Monday, September 26, 2011

Home time

Greetings from home base, the DeKalb Public Library. I keep meaning to get my laptop modem fixed so I can have full-sized keyboard Internet access on the road, but it slips my mind until it's too late.

I had a great time during this home visit. I attended my 20th high school reunion Saturday, a picnic in the afternoon and drinks, etc. at a bar in the evening. It feels strange for a guy who was such a dork in high school to enjoy lively and interesting conversations with many classmates at the reunion. Time has made us all more approachable, I guess. And more than one person told me they remembered me as being a quiet person. Really? That is so far removed from how people might describe me today, though I still have that fly on the wall mentality and am more comfortable observing than being right in the thick of things.

A loved one in my extended family is dying right now, and this knowledge hung over the weekend's activities, that and the reunion being fateful reminders of one's mortality. This after a summer where two classmates, a respected instructor (and former drum major) from drum and bugle corps died, and I found out about the death of a guy I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail with in 2004. He left behind a wife and young child. 2011 is the "Year of Mortality," where, in spite of having no personal death scares of my own, immediate family has, and more than ever I've been reminded of my short time here on this planet.

Which is why I felt it important to make the time to attend my high school reunion. The people I saw are mostly Facebook friends and not a part of my everyday existence. But... they are a part of my history, a reminder of who I was and who I am. I could never be one of those people who completely abandons his past. I'm too much of a sentimental spirit. Most of my good friends I've had for 10 years or more and they are friends for life. So, if we've ever been friends, sooner or later I'll be back in touch, just to catch up, see how you're doing. You're forever a part of me.

And speaking of time, it's about up here at the library. Gotta go. Keep on trucking'!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A study in contrasts: Revisiting Tucson

Greetings from the downtown Tucson public library. This place reminds me of recent comments by Jimmy Kimmel about the Republican candidate presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA. Kimmel said, and I'm paraphrasing, that it was nice to see a library used for something other than homeless people on the Internet and using the bathroom sink to wash their feet.

This is the Tucson library, where there is a palpable funk in the air here at the Internet stations. It seems every grunged out meth head and desert rat has shown up to get online. I am not a germ freak, but am conscientiously refraining from touching my face while typing and am heading straight for the Purel station or washroom when this session is over with.

I am enjoying my time in Tucson. My truck broke down right outside of town Thursday afternoon. It wouldn't go faster than 45 MPH. I was at least able to drive it to a Freightliner mechanic about 10 miles away. I'm not making much money (about $50 a day breakdown pay), but my company is putting me up in a hotel and I should be rolling again Monday.

In the meantime, I get to poke around Tucson, a place I've visited twice before, in 2006 and 2007. I spent the morning walking the Presidio Trail, along the way stopping to see the opening of a rock photography exhibit at the Etherton Gallery and the Southern Arizona Transportation Museum. After de-grunging myself, I am heading to the University of Arizona to visit the Center for Creative Photography and the ars Bohemia of the 4th Avenue district. Around dusk I will hike out of downtown to the top of Sentinel Peak, the "A" mountain, just off of downtown.

Why this itinerary? Because everything is free. The only money I've spent today is on a $3.50 day pass for the bus system, which means I can ride any route anywhere in the city until midnight.

This visit to Tucson reminds of how different a state of mind I am in now than the first time I visited here. It makes me feel good to recognize all the positive improvements in my life from now to then, but also reminds me of what a low place I was when I first came here. The last time I was here, December 2006, I was hiking the Arizona Trail, on a winter break from graduate studies at Northern Illinois University. I was going through a divorce and feeling stressed out from the pressures of my studies. It was winter. And I was depressed. Very depressed. I came to the desert to try and escape this depression, but the black cloud followed me out here and only intensified in isolation.

Now there is still a loneliness. It would be nice to have someone to share the day with. But I'm not depressed. Tucson is a tough town. I've never seen so many derelicts. And it's a typical spread out strip mall megalopolis, made worse by the knowledge that this desert environment could never naturally support such a population. It's an unsustainable situation seemingly filled with lost souls unable to sustain themselves. It was a perfect place for me to come in my depression.

This visit I see it in a different light, focusing on the pinnacles of beauty it has to offer, its art and culture. I won't end up in a lesbian dive bar pouring my woes out to a kind couple who listened to me and gave me a hug when I needed it most. That's a story for another time. Heck, I may go back in there for nostalgia's sake when I'm back on 4th Ave. But there will be no tears this time.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Richness

Greetings from the Rio Rico, AZ public library. This small town is just a few minutes north of Nogales, AZ, off of I-19. This is border country and most people speak Spanish or are bilingual.

Today is my day off from truck driving. I am only allowed, by federal law, to be on duty 70 hours in an eight day period. My onboard computer in the truck keeps track of all this, and when I near that 70-hour threshold, I need to take a 34-hour break where I don't drive the truck. Right now Mary (Short for Maraschino. Get it? My truck is red.) is parked at a Pilot truck stop about four miles from here.

It has been a good week for me. I went back on duty a week ago, Aug. 30, after a wonderful three day visit home, where I spent as much time with family as I could, renewed my teaching certificate, and saw other friends. The only thing I didn't do was see any live music at Cornfest. But I did run a 10K race, driving the truck to the race site near the old DeKalb High School, right when I got back into town.

During this past week on the road, I carried a load of auto parts to Chester, NY, and then got the longest trip so far, a wdelivery of 18,000 pounds of perfume from New Jersey all the way to Nogales, over 2,400 miles. This is the type of delivery truckers salivate over. The longer the trip, the more miles, the more money. This load is also the first hazardous materials load I've ever carried. And en route, I went through and passed my first Department of Transportation inspection. The inspector checked everything, including my logs, medical card, bill of lading, truck registration, lights, emergency air warning system, etc. It took about 45 minutes, but I wasn't too nervous. It helps that I did a pre-trip inspection, as I do every morning, to keep the inspection jitters at bay.

And it was a fun drive. Some highlights include driving down I-81 the length of Virginia and passing by Appalachian Trail towns and other landmarks along the way. It is fitting that it rained most of that day, as most of my memories hiking that trail involved rain. But it was strange to cover terrain in a day that it took over six weeks to hike. The previous day I crossed under the AT on I-87 in New York as it traversed the highway on Arden Valley Road. And the day before that, I passed by a segment of the North Country Trail on US20 in Ohio. I must have a real eye for trail signs because this section of trail passed through cornfields and I noticed the small NCT marker on a carsonite post as I drove by at 55 mph. I guess it is hard to travel too far in this country without passing some long-distance trail that I've either hiked or want to hike.

Other highlights of the Nogales trip include: discovering a bald cypress swamp on an after dinner hike near Little Rock, Arkansas; seeing multiple herds of wild pigs grazing on the roadside in Texas; walking around desolate, and seemingly abandoned Lordsburg, NM, at dusk, the only signs of life at a Dollar General and a liquor store across the street; seeing the sky island mountains of Arizona at dawn, while driving through the rain, seeing rainbows and spackles of sunlight on the mountains all around; and here, now, on my break here in Nogales, and the hike I'm technically still in the midst of (as I have 5K to go to get back to the truck stop).

I set out too late this morning, 9 a.m. on a hike towards some nearby mountains. After 2 1/2 hours, the heat was withering me, and when I noticed a rapid heart beat and started feeling dizzy sensations, I found the first shady spot, a tree at the end of someone's driveway, and took a break. In my fatigue I was overcome by reverie -- oh, the silence, no truck engines, no whizzing traffic; and the scenery, blessed desert mountains, huge vultures soaring overhead, riding the thermals, wishing for my demise. And the orange I brought with me was exquisite sustenance. The relish I felt for it reminded me of that scene in the movie, "Into The Wild," when Chris McCandless eats an apple and says, "You are the world's best apple!" I felt that joy, that similar feeling of near-euphoria over something so simple as a piece of fruit. And then a wave of nostalgia hit me. The silence, fatigue, the smell of salt and sweat mixed with sunscreen, little lizards running and chirping afoot -- this is just like a thru-hike experience. This is why I loved that life.

And this is why I love the trucking life so far. It has many of the same elements of thru-hiking, albeit with many marked differences, the least of which is constantly seeing the industrial underbelly of America as opposed to the scant few areas left relatively unmarred by the March of Progress. But the similarities include waking up in a new place every day, yet with the same immediate surroundings (hiking: a tent, trucking: sleeper berth), never really knowing where you'll end up, constantly seeing new and varied terrain, and having time each day to be in your own mind. Most people can't handle that. They need to clutter their existence with external stimuli. And I'm not too different. I read books and listen to music and watch videos on my phone. But I have the wonderful gift of having hours each day where, yes, my mind is engaged keeping safe while driving, but my imagination and thought life gets to wander to wherever it wants to go. This is a luxury so rarely afforded in the other distracted life.

And to top it off, I get paid to be a vagabond. There is no social stigma attached to what I do. I have wonderful support from home. Everybody is encouraging what I do. And it's a responsible activity. The lingering doubts I had while long-distance hiking about shirking necessary duties are absent here. I have a job. A J-O-B job. Unless you've been out of work at the edge of destitution for two years, as I have, then you have no idea the blessed relief I have at having a job. Who cares that it's not teaching? Heck, it pays more than teaching. I have no doubt I'll be instructing young minds again in the not-too-distant future. But right now I have a job, and it's kind of a cool job, the kind of job that lets me go on wandering hikes on off days and see parts of the country that I've never seen before.

It's almost as good as that orange. Almost.