Wednesday, April 22, 2009

That magic night not far from Wawa

Long, long ago in days of yore, I was On the Road. See America before it burns, I told my friends. So Dig, Doug, and Duke the Dog hit the road in an eleven-year-old Ford Econoline van, with Crosby, Stills & Nash on the radio and Kent State still happening on the backs of our eyelids.

In those days I thought it too self-conscious and inauthentic to experience something and write about it at the same time. Everyone else on the road was writing and photographing, but I wanted The Pure Experience. There wasn’t enough experience in the whole world for me to experience, so I really wanted to experience what I was experiencing, if you get my drift. Writing, photographing — all those mediations might get in the way. I thought, while other people have their yellowed journals, I will have the purity of memory.

What can I say? Maybe I was right. The memories that survive are more vivid than any photograph. We were on the road many months; I didn’t get eaten by bears, and I fell in love with Canada forever. And I gained priceless insights into human nature too.

At some point we reached Wawa, Ontario, which has probably not changed much in the intervening decades. We continued to head north and by late afternoon arrived at Neys Provincial Park, near the northern end of Lake Superior. I was fascinated by traveling on the Canadian Shield, which is some of Earth’s oldest rock, and finding unusual plants in the woods in the region. At close to 45ยบ N, it was as far north as I had ever been.

We stretched out on the beach to watch the sun set across the lake. I noted that the lapping waters were actually slightly tidal, since Lake Superior is just large enough and lies north/south. Duke lay sprawled across my feet.

We were joined by some other Americans. In conversation we learned that they had all gone to Forest Hills High School together and were now doing some post-law-school traveling. From a cloudless sky of blue and gold, the sun set. Brilliant Venus hovered in the west.

One of the lawyers told us about Velikovsky, the plotting by Macmillan Publishing and Harvard, and the unreadable Erik von Daniken. The Forest Hills gang talked about conspiracies and what really happened.

As it grew darker, the moon appeared. A red-gold full moon, huge at the horizon, getting smaller as it climbed … and, we noticed, getting still smaller. An eclipse! With Venus setting, and other stars appearing, we sat mesmerized watching it. Finally the last shadow passed off the face of the moon. Clusters of shooting stars came and went. We’d had a small campfire going on the beach and someone brought out marshmallows. Then some damn fool back in the parking lot turned on his headlights.

Jeez! What a jerk. Stripes of bright light pierced the night sky. We were all drowsy, so nobody went back to ask whoever it was to turn off his lights, but we muttered about it.

Then the lights started to dance. Curtains of green and pink lights danced in the darkness over our heads, sweeping through the sky. The lake was still, with an occasional splash, and the dancing lights were bright enough to silhouette pine trees along the shore. After a few more hours, the Northern Lights faded away and so did we, asleep on our blankets getting covered with dew.

The early fingers of dawn woke Duke and me. I went back to the van to get a towel to dry off, and feed him, and we returned to the beach as others stirred. The sky was still cloudless and the sunrise was as picture-book perfect as the sunset had been. And Venus once again appeared, as if to greet it.

If I had to pick out a piece of time, in my life, that was absolutely perfect, I would choose that night: sitting on the northern shore of Lake Superior letting the solar system speak to me.

And as we said goodbye to the Forest Hills lawyers, one of them said sorrowfully to me, “Oh, man! If only we’d had some acid! -- wouldn’t last night have been great?”

No comments: