Hummingbird Sees a Sign

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…

Hummingbird Begins…

Hummingbird Begins…

Cusco, Peru… Yes, I’ve been there… twice. It’s the ancient Inca city that has been transformed into a somewhat modern hip and happening city for the sake of a tourist economy. It’s actually quite awesome but no, I’ve never written a story about it. No doubt, I’ve told a few… my hike on the almost empty Inca Trail in 1993… my Inca romance… it’s where I bought my ticket home… it’s all coming back to me now. But no, I’ve never written any stories about Cusco.

Our friends were visiting from South Carolina. They own a coffee shop called Curiosity Coffee. I was high like a hummingbird and telling tales of far away travels and they asked about Cusco, Peru. They were going to feature a coffee from Cusco in their shop and were wondering if I had any stories from there…

Actually, in a way, Cusco, Peru, is where it all began because that is the place where the very first journey ended… more or less… it was a long time ago, I can barely remember… I was a novice traveler then, my first big trip. I took a year off from my professional career in order to see some of the world. I spent four months traveling around the US in a pick-up truck… sleeping on a mattress in the back, visiting the national parks and all the famous landmarks. I left my pick-up at a friend’s in Houston, Texas and went South through Mexico, Central America and South America on public transport. My original plan was to go as far South as the tip of Tierra del Fuego in Argentina. But I meandered a lot and took some wrong turns and my money ran low in Peru. I ended up buying my ticket home from Cusco because they had cheap international fares. I did dip south into Bolivia for my last two weeks, but I circled back to Cusco, Peru to catch my flight. And the very last thing I did, before hopping in the cab to the airport was kiss a beautiful young Inca woman good-bye….

In retrospect, it seems hard to believe. And it happened so long ago, I’m not sure whether the past really happened or my brain merely imagined it. But the story is… I met a beautiful young local woman while I was hiking on the Inca trail. The romance was brief. She wanted me to stay in Cusco and get a job working as a tour guide. But I had a pile of student loan debt and a promising career to return to. So I fled the scene. I had not yet discovered the power of the stones. I was still a servant of the Empire. Thinking now about it though, I can’t help but wonder if that magical night with the beautiful young Inca woman somehow planted the seed of stone discovery somewhere in my future.

It was March of 1993 and there were not many tourists or travelers wandering around Peru at the time because Peru was in the midst of a “civil war.” A rather large group of socialist revolutionaries known as the “sendero luminoso,” (the shining path) controlled a mountainous section of the country and had a significant following in the rest of the country. The government, meanwhile, was run by an authoritarian dictator who was backed by the military and an entrenched oligarchy. There were occassional violent clashes between the militarized police and the armed and angry socialist revolutionaries and innocent people, including tourists, were sometimes caught in the cross fire. There were explicit warnings from the state department telling Americans not to travel there. Nevertheless, I went.

I was a bit foolish… young… naive… oblivious. I was vaguely aware of the conflict in Peru. I had read the state department travel warnings. But there were similar warnings about Colombia and I had no issues traveling there and there were no warnings about Venezuela even though I got caught in a revolution there. So I didn’t take the travel warnings seriously… And really, the ongoing conflict was only vaguely noticeable to me. There were lots of police checkpoints and public transport searches. And there were practically no other travelers/tourists/white people around. But I saw no gun battles or explosions or military maneuvers. I laugh now, in retrospect, at my former innocent self wandering Quixote like amid an ongoing revolution.

About halfway down the long coast I met a similarly naive young Australian traveler guy named G. . We stuck together for the next several weeks as we made our way through Peru. Neither one of us spoke much Spanish and we went several places that we were not supposed to go but no great harm befell us. We were warned about “the miserable fish town” of Chimbote but we went there anyway and met some pretty young ladies in the plaza. They took us to a pizza parlor and a disco. We ended up at an all-night crazy party on a beach a few kilometers outside town… Wow… but that’s another story….

We also went to the highlands around Huaraz and Yungay for some hiking. We made many jokes about the careful use of the Spanish word “sendero” which means “path” when asking directions on the trail. No… we are not looking for “sendero luminoso” the revolutionaries, we just want the correct “path” to the campground (ha ha ha). We did see a bunch of guys in strange uniforms or costumes when we were on a mini-bus in Yungay and some of the ladies on the bus said they were “sendero luminoso” but they laughed about it and seemed to be pulling our leg or joking. But then, when we finally got to Lima, we were informed very seriously that it was a very bad idea for gringos to travel near Huaraz because of the presence of “sendero luminoso.” Oops…

I traveled around Peru for well over a month and only saw about four other gringos the whole time. Until I got to Cusco. Cusco is the access city for the world famous Machu Picchu and it was also fairly secure and not under threat from the “sendero luminoso.” Lots of international flights went in and out of Cusco so visitors could easily skip the rest of the country and go straight to the main attraction. As such, Cusco seemed rather crowded with tourists when I arrived. But really, it wasn’t…

I went back to Cusco in 2004 and then, it was crowded. Indeed, I often make the comparison between Cusco in 1993 and Cusco 2004 as the most dramatic transformation of a location that I have ever personally experienced. In 93 there were a few gringo bars like the Irish place (with awesome Shepherd’s pie) and a smattering of expats studying archeology stuff while hosting the small but steady stream of adventurous international travelers. I signed up for the Inca trail the day I arrived and went on the hike with a group of five other tourists a few days later. In 04, Cusco was like a tourist Mecca chock full of tourist infrastructure, western style businesses, and hordes of overweight pasty white people walking around in a daze. In 04, it was impossible to sign up for the Inca trail upon arrival because there was a three month waiting list. You had to register in advance by the Internet… Uggh. So I took the train instead. I probably didn’t want to hike the over-crowded trail again anyway.

But this story is about 93 not 04. And hiking the Inca trail in 1993 was one of the most amazing and significant experiences of my early adult life. My tour group consisted of a West German couple, an East German couple, a Dutch guy and myself. We were accompanied by a local Inca guide, a porter and a cook. Not insignificantly, there was one other group hiking the trail at the same time as us. It was a group of six Europeans with another local guide, porter and cook. The guide for the other group was the only female Inca or Quechua guide at the time. The absurd thing is, I can’t even remember her name. I will call her Ms. Inca. I do remember that she was one of the most incredible humans I have ever met.

Our paths crossed frequently over the four day hike. The different groups were staggered along the trail so people could hike with some solitude. But I was always at the front of our group while Ms. Inca was at the back of the group ahead of us walking with that group’s slowest hiker. As such, I would hike up to her and pass her at some point during each day. She was impressed by my athletic strong hiking ability and my boyish overly enthusiastic American charm. And I was impressed by her. It was her job to hike the Inca trail every week. She also spoke five languages fluently (Spanish, Quechua, English, French and German). Exceptionally beautiful with the whole exotic local look, is it any wonder I walked the Inca trail like superman to catch up with her every day.

But we did not have any sort of romance along the actual trail. A very slight flirtation perhaps. But not really. She treated me very professionally. Our relationship was strictly guide/tourist. She was the guide of a different group but a guide nonetheless. Romance with clients was strictly prohibited. Considering the number of tourists who probably hit upon the only female guide, a no romance rule and flirtation avoidance behavior was a necessary part of her chosen profession. She talked to me about Inca culture and Inca mythology and told stories about the incredible landscape we were hiking through and she occassionally laughed at my bad jokes. But she gave no indication whatsoever of any extra-curricular interest.

We did pass through the Gate of the Sun (inti gate) together and that was kind of special. But that was more random coincidence than a planned or orchestrated romantic moment. All the groups time their hikes to arrive at the Sun Gate for sunrise. The Sun Gate entrance is, perhaps, the highlight of the whole Inca trail experience. We camped out the final night about an hour away from the gate. I awoke before dawn so I could reach the gate for the magical moment but so did everyone else. Ms. Inca was explaining the history and the significance of the gate to several members of her group when I arrived.

The Inti Gate is situated on a high mountain pass on the western side and up above the plateau that holds the ancient holy city of Machu Picchu. Between the two tour groups, there were close to ten of us who stopped there to watch the show. The famous stone city lay beneath us in a shroud of mist. Up ahead, at the end of our long stony pathway, a shadowy outline of stone structures seems to arise from the nothingness. I can barely make it out in the dim morning light. But then, suddenly, the sun rises above the ring of mountains in the east and rays of light shoot down upon the holy plateau. The mist dissolves, the stone city sparkles and the whole universe seems to shimmer with holiness…

“Behold Macchu Picchu,” says Ms. Inca, “the sacred city of stone.” She just happens to be standing a few feet away from me as she speaks.
“Holy shit,” I say, “that’s fucking amazing.”
“Interesting choice of English words,” says Ms. Inca, “but yes, it is amazing.”
“You’re right, no need to swear,” I say, “But wow, does it always happen like that? with the sparkly, glittery magical appearance in the nothingness stuff? It doesn’t even seem real.”
“That effect is caused by the ring of mountains that surround the plateau and the heavy blanket of moisture that covers the valley each night,” says Ms. Inca, “By the time the sun gets above the rim of mountains and reaches the plateau, the rays are very direct so they burn off the fog very quickly. It’s not always exactly the same but it is usually something similar. I get to see it once or twice a week and it never stops amazing me.”
“Do you hike the Inca trail every week?”
“Yes,” she says, “just about. And sometimes twice. It is my job.”
“I think you have the best job in the whole world,” I say.
“I don’t know about that,” she says, “but it is a pretty good life. I get to share my culture and meet people from all over.”
“The scenery and daily exercise are pretty awesome too. What fun. You are really living the dream.”
“And what about you Patrick?” She says, “What is it you do back in the United States? What is your job?”
“I don’t have a job at the moment because I’m traveling” I say, “but I am a, a, a,” . For the first time in my whole life, I am embarrassed to admit my chosen profession. My throat swells and my tongue goes numb. I mumble. “I’m a ……”
Ms. Inca actually laughs. “You don’t seem like one of those,” she says. “Is it fun? Do you enjoy it?”
“There is more to life than fun and enjoyment,” I say. “It’s a good profession… an important profession… an honorable profession….”
“Enjoy Machu Picchu Patrick,” she says, “I believe you are about to have a very fun day.”
I look down the hill to the end of the Inca trail and see the sacred city of stone awaiting my exploration.
“No doubt I will,” I say, “see you later.” I wave good bye and head down the hill ahead of the other hikers.
“See you somewhere,” I hear Ms. Inca say behind me as Machu Picchu awaits in front of me….

To be continued….

Coyote and Hummingbird

I think I’m going to call the new book “Coyote and Hummingbird” because those two characters from my medicine cards keep showing up in my day to day life.  Somehow or other, they represent the oppositional aspects of the metaphysical quagmire that I am trying to understand.   In other words… sometimes I feel like Coyote and sometimes I feel like Hummingbird.  This new book, the one I am writing now, will contain stories and essays from the perspective of each character.

Coyote exists to disrupt the Empire. He is the trouble-maker, the scoundrel, the outlaw. He is the metaphorical embodiment of the imaginary revolution. He wants to see the whole horrible evil empire come crashing down and he is on a continual quest to help make that happen. His quest, however, is complicated and also rather reckless. By challenging the empire philosophically, economically, politically, and artistically, he puts at risk his own very good life. Luckily, he’s a fictional character.

Hummingbird, on the other hand, can’t be bothered with the evil empire. He just wants to enjoy life and live the now. He has a good life with a wonderful family, a happy home, and a moderately successful business. He travels the world and tells fun stories about his various adventures. The empire is obviously collapsing anyway. It doesn’t need to be challenged. Hummingbird plays enough of the reality game to stay out of trouble and tries to create oasises (oasi?) of beauty amid the horrors of the modern industrial civilization. Hummingbird is also a fictional character.

The overarching story of the book will be relationship between the two characters. Will hummingbird lead coyote away from trouble… Or will coyote eat hummingbird?

The Buddha and the Hummingbird

As usual, this is presented as a work of fiction.   Some details of the events that unfolded have alternative interpretations.

The Buddha and the Hummingbird…

The hummingbird makes me smile. My heart goes pitter patter boom boom and I start to hum Beethoven’s 9th symphony… bump ba na na da na na na bump ba na na da na na… Yeah, I know, the medicine cards are not real. I don’t really believe them. But pulling the hummingbird as my morning coffee card is certainly a nice way to start the day…

In case you are unfamiliar with the mythology, the hummingbird theoretically represents JOY. That spontaneous exultation of good feeling that bursts forth from the center of your being and makes you want to sing or shout or cheer. Sometimes the sensation of JOY is a response to a particular incredible or wonderful event that you experience first hand: witnessing the birth of your child, saying yes to a marriage proposal or even winning a contest or sporting event. Sometimes the sensation of JOY emerges in response to less dramatic but nonetheless stimulating experience in day to day life: watching a mini-miracle in the natural world or hearing a favorite old song on the radio that you have not heard in a long time. And sometimes the sensation of JOY emerges for no apparent reason whatsoever. All of a sudden, you just feel like singing and dancing. The hummingbird as a symbol is not concerned with the cause of the joy or the environmental factors that bring about joy. The hummingbird is an image of the joyful sensation itself. In other words, looking at a hummingbird is like witnessing a visual manifestation of JOY as a concept.

Of course, the other side of JOY is sorrow. And as the universe is constructed; you can’t have one without the other… The hummingbird only appears for a moment… suspended in the air by the power of divinity… so beautifully iridescent…like an angel from a fantasy dream… it seems ready to speak… say something. But then it zips away and is gone. You are left with a feeling of absence that lingers and leaves you wondering what words the hummingbird would have spoken if it had remained.

Have I mentioned yet that we live In Paradise? Buddha Hill in the Catskills is a pretty special place. Joy is a common sensation for me and my family here and we also frequently see hummingbirds. I can’t help but wonder what my old friend Buddha would say… hmmmm enlightenment? Release from the sorrow necessarily means release from the joy? Does that mean there are no hummingbirds in Nirvana? If that is the case, well then, you can keep your enlightenment and your Nirvana, I’m going to stay right here in Paradise with the hummingbirds.

Actually, in a way, it’s the perfect expression of the spiritual conundrum… the debate… the challenge of all spiritual metaphors. To fully “embrace God” or “become enlightened”, we are taught that we must somehow give up or release ourselves from worldly or material desires. Some people meditate while others pray and fast. If you think about it, the objective seems to be to deny your humanness or animal nature in order to find peace?

The Buddha story is illustrative… Guatama was a 29 year old princely dude living the dream. He was a 01 percenter with an Ivy League education and a seat on the board of a very big multi-national corporation. He had it all. But then one evening he went for a walk with his eyes open. He saw a crippled guy crawling along the street. Then he saw a very old and worn out man huddled uncomfortably on a park bench. Then he saw a dead dude sprawled out on the sidewalk. The three visions changed Guatama’s life. He could no longer live comfortably in the lap of luxury. He gave it all up to live a life of homelessness. He sat under trees with his legs crossed and tried to figure out why? Why is all life suffering? Then one day, he was “enlightened.” Hmmmm. By non-attachment to material things and worldly desires, you can release yourself from “the inherent suffering of human existence.”

But is that something you really want to do? Aye… there’s the rub…. Non-attachment… but what about love? Isn’t love a kind of attachment… Intense attachment? What exactly is; un-attached love? Non-monogamy… swingers? A question to keep the Buddhists talking for days.

Guatama only sat around with his legs crossed under bodhi trees for ten or fifteen years. By the time he reached his mid-forties his thinking evolved and he came out of the forest and started speaking to people about “the middle path.” He then started collecting some hefty fees for big speeches. Elaborate festivals were held in his honor. He was welcomed at palaces and mansions and deluxe condo resort events. He was still technically “homeless” and he welcomed his followers into the “fellowship of homelessness”, but he now lived a pretty good life in the material sense. He wasn’t “attached” to material wealth, but he was able to enjoy it nonetheless.

Now is, of course, a few thousand years later so Guatama’s teachings have evolved. It is questionable if he would even recognize modern “Buddhism.” Unlike the Buddhist monks I met traveling in Asia, most of the American Buddhists that I know personally have lots of money and material wealth. Indeed, several I know even invest in the Imperialist stock market. No doubt there are poor Buddhists too and perhaps my perspective is skewed by the nature of my work but I can’t help but wonder about the contradiction. Apparently, under modern Buddhism, a person can “own” as much material stuff as they desire as long as they are “not attached” to the stuff that they “own.” Hmmm, kind of makes me scratch my head.

So here we are on Buddha Hill living the American upper class materialist dream. We have everything; hot tub, barbecue, trampoline and exercise machines… but we don’t own any of it. We are renting… using… possessing… Temporarily occupying while I re-arrange the rocks on the landscape. The “owners” are far away living in another state. Thankfully, they are “Buddhists” and “not attached” to this incredible place that we are free to use.

The central room in the house is a room we call the “Buddha Room”. The “owners” would probably call it the shrine room or the meditation room. It has incredibly high cathedral ceilings with wide sky-light windows at the top. No furniture to sit upon but there is a beautiful hanging chandelier suspended above and an amazing Asian carpet with intricate designs that covers the entire floor. There are awesome tapestries with different mythologically Buddhist images on the walls and there is a wicked cool Buddha statue surrounded by electric candles on a hand-carved wood altar…

I’m not a much of a meditator, but it really is a great room for meditation. Sitting perfectly still doing nothing is just not my nature. Instead, I juggle. I only use bean bag hackey-sacks because I don’t want to break anything. But juggling is almost the opposite of meditating. Or is it? I also like to lie on my back in the middle of the carpet and stare up through the sky-lights. In the daytime, I watch the clouds float by and at night there are stars and sometimes the moon. I do my stretching exercises/yoga routine in there sometimes too. We even use the room as the imaginary “Death Star” when the little one and I play Star Wars. So the room has many uses. It is a beautiful amazing room. It is a symbolic room. It is a metaphorical room…

The crazy thing happens on a sunny Saturday in early June. It is a perfect day… a wonderful day… a joyful day. I went to the Farmer’s Market in the morning and then made a nice big brunch for Ms. B., the little one and myself. I am now reclined on the couch in the living room sipping an after brunch cup of coffee while my two loves play games just outside the front door. I’m not sure if they are watching ants, picking strawberries or just rolling around in the yard but I can hear them laughing and giggling through the open door. It is an idyllic moment and I am thinking actively about how idyllic it is… Like from a Norman Rockwell painting but with sound. The sound of my family’s playful giggles pushes the joy button at the center of my soul and sends ripples of happiness through my whole being…

And then it happens…. a beautiful hummingbird flies right through the open front door and all the way into the Buddha Room.

“Oh no,” says Ms. B. as they rush inside to see.
“He’s trapped Momma,” says the little one, “what can we do?”

I rise from the couch in the living room and walk down the hall to the Buddha Room to see with my own eyes. Sure enough, the scene that unfolds now is like from a myth or fable or ancient legend. The storyline is so thick, the metaphor is so dynamic that I can hardly believe it happens in real life. The hummingbird is circling the chandelier in the middle of the Buddha Room. Round and round it goes like a character in a story looking for answers in a glittering globe. But then, suddenly, it stops or hovers in mid-air and looks up at the blue sky in the skylight. It seems to hesitate for a second as if making a decision and then shoots for the skylight window like a rocket ship. Slam… no, more like SMACK…. or pu-twang. It crashes into the closed window and falls backwards through the air tumbling towards the chandelier… Oh no, this is a disaster.

But then, something amazing happens. Just before the hummingbird crashes into the chandelier, it recovers and starts flying again… fluttering about…zipping from here to there, flying around the chandelier, precariously close to the chandelier, but not crashing into it. Once again, it circles the room. It looks up. Oh no, he didn’t learn his lesson. He sees the blue sky through the skylight, he shoots for the heavens like a rocket ship. And again… Slam, smack… pu-twang. He falls backward after crashing into the window and tumbles towards the chandelier. “He’s done for this time,” I think, “it s going to be a serious mess to deal with”.

But no, I’m wrong. I swear it is like a miracle to behold. As if the hummingbird is an acrobat performing tricks at a circus. Just before she reaches the chandelier, she somehow regains her composure again and starts to flutter and fly again. She zooms about the room…. circling the chandelier. When the bird stops and hovers for a third time, looking up at the skylight, a zillion thoughts rush through my head…. She must see the glass window now. Or at least know it is there. Maybe she thinks she can smash through. But that is impossible. Will she kill herself trying to escape? Help me Buddha, I really don’t want my little one to witness a hummingbird suicide. There must be a way to direct her towards the open door… But I don’t speak hummingbird, and the bird is focused on the skylight. Honestly, it is slightly horrifying to watch unfold because I know it is going to happen and there is nothing I can do to stop it. Sure enough, the little bird shoots for the blue sky like a little rocket ship. Slam, smack pu-twang…

This time however, she hits the window in a different spot and falls at a different angle. Instead of tumbling towards the chandelier, she goes sideways into a wall and somehow gets tangled in a hanging tapestry on her way to the floor. She’s not moving at all. Hanging by a single claw stuck in the fabric.

“Is it dead?” says the little one?
“I don’t know,” I answer, “maybe only injured or in shock. Let’s try to save her.”

Ms. B. retrieves a bath towel. All three of us go close to perform the operation. While Ms. B. holds the folded towel beneath the bird, I gently push the tiny claw free from the fabric. The hummingbird plops down on the towel. She is still breathing but her eyes are closed and she barely moves. Only the tiny feathered chest rises up and down to indicate life still lives. But it does live.

Our somber and anxious procession makes its way across the Buddha room. Ms. B. holds the towel with unconscious bird in front or her as myself and the little one walk beside it. Truly incredible to look at. The tiny body of blue and green feathers… like a toy but breathing and warm. We cross through the hallway and out the front door.

“Can I hold him Momma?” Says the little one.

“No sweetie,” says Ms. B.. “he is hurt badly already and we don’t want to hurt him anymore.” She lays the towel down on the grass. “If we leave him alone, maybe he will recover his senses and fly away.”

“I promise to be careful,” says the little one, “I won’t hurt, I just want to touch.” As she reaches out to pet the tiny creature, however, a strange wind blows through and something magical happens. Suddenly, the little wings start to flutter. The tiny hummingbird rises to its feet and leaps into the air…

As the tiny bird flies off into the sunshine, my entire family erupts into cheers. We clap our hands and shout with joy… “FLY BE FREE…FLY BE FREE!”

“Wow, Daddy,” says the little one when the hummingbird is out of sight, “was that a miracle?”

“Yes sweetie,” I answer, “I think maybe it was a miracle. A sign from the gods. Joy to the world!”

A Journey to the Middle of the East

A Journey to the Middle of the East

It’s about time… My brand new “literary masterpiece” and “fun adventure story” is now available for purchase as an e-book. It is called, “A Journey to the Middle of the East,” and I really hope that everyone will want to read it. You can buy it here: New book

In the Winter of 2012-2013, I went for a real life four month “wander” around a few countries in “The Middle East.” Over the course of my travels, I wrote a whole bunch of stories in my spiral notebook about my various experiences as I traveled. Some of the stories I posted on this website as rough draft travelogues while I was actually on the road. Other stories were only outlined on the road but I worked on them when I got back and posted them randomly over the next several years. A few of the stories were never posted in any form. All of the stories have now been edited, refined, shaped and sculpted into a single continuous narrative… The fictionalized story of my own personal quest to discover the meaning of “The Middle East.”

I really hope people enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed putting it together. It was a truly amazing process. Sort of like watching a flower grow or a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis. To some degree, I was strangely removed from the final creation. I wrote each of the stories as individual units and then attempted to unite them as a “symphony” of stories afterward. But, ultimately, they came together in a way that I had not imagined before hand at all. It was almost as if I discovered a very old story hidden inside my brand new story. Wow… that’s about all I can say.

Only the e-book is available for purchase at this moment. I am planning to give away “Free” paperback versions as a promotion sometime very soon. The paperback will be available for purchase eventually and maybe even an audio version.

Buy it now: A Journey to the Middle of the East

Thanks so much,

See you somewhere…

 

 

The Coyote Lives…

This is a new “travel story,” and also a continuation of the previous story.  It is presented as fiction… one part of a serialized novel.  The events may be true but the narrator is a figment of my imagination…

Winter Solstice 2017 continued…

The waffles are delicious and the moment is almost here.
How to begin? I don’t know. Have I reached the wall? No, there is so very much more to say… The coyote.. The solstice moment. How did I get there? How much does the reader need to know to appreciate the significance of the experience? Can I capture the transformation of reality into fiction?

I started the ritual 22 years ago as an experiment. I used to suffer from severe Winter depression. How much of that depression was a product of my insane real world lifestyle… trying to be “successful” in a fucked up capitalist world…. and how much of that depression was a product of my own internal “chemical imbalances” is an open question. But I abandon my insane real world lifestyle and started my own little “imaginary revolution” to deal with the fucked-up capitalist world. And I started the annual ritual as an experiment to deal with the “chemical imbalances.”

My working theory on the chemical imbalances was rather sensible. Every winter, my emotional and mental health system would run slightly off track. The remedies I usually used to treat the sadness of daily existence no longer worked. I would have to take more and more remedies to less and less effect. It was as if my system was overloaded with remedies and they all just cancelled each other out and remedied nothing. I felt nothing in winter time… I felt dead inside. That is why I decided to try re-booting the system… my own internal system. How?

My four favorite indulgences or remedies that consistently brought happiness and joy to my physiological reality were fairly easy to identify: whiskey (alcohol), weed (THC), coffee (caffeine), ice cream (sugar). I decided to cleanse my system of all these remedies before Winter began so they would all have their full remedial power during the long, cold, dark, depressing Winter months. For no real reason in particular, I thought approximately six weeks was a sufficient time period to cleanse the system. So I started my first cleanse in early November of 1995. Actually, I think I started the first one on the morning after Election Day for symbolic reasons… It was the first Election Day of my adult life that I did not vote. But that’s another story…

So I went cold turkey on all four indulgences giving them all up totally and completely. No weening, no cheating, no finger crossing. It really was a bit like hell for the first week or so but after that it was kind of nice. It was a fascinating and healthy process to think actively about my internal biological system. I could feel my body changing… transforming. I drank lots of lemon water and herbal tea and I walked around with this notion in my head that my system was getting washed clean. And then, of course, on the moment of the Winter Solstice, I drank a strong Irish coffee with whiskey and whip cream and took a couple of great big bong hits… Continue reading

The Coyote Gets the Gold

My life seems to be more and more fictional all the time.  Here is another “travel story” that is also the continuation of the previous story.  Actually, I’m beginning to think that I am writing a whole novel as I see a rather lengthy plot unfolding ahead.  Perhaps I will serialize it upon these pages…

The Coyote Gets the Gold

The Winter Solstice (part 1); December 21, 2017.

I know it is going to happen before it happens. I shuffle the cards double… triple… Extra… to try to keep it from happening. It is the morning of the Winter Solstice. My ritual of indulgence will be later… at 11:21 am. At the moment, it is almost sunrise and I am heating water for herbal tea as I prepare to choose my medicine card. I attach special significance to today’s medicine card. In some respects, it is the card for the day, the card for the Winter season and the card for the whole year ahead. I shuffle the cards more and more but it makes no difference. Of course you know what card I turn over; the Coyote.

So, here I am, riding my bicycle over the mountain on the morning of the Winter Solstice. The temperature is hovering around 20 degrees and the wind is blowing but there is no snow.. Am I crazy; no, not exactly. Am I afraid of the coyote? Well, yes, maybe a little? Is that why I’m embarking upon such a foolish adventure? No, not really, but in a roundabout sort if way.., yes. My reasoning is, perhaps, convoluted, but my determination is profound. I am riding over the mountain in defiance of the coyote. Not because the coyote wants me to ride over the mountain but because the coyote is challenging me to ride over the mountain. I dare you he says… And so I do.

Honestly, the experience is rather thrilling. It is like a quest in an ancient epic. Frodo had to make it to Mount Doom in order to ditch the ring and I have to make it over Franklin Mountain in order to get the gold for the solstice celebration. I could have taken Ms. B.’s car. It was available. But I chose to ride. The first few miles were fairly flat and easy riding but I was passed by two big milk trucks that crowded me off the shoulder. Now I’m on the four mile long continuous uphill stretch that goes up and over the peak of the mountain. The other side is much steeper and shorter distance but harder to peddle up. This side is really not too bad. Like many things in this universe, the anticipatory thought is oppressive but the actual experience is mostly rather pleasant. The ache of exercise and the blood flow from heavy breathing excite the body. It’s more like a mid-range morning workout than some outrageous, crazy, impossible physical challenge. I’m dressed warm with long underwear and gloves so I am not uncomfortable. The cold air feels good on my lungs and the warm sweat starts to flow. The only real problem I have is with zooming cars and trucks that crowd me over to the shoulder. There seems to be lots of traffic on this road now; more than I ever remember. I guess it’s the morning rush hour. Peddle peddle push, up and over the top of the mountain. Continue reading