Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Liddy Library

Oh Liddy. My lonesome library. I spend more time with Liddy than I do with all the people I know. That’s because I know almost nobody here. I do know Liddy, though.

I cloister myself in the back corner next to a reading lamp and an air vent. From my corner, I can see everyone in the room while not having to worry about someone peering at my computer screen from behind.

If a team of Hollywood set designers wished it so, they could transform Liddy into a medieval mead hall just by replacing the shelves of magazines and encyclopedias with the trophy heads of beasts and sword racks.

The windows are as big as ocean skiffs. Rows of large oaken tables function as reading troughs and a trio of brass chandeliers descend from the 40-foot high ceiling like spiders sprawled upside-down from chain-link threads. The room has an air of classic grandeur, which seems to magnify my loneliness.

Here—when I’m not doing schoolwork—I consort with some of my closest friends: Thoreau, Abbey, Bryson, Troost. Yet I secretly wish—despite all of my agoraphobic disinclinations and solitary penchants—to comingle with the many silent, studious denizens who I see every day, but never talk to.

I wonder who all these people are. The girls, especially. What are their names? Their interests? Their passions?

But the library is no place to socialize. You may be able to bump, serendipitously, into your next lover at a church, a bar, or a barn-raising, but you’re sure as hell not going to meet anyone at a library. There’s too much silence, too much concentration. We go to the library knowing what we want to do and what will happen. No one expects chance. No one even wants it. Except me, maybe. Besides, the unspoken (and rigorously-obeyed) rules of decorum leave little possibility for such a chance encounter.

Though, sometimes I’ll catch one of them glancing at me. Maybe even smiling coquettishly.

I’m usually terrified when this happens. I respond, typically, by pretending to focus on the screen of my laptop while reminding myself about the horrors of human contact.

Once, though, a freshman placed her hand on my shoulder and asked me to watch her laptop for a minute. Rather, she grinded her palm into my deltoid as if she was feeling for the ripeness of a cantaloupe. Later, she sat down next to me, pulled my book from my hands, and proceeded to tell me about her life, her interests, her passions, seemingly oblivious (or deliberately neglectful) of library convention and etiquette. It was my fantasy fulfilled. Her name was Andrea, she was beautiful, and—despite the air of indomitable confidence she carried—her hand trembled when she wrote her phone number in my notebook.

When she left, I closed the notebook with the number and never looked at it again. I opened my novel, leaned back in my chair and kept on reading, contentedly.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Rule of Thumb #6: Shatter your fears. Know the unknown.

Day 6: May 20, 2007. Northern British Columbia to Prince George, BC (776 miles)

Four summers ago, I drove up to Alaska with my friend Paul in my dad’s Saturn SUV.

I remember how nervous we were when we slept behind an abandoned motel in Great Falls, Montana and how frightened we were of bears on our hike up a mountain-trail in Yellowstone. The drive was, for me, The Journey of all Journeys. It was an adventure. I still think back on the trip nostalgically, but I deem it about as “adventurous” as my weekly walk to the laundromat.

Adventure evolves. What was once adventurous may—with repetition—become mundane. The professional skydiver who daily tumbles into the air is as much an adventurer as the secretary who daily reorders her filing cabinet. Inversely, the agoraphobe’s walk across the street could be just as intrepid as an astronaut’s first leap across a lonely planet.

Adventure is the exploration of the unknown. The experienced hiker/climber/traveler, what have you, may very well experience adventurous moments, but he is no adventurer. The naïf, rather, must relentlessly conjure courage and conquer fears. The climbing guide or common seafarer function as machines, reading the manual of routine that repetition has imprinted in their heads. The naïf explores his self as much as he does the land around him. It is he who in bounding over unexplored terrain, reshapes the contours of his mind.

I had come up to Coldfoot in the summer of 2005 to immerse myself—a lifelong suburbanite—in the unknown: a landscape of barren tundra valleys, irascible black bears, and raging rivers. And I got just that.

I came back the next year because I craved Alaska once again. I wanted to experience all those same sensations anew. But it wasn’t the same. Nor was it the following year. Or the year after that. It couldn’t have been. What was once unknown was known.

The hitchhike was my excursion beyond the borders of my little kingdom into the unknown. And across North America I hoped to stretch the boundaries of my fears and inhibitions with me as I traveled further and further away from the person I left behind in Alaska.

But I wasn’t thinking about any of these things at the time. I didn’t understand why I wanted to go. I just wanted to travel and to do so in a way that would do justice to the idea of “travel.”

Why was I cursed with this burning restlessness? Part of me wondered why I didn’t desire a home, wife, and children. Was I merely suffering from first-world desuetude? Or was I simply trying to jar some much-needed drama into my life? Or had I simply been reading too many Jack London novels? Or was there something more?

We are a mobile people. Even the most stationary in body daily embark on voyages of the mind. Might this itch, this burning restlessness, be the cause of the great human migration? Perhaps we move not to sate hungers and claim territories, but to quench curiosities.

Is it not this curiosity—so uniquely human—that drives men to climb the highest peaks, to survey the wide expanse of lonely oceans, and to someday step foot on distant planets? Oh, how grand it was to live according to these ancient rhythms; to finally heed to a call that I had muffled for far too long.

I was a traveler. But I was no adventurer. At least in comparison to some of my adventuring forebears, I was no adventurer. The adventurer has his mind so fixed on his prize that he is willing to forfeit his life to attain it. That’s because his dream is more precious than his life. Could it be that it is this hellbent resolve that has populated the distant islands of the Pacific, put men atop prodigious, cloud-covered peaks, and sent the European explorer sailing along an arc of endless ocean?

This wasn’t me. I had parents and friends that I could rely on. I even brought my credit card just in case I had to fly home. Yet, I secretly wished to have my name mentioned amongst adventurers like Shakleton and Cook, Hilary and Heyerdahl. I wished to cease my muddling around in this world and dedicate my life to some high purpose or goal that would give it clear meaning.

But I couldn’t. My ties to family also functioned as chains. Not willing to sever these ties and crush the hearts of those who raised and love me, I will forever remain bound by my social obligations.

The true adventurer is a paradox. He is self-centered, yet sacrificial. Living for others is eclipsed by his need to live for himself, yet his very life comes secondary to the fulfillment of his dream.

Sometimes when I’m in one of my more solemn tempers—when I dream of grandeur—I still fantasize about cutting myself off from everything and everyone, making one final and grand gesture to assert my absolute independence from the ties that bind.

But alas, I never do.

Riding with Dennis—a trucker—was no adventure. It was a calm two-day drive through some evermore glorious Canadian scenery. On the Cassiar Highway I glazed over grey peaks and spotted nearly 20 black bears.

Dennis was a big, lumbering, plain-faced man who you might find at the local Tim Hortons with a donut and coffee in hand at a table reading the paper. Most of the ride was spent in silence, listening to NPR on the radio, and occasionally talking about family. We stopped for coffee and soup.

On the Yellowhead Highway heading to Prince George, also nicknamed the “Highway of Tears,” a number of female hitchhikers have been abducted, raped, and killed. At coffee shops along the way, stickers on registers warned girls about the risks of hitchhiking. This was the dark side of hitchhiking and, unfortunately, stories like these attach a stigma to what should be a more practiced art of travel.

Dennis had a simple, fatherly demeanor. He wouldn’t reveal intimate details about his wife or her pubic hair and I didn’t think to ask or wish to know. He was quiet and reserved, and that was fine by me.

Dennis got drowsy an hour from his home in Prince George, so he pulled over and I set up camp next to his truck for the night. In the morning, I’d buy him breakfast, and we’d part ways.

While my day with Dennis doesn’t merit so much discussion on adventure, I was still undoubtedly on one. Ahead of me was the border of two great nations, my worrisome girlfriend in Oregon, and rides with people I wouldn’t dare associate with in ordinary life.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


I have ants in my van.

Of all the potential disasters that could have befallen me vandwelling, having ants was one thing I never considered.

I woke up the other day to see them crawling in my food storage drawers. At first I saw just a couple. But then, on closer inspection, I could see hundreds of them scrounging in my trail mix bag and in other drawers too.

How did they even get in here? Hell, the van is a foot and a half off the ground.

They weren’t those big shiny-shelled carpenter ants. No, these ones were tiny and easily squishable. I probably thumbed 100 of them to death before fleeing the van with all infected food in hand. I carried my five-pounds of trail mix by the very corner of the ziplock bag, held as far away from my body as I could, as if it was a rag that someone with polio just wiped themselves with.

I’m usually not too squeamish with bugs. In Alaska, I didn’t bother removing the many mosquitoes that would often kamikaze into my oatmeal. And on other occasions in the outdoors I’ve had little issue eating food that had been infiltrated by retinues of ants.

But sleeping with them was another matter entirely. I imagined them spelunking into my orifices at night like cave-divers or that legions of them would haul my beloved cereal boxes away while I was at class.

To remedy the situation, I moved my parking spot two spots down (so their scent trail would be disrupted), and started hanging bags of food from my ceiling to make it really hard on them.