West to East - Across America (and to Eastern Europe)

From: John Labovitz
To: adventures@cyber-adv.com
Date sent: Sun, 26 May 1996

i'm taking off for june, july, and part of august on a trip across the US, then to europe (mostly eastern europe).

john


JUMP TO THE LATEST TRIP INSTALLMENT
Date sent: Mon, 17 Jun 1996
From: John Labovitz
To: adventures@cyber-adv.com

First Day


It is the classic first day of travel: I awake in movement, and know that it is the movement of the journey. I saunter from bedroom to kitchen to bathroom and back. Anything I remove from my backpack is carefully replaced in its proper compartment. Every motion carries me forward on the trip; every action is a step on the path that leads to me walking out the door into the orange light of dawn.

Also part of the classic form of travel is the wrong turns and missed directions: I realize I've misread the bus schedule, and the city bus leaves a half hour later than I thought. No problem; I have time to spare.

On the walk to the bus stop, the sunrise is so stunning I vow to write it all down, but find that I have forgotten to pack my pen. On this trip, sure to be filled with experiences and observations which I intend to snare in a net of words, I have left a primary tool on the shore. I can only laugh, try to remember what I have seen, and buy a new pen.

The city bus to downtown Seattle is crowded but quiet. This early Sunday morning journey is full of sleep, and we dream our way into the city.

I wait for the Green Tortoise bus to arrive. In 24 hours' time, it will carry me south to San Francisco, via the freeways of Washington, Oregon, and northern California. The last great hippy bus line, the Tortoise now does a booming adventure travel business catering to foreign visitors to the States, especially young people wanting a first taste of the expanse of the country. The Tortoise keeps itself away from the hecticness of air travel, the anonymity and monotony of Greyhound buses, the isolating shell of the rented car, and the erraticness of train travel, and adds its own benefits of friendly cooperation, funky comfort, and a guarantee that each trip will be nothing like the last.

There are a few of us waiting this morning. We gently introduce ourselves to each other, tell of where we're from and where we're going, of travel tales along the way. It is the usual variety of Tortoise riders: a nomadic musician, a freelance writer, a web developer, a student, a language translator. We hail from Canada, England, Trinidad, Germany, America.

Our belongings stowed beneath the mattresses that cover the rear of the bus, we creak forward. The air fills with motion, hums in anticipation, cools our memories. I've taken this journey so many times that the road not new to me anymore: we stop at the same rest stops, gas stations, freeway exits. But among virgin Tortoise travelers, I try to see the newness through their eyes. I can tell stories of past times in these places I've been before, and add layers and filigrees using the experiences of the present trip.

Every trip has a theme. Last summer, in a fit of change of life, I left San Francisco and headed north towards the future. On that trip, it seemed that every rider on the Tortoise was leaving -- moving away from what was, towards what would be. No one was simply traveling; no one planned to return. We all shared stories of the events that led to the boarding of the Tortoise, nodding at the sameness, laughing at the strangeness, and, I think, healing ourselves by forming a cloud of acceptance of this therapy-by-travel.

This trip's theme is raw travel. None of us are leaving behind a life, never to return; we are only vacating temporarily, learning by exploration, with the intent to build new knowledge into our everyday life. Over some days or weeks or months, we will walk the cycle of the journey, count the steps we've taken, guess how many remain, and know that at the end, we will be stepping through the same door we left. We will be different, of course; travel leaves no one untouched.

Throughout the day, the Tortoise stops for food, gas, picking up and dropping off passengers. We see a brief tour of Oregon -- the bridge-city of Portland, humid and languid along the Columbia River; the student- and bicycle-filled town of Eugene; the cool green valley bowl of Ashland. We stop for a simple dinner at the Tortoise's home camp in southern Oregon, relaxing in the sauna and river, listening to guitar music played around the fire pit.

But soon it is dark and we are back on the road, creaking and bouncing into California. The lights in the bus slowly dim and our conversations grow quiet. I squeeze into a narrow bunk and fall asleep to the rattle and clatter of the road.

Notes from a Technomad

On past trips, I have lugged around a computer of some sort, either a tiny palmtop machine on which I can type with two fingers and squint at my words, or a laptop that seems to grow heavier and heavier with each letter entered. Using a modem and an acoustic coupler with which I can communicate on any telephone, I have been able to send swift and timely dispatches to folks who are interested in my wanderings.

This time, not wanting to worry about expensive microelectronics or infinitely-heavy plastic contraptions, I have forsaken any portable electronics. Instead, I am utilizing simply pen and paper, taking notes while in motion, and occasionally stringing together the prose you see here.

At least on the cross-States leg of this journey, nearly every friend I am visiting has a computer with which I can do simple word-processing, and most have Internet accounts. In some cities, I will look for cafes, libraries, and universities that have some sort of net access, and attempt to send back my dispatches from these borrowed nodes. As I compromise on ease of access to computer and net, I hope to be able to fine-tune my writing, and learn something of the state of net access around the world. Not to mention taking a weight off my back muscles...

Some of you may be interested in the more technical details of how I plan to deal with email as I travel. First, I continue to receive messages in my emailbox at johnl@meer.net. In my settled life, I will normally transfer any waiting email to my home computer, and read and respond from there. But if I am away from home and have access to a computer with net access and the "telnet" program, I can remotely login to meer.net from afar, and deal with my email from there. However, telnet can be frustratingly slow, and I expect that once I reach Europe, this option will be quite difficult.

If I cannot use telnet, but can temporarily send and receive email at a borrowed email address, I can send a message with a magic code (no, I'm not telling) to myself (at johnl@meer.net), and the contents of my emailbox will be forwarded to the borrowed address. Another magic code lets me send email from a borrowed address, but have it resent to look as if it was coming directly from my johnl@meer.net address.A third magic code lets me automatically publish my trip dispatches, both to the john-trip@meer.net mailing list which some of you may be on (if you're getting this by email). A copy of the web version is also sent to the folks at Cyber Adventures (http://www.cyber-adv.com), who are also publishing my dispatches.

These magic codes all invoke a program I've written called "secretary". For the moment, it serves me well as a sort of virtual secretary, dealing with email as I'm traveling, and it will gradually expand to take on more features and functions as I need them.

As for non-electronic communication, my physical mail is handled by Wanderer's Mail Service, in Seattle's Pike Place Market. They receive and store my mail, and forward it to a given address upon request. This is working well so far, and allows me to deal with bills, airplane tickets, and letters from people whom I hope to stay with. It will also serve as a permanent postal address, regardless of where I'm living in the future.

I'll keep y'all updated on the technomadic travails of this trip as I learn about them.


Date sent: Fri, 28 Jun 1996
From: John Labovitz
To: adventures@cyber-adv.com

[This message is coming via a robot that automatically sends out my trip updates. If there are problems, please reply to this same address and I will attempt to fix the problem.]

Here's the latest installment of my trip tale:

San Francisco


I can no longer visit San Francisco as a tourist. I lived here for three years, and visited before and after for another five. I come here to see friends, to work, to wander in an urban environment whose streets I know too well.

So I wander and explore in these hot days of early summer. My journey carries me from my temporary home in the sunny Castro district, under the earthquake-damaged freeway, down the Market Street corridor where the wind blows fierce, to visit friends hard at work forging web-design tools. An invigorating talk of marketing and surfing, a product demo, a quick email check, and I'm on my way again.

In North Beach, I meet a new friend from the Tortoise and drink coffee at Cafe Trieste. We watch the passers-by, and discuss San Francisco: its dense and compact streets, its hectic hustling, its patois of culture and language from everywhere, so similar to the cosmopolitan European cities. Now I understand why so many of my friends from Europe love this city and yearn to return. Seattle seems very American, a small town, in comparison; but that's what I like about it: it's a comfortable place to be, where I feel less stimulated, more grounded.

I contact old friends and make lunch plans, coffee plans, dinner plans. In the streets, I run into more friends, go off to see movies, remember what has happened and what is happening. My days fill up quickly.

The Wind of Memory

My mind wants to see the place anew, but my body is constantly reminded of the dances of ghosts past -- fateful meetings on street corners; apartments of lovers, heavy with the air of passion; breakfasts at cafes filled with laughter. The storm of stimulus blows strong, and my notebook papers flutter in the breeze of time.

Peering down sidewalks I have walked a thousand times, looking up at the rooflines of Victorian houses and industrial warehouses, I try to wipe the fog of the past from my eyes. I try to see the city as itself, as the crystalline structure of its streets and buildings, as the shifting, growing, changing organism of its people.

There are rare moments of clarity: I push a man in a wheelchair down Valencia Street to buy new shirt and socks, and amidst the clattering of the wheelchair, my hard breath lifts the fog, and there is only the man, the wheelchair, the rutted sidewalks, and this hot San Francisco morning.

But the fog of my memories returns quickly. I am at the intersection of 18th and Valencia Streets, ordering a fruit-juice concoction at a grocery store. I think of Elle, now in Portland, who used to live upstairs; Renee, who lived half a block south in a blue house; Kate and Abe and Eric and I buying beer at the liquor store across the street. And more memories scatter out in all directions from this corner: up 18th Street towards the Castro, where I first lived upon arriving in The City five years ago; down Valencia toward the myriad of Mission streets to which I delivered hundreds of pizzas; up Valencia to the streetcar tracks I tried crossing on my bike, but slipped and fell.

When I come to San Francisco now, I visit neighborhoods I never knew when I lived here: North Beach, the Sunset, the Western Addition, the Presidio. If I see fog here, it is not the fog of memories, but the fog of the city, rolling down from the hills to comfort and cool us with its droplets of moisture: the ever-present and eternal fog of the Bay. The fog was here before I arrived, before the sailors and lumbermen and gold miners arrived, before the first humans arrived on this spit of land. Perhaps the fog holds all the memories of those who have arrived here.

Swimming the Public Transit

By some miracle of movement, trains come on time, buses are frequent and uncrowded, even the subways are tolerably usable. I'm amazed; the last few times I've been to this city, I've cursed the disorganized powers- that-be for inefficiency and more. But now I move from Sebastopol to Santa Rosa to San Rafael to San Francisco, through the Market Street corridor, through the tunnel under the waters of the Bay, and into the East Bay towns. I have covered a hundred miles in only a few hours. Something that was stuck is now unstuck. Or perhaps it's me that's changed; am I expecting less?

The buses and trains and subways of the city make up a vast sea. Like a fish, I swim through this slick and flowing world. I stand in the crowded subway cars, facing the windows, my feet planted on the slotted, rubber floor. As the train starts to pull forward, I feel the force in my ankles first, then up to my knees and hips and back. I shift my weight fore and aft, adjusting to the force of gravitation. If I concentrate, and no sudden bumps or stops occur, I can stand without holding onto bars or seats -- and the movement of the train flows through me. I am surfing the subway.

We swim in a vast commuter school, out of the subway car, past newspaper stands, squeezing up escalators, widening a bit in the subterranean stream, then separating and narrowing again to slide through ticket gates. Up on the surface, we slip off in different directions -- alone, free, independent, fins sparkling in the early evening sun.

Technomadic Tales

If there is a perfect city to test my experiment in technomadism sans laptop, San Francisco should be it. I am moderately successful in getting connected. First, my friends at Swellsoft (www.swellsoft.com) kindly allow me to telnet out from their NeXT machine, and I am able to read most of the important email and respond to a little.

Later, I remember that many cafes around the city have SFNet terminals. These have existed for several years, even before the recent trend of cybercafes. The terminals are simple PCs, weather-proofed for an average cafe environment of coffee spills, muffin crumbling, greasy fingers, and the occasional caffeine psychosis. The machines run on quarters, inserted in a slot next to the PC; twenty five cents will get you six minutes of time. Once connected to SFNet (and given a free username/password, if required), a menu leads to telnet access, and from there I can get to my meer.net account.

However, SFnet is very slow -- the terminals themselves are connected to the main server at only 2400 baud, and although meer.net is only 30 miles south of the cafe in which I sit, packets run slow as molasses. I have ample time to sip my mocha while waiting for a key to echo, or a message to display. Given enough quarters, I am able to read through my mail, but responding is intolerably slow. Instead, I try taking advantage of my scripts that resend email from any address as if it were coming from me at johnl@meer.net, and send a couple of messages to friends using SFNet's built-in mail system. Apparently it worked, although even getting those messages out of the queue took quite a while.

So I recommend using an SFnet terminal mostly for folks who can't otherwise find a net connection in San Francisco. I believe the Icon, a cafe/bar south of Market, still has net access, although from what I've heard, it may not be much faster.


Date sent: Tue, 9 Jul 1996
From: John Labovitz
To: adventures@cyber-adv.com

[This message is coming via a robot that automatically sends out my trip updates. If there are problems, please reply to this same address and I will attempt to fix the problem.]

Here's the latest installment of my trip tale:

Dropping South


I am departing from familiar ground. My eyes know well the twining roads that link the Pacific Northwest with the foggy San Francisco Bay. Now I venture further south, into country I have only seen a little.

The warehouses and shipping yards of Oakland give way to the sprawl of suburban homes. Some are roofed with the red clay of Spanish tiles and pink stuccoed; others with simple white clapboard. Then acres of self-storage units, recycling centers, scrap yards and decaying and charred signal towers. A moire of yellow-green bushes glows against the ruined backdrop of quarry pits and heaps of dirt and gravel.

Occasionally, we cross a trickle of water shored and sedated by concrete banks -- the former creeks and streams and brooks of this valley. Outside of town, the train snakes across the wetlands north of San Jose. Herons and other long-legged birds wade and stand patiently, seemingly unaffected by the train's intrusion on tracks rising only a foot or so above swamp grass and shallow water.

The coach car is full of screaming kids fore and aft. Two sisters with identical blonde, double braids shriek and roar at their dolls and each other. Their mother threatens them whenever their shrieks become too deafening, but the kids pay no attention. Behind me, another pair, brother and sister, practice their hiccuping. I hope this is not an omen for the remainder of my train journey.

We skirt the southwestern edge of the great California agricultural valley. The hills and ridges are painted gold with summer grass and patched with the dark, dusty, green oaks. On the flats, our rails lie parallel and perpendicular to neat rows of vegetables, flowers, vineyards, orchards.

Graffiti, backdoors, forgotten cars, glimpses of Main Street a block away -- the view forgotten by tourist bureaus in this age of freeway exits and strip malls. But as riders on the last American passenger train, we are privy to the backsides of the country. A huge Aztec calendar painted on the back of a building is slowly eaten by green ivy.

Away from the highway, the train rolls out of farmland and cuts across the hills of cattle ranches. Away from the suburban hum, the death of the small town, and the gridded discipline of the farms, creeks I cannot see feed dense stands of bushes and trees. The occasional ranch house, satellite dish, and orchard peeks out from the edges of the small valleys.

Men wave to the train from the fields, leaning on shovels in the sun. A small, flat cemetery is nestled between plowed fields; people here live and die in their valley.

We pass long snakes of freight cars waiting on side-spurs. The sides of the cars are covered with graffiti, and I imagine a novel written out on the side of boxcars across the country. The work has no beginning or end; you may start reading-- you can pick up the plot later. There are parts of the story that are slow, ancient, obscure, needing careful reading from under layers of rust, off an abandoned spur. Simple, direct narratives rattle on across the dual lines of the midwestern plains, confident and moving fast. In the yards and stations across the land, where cars are linked and switched, there are the clumps of explosive energy -- hectic, creative. The words and sentences are formed, whole chapters assembled, creaked into motion, and hauled (and howl) down the rails.

Dinner on the train found me sitting with two men, natives of Southern California. They told of oil rigs offshore of Santa Barbara that drill not down, but across the sea under the town itself -- 'directional drilling.' I imagine great reservoirs of oil beneath the streets, slowly being sucked out by huge machines only dimly visible in the ocean fog, until at last the buildings and cars and people collapse into a great pit.

The City of Angels

As our train enters LA, there is an announcement that the train control system is out, and the train will be going slowly and stopping at every railroad crossing. Our journey into central LA is slow and dark. Voices are hushed and anticipatory.

Out the windows, along the freeway, I study the overpasses and expanses of asphalt, and the drivers that traverse these trails. Up north, freeways are simple, sparse, functional, unadorned. But as one travels further south, these gargantuan boulevards become decorated, designed, almost artistic. Green belts in Oregon become redwood tunnels in the emerald triangle of northern California; around the Bay Area appear the first hint of flowers and named dedication. There is perhaps an aesthetic break through the agricultural valleys, but by San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara, the freeways are almost beautiful: flowers of red and yellow sparkle on the median and next to exit ramps. The many cement overpasses are cast in a geometry that holds my attention as well as the weight of vehicles.

As we walk the streets of LA, I pick up an odor of what smells like old, dried piss. I am reflecting on what I think to be a standard feature of super-urban life in a trashed-out desert, when Douglas points out the scent of the Jacaranda trees. This is not a human odor, but a transmittal from the trees lining the streets. Douglas theorizes that the smell is the tree's last gasp of flowing life, and through an amazing feat of evolutionary observation, releases this scent in order to attract butterflies who will carry off the last of the tree's pollen.

The night skies of LA glow with an orange haze. There is no darkness, really; there is only less light. We wait patiently for a bus on Hollywood Boulevard and watch the night parade tramp by -- mostly rich kids seeing the latest hype of the commercial rock pushers. Douglas said he once saw Rod Stewart drive by, and I suddenly have caught the celebrity-watching fever that grips visitors to this place.

Douglas rents a room in Westwood, a rich suburb next to the UCLA campus. The old main street of the neighborhood has become an expensive row of boutiques catering to the wealthier students and residents of the area. Grandiose banks have been converted to record and clothes stores, but it seems that every other storefront is empty and for rent.

The houses of Westwood are marked with signs designating which private security company is paid to monitor and patrol the house. These are no desk-sitting dispatchers: the companies offer "armed response," apparently more efficient than LA's official finest men in blue. I feel self-conscious sitting outside with my backpack; I'll probably be picked up and thrown in some corporate jail, confined to a cell made of cast-off office partition walls, given dollar bills to purchase candy and coffee from vending machines, and being forced to file and type.

Paradoxically, LA seems a natural place. The sprawl, the impermanence, the shifting flows of culture and people, all are accepted as normal and appropriate for a city less than a century old. Stability, or a consistent community, are marks of places with older identities. Here, with this thin topsoil of time, neighborhoods invent themselves because no one else will do it for them.

In a place as mythical as LA, the traveler infected with even the smallest virus of popular culture has two directions in the exploration of the city. You may choose to search out the archetypes and stereotypes which emanate from here and create the myth. They are visible from any point, standing tall on the horizon just below the smog. Step over the congealed mass of culture mixed with life on the way towards these monuments: Hollywood, Sunset Strip, Disneyland, the freeways, Beverly Hills...

The other path leads you out of the studio backlots, through the labyrinthine tunnels below Magic Mountain, down dusty alleys. Board an un-numbered bus across neighborhoods not found on any tourist map. From dusty windows, watch as the monuments crumble into heaps of plaster and chicken wire, fade into mirages, and disappear into the glossy shimmering heat of the noon sky. At the end of the line, disembark and find yourself in the true Los Angeles: on the naked streets of a newborn city.

Leaving LA, I feel that I am departing just as I am attaining a realization of a deeper level of this urban mass. From sprawling metropolis to connected community; from that chaotic community to a familiar street; to that hot street to a small cafe -- a magnifying effect, brought on by time spent in a place. I have just begun to hold the lens steady, and I am off again to a new place. But I suppose it is cumulative: each time I spend exploring this basin, my appreciation grows a little, and I spread my knowledge over a greater area.

Eastwards

In East LA, our train passes furnace stacks, huge rusty tanks, cranes, low-lying warehouses, cyclone fences, railroad yards. The browns, oranges, and grays of a million tons of iron and aluminum are trimmed with a rainbow of graffiti.Layers of spray paint on nearly every fence, wall, drainage ditch, tractor trailer, create a pulsing mass of letters, words, glyphs. I imagine this vernacular body to be alive, obviously sentient, growing larger to fill its environment, mutating to adjust its living story to the ever-changing present.

Riverside

A sleepy town. Once a mecca for citrus trading, older than LA, now home to University of California at Riverside, the soft-spoken cousin of heavyweights like UCLA and UC Berkeley. At this late hour, the campus is deserted, the only life coming from the automatic sprinklers that flood the over- watered grass. Kate and I take a midnight driving tour of the town and campus, but the only activity is a police bust of a supposed gang house -- a dozen kids, hands behind their heads, looking scared and a little proud in the spotlights of the cop cars.

During the day, we drive up into the hills east of town, out to Joshua Tree National Monument. The hills and arroyos become full of these strange plants, more trunk than branches, simple, rough, with tiny leaves all over. We find a trail loop in the park, and hike for an hour under pounding sun. At one point, we lose the trail, and in our state of partial dehydration, realize we are lost in the desert: all the rocks and boulders suddenly look the same, and I lose faith in my sense of direction. But we find the trail again, twenty five yards away, and successfully navigate back to the parking lot.

My train towards Tucson arrives an hour late. Waiting, Kate and I sit and talk and watch mice and roaches scuttle around the landscaping and cement platform. Other passengers meet and talk the traveltalk: neighborhoods lived in, trains taken, how their family reached their home through the years.

Into the Southwest

I awake to the hard, rough silhouettes of desert mesas and mountains against the cobalt sky of early dawn. I'm somewhere in Arizona, where miles of flat valley hold only scattered sagebrush and the parallel lines of railroad, freeway, and power lines. The sun rises and the hot, red tones of morning frighten away the stars.

Technomadic Trivialities

I'm sure there are cybercafes in Los Angeles, but my friends here are students, so I do the scam of borrowing their accounts. It works well; the Bruin Computer Lab at UCLA is remarkably lax about using their computers. I simply find a blank disk, create a 'preferences' setup, and -- voila -- I am online, with a Netscape, Telnet, Eudora, etc. While Douglas is off eating Chinese food for breakfast, I read and write email.

In Riverside, a quickly-borrowed telnet account is far less graceful than the UCLA setup, but works well enough to get up to date and catch some important messages.

A Final Note on Time

You might wonder why you are getting reports on my adventures in Southern California, when some of you know full well that I am already on the other side of the country, ready to fly off to Europe. The answer is simply procrastination and lack of access: getting my notes typed into prose, and finding a computer with which to upload the text, has been more delayed than I had hoped. You'll probably be reading Colorado reports while I'm in Dublin, and stories of New York while I'm in Prague, but rest assured that eventually all will be caught up with.


Date sent: Thu, 11 Jul 1996 06:22:05 -0700 (PDT)
From: John Labovitz
To: adventures@cyber-adv.com

[This message is coming via a robot that automatically sends out my trip updates. If there are problems, please reply to this same address and I will attempt to fix the problem.]

Here's the latest installment of my trip tale:

Land of Dry Heat


Exiting the air-conditioned interior reality of Amtrak, my first breath of Arizona air sears my throat and lungs in the intense Tempe heat. I want to cease to breathe, avoid the combusting oxygen of the southern desert, but I give in and inhale gently. It's only nine in the morning.

Jenni shows me the art of living in the desert: move slowly, keep one's actions to a minimum, be glad of air conditioning, drink lots of water. I take this to heart and spend much of the daytime indoors, reading stories of the cool, rainy Northwest, and borrowing Jenni's laptop to write my own stories.

We do get out in the day eventually: at the Phoenix Botanic Gardens, we wander languidly among cacti and yucca, languid themselves. They are hardened, stuff, with sturdy roots and an air of self-sufficiency. Their spines and narrow leaves do not intertwine like a deciduous forest. Like people who live in the country and measure distances from neighbors in miles, these plants keep a distance from each other, knowing the scarcity of food and water.

Jenni suggests we escape the heat-bowl and move north to where it's cooler. And it's on my way -- the same route I'd be following on the Amtrak transfer bus; I'd much rather meander with an old friend.

To the City of Concrete

In the center of Arizona, just off the main north-south freeway, surrounded by the mesas and valleys of the desert, is Arcosanti. Designed by Paolo Soleri, an Italian architect who once studied with Frank Lloyd Wright, the city has been growing slowy since its founding in the mid-1960s. The space-age design of modular structures is being constructed by Soleri's minions -- experimenters, supporters, enthusiasts, followers of his philosophy -- and paid for mostly through selling windbells, also designed by Soleri and manufactured on-site.

The place is an odd flowering of geometry: cubical and hexagonal apartments, semi-spherical workplaces, rectangular offices. This is not the right-angled forest of the normal Western city, nor the soft curves of pueblos or other desert dwellings. It clearly owes more to Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome, and similar architecture made popular in the 1970s, based more on forms than on fitting those forms to a landscape.

That decade seems to be entombed here, in a kind of massive time capsule. From the futuristic conceptions of outer-space colonies, to the assumption that one can make a living through making and selling crafts, to the simple, blocky, earthtone paintings of plants and the Earth -- Jenni and I are reminded of a time of moon boots and mood rings, when we were in grade school together.

Arcosanti is not complete, and it seems it never will be. The city as it stands supports around fifty people; the design calls for building enough space and support for many thousands. There is a model and plan for this expansion, with systems for water, electricity, greenhouses for local food production. Paradoxically, it is less complete than before: Soleri has added onto the plan; the completed section had once represented 4% of the plan, but now only 2% is finished.

What is there is not really maintained: the unpainted cement walls crumble; roads are unpaved and dusty; the cafeteria is institutionalized and worn. There seems little ambience of the type that naturally evolves in lively places. An amphitheater occasionally brings high-brow events like opera and classical music and dance; I saw no evidence of any alternative. The gathering places within the city are in TV rooms, apartments, or on cement platforms illuminated by the neon light of the "Arcomart," an embarrasing importation of a standard corner convenience store (and soon to be a pizzeria).

I have come to Arcosanti before. At the time, Arcosanti spoke to me as a possibility, a place to work and live, creating and city and community of the present, and hence the future. But now I am more critical: the buildings look shabbier, the residents tired and morose, the social structure more confining. Perhaps it my youthful enthusiasm was tempered by years; perhaps an idealistic mood passed. I ask about working here, whether anyone runs their own business, or perhaps telecommutes to a company outside, or even is retired or on sabbatical. No, I am told; everyone is paid minimum wage, and works full-time on construction, maintenance, administration, or in the kitchen or bakery. I realize that even given the stress and bother and inefficiency of American cities -- organically evolving without a master planner -- I am freer and more creative. Arcosanti may be an interesting social experiment, a useful architectural model, but it is not a city, alive with the hopes and dreams of all who inhabit it.

From the cement escarpment of Arcosanti, we look across to the cliffs of the opposing mesa. Enshrouded in muted greens and browns of stone and sage, and topped with a blue southwestern sky, the raw, naked land invites us to leave this overplanned utopia. In the river valley, a small, stone structure has been constructed by an unknown human hand. Without roof, windows, or exterior walls, it lies open to the wandering coyotes, the heat of the day and chill of night, under the blanket of stars. It is there we would live more happily.

???

A boy wearing a blue and white-striped train engineer's cap calls out the names of trains and stations -- "Flagstaff... Santa Fe... Amtrak... Orient Express..." He holds his family's train tickets firmly and confidently. He is too young to know that he inherits the romance of the rails, and the motion of travel, and the myths made real, the magic spells evoked when names of far-off places are uttered.

Technomadic Trippery

Arizona State University has the fastest net connection thus far; 'twas a real joy to telnet. Jenni lent me her account, and while she surfed to Australia, I read my mail and looked at the Arcosanti homepage (www.arcosanti.org) to get info and directions. I considered finding the person (Nathan Koren) who set up the page at Arcosanti, but didn't.


Date sent: Wed, 17 Jul 1996
From: John Labovitz
To: adventures@cyber-adv.com

[This message is coming via a robot that automatically sends out my trip updates. If there are problems, please reply to this same address and I will attempt to fix the problem.]

Here's the latest installment of my trip tale:

In Search of Lost Astronomers


I have entered Colorado, at the northeast edge of the Southwest. At 7,000 feet above the sea, these are the "hills" that lead to the Rocky Mountains, whose peaks rise that much again before puncturing the sky with treeless, snowy jags.

This is a land of change and motion. In a few hours' drive, flat desert becomes verdant river valleys; spires of red-orange slickrock become green-gray craggy ridges; farming town becomes yuppie mountain paradise.

Human settlement here seems temporary, ephemeral. The American West is still young, and the settled, sedentary lifestyle here younger still. Affluent towns of white-collar East- and West-coasters, hoping for a better life than the urban sprawl, built their modern houses atop old mining villages; the tailings of rock and low-grade ore still lie decaying on the hillsides. Other once-sleepy towns have been transformed into tiny, obscure hippy meccas, whose transient population stays for a season or two, then moves on.

There is some precedence for this quick settlement of a relatively difficult country. A thousand years ago, the mysterious Anasazi Indians settled in the low-lying canyons and river valleys, and farmed and hunted where they could. They, too, built grandly and quickly, creating cities out of rock, adobe, and mud. Some nestled their complexes into sheer cliff walls; others built towers in arroyos. All these settlements had excellent stonework; they were built to last.

And the structures have lasted, but the Anasazi have disappeared -- no one is left to answer why. Perhaps they were stricken by drought or disease, perhaps decimated while defending their home, perhaps they just decided to move on, travel to the next place, reinvent themselves as a new people.

Only ruins and theories are left now. Learning the full story is impossible -- some knowledge is lost forever -- but coincidances and happy accidents have shown us that the ancient ones were avid watchers of the sky. And they took notes; their observations are encoded as dim scratches of petroglyphs and the obscure alignment of rock towers.

Early one morning, the day before the full summer solstice, we travel in the purple dawn to one of these known sites of prehistoric archeo-astronomy. We drive down unpaved, dusty roads, aided by a mis-drawn map, then hurriedly run on unmarked paths, looking for a crack in the earth. A wrong turn, a dead-end, then a faint trail, and we arrive: on a large boulder, two daggers of light join at their tips, and this yearly even is marked by a thousand year-old spiral carved in the stone.


Date sent: Wed, 17 Jul 1996
From: John Labovitz
To: adventures@cyber-adv.com

[This message is coming via a robot that automatically sends out my trip updates. If there are problems, please reply to this same address and I will attempt to fix the problem.]

Here's the latest installment of my trip tale:

On the Time Machine to Prague


Okay, time to skip ahead. In real-time, I'm in Prague, even though in writing-time I'm only in Colorado. I've got stuff written down about the time in between, and I'll try to fill that in as I go along, but in the meantime, here's a quickie on Prague.

The Secret Garden

I am lost in the maze of side-streets in Malastrana, below the Prague Castle. Down narrower and narrower passages, cobble-stoned all, I wander. My gaze falls on a gate marked with a small metal sign: Gallerie MXM. Just beyond the gate, an old man smiles and gestures to me, speaking something unknown. I pass through the gate, and he gestures again -- for me to come through a door in a wall. I walk through, and the man closes and locks the door behind me.

I find myself in a garden, perhaps the size of a basketball court. Around its perimeter is a path, and along the path are placed benches. Groups of people -- single, couples, families -- sit in the bright sunlight. Others walk up and down the path, circling the garden, where dogs and pigeons chase one another.

A dog trots up to me and sits quietly on the path in front of my bench, fur glowing copper and shiny black. The dog and I absorb the sun and watch the other creatures of the park.

From further in the park flow the sounds of guitar chords and voices. I approach and find two twentysomething men from northwest Czechia who are visiting Prague and just playing in the park. They explain that their usual band is electric and heavier, but they're just visiting Prague for a couple of days and are traveling light. We all sing along with songs by Nirvana and The Smiths, in a strange chorus of my out-of-tune American accent and their in-tune Czech accent. I convince them to play the songs they've written in Czech, and they finally agree, wondering why this American would want to hear Czech music.

A ship-horn blares from the Vlaty river, and a tiny dog panics and runs the opposite direction; everyone in the park turns and watches the dog galloping away, and laugh. I laugh with the Gypsy family who walknext to me, exchange a smiling glance with the little girl, and she puts out her hand for money. "Ne, ne, ne," I say.

Technomadisma

I'm typing this from the Cybeteria, more of a business center than a cafe. Yes, they have a bar and serve coffee, but the computers are at office desks in a long corridor. Extremely generic pop music tinkles from the wall, and the clattering of keyboards is most of what I hear. Access is cheap: 50 crowns (about $2) per hour, although getting packets over to the states is very slow.


Date sent: Wed, 7 Aug 1996
From: John Labovitz
To: adventures@cyber-adv.com
Subject: trip tale submission: Wordless among the Prague Faeries

[This message is coming via a robot that automatically sends out my trip updates. If there are problems, please reply to this same address and I will attempt to fix the problem.]

Here's the latest installment of my trip tale:

Wordless among the Prague Faeries

[catching up on old news; this is from a few weeks ago.]


Oh, what strangeness. I am tired, frustrated; I have lost the traveler's confidence. Am I sliding into a rut, where I create errands to do in this city to avoid experiencing the city as it is? Or am I actually progressing, losing the false confidence that interferes with truly knowing a place?

I tried using Czech today -- simple 'please,' 'coffee' -- and embarrassed myself: I mumbled, scrambled, became confused. Panic attacked, the panic of finding oneself lost in a foreign land, wordless and small. It must be like an infant, new to this world, whose tiny, pink tongue is just another strange muscle. This communication is indefinite, full of choices, grasping at options until finally a cry of satisfaction and success. It is a wide-open landscape of sensation, where words are only beginning to huddle into clusters of disparate sounds, visions, tastes. So I gesticulate, point, mutter, apologize, and smile, and pray for understanding in my own head and in the heads of my gracious hosts.

And this dissapating confidence grows to infect each moment: simple events become enormities in time, mountainous problems whose solutions are impossibly lost. The linearity and cause and effect were forgotten, and I am stuck, frozen on a busy streetcorner, not knowing whether to go and make a phone call or find a travel agent.

The only solution, of course, is to lose myself. The map, whose lines and colors have become my territory, is folded and put away into my shoulder bag. My eyes raise to see the shadows and glare given to me by the compass of the sun. And so I head west, where I know the river lies. The green ink on the map becomes the cool green grass of parks; sightseeing icons are made concrete; and the gilden statues support guitarists singing the sun down.

I fall to earth, bang my head on an overhang, and scrape my knuckles on the rough walls of houses on anonymous streets. The voices of the travel faeries chatter, leading me on paths growing ever-clearer in the lowering light. The faeries carry no maps; their topology spans space and time, and freely along and between each axis. Some paths need walking twice, or backwards, in order to arrive at their destination. Or with one's head, just so: it is necessary to see the high statue of the woman with a book, as well as the faint chalk lines of a sketch of a ghost who inhabits this road.

Prague is covered by history -- the most recent history only a light patina on the fifty years that came before, dark years where any internal light was absorbed in the grimy storefronts, barely reflected back to itself, much less shone to the world outside.

In a park, I find the darkened hulk of the abandoned Restaurant Praha (Prague) Expo '58 -- once a proud symbol of Bohemia, where Nixon dined. Now the corrugated siding peels off; a lonely lightbulb illuminates the empty interior. A half-empty swimming pool (fans of novelist JG Ballard will know this symbol of dying civilization) is watched over by a pollution-blackened statute of a boy. In the mucky, algae-infested water floats a Coke bottle.

But out in the sun, construction is everywhere. Rather, re-construction: the renovating of ancient buildings being restored to graceful function. The bright neon of Burger King and McDonalds reflect off 500 year-old cathedrals, yet the city somehow retains a spirit that can encompass it all. Ancient, solid, buil and re-built of stone, it seems that the many occupations of Prague over the centuries -- Hapsburg, Nazi, Soviet, corporate America -- have only strengthened the foundations that hold the soul of Prague. But contrary to my normal anti-tourist/anti-development stance, my friends who live here see this gaudy influx as good for the city. For the shops that now sell T-shirts and souvenir pins once were gray, dirty shops selling virtually nothing in the Communist era.

In a cafe named after a friend of Franz Kafka, the disco and techno music sometimes obscures the Dixieland jazz band playing out on Old Town Square. The window frames the Astrological Clock, its complex innards now more than five centuries old; and although I cannot see down onto the square, I know that vendors there hawk Dr. Seuss-ish Cat-in-the-Hat hats.

So Prague continues to change, glow more brightly, and although my friends say it is now 'almost normal,' there is still excitement and newness in the air. Something subtle floats in the sky, swims in the water, makes the curtains flutter: it comes from neither East nor West, but a special area in between that is nothing but itself. Something convinces me to linger... whispers for me to stay... But now I will continue on, and see if this strange breeze blows my way again.

In the leaving of a place, one often feels a gust of wind that comes out of the past. Emotions eddy around memories of the last few days or weeks or years; the whirling creates a soft shell that surrounds the time and events of the staying. We glance out the train window, back to where we were, squinting to see this egg-like capsule, and we think we see it faintly, there, between those trees, beyond the highest towers we did not climb, at the intersection of the parallel rails. The egg is painted with the sheen of sadness from the leaving, but it is also decorated with the beautiful lines, patterns, and shapes of our experiences: the implicit and omniscient harmony of the causes and effects of the staying.

(c) 1996 John Labovitz


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