Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Endeavour Tour

Yosemite: that rich part of our natural landscape that has hosted humanity for thousands of years. The Ahwahneechee lived there, the Europeans arrived in the 1800s, railroads showed up in 1907, 89% of the region is designated as wilderness area, 20% of California's total plant species can be found within its boundaries, and it was the first park identified by the US government for preservation and protection.

And yet, when I tell anyone that I'm planning on spending the weekend camping there, the first thing that anyone brings up is the hantavirus. I am happy to report that, so far, I have survived my time there.

Which (hanta, aside), it turns out, is still a little surprising. I mean, with a renewed commitment to unembarrassed, wild "yesses," of course you agree to go camping for the weekend in the Yosemite region. It is not until after I've agreed, however, and I'm buying quick-dry trousers at REI for the first time that it occurs to me that I haven't been overnight (no-car) camping since I was about 16. This could lead to some embarrassing vulnerabilities, I realize and uncomfortable admissions about my own capabilities. I am only marginally comforted when I remind myself that this excursion is only for two days. I cannot fully humiliate myself in that time, I hope.

Sometimes there is unexpected value, however, in distance from experience, I think. There is a rare pleasure that attends remembering something that you haven't done in a long while and are pleased to discover that you can do: fitting a large backpack to sit at your hips, scrambling up a long, rock-riddled white tumble of hillside (the carrion of former glaciers), tying your hair back in your mother's old pink-flowered scarf hoping that you don't twist an ankle in your inappropriate sneakers. About thirty steps in, I was wheezing, cursing my former smoking habit and wondering how to confess that I'm not going to make it when I realized I needed to loosen the strap across my chest…  My fully expanded lungs, it turned out, were more than equal to powering their way over the rust red-clinking-talus trails. No hyperventilating necessary. It is funny how simple the solution is sometimes.

It is often this way. With a great deal of doubt and a review of past failures, I say "yes" to something that I am unsure of. This silent deliberation, followed by a resolute step forward. These choices have led to heartbreak and embarrassment and new cities and great loves. Few things worth their salt are earned at the value of "maybe."

And this is also how I come to learn things. It seems that I can only love a city after I have left it. I would like to currently ignore the maladjusted psychology implied by this observation in favor of telling you that Seattle is a city worthy of being appropriately grieved. I have only been in California two months (two flattering late summer, early autumn months, to be sure), but returning to Seattle for just one weekend – as much as it is an affirmation of my new life begun 1,000 miles south – is a sweet symphony of sensory experiences that I love: the smell of falafel on University Ave at lunch time on a weekday in the fall, the spongy and spindly couches at Seattle’s Best Karaoke, the warm bag of fresh fried donuts from the Pike’s Place market tumbling about the grainy bottom of the cinammon sugared paper bag, the jets of red layer-cake sky at sunset as I drive north to see my friend’s new house. I remind myself I’ve left, because by leaving I have affirmed how much a part of me all of these things have become. I think, in this blog I have implied that we are the (mostly invisible) things that we carry with us (the language, the friendship, the rare artifact), but it turns out we are also the things that we leave behind. But that is part of the risk of saying “yes,” I suppose, as well.

When one of the guys at work comes into my office on Friday morning and says "you want to go see the space shuttle?" - even if you have no context for what he is talking about, you say "yes" before you're even out of the seat.

Which is how I ended up at the Eastshore State Park in Berkeley on a bright September morning last week. The park extends for miles along the East Bay shoreline and the north end is a small cluster of hilltops where Saturday morning parents can take their children to fly kites. There are unexpected and spectacular views that take in the San Francisco Bay to the west and the hills of Berkeley and beyond to the east. This Friday morning, there were clusters of fleece vests and sunglassed people who had all turned their gaze to the Southeast where a small, steadily-moving smudge was coming towards us through the haze. We might have looked like cult followers awaiting the return of the mother ship and in spite of the distance that we were from the Endeavor shuttle being toured through the air, the atmosphere was that of awed expectation.

The Endeavor shuttle has clocked more than 122 hours in orbital flight, hosted 25 missions in a ten-year career and is now returning to a terrestrial home after a celestial existence. And, apparently, it's now being tugged through the skies of west coast cities to celebrate its retirement. We can come out onto our hilltops and city vistas and wave. Here it was on its farewell tour, just 1,500 feet above us, barely discernible, but everyone on that hilltop was dopey-grinned and shielding their eyes against the morning sun in what appeared deceptively like a salute.

The shuttle was piggy-backing this journey on the back of a NASA jumbo jet that made a serene loop North and then back South and at one point passed over the Golden Gate Bridge on a rare barely fogged morning. This white-tailed slow-moving object seeming to float in the sky between the two distant red bridge peaks made us all turn to watch its progress. Nobody gasped or awwwed for the moment, but that was the feeling all the same as the shuttle departed and headed south.

NASA’s shuttle fleet is being retired, marking the end of an era of pioneering space exploration.

The soundless jet retreated over the sun-burnt hills and cloud-streaked sky, and I heard someone say “there is no replacement for the Endeavour” and this information struck me as a sweet-sad hymn. It’s not the end of our age of space insight, of course. We are, after all, roving the surface of Mars, visiting space stations, slowly putting our toes into this unknown pool – all lit by a moon that we were on forty years ago. But it was nice to stand on that hill with strangers, listen to the wind on water from the Bay, sip my morning coffee, and see the legends that we have made retreat in other untraveled directions.