On the flight to Hawaii, and in Hawaii, I read Cormac McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses and I loved it and so now I’m reading Blood Meridian, and it makes me want to write a blog post about my trip to the mountains, made more visceral with straightforward, masculine descriptions of the smell of  the sun setting over the knife-sharp peaks and high blue alpine lakes rimmed with steep granite walls polished to glassy smoothness by a hundred thousand pounds of glacial ice over the course of a hundred thousand silent cold years. Something about the fresh glitter of sap on young sugar-pines and the drone of mosquitoes in the still air of old ponderosas, and the twisted fluid patterns in the wood of the occasional ancient bristlecone pine and, at the lake where my grandfather and I made our camp on this particular hiking trip, the smell of fresh rot in dozens of trees uprooted or cracked apart in some tremendous recent winter avalanche, each treetop horizontal pointing northward and no trace of the heavy winter snows that felled them.

The scenery of the Sierra Nevada as you drive up into the shadow of the mountains from the bright sun of the Owens Valley is terrifying like the ocean or like God; it is beautiful in the way that only enormous things with no regard for human life can be beautiful. It overwhelms you And after a few days of fair weather, of shaded hikes and calm warm nights,  you can just start to forget the scale of it all, temporarily, until you come around the bend to some new babbling cascade, or the sun hits the gray rock just so, and the whole thing crashes back upon you all at once like a wave.

On certain hikes, the mountain itself can be an adversary, pummeling you with rockslides, or strong wind and hail, or the risk of lightning, or temperatures better suited to the arctic. If this were a McCarthy novel, I’d probably have something to report of that nature — painful encounters with weather, or with bears, or with the drug cartels which are said to grow assorted plantations of marijuana in the less traveled corners of even some national parks: small but well-irrigated fields patrolled by casual-appearing hikers with discreetly concealed firearms.  As it turns out, however, the danger and wildness are all at home. While I was away hiking in the woods, some bold criminal propped a ladder to the back of my Boston apartment, climbed fifteen feet to a half-open bathroom window, and sauntered out the front door a few moments later with a television and a few other valuable trinkets. For the hike, I was blessed with temperate weather, with only the lightest of afternoon thunderstorms, and a surprising dearth of mosquitoes.

Every summer, for the past fourteen years, I’ve spent a week or two walking the high sierra with my grandfather. At this point, he’s been returning to the mountains for more than twice as long as I’ve been alive, and I suspect he knows his way around the hills as well as John Muir himself did. On this particular trip, we returned to a little travelled lake below Lamarck Col*, making our camp at the second (and later, the third) in a chain aptly named the Wonder Lakes (you’ll find them on the top right of the linked map).

These lakes, like the nearby Lamarck Lakes, are deep and cold, fed by a shocking series of waterfalls that appear suddenly and with little warning as you walk around the hills. They are ill suited for long-trips and ambitious hikers — once you get up into the Wonder Lakes, there is no pass to climb over, unless you want to climb two thousand feet of crumbling granite, and descend through the same to wind up in Bishop Creek (which is far more easily accessible by other means). The valley is better suited for those like us, going hiking for four or five days, with no goal other than to enjoy the scenery, and relax a bit, and read some Auden in a place that rewards slow meditation. My one regret is that we did not bring fishing poles; the golden trout were leaping out of the water at dawn and dusk, in great numbers, and a line and lure would have helped the time pass more pleasantly (and, with some cornmeal, would have furnished us a fine meal).

On my first trip to the Wonder Lakes, maybe five years ago, an old man (though not so old as my old man — you see very few men of over seventy years making the effort to carry twenty five pounds of weight in that thin air) pulled me aside on the trail, and when I told him where I was going he said, with proprietary vehemence, you take care of those lakes. He was probably concerned that a young buck like me would be careless, and would befoul the streams and leave the remnants of my campfire and toilet strewn about as the young and careless too-often do in the mountains. I was raised better than that, and now I think I can also empathize with that old man. I keep coming back to these high lakes, and it is more and more apparent how very fragile they actually are, and how much their pristine condition owes to the fact that there is no trail leading to them, and no trail leading away, so that even though they are within seven miles of the trailhead, only a few travelers at a time are ever there to visit.

When you are there, it is possible to forget how close you are to civilization (and when you hike in California, to be fair, you’re never that far from the civilized world). The silence alone is incredible. The high stone walls close you in, and sun sets early over the near western peaks, leaving you with the surprisingly cold bite of the wind blowing off the higher ridges, and the surprisingly deep blue of the sky sinking to deeper purple and then black, and all the thousands of stars that don’t exist when you’re in the city, reminding you that there actually is a whole universe out there (which is surprisingly easy to forget, when you’re at home in your apartment).

These secluded lakes and valleys are something special. May they remain, as they are, untouched.

The Old Man, in the mountains

*Owing to my partner’s advanced age, and our own time constraints, we did not attempt to pass the Col into Darwin Canyon and Evolution Valley — an area of the mountains in which, if rumor is correct, the vistas are as gorgeous as the Yosemite, but without the crowd, and cheerful silver trout leap nibble readily at every wanderer’s baited line and, for all I know, dinosaurs still walk the earth in all their prehistoric splendor. We’ll save that lost world for a different hike.

Between Trips

I spent five hours on a plane yesterday, and there will be six in a car tomorrow. At the moment, I’m in the middle of a sort of whirlwind of west coast excursions. I just yesterday returned by red eye flight to San Diego (which is both home and home base) from a family vacation to Maui (where I was pleased to find that I still know how to swim, even though I hadn’t done so in the two years since moving to Boston). In an hour or so, I’ll be leaving for the John Muir wilderness in the Sierra Nevada, one of my favorite places anywhere. There, in the company of my still-spry grandpa, I’ll be spending four days hiking and rediscovering the ways of the wild and getting bitten by mosquitoes.

These hiking trips have been a yearly tradition for me since I was very young, although I missed last year (I was too poor, and too far from California). They’re typically a good opportunity to do some writing (though, since internet is sparse in the high sierra, there won’t be any blogging) and some reflecting. I used to bring novels, but I found I would finish them on my first day in the mountains and be left with nothing to do but take pictures (like the one that heads this page) and imagine the delicious breakfasts that I would eat upon my return to civilization. Now, I bring poetry books with me instead of novels, and I find they offer a lot more value upon re-reading. If you picture me reading Auden under pine trees, surrounded by rocks and views and like marmots for the next few days, you probably won’t be far from the mark.

In past years, of course, these trips were considerably longer. You can’t really start to feel at home in the mountains–to even partially forget that you’re a city dweller accustomed to soft beds and a ready supply of breakfast cereal–in fewer than five days, and we’d often go for eight or nine. This hike will be rushed, because some friends C___ and R___ have scheduled their wedding for next week. That happy occasion is my excuse for a trip to Portland, and another adventure.

There may be a statute of limitations on bloggable events, and if so I mean to defy it. Sometimes I get busy/distracted/drunk and don’t bother to write about things. Then I come back, and I want to pick up where I left off. Current readers may find this entry outdated by a few weeks, but to posterity (hi posterity!) it will all be the same.

In honor of Patriots Day (which, for those of you who do not live in Boston, yes it is a holiday), and in an effort to avoid the crowds and commotion of the Boston Marathon, I recently joined several friends in celebrating our nation’s origins on a three-day long Patriotic Road Trip to Monticello in Virginia, by way of Washington D.C. This was a whirlwind tour of the East Coast, of which  full 24 hours were spent in an automobile. Kudos to the stubborn D_____, who did not relinquish the steering wheel even once while the rest of us napped and sang along with the radio and massaged cramped legs in the back seat of his two-door Honda Civic.

The trip had several highlights, and I’ll highlight them for you in brief (every time I try to write about real life events,  I am a little surprised by how much must of necessity be left out. But then, a six page account of time spent staring dispassionately out the window at increasingly lovely scenery–a paragraph or two about the the hour spent in New Jersey, which was still barren and wintery in the north but grew increasingly green as we passed south, a page for the lakes and streams and occasional water fowl of New York, a few paragraphs for the small towns of Maryland (and the distant view of Baltimore), and then  few more pages for the deep wooded hills and grassed-over civil war battlefields of northern Virginia–would likely grow as monotonous as the experience. Narrative, like memory, must be selective).

The last time I visited D.C, I was something like twelve years old (until I moved to Boston for grad school, this was the only time I had visited the eastern half of the United States). That expedition was maybe my first time spent walking the streets of a real city–my first experience with noise, and crowds, and street performers. I remember the heat and the oppressive humidity, and the size of the place, and the fireflies at the Jefferson Monument. My favorite attraction was Mt. Vernon, where the workers wore period garb and there were goats and (I think) chickens and enormous Canadian Geese by the river (the geese of the west coast are much smaller, and more civil, and these honking monstrosities were far more interesting to me than the assorted relics of the Smithsonian*).

What I did not remember was how beautiful D.C. is, with white pedestrian-friendly streets that reminded me of Barcelona, and none of the crowds and noise and rot of New York city. It was consistently striking to me how strange a city it is–created in one fell-swoop, planned from inception as a showcase of culture and a seat of power. A city that didn’t grow from trade or from convenience, but was constructed, like Disneyland. And, like Disneyland, it is strewn with recognizable monuments and famous faces and happy families. There is a feel of wholesomeness sustained by serious effort, and also (I thought) everything seems a little bit larger-than-life. I liked it a great deal. One H____, of our company, showed us to preferred locations for Italian food and frozen yogurt, and this may have biased my opinions in the Capitol’s favor.

I was similarly impressed by Monticello, which has clearly put to good use the funds raised by the $25 cost of admission. The hilltop manse is gorgeous and well-groomed, and is thoroughly outfitted with Jefferson’s assorted weird inventions (automatically-closing doors, portable bookcases, a penmanship-copying-machine) and toothy fossils. The gardens are still used to grow crops, and are also the home of large southern bugs that attack you, kamikaze-style, with impressive accuracy (how do they know to aim for the eyes?!). The views are spectacular. All in all, it was more than enough to inspire any would-be yeoman landholder. Henceforth, I will hold my life incomplete until my parlor has a fireplace equipped with two hidden dumbwaiters dedicated exclusively to wine (a single concealed wine dumbwaiter is so bourgeois).

I should note that Monticello has the additional benefit of being located in the midst of Virginia’s wine country, where the vintners, I learned, specialize in making rich, spicy, Cabernet Francs. We finished our patriotic pilgrimage by early afternoon, and spent the rest of the day imbibing and listening to the birds chirp from shaded patios**.

*Except the dinosaurs. Obviously.

**Special note should be taken of Jefferson Vinyards, which is about two minutes from Monticello and grows wines of unusual deliciousness. Their steel-aged chardonnay, especially, is worth seeking out.

Top Poets

Dean Rader, a prof at the University of San Francisco, is creating a list of history’s top ten poets. I love games of this kind. With no attempt to defend or justify my choices, here are my top ten (unlike Rader, I’ve restricted myself to the English language):

1. W. Shakespeare

2. John Donne

3. John Milton

4. William Wordsworth

5. Samuel T. Coleridge

6. A. (L.) Tennyson

7. Emily Dickinson

8.Walt Whitman

9. W. B. Yeats

10. T.S. Eliot


Early this week, I sent NYU law school a deposit notifying them of my intent to enroll. While this decision is not totally 100% guaranteed to be final*, it is the clearest sense of a life-direction I have had since I earned my MA one year ago. This is both a decision in favor of NYU and one against my two clear alternatives: attendance at Columbia Law, and (very likely) acceptance of an offer to participate in the PhD program with the department of English Literature at Brandeis University.

In choosing between the two law schools, which are really quite similar, I was motivated especially by NYU’s very recent record of creating successful academics, by NYU’s incredible faculty in the field of Law and Philosophy, and especially by the not ungenerous scholarship they offered me. It was not, however, easy to give up Columbia’s beautiful campus and prestigious name. I like prestige, but I’m willing to admit that egotism is probably not a good reason to attend one school over the other.

The decision to reject Brandeis (or, rather, to withdraw my name from consideration on the “priority waitlist”–wherefrom Brandeis assured me actual admission to the program was, while not guaranteed, “very likely”) was a slower choice and in some ways a more difficult one. Since I first applied to PhD programs in 2009, and accepted a Master’s program at BU as consolation prize, it was my goal to become an English professor. This was partly because reading and writing about literature is maybe the only thing I have ever really excelled at (well, that and Minesweeper), and also because, especially at BU, I discovered that I could find some real personal fulfillment in the research, writing, lectures and class discussions that make up the day-to-day life of an academic. I like working in English, and I tend to like the people who share that work. There is a really great sense of community among scholars, and I enjoyed being even just peripherally a part of that. Even nine or ten months ago, I was looking at Law School as a second-choice alternative in case my applications for PhD work were once again rejected (as, indeed, most of them were).

Although I wouldn’t have applied to law school if I didn’t think I could find some satisfaction there, I think I really began to seriously consider attending after receiving my LSAT scores, when I realized that I might be able to access some of the higher ranking Law Schools from which it is possible not only to play the game of law, but to play it at the highest level, with some of the most interesting and influential people in the world as my peers and instructors. Reading indicated to me that legal academia is not a dry field to participate in, and that the employment prospects there are better–significantly better–than the wasteland that is the employment market for careers in the humanities. Conversations with friends currently in Law School, who retain a sense of optimism about their futures and have assured me that the law need not be the soul-crushing realm it has sometimes been portrayed as, and that law school itself can be a place of intellectual growth and productive academic inquiry, were likewise influential to me.

Time will tell if I have made a mistake–if I have, it is only three years of my life that will be wasted (well, and like a billion dollars for tuition, in spite of scholarship), rather than the five to eight it takes to get a PhD. And instead of spending those three years in Waltham, isolated from the wider world, I’ll be working and living in the middle of Greenwich Village, which I am told can be an interesting place. But I do not think I have made a mistake. I think I’ll do well in law, and I think I might even enjoy a great deal of it. I’ve found pleasure in dry academic work before, and the tangible real world application of the law will be a pleasant change from literature (now I’ll get to listen to “you’re an evil lawyer” jokes instead of “what are you going to do with that degree” jokes). Not to mention, I’ll be able to keep on using the purple NYU thermos they gave me at Admitted Students day. I like that thermos.

*At this point, I am on the waitlist at the University of Chicago, and am “held” at Harvard. Admission at either–especially the latter–would force me to reconsider my current course, regardless of deposits lost to other schools.

The last weeks have been eventful. So eventful, in fact, that I haven’t had energy to communicate with the outside world. Now, however, I’m entering a blissful week-long period without any essays to grade, at least until the class finishes their final papers two Mondays hence. Sweet freedom. Will I start updating my blog again? Will I get back to studying my French* and reading my Stanley Cavell? Will I write a few more chapters of my zombie novel? Or will I waste all my new free time watching Season 2 of Downton Abbey?

We shall seeeee…

Also, this is fantastic: FAQ: The “Snake Fight” Portion Of Your Thesis Defense.

*I’m 100 pages into Harry Potter et le Prisonnier D’Azkaban, and it’s taken me over a month to get that far. My lessons in speed reading (another half-abandoned study) do not seem to apply to reading in a foreign language. I’m following a sort of organic learning curve in my studies, just like a French child might. Next stop after les sorciers is Gustave Flaubert.

Or maybe the rodeo clowns. And taxes, man, taxes are the rodeo. I’ve tried riding the bull over the last week, but I think I’ve just been thrown and trampled. I’m only now finishing up what have been the most gruelingly complex sets of taxes I have ever done, and the hundreds of dollars I might have unnecessarily paid thanks to my own failure to understand the tax code is at this point less painful than the headache which has grown as a result of repeated attempts to reach said understanding.

Here is a short but good piece in last week’s New Yorker on additions made to the paperback edition of DFW’s The Pale King (which I have not read). I promise, it’s relevant.