Thursday, March 26, 2009

Spring Break Chronicle Part IV

Note: Just for the record, I am aware this is excessively long, but I told myself I would write this up and while I doubt a soul will read this all the way through, its a good exercise for me to practice writing. That said the other sections are linked here:

I,  II, and III

          Part IV - New Beginnings

Again, however, just past the Texaco, we were transported into a world of natural beauty. After being inundated with man made drudgery it took my mind several minutes to truly believe that the river running by the side of the road may have actually not been constructed by human hands and was truly a wonder of natural beauty. Inside the park, it seemed ludicrous to think that just a mile back down the road the atrocities of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, existed. We were still on a road and plenty of cars were around, but things were different. The park rangers, for example, were driving around in Honda Priuses (which somehow, due to the magic of modern marketing, seemed like they had simply spawned from the earth naturally in order to jauntily bounce upon the national park roadways).

            A bit of the over-crowding that Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee (I have to use the whole name because kind of like the opposite of Cher or Madonna, only the full name can partially convey the grand scale of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee), came in handy when we hid our car amongst the several others illegally parked on the side of the park road and figured that there would be enough traffic so we wouldn’t get towed in the four days we would be gone. We changed out of our civilian clothes and into our backpacking guerilla ware. And with that, we hoisted our packs, which would be permanently glued to our backs for the greater part of the daylight hours of the next several days.

            The worst part of the few trails I’ve been exposed to, is the walk until you get to the trail. This walk featured a washed out road past an “Authorized Vehicles Only” sign and a row of abandoned houses with broken windows next to the road (note: if I wanted to see that, I wouldn’t have left Detroit). We passed a couple with packs on their backs as well and I expected a cordial exchange. The woman kind of looked puzzled at us, but was pleasant, and her companion looked like he had never seen such hate-able creatures. “We just aren’t used to seeing people start so late.” I looked at the sky, and the sun seemed pretty high yet; I guessed it was maybe six-thirty. The man didn’t try and explain his icy demeanor he just started. And so with no reservations, we proceeded on our path.

            Soon the wide dirt road was replaced with a narrower, but obviously well trod gravel pathway. We continued marching up this at a decent grade until the pathway got narrower and narrower and we finally felt like we were on some sort of hiking trail. The initial vegetation we saw was decidedly unremarkable. The trees were mostly still bare from the winter and the moss and fallen leaves were things I saw everyday outside my parents home in Michigan. Soon, however, once I became accustomed to the standard vegetation, it served a rather soothing purpose. The bare trees and leaves became the norm and pleasant.

            We began to pass a few creeks along the way and the sound of natural water always seems unnatural to me. I suppose it’s a sad realization that the first reaction I have to the sound of water rushing over rock is to look around me for the ornately constructed synthetic waterfall thing that middle aged women like to have in their homes. Instead of it being nature imitating our imitation of nature, its simply nature being. And I get to partake in that experience; I just need a moment to realize that I am directly experiencing it, not observing through some other medium of perception.

When I was a kid, I bought a cassette tape of an album called Twilight Jazz because they had one of those giant display boards in the store where you could press a button and hear part of the song. I don’t know why an eight-year-old would want to buy that cassette, but I must have wanted to bad enough that my parents let me get it as some sort of present. I imagine that I found the sounds of nature irresistible and wanted to experience them in some form. I am not sure whether to regret that I experienced them in a glossy package along with dubbed in trumpet playing, or be glad that I got to experience them as a youngster and that somehow I appreciated the synthesis of natural beauty as well as created beauty in the jazz. For the sake of glass-half-full-ness I’ll take the later.

Diversions aside, we trudged along the trail until after a quick three-miles we found our campsite. Well, specifically we found two tents and some dying fires and figured we must be at the campsite, which of course, we were. Amazingly, less than two hours after departing from our car, we were dumbstruck to see not one group, but two groups of people invading our isolated nature experience. When desiring and expecting solitude (or a small duo as we were), discovering you will have to share your experience with others is frustrating. Especially when the others (note: I’ve only seen like two episodes of lost) seem like a group of 14 year-old girls.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Spring Break Chronicle Part III

To View Part I Click here

Part III – Gatlinburg (I)

            After Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, Gatlinburg looked like a podunk town in the mountains. Which, apparently it was until fifty years ago. This time, the road was only four-lanes and some buildings actually seemed to blend into the landscape. Still, Ripley’s offered multiple attractions, and I actually saw two working chair-lift operations. One took you to the top of the mountains, assumedly for a view without all that bothersome walking and sense of accomplishment, the other took you somewhere where you could enjoy hillbilly golf (note: not the unbelievably enjoyable game made from PVC pipes and golf-balls tied together, but putt-putt apparently at crazy angles).

            However, despite Gatlinburg being an improvement over Pigeon Forge, it was still jarring. Miles of bumper to bumper traffic, but at least this time, the foot traffic was also present. I’ve never been in a scene I felt so well-suited to the phrase throngs of people. I don’t even really know what it means other than that there were throngs of people on the streets. Gatlinburg was also further proof that in a lesson from the Kevin Costner baseball classic (the one in Iowa, not the other two) if you build enough gift shops, they will come, and they will be decked out in NASCAR gear.

            Eventually, Mark’s  bladder control was weakened to the point that he had to venture into the crowds, wade through them, and stop in a McDonalds. Meanwhile, I continued down the gentle stream of traffic. When Mark left McDonalds, inexplicably, traffic let up and I was caught up in a flow at the breakneck speed of 20 miles per hour. I had to stop at the world’s dirtiest Texaco at the edge of town in order to wait for him. He had to break into stride on the street and fly past sidewalk gawkers in a failed attempt to reach me. Worst of all, the momentary separation forced both of us to get “back on the grid” (meaning we had to turn on our cell phones in order to figure out where to meet up). In thanks for a truly unique bathroom experience, I went looking for sugarfree gum in the station’s convenience store only to find that apparently aspartame is illegal in Tennessee and my only option was six pieces of Bubbalicious for the low, low, price of $1.50. I was just glad Mark showed up before my car got in trouble for parking in the world’s only gas station parking lot that carried a $5.00 flat rate parking fee.

Continue to Part IV here

Spring Break Chronicle Part II

If you haven't read part I - click here to read

Part II – Pigeon Forge Tennessee

            My former roommate, Mark, and I left early Saturday morning in order to get to the trailhead in time to put a couple of miles under our belt be for we set up camp for the first night. As is always the case, our well laid plans came to ruin at the hand of some external force. The first external force: Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Few experiences change me as dramatically and convincingly as the experience of sitting in grid locked traffic in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Honestly, I felt as if I was in a movie about where materialism is headed in twenty years. Only that movie was made in the 1980’s so everything looks ridiculously old and simultaneously futuristic at the same time.

            The initial roadside shops did not appear to be so bad. In fact, the world’s largest knife store evoked a kind of stir inside me to the effect that I couldn’t believe that I was going to bypass the opportunity to be surrounded by so many sharp objects at once. Alas, however, the trail awaits, and so on we must press. The Comedy Barn of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee decided that it must monopolize every Billboard in town and somehow decided “As seen on YouTube” was a clever slogan. We past the As Seen on TV store, where I can only assume you can buy assorted unnecessary goods and similarly unnecessary prices (although, my pursuit of the ever elusive Snuggie may have ended if I had submitted to my desire to pull into the boob tube shop).

            Soon, the shock and awe of gaudy stores, and ridiculous tourist trap destinations (let’s just say Ripley’s had multiple storefronts in this town, if that’s any indication of the quality of attraction we are dealing with here) wore off and the drive became not unexpectedly fatiguing. Outlet malls almost seemed mundane compared to the spectacle of the “Miracle Theatre” and “Mystery Land” which featured a giant mansion completely upside down. Still, I was tempted to pull over and play “Firehouse golf” or ride on “Earthquake: the ride.” What I was most disappointed in was that every fifth storefront was a closed down pancake house. I’m not sure if it was because the delicious breakfast flap jack market was saturated, or people were too busy playing novelty-themed putt-putt, but I was deeply saddened to see that in a market where clearly any bad idea could thrive, the griddles were going begging.

            To get the proper mental image, one must consider that this was not some two-lane trek through a block of ridiculousity. I was on a six, seven, even eight-lane road in bumper to bumper traffic, allowing ample time to consider the finer points of Wild Woody’s Go Karts. And maybe it was because I didn’t need to touch the gas pedal for an hour, but the street and traffic seemed to go on forever. It surely covered at least 5 miles. And to cap this all of, I had to resist the urge at the end of the trip to hang a left and travel down Dollywood lane to prove to myself that somehow, one can parlay prominent assets into not only a county music career, but also a theme park (which amazingly is not sponsored by the chicken wing empire which parlayed similar goods to an atrocious restaurant chain despite decidedly mediocre food).

            Finally, once we were past Dollywood and the multitude of hotels featuring colossal water slides traveling out and back into the building, we seemed to be instantly transported into another world. The lanes on my side of the road went down from five to two and the jarring landscape was changed from gaudiness to natural beauty instantaneously. There was a branch off to the right for the Gatlinburg bypass, which I didn’t see until the last second and didn’t fully understand till the next slow-down ensued.

Click here to read Part III

Spring Break Chronicle Part I

Note - Here is the first part of a narrative I am writing on my spring break. From the looks of it, its going to be pretty long and boring, but hey, I need the writing practice. 

Part I - An Unnecessary Introduction

My high school yearbook features a page showing me curled up on a classroom floor in a blanket pretending to dream. Above it, a caption explains that if I could be anyone in the world for a day, I would be Lions quarterback Mike McMahon. The amount of information contained in that morsel of knowledge is huge. It shows, first and foremost, that I was an idiot (note: not “was” as in am no longer, but simply that I unequivocally was a documented fool). Secondly, it provides an extraordinary example of the Lions perpetually awful rotation at the quarterback position. And finally, it acknowledges that for some reason recently, which even I honestly can’t remember, I was leafing through my old high school yearbook (weird).

            However, this fact came to my attention when I recently considered how much I would love to be Bill Bryson. Really, Bill Bryson doesn’t have an extraordinary job. Rather, I feel like he has established a unique craft that has allowed him to carve out the niche job that I would love: writer about whatever tickles his fancy. He is largely known as a travel writer, and rightly so. However, he also has written works on the history of the world (literally the whole thing), his childhood imaginary super powers, Shakespeare, and a few quite enjoyable titles on the English language itself.

            And finally, from my high school yearbook to Bill Bryson, I found myself on the Appalachian Trail for the second consecutive Spring Break (yeah, that’s right, I’m still in school and the words Spring Break still mean something to me). Anyways, I read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods while traveling in Spain and Morocco with my sister. I’m not sure if the experience was heightened due to the fact I was currently in travel mode, but the book quickly became one of my favorite reads. I even flirted with the option of hiking on the Appalachian Trail last summer before the medical-school-ambition-vampire convinced me that I should probably do something for my curriculum vitae (note: I still have no idea why medical students don’t call this a resume like the rest of the word, but I’m sure there is some archaic reason that tradition won’t let go of).

Click here for Part II

Monday, March 9, 2009

Argyle socks and Road Rage

***Disclaimer: I don't tend to write about religious themes too often, so just a warning that I dip a toe into that realm here***

I have a friend who sends me socks in the mail every year for my birthday. I love getting socks in the mail from this friend for many reasons. Every man needs dress socks, but I don’t know any who particularly enjoy purchasing them. Second, I get fancy socks with argyle patterns on them and that aren’t the kind with the gold thread in the toes that I would always pick out. And finally, every time I wear those socks I remember that my friend got them for me and I feel special for about the first ten seconds of that day.

The trouble is, I soon forget that my socks make me feel special once I spill my first sip of coffee on the dress shirt that I bought for myself. And you might not believe it, but a year is a long time to go between getting new pairs of schmancy argyle socks. The socks get holey. And recently I have begun noticing that I am in more and more situations wear the holey socks just look downright tacky, despite all the argyle decor they boast.

Yet, I can’t bring myself to throw out the socks. Instead, I keep them in the drawer until I eventually forget they have holes in them and wear them until I go to dinner at a fancy house where my toes are again denuded. So I resolve that I will throw the birthday socks out the moment I get home. But, I don’t. Instead, I tell myself I will wash them once more, then cut them up and use them as fancy rags for when I do fancy cleaning things like dusting. Despite the obvious problem that I have never felt the spontaneous impulse to dust, I am also confronted with the reality that it is hard to tell (or remember) that socks have holes in them until you are wearing them in above classy dinner situation.

I feel like sometimes, when I ask God to forgive me for something stupid I’ve done that I don’t want to do anymore its just like what I do with my argyle socks. That is, I don’t throw the deed away. Instead, I try to wash it and convert it into some other semi-functional deed that may be of some service. So, after I lose my temper because some jerk with sunglasses got in my lane and then slowed down in front of me so I have to disrupt my oh-so-finely-calibrated cruise control, I ask for forgiveness for the incident (maybe, days later, if I remember for some reason) and go back to driving the same way.

I expect, that since I asked for forgiveness, the next time I place myself in the same situation with the same jerk drivers with sunglasses that my reaction will be different. And it isn’t. I just keep finding that I am still wearing the argyle socks with holes in them on my feet.

I’ve recently realized that there is a difference between what I see as forgiveness and what God wants in repentance. I don’t know exactly how the machine works on God’s end, but I know on mine, that God wants repentance, and when I ask for forgiveness and stop there, I never quite get to repentance.

In order to stop finding myself in embarrassing situations showing of my big toes and their finely maintained toe nails, I had to throw out the argyle socks. If I tried to wash them, I’d end up wearing holey socks again and I did not want to do that. In fact, I wanted to not wear holey socks on my feet more than I wanted to somehow save the special socks. That’s the only way that I can stop wearing holey socks.

I think repentance works in the same way. I can ask God to forgive me for getting angry on the road a million times, but if I head out onto the road as the same person I was the last time I blew my top at a driver who inconvenienced me, chances are I’ll find another annoying driver and lose my temper again. What has to happen, is that I want to not get angry with my brother so badly that I determine that I will stay in the right hand lane of the highway, expect to be behind a slow semi-truck, and enjoy the radio for a change.

Just like I throw out the holey socks the instant I realize they are holey (or the instant I get home from the fancy), I have to throw out the behavior that leads to me becoming angry with my brother. Namely, I have to stop trying to make the best time possible on the freeway, because that behavior, not the idiot drivers I encounter, is what leads to my anger. And until I want to stop being angry so badly that I don’t care if it means that I have to stay in right lane behind whoever may happen to be there, I will never truly repent.

The truth is, another set of pristine socks with even classier argyle patterns will come soon enough, and until then, I can deal with the golden toe variety I pick out for myself to get my by. And the music on the radio is strangely much more enjoyable from the view of the back end of a semi truck than the view of the back of my hand as I try to restrain a pesky finger from popping up in the middle of my hand.