On the Road

Tomorrow, with more than 10,000 miles behind us, Deb and I return home from our honeymoon. Along the way, we’ve traveled by air via jet and float plane, by water via cruise ship and catamaran, by road via bus and pickup, and, these last few days, Budget rent-a-truck. Most important and best of all, we traveled together.

Driving back to New York from Salt Lake City (where we rescued my remaining belongings from a storage unit), the second leg of our trip has thus far included our first visit to Mount Rushmore. Once there, however, the effect the man-made landmark had on us was not dissimilar to Chevy Chase’s reaction to the Grand Canyon in Vacation: a nod of acknowledgment followed by the immediate desire to be back on our way.

Mount Rushmore looked exactly like every photo we’d ever seen of it. The expressions on the faces of the four presidents haven’t changed a smidge since Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, and Martin Landau scurried down them in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest back in 1959. Even the surrounding forest looked the same as it did in that movie: unconvincing. (One of the film’s few flaws, I’d always thought, was the set with the ponderosa pines spaced too far apart and, sprinkled among them, the papier-mache boulders. But that’s how the nearby forest and its geology really look.)

The problem with Mount Rushmore is that it’s like a good card trick or a flashy David Copperfield routine. Regardless how impressive, you’re more taken with the desire to know how it was done than by any appreciation for the final result.

Much more satisfying was the “accidental” experience we encountered a mile or so down the road and around the bend from the monument. Deb pointed out some of the Black Hills’ breathtaking natural rock formations; they looked as if they had risen from the surface of the planet in Alien. It wasn’t until we pulled over to snap some photos of the stones that we noticed among them the single and solitary profile of George Washington sans Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln. It was as if we’d captured our first president in a private moment, behind the scenes, where he’d retreated to gather his thoughts before returning to the world stage.

Just as Rushmore disappointed because it left nothing to the imagination, almost everything we saw in Alaska the week before exceeded our expectations. Few things produced by the human hand can compete with nature’s majesty. Witness the Hubbard Glacier, 76 miles long and over six miles wide, the longest tidewater glacier in Alaska. For two hours, we ignored the cold as we stood outside on our ship and watched icebergs several stories high calve off the face of the glacier and crash into the sea.

Or how about the pod of ten (count ’em!) orca whales that swam past us a few days later near Bold Island on our way to the Misty Fjords?

There’s an inherent mystery in nature that is absent in most human handiwork. It’s this inclusion of mystery (not the same kind of mystery necessarily, but some kind of mystery), I think, that renders us speechless (like Elaine’s boyfriend on Seinfeld who demanded that attention be paid whenever the Eagles’ “Desperado” came on the radio) in the face of true art. For me, it’s there in Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” the Chrysler Building, Scorsese and Schrader’s Taxi Driver, and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. All of them possess a mystery that never fails to challenge me and make me want to understand them better.

To the contrary, Rushmore requires no human interaction; it’s just there.

Which brings me to our next day. Heading east along I-90 in Minnesota, a sign announcing the turnoff to Rochester reminded me of the first line to James Wright’s “A Blessing,” a poem I’d included a few weeks ago in “My Last Single Post”: “Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota…” it begins.

A half hour later, when we took the exit for no reason beyond our need to take advantage of the rest area, the poem had fallen from memory, as had the fact that we were turning off at Rochester. Imagine my surprise, then, when we happened upon a plaque erected at the rest area to commemorate Wright and his marvelous poem.

While I have no desire to ever see Mount Rushmore again, I stood before the plaque and reread “A Blessing” several times. And I’ll undoubtedly read it again. Each time I do, I feel the poem more, understand it better.

It’s this same mystery and power that blesses my life with Deborah. It invites me in and propels me forward. Like this photograph taken of our shadow as we sped through the Petrified Gardens in the Badlands of South Dakota, it’s something that can’t be contained, devoid of solid lines, fleeting yet attainable. But it’s not a trick, it’s truly magic.

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