I love the smell of free coconut shrimp at Outback Steakhouse in the morning after the Minnesota Golden Gophers beat Auburn in the Outback Bowl. It smells like…victory.
Like crazy Colonel Kilgore, zealotry infused this historic Minnesota football season. For me that stemmed from an unusually spiritual visit with clients at Saint Thomas Academy.
My travel to the Catholic, boys, military, college-prep school was timed for the final home football game of the season. The purpose was to gather material for future alumni magazine and website stories from, among others, Coach Dan O’Brien, whom I had interviewed by phone for an oral history of the football program.
But before meeting O’Brien, there was other business and pleasure to pursue during this homecoming. First was a fantastic walleye dinner at Hazelwood with my friend Mary Hickey, who provided a primer in Catholicism during our childhood in a way that feeds my work with Saint Thomas Academy.
Life doesn’t get more Minnesota than a meal of the local lake delicacy and conversation spiced with Mary’s soulful, rooted values. That talk left me even more prepared for the next morning to finally set foot on the gorgeous grounds of the Academy.
Deborah Edwards — my direct client, and herself a former Gopher Sports marketer — had a full day of interviews and campus touring planned. Walking the halls of this institution, albeit in newer buildings on a different site than its 1885 founding, a sense of history and honor pervaded. You could see how kids would want to live out the Cadet Creed.
That also reflected in the “formation” ceremony, which the Cadets run with precision, formality and fun. They report their news, make announcements, present colors, pledge allegiance, accept competitive honors, receive the daily Senior Speech required of all graduating students, and exhibit the spirit expected on a Football Friday.
Even within the constraints of both the Catholic church and military hierarchy, many aspects of the Academy’s curriculum and social structure are very much of, by and for the students. Whatever else they learn, and that’s a lot, they learn how to make decisions and live with them.
Impressed by the History Room, with its century’s worth of medals and badges, the Innovation Center, with its student-built electric vehicles, the pool, the gym, the ceramics studio, the chapel, and most of all the people, I still welcomed the end of the school day. I wanted to roam the Academy’s acres in solitude and soak in more of its spirit, including a trail that contained the Stations of the Cross and led down to Rogers Lake.
Soon the sun set. The air chilled. The wind picked up. It started snowing sideways. It was a perfect night for football in Minnesota.
Mercifully, Deborah had arranged for a seat in the press box. That added yet another layer to my sense of homecoming and made the Cadets’ 40-3 defeat of Hill-Murray School even more enjoyable.
On my Lyft ride to campus Saturday morning to meet with Coach O’Brien, the driver’s chatter turned to football. Hearing of my years at the U, he asked if I knew Darrell Thompson, who still holds most of the major Gopher rushing records. Assured I’d interviewed Darrell several times back in the ’80s, the driver unspooled a string of his own memories about what a great guy Darrell was and still is and how they used to do non-profit work together to benefit youth in Minnesota.
That driver put me in the way-back machine, which may have been the best place for me, because the chat with Coach O’Brien (not to be revealed until the next article comes out), was even more old-school than the first. We concentrated on quality of character, covering every throwback value imaginable. Given that he was not quite two years removed from coaching for the Gophers, I came away confident that they would do what they did yesterday.
The rest of that day and night, I was walking on air, from hiking Minnehaha Falls to visiting David and Lori Fhima (a past partner in crime around the 1980s Gophers football scene) at their restaurant. It was October-in-Minnesota brisk outside, just as invigorating in the present as it was in the past.
A gentle touch to correct my warrior pose let me know Claire Ngoon knew what she was doing. She did not push me into position. She guided me to feel what was right for myself.
The best coaches and teachers, like Claire, help their students reach their own conclusions, so the lessons are more likely to stick. Discussing that topic after our first group class, I was sold on private lessons.
Plus, the price was right. Claire would teach me an hour per week in exchange for my marketing advice and writing coaching.
The first private lesson was laughable, due to my basketball-ravaged ankles and arthritic knees. Although I had taken a few dozen Bikram and hot vinyasa flow classes at other studios over the years, I could not enter some of the poses Claire led, even one as simple as kneeling and then sitting on my heels with my feet extended behind me.
She deemed that pose important given my intention that yoga help me run hills more efficiently, which would decrease pain and increase the physical, mental and emotional benefits of both the running and the yoga. We spent much of the first class slowly flexing my ankles to point my toes into resistance bands.
Claire remarked on how little love and attention people give their feet, considering how much support their feet give them. That’s when I discovered she occasionally spoke in metaphor, which bode well for her marketing and writing.
Beyond that footwork, our first few lessons included more typical poses such as lizard, pigeon, and downward facing dog. At the start of each lesson, Claire instructed me to “let go of anything that will not be of use in your practice,” which is great advice for any endeavor. When necessary, she reminded me more specifically to engage only the muscles needed to maintain the pose.
She suggested using blankets and blocks to ease pressure on my joints and aid in certain stretches. I resisted at first, pridefully preferring to fight through pain. Then I reached my own metaphorical conclusion that, like medicine, I could use a block as a “crutch” that would let me stretch to the point where the block was no longer necessary for me to stretch even farther.
The more I stretched, the more I could stretch. Then, the training wheels could come off. Meanwhile, there was no shame in using the available technology.
Listening closely for metaphors of value far beyond the yoga mat kept me attuned to Claire’s voice. That way, after release from the final agonizing-but-so-worth-it lizard pose, when she led me into relaxation for the last quarter of each class, it seemed hypnotic. I lay on bolsters to open my chest, breathed as Claire suggested, and followed her advice to thank my body for its work and “simply be.”
And, “when it is time,” she would say, “I will bring you back.” She had to, because during those end-of-class moments, I was gone.
Every week, she asked me if anything had changed. I mentioned a pins-and-needles type of tingling in my left heel and the fear that my achilles would soon snap. Claire prescribed a daily dose of Himalaya salt dissolved in water. In a week the condition cleared completely.
Because that prescription worked, it was easy to follow her others, such as “intentional” stretching before and after runs and using resistance bands and foot massage at other idle times. Practicing at home like that, I also returned to the mindful state I experienced in the studio.
Even when travel canceled our sessions for weeks at a time, upon return Claire still could point out improvements. In our most recent session, I knelt and sat on my heels with my feet extended behind me. It hurt a little, but I maintained the pose for nearly a minute. Her excitement at such a small feat seemed inordinate, but great coaches and teachers know that celebrating incremental advances leads to exponential growth.
Interspersed with yoga classes, Claire received the promised writing coaching, advice on marketing tactics, and introductions to build clientele. I critiqued entries in her video series, which expounds and expands on yoga, including a recent video that is much more in keeping with advice I give most of my clients: to use some form of brand journalism to tell your story.
The story in that video covered Claire’s experience of letting a client discover she was fighting herself. Soon after watching it, I went for a run, and afterward, while stretching in a seated spinal twist, I suddenly noticed my straight leg was needlessly clenched.
Claire’s video echoed. I relaxed the leg, and my spinal stretch deepened. It became clear that Claire had used my brand journalism advice to produce a video that helped me follow her yoga advice. It proved a point from one of our sessions: that our barter agreement allowed for greater experimentation in our crafts than we would dare deliver to cash-paying clients.
Metaphorically, we both helped each other stretch.
Sometimes small talk becomes bigger talk. Settling onto the
bench in the yoga studio lobby, I asked Claire, “How are you?”
She sighed before answering, “This morning I woke up late, and my boyfriend wasn’t there. I found him on the couch. I wanted to grab my purse and go, but there was a huge spider on it. I just stared at it, and while I was trying to figure out what to do, the spider raised its front paws, I mean legs, and moved them around like time didn’t apply to him.
“I had to wake my boyfriend up, and I was like, ‘Help,’ and
he just killed it. I think part of it’s still on my book. But I was so glad
that I could just grab my purse and go, because I was running late, and today
was the last day for that public-speaking class that I teach to the
“And how was that?” I asked.
“It was tough! I had to be a little hard on the students.
One of them kept taking out his tablet. I told him twice to put it away. I was
going to take it away from him, but I’m not sure I’m allowed to confiscate
things. Anyway, I just had him come sit next to me.
“Then this other boy, he’s really smart, but he doesn’t do the work. They were all supposed to give their final speeches today, and he wasn’t ready, but I told him he had to do it anyway. He was going to have to improvise, and he did it, and he nailed it. It was so good.
“I explained to the class that it’s better to be prepared,
but sometimes in life that’s just not possible, so you just do the best you
can, and sometimes it works out like it did today. So, I made it through the
end of the class, and I was happy for that boy, and still kind of stressed from
the other one who kept playing with his tablet. When class ended, they were the
first two out, and I was holding the door open for all the other students, and
then those two boys, one at a time, both came back and wanted to give me a hug.
So, now I’m here on kind of a high, ready to lead your yoga session.”
“That’s nice,” I said. “I had something like that happen in
a middle-school writing class that I taught…”
Then I stopped – it was Claire’s moment—and pivoted. “It’s great when stuff like that happens. That’s why as a writing coach, I was happy to get your email last night with your blog ideas. Two of them intrigued me a lot: the one about what yoga instructors can learn from the dog whisperer, and the one about the real meaning of karma.”
By then, I’d removed my shoes and socks, and finished some
stretches. Claire started toward the studio, and said over her shoulder, “Let’s
talk about that after class.”
I followed her and unrolled my mat. She brought blocks and
bolsters and resistance bands. Once she started instruction, all the spider and
speech-class excitement drained from her voice. Her ability to calm herself helped
me trust that she could lead me to calm myself. I fell into the easy rhythm of
breath she prescribed.
Most yoga instructors encourage us to remain present. Claire says to “let go of anything that will not be of use in your practice.” That phrasing resonates, along with how she says it. But, in this lesson, mid-Happy Baby, my mind wandered to writing instruction, and after “namaste” I told Claire my thoughts.
“What you said about the spider was eloquent. You tell me you struggle with writing, but you have tremendous access to language. The way you described the spider – ‘raising its front paws,’ you said, and then you corrected yourself, ‘I mean legs, and moved them around like time didn’t apply to him’ – that’s incredible description. You have the words, and it’s just a matter of writing them down.
“So, based on what you told me about your morning, and given your list of blog ideas, this week’s homework is to write about karma. I see some connection between karma and the way your day has gone.”
“What kind of connection?” she asked, and I said, “If I answer that, I think you will benefit less from this exercise. But, I’ll tell you what. I’ll do the same exercise, writing about this last hour, and next week we’ll compare notes.”
The air in Mexico City looked gray. It’s possible the sky was just overcast and hazy, but through the window of a taxi, still waking from a red-eye flight, the air itself was visibly gray. Gritty streets, graffiti, and construction dust led to the cleaner, hipsterish Roma neighborhood, where we would stay for the few days that I spent with my daughter, Eleni, before she left for solo travel adventure in Peru.
Home-base was Hotel MX Roma, a small building with welcoming staff…
…eclectic lobby furnishings, and vibrantly painted walls. Our room might not have been all of 200 square feet, but comfortably held a queen-sized bed, TV, breakfast nook, a jury-rigged place to hang clothes, a large, modern shower and gleaming fixtures, for about $60 per night.
Advice from my friend, Shelley, brought us to the neighborhood, and we were quick to follow the rest of her advice: “just eat good food and drink good mezcal!” Research revealed that the well-reviewed mezcaleria called El Palenquito was just a few blocks away. The bustling sidewalks felt safe and comfortable at all hours of the day and night. Other than language differences, we were just as much at ease as in any upscale neighborhood in the U.S. That bears mention here because of recent aspersions cast on Mexico by certain U.S. politicians.
Even the language differences disappeared inside El Palenquito, which played blues music on the speakers hidden in its low, dark, wooden ceiling, and whose English-speaking waitress educated us on the 50 or so mezcals on the menu and explained that the huge phallic symbol rising from the adjacent stone table was a tahona, a device hitched to a horse to aid in crushing agave as part of the mezcal manufacturing process.
Small glasses of Enmascarado 54 and Madrecuixe sent us into the warm night. We wandered to Jardin Pushkin and played with the locals’ dogs and children, all running around loose and fearless in the dark. This was where we saw the first of several kids throughout our visit face-plant into concrete and quickly raise themselves laughing instead of crying as so many American children would.
On our walk, we noted potential future bar and restaurant stops in our neighborhood and settled on the aromatic, frighteningly-open-air-but-crowded-enough-with-locals-to-convince-us Tacos Frontera. It was delicious and turned out to be a safe buffer for our mezcal nightcap, 400 Conejos, at Gin Gin.
The next day, January 6, was Dia de los Reyes (Three Kings Day), a major local holiday that celebrates the Three Wise Men’s visit to the baby Jesus. Throughout the day and night, wherever we went, hundreds of people hustled through the streets carrying large boxes of Rosca de Reyes, a cake in which one slice contains a figurine of the baby Jesus as a traditional prize.
We started our day walking from the heart of Roma to Chapultepec, a park roughly twice the size of New York’s Central Park. First stop was for street soccer.
A couple miles from our hotel, the streets widened to contain cobblestone boulevards beneath cooling canopies of trees and leaves. It was urban beauty that equaled anything I’d seen in Paris and led straight into the park. Its first major feature was the Monumento a los Niños Heroes, recognizing child military cadets who died while defending Chapultepec Castle, the last major resistance to U.S. troops who had invaded Mexico in 1846.
From there, the architecture of the Museum of Modern Art drew us in. The free museum kept us there for an hour, entranced by the interior design and the quality of its collection. One exhibit covered the oppression of women in Mexico, and even beyond that exhibit, themes of oppression, violence and sensory distortion were vivid and pronounced.
Back outside, we aimed for Castillo de Chapultepec. We navigated streets closed to traffic but crowded with tents, booths and their resident hawkers of T-shirts, candy, umbrellas, blankets, dolls, keychains, sunglasses, wrestling masks, etc. The walk uphill to the castle at altitude on our first day in town tired us, so we stopped occasionally for long views of greenery unfolding before us for miles and then multiple tall-towered skylines in the distance.
The cost of the castle tour in pesos and time that we wanted to spend outside chased us. We decided to rent bikes from a roadside kiosk. Suspiciously, the rental agent required us to surrender our passports, but we were feeling bold after surviving Tacos Frontera.
The ride through the Bosque section of the park was especially beautiful. We stopped at various water features and statuary, rode past families pick-nicking on the grass and wound through a military base, all within the confines of Chapultepec.
The bikes were due back by 3. We rested and phoned my former colleague and Mexico City native Raul Escalante, who suggested how to spend the hours before he could meet us at the hotel at 8:30 to give us a night-time driving tour. On Raul’s advice, we Ubered to Palacio de Bellas Artes. Entering the Centro Historico district, traffic slowed to the typical congested pace of New York or Chicago. We felt compelled to explore more widely than deeply, so we spent just a few minutes admiring Bellas Artes.
We walked a mile or so on Av Francisco I. Madero, leading from Bellas Artes to Zocalo, the city’s historical central plaza. First stop was Antiguo Palacio de Iturbide, which Raul had recommended for its interior architecture.
On our way, we saw this sad scene in the middle of the street.
Where the street dead-ends into Zocalo, we saw Catedral Metropolitana de la Ciudad de México, the largest cathedral in North America.
And these flags flapped above the square.
Raul also recommended Salon Corona, a legendary taco joint, which in Chicago terms, is a marriage between Manny’s and the Wiener’s Circle as far as both food quality and crowd energy.
Raul met us that night to cover more ground in his car than we could on foot. He drove us past his haunts in Roma, the neighboring La Condesa district, and then back down to Zocalo. He explained the significance of certain historic buildings in socio-political terms, revealing his proud leftist leanings.
We learned a lot, including the fact that Mexico City is beautiful at night with bustle and lights to match any other large international city. Back at the hotel, Raul helped us negotiate with the desk to arrange for our next day’s tour of Teotihuacan.
The next morning, anticipating a vigorous hike around and up and down the famous pyramids of those pre-Aztec ruins at Teotihuacan, we filled up on breakfast at Belmondo, a hearty bowl of scrambled eggs, beans, tortillas and nopales (cactus leaves). Some mariachi stopped by. After one song, the leader grabbed his cell phone, perhaps to take an order for his next appearance, and I wondered if there was some sort of mariachi dispatch service.
We met our shuttle to Teotihuacan at the hotel and picked up another dozen or so guests at various hotels. The shuttle wound through some now-familiar streets down to Zocalo before heading north through the poorest-looking streets we’d seen yet and then onto a wide highway that passed through miles of industrial ugly followed by more miles of piles of rubble disguised as houses, stacked improbably into hillsides, the brilliant pastels of their exteriors at odds with whatever pains of poverty lurked inside.
About an hour outside Mexico City, we hit the outskirts of the pyramids and rumbled down an unpaved path past cottage-industry shops that had sprung up around the attraction. Rafael, the guide who explained the history and scenery on our bus ride, gave a tutorial in avoiding eye contact with the vendors who would accost us soon after we left the bus.
In the dusty parking lot, a couple of our bus-mates from Los Angeles complained so loudly about having only three hours to explore and about needing “el bano” that Rafael could not finish his speech. He pointed them across the Avenue of the Dead, the main drag through ancient Teotihuacan, and we would never see them again.
Rafael told us about the pyramids mirroring the surrounding mountains and which astronomical phenomena could be experienced atop the pyramids during the vernal equinox. He told us what time to re-convene, to follow the rules on the printed signs, and otherwise have the run of the place, walking and climbing as we saw fit.
As predicted, the vendors descended, but they understood body language well enough. Because we were closer to the Pyramid of the Moon, we chose to climb it first, saving the imposing Pyramid of the Sun for our finale. It is hard to know what sense of spirituality in such a place is real vs. imagined or even implanted by what we read and hear. But I have long felt in tune with beliefs of indigenous people, especially when walking in their footsteps, and I felt that at Teotihuacan.
The steepness of the stones was imposing. My normal workout involves sprinting on steps cut into hillsides, but this would be a slow slog, due to narrow space for footfalls, the creakiness of my knees and the altitude. I kept hold of the wire that ran up the spine of the steps, and I kept my head down for fear of dizziness or disorientation sending me tumbling back down the jagged corners of the stones. Looking down also let me study the stone patterns and narrow my focus to what it might have meant to a guy climbing this structure when it was built in about 100 A.D.
Between heartbeat, breath and where my mind went, that minute of climbing moved me. At the top, I felt elevated, literally, but more importantly, spiritually, by how far I could see and the strange, fleeting impressions of unprecedented shapes, angles and shadows.
I was cautious near the edges of the pyramid, but pushed myself as far as I dared in order to experience the place as fully as possible.
Eleni had stopped to check out some other ruins, so she climbed after me, and we lingered atop the absolutely mystifying Pyramid of the Moon until we remembered there was much more of the Avenue of the Dead to explore.
We still faced the harder climb up the much taller Pyramid of the Sun.
By the time we reached the top of that one, the crowd there and the deadline for the bus soon sent us scrambling back down.
The bus departed Teotihuacan proper and took us to an appointed nearby shop, where we enjoyed an outstanding English-language demonstration of the uses of the maguey plant (juice for fermenting into pulque and mezcal, string, needle and thread, paper, etc.). Then we learned about obsidian, a stone used for tools, weapons and art. For example, looking through a quarter-inch slab of obsidian straight at the late-afternoon sun was almost exactly the same experience as seeing the sun through eclipse glasses.
Inside, I bought an obsidian figurine that spoke to me. Because of the intrigue it holds for me visually, and as a reminder of the spiritual powers I felt at Teotihuacan, I have given it a place of honor as the only object atop my writing desk. The impetus to remove the other clutter testifies to the power of this talisman as a force toward clearer mental and emotional paths to better writing. The life-death motif of the figurine reminds me of the existential importance that writing plays in my life and of the nature of time — the balance of urgency and patience — that fuels my writing now that I am likely midway through my life.
The bus home arrived to a perfect sunset.
We hopped off at the stop nearest Zocalo so we could spend early evening there. Our walk took us past this stunning monument to Benito Juarez.
When we reached Catedral Metropolitana de la Ciudad de México, only Spanish-language tours were available. Eleni decided she would understand well enough, and though Teotihuacan maxed me out spiritually, I could still take in more art and history.
Conventional wisdom is that not much good happens in Zocalo after about 8 p.m., so we caught an Uber back to Roma and enjoyed the outdoor seating at El Palenquito, followed by a nightcap of Bocanegra beer at Soul La Roma, yet another hipster bar, this one marked by the recent vintage motorcycles on display.
We built our last full day in Mexico City around a visit to Frida Kahlo’s childhood home, La Casa Azul. Research for food in that neighborhood led us to Tostadas de Coyoacan, another better-than-fast-food-and-most-fancy-food meal, along the lines of Tacos Frontera and Salon Corona. We sat at a counter with mounds of tostada toppings, maybe 20-30 styles of chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, ceviche, octopus, and cow’s foot (“Tostadas de pata res”), which made both Eleni and me gag.
We had 1:30 tickets for Frida, so we walked off the tostadas in the block-long, block-deep Coyoacan marketplace. It was a compressed version of the carnival-barkers at Chapultepec, but these stalls were crowded on top of each other, two or three times our height, and crammed around narrow aisles, plied by singers and dancers. It was an overwhelm of color, raw and cooked food, textiles, clothes, accessories, toys, and household goods.
In need of sensory relief, we left the marketplace for a trot to Trotsky’s house.
Then we spent about an hour at Casa Azul.
We had planned to visit a nearby bar made famous by frequent visits from Frida and Diego, but we could not find it. We called Raul, who directed us to its unmarked location two doors down from where we’d looked. We decided to meet there, and I had the joy of texting him: “We are seated beneath a bull’s head, watching Man City v Lyon. Heaven.”
Over one Rey Zapoteco and one Siniestro, amid the historic bullfight posters and beneath the bull’s head, we talked politics and watched the waiters dance to mariachi. It was the kind of place you could imagine sitting all day, every day just to stay out of the heat.
Raul walked us through the plaza to his favorite ice cream shop and then drove us through the University neighborhood. We stopped to admire the Olympic stadium.
Then, Raul drove us through crooked, cobbled, narrow streets of San Angel, the quietest neighborhood we visited. As night fell, he led us to a church where one of his relatives had been married and then set us up with his friends at El Carmen Deli for a fancy dinner.
My mezcal came with a side of fried grasshoppers. Eleni’s gin and tonic was a tableside preparation that involved fresh-smoked rosemary infused inside the upside-down glass, plus a few citrus rubs and juniper. Dinner was beef tongue taquitos, fillet, sea bass, garlic mashed potatoes, and asparagus. We went home early, because the next morning, we were expected at 9 at the home of Guillermo “Billy” Grimm, who, after I had interviewed him by phone for a magazine article last year, invited me to visit if ever staying in his city.
Billy is an octogenarian, an extraordinarily accomplished businessman, former government minister, and was a primary mover in the development of Cancun. My article for the St. Thomas Academy alumni magazine covered his time at that school, which had served as a springboard for his success.
We Ubered to his home in Polanco, where his housekeeper, Rosario, and dog, Max, greeted us. We waited in his living room amid beautiful art and furniture, gazing at his garden courtyard. He descended his staircase dressed perfectly in tie, cuffed white shirt, tailored trousers, vest, herringbone jacket, gleaming loafers, and red and blue striped socks to match his tie.
Billy led us back upstairs to see his office and what he jokingly called his “ego wall” filled with about a hundred diplomas, certifications, citations and commemorative photos: Billy with the minister of this and the secretary of that, and most joyously for Billy, Billy with Melina Mercouri, the star of “Never on Sunday.” Among those wall hangings:
Breakfast was some of the freshest fruit I have ever tasted, juice, delicate cheese, chilaquiles and espresso. Between his dress, his taste, his age, his air of distinction, his inquisitiveness about Eleni’s upcoming trip to Peru, the warmth of his conversation and his wisdom, Billy reminded me of my father. It is a compliment to both of them.
Billy drove us aggressively in his Benz to Museo Nacional de Antropología. It’s a world-class museum, also in Chapultepec, that we had skipped in favor of the outdoors during our prior day in the park. Between hugs and long good-byes, Billy recommended we visit the outdoor statue of Tlaloc, the rain god, a 23-foot tall, 300,000-pound monolith that was moved, despite much controversy, from Coatlinchan to its current location, and upon installation in 1964 was blamed for historic rains in Mexico City.
There is much to recommend the museum. We spent four hours there, taking occasional breaks to stretch and relax in the sun-drenched courtyard or to enjoy a light misting from its water fixture.
One display explained the origin of “400 Conejos” as a phrase from the Aztecs that described the effects of alcohol rendering a person’s brain and behavior the equivalent of “400 rabbits.” Armed with that knowledge as we left the museum, we Ubered back to Roma, stopped in at Gin Gin, and ordered “a total of 800 rabbits” to brace us for that night’s flights to our next destinations.
In the cool jazz quiet of Gin Gin, revisiting our favorite memories of those five days in Mexico City, we realized that was not nearly enough time to see all we wanted. In fact, it might have been just enough to convince us to take a return trip.
The longer I live, the more clearly I hear what the universe is telling me. I listened a few years ago when Kathy Bresler recommended a subscription to the BrainPickings.org e-newsletter, which on July 17, 2017 covered When Things Fall Apart by the Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron. The excerpts in the BrainPickings newsletter made Pema’s book seem a good read for Tina, my supervisor at Positive Coaching Alliance, who was on leave because things fell apart for her when her father faced sudden, serious health challenges.
The day I learned of Pema’s book, I mentioned it during a phone call with my friend, Ann, who lives up in Kennewick, Wash. Ann called it the most important book in her life, key to sustaining her sobriety.
The next day I mentioned the book over lunch with my co-worker, Shelley. She also exclaimed the book’s importance as a basis of her own Buddhism and a force that helped her accept and embrace even the most difficult changes life can bring.
When several influential people in my life all at once try to fill the same gap in my knowledge or experience, I understand that the universe is trying to tell me something. So I listened. I read When Things Fall Apart and gave Tina her own copy when she returned from leave. Less than two weeks later, on August 3, Tina tearfully told me she had to lay me off just a month shy of the 12th anniversary of her hiring me. My last day there would be August 16.
Within minutes of the initial shock, Pema’s message surfaced in my mind. Her lessons about the inevitable, painful change that life brings helped me survive that moment, and because her message had arrived so serendipitously, it seemed ordained that I could accept and embrace this difficult change. I became attached to When Things Fall Apart the way other people attach to their Bible or Koran.
The book’s arrival as largesse, courtesy of the universe, got me thinking how some turns of phrase equate inexplicable good fortune with interstellar events. If something is meant to be, “it’s in the stars.” Right-place-at-the-right-time moments happen because “the planets must be aligned.”
My cosmic musings soon had me hearing the universe tell me to go to Oregon for the solar eclipse. Unemployed and in need of a vision for next career steps, I planned to leave in three days, listen to rivers while sleeping on their beds whenever possible, cross Crater Lake off my bucket list, and witness the eclipse in its path of totality at Madras, Oregon.
I packed my Mazda with camping gear, road snacks, Pema’s book and another that guides my spirituality, Luther Standing Bear’s Land of the Spotted Eagle. Preparing for what amounted to my version of a Lakota vision quest (which, in Trump times, I knew would involve socially purposeful work), I needed Standing Bear’s consideration of the Great Mystery of nature at the heart of Lakota spirituality and what the wasichu has wrought.
Leaving home the morning of August 19, I spent the first hour of my vision quest seeking NASA-approved eclipse glasses, which 7-Eleven stores were offering for free. Several stores were out of stock. It dawned on me that if my pace to Oregon did not speed up, there would be no need of eclipse glasses, anyway, and chances were that I would find another 7-Eleven along the 550-plus miles to Madras.
I crossed the glassy San Francisco Bay over the San Mateo Bridge, passed glass towers of East Bay towns trying to be cities, rolled over decrepit railroad tracks built in a time when our country had a future, past dust devil dancefloors of fallow farms that fail to feed the fieldhands who work to feed us, only to be demonized and deported back to the violence they feared enough to flee to our violence. At a Safeway in Redding, where I bought water, almonds, peanut butter and beef jerky, the parking lot was full of tweakers. But those frustrating Americanisms were somewhat soothed by a burger and a beer and the sight of Calatrava’s famous Sundial Bridge.
Then came the natural scenery of the Lake Shasta area, Castle Crags and Black Butte and other majestic-but-less-famous-than-Mount-Shasta formations. Depending on the highway curve, they resembled the new problems in my life, looming deceptively large from a distance and seeming to shrink to less imposing heights up close.
Snow-covered Mount Shasta offered no such illusions. It is just one giant mountain.
The next natural feature of note after the split off on Highway 97 and crossing the Oregon border was Upper Klamath Lake. Forest fire smoke gave an unnatural orange to the setting sun, and from one angle, Aspen Butte slashed diagonally across the orb, so it looked like a quarter-eaten pumpkin pie.
Near dark, I decided to camp at Jackson Kimball State Forest, pitching my tent by the light of my cell phone clenched between my teeth. Coyotes howled most of the night in a surprising variety of voices, some so distinct – real, dreamed or imagined through on-again-off-again sleep – that I picked out the sounds of several individuals. They became distant pets in the night, playing a rhythm-and-echo game with a herd of terrorized cattle bellowing in the distance.
I hit the road at ten for Crater Lake. Hiking the Rim Trail reveals one of those rare views that match its hype. Crater Lake is a blue you can’t see anywhere else.
About 90 minutes later, wildfire smoke almost completely obscured the lake.
The park offers a lot of other scenery along a loop drive, including Vidae Falls.
Out the southern edge of the park, Highway 62 rolled to the Rogue River National Forest, where I pitched my tent at Natural Bridge. This would be my first night of this trip to listen to a river and perhaps receive a vision. That seemed to call for some form of purification ritual analogous to the Lakota inipi.
While pale in comparison to what a traditional vision seeker endures, my wood-gathering turned into a self-imposed, quixotic, ascetic challenge to carry as much as possible as far as possible in the sun-setting heat. However brave I felt four days after being cast out from my professional home, that wood-gathering was a needed emotional purge. Then, in the cool dusk and overnight, the river whispered especially sweet secrets.
And in the morning, less than a mile’s hike away, the Rogue roared. It reminded me of Lower Falls in Yellowstone – not as tall and majestic, but just as effective in eliciting involuntary ego loss.
The river’s whisper and its roar both echoed inside me. Otherwise, I felt empty. Back in the car, creative and artistic visions took shape. I drove blissfully to Bend, where the universe delivered me those 7-Eleven eclipse glasses. I’d only snacked since that burger two days before in Redding, so lunch was a steak sandwich splurge at Deschutes Brewing.
Friends had recommended Bend for its natural beauty and recreation opportunities, but lingering there would keep me from finding a campground close enough to Madras to get there in time for the next morning’s eclipse, given the apocalyptic traffic predictions. First choice, Tumalo State Park, was packed. A ranger said she’d just called Prineville, and they had plenty of space, but none by the time I got there. Jasper Point also had no vacancies. I asked the campground hostess what she would do in my shoes, as I did not want to violate any laws sleeping roadside in my car.
“Can you do without electricity?”
“OK, well, you see that stop sign, about 50 yards outside the gate? You take a right, onto that unpaved road. Anywhere you see a pullout is a campsite. They’re free, because they’re undeveloped, just a pit toilet. I’m so sorry, but that’s the best I can do.”
The jagged rocky road threatened my tires, which were overdue for replacement, so I took the first turnout. Beyond the parking area, and that pit toilet (which, on my third night on the road, was the cleanest I’d had yet), a grassy hill sloped down to the reservoir. It lapped at the shore during a mellow sunset and all through my sleep and when I awoke at sunrise.
In Prineville, I stopped at the first place that sold coffee, figuring it was not the kind of town to offer much selection. The coffee was bitter and burnt. Leaving out the other end of town took me right past a Starbucks, but I did not want to pay for more coffee. Instead I paid penance for my metropolitan bias, which assumed that Prineville could not offer quality coffee. Newly sensitive to my narrow views, rolling down the road to Madras past rural poverty and dead soldier tributes, it was easier to see how people in so-called “fly-over country” would vote differently.
The hysterical traffic forecast never materialized. A few pockets slowed over the last five miles. Many cars randomly pulled over for eclipse viewing from the shoulder, and some paid sites had their fields covered with rows of RVs. By eight, I was parked in downtown Madras, sipping delicious coffee at a picnic table in a food truck court near Sahalee Park, and testing angles toward the sun with my cell phone camera on a tripod.
I tried tricks I’d heard, such as draping eclipse glasses over the camera lens, but no cell phone photo can do an eclipse justice. That’s OK. Relying on mind’s-eye photos can make an experience more memorable.
The sky slowly darkened. The air cooled. People murmured and shouted as totality neared. Then, for about two minutes, all that remained of the sun was a brilliant blazing liquid-chrome rim the color of the Silver Surfer. Two days after seeing the nowhere-but-here blue of Crater Lake, I saw the nowhere-but-here-and-never-but-now shine of a disappeared sun.
Later on when the crowd thinned out I wandered the streets looking at souvenirs. I left around noon so I could make it to Ann’s house in Kennewick on time for the dinner we’d planned. It took an hour to get out of Madras and another hour before traffic loosened enough to really move.
Around three, a tire blew out. From the shoulder, with cars speeding dangerously close, and no experience changing tires, I called Mazda roadside assistance. I was so far from anywhere identifiable that, even with Mazda using its GPS, they asked for descriptions of physical aspects of the landscape to help figure out where to send help. They said they would have to call back.
While waiting, I re-read parts of When Things Fall Apart to remind me how to embrace this unwelcome change. Minutes later an official highway rescue tow-truck pulled up and two real men put my spare on in about 10 minutes. As they did, Mazda called back and said it would cost some hundreds of dollars and at least three hours because of my remote location, and by the way, didn’t I know that the roads were crowded because of people wanting to see the eclipse earlier that day?
The tow-truck crew thought the spare could make it to Kennewick if I kept my speed under fifty. That meant I would not reach Hermiston for tire replacement before closing time, so I should pull over and check the heat of the spare compared to the other tires, because if the spare blew I’d be stuck in the countryside until I could get a tow. I offered them $20 for beer in a coded attempt to regain a sense of masculinity, but they refused it.
Less than thirty minutes later, I was in a seven-mile back-up in Wasco, waiting an hour-and-a-half to turn from highway 97 to highway 84. But (I summoned Pema), what beautiful rock formations out my windows! Such intricate Mighty Favog faces and patterns you’d see as a child when you had nothing but time! What a blessing to recall the eclipse image—“best album cover ever!”
Other than fear of tire troubles, I loved 84, which skirts the Columbia River with its barges, its John Day Dam, its barren hillsides, and its spectacular swallowing of the setting sun in my rearview mirror as I hit Hermiston. The spare was warm, but I decided, in all my vast automotive expertise, that it would be OK.
During another 90-minute delay in a two-mile backup to get onto 82, my rearview showed a drunk staggering up behind me holding a wrinkled bag of booze. He wandered past again, coming from the other direction a half hour later, holding a new bag, and it was another 15 minutes before I saw the liquor store.
Once through that back-up, the homestretch to Ann’s house was a grooved road over the bridge and onto the interstate. I encouraged my tires out loud that they could make it. They did! And only five hours late for dinner! Ann and her husband, Jim, and I spoke deeply that night and over the next two days. Some of the topics were personal and painful, born of the trying experiences that had led us to Pema.
The eclipse experience remained vibrant, too. Folks standing in line with me at Discount Tire started talking about it. The guy in front of me showed me a photo on his phone that matched my memory but far exceeded the quality of anything I could shoot on my phone.
“How did you get that on your phone?” I asked.
“I transferred it from my $20,000 camera.”
After two days of rest and real food and clean sheets at Ann’s place, I took off for Portland, completely relaxed and able to enjoy the piney scenery of the Columbia River Gorge, near the town of Hood River. I stopped to see Horsetail Falls.
I had to make that quick to be on time for my visit with Pastor Craig Brown, whom I had not seen since our playground basketball days in high school. We caught up for a couple hours sitting in the sanctuary he was rebuilding in his historic church, and I heard every war story he was willing to share from the streets of Milwaukee to his tours as an Army infantry sergeant in Iraq. We had taken much different paths to the peace we felt that day.
That night I slept on a river bed about 40 miles outside Portland at the Gales Creek Campground in Tillamook State Forest.
In the morning, I aimed for Silver Falls State Park, about a two-hour drive, and decided to try the Trail of 10 Falls.
It was one of the most spectacular hikes of my life, winding past, behind, and under the 10 waterfalls that provide the trail’s name.
Between waterfalls, the trail meanders along a creek and through dense forests of fern and moss in every shade of green you can imagine and some you can’t.
The beauty at every step helped ease the pain that accumulated from all those steps. Even without the waterfalls, the hike through such rich and varied greenery would have been worth it. But when you hear that thunderous falling water and wonder what it will look like, and then catch a glimpse where the trail curves, your pain fades, and you keep on until just the right slant of late afternoon light strikes the falling wall of water and rainbow flame licks dance from its edge.
Going around the bend after one of the falls, I saw a woman standing on the trail, writing in her notebook. I stopped, “Are you a poet?” I asked. It started a conversation that probably lasted 10 minutes.
We covered the usual where-you-from and what-brought-you-here, but what had brought us each there was deep. She’d been eclipsed, too, something about a man and then the need to drive from Ohio just to watch the sun — which keeps us all alive — disappear in broad daylight and then re-appear to let us know that even apparent cosmic cataclysm is just an illusion.
We fellow road warriors, wanderers and wonderers were both so raw, so vulnerable and awestruck from recent past days of packed senses and surges of urgency that soon we were both near tears. Even as we each acknowledged our unusual openness while it was unfolding, it still seemed completely natural that we strangers bare souls.
From my backpack, I pulled out Pema for a passage that would remind us both that everything would be OK. Some other tangent, maybe what we’d each observed on our hikes, prompted me to also pull out Standing Bear and flip – more quickly than I expected to be able, as though I’d been practicing – to the page where he shares the Lakota wisdom “He iye ki ya mani yo” (“Recognize everything as you walk.”)
I realized that between my five-day beard, my camp smell, my fatigue, my sensory overwhelm from the waterfalls and the ferns and the eclipse, and now my proselytizing from two strange and off-the-beaten-path books, that she was ready to back-pedal down the trail. I also caught myself experiencing for the first time a faith so full that I could not prevent its overflow. But she’d had enough, so I quieted and wished her well, happy for the mindblow that waited for her in the waterfall around the bend that I’d just come around.
Finishing the trail at seven I was exhausted and in minor pain. Sleep sounded good, but I doubted my luck at finding any more perfect river beds on this trip.
Instead, I loaded up on diner food and coffee and sped 10 hours through the starry night back to the Bay Area, at home on the road, comfortable with being eclipsed in a universe that showed me there are times when things fall together.