Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Mountains Lose Again (Crozet to Waynesboro)

Top: My hosts in Waynesboro on Tuesday: Johanna, Keiko (on lap), Cole, Steven and baby Kai Churchill.
Below: Me and my brother, circa 1985

Some of my happiest memories are the times my brother and I would hit the open road together. The longest of those trips was when he moved out to Los Angeles. I rode shotgun with him from Pennsylvania to the Pacific, all his earthly belongings piled into the back of his green Ford Ranger.

That was my first of what would become multiple cross country trips. It was also my introduction to the vast open spaces of the American West. I saw all of it because there wasn't much sleeping going on in the Ford Ranger. The seats didn't recline at all. Because of the pickup bed the front seats were at a 90 degree angle and unmovable, forcing Aaron and me to be ambassadors for the Good Posture Lobby.

One of the nice things about driving across the west is that the grandiosity of the landscape makes you feel small and humble. With all that time, and all that majesty, it leads to some good conversations. It was on trips like this that Aaron and I were most likely to have heart-to-hearts. Later, after I also moved out to Los Angeles and we were roommates, Aaron and I would rekindle our love affair with the open road three of four times a year by gassing up the Ranger and heading to Las Vegas.

Anyone who has driven from LA to Vegas knows it is a journey in three distinct acts. Act one, getting out of LA. Act Two, the high desert. Act three, rounding the final outcropping and seeing the lights of Las Vegas in the distance. By far the longest stretch is the high desert, stretching from the Cajon Pass until you spot the stream of light shooting into the air from the Luxor Casino. We spent many hours together in that high desert, staring out in distance, talking and laughing and prognosticating and, well ... being best friends. Landmarks highlighted our way: Victorville, the big thermometer in Baker, the fast food joints in Barstow, the exit for Xxyyzz Road, the State Line, Laughlin and then ultimately, Vegas in the distance. We had nothing to do but drive and talk and listen.

We had a soundtrack for these drives. It was the Blues Traveler "Four" album. This is dating ourselves a bit, but we would throw that cassette tape in when we hit the high desert and let it play all the way through. One song in particular always affects me from that album. It's called The Mountains Win Again. When I hear that album now, the memories come rushing back. Music has a way of doing that. It touches an emotional nerve and holds on until the last note. Hearing that song, I miss him. I miss the relationship we once had. And I hope that someday it will be him and me again, in the front of some car, and we can let the mountains draw us out to a place where honesty is possible.

This Tuesday morning I found myself sitting at the foot of Blue Ridge Mountains, halfway between Crozet and Waynesboro. There was no Ford Ranger to take me up. I would have to walk the steep three miles to the top. I looked in my iPod and chose three Blues Traveler songs to get me started. By the time those ended I was in a zone, powering up the hill at maybe twice my normal speed. The adrenaline was flowing and I selected song after song to push me forward with maximum effect. I saved another favorite for last, just as I was about to crest the mountain. In sight of the summit I threw on Whitney Houston's One Moment in Time. Before you laugh, let me say this in my defense. Listen to that song and you will be inspired.

In high school, my best friend Derek and I loved that song. Near the end of our senior year we started to lift weights at our local YMCA. I think there was some convoluted reason for our sudden bout of interest in bodybuilding. If I remember right we had a senior trip to Dorney Park Wildwater Kingdom and we wanted to look good for the girls in our class. I feel like laughing when I think about it, but nonetheless that is all we needed to start pumping weights a few times a week. One night we were the only ones in the weight room near closing time. Our workout was winding down as we listened to the radio, talking more than we were lifting. Then One Moment in Time came on.

Each day I live
I want to be a day to give the best of me

I'm only one, but not alone

My finest day is yet unknown

I broke my heart for every gain

To taste the sweet, I faced the pain

I rise and fall,
Yet through it all this much remains

We looked at each other and immediately started running around like mad men. Derek threw a few more plates on the bench press than usual and started pumping out sets. I pick up a couple of huge dumbbells and start doing free presses like I was performing for the US Olympic Committee. For the five minutes of the song we ran around the weight room, lifting like doped up East German body builders.

Give me one moment in time
When I'm more than I thought I could be
When all of my dreams
Are a heart beat away
And the answers are all up to me
Give me one moment in time
When I'm racing with destiny
Then in that one moment of time
I will be, I will be, I will be free

That same chorus was playing in my ears at full volume as I reached the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I felt complete elation. I was six full weeks into my trip, still plugging away, refusing to back down from both the literal and metaphorical mountains in my path. I was back in that weight room with Derek. I was driving in the high desert with my brother. I was by myself on the top of a mountain. Only this time, the mountains hadn't won again. I had.