Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Highway Sets the Traveler's Stage

So here we are. My journey has all but come to an end as I pause in New Jersey before completing the last leg back to New England (and before soon embarking on a new long-term journey to Boston). After a mundane driving day (I thought about waking up early to give Shenandoah one more shot at a sunrise but chose instead to sleep until a normal hour), I thought this space would be better spent reflecting on the tumultuous experience that was the past week.

I think the most obvious influence on the trajectory of this week was the magnitude of its headlines. The senseless horror visited upon my country, state, and new home city on Monday made my quest to outrun the clouds to get some good pictures of mountains seem more than a bit petty. This, only to be followed by the chaotic madness of Thursday night when the full force of the United States government descended on neighborhoods just a few miles from mine. After the initial shock of the surreality surrounding this violent crime spree that could only possibly happen in the most gratuitous action movies, I considered how I would be responding if I was sitting in my new place at that moment. While Mission Hill is relatively far from Cambridge in Boston geographic parlance, it’s still a part of the city. There was no question that not only would I be sitting in my apartment with the doors locked, but that I would probably be uncomfortable sitting near the windows knowing what these people were willing to do and that they were still out there. When the police announced on Friday evening that it appeared the suspect had escaped I decided on the spot to stay in New Jersey until he was found. Although I was 1,100 miles away, the thought of taking Latke outside felt like I would be risking certain death. Even after September 11th, it never felt like there was such a palpable ongoing danger in just living life. Friday was a very unsettling day.

My radio was tuned to news for almost the entire week and in the few instances where I needed a break from current events (or lack thereof, which quickly became irritating since the media doesn’t appear to recognize lulls until long after the rest of us have), I was more in the mood for sports talk than for music. With so much conversation on national media about things like the location of Copley Square, the type of trains on the Green Line, and the list of world-renowned hospitals within the city of Boston, in a sense I felt closer to the place than when I’m only a state or two away. Literally and figuratively, the national media had come to visit my home. It made my car radio feel like an extension of my living room. In a week like the one we’ve just been through, an escape into the mountains with my dog was all but impossible. But then, I don’t think I ever really thought of this trip as an escape. I didn’t really need one. After all, there’s nothing I needed a break from. My existence at the moment is relatively stress free, with all the big decisions about next year already completed. I really had no burning desire to get in the car and to be “away for a while.”

So why did I go on this Great Blue Ridge Adventure? For one, now that my plans for the fall (and with them, the next 3 years and beyond) were finalized, I knew I only had until September before I wouldn’t be able to take trips like this anymore. Giving myself a 1-week travel radius and knowing that I had no desire to visit a place that would effectively prolong my winter for another week, the southern Appalachians stood out as the most spectacular landscapes that I could hope to reach.

It had also been a long time since I had captured a bunch of wall-hangable images. True, on the trip out to LA with my sister I had convinced her to stop at Canyonlands, Arches, and Monument Valley and I got some truly spectacular stuff there, that feels like it was years ago already. During February break, which is usually my next opportunity to go somewhere photogenic, I needed to visit Washington to see some law schools before finalizing that decision. Even though I worked in some time to take pictures of the Capitol at night, the 2 or 3 good ones couldn’t really keep me busy for long. Then I had April vacation. So I planned this week’s itinerary with more of an eye than usual for the best photo ops in the hopes that I could come away with a bucket of new images to hang on my walls. That’s probably why the weather was so frustrating. I had something on every day of the itinerary that, if it went according to plan, would give me a chance to capture something amazing. But in the end, those chances only came on 3 of the 7 days. So while much of this adventure was a success, I feel like I wasn’t able to accomplish all I had set out to do, photographically.

The fact that so many of the areas I visited this week felt like they were previous destinations, even though I might have seen very different parts of them during prior visits, made more of an impact on this trip than I had expected. Gone were much of the constant anticipation and awe that come with turning the corner and seeing a landscape for the first time. Even my reactions to waterfalls and mountain views, with a few exceptions (Max Patch and Silver Run Falls, for example), were muted by my prior general knowledge of what to expect. While one could say that the specific items in those categories that I found this week were probably better examples than I had seen, I was rarely able to say to myself, “This is something I’ve never seen before.”

There was, though, an upside to my familiarity with the region. Much of the worrying uncertainty that comes with visiting a completely unknown part of the country was gone. I didn’t have to worry about finding the best BBQ places in Asheville since I had already researched that, knew the best one, and knew a fallback option that I had already been to. I didn’t have to worry about whether my twisty waterfall quest would bring me past a gas station since I knew I’d be traveling through Brevard and I already knew Brevard. I can usually prevent much of this stress in the first place by doing meticulous (some would say obsessive) research on my destinations but there’s usually some lingering doubt that the internet was right. This time I could rely on my own knowledge, which was good because at times I know I’m more trustworthy than much of the internet.

Still, I have a desire to return to the Parkway again – particularly in the fall or in June when the innumerable rhododendrons are in full bloom. Seeing the place at this unique time of year, when the region as a whole is experiencing spring but the vastly differing elevations are frequently at opposite extreme ends of the season, shows the potential it has to put on a spectacular show at the right time, regardless of the weather. 

So what’s next? Despite the rapid narrowing of my road trip window, it has not closed yet. I’ll still have parts of this summer and (if I’m desperate) the long holiday weekends and short vacation weeks during the next 2 semesters. So while I still believe what I wrote the other night – that Clingmans Dome is likely the highest point upon which I’ll be standing any time soon there are some destinations I already know I’d like to explore that are closer to home. The Adirondacks have always seemed mysterious to me – what’s in that giant expanse of natural preserve and why have I never been there? Acadia might be worth another shot since much of that trip was “fogged out” like this week. My sister and I have discussed some far-fetched ideas, including a 2-week BBQ odyssey through North Carolina and Tennessee. I have a friend in Galveston, TX who I really should go visit since he’s been here twice since I’ve last been there. And if all else fails, the White Mountains of New Hampshire are still only 4 hours away.

So while things for me become less certain, at the same time they’re more certain. While we make progress in some areas, in others we see the same old problems resurfacing. While our nation and its people are gaining a more global perspective, the same senseless mayhem is taking aim at our own backyards. Yet despite all this, we can count on one universal and infallible truth: Mountain weather still changes rapidly.

Truly, everything old is new again.

Until next time.


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  2. When I'm out in LA, you should fly out and we can take a group drive to the northwest parks! We've got time though, no rush.

  3. Definitely! If I ever have free time again.
    The Pacific Northwest? Or is there stuff northwest of LA? Either way, you're lucky because California has an incredible variety of ridiculously scenic stuff all within a couple of hours.