moral here? That you can’t win an argument with your teacher even if you resort to violence or trickery? That the matron is always right no matter what? That you can wring the life out of beautiful things if you want to? Having had sixteen years to think it over, I still don’t know why our teacher made us read this bizarre vignette, or what the moral was supposed to be. But I know that when the logging trucks and house-sized campers and oversized loads and simply bad drivers howl past me in the highway shoulder at 50 mph, missing my elbow by an inch and leaving me in a hot cloud of diesel fumes and burning motor oil, I know that they are the children, I am the dove, and the concept of simple human decency is the mother figure rocking dispassionately in her chair. I don’t swear like a sailor at the mad drivers. I simply say “It is as you will it.”
In Marin I saw a falcon hovering perpetually on a current of warm wind, about 30 feet above the road. It didn’t flap its wings at all. Every once in a while it flinched and re-balanced itself by a centimeter, but it couldn’t have held more still in that exact spot in space if it had been fixed at the end of an invisible pole. I watched it hang there for ten minutes, looking down over the dry fields and deep blue water. Like a glitch in spacetime: a peregrine falcon, flying forever without ever moving.
I’m crushing hard on this city and I barely even know her yet. Crossing the Golden Gate yesterday for the second time in my life, my elation was poured on thicker and brighter than the fog. I’d been thirty miles still from the bridge when the thought started to steamroll me that this is surely where I want to be if and when I ever rejoin society. Its luminous atmospheric beauty plainly clobbers me at every street corner. Its hordes of fellow cyclists. Its sandwiches that make you close your eyes when you chew. Its people who say hello and smile, even to a neck-bearded, salt-stained, lycra-clad weirdo like me. The space between strangers here feels cleaner, warmer, safer. I know it’s expensive, but I’ll live in a shoebox; I always just wanted to live in a shoebox. Still, the idea of trying to carve out the new era here feels somehow strange. It feels like deciding to give up regular clothes, and devote myself to only wearing suits of velvet from now on – as in, it sounds so nice, but could I really get away with it? Have I really earned such a distinction? Could I ever?
Meanwhile I’m in the best physical shape of my life. My lungs feel deeper. I can catch my breath in a fifth of the time I could when I left the last place I called home. These grand benchmarks are easy to identify when you’ve been as much of an indoor kid as I have. I’m delighted to be here, and to spend some proper time stuffing my face with this town’s baked goods, but as if having achieved some escape velocity, I’m also propelled with exponentially rising force for every mile I pass outside the gravity well of the Puget Sound. At times I worry about going on forever.