Saturday, January 31, 2015

Freewrites Borne Out Of Portland, Oregon

Last week I returned from a visit to Portland, a city where I spent my college years. My purpose was multi-pronged: to see friends, connect with professors and to sniff out a hunch that now is a good time to return. I didn't know what I was hoping to find out but I felt I could learn something. But, we'll get to that.

There is nothing much better than seeing friends. Being able to regard them in person rather than through a computer or telephone is important for the health of your friendship. We hold a certain mental image of a person in our memory when we are apart and over time that image loses its accuracy. As people change, the more necessary an update so your understanding of them stays relevant. I zig-zagged all over town pretty much every day to see as many people as possible. I tried to have a quiet moment with everyone so that we could talk about what's real in their life. Some are graduating soon. Others are working jobs they acquired after college. At times, I thought I detected a degree of uncertainty in them that they were grappling with.

And I wanted to tell them it was a good thing. I wanted to bolster them, to say that life happens all around and inside them, regardless of place or purpose. Wherever we are, there is a way to be the person we want to be. "Patience achieves everything." The pace of growth is always so much slower than we crave. We worry and malign ourselves because we always seem further behind than we expect. But ultimately it's an artificial ruler we're applying to ourselves because no one can really say how long it's supposed to take to fulfill the aim of a life. It's kind of supposed to take years and years. So, if we work at shaping ourselves in our own peculiar corner, in our own days, we are already learning how life works. We should trust ourselves to know what to do, even when we are suspended in uncertainty. No, especially when we are uncertain. Not knowing what to do doesn't mean we won't ever know. It simply means we don't know now and, in the meantime, we attempting to discern a reasonably suitable option from the universe of available options. But in the end, my point is that no course can really be a mistake as long as you are listening to yourself. Even if it's a wrong turn, doesn't matter, had knowledge.

I had the pleasure of seeing my old accapella group, Momo and The Coop, and dropping in on one of their rehearsals. It's amazing to see people who were once freshmen/sophomores in the group now in the position of leaders leading their own underclassmen. I was heartened to see the younger crowd was in love with accapella, just as I and all my other classmates were. They speak their minds freely and forcefully, shaping the State of Momo. The same framework of democracy and freedom of speech that was present in my time is still in place. There are some differences though. I had the honor of singing with them in rehearsal and I experienced first hand their new sound. It's cool, crisp and clean, more bass than in the past. And their arrangement choices showed off the direction their taste and preferences are going.

I spent a day as a ghost on my old campus, walking the grounds a younger version of me once explored as a new frontier. I dropped in at the English Department to see my professors. Ostensibly I was there for advice but what I really needed was just to see and hear them. I had forgotten the power of the particular brand of intelligence that comes from writing and reading literature. Experiencing the presence of my professors again was a touchstone, a reminder of why I had wandered down this way.

One of my professors, Susan, invited me to dinner with her. It was a lovely evening of conversation accompanied by wine, cheeses, and a roast. Over the course of 4 hours, I described to her all that the walk involved. It was great fun investigating various elements of the walk with her, alternately lapsing into contemplative silence and thinking aloud. Most importantly, we approached the walk from the same angle: how to write about it. And together we arrived at a framework, a vessel to hold a story in. In my mind now there exists a mental structure that wasn't there before and I felt a distinct sense that this is why I had wanted to come to Portland.

We'll see what comes of it.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Newsworthy Aftermath

A neat article about the Soledad Highschool poetry event and my talk appeared in one of the local papers, The Californian. Read it here.

Here's a link to some photos!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Soledad Highschool Poetry Project

Tomorrow I am speaking to a local highschool about poetry and the walk. 

Oh, boy.

Here's how I wound up in this position. A month ago I was contacted by Jayanti, the director of the Monterey County Library System, and she brought to my attention the existence of poets in Soledad, the town next door. And not only do they exist but they are many; there are some 250 Soledad poets, a veritable garden of them growing in my backyard! This is a result of the effort of two English teachers, Ericka and Heather, who, along with all the other things you typically find in highschool English classrooms, have been teaching poetry. For the past semester, their seniors have been reading and writing poems!

Under ordinary circumstances this may have been the whole story. But, here's where it gets interesting. Last year, one of the county libraries hosted an author named Dom Testa. He gave a sponsored talk but later returned the money to the community. It turns out he runs a non-profit organization called the Big Brain Club, a foundation that "helps students become the best version of themselves." In concert with Soledad Highschool and the Soledad Library, the Big Brain Club is supporting the publication of Soledad Highschool's poetry.

By now, most of the students have submitted poems to be considered for publication. I got a chance to read about 150 of them. To celebrate the success of the project, Jayanti wanted to host a speaker to encourage the students/poets and talk to them about where poetry could take them. Originally, they had signed on some professor from Hartnell (a community college in the area) but she bailed. After hearing about the walk and reading my poem "To A Stranger," Jayanti invited me to fill in. So, that's how I got here.

I'm amped about tomorrow. I've got everything prepared, just tying up a few loose ends and ensuring I have all the props I need (Yes, I am employing numerous props. No, this is not a questionable move. Shush). I know I possess the words to say what I wish to say to these kids tomorrow. Whether or not they march in an orderly fashion depends on how calm I remain. When they call my name, when it's the exact moment for my stupid words to fill the silence, the kick of adrenaline that hits is tremendous. It bites the horse I'm trying to ride, and he gets to bucking. Caught up in this internal struggle for composure, I lose a certain degree of self-awareness, usually right in the middle of my talk. My mind's general can't seem to marshal his thoughts into cohesion (Order! Hold the line!) and the mouth, sensing weakness, seizes its opportunity for complete autonomy. Language spills nonstop from my rapidfire mouth and I can hardly hear--much less comprehend--the words over the dull roar that thunders under my helm. It's a goddamn siege.

There's nothing to be done except: CHAAAAaaaarge! Sally forth from the gates!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Freewrites Before Signing In

I. Roll The Credits
Dear Friends of Looking For America,

I trust you don't begrudge my silence these past couple months. Writing has been difficult. Partly because I have not had much time alone, partly because I've been sick of and burned out by it, partly because I am loath to call the end. Endless excuses, but here it goes...

The End.

There, that wasn't so hard.

I want to shout out "Thanks!" to a few people who acted as my support group and whose aid I sorely required:

Dad, for equipping me with intelligent gear I could rely on and a curiosity for all things nature, and Mom, for sending care packages and managing her fears for my safety so that I would not know the full extent of the worry I caused. Old Wise Shed Hobo, for the many kernels of wisdom he showered over me during our long conferences in The War Room, for being a mirror so that I could see what it was I really wanted to do, and for designing and overseeing the construction of my rickshaw, Tumbleweed.
Clayton Borzini (aka Map Wizard), for logging all the GPS coordinates I texted him into a map and thereby immortalizing the journey in colorful bubbles so long as the Internet shall live. Sydney Stead, for her patient stewardship of the blog so I could cycle between procrastination and scribbling madly then toss the resulting pages behind me, trusting that she would be there to post them calmly and faithfully to the blog; I am not yet an organized person.
There are innumerable people I wish to thank but I cannot list them all here. There are many whose names I don't even know, generous strangers who gave me food, water, money, their thoughts, prayers and time in the too brief moments before we were whisked away again by the pull of our lives. To the families and relatives and new friends who took me in and cared for me in whatever bedraggled, suboptimal condition I happened to be in, I do not know if I can accurately convey how grateful I am that you kept me safe across America except to say that I love you and wish you well across the distances between us. You changed my life. You've given me new eyes. I trust in the common goodness that resides in the hearts of people, strangers who need not remain strange. I see the facts of my own American life more clearly for having seen and experienced yours. Thank you, thank you, thank you. That was fun! We made something cool and beautiful.

However the future turns out, just know that I am always thinking about you. No day passes without some moment, thought or dream flitting across my internal landscape and transporting me back to our time together. You are numerous and far away but you are never distant. I am out here wondering how your kids are growing up, if you got that job you were gunning for, how your search for adventure, love, survival, stability, relief, peace and wisdom is progressing. So, keep me informed. Due to mortal limitations, I worry I'll fail even as I strive for the ideal which is to be present in and aware of your life's movements. But, hell, this is the era of instant communication. Plus, we wrote a constellation across America (no big deal); if we all pitch in we can keep it bright and strong. I hope we all meet again. I will try.

Like a novice sculptor before uncarved stone, I am hesitant to begin the work of understanding what exactly the walk encompassed for fear of not doing it justice. This is something I have to get over.  In the meantime I am trying to get on with my life. I have a gig at a local highschool where I'll be speaking to some 250-300 seniors about poetry and the walk. After that, we'll see. I am trying to invent a new dream.

Happy New Year!


P.S. Below you'll find some of the thoughts I managed to eek out before they winked out again.

II. The Physical Facts (The Emotional Ones Remain Aloof)

I don't remember much about the day before New York. Most of the details have blurred so as to be nearly inconsequential but I have a few things to say. My last hours in New Jersey were spent walking at night, fading in and out of streetlamps as I sought my first sight of the last step. I stopped at 10:30 p.m. on stone steps and chewed the last of my food, staring out at the traffic. Cars were stopped on a hill and their tires spun on roads slick with rain. Only a few miles from camp at the Palisades park that runs along the Hudson, I tried to feel out what meaning this journey has had. No response. I wonder why I feel expectation to feel something other than what I do. 

I reached the park near midnight. It was sprinkling and I panned the woods with my headlamp for other hobos. Not a soul around. The tap-tapping of poles, the clanking of my gear, the rustling leaves, dull roar of traffic streaming across the George Washington bridge. Light pollution suffusing the low hanging clouds with a pale glow. And then I was on top of a ridge. I walked past the final line of trees and there before me was my epicenter, my mecca, my dream-city floating like a ghost on the opposite shore. As muted as it was by exhaustion and whatever else, a glimmer of excitement flashed through me. I wanted to savor the moment but the air was growing chill and rain was coming on. I set up my tent for the last time among trees closest to the view and huddled in my tent until sleep took me. 

I rose early the next day. I packed up my tent and left the park. I was actually going to meet up with David Stewart, a guy I met in Virginia when I was walking the AT, and he traveled from his home in New Jersey to join me for the last few miles. We met at a McDonald's near the GW bridge and had some breakfast before setting out. It was good to see David. It says a great deal about the depth of his character that he would come all the way out to accompany me after only meeting me for a brief 10 minutes several weeks ago. He's a jovial and talkative guy and he made good walking company as I took my first steps in New York. 

It was 9 miles to Times Square from the bridge. Looking up, I realized that the skyscrapers I thought were so beautiful last night were actually just apartment complexes, not Manhattan. So much for my faux-romantic feelings. David and I talked about whatever came to mind as we walked. The buildings grew and grew. Then we were there.

The walk ended precisely at 12:30 p.m. on November 1st in Times Square. My mom and dad were waiting, along with Shelley and Steve who happened to be visiting from D.C. Ella and Taylor, two of my best friends from college who currently live in Brooklyn, and Julia Cosgrove who--you may recall--walked with me in Texas, arrived shortly after I did. Vertigo-inducing monoliths cut up the Manhattan sky and funneled wind down streets navigated by tens of thousands. Enormous television screens advertised the latest products and faces. It should have been disorienting but I felt little in the way of surprise or astonishment. Everyone and everything was how it was and that was okay with me. And that was the end, I suppose.

III. Feeling The End

Even two weeks later I am still not sure what the heck is going on in my head, assuming anything is.

It was good to see friends and family, there is no question of that. It is hard to rival the warmth and happiness of reuniting with so many favorite people at once and cooking dinner with them. I felt contentment, some relief that I could rest for a spell. But as for "The Big Finish," I've found myself often describing it as "supremely normal." It was a graduation ceremony of sorts, a ritual that marks the passage of a specific time in your life more than it incites feeling. It was nothing like the orgasmic, near-religious, emotional sundering I had promised myself.

Why did I expect there to be an emotional climax? Where did this idea come from? During the last  days of the walk I thought a lot about another walker and his story. Andrew Forhstaehfl wrote the radio essay I listened to that re-inspired my desire to walk to New York. I had been working a job in Oregon bottling wine after graduation and my less-than-exciting context had me eager for the slightest whiff of adventure. And what most distinctly moved me was his description of his final 10 days where he was crying every day and at the end he walked into the Pacific ocean in one big hurrah. I wanted to experience that. I have to admit there were several times where I found myself coming across a particularly beautiful vista and thinking "Huh, this would be a good time to cry" which is so, so stupid! how obligated I felt towards having a very specific ending, of which none of the particulars matched up with the ending I can rightfully call my own.

Maybe I lived out a very human tendency to impose Time upon something as freewheeling as adventure. I see it most plainly on the dates with which I bookended the walk: Nov. 1st, 2013 - Nov. 1st, 2014. In fact, I could have finished several days earlier but I (un)consciously slowed down my pace for the symmetry. My odd desire to demarcate a specific moment and set it up as "important" seems funny and slightly embarrassing now.

A more generous interpretation could be I arrived long before New York; everything important took place in the middle. If that's the case, then it really is about the journey more so than the end. You hear that old adage often enough but maybe it takes completing an actual journey to learn it.

As I walked I would sometimes come up with "quests" I would carry out when I reached New York. One of them was to visit a karaoke bar and sing "With or Without You." I don't know why this was. But I didn't sing, and I think it's because I didn't feel how I'd hoped. There had been no trumpets, no super-elation. I didn't feel special at all and I think it's because I could see how all this walking was one step on the way to being the person I wish to be, how this was one moment in my life among all the other moments of other lives vibrating all around me and why should mine be any more important? In the silence of my ego, I could hear.
IV. Growth: When and How It Happens (To Be Continued)

It has been a year since I left home. A year of walking. One year. Walking.
No matter how I break it down I can't force myself to experience the impact those words should contain. Part of me wonders if I still haven't realized the walk is over. But by now it is December. I am recently 23. All of my 22nd year was spent traveling, burning up the road and filling my eyes.

Either something happened or nothing happened. If something has taken root, I am documenting the fresh beginning of that something, be it a realization, an epiphany or simply growth. If not, well...surely that can't be. We are animals of growth. I think it more likely growth proceeds at an imperceptible rate and on a scale beyond my perception. As I said, the exact moment of my last step didn't feel like a turning point. After all, I still have legs to walk with. But maybe the walk as a whole, when seen against my life's timeline--the whole of which hasn't happened yet--will prove to be an important year.


Monday, November 10, 2014

Returning Soon

Hello Everyone,

I wanted to tell you I will be posting an epilogue soon. It's been nice to step away from the blog and enjoy my time with friends but I feel I haven't done much justice in the way of an ending. But in the meantime, I just wanted to alert you to the fact that I have not, in fact, dropped off the face of the earth. See you soon.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

To A Stranger (2010)

To A Stranger

On days like this
when I feel dead
and nothing is important
and I’m looking out of my bedroom window
to find that nothing in particular reminds me of anything,
I keep my head down
and think of New York.

The graffiti lines of your silhouette are written over this city
that I have never been to.

If I were to meet you for the first time,
I would arrive at your doorstep
in late November. You invite me in even though
I didn’t call ahead. My black peacoat,
which I think is quite New York,
finds a place on your couch, my shoes by your

And finally,
I get to ask you about an old World War I tune
that goes something like

"There’s a long, 
long trail
a-winding into
the land
of my dreams."

Or talk to you about how
you make me want,
want to travel on top of a train
through the empty spaces of America,
want to scrape life off New York’s streets.
And you want me to write something like On The Road
as we eat peaches in the dark, the ones
I brought from California.
So I tell ribald stories of the moon
because you are a creature of that world.
I have your full attention,
holding your dark blue focus
in between the tips of my fingers.

There are things that belong to you
because I ornamented you with them,
things that I wish reminded me of myself.
But you are tired of wearing them
now that I have met you, stranger,
and the space between us coalesces with them
to make the room warm and heavy.
So we take it out into the streets.
You take the window and I take the stairs,
only to break out into the brisk
wintry street traffic
and see you trapeze around the skyscrapers
like a fairy on Scotch.

Sam Tidwell, 2010

Day 364 - October 30th