My apologies that it's taken me a few days to get this one done. Writing here at home is much more difficult than writing while Out There. I'm finding it very challenging to concentrate. There are a steady stream of interruptions and the din of my machines is distracting, but I try. Once I finish this one, I will write at least one more article about this improbably successful 2010 Deadhorse trip.
Since my time with Rachel, I've been thinking back to the vastly different people I had met during this trip and how, more often than not, each acted as an ambassador from a different world, a world I would never have been able to peer into without their kindness and understanding. I think of the pipeliners, truckers and oil rig workers. I think of an advocate for environmental capitalism. I think of Ted and Sarah at Dancing Rabbit who helped set this theme of challenging comfort zones and being better a man for it.
Back to a time when I was still on the road, I packed up my gear and after a couple of illegal U-turns found myself sitting in a diner at a window sipping brown colored water. I had gotten up early and I was not expected at Rachel's until well after noon. I had not spent any significant time with her in over 17 years and it got me to thinking more about the distant past than at any time during this trip.
"I have not always been so open.", I contemplated. "What I would have missed on this trip if I was still like I was back then." I could remember back to a time, long ago, when I was much more inflexible and exclusionary and so much less accepting of ways of living life different than my own. Mine was the right way. The only way. I thought back to that time and the experiences I had with different walks of life and how often such events would go very badly, how often I would be hurt or hear stories of hurt. That inflexibility was just fear manifested.
"But it only takes one.", I reminded myself. I understood one saving grace I have is that all I need is an ambassador, someone to take me under their wing to make an unfamiliar world understandable. Those ambassadors, if they are patient, can make you see a different world clearly and understand it in it's own context. Ted and Sarah did that. Phil did that. Robyn did that. When you are fortunate enough to be open to such an ambassador, you can conquer your fear of the unknown and the harsh judgements that are cowardly used to mask it. I have known a number of key ambassadors in my life and I am such a better man for it. I have seen into Worlds and been accepted in contexts that I would never have thought possible. But it took a first one. It took someone exceptional to make me understand that that's all you need. With a compassionate ambassador, even people from the most incompatible worlds can find common ground and become meaningful parts of each others lives.
That first ambassador was Rachel.
"The sound of the German language scares me", I overheard her say. It was not the first time I had heard someone say something like that. It never goes well so I never say anything. This time, however, I did and it started a long and very enjoyable conversation.
English is my second language. Despite being born in the States, I was born a German citizen and was raised to "move back" to that country. My childhood was filled with it's language, culture, fairy tales, philosophy, literature, structure, food and world view. I was intentionally isolated from American society so I would aclimate better when we moved back, my mother believing the old mans lies and telling me for years that Ahausen, Germany was home and that we were just visiting here. To this day, despite having spent less than five months there in total, Ahausen looks and feels more like home to me than anyplace else on Earth. I have always been closer and had more in common with my aunt, uncle and cousins there than anyone else in my so called family other than my sister. Growing up it was always my sanctuary. Bad Things never happened to me there. As a kid, it was the only place I ever felt wanted. In my core, I am still more North German than American and I can be somewhat of an intolerable Germanophile.
Rachel is Jewish. She is fully immersed in that culture, religion, world view and history. It has touched every aspect of her life including her professional choices, her studies, her travels, what she eats and how, what days she engages in what activities, the places she lives and the communities she involves herself with. But very much like Ted and Sarah at Dancing Rabbit, she has a depth of compassion, a humility and an understanding that hers is a different life than many and is not the only life. She gracefully makes her world accessible to Outsiders in a way I have never seen done with more kindness and understanding.
Inconceivably, we became instant friends.
We talked for hours eventually moving onto the topic of my impending motorcycle journey to try to reach the Arctic Circle with three friends, one of whom was Duncan. Completely out of character for me and not thinking that anyone would possibly take me up on such an offer, I said late that evening, "You should fly out to the West coast and join me for a week of motorcycle camping. We could go riding through the Big Trees."
And so she did.
(1992 Outside San Francisco)
Rachel has the distinction of doing more miles as a passenger on my bike than all other passengers I've had over all the years I've been riding combined. Then again, since the days she was riding with me, I have had very few passengers.
We rode from San Diego all the way up north of San Francisco, on the way camping under Big Trees and going on long walks. We did longer days two up than any day on this current trip. How we managed to get all of my gear and hers packed on that bike and have it look as clean as it did I'll never remember.
It was a beautiful time filled with conversation, dark humor and stories. She brought color and life into what had been an overwhelmingly gray, dead and painful existence. It did not take long for me to become addicted to her company. Never before and only once since has someone gotten inside me that quickly with such great effect. Both times involved a long painful motorcycle journey. Maybe there is a pattern here.
But in a way similar to my time with Angela, with Rachel there were unspoken yet completely understood Boundaries and Constraints. But these boundaries and constraints were what gave us the freedom to become very very close friends and it did me a world of good. Without them, I don't think either one of us would have had the time together that we did.
During that time in California I learned two things, one from an Uncle and one from my sister, that the Nightmare around me had been so much worse than anything I could ever have imagined or believed. It devastated me destroying the foundation of my world forever changing me.
Rachel, with her kindness, compassion, acceptance and infectious beautiful smile, was a reservoir of strength for me then, but I never told her that. I think maybe it was that contrast, that kindness, that made me see how closed I had been.
In an effort to show her my appreciation, I did everything in my power to make sure she had a good time.
For the remainder of that year, we spent a ridiculous amount of time together. There were a few smaller bike trips. There were also concerts.
She may look like all sweetness and light with that incredible smile but make no mistake, Rachel was a heavy metal headbanger with an unbelievable ability to win near front row tickets to any concert she wanted. I went to more concerts that year than all other years combined. Metallica's "Nothing else matters" seemed to be the theme song of that time for us, but also held that foreboding of an end and a goodbye.
"I move through lives.", she would tell me. In some ways a weekend I had not too long ago echoed thoughts from '92. I remember fearing the implications of that statement.
Around Rachel there is the ever present sense of a world that is so deeply inside her and one into which no Outsider can ever venture too far. I always sensed in her an unspoken internal conflict about the exclusionary nature of her world. Exclusion seems so against her nature.
She did her best to explain her world and I was always so impressed how she was able to get to the core human values behind a given thing whether it be a ritual, a story or some, as I called them, "silly rule". Without prejudice and without any sense that her way was any better or worse than any other way, she presented her world and life in such a way that the listener could experience the beauty beneath it all as if the only goal was to show what she saw and felt. She was one of the most intensely spiritual people I have ever met, but spiritual in a substantative approachable way, not a flaky one. Life in the presence of Rachel was simply Better.
My time with Rachel all those years ago changed me. Where before I had been very closed minded with a strong indoctrinated belief that mine was the "right way", after that time I was much more open, in a way like her, to accept other ways of being. I think of other Important People that are now part of my life who live even more radically different lives than even Rachel does. I think of Stacie and wonder if I would have been open enough to accept her if I had never met Rachel. I shudder to think how much poorer a man I would be, how destitute, if I had through closed mindedness excluded her from my life.
Jumping in time to just a few days ago, Stacie came to the welcome home party. We played pool, as we often do, and it was such a good time. She left a present for me in my kitchen which I found on my return. Back when there was a shootout on my street she was the first to call, in a panic, to see if I was ok. Stacie is one of the most important people in my life and few understand. She is simply beautiful with a strength, solidity and zen like calm that inspires all those who know her. Our friendship is deep and very unusual with the kinds of absolute Boundaries that can never be crossed. Stacie is not attracted to men and as I often joke from my own selfish perspective "it's a crying shame". I absolutely think the world of her. But I digress as usual.
Back to years ago, my time with Rachel came to an end and as I have figured out on this trip, I do not deal well with endings. She went off into her world and shortly thereafter my Nightmare began in earnest. The old man was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and was dead within 6 weeks. The hell he left for us and that was unleashed afterwards was something I, nor anyone else, could not have ever foreseen.
I crossed paths with Rachel once some time later but it was during a very bad time. Everything was different and I was unable to bring the kind of presence she had come to enjoy. We parted company would not see each other again for nearly 17 years.
In the intervening years I kept a photo of her on my wall and the candle holder she gave me has been a fixture in my living room. I never forgot what she taught me.
Some time ago thinking about her as I often do, on a whim, I checked to see if she was on Facebook. She was and to my surprise accepted the friend request. We met for lunch at one point and when she heard about my epic ride to Deadhorse she wanted to join me for a leg of the trip. I was so excited to have her be part it. It just felt right. Unfortunately, life got in the way and the scheduling didn't work out. Bummer.
But as it happened, the stars did align somewhat and I was able to visit her as the very last stop on my epic journey. There's a nice symmetry to it. Since the events of Prince George, I thought I had learned everything I needed to. With each passing day I have been proven so very wrong. My time with Rachel during this very last moment on my trip was no exception.
I finished yet another cup of brown colored water, got back on my bike and rode off into the heat and humidity, a thunderstorm threatening in the distance.
The ride was uneventful but filled with endless traffic and lights. Philadelphia is an old city with lots of stone construction. Much of it is impressive.
I rode through a funky little section of town with shops, cafes and nice restaurants. The street was cobblestone.
It took me a while longer to get to her place than I had planned. Since my lying bitch of a GPS had died, I had to memorize the route, which wasn't a problem however quite a number of streets in this area seem to be missing street signs. Combine this with slow city streets, the outdoor air temperature and the fact that the bike is running hot due to the new exhaust causing the radiator fan to run non stop and bake me slowly, I was pretty well cooked.
I arrived well done.
Self conscious about my toxic Transit Suit I texted her to let her know I had arrived. Out she walked and gave me a huge hug not complaining in the least.
I followed her on the bike to a spot in the parking garage where I could safely leave the bike. I was relieved because I had been having some concerns about leaving the bike on the street in this urban setting. I pulled off the gear and we walked into the old condo building. It had that style of elevator from the earlier part of the century that you see in movies. It has an outer door that you pull by hand and an inner grating that is also moved, manually, out of the way. I have to admit it does not inspire alot of confidence.
"I wonder what safety features this elevator doesn't have.", I joked. "It has the inspection certificate.", she replied laughing both of us understanding that it may not mean much.
She had told me that I would be staying in the Opium Den. "You'll understand when you get here.", she had texted me.
"Yup, that's pretty much what I had imagined.", I thought as I put my gear down. The guest room was decorated in a way that was just oh so Rachel. Her condo is large and may be nearly as large as my small house.
Themes of community and cooperation come through in virtually all of Rachel's stories.
The reason she could not join me on the trip was a planned three month sabbatical back to Israel. She had set up a house swap with a six member family. Unfortunately, last minute developments at work conspired to prevent her from taking her sabbatical, so she and six house guests shared her apartment for five weeks.
They had just left a few days before I arrived. Where as I think most people would complain about the inconvenience and stress of a situation like that, Rachel with a big smile seemed to be able to see the humor in and present it from a perspective that makes the listener think, despite the stress and work, that it was a rewarding experience.
"It must be really hard to have come back here after they all left.", I commented thinking about the empty house I was going to be returning to the next day.
"It doesn't bother me. Endings don't bother me because I've done it so often. There's always something next.", she said.
"Next.", I thought thinking back to other conversations.
After many glasses of water and chatting for quite a while, I asked to take a shower so I could change out of my Toxic Suit. Putting on clean clothes, jeans and the tennis shoes Phil gave me was a welcome change.
Rachel had a few things to take care of so I walked about the apartment and laughed aloud as I came upon a cactus, the first cactus of the trip.
She walked in and asked why I was laughing, "There's something I have to do before I leave and it involves that cactus."
"I am so not going to ask!", she replied with a huge smile that screamed WTF?
She had some errands to run and there was a wooded park with trails nearby. As we got into the elevator with the manual doors I explained that when I first started this trip I was concerned it would be very lonely so I thought that I should have some tasks with which to pass the time. A rather attractive and very interesting bartender friend of mine, Claudia, gave me a small bottle and, as a completely arbitrary task, asked me to bring her back the sand from around a cactus. "I like cacti", Claudia had said. I had just the previous day confessed to Claudia that I had encountered no cacti on this trip.
Rachel looked at me skeptically. Unfortunately, when we got back I forgot.
We went to a nearby nice coffee shop. I seemed like she would run into groups of people she knew where ever we went. "One of the downsides of living in this community and having the job that I do is that everyone knows me.", she said. "Yea, but it's more than that. You have a way of drawing people to you. When you look at someone you make them feel like they are the most important person in the world and it's addictive.", I replied. She told a story of a woman she knows who can do the same thing even with groups of people each person feeling like they are the most important.
We drove down to the park. The feel of the park was not unlike the PA Grand Canyon. It was deeply wooded with trails carved along a ravine. A large stream flowed below.
Despite the threatening rain we walked along the path for some time as I remembered what I had thought just the previous day walking in the canyon. "So here I am walking in the woods with Rachel", I thought and mentioned to her the 1500 foot canyon. "I would have been dead and unhappy", she commented about going to the canyon. "Oh, you would have been fine.", to which I got another skeptical look.
We sat on a boulder next to the stream and talked for some time. I kept thinking that when I walk through my life I need to take notes. There are so many stories, so many insights that fall by the wayside and are forgotten that really should not be.
Work interjected itself into her life as her cellphone rang. She's the executive director at a nearby synagogue and there's an upheaval going on. It's been a stressful job for her and strangely has involved dealing with difficult problems in commercial real-estate, so we had a lot to talk about on that front as well.
As it started to rain we walked back to the car. On the way we encountered a crazy bird that repeated flew right next to her head but she was still busy on the phone.
The bird seemed upset and would fly loops around us.
We got back to the car as we noticed a couple of gang banger looking guys hovering around the car. You could see the fear on her face. "We have a big problem here with car theft.", she said. She had explained earlier that her choice of apartment was also in part to mitigate fear. "So I don't have to worry.", she said.
I explained how I've realized that kind of fear isn't good for me. It gets inside.
We got into the car without incident. My feeling was the the two guys were scoping out the car next to hers but they didn't seem all that threatening.
"Do you want to see where I work?", she asked. "You'll be able to see what I've been talking about."
"Most definitely!", I said. So off to the Germantown Jewish Center we went.
Not too terribly long ago this building burned. I got the impression it was arson. Rachel was front and center in managing the aftermath of the disaster, making sure that the congregation had continuity and felt taken care of and, if that wasn't enough, managed the reconstruction, the insurance, everything. It was a huge job. "But because of the insurance I had a budget.", she commented. It was because of this experience she could understand how I felt during the more practical parts of my Nightmare. "I hate the sound of phones ringing late at night because the alarm at the building has gone off.", I would say as she would nod knowingly. She's been there. She gets it.
"Is it going to be ok for me to go in there? I mean is any going to mind?", I asked tentatively remembering stories from decades ago. "Sure, no problem.", she said.
As we walked in the front door she said, "After the fire, I had this mural commissioned. I wanted to add some color and a sense of life."
We walked into a room I believe called the Sanctuary which had been devasted by a broken water pipe from a floor above. She talked about all the challenges involved in putting the room back together again.
"Dealing with contractors typically sucks.", I said. "Tell me about it.", she replied.
We walked around the building and she showed me various areas that had been repaired or rebuilt. "I don't yet know what I feel here, but I feel something that I can't yet put into words.", I commented.
Because of my time with her all those years ago and the fact that I was in this building in her presence, I felt welcomed, but in a way not that unlike my time spent on secure military bases. On those bases, you want to make sure the MP's see your escort first otherwise Bad Things can happen.
Each wall hanging, each fixture here, had some significance and a tie in to stories of a very different people from long ago. Strangely, it did not all seem as alien as I think it probably could have largely because she is such a good ambassador.
"Do you want to see my office?", she asked. "Of course. I want to see everything.", I said thinking that I wanted to understand more about the parts of her life that are inaccessible to me.
"It looks very officially office like.", I said.
"I had one person ask me if I was a follower of the Occult.", she commented laughing. Look at her office and you'll notice the Ouiji board mouse pad, the gargoyle and the Lochness monster. That is just so her.
I've always liked Rachel. She has this compelling dark but very funny side that has always drawn me to her.
"I've been doing paper cutting.", she said as she pointed to one of her works of art.
As we left the building she pointed to a list of names carved into the wall. "With the Rabbi leaving, I had to get a contractor to add the new name when I realized my name will never be up there. Despite how much I've sacrificed and how much I've given for this place at the end of the day it's still just a job", she said.
"I've seen that so many times and it's happened to me too. If you let it, a job can start having meanings that it shouldn't. It can start bleeding over into Life.", I replied thinking of the Dalton Highway and the guys who crash up there because it starts to mean something to them that it's not.
We went out for dinner and drinks that evening in that funky cobblestoned streets area. As we walked around I said, "You know, I think I understand what it is that I feel. I felt this before too.", I said. "Really?", she said.
"Walking through those halls, seeing your place and listening to the stories I feel that there is just such a huge part of your life, your world, you, that I can never be part of. It's as if the you I experience is just one small sliver.", I explained and she seemed strangely saddened by this. I went on to talk about incompatible lives and how, at this age, with lives as well defined it's amazing anyone makes new friends or establishes new relationships. "At this age, for two people to get together one or the others life would have to be destroyed and in need of reforming. I guess if I'm ever going to get together with anyone it would probably be at this time with my life fractured in pieces.", I commented. I forget exactly what she said to this, something to the effect of having someone else take the pieces and make something out of them. I remember thinking it was a nice comment.
We talked until very late, the day over before it began.
"I'm sorry the time was so short.", she said the next morning. I echoed the sentiment. "I don't do well with goodbyes.", I replied.
She got ready for work. I put on my Toxic Suit, grabbed my gear and we headed down to the parking garage. Before I knew it my time with Rachel was over.
It is so easy to exclude. It's is so easy to rigidly hold on to the belief that one or the other way to live is the Only Way, the Right Way. It is so easy to put up barriers and shut people out who could contribute so much to a life, turning it into a Life.
Rachel reminded me of things she had taught me ages ago. Even the most foreign of worlds can, with a bit of compassion, become less so. Similar to choosing to feel the emotional impact of the rainbow instead of the storm, choose to see and feel the familiar in other human beings, not the alien, no matter who they are.
However, it's easier said than done, especially when there is serious pain involved. Oftentimes the pain is too great. I think about walking in Rachel's world encountering members of her community my mothers age. How clearly would they be able to see me or would the pain of inconceivable Horrors from the past mask any compassion they might have for this displaced German? I think about certain communities that I still cannot bring myself to accept because of how some of their members behaved when Gesa died ... I still feel the hatred ... but in time I'm sure I will. At least, now I know I have to try.
Looking back now and with new eyes, this story, this epic journey, would have just been another insignificant trip by motorcycle without much value if I had continued being a coward looking for only those who saw the world as I saw it. The calculated risks I took along the way to be open and step into uncomfortable new worlds has allowed me to learn how to See and Think differently.Now I Feel differently. Everything has changed.