Saturday, 10 May 2014

Orbital Refuelling 2

“The US is a country that has leapt from barbarism to decadence without touching
                                                                                        John O’Hara

Steve and Charlie and I went back to Las Vegas to inaugurate my upcoming adventure. This was my third visit. The first time was with Steve, when we worked at NASA. The second was to present a paper at an Aerospace Medical Association convention three years later. I almost didn’t go. It was held during the third year examination period, the most crucial trial by fire of my medical school education. The convention hotel in Vegas was the Landmark, a perfect venue for an aerospace meeting. It was shaped like a UFO and owned by Howard Hughes. He had designed the d├ęcor right down to the employee’s uniforms. It was in major financial trouble, just like me. I had no money. My solution was to approach the Dean for assistance (the same one Hawkeye and I threw into the coeducational water, not one year later).
“Now, let me see if I understand.” He stammered. “You want to miss the most important examination of your life, you want to go to Las Vegas, and you want me to pay for it?”
“That pretty much covers it”.
He gave me three hundred dollars. I put it on red in the Landmark lobby. It came up black, and an odd number at that. Luckily, there was a $0.99 buffet at Circus Circus every morning or I would have starved. Today, that same breakfast costs over ten bucks. It would still be better than in Oregon.
In 1853, Brigham Young sent thirty Mormon missionaries into Las Vegas, to introduce the Paiute Indians to the American Dream. A hundred and fifty years later, Hunter S. Thompson undertook his savage journey to the heart. Both resulted in fear and loathing, in the meanest town in the world if you’re a loser. Steve, Charlie and I just went for the weekend. We drove through a solitude of radiant light and heat, and penetrated a skyline of signs. We arrived in Babylon, suspended in time and belief. It was a desert mirage, but it was all inside. There was air conditioning, dark glitzy rooms, and a clock at the bus station. The promise of instant wealth and redemption gave bloodlines to subspecies of vampire bats, cougars and lounge lizards. Tom Jones was playing at Caesar’s Palace. We played everywhere else. Steve bribed what it cost today to eat breakfast at Circus Circus, to get me into the Brewery, because I didn’t meet the dress code. I tried to tell the bouncer that I was hitchhiking around the world and my pack already weighed 60 pounds, but he was more interested in the ten bucks. There was no dress code at the Imperial pool. Nor in Steve’s Jacuzzi back in Seal Beach. And the night before I finally left L.A., you could look up and see Orion, leaning south.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Orbital Refuelling 1

    “You have the impression in the States of not having taken enough cocaine.”
                                                                                Saint Bris Gonzague

I landed on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, like Newton’s forehead bouncing off the apple- sunblind, sore, and ripe for revelation. Gravity was involved. A regiment of Japanese schoolboys walked by. The taller ones in the front of the column wore glasses with thinner lenses, than the coke bottle thickness of the younger ones bringing up the rear. Their baseball caps, and the telephoto Nikons draped around their necks, also got bigger toward the back, just as the uniforms got smaller. The last little guy could barely see. His head was bent forward by a monstrous camera. I guess that’s why he saw it first. The squeal was inhuman. In a heartbeat, a dozen clicking automatic drives and flashes were burning Mickey Mouse into the sidewalk. It was payback nuclear inferno time. Tip the world on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.
I was waiting for Steve, and redemption. Steve of the Jacuzzi. We had met five years before, at NASA Ames, working on a project to build a colony for 10,000 inhabitants in space. He was the Physicist; I was the Life Sciences guy. We had both been at M.I.T. but I didn’t know him there. I knew him here, in California. We shared a trailer in Manzanita Park at Stanford, and became fast friends. We played tennis, went to Vegas, and laughed at each other’s nerdy clumsiness with women. But Steve had evolved as I went on to sensory deprivation. He moved to Seal Beach, California. In 1923, Cecil B. DeMille filmed Moses parting the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments, on the flat shores of Seal Beach. Fifty-seven years later, Steve, breaking a few on the way, had turned the Jacuzzi into an artform.

                                      *         *        *

                                   “Cannot use one bed too long,
                                     But must get ‘ence, the same as I ‘ave done,
                                     An’ go observin’ matters till they die.”
                                                                 Rudyard Kipling

I spent two weeks at the Oakwood Apartments with Steve and his roommate, Charlie. It was all good. Steve had to work during the day, so I spent my time reading his books, playing Charlie’s guitar, running on the beach, and shopping for those few ‘last minute things’ that any Odysseus would need, on a five year sojourn around the world. Serendipity weighed in at almost sixty pounds by the end of it. I went to Universal Studios, and ‘hung out’ at the apartment complex pool. I read ‘The Adjusted American: Normal Neuroses in Individuals and Society.’ Except that, in Southern California, the neuroses, like the food portions, were supersized, even then. Bodies, businesses, and bleached brains. Like Don Quixote, I was looking for giants, and surrounded by windmills.
When Steve got home at night, we went out to the Red Onion, Legends, Gulliver’s, or Panama Joes, and on to Bobby McGee’s disco. It would be disingenuous of me to pretend that I was a celibate twenty-six year old in L.A. in 1980, or a monk on my subsequent epic journey. I was young and free. There were appetites, and I was no master of sublimation. But I was a romantic fatalist, waiting for rainbows, never chasing them. One rainbow was named Linda. She had being going out with the same guy for seven years. She was getting married in a week, and told me she wanted to find out if it was the right decision. She finally told me it was the right decision. But we spent an awful long time, making absolutely sure.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Serendipity, Diogenes and the Gold Kazoo 2

                                      “Travel teaches toleration.”
                                                       Benjamin Disraeli

Just after I broke camp early next morning, I was picked up by a wild car. I couldn’t see them at first, with all the dust they kicked up on the shoulder gravel, careening to a stop. Two women and a drunk, tattooed, mustached guy. He motioned for me to get in the back.
“You a fugitive?”
“We are…You had breakfast?”
He handed me a beer.
They dropped me off outside Pacific City on 101. A few minutes later, an old crusty stroked-out Army major drove me inland to Salem. Cigars. Goatee. World War II. Korea. I was in the heartland. Waiting on I-5 for a while, I watched a continuous parade of highway patrol slow motion scrutiny go by. I pulled out a Canadian flag, and put it on Serendipity. They all sped up again. Bob, a divorced logger from Portland, finally pulled over and took me an hour down the road. He was also in World War II. He talked about his son who was a soccer player in Tampa. He mentioned his ex-wife, and then he smoked a lot. Breakfast is different in Oregon. Just outside Eugene in the early afternoon, I flagged down a bright pink Cadillac Seville. The driver was a homosexual professional comedian, who thought I was of the same persuasion. I told him I was a professional, but none of that other stuff.
“But your T-shirt says Queens.” He protested.
“That was my medical school.”
“Oh”. He muttered something about truth in advertising, and then shrugged.
“Why do they bury queers in pink coffins?”
“Because the cocksuckers are dead.”
He was driving all the way back to Beverly Hills. Did I have a license?
A few hours later, on the 101 south of San Francisco, I was pushing the wheel of a big pink Caddy to the City of Angels and beyond.


                                     *         *        *

“What’s the story of Orion, Uncle Wink?” asked Sam.
“Well, Sammy, to tell you his story, I should tell you another little one first.” Said Uncle Wink.
“OK.” Millie had turned her attention back on.
“It’s actually a legend about a flower, from the natives that lived near Uncle Wink’s house, many years ago. It seems that the coyote amused himself by tossing his eyes up in the air, and catching them again. One day, while he was engaged in this silliness, an eagle swooped down from the heavens and snatched them. The blind Coyote felt around until he found two buttercups about the same size, and remade his eyes from the flowers. Even today, in the Pacific Northwest, Buttercups are still called ‘Coyote’s eyes.’”
“What does that have to do with Orion?” Millie asked.
“It’s a very long story through many lands, Millie. You need to be patient.”

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Serendipity, Diogenes and the Gold Kazoo 1

“I don’t know why they don’t put you in jail. It’s a crime to be happy without
                                                                     John Steinbeck, Sweet Thursday

I made it to Seattle by the end of the day. A nephrologist friend of a respirologist friend hosted me for a couple of days, while I suited up and provisioned the next leg of the journey. I strolled into REI Co-op with a list, a swagger, and the intended realization of all my twilight dreaming about adventure gear.
“You need some help?” Asked one of the young sales staff.
“I do, indeed.” I said.
“What are you looking for?”
“People, places, ideas and things.” I replied. “But today I need things.”
I already had a brown internal frame knapsack named ‘Serendipity,’ but the only contents were some clothes, a few toiletries, and a silver flute.
“What sort of conditions are you likely to be camping in?” He asked.
“All kinds.”
I already knew what I was seeking- an Early Seasons green and yellow tent that looked like something Diogenes would have bathed in, a golden kazoo-shaped sleeping bag, a blue anorak, and the first of fourteen pairs of hiking boots I would destroy over the course of the next five years. I bought an Olympus XA camera that I named ‘Oracle.’ Although these items alone consumed ten per cent of everything I had earned in my internship year, I still had $2500 to see the world. In retrospect, it appears I was making a terrible mistake. I didn’t have too little money. I had too many things.
Second Rule of Hitchhiking: Possessions weigh you down.

                                              “I took a kimono off
                                               To feel lighter
                                               Only putting it in the load
                                               On my back”

                                        *         *        *

                                           “Where you goin?”
                                           “Sleep where”
                                           “On the sand”
                                           “Got my sleeping bag”
                                           “Studying the great outdoors”
                                           “Who are you? Let’s see some identification”
                                           “I just spent a summer with the Forest Service”
                                           “Did you get paid?”
                                           “Then why don’t you go to a hotel?”
                                           “I like it better outdoors and it’s free.”
                                           “Because I’m studying hobo.”
                                           “What’s so good about that?”
                                                             Jack Kerouac, Lonesome Traveler

My first night out in the real world occurred in Coos Bay, Oregon. The truck driver that took me there from Seattle pointed to a copse of Douglas fir trees, out on a nearby peninsula.
“I’d camp there for the night.” He said, as I slid out of the cab.
I camped there.
Serendipity and I sat in the mouth of Diogenes, watching the moonlit waves lap the shore.
I played the silver flute. And dreamt inside the Gold Kazoo.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Liftoff 1


                    “Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
                     Healthy, free, the world before me,
                     The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.”
                                                                        Walt Whitman

I was over the moon. Actually I was just west of Morris, but the cosmic coordinates felt similar. That first ride had been easier than I thought. The rest of the planet should be a cakewalk.
I waited on the side of the highway for a while. Then a while longer. And then a long time. For some reason, all the traffic on the main highway of the country seemed to have been abducted. I drew pictures in the gravel shoulder with a stick, and decorated them with buttercups. I tried an incantation or two. As I was reassessing my trajectory, a U Haul truck with bright blue and white Ontario license plates came out of the midday heat shimmer.
First Rule of Hitchhiking: It’s not up to you.

He had a baseball cap, sunglasses, moustache and leather driving gloves. He said he was just going ‘just a little way down the road,’ but I was already street smart enough to know he was lying. No one with driving gloves, in a rented truck from Ontario, was stopping in Manitoba. After the initial formalities were dealt with, I found out. He was a real estate agent moving to Vancouver because ‘that’s where the future is.’ His was tired from driving all night long. Did I have a licence? A few hours later I was steering his starship through the Saskatchewan twilight. ‘Alberta Bound’ played on the radio. Orion played on the horizon. You could smell the ozone.

                                          *         *        *

 “Then began a long apprenticeship, to become something certain in my own right,
  from which to see and be seen. Beyond that came the search for connections,
  freely offered and accepted, to confirm that the world and I, after all, we made of
  each other.”
                                                                             Ted Simon, Jupiter’s Travels

She came down to pick me up at the payphone, on Robson Street in Vancouver. She was lovely. I had met her in Mexico during my Blue Period. She drove me home and we discussed our dreams. I was beginning to understand how bittersweet my human encounters were destined to be over the next few years. There is no perfect velocity.
A few days later she drove me to the Peace Arch border crossing, south of Vancouver. She gave me a kiss and her silver flute. We named him ‘Merlin.’ I caught her eyes in the rear view mirror, as she turned around before the frontier.
My left was hung.
“Citizen of what country?” Asked the sunglasses at the checkpoint.
“Canada.” I offered.
“Purpose of your visit to the United States?”
“I’m in transit.” I said.
“What is your final destination?” He slid the glasses down his nose a bit.
I smiled.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Prelaunch 2

                                 “There’s a race of man that don’t fit in,
                                  A race that can’t stay still;
                                  So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
                                  And they roam the world at will.”
                                                 Robert Service, The Men that Don’t Fit In

My parents had a suspicion that something very unorthodox was about to happen to their eldest son. I had already told them, but they were pretending I hadn’t. My mother knew I was serious but chose not to discuss it, hoping I would change my mind. My father was more conflicted. He was a self-made small town boy, who started his adult life by having to take over his father’s clothing store, when the old man died from a heart attack on a rock at the lake one day. He approved of my going off to M.I.T. to study aerospace engineering at sixteen, but he had some difficulty with my wanting to on to medical school, especially since I already had a marketable trade. My latest project seemed to confirm his guarded impression that I would come to nothing useful. ‘Expanding consciousness’ had never made it into the family lexicon. Everyone was too busy trying to just keep it the same size.
“Don’t expect me to bail you out of some Bolivian jail”.
“OK, Dad”.
“And don’t come back with Herpes.”
“OK, Dad”.
We shook hands.
Herpes. Jeezuz.

                                       *         *        *

                       “The longest journey is started by a single step”
                                                     Winnipeg Fortune Cookie

“Hitchhike to Vancouver and hang a left”.
It was the answer to the most frequently asked question, at the farewell party my friends held for me, a few weeks before my departure. They all had the same concerned expression on their faces, like I had developed some rare form of career-killing leprosy that they, thankfully, and with superior karma and insight, had avoided. My escapade was a slow motion stunt destined to go horribly wrong, and they had ringside seats to the opening ceremony.
‘Poor Wink. I remember him just before he met his tragic end.’
It was a special evening. They conjured up a cake in the shape of South America.
“How are you going to get there, Wink?”
I was actually not concerned about the How. I just knew it would happen, somehow. I wasn’t worried about the Why. People travel because they’re either looking for something or running from something. I was on a Pilgrimage. There was no other place to go. The Where was everywhere. I was going to where the smoke alarms turn into geckos, and way beyond the last ice cube. The When was carved into my calendar and brain, counting down to July 17, 1980, t-minus that many days. The one remaining variable was the If. And the only existential force that could possibly change that, in the final minute... was me.

Prelaunch 1



                               “Aim for knowledge. If you become poor it will be wealth for you.
                                 If you become rich it will adorn you.”
                                                            El-Zubeir, son of Abu-Bakr

“Paging Dr. Winkler. Paging Dr. Winkler”.
They were always paging Dr. Winkler. Like I didn’t have anything else to do.
It was my intern training year in Straight Medicine, and I was experiencing all the joys of the ultimate sensory deprivation trip- no sleep, no natural light, no decent food, no time to eat it in, no regular forms of intercourse (social and otherwise) and, whatever self esteem I might have had going into this tunnel, hell, the Senior Residents would take that as well. I was one of the lucky ones, however. My route had been incubating for over two years. I was going over the top.
It’s not that I wasn’t enjoying my apprenticeship. I adored my patients, especially the old natives and the new immigrants. I loved the thrill of the diagnostic chase, the intellectual chess games at morning rounds, the midnight save (can you dance with the devil in the Pale moonlight), and the Spartan dedication to a Calling, bigger and older than I would ever become. Medicine ran in my veins, and I was good at it. Numerous Department Heads courted me, with promises of Fellowships and my own special clinical unit, ‘when I returned.’ But they had no idea where I would be coming from.
They found out from my Program Director, near the end of my year’s indenturedness. It was customary to meet with him to sign next year’s contract, and so he could refamiliarize himself with your face, in case you did.
“I don’t think I’m going to sign this, Bob.” I said, pushing the forms back in his direction.
“Huh. How come?” This had never happened to him before.
“I’ve been planning a little sabbatical.”
“But you just got here, Wink.” Now intrigued.
“I’ve been planning it for awhile.” I said.
“Where are you going?” We both waited for it.
“I was thinking of hitchhiking around the World”.
He didn’t even blink. “How long do you think you’ll need for that?”
“About five years, give or take”.
Then he paused, and played a bit with his beard.
“Call me from Bangkok. We’ll see what we can do.”

                                                                *         *        *

                                   “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.
                                     Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

I was doing my internship in Manitoba. For my sins. On one fine day back East, in my old medical school the previous year, just before we were all due to be matched to new geographies for our internships, the Dean of Medicine happened to walk into the pool shower room, on his way to what he thought would be a quiet noon hour swim. My best buddy, Hawkeye, and I were coming out. The Dean was going in. We had our swimsuits on. He didn’t. It would be fair to say that we enjoyed something of a reputation. Hawkeye gave me one of those looks that I knew was trouble.
“No”, I said, already too late. Hawkeye had his arms. I grabbed his feet and, as we heave-hoed him into the coeducational water, I swear I saw the Canadian prairies materialize outside the windows. Hawkeye did just as well. He was exiled to Saskatchewan. Both of us were going to have a very flat, very dark, and very cold year. I kept telling myself that there would be no distractions to learning.
There was one. She was a nurse I had met in Boston, during an elective the previous year. After two months on an Intensive Care Rotation in the middle of winter, I got my one-month holiday and flew down to be with her. Back at her apartment, she broke the news about the new cardiologist boyfriend, and I caught the next flight back to the deep freeze. I borrowed three hundred dollars from my parents and flew to Mexico. Yo quiero sol. Torrid and Stupid both end with the Id.  I was my own damn fault for expecting her to wait until ‘after I got back.’
Every morning I would awake at 4:30, and run to one of the two teaching hospitals, through the snowdrifts and forty below zero darkness. Every night I wasn’t on call, I would run back to my tenement apartment and, with luck, arrive by 8 pm. I would wolf down whatever easy food I could find in my kitchen, and then fall asleep at my desk, while planning. And dreaming. Of Greek temples and Turkish caravanserai and Incan ruins and Indian Ocean beaches. Of Italian cathedrals and African wildlife close encounters. Of mountains conquered and friends made. I studied tents and sleeping bags and portable stoves and immigration formalities. I collected travelogues and, out of the Penguin Guide to the World’s Places, wrote out the hundreds I needed to visit, before returning home. If I even knew where that would be after five years. My brother, Jay, warned me that he didn’t want to have to spend 35 cents on a stamp, just because I might decide to marry a girl from New Zealand. Those few hours every few nights sustained me and, as the year progressed, began to shine light into the dark recesses of my solitary existence.
“How long do you think you’ll need for that?”
“About five years, give or take”.
It was just simple orbital mechanics.