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There and Back Again 

"Get away!" is the facile advice. From the spores, the adjusters, all other unseen tormentors. From the talk, the heat, the facile advice itself.

So I'm off for San Diego and Portland, Ore., flying there and back, traveling by rail between the two cities. Some observations along the way:

• Leaving is delightful and temporary, like seeing low clouds from a high plane, a thing like the dust bunnies of a sky god, not quite gone to ground and not going there either, only things that can hover softly and report on what they have seen. If seen from a sidewalk or some other customary place, they are things to well awe you. But seen from here, they are things to guard or menace you. In the most delightful and temporary way.

• After the plane becomes airborne, there comes a continuity to the ride, a cushion against the edge of the idea that the soles of your feet are 20,000 steps from the beloved balance of the ground. And then: a buckle and shake, a shudder in the bowel and superstructure and who knows why? Maybe just a simple reminder that we are all dancing barefoot on a mattress and a sure step is promised to none.

• Missed a connecting flight and so spent the night in Salt Lake City, where the traffic lights have count-down timers and three-car electric mass-transit buses that pass every five minutes and are always clean and always empty.

In the lobby of the mid-range hotel, a frumpy young lady with a laptop and the World's Largest Binder. Nothing says imperturbability as much as someone wearing their sunglasses indoors perched atop their skulls. Imperturbability and buffoonery.

• San Diego: A sea-breeze of a town, where the sun paints all day long and at close of day slides wonderfully into the world's greatest ocean. There is wealth all around and everyone seems well fixed. Indeed, is this the America of soft privilege that half the world resents and strives to destroy? Why yes, I believe it is.

• California: Despite its age, there is nothing old to be seen or at least felt and nothing old to be looked for, either.

• From the tiled roof of the Del Mar racetrack, the exuberant flora of the place. The angled juniper looking blasted. The species of palm that rises with Babel-like hope 90 leafless feet above the ground before blossoming.

All call to mind that this is a desert ending in an ocean. In some places, where two cultures come together they produce a schizophrenia that devours itself. But sometimes such a collision produces a mule, a thing of beautiful and surprising incongruities. San Diego is a mule.

• At Del Mar works an old friend and on a late morning we meet in the jock's room, where is produced much talk of such as Gyp the Bleed, late tout extraordinaire. You'll never hear anything about the likes of Gyp the Bleed in any talk of gigabytes or market calls. That's why such talk is kept to a minimum around jocks' rooms, thereby insuring that I will continue to frequent them as long as I can.

• Train ride: San Diego to Portland. Sometimes you ride on the first slice of dry land available, with the Pacific bubbling to a close only yards away, pelicans skimming over the waves going one way, Spandex joggers going the other, each hunting health in their own way.

But more often the ride is a tour of the rear entrances of America, the motels and mall delivery doors, parking lots and storage sheds, yards heaped with the detritus of the connective tissue of modernity. And for long stretches, the untranslatable cave paintings of the Graffiti Tribe. Are they warning us, threatening us, throwing spray paint at us? I may never know.

• A train whistle always seems far off, even if you are aboard the train.

• At Los Angeles, the seat behind me on the Coast Starlight becomes occupied with a fat teenager armed with a cell phone and unlimited free minutes. Whatever happened to the notion that if you have nothing to say, you don't say it? Minutiae is now the medium of exchange and a convenient way to never have to say anything meaningful ever again.

• As if to balance the scales, a while later another teenager in the car takes out a guitar and begins to play -- quite well -- Bach's Bouree. Even in the outer circles of Cell Hell, the music of angels can make itself heard. Felt, too.

• The train stopped in the mountains to make way for a southbound freight and enjoy the play of a California condor in the field. It posed -- handsome for a scavenger -- and then hunted. Its actual flapping of wings is clumsy, but not the glide. Even the omen of Death can be beautiful and that's all you have to know of death or beauty either.

Omens? The people of South Africa consider their vultures to be omens of seeing things clearly, so they've taken to eating them before purchasing lottery tickets.

• They say that from time to time it's advisable to set yourself directly against something so impressive, so majestic, that you and your puny problems of your puny life become invisible. This morning I opened my eyes on such a Maker of Invisibility, just after the train stopped in Dunsmuir. A narrow river in a wonderful hurry corkscrewing around a mountain of fir and meadow, a mountain standing in obedience to nearby Mount Shasta, snow capped this August morning and serving no man that I could see. Except for those being made invisible.

• As we slide through some small Oregon Valley town, one with a working Moose lodge, at the railroad crossing is a one-time school bus, now lacking paint and parts but boasting on its roof a four-sided deer stand, front flap up and painted on one side: "The Buck Stops Here."

Only a glimpse of the driver, cap over silver hair over silver beard. I really wish I knew this guy! I don't utter that wish nearly as much as I once did, but I can still do it. The buck stops here!

• Yeah, the numbers can tell plenty about Portland. Libraries average lending 28 books a year per card-holder. The Washington Post has named it the whitest major city in America. All that.

But more, too. A city of identifiable neighborhoods (Nob Hill, Gresham, St. John's), from yuppie to hippie and back. A city of bridges, including the handsome old St. John's, and a riverfront promenade. A city that likes to be outdoors (at least in summer) and likes, too, its restaurants and coffee and fountains where kids can get all the summer-splashing they desire.

And windows open. Yeah, it's August. Air conditioners? We don't need no stinking air-conditioners. No mosquito repellant, either. ...

• At the open-air Saturday market, there're beaucoup street musicians and garage bands around and they raise this question: Ever notice how great New Orleans street musicians are?

• Out along the Columbia River, hard by the Wahkeena Falls, where wind blows mist in your facce, a whole mess of Oregonians of all ages are celebrating in what should be a Carnivalesque atmosphere. It is the quietest picnic ever.

So it's in that glade that I'm reading from this book by the finest of all Canadian authors, a guy named Robertson Davies, and he's writing:

To divorce yourself from your roots is spiritual suicide. The expatriate, unless he is really a rather special kind of person, is very unhappy.

Guess it's time to head home. I know an omen when it bites me.


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