Yearend letter 2014

Sometime early this year I came across a couple of quotes, probably at the bottom of somebody’s email: “Nothing ever happens until you leave home.” “The difference between a dream and a goal is a date.” Those two notions stewed in my head until I picked a date and left home and went to Scotland, a place I last visited in 1973.

I was seventeen then, the lucky recipient of a high school graduation gift from my parents – a six week trip to Europe with the American Institute for Foreign Study. We spent three weeks at the University of Aberdeen, taking classes, going on field trips, and eating fish and chips sprinkled with salt and vinegar and wrapped in newspaper by knuckled old hands contorted with arthritis. There were about 200 kids from schools all over the US, which made it a cross-cultural trip in more than one way, this being my first exposure to soft-drawled girls from the Deep South, including one named Letitia who taught me one or two lessons, but not the kind I was hoping for.

One afternoon Jim Conroy, our robust and ruddy-faced field trip leader, took a bunch of us kids on a field trip by bus somewhere up the coast to gawk at puffins and kittewakes, and at some point on the long ride back to Aberdeen he realized that he hadn’t done a head count and yes, had left one or two of us behind, and the bus driver, who was probably thinking about getting home to a good Scottish dinner of neeps and tatties and maybe some blood puddin’, had to turn that bus around and drive back up across miles and miles of rolling brown and olive drab heather moor, and we picked up our missing people and Jim Conroy reached into the pockets of his tweed britches and pulled out a giant fistful of good hard British currency, pounds and pounds in both weight and value, and shoved it into that bus driver’s hands without once looking to see how much of his own money he was giving away to make amends.

But when I returned this year, my friend Becs, raised in the Highlands, warned me that you mustn’t offer money to a Scot who has done you a favor, no matter how big, because that would be seen as an insult, the notion being that the favor was just to be expected, and you would do the same for them, wouldn’t you? Well, I said, thanks for the advice, Becs, and went off on another one of my ridiculous longish hikes through the rumpled and boggy Highlands, and about one week into that hike I did someone a pretty big favor when I was greeted by name by an utter stranger and drafted to help with what turned into a helicopter rescue of a hypothermic, overweight and underprepared English (aka foreign) accountant who’d taken a bath in a storm-swollen Scottish burn, and just about ruined my knees and got hypothermia myself in the process, and sure enough nobody tried to give me any money for my trouble, which I nearly had more of when at the end of the hike I had to cross an honest-to-God bombing range to get to the Cape Wrath lighthouse that looks out at the Arctic Circle.

It wasn’t until after I took a bus and a boat and a bus back to Tom and Becs’s place that I realized I had left my raincoat somewhere behind. A raincoat, you might have heard, is not an optional article of clothing in the British Isles, and after lots of head scratching I figured I’d left it at the Smoo Cave Hotel, where I’d eaten fish and chips and drunk beer brewed in the Orkney Islands to celebrate my survival crossing the bombing range. And those folks at the Smoo Cave Hotel put my jacket on the bus with a driver who delivered it to me on a street corner in Dingwall, where, forgetting Becs’s advice but remembering Jim Conroy’s act 41 years earlier, I tried to tip the driver. He would have none of it, but he didn’t seem insulted either. Maybe he wasn’t Scottish.

We left the British Isles, back in ‘73, and flew to Venice, where we boarded a large, leaky cruise ship staffed by young Greek sailors who were soon enjoying a cross-cultural experience with the one hundred or so American girls on board, which prompted Letitia’s boyfriend back home, a Tennessee gentleman of some means, to haul himself to Europe to stake out his territory.

At the farthest reach of that trip, we visited Israel. I remember reaching down and out the bus window to buy my first-ever fresh fig from a little Palestinian boy. A group of 20 or 30 of us, including some crafty New York City girls, went on a walking tour through one of those narrow, crooked 1000-year old streets crowded with shops and food vendors, and our guide, ruddy-faced and robust, who told us his name was Moses, which could have really been his name but was more likely a tag he laughed about later over a beer with his friends, he appointed me the sweep, and I was to come get him if we lost any of our group in the confusion of it all.

And sure enough, a couple of those crafty girls from New York disappeared into a deep and dark shop with hand-made textiles and ceramics and brass trinkets and every other manner of artifact designed to catch the eye. I cautiously poked my head inside that cavern and saw the two girls trapped in a sort of military engagement, so I ducked back out and shouldered through the crowd of criss-crossing locals with their arms full of produce and found Moses and told him we had a little problem, so he strode back to that store, parting the sea of humanity with me following in his wake, and I watched him negotiate with the storeowner for the release of our captives. The merchant claimed, of course, that the girls had been shoplifting, and maybe they had been and maybe they hadn’t, and maybe the merchant was crafty too, I’ll never know, and Moses didn’t know, or maybe he did, but at any rate he reached into his robe, and he pulled out a pile of shekels to satisfy that merchant. Later, at a shop in safer territory, Moses invited me to pick out anything I wanted as a thank you for my tour of duty, and I settled on a little hammered copper plate, which still collects my pocket change each day when I return home from the utterly safe streets of Enterprise.

After getting my raincoat back, I flew not to Venice but to Chamonix, France, a tony little mountain town that sits 12,382 feet below Mont Blanc. You can ride a crazy cable car up to a restaurant that sits on a giant spike of black rock called the Aiguille du Midi, and from there climb to the summit 3,000 feet above. Some people, including a French trail runner I met who thought I was from Great Britain, may snub the mere hills of Scotland, but there are 282 of them, called “Munros,” over 3,000 feet above sea level, which is just about where you have got to start from to climb most of them, and that without use of a cable car. Lots of Scots have climbed them all, including the fellow who roped me into helping out with that helicopter rescue, and that is probably a far sight harder than climbing Mont Blanc once from the Aiguille du Midi, although probably equally pointless, especially considering that half the time you can’t see two feet from the top of one of those Munros, what with the weather coming in off the North Atlantic all the time.

I went to Chamonix because I had a friend there who is a hot shot mountain guide and speaks French a hell of a lot better than me. We walked the Tour de Mont Blanc, circling the mountain, stopping at gites, auberges, and refugios – places with a roof and a bunkroom and afternoon wine or beer and family-style dinners and something that the Continentals call breakfast but the Scots surely scoff at, and in the course of that week-long jaunt we passed through corners of Italy and Switzerland. I left my good wool shirt at the refugio in Italy where I thought I had become part of the caretaker’s family, but they never did respond to my email about the shirt, although they did thank me for the picture I sent them. Those Italians.

So I bought a new shirt and rode trains across southern France, stopping to look at castles and play petanque and drink aperitifs at outdoor cafes and watch girls in dresses riding bicycles with baguettes and bouquets tucked in their baskets, and got to the small town of Hendaye on the Atlantic coast.

I had it in my head to go on one more ridiculous long walk, this time along the spine of the Pyrenees, to end at the Costa Brava with its hillsides terraced with Roman vineyards and its beaches facing Asia across the Mediterranean Sea. I walked down to the beach, skinny dipped in the Atlantic Ocean because the locals were, and started walking up into the Basque Country. This was no remote wilderness venture, because western Europe basically has no wilderness, although there is some rugged country to be sure. There were trail runners in tight and gaudy spandex and Spanish families with men wearing white-framed sunglasses and smelling of cologne, and cows and horses and sheep, also smelling and every single one of them wearing a bell, so I sometimes had to wear earplugs in my tent. And there were gites or refugios just about every day, but I chose to sleep in my tent, and only stopped at those mountain huts for a little bit of conversation and to eat omelettes served with bare naked pieces of good French bread.

That summer turned out to be the coldest, wettest summer in the Pyrenees since 1934. My tent was punctured by a hailstone the size of a golf ball. A good Scot would probably say, “Och, it’s just a wee thing,” and would pick up that hailstone and play nine holes right then and there. But I’m no Scot, and sometimes all that kept me going was the prospect of seeing Homer’s sun, “leaving the waters of the splendid East, leap up into the firmament to bring light to the immortals and to men who plough the earth and perish.”

Which I did – see the sun leap up, that is, over the warm waters of the Mediterranean – from the summit of Canigou, where I met a band of grubby itinerant grape pickers, four men and a woman, who had a few days off on account of the unusually wet and cold weather, and on account of increasing automation, which you cannot blame on climate change. They climbed the mountain in sandals and ragged sneakers, and carried a puppy and not enough clothes. The woman, a blue-eyed Lithuanian, pulled out a cow’s horn and blew three long loud notes that echoed off the Crete de Barbet, jagged and dark in shadow. She sang songs and sounded a tuning fork in the sunrise.

Later, we lunched together on the patio outside the gite below, where the puppy chewed on my shoeless feet and Matias, bare-chested, missing teeth, with hair on its way to dreads, carved a wedge of Camembert with a giant wooden-handled Choix Opinel folding knife. While we talked politics, he waved the knife around to make a point, and I said, in my best French, “Jamais disputez avec un homme avec un grande couteau.” Never argue with a man with a big knife.

Seven weeks after skinny dipping in the Atlantic, I walked into the Mediterranean Sea wearing shorts, because the locals were. Except you don’t necessarily always want to do what the locals do. While our group of kids was waiting in some whitewashed, sundrenched coastal town for our leaking cruise ship crawling with horny Greek sailors, a couple of us boys jumped off a 50 or 100 foot cliff into the Mediterranean Sea because we’d seen the local boys doing it. Only after we jumped, the local boys upped the ante by climbing onto the flat roof of a blockhouse that sat back about 10 feet from the edge of the cliff. They would run off the roof, clear the edge of the cliff, and arc into the sea. I could recognize a home court advantage when I saw it, so I folded my hand and lived to jump into the Mediterranean another day.

I walked down the coast into Spain, from one little tourist town to the next, until I got on a bus and then a train and, after a few detours, ended up in Barcelona, where I stood in line with the throngs to walk inside the Sagrada Familia, a ridiculous perpetually unfinished tribute to Spanish architectural monumentalism, masquerading as a tribute to God, complete with piped-in Holy Music. Walking back to my apartment past cafes with people drinking endless cups of coffee and smoking endless chains of cigarettes, I stumbled on a merely large cathedral. It seemed like a country cottage. I stepped into the dark and cool interior, which took me back to Venice in 1973, where, walking back to our hotel very late one night, the streets dark, the canals quiet and lapping, our small group of teenagers from the land of purple mountain majesties and amber fields of grain saw a little church. We snuck inside the darkened temple, and listened in silence to the sound of one old man playing Vivaldi on his violin.

* * * * *

Six years after that first trip to Europe, while living in Portland, Oregon, I learned that my girlfriend’s coworker’s wife had once dated Jim Conroy. Four years ago, in my dining room, I watched Becs meet a Wallowa County friend and discover that, 50 years ago in Scotland, his dad and her mom had dated. This spring, I took in a housemate who, it turns out, had once worked at a ski area with my friend in Chamonix. I guess it really is a small world, which makes me get half a notion to go back to Europe, and not let 41 years go by this time. Who knows who I might meet.

Well, I don’t have room to tell you how that fellow in the Highlands knew who I was, or what happened at the pub with the six-and-a-half foot tall Belgian, or about other well-meaning but ill-considered favors I have gotten mixed up in, like borrowing a chainsaw, without asking, from a hunting camp festooned with bottles of Jack Daniels and Wild Turkey, in order to help out a hapless Portland (aka foreign) fellow who’d gotten his truck high-centered on some lodgepole pine saplings, and who also did not offer to pay me for my trouble, which was considerable especially when I went to return the chainsaw, and which offer I would not have refused. These stories will have to wait until I have time to get around to them, which, according to the same logic that assures me I have money in my bank account as long as I have checks in the checkbook, should make me immortal.

Only I know I’m not, now that some of the hairs on my chest are starting to turn white, and neither is Moses, or was Moses, because that was in 1973, remember, and Moses was in fighting trim, and I sometimes wonder whether he got called up later that summer when yet another war between the factions in the Holy Land broke out. And we’re all still fighting, so I call it a win when I remember to be kind to the person sitting next to me.

Happy Holidays and Peace on Earth

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