1000 Miles of America

Drive 1000 miles in Europe and you get through 12 countries. In the US that will take you from California all the way to — Oregon. Specifically, from Los Angeles to Portland.

My 1000-mile adventure began in the mind-bending snarl of LAX, an airport as labyrinth as the freeways in whose tentacles it nestles. Sarah and I had set out from Los Angeles three weeks earlier, armed with an atlas, a kettle, a tent with no poles, and a carton of super-hot wasabi peas. Four-thousand miles, several national parks, one whisky-soaked birthday bash, and a midnight marathon later she was on her way back to London.

All you really need


Everything up to the farewell had been meticulously planned, mostly by Sarah, whose talent for organisation I admire but don’t share. Now the brains of our operation was airborne my only thought was to find I405N and stick to it like rubber cement until I escaped the LA sprawl.

Driving Los Angeles freeways feels, appropriately, like a video game. You need total concentration and whip-like reflexes. One minute you’re bumper to bumper at 70 miles per hour; the next at a 15mph crawl. Cars swarm and dart like outraged insects with expensive exoskeletons. Me and Bobby McGee, our trusty Toyota hire car, could buzz with the best of them, though. I cranked the Lady Gaga tunes, rolled down the windows, grabbed the wheel with both hands and hit play.

It takes about forever for LA to peter out. There always seems to be just one more suburb. Finally the landscape muted as we slipped the clutches of la la land. I had 300-odd miles before my next decision: to fly through central California on I5 or hook a left at San Francisco and follow Highway 101 along the coast.

Gaga gave way to Bruce Springsteen. Apropos, given that central California has more in common with working-class Jersey than it does with LA or San Francisco. Those two cosmopolitan dots on the map mask the fact that most of the enormous state is empty space studded with sullen, forgotten little towns. The beautiful bits are ring-fenced as national parks or were plowed under to feed the nation.

The part I was driving through was demarcated with tubular metal fencing around cattle yards that were heralded, miles in advance, by a throat-closing stench. Imagine hundreds of warm bodies crammed together in pits of putrefying sewage and you have some idea. If I wasn’t already a vegetarian, that would have been my road to Damascus. The idea of putting anything in my mouth that came from that smell was revolting.

Three hundred miles in Europe can take you through a variety of languages, borders and landscapes. California offers no such break from the tedium. The grey slice of interstate drags you on, hypnotised. Approaching the San Francisco junction I pictured myself pootling up 101. I could stop over in San Francisco, eat sourdough bread, smell the sea, take another picture of the bridge, stay in a cosy motel then head homewards at a civilised pace the following day. But Bobby was running on tracks and we had far to go.

For the same reason I only start enjoying a 10-mile run at mile six I kept driving.

Bobby and I whisked past Sacramento, California’s forgettable capital. The next significant town was Redding, 150 miles away, roughly the halfway point of my route. It offers no speciality breads or romantic views. I knew I wouldn’t stop. I was in the grip of distance-related cognitive dissonance, a disease all driving fanatics suffer. On the one hand, I knew it would take me at least two hours to Redding, itself still two hours from the Oregon border. But it was only 150 miles. Just a couple of inches on a map.

Bobby McGee


Redding vanished, taking the stultifying dullness of central Cali with it. I was locked into a mission now: to make it to Portland in one grand dash. Could I make it across 1300 metre Siskiyou Summit before dark? As the sun dwindled I fell in behind a Honda four-by-four and formed one of those informal and, on its part, involuntary road alliances. I have fallen afoul of the California Highway Patrol before, and as Bobby and I climbed there were plenty of places for avaricious traffic cops to lurk. The Honda was cruising at about 80 and I tucked in right behind.

Our mechanical dance carried us into the mountains, taking turns to dip in and out of slower traffic, overtake, lunge forward and linger till we were once again moving in harmony. Its taillights led me up the pass and into the fast descent that followed. By then I was in Oregon and hey, Oregon is home. No stopping now.

Mountain sunset


Time and distance started to play accordion tricks, stretching and contracting. I was obsessively mile-counting now: 97 from Medford to Roseburg. The Boss had worn thin. As had the Lady. And everything from Pulp to Jay-Z. Every sing-along song had been sung. My fingers were glued to the wheel and my nerves were stretched like rubber bands. The friendly Honda turned off and was replaced by a looming redneck beast of a truck whose jacked-up suspension and massive wheels put its aftermarket halogens dead centre in my rearview mirror. Every time my eyes flickered up I got a nervous jolt: the retina-stabbing bluey-white looked like police lights.

My speed reflected varying levels of prudence, stubbornness and temptation. The roads were practically empty so I felt safe at illegal speeds. That made me easy prey, though, and after 5500 miles and counting I didn’t want to end my adventure with a massive traffic fine. On clear, straight stretches I risked fast runs, drafting on any available vehicle. When I5 took me past small towns I eased off; nobody wants to tangle with local boys in blue.

I considered stopping in Eugene, where I used to live with my brother. Friends there would put me up, no problem. But I wasn’t tired, just bored — and fixated. It’s about a hundred miles from Eugene to Portland and I know every detail of the road. Familiarity would make the miles fly. For most of the trip I’d made a conscious effort to not think about the destination because it was too far away. Now, as the lights of Eugene and Springfield flashed past, I let myself picture my sister and brother-in-law’s house. With any luck Saturday night socialising would still be in full flow. They weren’t expecting me, which makes for the best reunions.

Home. Sweet!


Willpower-fueled concentration carried me to the outskirts of the city where I promptly forgot which exit I needed. My brain was tottering towards collapse. Was it 72nd Avenue? Did I hang on till Barbur Boulevard? I can’t now remember which I took, only that it wasn’t the one I wanted. This is my navigational Achilles heel. Give me 6000 miles of open road and I’m dandy. Put me on an unfamiliar street in my neighbourhood and I’m screwed.

There was no point in calling for directions because I didn’t quite know where I was. Nor would well-meant advice have sunk in, at that point. Somehow Bobby and I found our way onto 72nd and nosed tentatively along guided by half-familiar landmarks. Then, bliss. I recognised the cut of a particular intersection. Straight down, right then through the traffic lights.

I drove the last mile slow, slipping silently along Tigard’s low-lit suburban streets, uphill and down. When I killed the engine it was a few minutes before midnight. One thousand miles in 15 hours of solitude, splendour and monumental boredom. “The scary thing”, I thought, trudging up the steps, “is that’s only a tiny little sliver of America. Where shall I go next?”

A Very Happy Thanksgiving


Across the pond its Thanksgiving and various friends and family are getting set to tuck into some serious eating. Luckily, I get to skip the dead poultry element of the day and focus on the best part – things for which I’m thankful. This year has been such an adventure and it’s not over yet. In no particular order, here are a few of my many reasons to be grateful:

o Being lavished with love and support by my wonderful friends who have literally welcomed me back to London with open arms
o A terrific job interview for an internal communications role at Three yesterday
o Spending time with my family this summer and, especially, meeting Rayann and Carolina – two beautiful, generous women who I’m so happy to know
o A superlative road trip with Sarah which took in all kinds of highs and lows and taught me so much (Thank you for your patience sweetie x)
o Two glorious months in Ibiza with Ruth: sunshine, salads and smoothies
o Wendy’s return from Shanghai and being able to share a month with her in Galway
o The opportunity to work on some great projects with Bo Rinaldi & team
o The generosity and wisdom of my book interviewees: Nancy @Family On Bikes, Raina @MindBody Fitness, Ruth Heidrich, Matt @Walden Project, Kathy Blume, Geordie Stewart, Kerry & John @La Muse, JJ Tiziou and Navina Khanna – all inspiring people doing amazing things with their lives.

Lakes

I’ve always loved the sea. The metronomic crash of Pacific breakers lulled me to sleep and washed through the waking hours of my childhood. Ceaseless, powerful, hypnotic, the sea is oblivious to human need; a restless creature, always stirring.

This summer, I visited lakes. Some I merely looked across: Upper Klamath Lake, Mono Lake, Topaz Lake, Eagle Lake: tiny blue blotches on the road map that, beneath high, cloud-dotted blue skies, resolved themselves into shimmering pools between the flanks of golden-grassed hills. They reflected the slanting light of later-afternoon sun, flashing into my eyes like a signal from a giant’s pocket-mirror. I felt a little sorry for them, so still and self-contained.

In Yosemite, my friend and I drove forty miles out of our way to Tanaya Lake, set high in the Sierra Nevada mountains. We almost turned back – what could possibly be so interesting about a lake? It came into view suddenly, like a character in a film stepping through a door. The air was 8000-feet-high cool but the morning sun had already warmed the slabs of limestone that hemmed the lake. It was deep blue shading to green. Streaks of snow highlighted the mountaintops to the east. The southern end of the lake melted into an evergreen forest. I sat on the sun-warm rock and realised that I was holding my breath, as if it might disturb Tanaya’s pristine surface, or imperceptibly affect the tenacious, inches-tall pine tree ardently creating itself in a crevice at my feet.

The perfect lake, it seems, embodies stasis. Crater Lake – a flawless liquid sapphire set in the collapsed heart of a volcano. Nearly two thousand feet deep, and almost eight thousand years old, its Siren blue absorbs everything and nothing. No tributaries run to it; it supplies no stream or river; it flourishes on the icy nourishment of snowmelt and moonlight. It is infinity in the palm of Vulcan’s hand, terrible, beautiful and untouchable as myth.

Lake Tahoe is different, lighter. Wavelets run eager tongues across its white sand beaches, waggling in the wake of speedboats and wheeling jet skis. Crystalline shallows shade into turquoise and azure, a sparkling mimic of the firmament. Of all the lakes, it comes nearest the hue of my beloved Mediterranean. Only instead of a horizon running to the sky it is snugged in the rocky embrace of the Sierra Nevadas. It didn’t make me sad, like some of the others, but it didn’t stir me, either. It borrows its vitality, moves only at the behest of urgent outboard motors, or the thin breath of alpine winds. No restless grandeur shivers its depths and makes it leap and grasp, time and again, for something it will never reach.

I will always love the sea.

What Are You Writing For?

Posted by Cila Warncke

This is one of my favourite Bill Hicks clips. I love the way his face conveys astonishment, scorn, outrage, and despair all bundled together so seamless-awkwardly it can’t help being hilarious. He doesn’t have to clap hand to forehead; the words make the motion for him. “What are you reading for?” is a patently silly question. Reading for something is hardly reading at all. Note how people instinctively make a distinction between books they’ve read and books they’ve read at another’s behest. “I read that for school,” is understood to be subtly yet substantially different from having simply read.

This, I know. Yet somehow it has, till now, escaped my attention that the same differentiation applies to writing, or any creative endevour. Hicks’ joke isn’t a mere jab at ignorance (unkindness is rarely the beginning of insight) it is about an attitude. The face on his verbal punching bag is that of righteous American productivity. The held-to-be-self-evident truth that to be worth doing something must result in demonstrable rewards. It is, at heart, an attitude that holds Michaelangelo to be important because he was commissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and not the other way around. Historically, our culture confuses prestige with importance, and money with success.

Art cannot breath this air.

Stumbling along, mistaking productivity for creativity, I’ve failed to write anything worth reading. Not because there’s something wrong with the way I line up words on a page (not-art can still be artful) but because my intentions are bad. If it is to be art, it must be created out of a sense of urgency; it must convey truth, or illuminate beauty; it must be profoundly selfish.

I cringe to think of all the hundreds of hours and thousands of words I’ve frittered on writing for. A deep-rooted habit, it will be hard to break. Writing for has a veneer of industry and respectability and thus serves a superficial social impulse; it makes me feel like the worker worthy of her wages. It also kills cold everything that matters. Break it I must. Now, how?

Word-Music: Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address

Posted by Cila Warncke

Abraham Lincoln

An ill-remembered half-line lodged in my head today, something about seeing the right as God gave us to see and the rhythm beckoned me to track it down. I tried the Gettysburg Address first. Nope. Though it, too, swells with marvellous verbal music. The nagging phrase comes from the final paragraph of Abe Lincoln’s second inaugural address:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

This is the most famous part of the speech, but it frankly doesn’t match the rhetorical majesty of what preceeds it:

Fellow-Countrymen:
AT this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Vincent Van Gogh on Ambition and Impotence

Posted by Cila Warncke

According to the worthy Ziem, man becomes ambitious as soon as he becomes impotent. It’s pretty much all one to me whether I am impotent or not [but] I’m damned if that’s going to drive me to ambition. — Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh 'Sower'

There are two kinds of ambition. The obvious, socially-approved sort of ambition is the one Van Gogh was at pains to avoid: ambition for money, fame, material success and its attendent fripperies. Not because Van Gogh romanticised the life of the struggling artist as, invariably, only non-struggling artists do. On the contrary, his letters to brother Theo were crammed with references to his constant anxiety about money. He regularly went without food to pay for models, or paint, so his comment about ambition was not a frivolous remark from the lap of luxury. Van Gogh, however, understood the distinction contained in the Gospel admonition that the love of money is the root of all evil. He never wished to and, to his immense credit, though it probably killed him, never succumbed to the temptation to compromise his art for the sake of material comfort.

Unfortunately, Van Gogh’s nuanced understanding of “ambition” is rare these days. Ambition is understood, at least in the Anglo-American social sphere, in terms of money. Anyone not obviously motivated by the desire to make bank is deemed lazy. Real ambition is often directly linked to material “laziness” because, if they’re tough enough, people with great creative talent are indifferent to the siren-call of consumer capitalism. Not everyone is so resiliant, however. Too many fantastically intelligent people are unable to take themselves seriously, and therefore fail to develop their talent, because their gift is meaningless within the social construct they confront. And, distasteful as it is, society’s view matters. Virginia Woolf put it nicely: It is all very well… to say that genius should be above caring what is said of it. Unfortunately, it is precisely the men or women of genius who mind most what is said of them.

This makes the careless linking of “ambition” and “money” dangerous for individual artists and detrimental to culture as a whole. It takes a particular tensile strength for a creative person to mine the seam of his or her talent at the expense of financial security, social acceptance and good company. Why do we demand it? Everyone can agree the world would be a dull place without books, music, art, haute couture, jewellery or any of a thousand other poorly regarded, or poorly rewarded creative endevours.

It isn’t just the arts that lose out, either. What about the born nursery workers, gardeners, cooks, carers and cocktail-shakers who abandon their true gift for a life pushing paper somewhere because beige wage slavery pays better than pursuing their passion? It is a ridiculous state of affairs, justified by an ancient, ugly mix of Social Darwinism, laissez faire capitalism and entrenched class prejudice, that conspires to crush what it supposedly promotes: ambition.

The first step towards a solution is to stop making positive examples of people who are merely ambitious for money. We need a better definition of success than six-figure bonuses and penthouse cribs, otherwise we won’t have any direction for our ambition. This means making an effort to seek out people who change the world without making money from it. Historical figures like Van Gogh are relatively easy to come by. It will take a conscious effort to bring modern examples to light — not because they don’t exist, but because we are so used to ignoring them. We need to find the people who echo Van Gogh’s words: “I can very well do without God… but I cannot do without the power to create.