July Notebook: On the River, On the Road

It is the 4th of July, an overcast early afternoon in Portland, OR. I am housesitting for my cousin Chad – his street has been quiet all morning. It feels like the hushed aftermath of an argument. Whoever conceded is out walking through the city with an ear-to-ear grin, waiting for the pangs of bitterness and resentment to haunt him again. But that’s what a holiday is, isn’t it, an excuse to plead ignorance?

On the 4th of July, it seems necessary to consider what America is. The flags are so innocent. And the traditions, too, even though all of them are metaphors for violence and warfare – the feverish consumption of meat and alcohol, the explosives, the sporting of garish costumes.

It’s not my business here to lambast America; I’m just trying to connect a few things.  When my parents visited Portland in the spring, we went out to dinner at one of the big brewpubs downtown. Oliviah couldn’t finish the enormous portion; my dad told her “just leave it. It’s a shame, but there’s just no way to get that food to the starving people in India.” I’m paraphrasing. Still, it struck me as a genuine microcosm of authentic American Wisdom: in spite of shame and guilt, the best option in most scenarios is to acquiesce.

Acquiesce is also the name of a small winery I drove past in the California Central Valley, with my old friends Kevin and Matt – a terrible name for a winery, though it was worth a laugh. We were on the back end of a week-long road trip, a loop from Portland to San Francisco, down the coast and back up the Sierras and the desert highways due east. It was an incredibly successful trip. The scenery was spectacular, the food excellent, the budget reasonable and the traffic minimal. However, we had a few arguments – that’s what happens when three young men spend over 200 hours together, consecutively.

The NoCal Coast.
The NoCal Coast.


An awesome mushroom burger, from a drive-in off of Highway 101 in California (I effectively suspended my vegetarianism for the trip).
An awesome mushroom burger, from a drive-in off of Highway 101 in California (I effectively suspended my vegetarianism for the trip).


A group selfie in Redwoods country.
A group selfie in Redwoods country.

What bothers me now, back in Portland for over a week now with plenty of time to myself, is how all the shared elation and feelings of discovery have gleefully slid through my memory, while the ugly, useless episodes of bickering stick around like wet sand on the sides of a drain.

There was a particularly nasty debate around the campfire, our one night in Tahoe. At sundown we were raving about how long it’s been since we’d enjoyed grilled hot dogs; an hour later we were spitting at each other over our understandings of European nationhood. I didn’t learn much. But an hour of unpleasantness is way more acute in hindsight than an hour of bliss. In the shower over the past week, I’d think about the argument and unconsciously clench my fists…

There were so, so, so many more points on the trip when we were all tuned to the same, blissful frequency.  Within our first few hours down the Oregon 101, we turned off at a picnic area, climbed down to the rocky beachhead, and spontaneously encountered a cluster of sea lions basking on a rock. From the Marin Headlands we watched the sun melt into the ocean like butter – in fact, there were no days when the sun did not shine on us, unimpeded. Collectively, we uttered “this is nice” so often it became a joke. But those moments – the good times – don’t make for interesting personal narratives. Our brains know this, so we latch onto conflict and dissent, investigating our friends’ motives, making covert alliances, constantly evaluating our own strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes it’s gratifying; most often it’s extremely shameful. Or is it just a leftover survival mechanism, being a vindictive weirdo in the privacy of your own bathroom?

San Fran




Times of ecstasy are simply harder to talk about, harder to build a story around without sounding like a conceited douche.  Maybe that’s why people spend so much of their days complaining instead about pitiful minutia, rather than shutting up and being grateful for what doesn’t bother them – civil war, starvation etc.  We acquiesce every day, Americans, largely unable to impact (or understand) what our government is doing overseas, or even on our own streets.  When citizens go with the flow, there are valleys of shame, and distrust, and outrage, and peaks of greatness: yesterday, for example, the whole city of Portland and their dogs stormed the Willamette River at 3pm, an 85° afternoon, the clouds having broken to small shreds just a couple hours before.  I launched my brand new inflatable kayak from the Sellwood Riverfront, and paddled north. It was beautiful: I loathed the jet skis for their quick turns and big wake, the powerboats and yachts for their excess, the fuckboys on the floating docks for their awful music, but I loved how helplessly egalitarian it was, how everyone had to share the same river and enjoy it in their own way (these days, all you need is $60 to buy a vessel that floats and can fit in a linen closet in your apartment).

Island on the Willammette

I waved at the passengers on the Portland Spirit, shamelessly flaunting myself, my big leftover sandwich in one hand and a paperback in the other, reclining on a sloped strip of warm, stone-laden beach like a crazy king. People saw through me – they saw the kayak, instead. I fielded four or five questions about how much it costs and where I bought it. But y’know, sometimes it’s a luxury to speak purely as a consumer, to leave your thoughts and feelings on the shore, to know that “it’s nice, isn’t it?” applies to so much more than the weather, and no one has to elaborate.

Hence holidays, and ignorance. Hence, America. Enough with drone strikes, neoliberalism, the legacy of Vietnam, the Brexit, the election – this is it for now, right here, on the river, on the road, wherever. You don’t have to go scrambling for a Jimmy Buffet playlist: just pick up your trash and don’t kill anyone.

Hence, to acquiesce – or, to practice optimism: petty arguments are just (ultimately) harmless trials, warm-ups for the times when our lifestyles and landscapes are seriously threatened, and may disappear. When those times come, I just hope I have the balls to resist.


The Portland “Naked Bike Ride” – our trip’s final entertainment (that and Rush Hour 2…)

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