Thinking Across Time
There are times in one’s life when the events surrounding you become more than just what is happening at the moment. At a time like that, the events may actually define a set of ideas and beliefs creating a master memory that links events through time and creates situations where the initial event itself looses meaning and what it becomes in your memory takes over as a catalyst for futures thought and actions. This new master memory forms a web of connections with other memories, thoughts, values and goals – heretofore unrelated, and in so doing becomes a catalyst driving one into a new direction or providing a new view of life and living by which one may then benchmark all things that happen afterwards. For me, a trip across the western United States during the summer of 1976 was such an event – and, even today, some thirty years hence, places and images of that summer of discovery are etched in my mind and have, throughout the years since, affected the way I both view myself and the world around me. They have become a system of values and ideas by which I have gauged every day of my life since that time. Even as I write this narrative I am evaluating each word based on that long-ago “new self image” I discovered during that short summer so long ago. At times I can still feel the feels, smell the smells, and hear the sounds that continue to whisper to me there messages of who and why.
The summer itself was one not unlike others I had enjoyed, traveling across the country and into Canada with little concern about where or even when I would leave or arrive at the next destination. This travel lust began the summer after my first year of teaching when, upon an invitation of a colleague, I spent my first summer traveling. In those days it was common to see young people, of which I was one, shedding their responsibilities and casting there fate to the wind – as it were, leaving “normality” behind and travel across the country as carefree as the the wind, just being there – wherever that “there” happened to be at the moment. This was my first taste of being on my own and experiencing far-flung places and peoples, and that type of freedom and view of life and living was one that my parents generation had never experienced., and I often think never experienced in just that same way even unto today by those that followed as the young after me. That summer was very special because up to that time in my life I had not really been any place, beyond some summer family vacations in which we drove through the night to Wisconsin – camped for a week and then drove throughout the night home. Those were summer vacations for which I always look forward and they did contain adventure but nothing to the degree or intensity of those summers spent traveling between 1970 and 1976. I believe that every summer in those years I would leave St. Louis shortly after school concluded in June and, most of the time, never return until shortly before school resumed in August. What a time! It was the ultimate in freedom and adventure all rolled into one. It was like Route 66 and summer camp combined. The road stretched before me, there were no rules about when to leave or arrive or how long to travel. When I arrived someplace, it was good I would stay and if not simply move on.
The summer of 1976 was the last such carefree summer. At the time it felt like just another summer of adventure but on reflection it was the end of an era for me – an era of discovery and adventure. It was the summer between my the end of my youth and the beginning of my true adulthood. Although this may sound sad or disheartening I can truly say that the summers between 1970 and 1976 gave me such a wealth of experiences and memories that I have been able to be satisfied with the responsibilities of adulthood and the mundane day-to-day drudgery that attached itself to increased responsibility and age. I never regretted was the fact that I was able to spend summers traveling and because of the traveling have never felt regret or envy about not being able to do that since that time. I believe that is some way it allowed me to both find myself and to store enough memories and adventure to last a lifetime. Sometimes my wife muses about the fact that she never had the opportunity to be on her own and to simply travel for the joy of doing it. I quietly agree and muse along with her but in my own mind I can not help but feel both luck and a sense of sorrow that she did not have the opportunity to experience life as I did. Can you imagine – it was almost like being a pioneer, setting out each day for a destination for which you have never seen, not knowing the road ahead, bound by no particular confines of space or time – guided only by the here and now. Experiencing life moment by moment – drinking in each event as if it were the only thing that counted, for at that time it was!
The trip itself has long since been forgotten and what remains are those moments that have become fused into me. The are connected in some vague way by the fact that they occurred at relatively the same time and on the same trip but each has become a stand alone event that defines some little part of me. The order of occurrence is of no importance any more, but the feelings left behind are those things that are now me.
At one point during that summer I can remember driving through what was probably Arizona or New Mexico stopping here and there at some of the pueblo sites that were tourist “attractions”. These little places seemed to dot that landscape in no particular pattern and they were all associated with members of native American decent making money, or attempting to make money, based on the memories and ruins of their once flourishing civilizations. I felt like and intruder in someone else’s dream. One such memory that has become part of me occurred in the four corners area at a place called the Goosenecks of the San Juan, a section of the San Juan river that remained me a lot of the meandering streams found in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park at the base of Trail Ridge Road. From some of the vistas along the road one could look back down the valley and see the convoluted and twisting river which looked like the switch-backing roads that allow one to traverse the mountains. The Goose Necks were a much more intense and majestic version. Imagine a deep valley eroded into the high plateau desert floor probably a mile deep, cut by the San Juan river in a wildly convoluted and switch-back pathway – hence the name reminding the namer of the bent neck of a goose. At any rate, as I approached the vista which was at that time in the middle of no place, as one from a city might describe it, there was no evidence of either the river or the vista until you literally approached the rim. Then you looked into a wondrous expanse of cut rock canyons twisted and turning and at the bottom lay the tiny tame water of the San Juan. It was almost unbelievable that the water some half mile or more below could have actually carved the canyon within which it lay. At that moment while I was surrounded by this immense gesture of nature a small figure approached with a handful of beads and bobbles – probably completely unaware of the state of wonder of which I was in – a young boy of native American decent selling beads and charms. Here we were, in what seemed like the most isolated place in the southwest, surrounded by a geological event of un-imaginable proportion, yet brought to reality by this solitary figure who simply appeared from no where selling his heritage.
The event brought me back from the romantic imaginations and into the world of reality. It defined for me in that one moment the relationship between man and nature by illustrating the difference in timing that forever separates man fro the world upon which he lives. The earth on the one hand exists and changes at a rate and scale which to living things is literally unimaginable. Think of what it takes to create a mountain or wear away a gorge from a rocky plain. These events are all around us yet without some benchmark we can never hope to experience them. Occasionally since that time I have pondered on the idea of geological time. As a teacher it is a term that I have confidently used with students as I explain the changes in the earth – yet in reality I have absolutely no literal comprehension of what it really is. What must it be like to exist within geological time. How must living things appear – or for that matter, do living things appear at all to an entity that exists with the realm of geological time. The span of a mans life may be eighty or even one hundred years but to an entity existing within geological time would the man appear long enough to even be noticed?
So there I was, standing on the edge both literally and emotionally as I tried to get a grasp on what it must feel like to exist in geological time and all of a sudden humanity stepped in the form of a child selling a people. The outcome has been that I have never forgotten either the child or the place. I can still see the immense demonstration of geological time and feel the tiny tug of biological time. That single set of events probably took only twenty minutes of my life but the impact was enormous. Since that moment I have been aware of the displacement of time and the relative inconsistency of a life weighed against millennium. It is a wonder that plants and animals have any effect upon the earth much less affect it in at the scale they do. It is also apparent that just as the single drop of water is of no consequence to the mountain the never ending procession of its brothers can literally erase the mountain of existence. In the same way the child and the beads alone are like the pat of a single drop of rain on the dry and dusty earth – leaving but a momentary imprint so temporary that its existence is relative. The accumulated affect of the child and the beads are an inditement of a people and a time that holds little hope for those whom society has cast off or left behind. The countless generations of children selling a heritage is a statement to the temporariness of mankind.
I have often wondered about the child over the years that now separate me and he and wonder what has happened – is there a man now in place of the child. Has those events which we shared for that one moment in time made a difference for either he or me. For me, I must answer – yes. How can you measure the effect of a single meeting against the span of one’s life. How often have I revisited that moment – and why was it that moment that became so etched in my mind.
Life is like that, things occur for which we have little understand in terms of the long term effects they have on our life. Witness that summer so many years ago and still I am trying to work through all of the events that still haunt me. Is this just an example of how each persons life affects those that they touch?
Some shadows fade and dim and other remain bright, and still others become something more as they influence all of the events that follow their occurrence. Based on this premise I believe that the summer of 1976 contained an unusual number of events that have remained with me and altered the way I view and react to the world. In addition, that summer marked a conscious change in me for it was the transition between what was and what was to be. An altered state of life, so to speak, a conscious choice to take one fork in the road over the other. I believe that it was the events of that summer that allowed me to formulate a new being – sensitive to my surroundings and even more to the individuals and events that compose what we might call our day-to-day life. I believe that without the events of that summer I would have had a different view of my place and the purpose of my life. It seems to me that it was after that summer that I began to realize the implications of ones life and the infinitely small decisions one makes each day – weather to do or say one thing or another – and the accumulated affect that those small choices make when spread over a human lifetime. Just like the single drop of rain or the single moment between to people, the choice we make on a daily basis which, at the time seem simple and non-consequential, have a large effect on our relationships when accumulated over a lifetime. It is only after living a good part of a lifetime that one can look back and begin to understand what has and is actually happening.
Off and on throughout our life together my wife has said something to the effect of “… I wonder what I am going to do when I grow up?” I have taken this in two ways. First, I have wondered at what point she will decide that she has actually grown up and that what she is doing is what she has wondered about. On the other hand, it seems to me that this may be a very good example of someone who does not realize that the events of each day are your life and that life is not something you can wait to happen – life is happening and what you do or don’t do on a day-to-day basis is the definition of who you are and what you stand for. Life is not something that you must wait for or even plan for. Life happens and you must happen with it, for if you don’t you are waisting opportunities that happen only one time.
I believe a good illustration of this that many people and most certainly parents can understand happens when we think of our children. On a daily basis children are a lot of work, they can be both joyful and heart breaking at the same time. There comes a time in the life of every parent, I believe, when the wonder if the child will ever grow to an adult. Then one day, and that day seems to come in a flash, the child is grown and so many years have passed that it is hard to reconnect with those first moments of parenthood. You look at the son or daughter and are a wonder – they are grown and no longer the child you knew just yesterday. You have common memories but somehow the have become you, and you have become someone else. In much the same way as this each day of our life is a moment, like a child, to be lived through sometimes joyfully and sometimes with sorrow or trepidation. Then the next and the next and soon the child has grown and the person on the other side of the mirror is no longer that youth you once knew. Just as the child has grown to the adult so the day has become a lifetime and suddenly you are looking from the other end wondering what happened. This moment of realization can, I imagine, be very difficult and probably strike fear or even terror into the wearer. The fact is that weather we like it or not, the days flow by weather we seize the opportunity to make them count of simply let them flow on their own. The end result of a lifetime is probably the degree to which the individual wears each day out – getting and giving the most, or weather we simply let it happen always looking forward to the next day. That next day will never come and if you wait for it you are wasting opportunities to live and make a difference.