Sunday, September 23, 2012

Wild Blue...Yonder!

It’s good to know that the spirit of exploration is still alive and well in the United States.  This desire to know what lies over the next ridge has always been one of our most attractive traits, whether the “ridge” in question is the Blue Ridge Mountains, gravity, the human genome or our own neuroses.

On Friday, my book group got together to discuss our latest read, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.  Full disclosure: I didn’t finish the book.  I found myself constantly torn between impatience on the one hand and admiration on the other.  The impatience sprang initially from a mild disgust at the complete mess Strayed makes of her life after her mother dies.  Maybe the sting was envy.  I mean, I’ve experienced many deaths, but I was never allowed to fall apart as completely as she did.  There was always someone depending on me to hold things together.  Yet Strayed’s response is to launch herself on a solo trek of the Pacific Crest Trail, the west coast’s sister of the Appalachian Trail, only longer and more arduous.  Of course she was stupidly, dangerously ignorant about trekking and unprepared for the rigors of the PCT, but she stuck with it.  She had the guts not only to think about such a journey, a woman alone in the wilderness for hundreds of miles, but to actually take it on.  That is something I could never do, and not only because I hate camping.

When I was a girl, ten or eleven, I had a dream of riding a horse across the country.  Like many adolescent girls, I was horse-mad.  I would regularly attach a “bridle” to the newel post of our banister and take off on mad gallops through the countryside or long slogs up the sides of mountains.  Since I grew up in Pennsylvania, the mountains I was familiar with had been tamed somewhat by the effects of time and erosion.  Still, my imaginary rides were full of excitement and horse-girl companionship, but never any serious danger.  As the youngest child of a mother who was seriously ill during my toddler-hood, I got a lot of attention from my sisters and father, but no one ever had the time to drive me to riding lessons.  Horse-mad I might be, but horse-poor I would remain.  I did get a cat I adored.  And the full set of Doctor Doolittle books one Christmas.  No movie version, whether Rex Harrison or Eddie Murphy, can hold a candle to the original books.

Despite my boldness on the banister, the reality of my personality is that the most adventurous thing I’ve ever done is move to New York City by myself to go to acting conservatory.  But that doesn’t mean I’m a complete coward. 

A friend in my book group commented that she related to Strayed’s impulse to get out into the wild and get away.  When she was facing a difficult time in her life, she said, that was all she wanted to do—turn away from the trouble and start to walk and walk and walk.  But she didn’t.  She stayed and did the harder thing; she examined herself.  I will tell you, my friend learned more about herself in three weeks time than Strayed has ever learned (at least according to what my book group reports about the end of Wild).  There are plenty of folks who can set off without a qualm to explore the most remote of territories, but who quail from the territory of the mind.

Coincidentally, also on Friday, the Space Shuttle flew over Monterey as it made its final trip to an aeronautical museum in Los Angeles.  Although I openly scoffed at people who said they planned to watch it pass (including my own husband), when I heard that we’d be able to have a good view of it from the deck of the school’s science building, I made my way over there, then across the street to a high ridge in our outdoor lab.  A cluster of twenty or so students and teachers stood in the sunshine looking out over Monterey Bay.  As one of our tech-savvy teachers followed his Twitter feed to determine how close the Shuttle was (“It’s circling San Francisco!”), I found myself (“It’s still circling San Francisco!”) getting more and more (“Oh, come on!  It’s still circling San Francisco?”) excited and (“It’s over Palo Alto!”) anticipatory.  Even so, (“It’s over San Jose!  It’ll be here in minutes!”) I was surprised how emotional I became when we heard the distant rumble of the low-flying 747 with its fighter jet escort.  Then it came into view.  Of course, I’ve seen any number of pictures of the Shuttle atop its transport, but somehow seeing it in person brought home just how tiny it is compared to its more earth-bound assistant.  It was breathtakingly white, gleaming and majestic as it coasted, only twelve hundred feet above sea level, over the Monterey Bay Aquarium, then south into its future.  It had carried explorers into space and safely back home, how many times?  Because of its development and engineering, humanity has been immeasurably enriched, from the small digital cameras that our faculty and students were using to snap photos as the Shuttle passed to memory foam mattresses and LED lights.  I realized I was foolish not to recognize that this was a moment that needed to be honored.  The Space Shuttle is the embodiment of the spirit of American exploration.  Truly, the Endeavor is aptly named.

At the same time that I was watching from a hilltop at school, a former band mate of John’s, now an arborist, was high in our hundred foot pine tree trimming dead branches.  Since our house is one mile directly uphill from the Aquarium, he had one of the best Shuttle views of anyone in town.  I hope it helped make up for the fact that his chipping crew failed to materialize, so he had to spend hours stacking large branches in our side yard to get them out of the way until Monday.  It has, I will tell you, created one of the most wonderful adventures for Cleo. 

Late Saturday evening, I realized that I hadn’t seen the puppy for an unusual length of time. I searched the house.  Nothing.  Beginning to get worried, I went outside and checked the gate to the street.  Safely shut tight.  Where the heck was she?  Nowhere in the backyard.  I stood on the back deck, peering down the length of the side yard.  No telltale blue Bedlington glow.  Suddenly, I heard a rustling from deep within the head-high pile of branches.  Oh, yuck, a rat?!  Cleo burst forth from one end of the pile and shook herself from the tip of the nose to the end of her tufted tail.  She saw me and leapt onto the deck, paws reaching high.  Her mouth agape in an exhilarated grin, her fur sticky with pine sap, her entire face stained a vivid green from the boughs, she was every inch the great explorer, returning home with newfound knowledge.

For some of us, it’s the call of the stars.  For others, joy is here on earth.


  1. What a great narrative! Absolutely correct that no film could ever touch the original Hugh Lofting Dr. Doolittle books. Capturing a fleeting moment in history so compellingly to draw in the reader is no small feat, bringing us back to earth with Cleo's exploration. Thanks, for bringing us along, who could not be there in person.

  2. I too was a horse loving girl, but my early actual experiences with horses were not encouraging. Years later I had opportunities to walk a sweet horse for his humans while they were away and we developed a lovely bond.

    As for Endeavor, somehow I missed that she would be flying over ALL of California in her farewell voyage until I was sitting in a local coffee house for a brief chat with a friend and neighbor who asked if I had seen the flight. I felt a sense of loss that I hadn't even known to look.

    You are so right, our explorations are not all the same, and don't need to be in order to transform us. Thank you.