It’s almost summer! This is for all those who’ve been spending too much time on their computers and haven’t taken a vacation in a while…
About a year ago my dad passed away. He was a state judge in Germany for over forty years, and much of his time was spent sitting at his desk and reading through mountains of legalese or negotiating plea bargains with attorneys and parole officers. Just a notch above boring, yet far from exciting. Considering this head-heavy and mostly unglamorous line of work it isn’t surprising that one of his favorite pastimes was to hop on his motorcycle and let the wind blow in his face out on the open road. When an old friend from Germany announced a few months ago that he was going to visit me in California and wanted to rent motorcycles, I didn’t think of Dad at first. However, after we finally got on the road and hit Highway 1 just north of San Francisco it dawned on me that this was going to be larger than your average 3 day road trip — a very special unannounced passenger would make sure of that.
Dad used to run motocross races back in the 1950s in the post-war years, riding on bikes that he and his buddies wrenched together from spare parts, setting up improvised courses in old quarries. It was the beginning of the German Wirtschaftswunder, but while the country had begun to rebuild from the rubble of WWII, most things we take for granted today were unimaginable. Few people had cars, televisions or any other gadgets that we consider basic necessities, even during this current recession. If you wanted to go somewhere, you’d either walk, take the train, or hitchhike, and if you wanted entertainment you’d go sliding on frozen lakes or rolling in the mud. No internet, no Wii, hell, I don’t even think they had pinball machines back then. In other words, his dirt bike was a big deal!
Witnessing your entire country blown to pieces leaves a lasting impression on a nation’s psyche, and while my father’s post-war generation was most adept at living with scarce resources, I think that those skills and traits were also passed on to the next generation. Having lived in the U.S. for over twenty years now, I’m still amazed at how little my friends in Germany consume, not because they aren’t able to but because there isn’t as much of a desire to accumulate stuff beyond the things you need to get by. However, when it comes to recreation or celebration, compromise is in short supply: Time spent away from work is absolute and non-negotiable, a sacred ritual borne out of a history of chaos and economic hardship that recognizes life’s fleeting offers of tranquility in the midst of the often harsh realities encountered while trying to survive on our stormy little planet.
There’s that old adage that Europeans work to live and Americans live to work, and as my buddy and I were crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and beginning to breathe in the luscious oxygen of the open road, it occurred to me that I hardly ever take real vacations anymore. Granted, there’s the common expat problem of spending most of your free time visiting family and friends back home. Fun, yes. Vacation, no. But beyond that, I feel like a different force has been at work, almost too subtle to notice, and just like aging, it only comes into view the few times you take a long conscious look in the mirror.
The term Americanization usually has negative connotations, and as I looked at myself and Point Reyes seashore in the rear view mirror I didn’t see the fat blathering Mickey Mouse cowboy caricature the European mind often conjures in its own propensity for intellectual laziness and stereotyping. What I did see though was a German who had spent over half of his life in the U.S. feeling a bit awkward about going on a trip with no particular purpose. So much of the American raison d’etre seems to be about being busy getting bigger, better and bolder, that even I, Euro-slacker to the bone upon first entering U.S customs many moons ago, have become inoculated against random cravings of leisure. Riding around the countryside with no particular destination? Are you kidding? How is that going to help my writing career?? Can we at least visit someone?
Just south of Gualala the fog started to roll in, and if you’ve never been able to visit the left edge of the continent, it can be an instant transformation from California Dreaming to Northern Exposure. The fog gets thick and moist, blowing its gigantic shrouds of bubbly gray steam against you like a hissing sea dragon, slapping you across the chest until you bow down to its force in an almost fetal position on your bike. In a quick “holy shit” moment I forgot about where I was and clasped the handlebars tightly. Whipped awake by these relentless heaves of atmospheric essence, my mind drifted to Dad and how the worst part of his stroke had been the loss of his capacity for biking and sailing, his other great passion. As I shifted down into second gear to take another hairpin I thought I could feel him leaning into the curve with me, enjoying the rush of swerving through the great outdoors he’d been deprived of for the last four years of his life.
When we pulled into the Gualala gas station we were in for a great shock: Six dollars and seventy-five cents to fill up both tanks! I did the math in my head — we had driven ninety-five miles and used one and a half gallons per bike — a comfortable sixty miles per gallon. Not even Mom in her Smart Car gets that kind of mileage! As an avid conservationist who doesn’t own a car and gets around town predominantly by foot, bicycle or public transportation I couldn’t help but feel good about our carbon footprint on this trip. I’m not sure if that particular thought ever occurred to Dad, but considering his penchant for living within his means and the steep price of gas and energy in Germany (currently 3x as much per gallon/liter as in the U.S.) I know he was nodding approvingly from his backseat spirit perch.
Consumption as an indicator of happiness has been one of the more puzzling elements of the American way of life for me. One of my gut reactions to this cultural phenomenon has been to tread extra lightly, as if to offset some of the more extreme symbols of waste (Hummers, McMansions, outdoor heaters, etc) and create a sense of balance, if not statistically, at least for my own peace of mind. Who knows if I’d have lived in a tool shed for three years or started a recycling program at my university had I stayed in Germany? I doubt it. And while you could look at a twenty-something compelled to live in a tool shed to protest the cacophony of unbridled consumption as an indictment of America, the fact that nobody even blinked and most folks actually thought it was a pretty cool place to live is also testament to the great reservoir of openness and creativity that exists in the land of Whitman, Walker and Wellstone. In Germany they would probably have called me crazy and forced me to live like a normal person.
Dad never quite completely understood what it was that kept me in that big, wasteful country across the ocean. While he avoided confronting me directly with his reservations I knew that privately he thought I was just there to have a good time. And he was right, I was, and I was learning a lot! It took him a while to see that there was a lot of purpose behind my explorations, that I needed to immerse myself in another culture to acquire the tools it takes to become a good writer and storyteller, that it would take time for the societal fruits of this particular life path to manifest, that it even bore the risk of never paying off in any traditional sense. As he got older, and even before the stroke, I think he got it. It wasn’t just because he was a judge and knew better than to arrive at a verdict before all layers of a case had been studied and weighed. Toward the end, it was just a simple joy of seeing his youngest son do what he loved to do. Each time I gave him an essay I had published or a CD I had recorded with Chemystry Set he put them in a very special place, even though he couldn’t read most of it and the music wasn’t quite his cup of tea. I know this because I found them all there, neatly organized, when my brother and I cleaned out his apartment.
We had turned inland, up the coastal mountain range, and within minutes we were ascending from the dank cauldron of fog into a Mendocino County panorama right out of a Conde Nast magazine: endless swaths of dense redwood forests as far as the eye can see, rolling seamlessly toward the horizon under a crystal blue California sky. We could tell that the temperature was rising quickly by the sudden onslaught of dead bugs on our visors, so we stopped in the little town of Philo to take off our leather jackets, get a drink of water, and buy groceries for the evening. The ride from Philo to Orr Springs, our final destination, in the waning hours of dusk through alternating waves of shadow and evening glow, careening up deserted back roads with nary a human soul to distract from the sheer magnitude of mother nature’s birthday suit, was nothing short of soul cleansing. By the time we dipped our bodies into the hot sulphury pools under a sparkling new moon night sky it was hard to imagine that less than twenty-four hours earlier there had been traffic, computers, news feeds, and millions of other seemingly indispensable purveyors of modern day functionality to contend with.
Vacation! It’s something Dad used to live for, in that quintessential German get-the-hell-out-of-Dodge-for-three-weeks kind of way. I remember when he used to pick me and my brother up to go sailing, trunk filled with beer and canned ravioli, ready to be away from civilization and all the people and their gripes he had to deal with every day. I don’t know how folks who work regular jobs in the States survive on ten days of vacation time — and that’s not uncommonly the reward for frequent overtime and weekend shifts — but it just doesn’t feel like it could possibly be enough time for body and mind to reset for another fifty weeks of work. The thing is, they make their Beemers, Brats, Becks, and anything else you might need to live a comfortable life over there, but somehow they do it in only forty-six weeks per year. A lot of companies even send their employees to spa retreats, so they can recharge their batteries and have some of the occupational knots massaged out of their backs. Me thinks this would never fly over here, not just because your boss would laugh you out of his office after you’d explained that more vacation time might make you more productive (and then immediately hire someone else to do your job), but because it is part of the American modus operandi to always be on the go, whether it’s to discover the next big thing, reinvent the wheel, or simply look busy.
It’s no doubt attributable to my hybrid American identity that our three day road trip seemed like three weeks to me. I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d been away from the computer for that long. When we left Orr Springs en route to Clear Lake after a couple of morning soaks on a pristine spring day, I felt like we’d been on the road forever, in that timeless, easy rider sort of way. The first forty-five minutes of our ride up Orr Springs Road through grassy knolls and spectacular oak forest vistas were completely devoid of oncoming traffic. Visor up, relaxing into my seat, I felt so light and full of life, as if my blind passenger from yonder had shifted forward and taken control. My heart was beating in sync with the chugging engine, tears of grief and joy mingling with wind-induced tears on my cheeks. There he was, in full holiday mode, hair down and carefree, nodding approvingly as if to say: “What took you so long?”