Thursday 27 March 2008

I have been to my mountain and discovered that people are still good!

It is past midnight in the small East Sierra town of Bishop, California, and I'm standing in the middle of a side road, grabbing lung-fulls of mountain air, taking in the fact that I have made it victoriously through my long list of destinations.
So far, the trip could not have gone better.
Upon my arrival, it was splendid to sit on my mate Andrew's deck, looking from the Berkeley hills out over the entirety of San Francisco Bay.
The next day he drove me over the Bay Bridge into the city, where I enjoyed a perfect morning researching for one of my novel's characters.
Andrew offered to cut off work early to drive me home, and I didn't fight him. Even though I had a difficult time living in Northern California, I was aware that it was a magnificent place.
While my day in North Beach was successful, returning to a place wherein so much love energy and emotion had been invested and spent was never going to be easy.
So it was good to head back to the East Bay, and admire one of the world's most beautiful cities from over the water.
Each night the combination of jetlag and emotional nonsense conspired to allow sleep only until 4am, whereupon my head would greet wakefulness as a herd of a thousand bison at full charge.
Early my second morning I rented a small tank, and headed inland, toward the Sierra Nevada.
With many mountain passes closed, I drove over the top of the range at Lake Tahoe, spending my first night just over the Nevada border. The drive had been long, and it had been tough driving up over and down mountains without a gear stick.
Over four days I drove 1300 miles, traversing 6 ranges over 7,000 feet, and never did the tank once feel good taking a corner.
The road to my mountain was tight, and as my tyres kicked rubble over the edge of a 6,000 foot sheer drop, I started shouting like a mad bastard, cursing my fictional character, telling him he bloody owed me for getting dumped out here in the middle of bloody nowhere.
And then I was there.
I stood on a desert plain that stretched for maybe 40 miles in a circular pan, rimmed by snowy breathtaking mountains, .
But while the view was stunning, the reason that I had to be there hit me like a sledgehammer on the head. Even though I had fairly well envisioned what it might be like for my character to be dumped there, I could never have imagined the power of that silence.
All this vast landscape, and not a single sound.
I have heard deafening silence and the silence of the absence of human sound, but there, surrounded by so much planet, this silence was vast.
I whispered as if in a cathedral
Fuuuu ..... kinnngggggg ............. heeeelllll!
The pinging of my tank's cooling engine sounded like artillery fire.
Exhausted and elated, I headed back to my motel room, to flop and enjoy the completion of my pilgrimage.
I had dealt with the details of my female character and her life in North Beach; dealt with my feelings and personal shite; driven to my mountain and done the deed, good and proper; but I had not reckoned for the good people of Bishop.
Unlike many small American towns, which consist of shops, restaurants and businesses spread out over two or three miles, Bishop has a real main street that you can walk along. The mountains parade their snowy loads behind the buildings, and there is a feeling of vitality and acceptance in the air.
Within an hour of arriving at Bishop, I popped into Spellbinder Books to buy a present. The lass behind the counter smiled and asked me what had brought me to Bishop, so I told her, explaining that as it happened, I was hoping to ask a few of the locals some questions about the place, and what it might be like the live there.
Americans are generally incredibly warm and friendly people, and she kindly chatted with me for a good while.
A few hours later I was killing time, and found myself walking into a bar.
There were only two customers in there, and one of them was the lass from the bookstore, the other her partner.
She spotted me, told the barmaid what I was doing in town, at which there appeared on the bar a bottle of obscure Irish Whiskey, and a lively and fascinating conversation ensued.
That was last night, and that's how I got to be here, tonight, standing in the middle of this Bishop side road at midnight.
All the houses are silent and dark, save for one over there, where lights are on; whence comes the sound of laughter, whooping and yahooing, floating sensual and fast to my ears on a strong current of humanity and whimsy.
That is the house where I spent this evening. Thanks to my new friends, I returned from the drive to my mountain earlier today armed with the knowledge that I was expected at a barbecue poker party that evening.
After two hugely enjoyable nights in Bishop and two very exciting, enlightening and draining days, I leave now able to finish my novel; with a welcome promise of a place to stay; with an invitation to do a reading and a signing at Bishop's Spellbinder Books; with new friends.
Best of all, once again I found out what years on the road taught me as a younger man: that people are good. We are a kind, generous and great species, and we must never allow the fear merchants to rob us of that knowledge.
The next day I drive south, along the edge of the Death Valley and the Mojave Desert, watching the brown mountains slowly lose their snow.
The long and many hours slide by in a mesmerising race for home. Finally I hit US 5, the two-lane straight line that shoots you from Southern to Northern California, and 24 hours later I have dropped the tank off, and returned to Andrew's, shaking with relief, trembling at my achievement, and buzzing with adrenaline.
My mobile phone rings. My dad is in Intensive Care. I must return to England.
Yes, I am, as I hoped, feeling very much alive. But in the midst of life we are in death.

Thursday 20 March 2008

It's my last chance to visit the Last Chance Mountains!


Adventures come in all shapes and sizes. You might be heading off to a place you have never been to before, or deciding to face your fear, to stare that which challenges you most in the eye and speet in its face, or kiss its cheek.
There are adventures endowed with mystical quality: the quests, the pilgrimages, searches for holy grails.
Darker and deeper are adventures that take you back to places you lost: places which might dwell solely in the mind, or actually exist in the physical world.
The adventure upon which I'm about to embark may be short in length, but packed into it are all the above ingredients, and hopefully, at the end of it, I will enjoy a sense of achievement.
Best of all, I will know I am alive.
Our story starts in 1995, about a fortnight after I had moved from Connemara to San Francisco.
Lost in a new continent and culture, I began to write a short story. Inspired by the opening shot of Wim Wenders' extraordinary film, 'Paris, Texas', it started with a man walking in a desert.
The first page of this short story was written over and over again. I didn't know who this character was; only that he was obsessed by three photos he had of a woman. Not one of them looked like her, held in its image her essence or presence.
Three years later, living in a tiny Californian town further north, in the heart of the Redwood Empire, I was given some old National Geographic magazines by the quirky old dear who ran the minuscule local library. On top of the pile that she left on my doorstep, the cover of the January 1987 issue promised an article about "California's Desert, A Worldly Wilderness."
At that point of my life, drowning in a vile cocktail of rage and depression, I was completely unaware California even had a desert.
But on the article's map I spied the Last Chance Range, just at the north end of Death Valley, and I immediately knew that this was where my character had been wandering.
Sadly, for the first and please god the last time in my life, my spirit finally broke. Unrecognisable to myself, I went into meltdown, leaving my then wife and life behind to return to Ireland.
A year later, whilst lying early one morning in my bed in my room in the Claddagh, I had a vision. Yes, that's what I said, and no, I wasn't visited by the Virgin, Buddha or any pointy-headed Trogs from Earthworm Land.
Over by my window I saw, in the style of an aerial camera tracking shot, a massive breakers yard lying in a desert. Pinching myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming, I watched as acre after acre of baking hot sand and the rusted remains of hundreds of thousands of vehicles of every description ran past my eyes.
I could almost hear the metal going 'kerrkunnnnnnnnnnggggg' in the heat from the sun.
Inspired afresh, I revisited the short story, and worked on the assumption that my character had been rescued, and ended up working at this massive breakers yard in the desert.
But why a breakers yard in the desert?
Who knew?
I started to explore who my character was; what was his life like as a child?
Who was this woman he had been with?
Gradually over the next few years, whilst living alone in a farmhouse in North Mayo, the short story grew into a mosaical wordy mess of 30,000 inconsistent words.
Then I returned to Galway City and last May I quit my job, and finally took on the task of writing the novel my story had become.
Six months later I had turned that messy muddle of 30,000 words into a full first draft of 300 pages, crammed with more styles and voices than you could shake a schizoid stick at.
Writing fiction is the business of making things up. Even though I have never been an English lesbian living in San Francisco's North Beach back in 1969, I have spent enough time there to imagine, visualise and then create words that might make such a person believable.
I can imagine what the Californian desert and the Last Chance Range might be like, but I simply do not know what it really is like, and so I am going to my mountains.
Using and loving broadband to research the trip, I entered into communication with all sorts of people, and was told something most exciting and illuminating by a landscape photographer who knows the area well.
He was advising me about those wilderness roads.
"There's wrecks everywhere!" he said. "There's so many wrecks that they even hung three of 'em from the top of a signboard to warn folk!"
My eyes bulged with excitement.
"So so so it wouldn't be an impossible or unlikely thing to imagine a massive breakers yard down there? Like, errr, a vast breakers yard in the desert wouldn't be an impossible notion?"
"Hell no, man! Sounds like a good idea. Sure they'd need one."
And so, laden with my past, my pain, my heart soul and body; armed by my spirit and visions and creativity, I am off away on this adventure.
In one day in San Francisco I will try to reclaim the place in which I once lived, loved hard and lost much. It will be a tough day, a good day, releasing me from a long-redundant sense of loss, allowing myself to believe that yes, it did all happen.
At the same time, I will be looking at North Beach through the eyes of my female character, seeing the refuge to which she flees to build a life she loves, in a city that loves her back.
Then, having faced the adventures of mind and heart, I'll hit the road and head off on a thousand mile road trip to the Last Chance Range; to the heart of my story; to the one place I absolutely need to visit in order to be able to finish my book.
This adventure is more about arrival than departure; more about achievement than loss; more about loving life than living it in fear.
This adventure I will enjoy, and yes, I will feel alive.

Sunday 16 March 2008

Life is nothing but an adventure - especially if you're a blind pilot!

At the time of writing, I'm a week and a half away from an exciting and challenging trip. Round and round my mind it goes: the plans, the dreams; all those promises of excitement and the dark fears of the unknown.
Sitting on the sofa, fire burning in the grate, my friend and I are watching the footie, drinking smokey single malt Scotch.
I turn to Angel.
"Alright mate, here's one for you. Define 'adventure'."
"Define 'adventure'? Life." responds he, assuredly, after only short contemplation.
Angel was right, for just as in any true adventure, we never know what lies head in life.
Despite the best efforts of control freaks such as myself, the best of us hopefully at some point of our maturation wise up to the sad and singular truth that you can plan, predict, cross your fingers, knock on wood or pray to your god or gods, and it won't make a blind bit of difference.
Even those who dedicate their lives to living by the rules of their creed, asceticism and meditation admit that here, on this plane, you're as likely to live to the age of 107 as you are to being squashed to death by the No. 24 bus.
All we can do is try to stay up on Life's surfboard for as long as possible, while the oceans of Fate hurl us as they will, towards the inevitable crashing wave and shore.
Once we've accepted that this as as good as it gets; that all we have is the moment of consciousness we live at any given second, the significance of our pasts and futures diminish as the morning mist fades in warm sunlight.
We cannot control any of it. All we can do is use what physical, emotional and spiritual strengths we have to help us enjoy the moment.
And let's be just a little bit real here. When I say 'enjoy', I don't mean that we've got to feel like we're eating chocolate whilst writhing in rolling orgasms all day every day. It is ridiculous to aspire to the living of a life in permanent bliss. There are sad times, and there need to be tears.
But what I have found is that to 'enjoy' those difficult moments we have to learn from them; add what they bring to our souls' libraries, and move on.
So here we are, living this adventure that is Life. We're trying to make sense of it all, and often failing miserably. We're trying to live in the moment whilst constantly doing our darndest to stave off the inevitable; slow down our inexorable full speed hurtle towards death and oblivion.
All we have is the moment, that annoying little moment, and the certainty that another moment will follow.
Deep inside we know that Life is incredibly simple, and that all of the complexities we see in it are nought but our own human, cultural and societal constructs. All the stresses and strains, demands, shouldas wouldas and couldas that wear us down can sometimes make Life look far too much like hard work.
So some of us strip it back to basics, and go off on adventures.
Indeed, if you think about it, once we've accepted that life is nothing but a series of empirical unpredictable links in an inestimable chain, doesn't it make perfect sense to construct adventures, to give ourselves mini runs at life?
As Yoda Casanova would put it: Macrocosm microcosm, what is up is down.
Going on an adventure allows us to see if we can survive and even maybe thrive whilst being tested by a sudden glut of fresh experiences and challenges.
Maybe people like me and others far braver and way more worthy, feel that going on an 'adventure' amounts to little more than attending a class, (a crash course in Life 101?), where we can taste a little of the extreme within a much safer and far more controlled environment than everyday life itself ever offers us.
At this point I'd like to introduce you to a gentleman called Miles Hilton-Barber. Miles makes a living by giving inspirational and motivational talks, but that is not why he fascinates me.
In fact, as soon as I see the words 'Motivational Speaker', my spine shrinks with fear as nightmare memories of days in sales and marketing plop back into my mind like loose foul-smelling stools.
No, the reason I am fascinated by Miles Hilton-Barber is that he is an adventurer, and a blind one at that.
Last year, Miles took off from Biggin Hill Airfield in England and piloted a tiny microlight
aircraft right across the world, landing in Australia seven weeks and 13,000 miles later.
The 58 year-old flew over 19 countries and nearly froze to death when he had to climb to 12,000 feet to escape stormy weather.
Although he had a sighted pilot sitting in the rear of the aircraft in case of medical emergency, Miles flew the 100hp microlight himself, cruising at 70 knots. Through headphones, audio controls specially designed by a British company informed him of altitude, speed and navigational readings, and he input commands and alterations by typing into a keyboard strapped to his leg.
But it wasn't all about technology. My heart leapt when I first read how he responded to the world around him:
"Flying like this is a very sensual experience, because although I can see only light and darkness, I can still smell the smells coming up from the ground. Even at 5,000 feet I can smell whether I'm going over a city or a factory or a field with crops, and whether they're growing corn or wheat down there. I can also feel when we're going along the edge of a cloud, because I sense the moisture in the air, and there's a damp and musty smell."
Fantastic! I raise my glass to you, Miles Hilton-Barber, and to all the other great and famous adventurers who have inspired me throughout my life.
Adventures like climbing Everest or swimming the Channel are single-minded, simple in design and yet massive in execution.
But not all the best adventures are so simple. Next week I will explain what mine will be; where I am going and why, and you will see how sometimes, adventure is able to challenge us on many different levels.

Friday 7 March 2008

If 'Napping' is the new 'Healthy', sign me up for a season ticket!

When I first met my good friend Angel, he was sitting on his sofa, sweating a bucketload.
"You okay there?"
"Oh yeh, I'm fine. Just been for a ten mile run and done a hundred press-ups."
"Wow! You healthy fit bastard! Where did you go on your run?"
"What do you mean? Oh, I see. yeh. No. I didn't go anywhere."
"So you didn't really go for a run?"
"Oh, I've been for a run alright. Don't need to leave the house to go for a ten mile run. Don't do exercise like that. Don't do outside. Does my head in, it does, brings back, well, on account of the PTSD, (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) see, after the Falklands and all that."
"Oh, oh, I see. Yeh, but -"
"Yeh, so I do it all on the sofa, lying down. Visualisation! Bloody great. This afternoon I gave myself a 40 kilo pack, up mountainous bog!"
At first it was hard to believe him, but by the time we had drunk a cup of tea together, I'd persuaded him in a manly way to lift his T-shirt so that I might see whether his muscles looked like he'd been working out.
Sure enough, they didn't.
They didn't look like he'd done an hour in the gym.
They rippled and twitched and sweated and looked like he'd just spent the day running up a soggy mountain carrying a small human in body weight.
And then done a hundred press ups.
Yoda and Angel are best friends, and together they then took me on a journey that opened my eyes to the power of mind and body.
Achieving results like Angel's requires much study and practice, but we are all fools if we fail to understand how much our minds can and do affect our bodies.
Most of us often make the cognitive leap that links stress to headaches and backaches, yet you would probably have reacted as I did, when presented with the notion that you could become incredibly fit, have the body of your dreams, by lying on the sofa with your eyes closed.
Where I come from, we call that having a nap. If 'Napping' has become the new 'Healthy', well hallelujah mumma, sign me up for a season ticket!
Happily, it doesn't stop there. Not only can we use our minds to make our physical forms look irresistible, but also, when we become unwell, our brains can be used as the best medicine available.
Doctors have for centuries dished out placebos (dummy pills) to patients who had nothing wrong with them, but according to The Observer's John Hind, things are changing: neither for better nor worse; just weirder.
New findings by Dr. John Hickner of the University of Chicago suggest that these days more doctors than ever are prescribing placebos, but for one singularly vital and very different reason.
They work better than the medicine.
John Hind explains how that bastion of the medical establishment, The Lancet, recently reported that "...anti-psychotic drugs traditionally used to treat aggressive behaviour in intellectually disabled patients prove successful in 58 percent of cases; placebos work in 79 per cent of cases."
I'm loving this. Here we are, confused humans simply trying to stay fit and healthy in mind body and spirit, pushed from pillar to post, from Aspirin to Acupuncture, Fish Oil fats to Feng Shui, chemotherapy to carrot juice. In our efforts to do the right thing, we dish out trust, belief and enthusiasm, yet what do we get back?
Either needles stuck in our arms and radiation burns, or tree bark fumes and foul fungal teas with essence of monkey love juice.
And all the while, the answer to our ailments, problems and unwanted flabby bits was lurking, right there, between our ears!
Not only did Dr. Hickner notice that the humble placebo is becoming a potential super drug of the future, with a reported effectiveness that is astounding, but also there exists the 'Nocebo', a mental state in which the patient has been made aware of all the dangers inherent in an operation or a procedure, and simply by knowing then becomes statistically much more likely to become afflicted by something going wrong.
To be honest, it comes as no great surprise to discover that placebos work so well, because even before my encounters with Angel and Yoda, I was well aware of the power of positive thought.
And, no, I've never read, nor have any intention of ever writing a Self-Help book encouraging you all to smile and lick geraniums. It's just that I spent 20 years hitching all over, and know how vital our brains are when it comes to keeping spirit and body together.
Happily, the beneficial ways of our brains go far beyond the nasty world of illness, and all the way to having fun.
Gotta love those Californian colleges for coming up with the best research. The boffins at Caltech went and attached wires to the prefrontal cortexes of volunteers, who then slurped down some wine.
When drinking two glasses of identical Vino Cheapo Plonko Collapso, their brains registered far more pleasure from the second glass, which they believed to be a more expensive wine. That's going to save me a fortune down the Off Licence!
There has been much research done on all of this 'Greater Placebo Effect' lately, but my personal favourite comes from the quintessential Ivy League bastion of Harvard University, where psychologist Ellen Langer studied the effect of telling a group of hotel chamber maids how, in the course of working a shift, their physical exertions formed more than was required by the government for an officially healthy lifestyle.
'Yippee!' they must have thought as one, 'I am healthy and doing more exercise than I need to! George Bush says so, ergo it must be true.'
And then, collectively, they each enjoyed a 10 per cent reduction in blood pressure and a much improved weight to waist/hip ratio, whatever that might be.
My point is, if we are to believe that placebos are so powerful whilst having no real power, then surely we need only believe we have taken them to become well; attain our physical goals; beautiful bodies; whatever we wish to be.
So come on. We have the power! We have the sofas! Close those eyes and let's get busy!