Saturday, May 16, 2009

Carrying One Away

“Night was a wonderful time in Brooklyn in the 1930s. Air conditioning was unknown except in movie houses, and so was television. There was nothing to keep one in the house. Furthermore, few people owned automobiles, so there was nothing to carry one away. That left the streets and the stoops. The very fullness served as an inhibition to crime.” So says Isaac Asimov, one of the science fiction greats. Brooklyn itself was alien to my eyes on Thursday night, when I docked again on Withers Street after sailing a westward sea of tumbleweeds, rockpowder blued lakes, towering granite, heartbreakingly green trees, pheasants, sloping desert, pronghorn antelope, and a million other sights that set my eyes roaring for 10 days, six new states, and 5,600 miles.

Last night, wending homeward after a John Prine concert (opened by the lanky and talented Justin Townes Earle, who looked like he stepped out of the radio Appalachia of O Brother, Where Art Thou?), Williamsburg was a carnival of laughter, jibes, drunken posturing, and other martian exhibits. If Tony in Glasgow, Montana, thinks Missoula is the big city, Brooklyn is certainly an intergalactic stop. You can't hear the Macks' Deadwood, South Dakota, windchimes. You can't hear the wingbeats of geese following Route 12 through Packwood, Washington. But...there's the newly leafed tree feathering the expressway, there's the good Settepani coffee, there's the man on the bicycle with a cat on his shoulder...yes...home, circus, and universe at once.

The amazing thing is that we don't live toward the future, as Asimov might have thought. We bend toward the past, seeing its light in stars today and burning its variously hard and liquid black life to fuel our lives. The former sparked the quiet canopy over Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and rushed overhead as I wound through the Cascades toward Sisters, Oregon. The latter manifested itself as I ran among pick-ups rigged for the oil fields surrounding Williston, North Dakota, and raced a fully loaded coal train between Lusk and Van Tassel, Wyoming, hauling its sooty cargo out of the Powder River Basin to light up the East.* Journeylong, glaciered crevasses and crests reminded me of what was and what is to come, with humankind an impressionistic fleck on a fathomless canvass.

So. There are a lot of ways to measure a trip: miles, rivers, pie, native reservations, highways, mountain ranges. Mostly, though, there's the way you live when you come back.

*In a brilliant 2005 article, the New Yorker's John McPhee describes the coal industry's inexorable erosion of Wyoming, and revels in the particulars of the rails: "Run a coal train out of the Powder River Basin and down to Kansas and Arkansas and across the South into Georgia. The steepest grade you encounter is 1.5 percent, on track that to the eye seems close to level. You can discern that it is going up or down, but it will not remind you of Crested Butte. It will seem less steep than the East Pacific Rise. Yet a loaded coal train running wide open in Notch 8 can attack a 1.5-percent grade and soon be beaten down under ten miles an hour."

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