Tag Archives: wallace stegner

Time and a Place: Good Writing, 8/7/19

7 Aug

A return to my good journalism series, which I’ll open with a quote from a Wallace Stegner short story, “Beyond the Glass Mountain,” in which the narrator returns to his college campus years later:

The light over the whole hill was pure, pale, of an exaggerated clarity, as if all the good days of his youth had been distilled down into this one day, and the whole coltish ascendant time when he was eighteen, nineteen, twenty, had been handed back to him briefly, intact and precious. That was the time when there had been more hours in the day, and every hour precious enough so that it could be fooled away. By the time a man got into the high thirties the hours became more frantic and less precious, more carefully hoarded and more fully used, but less loved and less enjoyed.

I’m reading Stegner’s complete short stories now, so this blog may suffer something of a Wally barrage in the coming weeks. As for the journalism, I’ll start with the Literary Review, where Helen Pearson reviews a book called Where Does It All Go? It discusses contemporary time usage, and the trend over time toward this sense Stegner identifies. Humans are now busier, more stressed, and more prone to multitask, right?

Wrong. Aside from some gender roles that have shifted somewhat (but are still far from equal), it hasn’t changed much since Stegner wrote 50 years ago. What have changed are the habits of the highly educated, professionally successful, and general status seekers, who do work a lot more, and are more likely to get featured in articles about how people use their time. Pearson also accurately diagnoses the ways in which people in these circles sometimes use busyness as a form of status, a way to convey that they are important and their time is therefore valuable (and yours is probably less so). It is something I have always hated, and am not fond to find it creeping into my own language at times. It also raises some serious questions about what exactly this class of people is achieving other than higher levels of stress.

So, going forward: I’m not busy. I’m just doing what I do.

Speaking of those busy urban elites, Derek Thompson of The Atlantic takes a look at the rebirth of many large American cities and finds one group of people conspicuous in its absence: children. Cities have become playgrounds for urban professionals, and market forces and public policy have made it harder and harder for people with families to build a happy life in said cities. This specialization of life–young urban professionals in some areas, young families moving out to the suburbs, immigrants over here and rich homeowners over there–fits in with broader forces within a self-sorting society that is often aided and abetted by public policy. It also creates serious issues for tax bases, school quality, and humans’ sex lives, and feeds into questions about the welfare state and immigration policy.

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that long-term solutions to American urban issues are going to need to take a serious look at regional planning, property tax apportionment, and a more fundamental re-orientation toward ideas of what exactly communities are for. (Presumably, we put down roots in them and invest in them because we want them to be vehicles for the futures of ourselves and people around us.) Of course, I also think that more people should abandon the rat race and make lives in small cities, whose merits I have plugged, for obvious reasons, in past writings: if the market is so overheated in certain major cities, it is overdue for a correction, and the best way to achieve that may not be a turn to the suburbs, but to another way of thinking entirely. But to the extent that some of our more significant modern maladies have policy solutions, this is one of the most fertile grounds that we need to explore.

To the extent that there are policy solutions, that is. This is perhaps why Ross Douthat’s latest on the Trump phenomenon resonated with me: policy alone, while necessary and helpful, cannot resolve the things ailing our busy lives or our cities or our politics today. That requires the more fundamental framing I mentioned earlier, a more total pursuit of a sensible framework to support policy goals. Without that backdrop, our arguments miss the forest for the trees. We become the blind chasers, we become “busy,” we concede too much to the forces that can just bear lives along and leave us in places we’re not sure we want to be. There are better ways.

Advertisements

Golden Land

19 Jul

This is the second in a two-part series on my recent trip to California. Here is part I.

The main attractions of my recent trips to California were its mountains and shorelines and deserts, but I devoted half of my adventure last week to the more populated portions of the Golden State. The jarring riches and contradictions of its natural environment match those of its people, who luxuriate in opulence or live in massive tent cities on its streets, extremes that a Midwesterner accustomed to a semblance of order needs some time to process. But all halfway decent chroniclers of travel revel in the dualities and contradictions they see, witnesses to the rich vastness of human experience. We can dive into urban chaos and venture off the grid and chew on it over time, slow thought exemplified after the mad rush in the moment.

I’m not very good at travel at leisurely paces, and in San Francisco, I have the perfect guide to facilitate a rush to drink in everything this city has to offer. My cousin Rob, an artist at his craft, gives my fellow Lost Coast hikers and I the grand tour. This is my third time in San Francisco in four years, and despite the inauspicious theft of all my camping gear on the first visit, it continues to deliver thanks to Rob’s curation. My first visit featured an unexpected visit to Pride Weekend and an escape to wine country, while the second was a moped-powered kickoff to another great adventure. San Francisco is a temperate city populated by extremes, stunning beauty and endless fog banks, mind-boggling wealth and its trappings twinned with the extreme poverty of tent cities where my old Eureka may yet live on. It starts with a Women’s World Cup watch party, meanders through botanical gardens and the cable car museum, and crosses that famous Art Deco bridge a couple of times, all before dumping me back at the airport all too quickly for everything but my wallet.

San Francisco’s true greatness comes through the things one consumes while in the city, and this is where Rob’s expertise is most useful. The crowning meal is the seafood feast at Bar Crudo on our full day in San Francisco after the Lost Coast hike, octopus and wine and crudo and oysters. But we also enjoy a decadent brunch at Brenda’s French Soul Food, with beignets and shrimp and grits, and a Greek fast casual rush to salads after four days of freeze-dried delicacies. For drinks, it’s an even wider-ranging tour: a mezcal bar, a cocktail bar on Russian Hill, a couple of neighborhood establishments, and a failed visit to the Hilton’s 43rd story, shrouded in fog. At its most ridiculous, there’s the Tonga Room: a former pool in the basement of a luxurious Fairmont hotel that now has a band on a moving boat in the pool, which enjoys periodic rain showers with thunder and lightning. A full pirate ship sprawls across the bar as a dance floor (complete with real reclaimed masts), there are tiki huts and real dugout canoes scattered about, and we have the privilege of tasting $17 mediocre mai tais. After bidding our older companions farewell on the final night, Rob and I wrap up with a nightcap at a beer bar from a group headquartered in Copenhagen. I’ve drunk it all in, all too literally.

Our trip to the Lost Coast involves a three-and-a-half hour meander up the 101, a highway that runs down the coastal spine of California. It’s a somewhat confused highway, ranging from six lanes to two on its trek northward based on what the topography will allow. It starts in ritzy Marin County, wanders up through Sonoma, and eventually arrives on the north coast. The road trip brings two familiar stops, the Russian River brewery on the way north and the Locals wine cooperative on the way south; I fly home with a few bottles stuffed inside my sleeping bag. Rob and I drive separately of the rest, freeing us to talk of baseball and music and for him to share the sad tale of Pete Buttigieg’s iMac. (Fresh off his Rhodes Scholarship, the future mayor gifted it to a teacher at his high school, who in turn passed it on to the sort of kid who might make use of it, a future Bay Area engineer; alas, it fell victim to a recent purge of the attic storage area by his parents.) The south end of redwood country is both as a dramatic and as kitschy as we’d hoped for, and we’re easily distracted by an endless array of entertaining sights. We spontaneously divert to drive through the Drive Thru Tree, a 2,400-year-old Redwood that some enterprising entrepreneur cut a car-sized hole through in some less environmentally sensitive era.

Big tree tourism aside, the economy of northern California is sustained principally by mind-altering substances. Somewhere in Mendocino County, the vineyards of wine country give way to businesses making puns about the herbal substances grown in greenhouses up in the hills. Over dinner in Garberville on the night before our hike, we share a cantina—the last place open in town, and still open only because they can make some money off of us—with a herd of Mexicans in stoner garb who populate the neighboring table. Connor, our Lost Coast Adventure Tours shuttle driver, regales us with tales of the marijuana industry and points out greenhouses not-so-secretly tucked away in the woods off the miserable washed out roads of this backcountry. He had teachers in high school growing plants on the side, he explains, and those smashed-in cars that litter the roadside here and there are the product of a land that doesn’t want many intruders. Connor speaks of Brazilian and Bulgarian incursions, all in pursuit of this ideal pot-growing climate, and laments the one-sided portrait of Humboldt County that came out of HBO’s Murder Mountain, a series that points out the region’s nation-leading disappearance rate and the places where the authorities will not go. Tales of rural Mexico come back to me, and not for the first time, I think the borders between our countries are sometimes far more arbitrary than many Americans would like to believe. Whatever one’s take on actual use of the drug, my two-hour meander through the hills only fuels my weirded-out feeling by the marijuana industry, both for its insufferable lazy stoner culture and the dark side of its industrial-scale cultivation that will likely go on whether pot itself is illegal or legal but regulated.

At its core, California is a state of escapes. It was the end of the line for Manifest Destiny, the Promised Land beyond the frontier. Its cities have always been some of America’s most alluring, even as they descend into crisis; one friend calls San Francisco utopia gone wrong, and Los Angeles dystopia gone right. And while we’ve tamed nearly every corner of it now save for a few Lost Coasts, that push to the brink is a constant, whether in Sacramento’s gold rush yesterday or the Bay Area’s tech industry today, or in the form of kids who try to pursue illusory dreams of stardom in LA. For all of California’s cool pretense, it is as neurotic a state as one can find, and if worldly glory isn’t there for the taking, it offers direct escapes to wine or IPAs or weed. California lives in the future, and that is not altogether a reassuring thought. The myth was long ago obvious to Joan Didion, and like anything built on a mythical future it neglects realities of history that formed it. Its myth was the American myth taken to its logical extreme, and its myth, like America’s, is coming due. At times I’m repulsed by the whole spectacle, but I can’t stop coming back for more hits.

Sacramento, my first destination on this trip and the last I’ll write about in my account, stands at some remove from this edge while still imbibing some of it, which may be why I liked the place. Sacramento is one of the thirty largest metropolitan areas in the country by any measure, larger than more culturally prominent peers like Pittsburgh or Vegas. Culturally, however, it’s dwarfed by the Bay Area and Los Angeles in its own state, and even San Diego in many ways. It is a seat of government with little in the way of major private industry, the rare California metro whose brushes with national attention, like John Sutter and the Folsom prison, are relics of the past. Its culture, my hosts explained, is a mash-up of Central Valley agriculture, Bay Area spillover, and a more rugged foothill culture stemming from the nearby Sierras. It’s also an ethnic melting pot, by some measures among the most integrated cities in the U.S., with large white and black and Asian and Hispanic populations. Syncretic places that don’t try too hard to be different have something going for them.

Compared to the chaos of San Francisco, Sacramento is a breath of fresh, if very hot, air. Its streets sit on a clear, leafy, clean grid. This is California, so it’s not cheap by any stretch, but it is still far more livable than the larger metros. It’s a flat city, with large swaths lower than the nearby Sacramento River, kept out of the city by levees. My host for the weekend recommends I drive up via a road along the levees of the Sacramento, and my journey feels like a warp into Southern bayou country with some citrus groves thrown in along the side, my rental car yelling at me every time I drift too far to the side in the narrow lanes atop the embankment. Rural agricultural poverty collides with riverfront vacation homes here, though the defining feature for most of Sacramento’s population is not one of these extremes but instead the identical suburban tracts in which I temporarily lose myself in Elk Grove on my drive in, and a heap of other cities I pass through the next day on I-80 on the way up to some breweries in the foothills. The extremes tell only part of the story.

My two hosts in Sacramento live different California dreams. My Georgetown friend Ben and his wife Etienne, plus 2-year-old Ella and baby Bo, host me both nights. Ben is the rare Hoya who settled down right away with a girl from back home, and while they have solid professional jobs and live in a pleasant East Sacramento neighborhood, their lives have a steady rhythm, child-rearing and delicious cooking and walks or bike rides around the pleasant grid. With them, I can lose myself playing with Ella, any uptight worries gone, back to the cradle, an instinct my inner cynic will always doubt but which my cyclical life will always turn back to contentment when I do my final accounting of pleasures and frustrations. Their deliberate domestic life, the California Dream of generations before, feels more and more like a bold or even radical choice, an attempt to restore the lingering wisdom of an old order that may or may not still be welcome here.

Meanwhile, Parker, a fellow University of Minnesota-trained urban planner, took the same prodigal son’s path and I did and found his way back to his hometown for a job in affordable housing development. If there is any dream of rescuing semi-affordable housing in California, it’s probably here, and in him I could see the same zeal that other non-locals ascribe to me when I gush about Duluth. He lives the urban single life in trendy Midtown, cultivates his status as a music connoisseur, and is my guide to quality Midtown bars and some breweries up in Auburn and Rocklin that meet with Rob’s approval as some of California’s best. They take different paths, but Ben and Parker are both exceptionally well-read, reflective people who are finding their purpose as they go. My people.

On a trip that featured a stunning hike and a dive straight in to one of the world’s great cities, some of my favorite moments came when we settled into Ben and Etienne’s porch, the kids in bed and the four of us free to debate this city and this state and what it means to find our ways in the world, the breeze pouring up the delta keeping us cool as we work through a few beers. I may not know who I am but I know where I am from, and that place, whether Duluth or Sacramento or Georgetown or Madison or Phoenix or a beach in Puerto Escondido, has nights like this at its soul.

Paradise Lost

16 Jul

This post is the first in a series of two on my recent trip to California.

As far as hiking trails go, the Lost Coast Trail doesn’t appear overly challenging. Totaling just 24.5 miles over four days, this is a placid pace by my standards, and there’s little in the way of elevation to contend with. It’s a hike along a beach wedged between the Pacific and the King Range in Humboldt County, the longest undeveloped stretch of Pacific coastline in the lower 48. Its greatest challenges are three zones totaling just over eight miles in length that are impassable at high tide, so hikers must bring tide tables and pick and choose their start and stop times. Informal campsites sit at the mouths of creeks that feed into the ocean at regular intervals along the trail. The Lost Coast isn’t totally lost, as my party encounters plenty of fellow trekkers, but all but a handful follow favorable breezes from north to south, and long stretches are just my five companions and I working our way through the fog on a narrow band of land separating jagged peaks and unfathomable depths.

Hiking the Lost Coast is unlike a jaunt on a more traditional trail. One can’t just stare at one’s feet, or gaze off at the mountains or the sea for too long. Lost Coast hikers have to pick their lines, much like Alpine skiers, finding the best route over this avenue of choppy rocks and boulders and sand and incoming waves. Back sides of ridges, when wide enough, tend to be most stable, as do depressions behind them where the sand stays wet and thus more firm. Without obstacles, wet sand close to the surf is the best highway forward, though it bears the not insignificant risk of wet feet or frantic rushes inward at every rogue wave. Rarely is it a technically demanding trail, but it is often a slog over terrain that shifts beneath every footstep.

For this trip, I’m a new addition to a group that has, plus or minus a couple of members, taken a backpacking trip once a year for the past decade. The organizer is my uncle Bob, and our number includes my cousin Rob, Bob’s sister Betsy, her friend Amy, and family friend Ed, a divergent group of personalities with homes ranging from Louisville to San Francisco, united by a fondness for meandering down paths in the wilderness. Uncle Bob promises me an adventure, and after an hour of wrangling over food choices at a San Francisco, their two additional stops within twenty miles of a lunch stop in Santa Rosa, and a laborious gear distribution affair at a hotel in Garberville the night before our hike, I’m starting to doubt my wisdom in joining this trip. But they are entertaining company, and by the time we hit the trail, I’m reassured that I’m in the company of five committed adventurers.

We leave our cars at the south end and pick up a shuttle in Shelter Cove, a resort town that offers a fascinating mash-up of sprawling vacation homes and rural California country folk, a people forgotten in most conceptions of the state who wouldn’t be too far out of place in the rural Midwest. (Our shuttle driver, a Humboldt County lifer about my age named Connor, laments the annual Fourth of July homemade firework displays as “Armageddon” and a miserable undertaking for himself and his fellow members of the volunteer fire brigade.) After a two-hour drive through the mountains to take us 25 miles as the cormorant flies to the trailhead, we’re ready to set out.

At first, the beach hiking is novel, and we make good time. A couple miles in we round Punta Gorda, one of the westernmost points in the continental United States, and come to the abandoned Punta Gorda lighthouse, a lonely outpost here along the coast that lit the way for lost fishing boats for a few decades. The structure is open, and a climb up a rusting spiral staircase takes one to a deck with excellent views and even stronger winds. Down below, a gaggle of sea lions flops about in the sand and in the tidal shallows, singing with characteristic inelegance. At Sea Lion Gulch the trail meanders inward before it slips down to the creek, where we cross it twice in quick succession, little hops along rocks to find a passable course past this gouge in the coastline, the sea lion grunts echoing in the background. These turns inward to solid ground are blessed relief, though I don’t like them to last for too long: we are here for the beach hike, after all.

Our first camp comes at Cooskie Creek, a 6.5-mile excursion from the starting point at the mouth of the Mattole River and midway through a four-mile stretch of trail impassable at high tide. We are all sunburned, the cool, perfect walking temperatures and early morning fog lulling us into a false sense of safety, but otherwise no worse for the wear. We take a site on the south bank of the creek, while a large party occupies the opposite bank. They are quiet and we rarely interact, though we do marvel at their ingenious game of bocce using rocks on the beach. The wind barrels in from the ocean, and tent setup requires up to four people and a lot of rocks just to keep things upright. At sundown, we climb a small promontory and gaze out on the Pacific, west to Japan and south to Antarctica, with no bodies of land in between. The sun doesn’t set cleanly but instead fades away into the marine layer out over the ocean, lost in the eternal fog.

The wind dies in the night. No wind, no sun, West Coast resident Rob tells us, and sure enough, we are ensconced in clouds and fog as we head out. A dead seal on the beach attracts a crowd of birds, and Amy compares the beachscape to the final scene from Planet of the Apes. The waves rise as we go, and a crossing at Randall Creek requires an ambitious leap. Past the creek I pick out a trail up on to a flat, and now we’re rewarded with an easy stroll along a ridge, past a stream crossing with an unexpected bamboo grove and another where the discovery of a snake in the trail holds up the party for a spell. The crossing at Oat Creek features a stable log amid a small grove of trees, and a group of younger women has stopped here for lunch.

We cross Kinsey Creek and a rock field to the mouth of Big Creek, which we edge over on a log. Rob and I like the look of the site, an open stretch aside a large wash where other campers have set up driftwood lean-tos and tables, but the rest of the party is ready to push on another two miles to Big Flat Creek. These two miles are among the most tiring slogs of the trip, endless rock fields that turn ankles and require constant leaps, but in time I veer off and pick a way up a sandy slope to a much smoother trail atop Big Flat. The rest of the party joins me, and before long it’s as if we’ve left the ocean behind and are strolling through a large meadow. A number of private landowning holdouts dot the entire trail, most no more than a windblown wooden shack, but the one on Big Flat is flat-out surreal, a retreat of sorts that hosts a large group doing tai chi down by the beach. This part of the Lost Coast feels far too found.

Just past the retreat center is Big Flat Creek, our destination for the night, but it proves the most complicated stream crossing of the trip. The creek is wide and rushing, and Ed and I venture upstream with no luck in search of an easy ford. Most of the party settles for a shaky-looking log crossing, while Amy and I jump it at the mouth, where these streams are usually at their narrowest. The campsite, situated beneath a grove of low trees, already has a crowd, but there are enough sandy tent pads for us to carve out our own space. Night comes quickly on this day, with little time to linger on the beach, though we do admire the deer in the clearing next to us, and after dark a number of bats flit overhead. In the night, a chorus of coyotes wakes us all, the pack leaders howling away while the yips of their smaller brethren surround them.

I don’t sleep particularly well on Big Flat, but our long hike yesterday cues us up for a tame day of just 3.3 miles to our next site on Buck Creek. I sip some tea over breakfast and take a dump in a sandy hole in the ground, and we join a large procession of hikers out from Big Flat and down the coast. The fog is thickest on this morning, and it cakes the beach and leaves what we can see of the fire-scarred hills above us looming. After a placid stroll along the flat, it narrows down to nothing, and a rock slide diverts us down a jagged slope to a narrow beach. Each step brings new conditions, most dramatically at the bottom of a large landslide, where giant trees come to rest on the beach. The crossing at Shipman Creek offers a nice running start for the long jump across, and we press on and pass a few of the groups we’ve been leapfrogging with over the course of the day.

Buck Creek comes as a surprise, and we quickly decide the campsite, which perches on a bank with direct views of both the sea and the cascading creek, will more than do. The fog lifts with surprising speed as we set up our tents, and we then discover the site’s great drawback: a healthy crop of poison oak on all sides that leaves Amy and Betsy frantically detoxing after they tossed some gear and staked out a line for their tent in the shrubbery. Lunch follows the cleansing session on rocks along the creek, though my phone’s camera renders me an uninspired photographer for the rest of the trip after it falls out of my pocket and its lens cracks on a rock. The shots feature some fascinating new filters, if nothing else.

With some gas left in the tank, Bob, Rob, and I set out to climb the Buck Creek Trail, which rises from the camp and heads straight up into the hills. Straight up is no exaggeration: there is no such thing as a flat or downward step for a mile-and-a-half long, 2,000-foot climb. Thankfully, the sun gives way to pine forest just above the site, and while we’re still stepping gingerly around the poison oak, we can drag upward at a manageable pace. Finally, near the top, we come to a couple of clean vistas down the coast toward our parked cars at Shelter Cove five and a half miles away, and after a relatively flat half-mile past a junction with a little-used ridgetop trail in the King Range backcountry, we turn around and abuse our joints for a few miles back down. We burst back out of the forest and have a clean view of the rushing creek, the sun-splashed waves on the ocean; Amy and Ed are down on the beach watching the tide come in, while Betsy naps on her air mattress in the open atop the highest-lofted tent pad, the tents collecting heat for the night in the sun below. It’s a paradisal scene, one that fully loses me in this wilderness and makes me wish we could set up camp here for a week.

Our legs burning from the hike, Rob and I watch the tide roll in, larger and larger waves slowly creeping over the rock pile that cuts off Buck Creek from the ocean at low tide. Soon there will be no way in or out of this site along the coast trail, and we’ll have our site to ourselves tonight. After some poison oak preventative cleansing in the creek, I settle into the hammock along its banks to catch up on notes and zone out in bliss. I’m rousted for happy hour by an offer of Ed’s tequila, and as we sit along a log on the beach and gaze out at the sparkling waves, my mind goes back to an out-of-body sensation I had in a hammock in Puerto Escondido nine years ago, a simultaneous blend of exhaustion and tequila and revelation at the beauty around me. I idly wrote a story of two lovers at the end of an affair, at once alive to the possibility of utopia and aware it can never last.

We break out of our trance to eat before we lose all daylight. Our dinners, always collections of freeze-dried packets we pass around, is best on this night, and we polish off the bourbon and turn our attention toward the darkening sea. Three boats dot the horizon, one of which suddenly seems to be flickering, as if alight; we later learn that it’s likely a fishing boat looking to lure in its prey. The half-moon lights up night well enough to cast shadows, and the marine layer stays just low enough to allow for superb star-watching. First Jupiter and the dippers, then Scorpius and Cygnus and Hercules, and Saturn for a hot second before the fog consumes it. I’m reluctant to turn in, yet I enjoy my best ever night of sleep in a tent.

The morning is wet, the marine layer dousing my tent fly, but the sun comes out quickly and keeps up warm for the last 5.5 miles up the beach. The choppy rocks continue for the first half of the hike, but after that it settles into a plodding but predictable march up the aptly named Black Sands Beach. I set my course along the shoreline, running in when the higher waves come and making sure to drink in the slopes to my left and the endless crashing waves to my right. The steepest climb on the hike comes up a road to the parking lot, where we collect ourselves ahead of food truck burritos and a beer at a Shelter Cove bar populated by grizzled local women. We are found again, headed back for a stop in wine country and the glitz of San Francisco to round out our adventures.

The trail has a particular allure for someone drawn to the notion of isolated inspiration, the egotist who never needed anyone to tell him that he could do great things if he put his mind to it. Thankfully, wilderness also has a habit of humbling these chasers as well. A year after an epic but largely solitary trek across this state, the jumble of people on this one enlivened it. It provided new short story inspiration, and a meander through a book on Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey, two very different champions of the West who, unlike some of the San Francisco cosmopolitans I brush up against upon my return to the city, understood a sense of place. “I may not know who I am but I know where I am from,” wrote Stegner, words that forever reassure a wanderer in search of grounding. On the Lost Coast Trail, I’ve found it yet again.

Part 2 is here.

The Powell Mindset

2 Dec

My latest reading adventure down a rabbit hole (a slot canyon?) took me to southern Utah. A recent New Yorker article on the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and a re-read of my account to my trip to Zion this past spring led me to a blogger’s tale of a hike on the Hayduke Trail, a little-known hiking route named for an Edward Abbey character. The Hayduke is less a trail than a string of paths and backcountry suggestions brought together into a guidebook. It is a brutal 800-mile path that connects six national parks, one national monument, and a bevy of other designated public lands across southern Utah and northern Arizona, from Canyonlands to Bryce to the Grand Canyon to Zion. After 65 days on trails and rafts, this traveling party found the jaunt up to Angel’s Landing in Zion a lazy jog up an overcrowded molehill. I am in no way ready to go on a hike like this, but it’s fun to dream.

This southern Utah kick led me to pick up a book I’ve long wanted to read from an author who has been on my mind often this year: Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, a biography of John Wesley Powell. Powell is best known as the one-armed Civil War veteran who was the first man to sail down the Colorado River. His journey began at Green River in modern-day Wyoming and made its way down through countless canyons before going through the Grand, every day an adventure down rapids in uncharted territory. If Powell’s story ended there, he would be an explorer second only to Lewis and Clark in his importance to the story of the American West.

Powell, however, was much more than that, and over half of Stegner’s account is devoted to his life on dry land. He brought a nineteenth century encyclopedist’s  enthusiasm to his pursuits, with a fervent belief that he could collect enough information to build a better understanding of his world and thereby guide it toward a more sane society. His first ventures west were eclectic expeditions of family and students that just collected every specimen he could manage. He was the godfather of the U.S.Geological Survey, that meticulous attempt to understand the land and it bounties, and his efforts laid the foundation for the Bureau of Reclamation, which devoted itself to making much of the West as inhabitable as possible while preserving the rest. Powell’s pet interest in ethnography—the recording of details of the indigenous peoples of the West—was a staple later in his career, even when political winds in the west blew against him. His resistance to a notion that the West could be settled seamlessly made him his share of enemies.

Beyond the Hundredth Meridian sets out to puncture the mythology of the American West. Over half of those supposedly hardy pioneers failed and moved back east or faced worse fates. And that was in the more fertile Midwest, before white settlement reached the 100 degree longitude line beyond which rainfall became far rarer. “[T]he romanticizing of the West…led to acute political and economic and agricultural blunders, to the sour failure of projects and lives, to the vast and avoidable waste of some resources and the monopolization of others,” Stegner writes. “There was too little factual corrective, too little allowance for swiftly changing times, and trouble ensued when people ignorant of the West and needing to know a lot about it mistook imagination for observation and art for life.”

In spite of his recognition of nature’s limits, Powell was no Malthusian convinced that humans were doomed in the face of nature. On the contrary, he was at his core a believer in science and progress: “The revelation of science is this: Every generation in life is a step in progress to a higher and fuller life; science has discovered hope,” Stegner quotes from an 1882 lecture by Powell on Darwin. Blind optimism on this order suffered significant setbacks beginning with the First World War, but both Powell and his twentieth-century interlocutor seem aware that political roadblocks and the vagaries of human nature do not undermine the logic behind the path toward understanding and better politics.

There is a middle ground between naïve hope in human progress and resignation to human limits. It recognizes that humans can adapt and even tame nature, but never in full. It sees in humans a capacity for works of both incredible construction and incredible destruction, of genius and idiocy. It seeks complete understanding, even when it recognizes the impossibility of achieving it. This is the Powell mindset, the Stegner mindset, and a mindset that is not hard to inhabit at the tail end of an arduous hike through canyon country, a simultaneous sense of awe at the nature that surrounds the hiker and a sense of conquest upon summiting peaks. (John Muir: “Double happy, however,is the man to whom lofty mountain tops are within reach.”) Yes, it is somewhere in this realm that happiness lies.

Crossing to Safety

3 Jun

One year after a return trip to Georgetown for a reunion, a couple of excerpts from Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety:

Thinking about it now, I am struck by how modest my aims were. I didn’t expect to hit any jackpots. I had no definite goal. I merely wanted to do well what my inclinations and training led me to do, and I suppose I assumed that somehow, far off, some good might flow from it. I had no idea what. I respected literature and its vague addiction to truth at least as much as tycoons are supposed to respect money and power, but I never had time to sit down and consider why I respected it.

Ambition is a path, not a destination, and it is essentially the same path for everybody. No matter what the goal is, the path leads through Pilgrim’s Progress regions of motivation, hard work, persistence, stubbornness, and resilience under disappointment. Unconsidered, merely indulged, ambition becomes a vice; it can turn a man into a machine that knows nothing but how to run. Considered, it can be something else—a pathway to the stars, maybe.

*   *   *

Once, at a Cambridge dinner party, I had an imaginary debate with the sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, who was holding forth on upward mobility. He called it “vertical peristalsis in society.” Obviously he liked the phrase; he thought he had invented something pretty good.

Since he had been born nameless in a nameless Russian village and had risen to become a member of the Council of the Russian Republic and secretary to Prime Minister Kerensky, I granted that he knew more about upward mobility than I did. I had only my own limited experience to generalize from, and three martinis to make me skeptical of other evidence. But I didn’t like his metaphor, and muttered to the lady on my left that social scientists should stick to semantically aseptic language, and leave metaphor to people who understood it.

Peristalsis, I informed this lady or someone else, consists of rhythmic contractions in a tube, such as the gut, that force matter in the tube to move along. In Sorokin’s trope, society was the tube and the individual the matter to be moved, and the tube did the work of moving him. I thought the individual had something to do with moving himself, not necessarily rhythmically.

And why that word “vertical”? Man being an upright animal, at least in his posture, any peristalsis he had going was bound to be vertical, unless we conceived him to be lying down, which there was no reason to do.

Finally, I had the impression that normal peristalsis worked downward, not upward. Upward peristalsis was reverse peristalsis, whose name was emesis. Did Professor Sorokin mean to suggest that he had been vomited up into revolutionary prominence, and later into an international reputation and a distinguished position on the Harvard faculty? Probably he didn’t. But there was no way out of his metaphorical difficulty. He couldn’t extricate himself by reversing directions and accepting the normal alimentary flow, for that not only ruined his upward metaphor but left him looking even worse than if he had been vomited up.

Professor Sorokin never figured in my life. I had never seen him before that night and I never saw him afterward; and our argument never took place except in my head and out of the corner of my mouth. But we had just returned from a Guggenheim in Italy, and in Italy I had discovered, rather to my surprise, that I had myself been ferociously upward-mobile since my first day in school. In reducing my strenuous life to a social inevitability, and giving it that taint of routine communal digestion, Sorokin had insulted me where I lived.

Until Italy, I had been too busy to notice what I was. I was learning, and interested in the learning. Or I was diving into a hole and pulling the hole in after me. Or I was simply trying to survive. But even in our most oppressed times, I was a cork held under, and my impulse was always up.

According to Aunt Emily’s theories, I should probably have been led to walk in my father’s footsteps. I loved him, we got along, I worked off and on in the shop. There was no reason why I should not succeed him as proprietor and make a life out of transmissions, brake bands, ring jobs, lube jobs, yard chores, neighborhood barbecues, baseball, and beer. But I had no intention, ever, of doing that. It wasn’t snobbishness. I was never ashamed of him. Nothing in dusty Albuquerque led me to envious comparisons. I just expected more than Albuquerque offered. I took it for granted. And everybody important to me—my parents, my teachers, my professors in college, Sally when we met in Berkeley, and for that matter the Langs when we met in Madison—made the same assumption. I was headed somewhere.

Without knowing what I was after, I pursued it with the blind singlemindedness of a sperm hunting its target egg—now there is a metaphor I will accept. For a long time it was dark, and all I could do was swim for my life. Union and consummation finally took place in the fourth-floor front room of the Pensione Vespucci, an old palazzo on the Lugarno a little below the American consulate in Florence. There, one September morning, it hit me that things were altogether other than what they had been for a long time. Wherever it was that we were going, we had arrived, or at least come into the clear road.

*   *   *

Time to find the clear road.