Hummingbird Sees A Sign
In retrospect, it seems like it must have been a fork in the road… a turning point… a transformative experience. But now, 25 years later, I can’t really remember the specific emotions or actual details of the experience. I try to shake my head to loosen the cobwebs. I take a couple hits off a joint to blast open the rusted shut filing cabinets of my brain. I don’t have my actual notes or my journal from that trip. There is no written record. What really happened? I don’t know. I’m not sure. The objective facts are simple and straightforward. I was a successful lawyer with a promising career ahead of me. I took a year off to travel. At the end of my trip, I walked the Inca trail to Machu Picchu. Two years later, I quit the legal profession and began working with stones. Did the visit to Machu Picchu inspire the radical career change? I don’t know. That is the story I am trying to remember…
The rocky road winds its way downward from the high mountain pass to the flat plateau that is surrounded by a ring of snow-capped peaks. Even without the ruins… the stacked stones… the remnants of a creative culture that give depth and nostalgia and metaphor to the place, the plateau upon which Machu Picchu sits would still be incredible. At the high end of a long River valley, backed by snow capped peaks, it seems a place where it all begins… a sacred place. But, at the same time, it seems like the very end of the road. Beginnings meet endings in Machu Picchu and the straight line becomes a circle. I arrive now by way of the Inca trail, a long hard four day hike through the mountains. I will return by way of the train; a five hour luxury ride through a scenic canyon. Machu Picchu is the place of transition. And wow, just look at all these beautiful stones…
Honestly, did I even notice the beautiful stones? I don’t actually remember. I’m sure I noticed them in 2004 when I went back because I was a stone mason then. Of course I noticed the master craftsmanship on display at Machu Picchu then. But that is a whole other time, place and story. In 1993, I was just a frustrated lawyer, I knew nothing about stones. The incredible skilled creations probably barely registered on my conscious brain. My subconscious was, perhaps, exploding with stimuli and response dynamics but my conscious mind was so overwhelmed by the breathtaking beauty of the location that the actual stonework barely registered.
Location, location, location… The place alone is like a great wonder of the world. And the experience of hiking the Inca trail in order to arrive there is absolutely inspiring. When I got there, I raced about from stone building to stone building. I visited the temple of the Sun and the temple of the Moon. I read the inscriptions and descriptions and tried to understand what was what. I hiked to the top of Huaynu Picchu for the overview. No doubt I was impressed by everything I saw, but not overwhelmed. I certainly didn’t hear the voice of God telling me to abandon my promising career and start putting stones together instead. I can’t say for sure but I believe that I was so intoxicated by the experience of the long hike and arrival at that fantastical plateau amid the circle of mountains, that I hardly even noticed the incredible stonework.
I wasn’t even a stone guy then. I had never once handled a stone hammer or chisel or even thought about carving stones or shaping stones. Stonework was not a part of my persona so why would I focus on the stones at Machu Picchu? As a matter of fact (“truth”), now that I think about it, I was a hiking guy then rather than a stone guy. Hiking was the central theme of my character. Hiking is what I did in my free time. Hiking is what I talked about. Long before I traveled the world with a backpack, telling stories of my various adventures, I traveled the trails of the Adirondack mountains in upstate New York with a backpack. I grew up in the small town of Plattsburgh on the edge of the Adirondack State Park and used to “head for the hills” with my friends any chance I got. I also worked a few years professionally at the state capital in Albany which is just South of the Adirondacks. I used to take my camping gear and go find a trailhead in the park almost every weekend. On Monday mornings, a group of lawyers from the floor would gather in my office and listen to me tell stories about how I “almost died” in the mountains over the weekend.
Wow… the human mind is an incredible instrument. I seem to have tapped a vein and now the memories are flooding back. An unused drawer in the filing cabinet has popped open…. If I remember correctly, my year long hiatus from my professional career was planned and carried out as primarily a hiking adventure. The very first thing I did after I left my position with New York State was hike the Adirondack Trail from Northville to Lake Placid. The 131 mile trek through rough wilderness took me 11 days to walk. I didn’t almost die along the way but I caught giardia and thought I was going to die for the last two days. I remember my hiking partner joking as I dashed into the bushes for another foul eruption of my bowels, “you will never make it to Machu Picchu if you can’t even make it to Lake Placid. ha ha ha ha ha”. But I did make it to Lake Placid and I was treated for giardia and I was able to continue with my journey. I headed west in a pick-up truck and proceeded to hike my way through and around every National Park I could find. The Black Hills, the Badlands, Yellowstone, Glacier, the Grand Tetons and oh so many more. A lawyer friend accompanied me for the first month or so but I dropped him in California at his new job and I continued my exploration of North America’s national parks for several more months on my own. I did visit some cities towns and tourist attractions during my trip around the United States but mostly I just hiked and camped.
When I left my pick-up truck at a friend’s house in Houston, Texas, and traveled South into Mexico and Central America, I followed the same modus operandi. I took public transport from town to town and planned my stops around nearby national parks I could hike or camp in. I hiked to the top of a couple unpronounceable mountains near Mexico City and trekked up Mount Chirripo in Costa Rica. I found the peak of a volcano on Ometepe Island in Nicaragua and got lost in El Tigre Cloud Forest of Honduras. I went to at least one National park for a hiking or outdoor adventure in every single country I visited.
As I continued South, when I wasn’t hiking, I traveled by bus and boat and train and bicycle and horseback. Sometimes I hitch-hiked. The only time I flew in a plane was from Panama City, Panama to Caracas, Venezuela. If I was older and wiser, I would have gone overland through the Darien Gap into Columbia. But I was a novice traveler misinformed about the unreality of Latin America by the US educational and entertainment system. Pablo Escobar was an international media star, the Columbian drug wars were all over the news and the US state department issued serious warnings advising American travelers to avoid Columbia. As such, I was afraid of Columbia. My main interests were the Amazon jungle and the Andes mountains anyway so the chaos of Columbia could easily be by-passed. My intended route landed me in Caracas, Venezuela and then directly South into Brazil as far as the mouth of the Amazon River and then West up the big river all the way to Peru and then South along the spine of the Andes all the way to the bottom tip of South America in Chile.
But alas, destiny had other plans for me. I would not be able to travel up the Amazon on that particular trip and I would end up traveling through Columbia after all. Actually, I almost gave up on my journey all together because of the fiasco that befell me. Sometimes the gods play tricks to teach us humans a lesson. Bad luck can be good luck when looked back upon later. Or at least, that is what I kept trying to tell myself when I was stranded in the Venezuelan town of Santa Elena because Brazil would not let me in. Apparently, there was a diplomatic dispute between the US and Brazil. The US would not allow Brazilian citizens to get tourist visas for the US at consulates in neighboring countries (Canada and Mexico) so five days before I reached the border consulate in Santa Elena, Venezuela; Brazil decided to start applying the same rule to Americans. All other nationalities were allowed to get tourist visas at the border. But all Americans were turned away. What a crashing drag!
And of course, the really crazy thing was, I probably would have made it to the border before the tourist visa rule change if I hadn’t got stuck in a beach town outside of Caracas for two weeks because of Hugo Chavez’s first attempted revolution. How crazy is my life? I skipped the scary dangerous country of Columbia and flew directly to the safe country of Venezuela only to arrive just in time for a revolution. Actually, it wasn’t much of a people’s revolution… more like an attempted cout de tat. A group of military officers (Chavez among them) attempted to wrestle control of the government from the ruling oligarchy. There was rioting and civil unrest. The government instituted a state of emergency and transport was severely restricted. So I was, quite literally, stranded in a beach town for two weeks. But all that is another story… a long story. And I’m not going to tell it now.The story I’m telling now is about how I discovered the stones. I will leave the revolution stuff for my friend Coyote.
So there I was in Santa Elena, Venezuela and I was stopped dead in my tracks. I could no longer continue South. A glance at a map of South America showed the obvious solution. I could go around Brazil. All I had to do was head West through Columbia and then South through Ecuador and Peru. But I didn’t want to go to Columbia. I was afraid of the media image. I didn’t want to get shot or have my organs harvested… So I thought seriously about just giving up and going home. I still had enough money for several more months of travel but maybe the border closing was a sign from the universe that I should go back to Caracas and take a flight home. For that matter, I could go back to Caracas and just fly to some island beach for a couple months. I didn’t have to continue South to the bottom of the continent. That was just my crazy vague plan. I could even go back to Caracas and fly South skipping over Columbia. There was no real rational reason why I had to go through Columbia unless I insisted on going overland and not back tracking…. Maybe this journey is over. I’m not going to find what I’m looking for anyway. What am I looking for? Maybe it’s time to give up and go back home to work.
Somewhat remarkably, I remember rather clearly the very long night I spent on a guesthouse rooftop patio in Santa Elena after getting turned away at the Brazilian border. I scored a joint from a local street artisan and there was a comfortable hammock and a sky full of stars.
To be… Or not?
That is the question.
What do I want to do with my life?
Go back and succeed
At a game I know how to play
Or go forth and transform
Into something else?
Maybe change the game all together?
Who am I?
Realistically speaking, I was a lawyer, with a special aptitude for corporate law. Prior to my appointed position with the state of New York, I worked briefly for a very large corporate law firm in New York City that served primarily Wall Street. The firm I worked for had offered me a full time associate attorney position with a starting salary of $90,000 a year. Four or five other large New York corporate law firms made me similar offers when I completed my job with New York State. I rejected all the job offers because I wanted to take a year off to travel. But I was fairly certain that a similar position would be available to me when I returned. Considering the fact that I had about $40,000 in student loans, a job in corporate law was extremely tempting. Indeed, it was the smart thing to do… the rational self interest thing to do… Nevertheless, I didn’t want to do it. I had already done that. I hated it. The people who worked there were so pathetic, the atmosphere so toxic, you would have to be insane to want to work there. And besides, I no longer believed the illusion so I would have to fake it. The money may be good but the quality of life for the minions of Wall Street is comparable to Dante’s 6th circle of Hell.
But what else can I do? That was the purpose or goal of my year long journey through the national parks of North and South America. I was trying to discover what else I could do?
When I was stuck in Santa Elena, I think I was leaning towards a career in Environmental Law because I thought my passion for hiking in the great outdoors could be somehow useful or helpful in such a career. Nevertheless, my experience of the revolution in Venezuela as well as some incredibly interesting conversations I had with some Sandinistas in Nicaragua also had me thinking about social and economic justice. I also had a long time philosophical interest in criminal law with some valuable experience in that regard but I couldn’t visualize myself as a trial lawyer. Of course, Corporate Law was still in the running if only for a few years to pay back my loans. But really, I was having a very hard time imagining myself playing the part of attorney at all. All I really wanted to do was hike in the mountains and have long deep philosophical conversations with perfect strangers in bars and cafe’s. But neither of those two pastimes makes for much of a career. I had to have a profession, a job… a career. Lawyer was the obvious decision. I sort of felt like I had no choice. I was good at it. My feedback was very positive. As a matter of fact, it was mostly positive feedback from my education that led the way to my legal career in the first place.
The truth is, I never really wanted to be a lawyer at all. It was happenstance and whimsy. In undergraduate I majored in literature and philosophy. I wanted to write books. My grades were exceptionally high and my professors liked me. Several professors I greatly respected advised me the same thing. “It’s hard to make a living selling long winded books Patrick. Maybe you should consider a fall back position. You are very good at understanding and explaining arguments. Have you ever considered law school? Perhaps you should take the LSAT’s.” So I took the LSATs and did pretty well. I applied to a few law schools “just to see,” and was accepted at some pretty good schools. Why not go for a year as an experiment? I didn’t do okay in law school, I did incredibly well and really I couldn’t understand how or why. I spent most of my time at the bar getting drunk and playing pool. I honestly thought the class work was easy. I graduated near the top of my class and was the managing editor of the law review. My corporate law and contract law professors were especially encouraging with their recommendations. It was actually a corporate law professor who pointed me towards the big corporate law firms in NY. “They will pay me what to work there? Really? Wow! Sure why not.” So I went to work for one of the big firms. While there, I was randomly assigned to assist one of the firm’s “most important” partners on an anti-trust case involving pharmaceutical companies price fixing and Medicaid. Somewhat remarkably, I soon discovered that the firm’s big shot partner didn’t even slightly comprehend anti-trust law. It was after I spent two weeks teaching the not very bright big shot partner the fundamentals of anti-trust law that I suddenly found myself to be a rising star at the firm. The doors of the Empire swung open and I was offered it’s warm embrace. “Do you Patrick, wish to walk in the halls of power?” “Are you ready to be a player in the great game?” (Those are actual quotes from some of those ridiculous partners at that silly firm ha ha ha ha ha).
To be…. Or not?
That is the question.
The same question every young man and woman must face.
What do I want to do with my life?
Who am I?
Is it a single question with a definitive answer
I am a…
Or is it an evolving question?
Who I am changes as I adapt to new circumstances
What if I don’t want to be who I am?
Do I really have a choice?
Does destiny dictate?
Or do I have free will?
The real world is telling me I should be a lawyer… a corporate lawyer. That is the smart thing to do… the rational thing to do. But I don’t want to. What do I want? Environmental law? Or maybe I could work for a not-for-profit doing human rights law or social justice law? What about criminal law? I don’t know what I want. That’s the problem. Maybe I want to just quit the legal profession completely? Can I do that? I want to be a professional hiker in the mountains. Yeah right, who’s gonna pay me to do that? And what about my damn student loans? No way I can quit. I have to go back. I should go back to corporate law. But I can’t. I don’t want to. What else can I do? I don’t know. Maybe I will discover what I want on this trip. Maybe I’ll find Paradise here and settle down with a local girl. Maybe I will just keep on hiking and hiking and never go back. I don’t know. I’m not ready to go back now? But I can’t go forward. Brazil won’t let me in. The only way forward is through Columbia and I’m afraid of Columbia. Please God, give me a sign. What in the heck am I supposed to do?
Did I really (truthfully) see a shooting star in the South Western sky in response to my “prayer” during that long ago night on the rooftop patio in Santa Elena, Venezuela. I don’t know. I wonder if there would be a way to fact check it with historical astronomical charts? There is probably no way to find the objective truth but I certainly remember it very clearly. Indeed, I have repeated the story many times in the past 25 years. But I was high as a hummingbird when it happened so maybe it was all my imagination…
So, here I am, lying in a hammock, watching the sky, contemplating my destiny after just getting turned away at the Brazilian border. Should I give up my journey and go home or take the alternative route through scary Columbia? I am looking at the Western sky (above Columbia) when one of the stars I’m staring at seems to start glowing intensely. The longer I look at it, the brighter it gets. Holy Shit… Is that a planet or a supernova? And then, all of a sudden, the now very bright light explodes like a firework and falls towards the southern horizon (in the direction of Machu Picchu).
So I guess the story is… If I want to find my Machu Picchu, I will to have to go through Columbia. I take another hit off my big fat joint and say out loud, “Look out Pablo, here I come…”
To be continued…