Leaning Into the Plotted Arc
Turtle Island Pt.2: October thru March
MARCH 2005 • TEXT & PHOTOS BY AUSTIN R. PICK
The open road, sonorous and straightforward, carried me along lines that led in circles, curious concentrics that emerged as I went pinballing between the people and places that compose my familiar coast. Back east, spinning through days lit with the psychedelic fervor of fall color and edged sharply with the first early stirrings of winter, I found myself following evolving patterns, intersecting again and again with a kindred cast of characters, as if attuned to the subtle currents of a shared channel. Filtering the static and leaning into the plotted arc, I pressed the pedal to shoot myself forward on yet another round...
From Toronto I'd headed south to Pennsylvania to see about a girl I knew, and spent a pleasant enough week with her before driving on to visit my younger brother at college in the eastern reaches of the state. Soon after we met up with our parents, who happened to be on vacation in the Poconos, and enjoyed a weekend of aimless exploration amidst the old folded mountains and kneaded hills of the region. From there I traveled to Amherst, Massachusetts and dropped in on my friend Joe Ciarallo and his band Jounce, joining them as an impromptu roadie for a pair of shows in Syracuse, New York. Then, dancing along dark highways, I returned with the band to Amherst before parting ways and driving the short distance north to Dhamma Dharâ.
Also simply known as VMC, Dhamma Dharâ is the most well established Vipassana Meditation Center in North America, with capacity for about 150 students. I'd been to VMC once before, and reacquainted myself with the place while serving on a Work Period and helping prepare the new student residences, which had recently been completed. The center's familiar structure and intensive calm provided welcome refuge from the twists and turns of life on the road, and offered a supportive atmosphere for the ten days of silent meditation that followed. Moored to the cushion and unable to channel my restless energy through the freewheeling latitude of travel, I struggled to find an inner quiet amidst the jostling of my inner selves, but gradually settled, as the days unfolded, into a mercurial yet abiding ease, liberating and strangely graceful, that sent tremors of untangling tension through my frame, and shook me with silent inexplicable laughter.
I was humbled to emerge from meditative solitude in the company of friends old and new, including my buddy Nick Carl, who'd come up from Virginia for the course. Joined by a few others who needed a ride, he and I struck off the next day for a buoyant early morning drive along forested parkways that shuttled us unavoidably into the bright vibrating hive of New York City. We dropped off our passengers and then, in a typical outsider's blunder, drove into Manhattan, cheeks still ruddy from the crisp New England countryside, and walked directly into one of the city's most notorious gay cafés, where I'd been instructed to meet two friends. Andrea and Jacquie, to their credit, didn't know about the café's orientation either, and found us easily enough at a place down the street, having a laugh over breakfast.
Together the four of us embarked on a pilgrimage to the site of the World Trade Center, striding the city's long blocks as if striving to somehow measure in our minds the immense shadow still cast by the vanished towers. I was unprepared for the scale of the site itself, the depth of the excavated crater and the presence of the absence, the damage still evident in the surrounding buildings, shrouded now as if in mourning. We lingered a while before drifting to explore more of the irrepressible city, making our way eventually to the lower West Side. It was, I should have mentioned, Halloween, and as evening fell the Village swelled with the conviviality of the infamous annual parade, a revelrous street carnival that confuses performers and spectators in the costumed pageantry of the procession. Energized by the momentum of the parade, Andrea and I then headed uptown to Medeski, Martin and Wood's Halloween show at the Hammerstein Ballroom, which I'd been anticipating for months. Suffused with the edgy, otherworldly energies of Halloween, the trio was in rare form, channeling their unusual alchemy of controlled chaos and elemental groove with captivating, momentous intensity.
For the next few weeks I stayed in and around the city, first out on Long Island commiserating over the dismal Presidential election with Andrea and her father, then in colorful Williamsburg with Jacquie, and finally back in Manhattan with my friend Tito, where I stayed the longest. Outfitted with Tito's new camera equipment, the two of us ventured out on daylong excursions, exploring the city's odd angles and episodic rhythms. We were stopped by cops twice for filming where we shouldn't, and returned to Tito's place each night exhausted, the city still reverberating in our bones, but were at it again the next morning with pretentious, unflagging enthusiasm, subsisting on falafel and other cheap eats the entire time. Our intention was to articulate some illusive essence of the city with an abstract short film that never actually got made; we collected too much footage and couldn't agree on the editing of a single sequence. Still, I can't imagine a better way to have spent two weeks in New York, pacing the grid with my aperture open wide.
As my dollars dwindled, I drifted southward and soon landed at my parent's place on the eastern shore of Maryland, where I hunkered down for the holidays and picked up seasonal work in a shipping warehouse, living a life of quiet routine for a few weeks. Traveling down the east coast in the continual company of friends and family had offered dynamic counterpoint to the period of solitude that marked the start of my road trip, a time of reunion and return that allowed me to see familiar faces in new light, and also illuminated my own developing sense of inner stability, insightful and occasionally disquieting. While I enjoyed the comforts of home and the opportunity to work, I was soon longing again for the freedom to roam. What a pleasure it is to arrive; what a pleasure to depart...
In November, as planned, I'd submitted my application for an teaching position with Japan's JET Programme, and needed to stay on the east coast until February, when interviews would be held at the embassy in DC. Shortly after the new year I returned to the Shenandoah Valley, where I lived with various friends while working with Jsun to help transform our friend Mike Lewis' bookstore into an activist retreat center. Mike had owned the sprawling, improbable old store for more than a decade, cultivating a quiet life as a dealer of rare books. The advent of the Iraq War, however, had reignited his passion for activism, and when a burst pipe flooded the store, ruining truckloads of unsorted stock, Mike decided to actualize a newly emerging vision for the space.
Jsun and I happily embroiled ourselves in the meticulous deconstruction of the neglected storeroom, sifting through an enormous warren of old books, magazines and vinyl that crowded every corner, building a collection of the best finds for ourselves and organizing everything for resale or disposal. Jsun and I have been spirited, irrepressible friends since middle school, and he'd joined me in the Valley while I was finishing school and then stayed with a girlfriend when I left to travel the country. Our time together in the bookstore was a happy reunion, twin infonauts excavating the moldering layers of accumulated musing, discovering curious worlds secreted beneath tattered covers. And surrounded for so long by the oblong cliffs and wobbling pinnacles of all those piled books, I developed a new appreciation for the beautiful futility of my own aspirations to add a few more to the stack.
Together with Mike and an assembly of area friends, we went to DC in late January for President Bush's Second Inauguration, joining thousands to protest the Administration's abuses of power. Following a festive morning march from Malcolm X Park, we continued to a security checkpoint where protesters met Celebration supporters awaiting admittance to the parade route. Dressed in a business suit and politely passing out propaganda dollars, I delighted in confusing people on both sides of the divide, a merry prankster amidst the agitators. I've always believed that direct actions are most powerful when they remain positive, actively demonstrating alternatives to the inequalities being protested. For me, this sense was confirmed as the crowd became more volatile and the day took a dark turn. When aggressive Black Bloc demonstrators challenged the police parameter, the crowd was pepper-sprayed and eventually dispersed by squads of riot cops, who arrived in a fitting display of power during a so-called celebration of democracy.
Disturbed by what we'd witnessed, yet empowered by a sense of common purpose, we came back to the Valley with renewed enthusiasm for the projects that were taking shape there. About a month later I had my interview at the Japanese Embassy and then returned in time for the first activist's conclave at the deconstructed bookstore, a fine finale before getting back on the road again, at last, for the long circuit out West.
"Have you ever seen a bagpipe?" Of course we have. "And how many pipes does it have?" Uhm, three... maybe four or so, we patter casually, uncertain. "Then you have looked, but you have not seen!" the old man declared, eyes afire, a reprimanding finger crooked in our direction. Eric and I happened to make the acquaintance of this improbable zen master at his workshop in the hills of south-western North Carolina, where he proceeded to sit us down —literally— to the most thorough mechanical and socio-cultural history of a single object I've perhaps ever endured, of all things the hurdy gurdy, a drone instrument common in medieval Europe.
The hills around Brasstown are full of craftspeople. Woodturners, blacksmiths, potters, glass-blowers, musicians, poets, weavers and whittlers all fostering old folk arts, persisting not with nostalgic stubbornness but with innovative aplomb, pursuing integrity of skill and the tranquility of mindfulness through cultivated relationships with the qualities of the elemental: metal and earth, plant-fiber and wood-grain, fire, water, words. Pressure and release, diminishment and return. Like scattered wildflowers, their studios and homesteads are secreted among the graceful folds of the old mountains surrounding the John C. Campbell Folk School, where we stayed as guests for several days, enjoying the pleasure of true southern hospitality.
I'd met Eric a few months back while sitting and serving at VMC in Massachusetts. We got to talking and discovered we had similar plans: to head West and stride the miles of this great land, following rhizomic pathways between meditation centers, friends and fellow travelers, mountains and wildlands, music, mirage, whim and intimation. Why not go the road together? We hadn't known each other long before the idea appeared, as if suggested by someone else. At the time we still had some wandering to do on our own yet, but decided we'd see about heading west when the winter began to warm. Months later, our plans finally aligned, Eric came down from DC, and on the morning of our departure from Harrisonburg we discovered over breakfast that we're both Eagle Scouts, an auspicious insight for two strangers just setting off together. We set the Vansion afloat again, nir-van-a, bound south and west for California. Visiting my friend, the mountain minister John Templeton, whom I'd also met at VMC about a year previous, we brought our own notions of mindfulness to the Folk School, gathering new friends for meditation in the misty dawn, wrapped in quilts and morning quiet.
Time with the unique and inspired people at the Folk School began our introduction into the vibrant Asheville-area culture, with its roots in rich traditional heritage and its branches of spring growth in newly emerging socio-ecological vision. A young couple's dairy barn, the centerpiece of their organic startup on family land, had recently burned down, and we attended a big community contra dance organized to raise money for a new building, only to later learn that it was the family of one of Eric's good friends from college in Maine.
Coincidences like this aren't uncommon in a community where young greenies and granola girls swing partners with old time farmers, activists, anarcho-punks and college professors. We soon spun round again with some of the same dancers at other area gatherings, passing still more familiar faces. And then, en route to visit Andrea again, down south now, I discovered Jason Fellows, Mike Keene and a cadre of Virginia friends investigating the obelisk downtown. They'd come to Asheville on their spring break, and our acquaintance Amy was also passing through on a roadtrip of her own, with Tito too, who'd left New York to join the unplanned caravan. The next day we all had an impromptu reunion, right down the street from the record store owned by our friends Mark Capon and Matt Schnable, who'd only recently set up shop in West Asheville. Similar paths cross again and again, one dance, a giddy kaleidoscope of individual movements melting down to the warm pith of bodies shaping a shared topography, with minds for skies and eyes shining in fluid constellations...
Eric and I looped in and out of Asheville, punctuating these happenings with excursions into the surrounding mountains, tramping out on long hikes, meditating, conversating and living in a van down by wherever, drinking tea in the twilight and sharing tales. We are, in many ways, on a similar journey, and seem to understand a lot of things implicitly, without much needing to be said. Yet we diverge in our differences, in our perceptions and intentions, and these subtle dissonances sometimes seem oddly amplified amidst the shifting contingencies of travel and serious meditation. I suppose this is precisely why we travel and meditate, to learn to navigate the awkward liminal space between stultifying self-consciousness and developed self-awareness. Spacious as our Turtle Island may be, traveling together isn't always easy, yet insight seems kindled with every turn of the wheel, igniting an inner fire.
Through the mountains and into the rolling greens of Tennessee, lowlanding into Arkansas and altogether flattening and opening out into Texas, Texas a sea of brown sailed by cowboy-hatted pickup trucks circling languorous schools of cattle like politicians at the pump, tawny little-mexico big-sun Texas, yeehaw. As quickly as we could to the city of Austin, consummate college town and nucleus of the youthful, alternative, progressive culture in Texas, which is saying something for sure, though not necessarily a whole lot. We arrived in time for South by SouthWest, a huge industry music festival and spring break block party, which remained on the periphery of our experience in Austin, absorbed as we were in centrifugal communion with friends old and new.
Days spent in casual dalliance with Alex and Mike, Sara and her coterie of college friends who've all moved together since graduation, and a fluctuating confederacy of young artisans, travelers and transients, activists, slackers and malcontents, days of good food stretching into long nights and endless conversation, somehow at once exhausting and rejuvenating. We dropped in on Carly Veditz and the Kincade brothers, and journeyed into the beautiful longhorn hill country to visit the nation's largest wildlife sanctuary, where Carly works caring for ex-pet and ex-research animals, majestic and damaged beings in final refuge, abandoned and loved at last. There was always something of the same feeling amidst Austin's dark nights, the dust of shuffling boots clouding the over bright congregation lights of the bars, the dark sleeping forms arranged like dropped petals on the sidewalks around the bus station. And Liz, my southern belle, with her café eyes on the mini-mart world, seems to understand the lone-star state better than anyone...
We found refuge of our own at the Texas-area Vipassana Meditation Center, improbably located out in the ranch country south-east of Dallas, where cattle in the adjacent pastures sometimes sweep so close that the tremendous noise of their eating fills one's blood, the momentum of their living energy amplified in the rending of grass, the synchronized swinging of their lowered heads, the cuffing of nostriled breath upon the earth. And observing my own breath, I watched the turning of a life in phases, rediscovering the same incongruences and the same truths, the same dimensions of uncertainty and underlying peace again and again, coming to know them less as mere intellectual architecture and more as confidants, personal and intimate like great enfolding rooms, sanctuaries with spiral stairs. And after sitting together in silence with other bowed forms for ten days, we emerged in the clear spring sunlight to meet fresh, oddly familiar faces, open and full of life.
The road ushered us onward, the concrete brocade of Dallas broiling in monochromatic stupor, spreading over the land like a collapsed sow, the bleached ribs of arched highways yawning complacently, the matted fur of shock-electric green golf-courses stinking of false lakes, tract homes like endless teeth. In Plano under the cover of dark we visited Prestonwood, one of the largest Baptist compounds in the country, stadium-sized with capacity for several thousand, fronted by a metal-cast, hollow-eyed Jesus, ever-vigilant, fishing for souls. Dallas does not hide its secrets well. The city's many billboards know. But we had the pleasure of staying for a few nights in nearby Plano with the indomitable Alex Nosnik and his lovely parents, who run an organization making affordable healthcare available to minority communities, with great success, one person at a time. Noz, our dynamic companion throughout our time in Texas, will soon be off on travels of his own, and it's probably not the last time we'll cross paths...
Dallas behind us, driving across the dust blown panhandle wasteland, we saw tumbleweeds skittering across the highway for the first time, and knew then that we needed to get out of Texas. All the faster to Colorado, moving on. Because despite all the differences in opinion, ideology, lifestyle, orientation, and notions of evolution and revolution, the common thread uniting the diverse characters and concepts of the modern "alternative" and "progressive" movements, from Madison to Massachusetts, Asheville to Austin, is an understanding of movement itself— acknowledging the reality of impermanence, the inevitability of change and the cycles of cause and effect, we strive to embrace, rather than solidify and stockpile against, the rhythmed flux and flow of all phenomenon, arising and passing away. Nomadic, circling among the subtle fluctuations and cascading perturbations of mind, every moment a fresh revelation...
Such were the months of October to March, more-or-less.
Stay Wide. Yours, A
First distributed via email in May 2005. Later revised and expanded for FudoMouth.net.
And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be home. —Wendell Berry
On this journey you begin to see how the sides of your heart that seemed awkward, contradictory, and uneven are the places where the treasure lies hidden. You begin to become true to yourself. —John O'Donohue