When I was a kid my family didn’t take many vacations. We never did the Disney thing. We never made it to the Grand Canyon. Unlike Carol and Mike Brady (or Fred and Wilma Flintstone for that matter) my folks didn’t see much value in schlepping off to Hawaii in the middle of the winter. We never did any of that stuff.
In general, I suppose, it was money; but it was also about being busy with other things – boy scout camp, our cabin with the porta-potty on Beaver Lake, manhunt with the kids in the neighborhood, listening to grandma’s stories or playing team-Scrabble with the board on a lazy-susan in the middle of a rickety card table and not a dictionary in sight.
With Disneyland, I’d like to think that our disinclination to go was evidence of an early onset political realization on my part that Mickey Maus was a false prophet of joy, but that’s likely bullshit. More to the point, I suppose, was that Mom knew it was faster, easier and cheaper to sate my 10-year-old rollercoaster jones with a trip to the decidedly downscale Ghost Town in the Glen, located a few hours from our upstate New York home, than it was to drive the three days to Florida.
The summer vacation we did take, several times, however, was to Washington, DC, and those trips were cool. There aren’t many kids who would get excited by the thought of visiting the National Archives to see The Constitution, but I guess I’ve always been a bit off.
The memory that stands out most from those trips was going to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. From very early on I was completely taken with all things astronomical and have remained so my entire life. According to my mom, something happened to me on that first Smithsonian trip when we walked into the main hall and I saw the Apollo XI Lunar Command Module hanging from the ceiling. According to her I just stared up, slap-faced speechless, eyes agog and mouth agape. It was the kind of look that other kids get when they see dinosaur bones. It was a stare that said something about God and witness and creation.
I stood there, neck craned and mouth wide, staring at the spaceship’s intrinsic coolness until my older brother shook me from the reverie and towards a model of the Lunar Lander in which we could crawl around. Even then I knew that playing astronaut in a Lunar Lander was worlds better than the twists and turns of Space Mountain.
From what I recall, my parents had to practically drag me out of the museum, but I became absolutely immovable as they rushed my brother and me through the gift shop. It was there that I saw a couple of photos that changed my life. One was of the Earth itself, floating blue in a sea of darkness. The other was taken from the Command Module of Apollo XI, and it showed the Lunar Lander ascending from the grey moonscape below, with the Earth appearing to rise above the moon’s horizon. Even to an eleven-year-old brain, these photos seemed to hold some promise for a better world.
My folks bought me a poster of the first photo and it hung over my bed for the better part of the next few decades. I can’t say that I looked at it everyday and wondered, like a Dr. Seuss character, about All The Places I’d Go, but it did beckon with a teasing thought that all this is yours.
Go grab it.
Some 25 years later I was living in New York City, working as a high school teacher in Brooklyn. My circadian rhythm has always been set for late night, so I’d generally grab a couple of pints at the local bar from ten until one in the morning, then get up at six for work. When I’d come home in the afternoons I’d flop down in the Lazy Boy and idly flip channels until I fell asleep for a several hour nap before getting up, doing my lesson plans and starting the routine over again.
One afternoon I arrived home, nursing a bit of a late onset hangover, and flipped about on the dial until I landed on something called The United Nations Channel. Generally, their fare wasn’t worth the pixels, but that day there was a show on about astronauts and their personal, spiritual experiences being apart from it all. I was fighting to stay awake listening to a translation from some Russian Cosmonauts when the scene jumped to that very picture of the Lunar Lander above the moon that I’d seen in the Smithsonian museum shop a quarter century before. I shot awake and sat up. Speaking in a voiceover was Michael Collins, the Captain of the Command Module on Apollo XI.
Collins spoke of expecting some disappointment on the way to the lunar rendezvous, because he’d just be driving the bus. He’d never get a chance to land. He spoke of being a bit jealous of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and their opportunity to be the first human beings to set foot on something other than Terra Firma. I felt for him. What a very long way to go, to not make the final step.
Then his voice changed. It brightened. Collins spoke of watching the Lunar Lander through the front window of the mother ship as it rose above the barren, grey dust below and into the living blue and white perfection of Earth far below. He said that suddenly he understood that he was experiencing something wholly unique in human history.
“Wow. That’s everybody,” he thought to himself as he raised his camera and took the picture that won my heart as a boy. “There’s my two friends rising above the moon’s surface and behind them is . . . everyone. All three billion of them.”
What a Godly experience.
Throughout my 14 year teaching career I traveled quite a bit during the summers. For almost a decade I pretty much lived in Alaska during my holidays. The years I didn’t hit the bush up north, I’d taken time to hike in the Rockies, climb Mt. Olympus in Greece, drive cross country a few times, stagger through Galway streets harmonizing with rather charming skells. Yada yada yada. And since I ultimately hung up the teaching-hat four years ago and hit the road, I’ve managed to get, well, here, but also there were shots of pisco in Peru, getting mugged by the five fat Mongolian women in a café in Calcutta, dining with the Maharaja of Jodphur, fighting off all too regular bouts of amoebic dysentery in spiderhole hovels and collecting a rash of rashes that still have some doctors in New York wondering.
Yet, of all the trips on the big blue marble, there’s one that hooks me back to that first trip to Washington, the Smithsonian and the moon.
A couple of years ago I made it down to Argentina, and after a few nights spent unwisely at a casino in Buenos Aires, I took what was remaining of my cash and headed down to the southernmost landmass shy of Antarctica, Tierra del Fuego.
After all those seasons in Alaska I’d developed an affection for the peculiarities of the low-angled light of summers near the poles. The fauve pastel of clouds during the day’s long journey into night, the meadows of wildflowers and fireweed, the complex arcs and tangents of terns above schools of herring. It’s enough to get a guy all mushy and romantic.
I’d arranged to reconnect in Ushuaia with a friend I’d met in Peru for a week of hiking, biking and being. Late in the week that friend, Jesse, and I were kicking around the hostel with another brother from the trail named Luc. Jesse was writing postcards. Luc was planning a late dinner for the dozen or so friends we had made at the inn. They both said they could handle the shopping and the prep, so I had a day to disappear.
I borrowed a bike from the owner of the hostel and took a ride about ten miles south of town to a national park where I’d read there was a glacier that could be hiked. I left in the afternoon, expecting to make it back to the hostel around eight. It was early December, so the days were long, even if there was a bit of a chill in the evenings.
After the ride south, I found the trailhead, hid the bike and set out heading generally westward. After about an hour, I’d made it within sight of the foot of the glacier. It was then that the clouds started to roll in. It began to snow and I was getting a chill, still I pushed on for a bit, moving up-slope from a glacial stream. After another half an hour, the weather turned decidedly worse.
It wasn’t a panicking moment. There were no thoughts of being caught out here and having to eat my feet or drink my pee to survive the night – though I did recall that I hadn’t told anyone where I was heading. As such, I was a bit nervy and decided that it was time to pack up the trip, get my bearings and head home.
In the northern hemisphere, I’m pretty good at being able to discern my orientation. It just gets into your head after a while. But down there – with the sun cutting an ass-backwards, unfamiliar and unreliable sickle in the clouded sky, it took twenty minutes or so to get back to the stream and figure out exactly where I was.
I remember checking the map, locating a few landmarks, and thinking to myself, “Okay, that’s east, south, west and north,” turning in each direction as I did.
As I turned north it struck me like a plunge into stream of universal truth. I knew then, if only in a thin an meteoric way, how Michael Collins must have felt as he watched Armstrong and Aldrin rise above the Moon in front of the shining Earth. Facing North on Tierra del Fuego, I realized that absolutely everyone I knew – and a good 99% of the entire world’s population – all 6 billion of them – were in that direction.
What a Human experience.
Standing there alone, with a thousand thoughts and memories suddenly whispering hints to one another about God and witness and creation, I knew that as a boy I’d gotten it all wrong. All of this wasn’t mine alone, but standing there at the bottom of the world I was profoundly happy and profoundly humbled to be sharing it with everyone up yonder.
As I stood there thinking, quite literally, about my place in the world, all those whispering memories coalesced into the traveler’s one true prayer, because once you finally have everyone there in front of you, there are only two words to say.