Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Lost Wages, Gained Perspective

Been gone on the weeklong, family road-trip vacation. I’m going to make some observations, omitting of course, those pleasantries that accompany most road trips. Things like the proliferation of white plastic shopping bags that accumulate everything from wet bathing suits to half-empty packages of broken cookies, which, after 4 days on the road, make one’s vehicle testament to the reality that you are indeed living out of your car.
I don’t like Las Vegas. I’m too cheap to pay a valet, so it’s hiking through the casino, bags in hand, feeling like a hillbilly; Ellis Island with shiny lights and air conditioning. The smell of stale cigarettes. Hangdog expressions of boredom on what must be ‘regulars’. The sidewalks with their mottled, sun-baked stains of desiccated fluids of unknown origin. The weirdness that is Fremont Street – both attractive and repulsing at the same time, ala Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena on New Year’s Eve.
My favorite Vegas experience this time – I’m up with Emma at 7:45 in the morning. We’ve already had breakfast, and I’ve pushed her stroller through the restaurant and arcade levels. I’m doing a slow circle around the casino floor when I spy a BMW convertible rotating slowly above some slot machines. I amble over and, with nothing better to do, am inspecting the rear disc brakes, grillwork, and suspension as they roll by, when I hear a voice: "You know, it’s not the fall that hurts, it’s the sudden stop at the end that gets you." I turn, startled, to see a fine member of the casino’s security force. "If a member of the Nevada gaming commission were here, you could be fined up to $500 – you can move through the casino, but you can’t stop." Thank you, very much. I’ve had a vision of standing in front of a judge, prosecutor explaining my intention to corrupt a 6-year old in diapers into a gaming prodigy. Before 8 in the morning. By someone who remembers every one of the 17 nickels he’s ever put in a slot machine. I’d ask for a jury trial, and 13 boxes of tissues – for the tears of laughter that would soon result. Book em, Dan-O! The poor guy was right, so I ambled on without external comment. He probably hates his job, too.
Changing gears, climates, and viewpoints, what is it that draws us to places like Bryce and Zion canyons? It’s easy to understand the science; The US Park Service does a wonderful job of explaining that with their maps, visitor centers, and programs. To say that Bryce Canyon is a place to see the process of erosion is akin to remarking that Michaelangelo knew how to paint ceilings. It was easier to point out, a little later, to Sam – after demanding that he shut off the Gamecube and look out the car window – that this was truly a unique place, by the fact that English-speaking Americans were in the minority at both locations. These are truly global treasures.

In these places, we can see the forces that we’ve gotten so good at manipulating, but not controlling, and we wonder at the cycle of upheaval and wearing down, as well as the beauty of how our earth is constructed. If you’ve been to places like the Grand Canyon, or Canyon de Chelle, you can appreciate how they appear in the midst of plain earth, almost wound-like. To this battered mind (and I mean the deep-fried, not beaten variety), it’s what makes these places spiritual – the confluence of life-giving water, wind, and fertile ground in the middle of desolation; stark colors and human-figured hoodoos rising from cool canyon floors. And the views. There are poets unlike myself to give verse to landscapes that reach multiples of miles, clouds displaying lightning and thunder, the smell of rain far away. Call it a sense of place, a sense of awe, the lack of oxygen at high altitude. A temporary change of perspective, clearing the senses, then back in the car to Elmo on the portable DVD and pizza for dinner.
Everything I’ve come to expect from the family vacation.