Day 1 (08/06/98)

The Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins on the Wrong Train

Elizabeth took me out for a farewell Thai dinner, the sort that makes you want to stay right here. We resolved to seriously consider eating Thai every night, forever. In the morning, she pulled her normal trick of trying to get up and go to work at some sinful hour, like 3am. Entangling her in limbs only kept her around until 4:30 or so.

In the shower I considered, as I do far too frequently, my evil twisted bastard landlord from Hell. (Hi, Mr. Lang! You world-beating prick, you!) And I considered, how would this be for the next great goal? TO NOT LET SHIT BOTHER YOU. My God, how powerful would you be then? If you could really master yourself to the point that you were impervious to shit? As has been pointed out, it's nice when everything goes our way–but the real trick lies in making our way with equanamity when things don't. With that thought, first of the first day of the trip, I decided to dare to hope that this might not be merely a vacation, but a spiritual travel. A pilgrimage, however humble. Pilgrimages of course require different tools than web travelogues; I grabbed my pocket copy of Mitchell's translation of the Tao Te Ching, and jammed it into my burgeoning bags.

Speaking of which: "Here's my gear, Ain't it queer, Don't be sceered, It's just my gear." (Paraphrase of George Carlin, with apologies to all.) Here it is, btw, if you're curious. Special prize to whoever can pick out the most obscure item in the shot. I went back and reread Greenwald's passage about packing his Endless Journey. He said that the day before departure, a gaggle of friends, relatives, and the local chiropractor all dropped by to watch his feat. He marveled that t-shirts and bathing suits, so light and airy taken individually, bunch up into a wad roughly the weight and density of a neutron star. He loaded up, then got himself into the harness, and wobbled gingerly around his apartment like a moon man. The weight management was fantastic, he noted: "No worse than having an adult hippopotamus on my back." Still, he considered that one of his worst traveler's nightmares was coming true: "I was about to carry something heavy around the world.

My experience with packing this thing was, uh, the same. (Except I packed it twice–the second time making use of the experience I gained during the first.) But, leaving the apartment this morning with this beast on my back, I realized that Jeff was right on with the hippo comment. I'm walking and standing at a permanent 20 degree angle relative to vertical, and catching my reflection in the bus stop glass, I realize that I appear to be nearly half as deep as I am tall–and definitely twice as deep as I am wide. I do believe I look like some sort of mythological turtle, inexplicably walking the streets of pre-millennial Menlo Park. [Did you hear the one about the philosopher, I believe it was Locke, who was approached by an aged woman at the end of a lecture on metaphysics? She said, "I know what supports the world. The world sits on the back of a giant turtle." "Perhaps, madame," rejoindered Locke (if it was Locke), "but upon what does the giant turtle sit?" "Aha, I've got you there, Mr. Philosopher," she replied. "It's turtles all the way down!"]

As I approach Cafe Barrone (near the CalTrain station) for a farewell coffee, I have to admit that my back is going to take some getting used to this. On the other hand, I'm merely walking a flat sidewalk a half mile to the train station. Could you imagine trekking up Everest with a load of gear like this? I'm quickly disabused of this anxiety, however–having recently read Krakauer's Into Thin Air, AND watched the Everest IMAX flick, I am well aware that none of the climbers on those expeditions actually carried anything up the mountain. That joyous task was reserved for the host of Sherpa guides and porters. Let me get this straight: All of these guys climbed the same mountain, taking the same route, at the same altitudes–but the dark-skinned local ones carried all the hundreds of pounds of gear on their backs, and the other guys were the big heroes? Humph.

I got on the wrong damn train. I never ride at rush hour, when the trains come fast and thick. Normally when I'm riding, the last and next trains are 30 minutes in either temporal direction. Happily, my misstep was merely in getting on the express–rather than on a southbound train, which would have sucked. This I can recover from.

My Eagle Creek Undercover Pouch fits like a nicotine patch. I think this thing is really a great idea–unless the banditos strip us naked, they'll never clean us out. [NOTE: I hope I do not run into any web-savvy banditos. They will know all my tricks.]

Though... I was reflecting on the contents of this essential magical pouch–and on their significance. Here's what it holds: a big stack of American currency, a U.S. passport, a First USA Platinum Visa card, an American Express corporate card, a PacificCare god-like health insurance card, and keys to my cozy grand-a-month apartment in Menlo Park. Here's what these things do: They keep me from ever being mistaken for (or abandoned among) the huge hordes of dirt-poor people amidst whom I will shortly be vacationing. This passel of plastics is my Rich Industrialized Nation Official Membership card; it is my handstamp for admission back into the First World (actually the First Country of the First World); they are the little magnetic, and analog, and digital imprimaturs which signify that I am a rich, privileged, and hugely free person, and which set me apart from all those who were not fortunate enough to be born any of those things.

It will be well for me to at least look some of those folks in the eye. (Even as I maintain this odd vigil against becoming one of them.)

As I struggled into my harness again, and rose to trundle off of the wrong train, I heard a thunk from behind me. Scanning the dimness under the seat, bracing for the conductor to close the train doors and whisk me off on a non-stop ride to downtown S.F., I saw my eyeglasses, in their hard case, sitting on the floor. My daypack was open–I had sprinted from the cafe without closing it. This is just the kind of shit that can easily happen (to stupid people). I recovered the glasses, and, soon after, on boarding the correct train (which had been trailing right behind me the whole time; just a matter of hopping off the tracks and waiting for it to catch up), I check the contents of the bag: what else was lost? Those eyeglasses–my only pair–could have, should have, fallen out as I was running and bouncing for that false train at the platform. But they didn't; and neither did anything else, as far as I can tell.

And neither did the pocket edition Tao Te Ching, the only other item at the edge of that open pocket. I say a prayer of thanks, greedily grab the tiny volume, and flip it open at random (hah!) to see what Lao Tzu might have to say to me about all of this:

Without opening your door,
You can open your heart to the world.
Without looking out your window,
You can see the Tao.

The more you know,
The less you understand.

The Master arrives without leaving,
Sees the light without looking,
Achieves without doing a thing.

Hmmm... "arriving without leaving," indeed.

SPECIAL TRIVIA TIDBIT: The Official Seal of the City of Millbrae depicts a plane taking off. (Bay Area people will get a good laugh out of this.)

Goshdarn, I feel lighter than air: the springy hiking boots, the baggy shorts, the cool industry t-shirt (thanks, Ryan!), hair pulled efficiently back, reasonably set jaw, new "Hello there, I am a bad man" Arnette wrap-around shades–the Endless Journey off of my back and into checked baggage. 8^) I'm chatting jauntily with everyone I meet (how odd!). Perhaps travel unburdens the soul.

And to top it off, the prose is flowing like wine (though, it must be admitted, possibly to less intoxicating effect). As I scribble these words, I am boarding the plane, edging down the (relatively wide) aisle. It is sunny, even inside the plane, and the upholstry is done in happy United colours. The trusty Mead 3x5 feels good back in my hand; I guess it's going to be spending a lot of time there.

We're taking off an hour late, quality time I've been spending with an ass-kicking New Yorker ("Mr. Dyer says he has no interest in speaking to anyone who would remain on hold for so long."), and my Fodor's Spanish phrasebook ("No tengo nada para declarar.") Worth the wait, though: we're lifting off northbound along the edge of the Bay–great view of the City, especially the Financial District, and the Bay Bridge.

Food on the way; laptop on reserve battery power; I plan to spend tonight catching up with Sara, scoping bats, and taking it easy in the warm Texas evening. I'll write about Austin tomorrow. Best regards from 18,000 feet!

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