On fumes

It often feels like am ruled by inertia: if I’m lying down on the couch, it takes a superhuman amount of effort to change that. I’ll stay buried under the blanket until an actual emergency looms.

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But once I get rolling, God help you if you try to stop me. Interruptions—stopping here or there for this or that—feel like unbearable dams in the river of everything that is happening and must happen now now now.

Okay, I admit it: I’m looking for excuses for how I let the car run out of gas.

We’ve been driving around a lot to see the scenery. The gauge got below half, below a third. “I should get gas soon,” I thought, then forgot. Eventually it was below a quarter. “Remind me to get gas,” I told him, rather unfairly. I forgot. So did he.

And neither of us realized that after we went over that hill, there would just be…no gas…at all…for miles and miles, as the gas light came on and the gauge ticked down from four bars, to three, to two.

Nine miles later, a town sparkled at the base of a hill we’d just crested, lying against the bed of the ocean. “There will be gas there,” I said.

“Hope so,” he said.

I snorted, said something rather rude about how a town is hardly a town without a single gas station.

There was no gas station.

Down to one bar.

Thirteen miles to the next town, said the road sign.

Sweat broke out on his forehead.

I tossed my shoulders back and said we could make it all the way to our destination if we wanted, no problem. “You always have fifty miles after the light goes on, everyone knows that.”

“I thought it was twenty.”

Sweat broke out on my forehead.

What may have been thirteen miles later felt like about fifty. Every little tremble and rumble and wheeze of the car felt like the last breath of an empty tank. Our phones lied about having service: we couldn’t get any information to load. All there was to do was press on forward, through breathtaking countryside where we might very well be camping out tonight with no service and an inert vehicle, hoping that eventually there would be a town and that it would be the proper kind of town with at least one gas station.

We got to that thirteen-miles-away town approximately twenty-one miles later (I have verified against Google Maps). No gas. I felt like I was going to puke. We’d been at one bar for so long.

You go to worst-case-scenario planning so fast when you’re in a bad-case scenario. And yet it was and will forever remain imaginary, because we’ll never now know whether anyone would have stopped and helped us by letting us use their magically operable phone, or by driving ahead to the next town and bringing back a fuel can of gas to get us going. It would be night not too long from now. Would we have to walk miles along the winding, dark, shoulderless road?

I wondered whether this feeling was like the one that precedes a panic attack, which is not helpful when you’re driving. He started breathing differently. I apologized, which he accepted graciously, but like they say, the best apology is changed behavior, and I could hardly start filling up promptly at this point where there were no actual gas stations, I mean, honestly.

Through it all I had this sense that we’d make it, which was not supported by evidence, but which stuck with me. Something will happen. It just has to. There will be a town, eventually, with a gas station. It doesn’t make sense that there won’t be.

And, readers, there was. Two or five or some odd miles after the town we’d been aiming for, there was a gas station. It was crowded, because I imagine everyone else, like us, was fully in scarcity mode by the time they saw it. We filled up. We began breathing better, and we had a nice long verbal processing session about the whole thing.

I wondered aloud, probably too soon, whether this would be the kind of story we could laugh about soon, the time we wound around the wild coastline on fumes, the time we almost accidentally camped overnight in the national park. I vowed to become the kind of person who fills up between a quarter and a half tank. Call it a third-quarter resolution.

Time, as a symptom.

(Pair this post, if you dare, with a listen to my absolute queen Joanna Newsom’s album Divers, which is all a meditation on time and what it means to love another person in the face of the temporary span of a life. It’s a ton of fun. Here’s a sample:)

And what lies under now the city is gone. Look, and despair.

“Sapokanikan,” Joanna Newsom

I recently spent a week with my parents in some of the National Parks of the Southwest. We went to the Grand Canyon (very grand indeed), Zion, and Bryce Canyon. These are all fantastic places to spend time, and I would highly recommend them. The views, man.

Of my parents and me, two of us arrived in a new decade in the last year. We thought, in not quite so many words, that a trip to the parks would be a good opportunity to mark the passage of time. Our trip also happened to coincide with All Saints’ Day (or All Hallows’,) and All Souls’ Day, when quite a lot of people are considering all those who have come before us.

So that’s fun.

But you don’t have to be in landscapes like these long to understand that the kind of time you can count in birthdays, or even in entire human civilizations, is nothing in comparison with the kind of time that is cleaved open and on display in a canyon.

You learn at the Grand Canyon that, even though you’re looking a mile down into a few billion years of rock history, which the river has carved through in the last five million years (give or take!), there are a casual 270 million years of rock history that eroded clean away before the river had a chance to cut into them. Just—270 million missing years, and what you’re looking at is the rest.

You see these amazing landforms that basically defy logic. It’s rock behaving as rock has no business behaving. You know better (because you watched the video in the rangers’ station and you read the plaques) but it looks like rocks are growing like trees. It looks like rocks are flowing like molasses. It looks like rocks are flopping like pancakes, one on top of the other.

The whole thing is just time and mutation. Volcanoes beget flatlands. Marshes give way to oceans, which give way to deserts, which rise thousands of feet to become mountains, and then rivers file them down into chasms, revealing the history from within. This happens not at all silently, but wordlessly.

And even though it all took a few million or billion years, depending on how you count, it’s also changing every year. The spooky hoodoos of Bryce Canyon are inherently temporary. Every winter, ice pushes them apart more, and every summer their rocks fall. I saw it happen: a dozen or so rocks the size of my fist tumbled quite mundanely off a cliff as I hiked below. This, day after day, is how plateaus become walls, walls become windowed, windowed walls become towers, and towers crumble into hillocks, then into flatness. The high land will erode, 1-4 feet every century, who knows how far back? Until the infrastructure of the park, which sits atop the plateau looking down over the canyon, will be eaten away and gone.

We happen to be able to see it now, but it’s anything but permanent.

It’s enough to make you wonder what “conservation” is all about. We wouldn’t be wise to attempt to conserve a hoodoo. We’d do more damage to the park by trying to freeze it in time than by letting it be. What it is is something that exists for a time, maybe a few decades, and then collapses. It wouldn’t be conservation to turn it into something else entirely—something that lasts forever. That would be transformation. (Appropriate for Halloween, perhaps, when zombies and monsters of all kinds roam, but not for All Saints’ Day, when we peacefully remember those who have come and gone before us.)

Maybe conservation is, instead, giving all the entities that make up the Earth a chance to make their own story, in rock or tree or fur or desert.

So it would seem to be true:

when cruel birth debases, we forget.

When cruel death debases,

we believe it erases all the rest

that precedes.

But stand brave, life-liver,

bleeding out your days

in the river of time.

Stand brave:

time moves both ways,

“Time, As a Symptom,” Joanna Newsom

On long walks out there, I started to think about sandstone. You’re surrounded by it in that environment. Sand is everything: it’s the desert, and it’s the ocean floor, and now it’s the canyon. But it’s just sand. Walking along the canyon bottom you feel it underneath your boots, just as slow and yielding as a beach. What’s beneath your feet used to be the canyon walls above you. It’s the bits that have disintegrated lately.

If you touch the walls as you pass, you might rub off some sand. It comes easily, when it’s ready. But underneath the loosened part, there’s hard sandstone. It’s not ready, not yet. But give it a year or a thousand and it will blow away too.

That’s stone, and we’re people. We live on different time frames, by a factor of many zeroes. But like rock we always change, even until we die. That’s the wonderful thing about being alive. The change doesn’t all happen at once, and it doesn’t happen in an orderly way. We’ll find that there are places that are a little looser, a little more ready to give. We can be grateful for those. The rest might be a little tougher. That’s okay. Give it time. Because the loosening of what’s easy, the letting go of the stone that’s ready to be sand already, makes room for more change. And the loosening of that loose sand is what slowly, imperceptibly, loosens the hard stuff.

And Time, in our camp, is moving

as you’d anticipate it to.

But what is this sample proving?

Anecdotes cannot say what Time may do.

“Anecdotes,” Joanna Newsom