The Mantra of Motion
Turtle Island Pt.1: June thru September
SEPT. 2004 • TEXT & PHOTOS BY AUSTIN R. PICK
The land unfurls amidst feathered vapors of paveway heat and pluming exhalations of exhaust, spilling out around me like two great sweeping manta wings set aflutter and thumbing the horizon in a chromatic flip-book of cloud cartoons, time-lapse tracers captioned with distant whispers of thought, all peeling away from the fluid concrete axis of the highway's spine, a long thread bespeckled with brains encased inside two-ton molecular lozenges, hurling themselves ever forward on spindles of smog and the static of radio waves, burning through farmland and forest to close the synapses between cities, always flying...
In much of the country the roads often run straight with an almost bewitching precision, splitting the landscape into equal portions that go flapping by in great syncopated waves. Driving alone, the mantra of motion flosses my senses, unrolling inner pathways — and was it all I really needed, to go the road? So much old dust left behind, mere phantoms. For the rest, housekeeping. Spin the shiney, throw the shroud, cough out the bats from your belfry, get some highway under you...
My grand van hums sweetly, and has become very cozy too, an absurd american turtle-shell to float me around our wide island. Outfitted now, it serves as a mobile meditation cave and campsite crash pad, a van mansion, the vansion. And here, my friends, is a brief account of recent miles—
I was looking for Silvia. "I came here to drown," she says, sitting by the lake. My heart sinks. But she is sitting with her pad and pencil, here by the lake. She came here "to draw." She came here to draw. It's understandable, with the fractured English she speaks, with language. Silvia is Italian, and she says English-speakers sound like we've got a potato in our mouths when we talk, but she likes me just the same, and I've been a little lonesome now that she's gone back there, to Italy. And wondering what I meant by going the road alone, living in a van down by wherever.
I met some folks in the backcountry, while trekking along the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore trail, who asked if I was becoming like Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway, if I was intimate with a volleyball or anything. I'd been out for about a month in various places, always newly-familiar places, pack to back and gone apeeking under the skirt-tails of forest forever receding from all these miles of highway I've driven, a solitude sojourn, less strange but also less sparkling than I'd imagined, and yet so fertile, so full.
Gone apeeking around the edges of conventional mind, seeking to get a feel for the scope and dimension of this thing that defines all things in this world of which we are all our own center, pausing to step outside the streaming currents of continual distraction, to go sit me somewhere with none but the unavoidable worries of maybe rain or animals interested in my food, and find some space to settle and watch the movements of mind among the natural cycles of cloud and water wearing mountains down to grit and up again, and that's just it, I guess I've just been looking for a better look.
"Gets kinda lonely out here by yourself, don't it?" Someone asked. "Yes," I said, matter-of-factly. But it is only an acknowledgement of the underlying. The old sailor understood, better than the hippies in Duluth. We got caught under a pavilion in sudden rain on the shores of Lake Superior, and talked about the perspectives from our particular vantage points, from the land and the lake, from age and from youth — he told me about Berkeley in '67, I told him what I knew about Seattle in '99 and Miami in '03, and what do we do? "Look," he said, "we do what we're doing right now. We meet people, we talk openly, we share, we keep looking. You're driving and walking, I'm sailing with my dog. We carry on just fine."
And so it's been, carrying on and being carried... At the start of summer, starting this journey at last, I left the valleys of Virginia and drove north to Minnesota, where I'd taken a job as a cook for Concordia Language Villages, a unique network of immersion-learning summer camps staffed primarily by native speakers of the dozen or so languages the program offers. I'd worked for Concordia before, and was looking forward to another relaxed summer in the North Woods. I'd just settled in when, two weeks after starting, I was abruptly fired, for reasons that apparently amounted to a 'personality conflict' with the head cook I was working under. I was eventually rehired to work at another of Concordia's camps, but not before a difficult period of anxious drifting while I waited to hear back about the job.
It was an awkward and uncertain time. I had little money left after buying the van, and needed to work the summer in order to continue traveling. In a sense everything hinged on that, and was now hanging ajar. I wandered the region, questioning the soundness of this supposed "plan" of mine, which was to travel America for an entire year, deliberately extending myself into the world without a real plan at all, following instead the spontaneous and intuitive stirrings within, trusting in the way of the world to open up and guide me along inner pathways of wisdom and heart. I'd taken a leap of faith, and already felt that I was falling. At the same time I had the somewhat disconcerting sense that I'd maybe gotten exactly what I'd asked for, after all.
This precarious time revealed the real tenuousness of my so-called trust in the way of the world, and I resolved, with an almost obstinate willfulness, to renew my intention and strengthen my faith in the odd plottedness of things. I kept moving, visiting an enclave of Tibetan monks in Minneapolis, carousing for a weekend with friends from the camp where I'd been fired, journeying downriver to the lovely town of Winona, and eventually backtracking to Chicago, where I stayed with a friend from college while assessing my options and considering a job search. And then, after weeks of anxious limbo, I got a call confirming that I was scheduled to the work the second half of the summer at Concordia's Italian language camp. With several weeks more to spare before starting work again, I returned to Minnesota to serve on a Vipassana meditation course being held at a retreat center south of the Twin Cities.
I showed up at the retreat center just before the course started, and my arrival was fortuitous because there were no other men on hand to serve, and my help was desperately needed. From that moment the full form of the summer began to emerge, and it became clear that having been dismissed from my job merely made possible the challenging and diverse experiences that followed. I had no doubt, sitting in silent meditation while serving the course, that I was where I "needed" to be, aligned with a wider design. The world unfolds for us in surprising and unexpected ways, and what we need isn't always what we want or believe we deserve. Though instability may still shake me, I do not think I will ever be quite so unsettled by sudden shifts or supposed setbacks again. This is the mantra of motion, to keep moving amidst all flux and flow...
The Vipassana course was attended by a young Vietnamese monk from a nearby temple. Because monks live by strict precepts, his meals had to be specially prepared, and as the only male server it was my responsibility to attend to him throughout the ten days. I was honored to serve this devoted young man, and began to feel a special bond with him, an admixture of admiration and affection. He was warm yet rather reserved when we spoke after the course ended, and when he invited me to visit his temple, I simply interpreted the gesture as an act of politeness. While helping prepare for the next course, however, I met a Vietnamese woman from the area who repeatedly urged me to go and visit. When she provided directions, I was only a little surprised to learn that the temple was directly on my route north.
On the way I stopped briefly to explore the Mall of America, our nation's largest shopping center and a temple of different kind, a cavernous cultural caricature where retail passes for recreation and a theme park serves as decoration. Despite its self-important sense of spectacle, the Mall is about as under-stimulating as any other, and felt to me like one long movie theater lobby, where everyone wanders around waiting for a show that never starts. I made one rotation around the complex, scribbled some anti-consumerist slogans in bathroom stalls, and hit the road.
Situated north of Minneapolis in the suburb of Blaine, the Buddhist temple isn't merely a place of practice, but also serves as a community center for the local Vietnamese population. I happened to arrive on the weekend, and discovered my monk friend busy playing games with a group of children. I'd imagined a short visit, but soon found myself equally absorbed in the activities of the temple. Apparently its rare for Westerners to visit the place, and the gracious community of gathered families welcomed me with genuine enthusiasm and warmth, almost as if I'd been expected.
I was soon introduced to the temple's Head Master, a small and aged old monk with the bearing of a wizened turtle. Someone attempted to translate for us, but for the most part we just stood there grinning at each other, as if confirming some implicit understanding. He was radiantly good-natured and keenly perceptive, smiling through eyes that glinted with a hint of playful mischief. When it was conveyed to him that I was traveling, he immediately insisted that I stay and spend the night. I had no reason to refuse, and so relaxed into the rhythm of the day, playing chess and basketball with the boys, walking in the gardens, meditating during the prayer service, and enjoying an evening meal of Vietnamese noodles with the two monks. Steeped in such infectious friendliness, it was remarkable day.
And, as it turned out, an eventful night. I was given one of several spare beds in the room where the Head Master also slept, and awoke in the morning with fleeting, residual impressions of vivid dreams. It was difficult to recall much more than the overall mood, but I lay awake for a while trying, and distinctly remembered a scene in which the Head Master had entered a room where I was sitting. The moment was memorable because, to my dreaming mind, it seemed that he had entered not just the room, but the dream itself. As I prepared to get up, the Head Master, already awake, beamed from across the room and greeted me in English. "Good dreams?" he asked, his gentle eyes alight with their peculiar twinkle. Stunned, I nodded dumbly and grinned back, holding his gaze for a moment before he casually turned to make his bed.
In retrospect I probably should have had my young monk friend explain exactly what had transpired. At the time, however, the moment felt so complete and self-evident that to ask about it's meaning seemed unnecessary, even inappropriate. Apparently the aged Master had intentionally appeared in my dreams, yet the exchange felt as commonplace as if he'd simply lent me a book to read. And in retrospect I wonder if I should have just dropped everything and stayed at that temple to learn all I could, but perhaps my memories have been glossed with the same charmed morning light I awoke to. After a casual breakfast with the young monk I drove north to awaiting employment, but not before the temple's members loaded me up with a grocery bag full of bagels and fruit. Their kindness, so open and unreserved, made the uncertain days of my journey's start seem like a nothing more than that brief key-turn stutter before the van's engine catches and comes roaring to life.
Working once again, I settled into the cloistered life of Concordia's Italian language summer camp, where I achieved modest fame with a fellow cook from Chicago. Together we became known to campers and staff as Mario and Luigi, a distinction that only encouraged our mutual predisposition for antics and goofy dancing. On our off time we explored the North Woods, following deer trails, stealing canoes and holding strange séances in the camp's cabin sauna. At night I drifted under starlight with Silvia, an Italian counselor, and after the program ended we escaped for a brief reverie in Itasca State Park, camping in the van and exploring the humble headwaters of great Mississippi River, which begins as an inconspicuous creek, uncoiling itself from the northern end of the idyllic Lake Itasca.
Minnesota may seem an unlikely place for adventures, yet there I was at summer's end with a surprising storybook full. I parted ways with Silvia and passed briefly through Duluth, where I met a group of young hippies who took me in for the night. From there, traveling alone, I headed east across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and then on into Canada, stopping several times to strike out on multi-day backcountry quests. The van was well provisioned, and I experienced a feeling of sparkling self-reliance and giddy independence whenever I would fling open the doors, load my pack and just wander into the wilderness, good to go and gone apeeking behind the tangled foliage of my wild mind, seeking the freedom that resides within our secret inner stillness, around which everything spins...
It was rarely so simple as that, though, and there were a lot of lonely nights on the road too, when I'd be forced to settle for a rest area or empty lot to park and sleep in, or attempt to sneak in and out of some state park to avoid the fees. And it can be quite difficult to find good healthy vegetarian food out there in Anywhere, America, where trucks hog the highway lanes and Jesus-preaching saturates the airwaves. Despite the rugged beauty of the wild places I was exploring, I began to feel somewhat isolated and rootless, uncertain of my ultimate trajectory and looking again for reassurance in the illusive flickerings of intuition.
After many interesting nights sitting in the wilderness —where once a huge raccoon, sniffing me out, almost crawled into my lap— it became clear that I would again benefit from more serious meditation, and in good time my solitude kick drew to a natural close as I rounded down through southern Ontario and docked the vansion at the Toronto-area Vipassana Meditation Centre, where I'd arranged to volunteer and serve a course. I found myself amidst an unlikely collective — unlikely that such a diverse group would be gathered together in such quirky commonality, so well suited to challenge and support one another. Surprising chance encounters, if the conventional concept of "chance" can still be said to have any meaning. I doubt it. "Coincidences" become the norm, another of the songs the highways sing...
Emaho! The road winds, wildlands North America unspooling as an endless highway-striped typewriter ribbon where the footnotes of idiosyncratic moments assemble themselves in a puzzling and strangely rhythmic series of phrases, blown through the trumpeted funnels of perception to come acrashing on the shoals of memory, sometimes strident yet always ineluctably ordered, if we read it right... Amazing adventures and Mighty Insightful so far. To my surprise I've just gotten word that Adbusters Magazine will be publishing a short story of mine in an upcoming issue, and this latest windfall is Mighty Encouraging, for sure...
Many blessings, friends! Stay Well, Stay Wide—
First distributed via email in September 2004. Later revised and expanded for FudoMouth.net.
Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.
Do not imagine that the journey is short; and one must have the heart of a lion to follow this unusual road, for it is very long ... One plods along in a state of amazement, sometimes smiling, sometimes weeping. —Farid ud-Din Attar