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12 February 2008 @ 07:32 pm
Making Peace  
As we climb up into the Sierra Nevadas, I fall into a rhythm.  I ease off the throttle and hear  engine winding down, slowing for the next curve.  I gauge the angles and lean over, bringing more than half a ton of motorcycle, camping gear, and fragile human flesh closer to the pavement.  The mountain road is sharply banked, and gravity pulls us down toward the inside of the curve.  I open the throttle just a bit, accelerating, pushing the bike back up the asphalt to the outside of the curve.  The laws of physics are held in tension here.  We leave the curve moving faster than we entered it, but up ahead is another switchback, another sharp turn, and the dance is repeated.  Slow, lean, accelerate.  Slow, lean, accelerate.  We ascend the mountain road in a series of controlled falls; we are falling up a mountain.

We are in Sequoia National Park.  Two hours ago we left the heat and smell of Bakersfield in the valley where we had found it.  Now we are rising into the cool of the mountains.  The smell of forest is rich around us.  Life rolls up and down these mountains for thousands of verdant acres.  The primeval serenity of these hills is palpable.  This is what I came for.

For me, home is in north central Texas.  This place is very different from home.  I heard a story about the first SST to fly into DFW Airport.  According to the story, when the French pilot was asked what he thought about his first sight of Dallas, he replied “Zee concrete, she must be cheap in Texas.”  Concrete, that’s what we have: no hills, no trees, just lots of concrete.  And glass.  A synthetic beehive filled with frantic motion.  For me, these quiet mountains are a slice of heaven.  They are also the most fun I have ever had on any motorcycle.

I love motorcycling.  There is a sense of freedom., but there is also the sense of being at the mercy of the weather.  There is a sense of power in the quick maneuverability, instant acceleration, and rapid deceleration, but there is also the sense of unprotected vulnerability.  And there is a sense of belonging to a special group, but it is a group of loners.  Biking around town is great.  Riding country back roads is even better.  Twisting through the mountains, though, is motorcycling at its best.

But there is also a cost.  The constant rhythm of the climb; the fight to stay loose, to keep my responses light and relaxed; the persistent demand that I focus my attention on the road-these wear me out.  So I am glad when my wife asks to stop at an upcoming attraction.  I can use a short rest and a chance to stretch and to walk among the trees.

The parking lot has been leveled into the side of this mountain like a step terrace.  I park at the end of the lot, backing into the space for a quicker getaway.  Just a few feet behind the bike, the ground drops about fifteen feet.  I see a walking trail down there, sparsely populated by people enjoying the tranquility of these ancient woods.  We head up the hill.

We find a tree that has been hit by lightning.  All along its trunk, as far up as I can see, the bark is peppered with thumb- to hand-sized burns.  At the ground, a section of wood about five feet high and two feet wide has been blasted away, leaving more char behind.  But this tree is old and huge and still very much alive.  The lightning has not hurt it much.  A slingshot can kill a rabbit, but it will only annoy an elephant.  This is an elephant of a tree.  It is a giant redwood.

The featured attraction here is also a giant redwood.  It is the General Sherman tree, the oldest living thing known to man.  Its trunk is over twenty-four feet in diameter.  If we put it in the middle of an interstate, it would take up more than three lanes.  In fact, men have run roads through redwoods and so succeeded where nature has failed.  The thunderbolt of Zeus cannot kill a redwood, but a man with an irresponsible sense of whimsy and a good axe can.

But General Sherman is protected.  A fence has been put around him to keep us away.  A look at other redwoods shows why.  There are dozens of trees with grooves a foot wide and six inches deep worn into them.  The rangers call these “love rings.”  They are where millions of reverent, or merely curious, hands have reached out and touched the bark.  A soft, loving touch, and another, and another, and another… slowly they have worn a groove six inches deep and a foot wide into these giants.  Brush, brush, brush, like Chinese water torture.  And when the rangers look at these wounds, the word that comes to mind is love.

People stand in quiet wonder.  Some listen to a ranger talk to her tour group.  This is the most enduring package of life we know; what will she say about it?  Others try to find some way to capture the General in a picture.  We stand here around a tree that was alive when Christ lived, that was already large when the Roman Empire began to crumble, that cared nothing for the Holy Empire which rose to replace the pagan, that went unReformed and unEnlightened.  Here is a life so strong, so deeply rooted, so well established that it can shrug off lightning, and we try to reduce it to a single picture.  A profundity in living color.  I put my own camera down and move away.

My wife claims that a collection of my vacation pictures could only be titled Mammals of North America.  At the Grand Canyon I took pictures of squirrels.  We worshipped at a church on the Navajo reservation, shopped in an honest-to-goodness trading post, and stayed over night.  I took pictures of a dog.  It was also a dog that caught my eye on the Hopi reservation, and I would later take pictures of chipmunks at Crater Lake and of cats on Whidbey Island.  But I take pictures of something else, as well.  Patterns.  Textures.  The look of certain sections of wood or stone.  It is such a thing I frame in my viewfinder now.

There is a large cross-section of a redwood trunk set up on a frame.  There are little green markers pointing to rings formed in significant years.  One, about halfway out, says “Magna Carta/1215.”  But I do not think too much about these.  They remind me how much time passed for this tree before it died and was sectioned up for display.  I find that line of thought somehow disturbing and avoid it.  It is the texture of the wood itself that holds me,  the pattern of irregular rings, latticed by a network of cracks in the drying wood.  Around the cracks, the wood is turning black.  I suppose this is due to moisture seeping into the wood fiber, but I am only guessing.  In any event, it makes a good picture.

I am still a little tired.  It is well into the afternoon by now, so I am also hungry.  I suppose I must be cranky as well, because my wife and I are angry.  I have no idea why.  She has gone off with the ranger’s tour group, and I try to sort things out as I head back to the bike to make a sandwich.

What could possibly be wrong?  I am in the middle of a dream vacation.  I am with the woman I love, the woman with whom I shared a four year honeymoon.  We are traveling on my favorite toy, a touring motorcycle.  We are in a beautiful land.  There is a slight breeze moving clean, earthy smells around.  Why are we angry?  I imagine that later we will find ourselves repeating lines from a bad sitcom: “I thought you were mad at me.”  “Well, I was only mad because I thought you were mad at me.”

I step around the back of the bike and open the trunk box.  I unzip a bag and pull out some peanut butter, honey, and a knife.  As I reach for the bread, a car pulls in a few spaces down.  Before it has even stopped moving, the doors fly open, releasing several children and a harried woman.  The passenger doors bang shut and a red-faced driver pops out of his own exit.  He shouts, “Go ahead, keep slamming!  You’ll break it!”  And they all storm off in the same general direction, another happy family enjoying their vacation.  Do they know why they are mad?  I’ll bet I can guess.  They’ve been too close for too long without a break, constantly rubbing against one another, brush, brush, brush.  I can almost see rings in them, six inches deep and a foot wide. 

I have put honey on one slice of bread.  Now I spread a huge amount of peanut butter on the other.  The jar says that one serving equals two tablespoons.  I suppose I normally use about a serving and a half.  My wife, on the other hand, uses peanut butter as an excuse to eat large, messy quantities of jelly, honey, or other forms of sugar.  You could read through her normal serving of peanut butter.  This puts me in an odd position when she makes me a sandwich.  To her, it looks like she has put an awful lot of peanut butter on that bread; to me, it seems as skimpy as war rations.  The right thing to do would be to thank her and eat my sandwich.  Too often I do a wrong thing.  Brush, brush, brush.

I am still spreading peanut butter when I hear a voice on that path fifteen feet below me.  I look down over my shoulder and see a man in his mid thirties.  He is walking with a boy who is probably in the third grade.  The man has his arm around the boy’s shoulders.  The boy is watching his sneakers walk.  The man is speaking.  As they pass beneath me I hear him say, “It was a hard decision, but I finally decided that it would be better for everyone if we separated.”

Is the man explaining a past action to his son, or warning him of the future?  Somehow, I get the impression that the boy has been brought up here to soften the impact.  He is hearing this for the first time.  I start remembering.

Dad had a workbench in the garage.  The walls were unfinished sheetrock, the color of old cardboard.  In the light of a couple of unshaded bulbs, everything had a yellow tint to it.  Everything looked like it was covered with aging varnish.  I remember my father’s face in that light, looking vaguely jaundiced as we cast bullets and loaded them for hunting trips.  I remember him as he worked on projects for Mom.  He built a dulcimer out there.  He made a picture of two robots, male and female, with a wide margin.  The outside perimeter was a series of points.  Each point had two lines converging on it, so that the margin was filled with lines.  Where were these lines converging from?  One line came from the heart of the boy robot, one from the girl.  Each point around the picture was a meeting of their little robot hearts.  My father spent a long time bathed in yellow light, drawing that picture for my mother.  And I remember him, in that same yellow light, the first time I saw him cry.  He was packing up his workshop and telling me that, as the oldest, I would be the man of the house now.  I was in the sixth grade.  Some man.

The man below me and his son have moved on.  I close the jars and clean the knife, wondering what the boy will remember.  I know that every time the boy thinks of woods, he will hear his father’s words.  The smell of redwoods will have the same effect on him that the smells of sawdust and molten lead have on me.  This place of ancient life has become, at least for one small boy, a place of death.

Thousands of people leave Sequoia every year remembering it a thousand different ways, but the trees still grow, equally unaffected by our joy and our sorrow.  The birds fly, the squirrels scamper, and the long line of people passes through.  The man will remember what he told his son here.  Perhaps he will remember that his son seemed to take it well and will credit the place for that.  Perhaps the son will remember that forests are where axes fall.  Perhaps the family will walk in the open air for a while, find each other’s company more tolerable, and thank the forest for that.  Or perhaps the children will remember this place as one more stupid delay between music videos.  Perhaps people will leave here with a sense of history’s great scope.  Or perhaps they will leave a bit disappointed to have seen almost all of history reduced to a series of irregular rings and little green markers.

I came here wanting peace, but for some unaccountable reason I am angry with my wife.  That is not the memory I wish to carry away with me.  I get out two more slices of bread and make another sandwich, this one with a layer of peanut butter you could read through.  When I am done, I clean the knife again and put it, the bread, and the fixings away.  I wrap each sandwich in a paper towel, grab a water bag, and head back up the hill to find my wife.