1 - And So It Began...
“On the ragged edge of the world I'll roam, and the home of the wolf shall be my home, and a bunch of bones on the boundless snows, the end of my trail…who knows, who knows!
Go to the Wild that waits for me; Go where the moose and the musk-ox be; Go to the wolf and the secret snows; Go to my fate… who knows, who knows!”
— Robert William Service, The Nostomaniac
NON SEQUITER... Maybe that word sums me up. Maybe it sums up the whole shit show. Maybe our lives are nothing more than a string of ‘em held together by the cosmic glue left over from the bang that lead to all the other banging. So bang me. Bang me. They ought and take a rope and hang me. A conclusion or statement that does not logically follow from the previous argument or statement. Sapiens. That’s us. And me. I don’t logically follow, but I sure as hell don’t lead either. What to do in the Upside Down? Or is it the Downside Up? If you’re going to be driftwood, might as well drift in the largest pond you can find. So, drift I did…
I’m not sure when the drifting began. In utero? Let’s go with Spain, 1996. A semester abroad in Seville. Ahhh, Sevilla… me recuerdo todo. I spent five months living there and a month doing the standard American College Student Asshole Tour of Europe. Back then it was the most exciting thing in the world. I was hooked… or more like infected.
I guess that’s where the addiction began. Something told me to go to law school, so I did. I’m confident it wasn’t Satan, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a cousin was involved. I spent a summer in Kenya betwixt my first and second year. The program had something to do with the law, but I’m at loss to remember the connection. Hiking Kilimanjaro was vital to my legal career. East Africa blew my mind. Now, I was chasing the dragon.
Who needs a summer when you can spend a whole semester at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia? Resistance was futile and so was any attempt at responsibility. No longer chasing the dragon, I was now riding that sumbitch. I celebrated the 2000 Sydney Olympics by skipping them entirely. The only logical alternative was a twenty-two day trip to Papua New Guinea… naturally. It was then I knew two-week vacations to the Cape and a bi-annual cruise to St. Thomas weren’t gonna cut it.
My Australian legal adventure ended the only way it could… A three-week detour to Thailand followed by a drive up the Australian east coast. Good on ya, mate.
Ruined? A fitting adjective regarding my psychological suitability for a legal career. My final semester in law school was ignominious at best. My grades dropped. My enthusiasm cratered. Not just for a legal career. Any career. I wanted something else. Something different. So, I did what you might expect: I enlisted in the army.
“Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I'm not living.”
― Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Nobody alive or dead can fully explain that decision, least of all me. I can only make a stab at it... but not right now. Something told me to do it. This time I believe Lucifer was directly involved. I thought, Travel the world? Learn a language at the military language school? Get in tip-top shape? Fire guns and shit? Pay off thy school debt?
When I graduated from the law I was into Uncle Sam for some serious coin. (Approximately $135,000.) All that for a 165th place finish at Tulane. Well done. Well done, indeed. The army offered to repay $65,000 of my loans AND I didn’t have to be lawyer. So, I just yelled, “Fuck it!” and dove in. I’ll save the particulars for a rainy day, but let’s say the sailing was less than smooth. I did get to live in Korea for over a year, but Sam did everything he could to keep me from enjoying it.
To make transition to military life as challenging as possible, I deferred my enlistment for six months following law college so I could take the bar exam for shits and giggles and then scoot down to South America for a three-month spell. How else should you prepare for basic training? Peru-Bolivia-Venuzuela-Columbia. (Amazon Basin, anyone? For a riveting narrative of a nine-day jungletime extravaganza as told by my co-conspirator, see here.) Good trip. Now I was riding the dragon bareback one-handed while flipping off the moon.
Something odd happened whilst in Bolivia. A bunch of fanatic douchebags flew planes into buildings. No backing out then. That was as patriotic I was ever going to get. Within a week of flying home, I was off to basic training.
Somewhere along the way they granted me a Top Secret Clearance. After I separated, I used it to acquire a job in the one place you might expect. Yup, you guessed it… Baghdad. I spent two and half years living and working at Camp Slayer on the outskirts of Iraq’s capital. One nation under contract. How was it? Wellllll… interesting? And, yes, there's probably a hole in my soul for the role I played in the shade of the trade that I made.
During that time, I paid off my outstanding loans and squirreled away a few nuts. Vacation adventures included a trip to Uganda for misty gorillas and a Corsica getaway I can’t speak about without parental consent. And then I quit. Cold turkey. Out. This, too, was unwise. Remember when that amorphous cabal of greedy fuckbags nearly destroyed the world economy? Yeah, I quit right after that. No plan. No schedule. No itinerary. If I were to diagram my master strategy on a whiteboard it would’ve read: “Fly to Bali. Do shit. Veer west.” And that, I suppose, is where this shit begins…
*Most of the photos below were taken before the ascendancy of digital photography. Some are nothing more than scans of printed photographs or, dare I admit, postcards. I've utilized filters to hide my shame. In the digital era, statistical probability affords any Tom, Dick, or Mary the chance to capture the magic. No skill required. Add the user-friendly software angle and even the morons can feast. I am one such moron. The photography will improve as the band plays on... or so I like to tell myself.
Robert Wiliam Service
On the ragged edge of the world I'll roam,
And the home of the wolf shall be my home,
And a bunch of bones on the boundless snows
The end of my trail . . . who knows, who knows!
I'm dreaming to-night in the fire-glow, alone in my study tower,
My books battalioned around me, my Kipling flat on my knee;
But I'm not in the mood for reading, I haven't moved for an hour;
Body and brain I'm weary, weary the heart of me;
Weary of crushing a longing it's little I understand,
For I thought that my trail was ended, I thought I had earned my rest;
But oh, it's stronger than life is, the call of the hearthless land!
And I turn to the North in my trouble, as a child to the mother-breast.
Here in my den it's quiet; the sea-wind taps on the pane;
There's comfort and ease and plenty, the smile of the South is sweet.
All that a man might long for, fight for and seek in vain,
Pictures and books and music, pleasure my last retreat.
Peace! I thought I had gained it, I swore that my tale was told;
By my hair that is grey I swore it, by my eyes that are slow to see;
Yet what does it all avail me? to-night, to-night as of old,
Out of the dark I hear it -- the Northland calling to me.
And I'm daring a rampageous river that runs the devil knows where;
My hand is athrill on the paddle, the birch-bark bounds like a bird.
Hark to the rumble of rapids! Here in my morris chair
Eager and tense I'm straining -- isn't it most absurd?
Now in the churn and the lather, foam that hisses and stings,
Leap I, keyed for the struggle, fury and fume and roar;
Rocks are spitting like hell-cats -- Oh, it's a sport for kings,
Life on a twist of the paddle . . . there's my "Kim" on the floor.
How I thrill and I vision! Then my camp of a night;
Red and gold of the fire-glow, net afloat in the stream;
Scent of the pines and silence, little "pal" pipe alight,
Body a-purr with pleasure, sleep untroubled of dream:
Banquet of paystreak bacon! moment of joy divine,
When the bannock is hot and gluey, and the teapot's nearing the boil!
Never was wolf so hungry, stomach cleaving to spine. . . .
Ha! there's my servant calling, says that dinner will spoil.
What do I want with dinner? Can I eat any more?
Can I sleep as I used to? . . . Oh, I abhor this life!
Give me the Great Uncertain, the Barren Land for a floor,
The Milky Way for a roof-beam, splendour and space and strife:
Something to fight and die for -- the limpid Lake of the Bear,
The Empire of Empty Bellies, the dunes where the Dogribs dwell;
Big things, real things, live things . . . here on my morris chair
How I ache for the Northland! "Dinner and servants" -- Hell!!
Am I too old, I wonder? Can I take one trip more?
Go to the granite-ribbed valleys, flooded with sunset wine,
Peaks that pierce the aurora, rivers I must explore,
Lakes of a thousand islands, millioning hordes of the Pine?
Do they not miss me, I wonder, valley and peak and plain?
Whispering each to the other: "Many a moon has passed . . .
Where has he gone, our lover? Will he come back again?
Star with his fires our tundra, leave us his bones at last?"
Yes, I'll go back to the Northland, back to the way of the bear,
Back to the muskeg and mountain, back to the ice-leaguered sea.
Old am I! what does it matter? Nothing I would not dare;
Give me a trail to conquer -- Oh, it is "meat" to me!
I will go back to the Northland, feeble and blind and lame;
Sup with the sunny-eyed Husky, eat moose-nose with the Cree;
Play with the Yellow-knife bastards, boasting my blood and my name:
I will go back to the Northland, for the Northland is calling to me.
Then give to me paddle and whiplash, and give to me tumpline and gun;
Give to me salt and tobacco, flour and a gunny of tea;
Take me up over the Circle, under the flamboyant sun;
Turn me foot-loose like a savage -- that is the finish of me.
I know the trail I am seeking, it's up by the Lake of the Bear;
It's down by the Arctic Barrens, it's over to Hudson's Bay;
Maybe I'll get there, -- maybe: death is set by a hair. . . .
Hark! it's the Northland calling! now must I go away. . . .
Go to the Wild that waits for me;
Go where the moose and the musk-ox be;
Go to the wolf and the secret snows;
Go to my fate . . . who knows, who knows!