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Riding shotgun, we encounter "Road Angels," regular and irregular folks along the way who show us both the good and bad in the world and beg us to rethink important questions about how the landscape of our homes effects every aspect of our being. In the end, Nerburn helps us uncover some unexpected and profound answers about the myths and dreams that shape our lives.
Hell, there ain't no one beginning. A couple of creeks, some lakes and streams, water running in from some swamps. It all just adds up. Pretty soon there's a river.
--An old Ojibwe man discussing the source of the Mississippi here in northern Minnesota
Sometimes big events have small origins.
There was no divorce, no loss of job, no dramatic crisis of faith and self-confidence. It was, at heart, the accretion of little things, like a deepening blanket of snow, that finally caused the branch to snap and sent me careening back to the West Coast from my comfortable home in the woods of northern Minnesota.
Let me tell you how it happened.
I have always had the firm conviction -- and it has only strengthened as I've gotten older -- that we're shaped by the land on which we live. I mean this in the profoundest sense. The monumental forces -- the weather, the quality of light and the quantity of darkness, the sense of distance or possibility or enclosure in the terrain -- all of these shape our spirits and become our point of contact with the gods. In ways we can only dimly understand, they make us who we are.
I was born into the long cold flatness of the Midwestern North, where justice speaks in the voice of thunder, forgiveness falls like a mantle of snow, and the endless turning of the seasons weaves humility and caution into the very fabric of our lives. Without knowing it, we become watchers and distant observers, valuing objectivity over passionate involvement, because we sense in our bones that the wheel of life, like the seasons, is always turning and will leave us grasping at something ephemeral and fleeting if we invest too strongly in any passing emotion or passion.
At our best this makes us clear-eyed and fair-minded, with an unerring instinct for the essential. At our worst we become cynical and retrograde, holding life at a distance and making a virtue of intractability. But in either case, gradually and unwittingly, we take on the face of American Gothic, full of stolid honesty and spiritual severity, bound to the earth and its hard lessons, aware in our bones that the wheel of fate, more than the trajectory of progress, is the light by which our lives must be lived.
In my youth this was just fine. I was surrounded by people who shared the same worldview, and I knew no other way. It was quite enough to be the laconic watcher, the ironist, the cautious skeptic who held the world at arm's length, putting it in context and parsing its deficiencies. But as I grew, this critical distance became stultifying. Irony casts out love, and I, like everyone else, wanted love. Not just love of another person, but love of life. I wanted to embrace, not analyze. Kerouac-crazy midnight drives, paper-bag cheap-whiskey drunks, and Woody Guthrie walking the railroad tracks with collar up almost sufficed. But that was drunken love -- an embrace of disengagement, a cloaked celebration of detachment from something larger.
I wanted something else. I wanted union, oneness, wholeness.
I wanted belief.
Eventually, like so many before me, I heard the siren song of California. I packed a few belongings in my rusty Minnesota car and undertook that time-honored, mythic American journey toward freedom and possibility. It was an exhilarating liberation. Even now I remember that first moment, driving in on I-80, just past Reno at the edge of the Sierras, when I pulled over and stepped out into the mountain-sweet amber morning light. The air intoxicated me. The scale overwhelmed me. I stood on a fallen fir as big around as my car and thrust my arms in the air, like Moses thanking God for the tablets or Jesus telling the waters, "Peace. Be still."
And, indeed, the waters were beginning to still. Some tablets were being handed down. Whatever it was that had made the Pomo and the Miwok trade with each other rather than cut off each other's feet, like the Ojibwe and Dakota of my native North, was softening my spirit as well. I was moving inside myself, becoming the participant rather than the observer. The man with his hands in his pockets and his James Dean hunch was fading into the past. For the first time in my life, I was losing the distance of irony and replacing it with the fullness of belief.
Over time, I fell completely under the spell. And it wasn't just California; it was the entire West Coast. I rambled about from border to border, sleeping on beaches, waking under the redwoods, living in cabins and cities, and falling in and out of love. It was an intoxicating time in an intoxicating land, where the gods that shaped the spirit were not the gods of ice and thunder, but the gods of Pacific vistas and the susurrations of the sea. Meaning was not something glacial and ground out; it was eruptive, epiphanic. One could dream of change, of metanoia, of conversion.
From every corner, life was shouting "Yes!" It was a great embrace, a great affirmation. I flowed with the waters, rolled with the hills, lived the life of easy grace in which judgment, by God or man, receded like a distant whisper. For the first time I was not apart from my life; I was in it.
I had slipped the bonds of European thought. T. S. Eliot and Hegel and Aquinas and Augustine were left behind. I was part of hope, of future, of discovery. There was wisdom to the East and worlds to explore, where the past was not a weight and an obligation, but an illusion of my own devise. I could cast it off, like everything else -- shed my existential slouch like a chrysalis -- and fly free into a world limited only by the shackles of my own consciousness...