‘Til We Start to Feel the West

The grandfather clock struck one as I read the final word in East of Eden, the solitary gong hanging in the air just like that final whisper on the page. Timshel. Everything seemed to stop.

An hour before, the stroke of twelve reverberated in my head, echoing itself beyond numerical recognition. I didn’t keep track of the numbers at the beginning, so at the end, they seemed everlasting.

My coffee grew cold and I drank the last bitter dredges. I felt in my heart something I’ve known for a lifetime in my head: thou mayest. Timshel. The ability to choose between right and wrong, truth and lies, good and bad. Conscience versus concupiscence. What we should do, versus the choice that may be easy at the moment. What is easy now may lead to personal destruction later on, through idleness or dishonesty or selfishness.

Timshel. I felt that word in my heart. I felt myself become a part of the glory of the choice.

“Death is at your doorstep, and it will steal your innocence but it will not steal your substance.” I’m not sure if the Mumford song is about the Steinbeck novel, or if I just found similarities between the two because of their sequentiality. I did that with Macbeth and “Viva la Vida” my freshman year of high school. This one is a lot more similar than that, though. More than a chronological coincidence. “As brothers we will stand, and we’ll hold your hand.”

It’s hitting hard. The choices, the brotherhood, the greatness, the mountains, the cold. I felt it all this year. It’s like a 3-minute, 600-page tribute to 2017. The year in review.

The year was punctuated by loss. Sorrow, felt in isolation, from losing my dad’s oldest brother, and from losing my childhood dog, who was more of a brother than a pet. The doldrums of losing ideas and dreams as time changed and focus shifted. The year that used cold as its bookends, and mountains as obstacles to face.

I’ve heard several friends and several news outlets refer to the year as a “garbage fire”. But again, there is a choice. What did we gain? What are the golden, burning embers that will rise from the ashes?

Despite the losses of the year, I know those embers burned. They came in the form of climbing mountains, roping calves, discovering new country and embracing the old, seeing how my family banded together during loss. The friendships cultivated, the cattle moved, the bison worked, the laughs over coffee in ranch trucks. Bundling up on chilly mornings, and the feel of the sun breaking over the mountains to warm my back and shine gold on the dew in my horse’s mane.

All the good in the small, seemingly-meaningless everyday tasks. All the good in the year’s larger blessings.

The dreams that seemed lost were re-aligning, until a new, grander plan could begin to take place. Embers that seemed dim flickered, then crackled back to life, taking flight. They lifted into the darkness, like the lanterns we launched into the frigid New Year’s Eve night, higher and higher until they were mistaken for stars.

Weeks later, in the Hancock building, I was pushing past surface thoughts of the last year’s memories, staring out at the city a thousand feet below. Zac Brown nailed it when he sang, “The city lights look like a country sky, like staring at the stars turned upside down.”

Maybe I’ve become jaded, but realizing the size of the universe, that every star is another sun and that our sun is just another star, seems juvenile now. It still rings true and remains a cornerstone for me, but it’s also become something of a crutch. When I’m in these situations, reflecting in solitude upon something much larger than myself, it’s become a basic foundation to begin. Unfortunately, I don’t often get very far past it. The foundation remains just that – a foundation, never built up further.

But now, it’s a springboard. The choice between basic and foundation is just that – a choice. Thou mayest. The choice between positivity and negativity, slothful ease and fruitful challenge. Steinbeck called free choice “a ladder to the stars”. With each choice to fight, to dive deeper into our own humanity, we climb another rung on the ladder of may or may not. We become greater.

It’s always about the hard way. The things you lean into and learn and gain from the experience. Facing things that leave a mark: Scarred hands and crooked fingers, evidence of the last year’s work laced across my knuckles. Glaring pinks and purples against suntanned skin, faded by winter. Choosing not to hide them in gloves or fold them in my lap. The frost creeping its way up the windows of this old house, focusing my attention on its fractal beauty and appreciating my vantage point.

Puffs of breath release into the bitter, biting air. The cold hurts my lungs, but it’s my favorite time of year. It’s so cold that you can’t help but be reminded that you’re alive, invigorated with the air’s freshness. Restored. Focused on the choice between the cold on the outside, and the warmth within. Watching warm breath mix with the crystalline chill in the air, making the choice. Valuing the warmth, seeing the good in cold.

It’s all perspective. Choosing joy over sorrow, choosing to see the greatness among the grit. The glimmering embers refusing to be buried by the ashes. Rising, warming the cold, becoming great.

The glory of the choice, the staircase to the stars. Thou mayest.

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“Drive east of Eden ’til we start to feel the west…” – Josh Ritter, Homecoming

Timshel – Mumford & Sons

Young & Jaded – Corb Lund

“I bet my mother’s proud of me for each scar upon my knuckles and each graze upon my knees.” – Ed Sheeran, Bibia Be Ye Ye

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Secrets of an Endless Road

When I left Colorado in the fall of 2016, it was with an underlying sense of disappointment regarding all the things I wanted to do, but never actually did. It wasn’t a long list: hike a 14er, visit Leadville, explore the Sangre de Cristos, stop by the Sand Dunes. I was disappointed that I’d lived so close to all these opportunities but never made the time to go see them. Driving from the San Luis Valley to Laramie almost hurt my heart, because I didn’t know when I’d be back. I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to do the things that I’d meant to do.

Life has a funny way of working things out for the better, though. I got to come back to the same area of Colorado less than 4 months later, and stay even longer that time. And in that time, I got to do all of the things I was kicking myself for not doing the year before. Most of them, more than once. So now, it’s rare that I feel guilty for not visiting the unplanned places along the way. Life is short, but it is also circular. I just add those impromptu places to the list, making sure to stop by again on my next trip through. All things work together for good.

With that in mind, I made an itinerary. Actually, I made three: different routes to some of the same places, with different things to see along the way. The three itineraries covered everything from the Canadian Rockies to Route 66, and all the classic western vistas in between. And then, the night before leaving, I crossed off two of those itineraries, loaded up my truck, and headed to Moab.

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The Utah desert.

I’d been there a few times in the past, for family vacations and weddings, and even considered moving there a time or two. But with any area so rich in geology and adventure and western history, Moab tends to get a little too touristy for my liking. This time around, though, I continued to learn the wonders of offseason travel. Once you get beyond the first-visit necessities, there is still a world of things to see and do there. I received recommendations from people who love me and Moab (and know how much I love Mexican food), I drove two hours one-way to day hike into the Needles backcountry of Canyonlands National Park, and I spent too much money in a local art store. I woke up one morning to the realization that my Airbnb cabin was next to a pasture full of horses, because I can’t go anywhere without befriending some equine buddies. I ate breakfast burritos from my tailgate on BLM land more than once. And I left, feeling like I knew a town based on snippets of time spent there throughout my life.

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The Needles backcountry.

From Moab, I headed to Zion – a place that used to be my favorite National Park. It’s now in my top 5 favorites, because I’ve gotten to explore so many parks, so in-depth, since I deemed it my favorite. But still, it holds up as one of the best. When I was in the park at age 18, I saw people hiking Angel’s Landing, and decided to hike it myself when I made it back there. The only obstacle between me and the top of that fin of rock was the slight fear of heights that I developed while climbing in Wyoming in 2015. Hiking Angel’s Landing in 2012, I wouldn’t have given fear a first thought. Here in 2017, I was a little apprehensive. But upon receiving impromptu conditions reports from hikers on their way down, and learning that there was no ice along the way, I went for it. I had Fleetwood Mac stuck in my head the whole way up, and at the top, I realized that any fear I’d previously felt was now gone. (Kind of an odd realization when you’re holding on to a chain with 1000-foot drop-offs on either side.) After taking a few pictures, I took a few minutes to simply enjoy and appreciate what seems like one of the most-Instagrammed hikes in the country.

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Angel’s Landing view.

The next day, I left Zion – one of the most-visited National Parks in the country – and set out on a highway known as the “Loneliest Road in America”. The drive to Great Basin National Park felt like the beginning of a Stephen King novel. That spooky feeling increased when I passed another truck, only to see that not only was it the same color as my truck, it was the same make and model, as well. I’m used to living in remote desert settings, but eastern Nevada felt like the Twilight Zone for a while. For almost a hundred miles, there was only the straight, two-lane road, bordered by barbed wire fences, broken by the occasional mountain pass. Every so often I’d pass some small clusters of cattle. And soon, I felt my internal uneasiness shift to focused freedom. I felt the same way the horses must feel when you pull your saddle and untie the rope halter, and watch them run and buck all the way out to their pasture. That mindset stayed with me the whole time I was there.

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Barbed wire fence and Great Basin sunset.

I went from feeling like I was in a Stephen King novel to feeling like I left a Great Basin-sized piece of my heart there, on the south side of the loneliest road in America. I was half-tempted to unload my truck and hire on with some buckaroo outfit. That sense of belonging was expounded by staying in an Airbnb owned by the friendliest border collie puppy, and discussing the merits of horses versus mules with my neighboring table at a state line truck stop diner. It’s outstanding country there, too. Within the National Park, there are countless diverse hiking options, from subterranean caves to historic irrigation ditches to alpine lakes. You can even summit one of the tallest peaks in the state, or embark on a multi-day backpacking journey – which I fully intend to do. And on my way out, I learned of archaeological digs and hot springs in the vicinity, too. So heads up, Great Basin, I’ll be back.

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Stella Lake, Great Basin National Park.

I drove away on that Twilight Zone road that I learned to love, and went to the fourth-most populated city in the Rockies: Salt Lake City. I stayed there for a night and left early to go to the first ranch I worked for, outside of Laramie. The theme of the SLC/Laramie leg of the trip was catching up with friends I’ve had for years. It feels so strange to say that I’ve known them for years, because the time has gone by so quickly. In Salt Lake, my friend and I picked a lunch place based solely on a somewhat-related inside joke. In the Laramie Valley, it was hiking through the snow, watching the stars through a veil of campfire smoke, exploring parts of the ranch I’d never seen, and drinking coffee in the morning golden hour light with my favorite horse. In Josh Ritter’s song Homecoming, he sings, “This town right here’s my everything, and though I’ve been so long away, it has my heart, be still my heart, my heart will stay in this town.” That’s how I always feel about Laramie and the valley.

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The Laramie Valley from the Rawah Wilderness.

A few days later, it was out of Laramie and east to Omaha, over a stretch of highway that I’ve driven so many times that it feels like the pavement should be worn out under my tires. I got pulled over in western Nebraska because a headlight was out, the first time I’d been pulled over since high school. I also helped my friend Megan judge her students’ Shakespeare monologues, we got coffee and dinner, and laughed over literature. Then we left to go back to our hometown for Thanksgiving.

Having a copilot in my truck made the final stretch go by so much more quickly, and we got to live the road trip we’d dreamed of in Ireland earlier in the year. All of the acoustic music and grey and green scenery and laughter continued as we flew through the states: Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan. We pulled back into Detroit, zipping under old train overpasses while listening to Mumford & Baaba Maal singing, “So open up my eyes to a new light, I wandered round your darkened land all night.” I dropped Megan off and promptly got pulled over in front of my hometown’s city hall, for the same burnt-out (now fixed) headlight. Everything comes full circle. And I pulled in my driveway at home.

For whatever reason, being on the road gets me writing. A month can go by wordlessly, and then all of a sudden, I’m on some open expanse of highway and there it is. Inspiration. Add in a disconnection from a normal routine, country that I’ve never seen before, places where I’m a stranger, a perfect soundtrack, and all of a sudden, I have a lot to say. Maybe because I’m going beyond my comfort zone, and learning from the newness. Between the succulent stuck on my dashboard and the wire horse and cross on the rearview, the words start flowing and I’ve even pulled over a time or two to get them all down before they’re gone.

As Ian Tyson sang, “You got to get it all down, because it’s bound to go.”

So now, I’ve been back in my hometown for a little over a month. Enough time to celebrate two holidays (and almost a third), to unpack, start my first-ever indoor job, and begin to reflect on the wild ride of ranching and road trips that the last few years have put in my path. Among all the realizations, with more certainly to come, is the sense that although this is my hometown, home is everywhere. My senior year of high school, I read a poem by Tennyson, and one line has stuck with me for the five years between graduation and reunion. “I am a part of all that I have met; Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough gleams that untraveled world, whose margin fades forever and ever when I move.”

I’ve left pieces of my heart all along that long yellow line of life, and I carry those places with me: in my duffle bags, truck tires, memories and mind’s eye. I felt it in early spring, driving over the hill from a former home to a new one, and couldn’t quite put it into words. So I shelved it, knowing that everything is cyclical, and if I was meant to write it, it would come back. Here it is.

I felt it when I ran errands like a local in a town I haven’t lived in for years, and in another where I’ve only visited. I felt it in South Carolina at age 17, like I was coming home to a place I’d never been. (Thanks, John Denver.) I feel it in the woods of northern Michigan and the streets of Midtown Detroit, in Laramie, Salida, and the San Luis Valley. All the places where I’ve left a little bit of my heart, whether I notice it or not.

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Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Those feelings are powerful enough to leave my heart in a wreck with the realization that since I’ve loved so many places I call homes, there may never again be one sole place to call MY home. It will always be the west in my soul. And Big Sur, Belfast, and everywhere that people I love now live. If I had a choice, if it was under my control, would I move everyone I love and every place I love to one location? Maybe. But probably not. Because such a large part of the joy in this restless heart of mine comes from seeing the places that draw those I love, learning why the trails and coffee shops and downtowns mean so much to them: all the reasons they chose to put down roots.

I’m certainly not writing this to humblebrag about places I’ve been fortunate enough to visit. It’s simply to sort out some holdups about the concept of home. Sometimes it feels like a pretty distant ideal when the road seems endless. But what I’m trying to say is, home is wherever you make it. It’s the people you’re with, or the memories you share with the place. It’s where you open your heart enough to leave something behind. And it’s knowing that countless people were there before you and even more are certain to follow, but for one short, shining time, it was yours.

 

Sweet Disposition – The Temper Trap

“Jump up, find me a mountain, shake off the sheep I’ve been counting. Chase that sun till it runs out of sky.” – Longer Gone, Eric Church

“Have you smelled the whiskey and the smoke burning out underneath your tires?” – The Ghost of Traveling Jones, Ryan Bingham

Two for Joy

For my ninth birthday, I was given a book about a girl and her horse, living in Ireland, and the journeys they took throughout the country. It quickly became one of my favorite books of my childhood, because all of it resonated so deeply with me at that age: the horses, the adventures, the Irish side of me. One of the major themes within the book was an old Irish superstition. “If you see a magpie, look around for another, for one will bring you sorrow, but two will bring you joy.”

Magpies aren’t common where I grew up in Michigan, but fast-forward ten years to living in Colorado, and magpies are everywhere. And you have to keep in mind that throughout my life, I’ve had a tendency toward superstition. Not to any wild extent, but in addition to my Irish heritage, I pitched in highly competitive softball for fifteen years, where I was taught to do things the same way before every pitch, every at-bat, and every inning. I’m also a big-time, lifelong fan of Major League Baseball, where superstition reigns supreme throughout the league. (Whether it’s wearing a lucky number, not talking about a no-hitter in progress, or never stepping on the chalk, superstitious rituals are the norm in both baseball and softball. And those aren’t even some of the weirder ones.) Anyway…considering my predisposition, you can bet that whenever I saw a single magpie, I was looking around for a second one. Fortunately, the second magpie was never difficult to find.

The first few months that I was out riding, it was extremely rare to see a magpie that was truly alone. But one day, the inevitable happened. I spotted one magpie. When I looked around, there were no other magpies to be seen. Deep down, I knew that it was just a superstition, but I had ingrained it in my own head for so long that my first reaction was discomfort. Things were going pretty well, though, and continued to go well, even though I only saw the single magpie that day.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that joy does not come flying in on the wings of magpies. Nor does a solo magpie act as a harbinger of sorrow. Joy and sorrow are much longer-lived than the fleeting feelings of happiness and sadness. While I was working on my bachelor’s degree, I learned that moods are the overarching reason we wake up feeling good or bad, and they direct our emotions, which are much more fluid and subject to change. Those moods can be influenced by our life circumstances, but are influenced on a grander scale by the way we approach and handle those circumstances.

Someone once told me that joy, much like sorrow, is a mindset. And of course, while we pass through seasons of both sorrow and joy, the two combined encompass our lives. The predominant one lives in our hearts. It becomes the way we see the world and the things that happen to us. When I was hiking the Grand Canyon with one of my best friends, the conversation on the uphill trudge turned to, “What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you?” Neither of us could name a specific event. The conversation ended in laughter, at the things we had done and dealt with in hindsight, but also in a retrospective appreciation for the things we’d learned from what we’d done.

As dismal as things may seem at the moment, there are always lessons to be learned. It’s a little easier to learn those lessons if you maintain a joyful heart. It starts on the inside, and that joy will radiate outwards and bless others. And a joyful heart can always be had, whether you see one magpie or a whole flock.

More to See

Jagged mountains jut abruptly up from the sprawling desert floor, formed by rifts in the earth’s plates, the same way the more famous Grand Tetons seem to erupt out of the ground. The prairie stretches onward to the horizon, only broken by the darker green of timber forest at the mountains’ base. I have ridden across this entire meadow, but that concept seems unfathomable to me right now. Right now, this meadow is endless. It is everything I see, a vast flatness that I know to contain so much more.

This land is an expert in obscurity. It appears wide open, uninhabited, “the middle of nowhere”. From a distance, everything there is to see seems to be right in front of you. Yet, once you get into it, you realize just how far that is from the truth. There are lakes, ridges, animals, and tree-lined creeks masked by an illusion of nothingness, hiding in plain sight on the plains. Waiting to be discovered.

In my six months of riding this terrain, I’ve discovered something new every single day. Some days it’s a shed antler or a skull, or a new hatch of tadpoles stretching their new frog legs, or even a marsh where, before the last storm, there was only dryness. No two rides have been the same, even if I were to follow my own tracks. But tracking myself would be an improbability in this landscape. The winds are constantly shifting the sands, erasing yesterday’s elk and bison highways, which were already passed over by coyotes and jackrabbits.

Tracking hones the senses – where the shadows fall, how wet or dry the ground was when the animal went by, how long ago it passed, whether it was dragging its toe or limping or running. The light and darkness in just one imprint in the dirt can tell the story of an entire journey. It makes me wonder how much we could understand about each other, if we’d take the time to see the light and darkness in the people around us.

By learning from the land, you can learn about people. And in a valley the size of the state of Connecticut, the land will teach you a lot. It teaches you what truly matters, life lessons that can’t be replaced by any other teacher: respect, after a storm blows in and chills you to the bone; humility, when you’re reminded of your own smallness and how many things are bigger than you; and patience, waiting for the weather to warm up in the spring or cool down in the fall. All of these values are invaluable across the board when dealing with human beings, and being a human yourself.

Yet, each person is a small, vast landscape all their own. There is no one way to get to know someone, all the arable and arid places that make up their soul, all the tracks on their heart that they’ve gathered along the way. It takes time and miles and investment and understanding. Within each landscape, and within each person, there is always more to see, no matter how well you think you already know them. So look beyond the way things appear, and delve into the discoveries that each day can bring.

 

“Life is like a landscape. You live in the midst of it, but can describe it only from the vantage point of distance.” – Charles Lindbergh

“The nature of your beauty puts my mind at ease.” – Your Majesty, Zac Brown Band

“I will touch the strangest faces, till they’re not so strange to me.” – Strange Faces, Daniel Romano

Green Table

Storms are brewing across the desert and rolling toward my campsite from 80 miles away, the rain giving life to the parched earth. It’s monsoon season in the desert, as evidenced by the torrent of hail that greeted me in Wolf Creek Pass. And the summer storm that approached weeks ago, when I was on the summit of La Plata, only to miraculously change direction due to a last-minute shift of the winds. Somewhere else must have needed it more.

Now, though, the storms are coming right at me, and Willie Nelson is crooning Eddie Vedder’s words in the background, “nothing you would take, everything you gave.” Like he’s singing to the storms. The storms themselves take nothing from the earth, but give everything they are – sometimes giving too much. They give water, a break in the heat, life, but they can also give lightning, creating fires when the land is too dry. Causing damage, but in moderation, also cleansing from disease. Everything is necessary, but everything must also be balanced.

Sometimes it seems as if we’ve lost sight of that balance. We take so much and give so little. Or give everything, without putting heart into the things we do. We disrespect the ground growing above the bones of our ancestors, people whose sole purpose in life was simply to live – survival as a way of life, practiced to a form of art. But now, we don’t even have to try. I feel my own frustration with not having been born six hundred, four hundred, even two hundred years earlier, so I could have seen this place in its prime, seen the land before European contact, or ridden up the cattle trails, a face full of dust with a good horse beneath me. Living intentionally, living with purpose. Today, everything we could possibly need is at the tip of a finger. Just a quick trip to the store, or the opening of a plastic container, or even just a tap on a phone screen and something is delivered right to the doorstep.

We are better than that. Humanity is better than that.

Mesa Verde. This place’s name means Green Table. I feel honored to camp here, a campsite near the ancient civilizations carved into the cliffs. Spindly cedar rows, scarred and burned, stand sentry to the centuries like the Terracotta Army of the American high desert. And through those centuries, the table’s bounty has been preserved and protected, so today we are able to understand and appreciate the effort it took to live life for the sake of living. I think it’s possible to get back to a mindset of living for a reason.

We have accomplished incredible things and can continue to do so, as long as we don’t allow our tendency toward a life of ease to take over from the wildness in our nature. We need to find a balance between modern conveniences and the backcountry of our hearts. And looking out at these palaces in the stone, I realize that we have to leave something behind that means something – not a sign of how we made life easier; rather, a sign of how hard life was, but how we worked harder. We can conserve and protect and fight for the things that are wilder than we are, and therefore the things that make us human. And by doing that, we can leave behind Green Tables all our own.

 

Coming Round To Get You – Farewell Milwaukee

Just Breathe – Willie Nelson

Half a Year of Gratefulness

On January 1, I dug out a Moleskine notebook that I won in a Facebook handwriting contest, and labeled each line with its own number, one through 182. It took over six pages. My plan was to write one thing each day that made me feel grateful.

Not the best thing that happened each day, not something I was afraid to forget. Not something that made me happy, although often, it was something that brought me joy. But rather, I wanted to write one thing that I was grateful for, because even on the worst days, there can always be something for which to be thankful. Something to appreciate.

That’s exactly what this project has become – something to appreciate. This little Moleskine has traveled all over the place with me over the last six months. It’s been through the Midwest, the South, and the West, as well as Canada and Ireland. It’s seen me through some really difficult transitions and life events, loss and but also some really wonderful days filled with laughter and love. And it’s seen days of gratefulness for things as diverse as “celebrating life”, “seeing a lizard”, “making progress toward living the dream”, “faith in the face of fear”, “having a warm house when it’s cold outside”, “Eggo waffle and Duck Dynasty lunches with Dad”, and “loping a good horse through rippling dark green meadows”.

It shows that there are little joys in each day, and that no matter what happens, having a positive mindset can help you grow and learn and enjoy life. You have to recognize the silver linings some days, but they are always there, you just have to look a little harder sometimes. It might require diving a little deeper and leaning into the difficulties, but the gratefulness is there, just as much as it is on the days when I can’t choose between all the great things that happened. And a lot of times (most of the time, in fact), it’s so hard to choose just one thing I’m the most grateful for, that I fall asleep smiling.

When I started this project, which I named “The Gratefulness List”, I only wrote in half a year’s worth of days. I think it was in case I lost interest or started overthinking the things that happened each day. The opposite has proven to be true: I’ve found that choosing one thing to be grateful for is a great way to recap the day, and I can’t imagine not seeing this list through to the end of the year. It’ll probably go beyond.

So now it’s July, and I’m writing in days number 182 through 365. There’s too much to be grateful for in life to let it go by unnoticed.

 

Something Just Like This – The Chainsmokers

Atlantic City – Levon Helm (probably one of the best covers of anything ever)

Blame It All On My Roots…

For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of visiting Ireland. Those rolling green hills fascinated me, tugging my heart across the ocean since I was small. St. Patrick’s Day was always important to me. I liked decorating with shamrocks and rainbows and pots of gold, and I liked trying to trap leprechauns as a child. (I didn’t actually like the corned beef and cabbage that went along with our American version of the holiday, but I powered through.) Many of my school projects about family history centered around my Irish side – a history which was made even more interesting to me when I found out we lived in a castle during feudal times. I flew over Ireland when I was 17. I remember looking out the window on that clear night, and I could see the lights on the island below. My heart leapt. “Someday, I’ll be there. I’ll be back,” I thought. I watched the country pass below my plane window until I couldn’t see it anymore.

I don’t know why I’ve always felt so strongly connected to my Irish roots when I have so many different countries in my blood, and my birth certificate simply says “American”. Maybe it’s because green is my favorite color, or because I look more stereotypically Irish than a lot of people who actually are from Ireland. Maybe it’s something deeper. But going to Ireland was always high at the top of my bucket list.

Ireland drew me, just like the mountains have always drawn me. So, when I decided to take this winter to travel, I knew right away that I was going to Ireland. It was perfect timing. My friend Megan, who I was going to visit, helped me get the trip all planned out, and I booked my flight. Even so, it didn’t seem real. All the places I’d dreamed about and seen pictures of still seemed so far off, like somewhere I’d imagined but didn’t really exist. Like something from a dream.

When the plane broke through the clouds on the descent to Dublin, the sight of those rolling green patchwork quilt fields took my breath away. My eyes misted up. I realized I was really there, that when the plane landed, I’d get an Irish stamp in my passport. I’d be on Irish ground.

And for the whole week, I had to keep reminding myself that those were real shades of green. Those low stone walls were immemorial, not just built for the aesthetic of looking old. That the land there is so ancient, my brain has trouble fathoming the decades that have passed since my family was Lords of the Route.

The one thing I was dead-set on seeing during my visit was that old family castle. We needed to get to the north, and when the rental car didn’t work out, Megan had the genius idea of taking a bus tour, staying in Belfast for an extra day, then taking the train back home. So that’s what we did, and we got to see some pretty incredible things because of it. (We also got to live our Hogwarts Express dreams on the train…anything off the trolley?)

We stopped at several places throughout the North: The Dark Hedges, Carrick-a-Rede, Giant’s Causeway. And because we weren’t trying to drive on the other side of the road, we could just sit back and enjoy the scenery between destinations. At first, I was so upset about not having a car, but the change of plans just went to show me that sometimes things don’t work out the way we think they should, so that they can come together in an even better way.

Dunluce Castle was the last stop of the day. It was just about golden hour when we got there. Everything was backlit. The castle is built on a cliff that drops straight into the ocean, with waves crashing below. The turrets rose out of the rock like they were a part of the land itself, standing as a sentinel to the water. Reaching above like some sort of backbone built into a cliff. The backbone of a piece of my family history. It was so amazing to imagine my ancestors walking around in there, living their 12th-15th century lives. They lived there longer than America has been a country. I bet none of them ever even thought that one of their descendants would be looking at their home, after traveling across that very sea to get there. That journey would have taken months in those days, typically a one-way trip for most passengers. I made that trip in six hours, and did the same thing in reverse a week later. What are the chances that we’d have the ability to travel the way we can, when we’ve only had the opportunity to fly for a little over a century?

And what were the chances of me even having been born? All the exactly right combinations of people in Northern Ireland, Poland, Belgium, Germany, so many other countries in Europe had to meet, fall in love, get married, and have babies that would grow up to do the exact same thing, then cross the ocean and continue that same circle of life here in America, just for me to be standing there, looking at that old castle ruin on a windy day in February. It really humbled me, brought me back to my roots, and made me realize (once again) that nothing can happen by mistake. Everything we do teaches us something or gives us something of such importance that we can’t begin to understand it until much later. From that perspective, it just goes to show that we must be intentional in everything we do, for we don’t live our lives for ourselves. We live for others and for the future and for eternity.

The next day we spent in Belfast, with no real itinerary other than the suggestions of the baristas at a little coffee shop on the way into the city. I absolutely fell in love with Belfast, and I think I liked it because it reminded me of home. Belfast and Detroit are really very similar. There is so much rich industrial history in each city, be it building boats or cars, and each city is known worldwide for the Titanic, for Ford, Dodge, and Chevy. Industry continues, even though today, both cities are better-known for violence. And both cities recognize the fact that they’re not perfect. They both had tanks rolling down the streets fifty years ago or less. Both are known for roughness and blue-collar grit, division and troubles. Yet, turmoil produces character. And determination. The power to rise above the ashes.

Things are getting better. The cities are pulling themselves back up. Through it all, Belfast and Detroit have beauty – some retained from the past, some formed by the struggles they’ve seen. The walls of old buildings are now the canvases for new murals depicting the past, serving as a reminder of each city’s recent history. They’ve both established quality coffee and art scenes. They are promoting museums and tourism without ignoring or overlooking the lingering shadows of the past. Those shadows are part of each city’s culture, an important piece of history and a contributor to the arts. A tribute to the beauty of overcoming adversity. A reminder of how far we’ve come, and the distance we have yet to go.

And because of all the past’s darkness, you’ll meet some of the kindest, most compassionate people you’d ever imagine meeting. In both cities, it’s normal to smile and say hi as you pass a stranger. These people know what it’s like to feel down, or looked down on, because you’re from a rough city. And people from both cities know that they don’t want to make others feel that way. Because they’ve seen the dark, they know how they don’t want to be treated. I’d imagine if everyone showed that kind of compassion, the world would be a kinder place.

So you’ll see both sides of both cities. In Belfast, you’ll see Peace Walls, shopping centers, and the college Liam Neeson attended. You’ll see the docks and the Titanic museum, history and new hope. Across the pond in Detroit, you’ll see the abandoned buildings made famous by urban explorers, but you’ll also see Indian Village, the River Rouge plant, and a hip bar and music scene in Midtown. You’ll see it all the way it is – candid and honest, not trying to hide the past, but ready to move on to a better present and future.

All of this I knew in Belfast, because I lived all of it in Detroit. The heyday of industry past (on the docks or in the plants), the division of cultures (religious or racial), and the coming back together, knowing that we must not discount our shared past to continue working toward unity in the present. And I think the strangest thing about all these similarities is how part of my family came from this area of Ireland, so similar to my hometown. And somehow, I was born in Detroit, so similar to this area of Ireland. It must be hereditary, traits that are somehow in my blood from way back.

I could go on and on about the time I spent in Ireland. As much as I enjoyed the Republic, I guess this is my love letter to the North. The land is wilder, more rugged, just like the places my heart feels home in the States. My ancestors came from County Antrim. Blame it all on my roots, but I felt like I belonged, even though I’d never been there. I felt like I’d been there in another lifetime. I think there’s something to be said about going back to where it began, even if it was almost a millennium ago. You might find that it’s not too different from the place where you are today.

 

“They say mother earth is breathing with each wave that finds the shore. Her soul rises in the evening, for to open twilight’s door. Her eyes are the stars in heaven, watching o’er us all the while. And her heart it is in Ireland, deep within the Emerald Isle.” – Ireland by Garth Brooks