Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Go West, Young Man

There was a time when I was free to do whatever struck my fancy. It is rare that such a time presents itself, and when it does, it should be utilized to full advantage. I had some money in my pocket, I had no dependents, and I had the vigor and wherewithal to do something simply for the experience of it.

A friend contacted me and told me of his intention to visit a mutual friend at grad school in central California. He said that he knew I had availability and wondered if I might like to go. I told him that I now had a new friend in Colorado who would also be happy to host us if we found our way there. No sooner had we mentioned what was possible than we were planning how to make it happen. We got together and held “planning sessions” and in no time we had tickets for flights to Sacramento and Denver, and had people who would be waiting to pick us up at the airports.

We got off the plane in Sacramento and I commented that this was my first time in California. I had half expected, erroneously, that the earth would be quaking as soon as I got off the plane, and that all of the action scenes from every cheap movie I ever saw would be playing themselves out just outside the window. I thought the whole state would be filled with cowboys and hippies and valley girls goofing on surfers. OK, so I wasn’t all wrong, but the airport was filled with mostly regular people. The hippest hippie in the world was there, though, and he was the old friend we were there to see. We took a few minutes there in the airport to catch up, and then spilled out into the legendary California sunshine to work our way to the University of California in Davis.

Our friend’s car was a conservative sedan that you wouldn’t imagine he would drive. I forget exactly how long it took us to get from Sacramento to Davis, but the air was crisp, the sun was bright, and the conversation was vibrant. Since the time that we had all been in high school together my friend with whom I traveled had been in the Peace Corps (in the Persian Gulf), I had been in the Peace Corps, and the friend we were visiting was pursuing a doctorate that would help unlock the secrets of the universe. We did a lot of catching up on that ride.

When we got to his apartment I felt as if I had strolled right back into my senior year of college. The place was decorated in bohemian cheap, and there were people comfortably located on every sitting and lounging space available. It turned out that the crowd that was gathered was my friend’s band, and they were convening in preparation for their gig that night. My friend played the trumpet and some percussion instruments for the band, and they had gotten quite popular in the area. We grabbed a quick bite to eat and some recreational refreshment before heading out to the gig.

The show was at a well established brew pub, originally founded in the seventies. It was founded by a master brewer from Bavaria who had fallen in love with California and did not want to return to Germany, but who loved his native Germany too. He had decorated the pub in German style and had continued to brew Bavarian style beers that one would be likely to find at the Oktoberfest in Munich. These he served in one liter tankards of leaded glass, just like the ones advertisers showed zaftig frauleins brandishing in European beer gardens. I thought it was really cool, especially since I am such a lover of beer, but the clientele completely interrupted the German illusion. The place was filling up with nouveau bohemians and throwback hippies, all meticulously arranged so as to appear unkempt in just the right way. Undoubtedly, this was their milieu, and the event was a minor happening in their society. My friend and I from the east looked quite conservative by comparison, and my friend who blew the trumpet was the hippest hippie because he obviously gave no mind to the politics of the alternative world that swirled around him. Not that he was unaware of what transpired from day to day, but rather that he pitied those people too caught up in niggling about life and not living it.

He sat with us drinking a huge brown beer while the band took the stage and the bass player started a chunky line that clearly came as second nature to him. The rhythm guitar laid an easy progression over the bass line and it became clear that it was a contemporary funk song. The drummer and the lead guitar hopped in with driving beat and hook after hook, and we got worried that our friend had been too caught up in our conversation and had forgotten that he was part of the band. The band played on for about three minutes before our friend finished his beer and said he’d see us in just a bit. He went around to the back of the stage and came up onto it from behind, leaning against an amp and grinning. He held his trumpet in his hand, but was clearly caught up in the tune, like he was the biggest fan who happened to have the best seat in the house. I think I was the only one who took any notice of him at all. The song went on an on as a funk jam, and I knew that he had forgotten his part or missed his cue or something. My other friend took his leave to step outside and smoke, perhaps he could no longer stand to watch. I sat drinking beer and enjoying the song as it grew to a tremendous crescendo and, in an instant, every member of the band stopped on a dime and a spotlight bathed my friend in light while the rest of the stage went dark. He had snapped to life and was blowing the wildest, most inspired instrumental solo I have ever witnessed. The crowd had obviously been waiting for this. The players were good, and the band together was great, but my friend was the best musician among them by far, and they all knew it. The rest of the band joined in again and my friend was an active member of the show from then on. I was flabbergasted.

Over the course of the night I progressively grew less aware of where my body ended and the rest of the world began. I felt like I was in a UHF TV show that was experiencing interference. The return to the apartment was just the real beginning of the party, because the band couldn’t hang out and interact while they were working. The night grew fuzzier and I knew that the party was over when my friend handed me a hot cup of coffee, and it was light out. They tell me I had been sleeping for hours. The one thing that did stay in my memory from the night was seeing groupies in action. It was the first and only time I had been at a party with groupies. They were fawning over the members of the band and were vying to position themselves with the band members throughout the night. My friend had to extricate himself from several admirers in order to spend time with us. I thought it was the strangest thing I had ever seen.

My friend asked me what I thought of California and I had to admit to him that the Golden State was a little too hung over for my taste. He laughed and said that he had just the thing. We went to the university to visit the raptor center. We were out in the beauty of the California day and we were let in to watch the birds of prey feed. My favorites were the owls. My friend had to run in to his office very quickly; this sparked a conversation about his work. We asked him what he did, and he cheerily and immediately replied that he was a mad scientist. We pressed him more about the mad science. He became pensive, obviously thinking about how to portray his work in a way that an intelligent layperson could understand. He started by explaining that the particles that make up atoms have distinct qualities of their own. He went on to explain that there are particles that are just as small or smaller than the constituent parts of atoms that are not bound into atomic structures. This was my introduction to neutrinos, I think. He went on to explain that waves are observable, measurable manifestations of energy, and that they are free from the rules that govern particles (particles being “things” and waves being “energy”). His work focused on discerning the difference between particles and waves, and identifying whether or not there was a “building block” having the properties of both a particle and a wave, and thus unlocking the secret to the makeup of the universe. I was dehydrated and my head was throbbing, but I remember being fascinated by his description of his work, though my depiction of it is erroneous and clumsy. I thought that every hippie in a band should contribute as much to the world. Since then string theory has gained credence in the scientific community and I wonder if he alluded to that at all.

My spinning head was spinning as we drove into the redwood forest. It was not a forest of giant sequoias like I had seen on TV, but the redwoods were beautiful trees, and they are straight and tall. The aspect of the forest was clean. The bed of the forest was not crowded or cluttered like the deciduous forests back home, and there were no low hanging branches interrupting your view or posture. It was unlike the forests I had been in in Africa either. In the stillness and shade we shared a moment of quietude that refreshed the psyche. As we saddled up to get back to the pad I felt a twinge of regret that we would be flying out the next day.

We spent the next day catching up some more and just enjoying each others’ company as we had done as youths in high school. It was a day in which we did not need to experience anything extraordinary to get the most out of our time together, and we had to fly sometime around midnight. We made a big meal, we watched a movie, we walked to his favorite coffee shop- we clocked shared mundane experiences, and the common denominator of each was our mutual camaraderie. It is telling that this time stands out as the best part of the trip for me.

Our friend put us on the plane at some ungodly hour of the night and wished us good luck. We bade him farewell, and in the middle of the night we arrived in Denver. I was a bit disappointed because I couldn’t see the mountains from the window of the plane. We got off the plane in Denver and my friend was not there to greet us. This was before the age of the ubiquity of cell phones. We waited and waited and there was not only no sign of my friend, but there was no sign of anyone. Stanton International is dead in the middle of a weeknight. We discussed what to do, and I suggested that we try to make our way to Boulder and find his place, and that the only other alternative I could think of was to either wait until daylight and try to contact him, or to get on a flight back to Boston. We wound up taking a cab to Boulder, which cost us a little more than we wanted to spend, but we found my friend’s place. I knocked on his door loudly and persistently, and he eventually opened the door in his underwear with his hair two stories higher than his head. He let us in and said he was really glad to see us, but wanted to know why we were there a day early?

I said that there must have been a miscommunication, and that I didn’t mean to drag him out of bed. I suggested that we all crash out until daybreak and then decide what to do. (For the record, I know I had told him the right day, I’m pretty sure he just spaced it.) He said no, that since we were all awake and it was still predawn, that we had just enough time to hike the flat irons to watch the sunrise. We were tired, but we figured that it was an opportunity that we wouldn’t get again soon, so we took it. We waited while my friend got dressed and then we drove out to where the flat irons are. My high school friend and my Peace Corps friend got along well, as I knew they would. When we arrived at the trail head and began to hike I was a little surprised to find that “hike” in Colorado does not mean the same thing as “hike” in New England. In New England “hike” means a long walk up a mountain or hill, gaining altitude gradually over time. In Colorado “hike”, according to my friend, meant a climb up a rock face. I felt bamboozled, but my eastern friend and I kept our wits, focused our attention, and made it up to where we would watch the sun rise.

Sunrise from the flatirons was magnificent. It was one of those moments when you realize that you are in the presence of God. What else can be said? If we had never taken that trip then we would never have that experience to carry with us. It was clear, as the gloaming turned to day, that this experience was the reason we had come.

And then we had to do the same climb in reverse, which is harder, and it was back to reality. We got back to his place and because the date of our arrival was in contention, he had not taken the day off from work. My eastern friend and I stayed at his place and rested and then got out to explore Boulder Colorado a little bit. Boulder is a nice city. It is a beautiful city high in the mountains and the air is crisp and clean. I couldn’t help coming away with the feeling that Boulder knew how cool it was. I felt like Boulder had an attitude. This feeling was not abated over the next day and a half that I stayed there, but rather it was reinforced. This was the beginning of the “extreme” sports movement, and Colorado is an extreme state. Further, Boulder is a college town filled with young “extreme” people. I’m certain that my assessment of Boulder as a city with an attitude stemmed mainly from my first experience of being out of touch with the youth. That had never happened to me before, and I think I took it out on the city. Next time I am in Boulder I promise to give it a better chance.

We stayed another day and explored Boulder a bit more. We had excellent Mexican food, which I was later to find out was quite authentic, and spent time recounting our misadventures in the Peace Corps and comparing the Arab experience to the African experience. Each of us thought that his experience was the best and most unique, and for each of us individually, we were right. The next day we got on a plane at a more acceptable hour after saying our goodbyes. When we landed at Logan I knew the trip was one without a purpose, but it was one well undertaken and one that I would not soon forget.


Blogger Cornelius Quick said...

On a weekend in the mountains I awoke to a trumpeter high on a hillside playing to the morning. I think it was either your friend or Jacopo Belbo, but I think it was your friend. There are very few mad scientist trumpeters around, or so I have heard...

10:05 PM  
Blogger Traveler said...

I remember that time both hazily and fondly. And isn't he your friend too?

6:37 AM  

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