Friday, July 01, 2005


I discovered a travel tip, a while back, whose source I cannot recall: always, when renting a car (my now-preferred mode of touring), apply for the smallest and cheapest vehicle available. The rental company will almost never have an actual sub-compact when you arrive there, and will be contractually obligated (or perhaps just by policy) to provide you with a larger, better-equipped vehicle at the same price. The worst thing that can happen is that they do have whatever today's eqivalent of a Metro or Sprint is available, and you simply upgrade (unless you had your heart set on an uncomfortable ride) on the spot. It's classically win-win.

And so I found myself in a shiny, new, and comfortable (if a bit thirsty) Ford Escape (their baby SUV, for the unversed) trekking through the unspeakably beautiful hills of North Carolina and West Virginia en route to Columbus, Ohio this past weekend. For a mere 20 dollars a day (thank you, Priceline), at that.

Mountains, as writers from the Psalms onward have noted, have a spiritually renewing quality about them rivalled only, it would appear, by deserts. I'm certainly not one to argue with such authorities; they're breathtaking, if a bit useless for cellular phone reception. But on the latter point, I think it's best to surmise that the mountains are telling me that there are more important things for me to be noticing than my cel phone.

I used to believe that I didn't care for longish drives, but now understand that my 135 mile drives from Columbus, OH to Cleveland were unhappy because: A) the scenery is flat and ridiculously boring; B) I always had a nagging trepidation deriving from my poorly-maintained and sometimes uninsured vehicles; C) I was haunted by the grisly demise of Elizabeth, my beloved 1973 Triumph Spitfire who perished on that same expanse of I-71. Having rectified all of those issues, I was eminently serene cruising the 600-plus miles from Wilmington to Columbus. This is a good thing, as my restive soul has been in need of a little bit of serenity in the aftermath of my Summer grad seminar. It's time to haul out the spiritual and philosophical lit that I emply for personality maintenance.

We all have the restorative rituals, of course: Dublin Saab drives, Hamel bikes and runs, Jason swims, and I read Anthony DeMello, Kalhil Ghibran, the Bhagavad Gita, or David Hume. Okay, that's a lie about me: usually I drink; I read that other stuff at the junctures in which I realize that drinking only induces serenity in four-hour intervals and leaves the mind and soul a confused and unnavigable mess the rest of the time.

Mountains, though, like deserts and oceans, issue a spiritual corrective--not because they are inherently interesting (which they are), but because they are vast, and as the brilliant-but-short-lived John Gardner wrote, "like all things vast, inanimate." Vastness grants perspective, in that in the presence of vastness we are obligated to observe our own smallness and relative unimportance in the universal scheme.

I am reminded of a personal moment of clarity: I was working early on a day shift in a busy restaurant kitchen about two years back; bad scheduling and a call-off had ensured that we would have a puissant and multitudinous lunch crowd handled by an utterly inadequate three cooks. John, my shift manager, was pacing nervously as a caged animal in anticipation of the onslaught. I perceived that he would be worthless to us if he had already lost his cool before the attack even began, and so I offered the following speech before the troops: "John, there are guys getting shot at in Iraq right now, and the worst thing we're looking at is three guys running their asses off for a few hours."

Strangely, this approach worked. John paused for a moment, thanked me for the perspective, and noticeably calmed down. He became suddenly aware that our shitty day at work was pedestrian and whitebread compared to real shitty days at work--that a few hours of sweat paled in comparison to the dangers that many face daily. I wished, deeply and fervently, that I could practice regularly what I'd just so gloriously preached.

But mountains are better and funnier teachers than kitchens. Much like hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes, they tell you things that you don't want to hear and yet need to know. Mountains tell you that you can crash your SUV into them at full speed, if you so choose, and that you'll die and your truck will be mangled, and that they won't care at all. The mountains came before me and will be here long after me, they told me. Like the Tao, they are unsentimental; they announce the order of things, and leave subjective human egos to make sense of it.

That's the way things work, of course, and yet most of us live lives assiduaously crafted in denial of our own powerlessness against that which is greater than us. I'm both victim and perpetrator of this ridiculous philosophy. But on a sunny day on I-77, with the mountains about me, I can be, at least temporarily, liberated.


Blogger Natalie said...

Gas Guy didn't post anything for a week. I'm bored at work and everyone is on vacation!

Sorry to nag. I'll deal.

Fri Jul 01, 08:51:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Jason said...

Good post. And you are my brother, so you deserve all the crap I give you, you whiney brat. I mean, to take a page out of someone else's book (i.e., your book), there are people dying in Iraq, an obligatory once-a-week post to your blog isn't that big of a deal.

Fri Jul 01, 09:43:00 AM EDT  
Blogger The Evil Jeremy. said...

Agreed. The scolding at the top of the post has been removed.

Fri Jul 01, 10:11:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Dublin Saab said...

CL, it would seem both of us needed until today to recover from ComFest and make a post.

That's a 5 day recovery period, and that's about right on course. Heck, I took 3 naps on Monday.

Fri Jul 01, 10:38:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Nightcrawler said...

I am fortunate enough to live amongst the hills and mountains of the Ohio Valley. West Virginia is right across the river from me and my wife and I have taken quite a few trips through the hills to attend WVU games in Morgantown. They are beautiful, but a pain in the butt when you have to mow a steep backyard or weed eat a steep hillside.

Fri Jul 01, 05:42:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Hamel said...

If we all realized how important we can be is ultimately limited to the now and the here, we'd be better off. What human has truly changed the world?

Sat Jul 02, 03:22:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Nightcrawler said...

Happy Independence Day! I miss your visits to my blog.

Mon Jul 04, 10:07:00 PM EDT  

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