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Swann's Way (pt. 2)

The Washington Coast

Up early, first light at 6:04. It is predicted that these towns just east of the Washington coast will experience an unseasonable high of 100° or more today. People are biking in long-sleeved shirts and full length spandex bottoms, so it surprises me that my weather app says it is already 76° F. If the Big One manifests itself when the Navigator, my son, and I are all together here for the next four days, then so be it. All the photos and convos and bios and bikes and train tracks in the world will not matter. All the apple trees so laden with apples that the orchardists have put wooden staves under their boughs will not matter. Nor will it matter that I can’t just shut my phone off, as I had wanted to do.

There’s always something I want to check: the weather, the time, the Amtrak train status, my texts… I read somewhere that Facebook is the new cigarettes, so yes, I have that shame too. If I had the new iPhone instead of this 3-year old, $40 Android, would I be as formidable and illustrious as Proust’s Guermantes, or would I just stuff it with apps, overdocument my life, become even more addicted to social media (the phenomenon of virtual colonization that gave us our last president) and live with my nose in my palm? One thinks of the punishment helmets in Doris Lessing’s Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five. If a young person is caught gazing up at the sky, they are fitted with a heavy metal helmet that forces their head down, until they lose the desire to look up. What spiritual longing gone awry has produced this kind of unmediated access to other people’s rhetoric and so little encouragement to develop one’s own thoughts?

The train hugs the water’s edge as we nose into Seattle. We see scuba divers. I am not sure of the relationship between Puget Sound, Elliott Bay, Lake Washington, and where we are or what I’m seeing, because I refuse to check my phone. We reach, finally, the King Street terminal and there is my son! I slap the Dahon together, snap my helmet on his head, and he tootles around a bit out on the street. He pronounces it cool. We get from the train station to the ferry terminal, a matter of a few blocks via a coffee place, and are soon chugging across the Puget Sound, rounding Bainbridge Island, and pulling into the Bremerton Marina. We bike back several days later to the Marina and get into West Seattle by ferry and water taxi where we bike around some more. It is a fun and easy commute. We explore small alleyways and hilly lanes. We love the bike lanes! We can even get across some of the water by bike bridge! I am enthralled with this dangerous piece of land in the tsunami subduction zone.

The Navigator characterizes my joy in this visit to my son as “giddy.” And it is kind of weird writing my morning pages as he looks on and I am “afraid” that the nothingness of this blather makes the whole enterprise less valuable, that there’s nothing spiritual here, nothing poetic or even intellectual, nothing triggering or potential and that it’s just sheer mundane consciousness and what is it to be mundane? What is it to just accept whatever is? I pull up my as-I-have-discovered dirty N95 mask. I suppose the creases of dirt in it are really just signs of it working, nothing to be afraid of.

My son takes us to see eagles at low tide in a bay where once he saw a mink. He takes us with him on the second of his dog’s two daily one-hour walks, using a pedestrian overpass to get to a newish townhouse development of about 100 homes. We do laundry at his apartment complex, we drink the good local beer. We play board games in his apartment and in the town. We bike to the post office and the grocery store – we’re really finally getting some sustained use of these bikes! We go to a virtual reality parlor and shoot zombies. My son’s un-motorized bike is no match for the local hills or for the Dahons, so we stop in at an open house in a little, three-quarters-built, 20-home development. $350K, a beautiful beige, three-bedroom interior, gas forced air. Clearly, these people have yet to hear about getting off fossil fuels!

I do feel an innocence here, though, that is perhaps undignified. On the day that I leave, I come down the staircase with my bike. My son is at work and I have already tucked his apartment key into the cranny we agreed upon the night before. A bedraggled young woman is walking her own dog, cigarette dangling from her mouth. She pulls it out to say to me, “Got a cigarette?” I instantly wonder if she has seen me hide the key, and I say “Sorry.” Then I feel badly for thinking of her that way and I add, perhaps in too cheery a tone, “Thirty years ago, I would have had one to give you though.” “Fuck you,” she says to me.

Sea Dance Ranch

Off the coast of Astoria, Oregon, we and the Dahons pile out of the car a friend has rented in Seattle. We are fresh off a speeding ticket and more conversation than one usually gets on a bike ride – especially now that my ears are so easily overwhelmed by the sound of the wind rushing past –I need to turn my head to face the speaker in order to hear them, and therefore cannot watch the road, so – honestly – I can only listen when we’re on back roads – but here in the car, there’s been talk about politics and jockeying for position in terms of who has more Burning Man connections, and a couple of pee stops before the speeding ticket. My left glute is numb from whatever is poking up in the cushion of the car’s back seat.

Our destination is a phenomenal house on Long Beach Peninsula, where the ocean is visible from the back yard and the house itself is large enough for not only its owners, but the 20 or so dance camp folx. Our objective is to dance four hours a day – two before brunch and two more before supper – on an altar-blessed dance floor that faces the ocean itself, raised up off the sand. We dance for our first supper of the weekend, full of the exploratory energy of this new place. It is a communal meal and I join in with gusto, prepping things, chopping, warming, serving, cleaning. This goes for the dance as well. The direction is gentle and sprawling and sure and when we go to bed, we are sated with the ranch’s two most important energies: dance and sustenance.

We wake up to rain and we dance again: eye-gazing, dipping, partner-sharing, soloing, lifting, and quivering. I want to dance in the rain with the magical Navigator for the rest of my life. But, it’s hard to out-and-out call this thing that is happening “rain.” The air is just very wet. It makes me feel warm because there is no evaporation, just the wet, close skin of almost raining. Finally, I became conscious of tiny splotches of wetness a friendly distance from one another on my neck and face and hands, and it becomes clear that these are, undeniably, raindrops. Every other place on on me is covered with cloth, but this rain is not anywhere near fierce enough to penetrate the fibers of my clothing; and instead it rolls away, joins the streaks on the floor. Not a drenching rain, it has a gentle almost nursing quality.

The beautiful DJ starts us off with some yoga directions, like I learned from my teacher Asif Ullah – roll the neck, the shoulders, the elbows the wrists, the fingers, the torso, the hips, the knees, the ankles, the feet. Then it really does start to rain. You can see the lines it makes in the air and the skin of my thighs and shoulders starts feeling wet. I see my saintly Navigator making his moves; we move through our geometries. The DJ has to move the computer that plays her list to a different spot under the canopy and most of us start dancing more carefully too. One nice thing is that a quick turn becomes easier because of the lubrication. The ridges between the squares of the dance floor are less catching, less annoying to the foot. I start dancing more energetically now, letting my jaw go slack and my voice emerge. I am finished with the starter dance.

For our afternoon treat, the Navigator and I push our bicycles over the hilly sand separating the backyard from the ocean until we arrive on the dense, wet shore of packed sand that the waves and tide have created, and here we turn the motors on. If we were merely to pedal, the sand would not feel us as worthy the traversal, we would sink as we had done on the hilly sand. So we ride with our throttles at the maximum, and the sand accepts us as passengers. As if we were on a magic carpet ride, we marvel at all we overtake. My eyes are not good enough to clearly make out the distance, which seems to vanish into a bright, sparkling curtain of water. Surely we will ride into the ocean, slamming into its rugged, yet compelling embrace and perish there! But the distance continuously recedes. We ride for a while in and with a colony of gulls that welcomes us as part of them. We use the packed sand left behind by trucks that have gone before us. We leave the beach and after some convolutions, we get onto an actual bike path and follow it all the way to town. Why can’t bike paths be as well-connected and well-marked as the car-streets? I’m not dissing Long Beach in particular, we encounter this sort of problem everywhere.

We head back from town, riding along the side of the road. It’s not a great bike lane, but it’s good enough. The passing motorists are not terrifying, have no axe to grind. We’re back at the ranch, so much love. One or another of us perches at the kitchen table to chat, holes up with a friend on the couch, slips off to do some reading and writing, helps to prepare or clean up after a meal, and always the dance. The rain is gone and we dance with greater abandon, trusting the DJs to move us across the universe. We flail and open ourselves to the Great Lungs and Beating Heart of the ocean that is also the Dance, that is every day new and unlike its sibling who hung about the grounds before the previous sundown, as beautiful and compelling as yesterday’s child was and the child of the previous rotation of the earth before that. Today’s dance is a new dance, just as today’s ocean is a new ocean. Endlessly fecund, ever new, we burn away with the setting of the sun and I for one come away from the tiger-striped sundown to wash the sand off my feet before entering the kitchen committed to two things:

  1. We must fund and build a dance floor for the Beyond property.

  2. We must realize the Boxy Bikes mission to convert everyone’s ride to an electric bicycle.


For a long time I lived a reclusive existence, far from the parties and fripperies to which I was indifferent. I had toyed with renunciation for a long time. It seemed so lofty and healthy, especially for a writer. On the more arrogant side, I was repulsed by other peoples’ indulgence in what I thought of as the knicky-knacky pleasures. So when I did ever-so-serenely retreat from ego-based engagement with the world, it was a solitary and noble disengagement. I was the poster child for “Solitude is the shit.” Yet weirdly and wonderfully, by the time we got to Portland, I had moved so deeply into a fresh, new communal groove with my beloved Navigator that not only did I not miss my old solitary ways, I no longer believed I could exist apart from the spirit of commerce and community.

In Portland, there is a bike shop and a tattoo parlor on every block. Going there was like stepping off the train into the gaudy Technicolor of 1980s Warsaw after a year in the gray of the Soviet Union. And this despite the fact that I had not just come from the Soviet Union, but from the stupendous blue and mountainous Pacific coast. Every block in Portland has a brew pub and a used clothing joint. Portland is ground zero for new communities – it’s total overkill, and in a good way. Everywhere the new coffee-drinking, eco-friendly tribe. Burner vans and mushrooms. Indie pop. Handbills for speedy weed by bicycle-delivery. Portland is the shit. There are bike paths EVERYWHERE. We bike to and around Reed College campus and after very little hassle, we take the bikes-and-pedestrians-only bridge to the train station. This bridge even has a bike escalator, which helps you get your bike up and down the staircase. It’s a slot on the side where you insert your tires and then your bike rolls down or up with you as you walk on the stairs. Not quite as nice as an out and out ramp, but still lit.

There are lots of homeless folks here, just as in Seattle, and as we’ll soon see, also in Sacramento, Reno, and Denver. Encampments flank the downtown. Gnarly tarps of dubious integrity bungeed to scrap metal and coroplast® shelter a couch, a TV, even a Solo® stove. There are a fair number of tents as nice as our Hubba Hubba™. Almost every dwelling has a bike parked beside it. Folks look friendly in their rags. Where do they toilet? How do they clean up? Are they there by choice? I don’t want to be a voyeur but I also don’t want to put on any blinders.

We take the Coast Starlight from Portland to Sacramento, where we transfer to the Zephyr, to get to Reno. The AQI in Reno spikes to 291 when we board in Sacramento and by the time we arrive in Reno, it is in the low 310s. This smoke is from the Caldor Fire raging in the El Dorado National Forest 70 miles east of Sacramento; 221,775 acres are burning. They use snow blowers from the Tahoe Basin to spray water on it. Climate scientists publish statements blaming the fires on the homesteading and housing policies dating from the 1800s that were the basis for fire-suppression regimes in populated areas. People also talk about the fact that summers are getting longer and hotter. But nobody really wants to say, “Stop driving your cars, people!!” So I will. Stop driving your cars! Stop despoiling natural areas to live in your your boozhie dream-homes, people! Move to Portland and start biking or walking everywhere you go. If you find yourself in a homeless encampment there, get political about changing social norms! Donate your car to Habitat for Humanity; they’ll recycle it for you.

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