Punk Rocker

punkrockerpinsmediumtransPunk Rocker (previously Nihilism on the Prowl) is a website containing an amazing collection of old school punk rock reviews, interviews, profiles and music links. Peter from Wolverhampton, UK, has poured his heart and soul into this project, archiving material that would otherwise probably be lost and forgotten. The result is a real treat for anyone into punk rock music and culture.

I have already spent hours exploring the material on this site. Peter’s own reflections on his life in punk – and his life in general – made me think about how similar all veteran punks are, regardless of where we come from. We start off playing in bands and publishing zines and then, as we age, move on to dealing with health issues and taking care of ill and aging loved ones. Peter writes about this common life trajectory with humor and honesty.

Although there are many nooks, crannies and dark corners of the website that I have not yet fully investigated, here are some of the gems that have grabbed my attention so far:

swazjrrippeddestroy77Peter’s article “Swastika & Punk” is an interesting exploration of the use of the swastika as a symbol by such early punk artists as The Ramones, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and The Sex Pistols. Peter (rightly) observes that an advocacy of Nazism was not the inspiration behind the punk appropriation of the swastika; rather it was used as a gesture of provocation, inspired by the Situationist art movement and employed in order to inflame discomfort among the mainstream. Peter points out that while many anti-racist bands punk bands did flaunt the swastika, ironically an explicitly racist band like Screwdriver never did.

Scotland Uber Alles” is a 1979 piece by Garry Bushell, first published in Sounds Magazine, that focuses on a variety of Scottish punk and new wave bands, mostly from around Glasgow and Edinburgh. Not a lot of well known punk bands came from this part of the UK – The Exploited, Rezillos, and The Skids are the most familiar names – but Bushell’s coverage of this scene is especially fascinating as it highlights the idea that much real British punk, even in 1979, was happening outside of the London spotlight, in places like Scotland, “the land of the strapping jocks.”

various-allquietcovershadowCloser to my own home, “Thrash and Blood” is a 1983 article first published in the New Musical Express showcasing California hardcore bands from the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas. Some of the bands highlighted here are still among my favorites: The Angry Samoans, MDC, Social Unrest, Flipper. The article puts a lot of focus on the compilation album Not So Quiet on the Western Front, a record that came out when I was a teenager and that featured underground bands from Northern California like: NBJ, No Alternative, The Church Police, UXB, and many, many others. This was music not fit for mainstream radio, made by people we all knew and hung around with. As was the case in the UK, this album emphasized the fact that in the early 1980’s some of the best and most confrontational underground music came from places outside of the big, high profile cities, and was made by kids playing in garages in front of their friends.

avengerspenelopelive1977jamesstark An article on Penelope Houston, lead singer for the Avengers (and now the head archivist of Special Collections at the San Francisco Public Library), is hilarious for the inane questions asked by the interviewer and for the old photos from 1978. First published in Search and Destroy, the interview covers everything from Houston’s violent behavior (she once hit someone in the face for playing a Damned album while she was trying to sleep), to her hair color, fashion sense, and the loss of her virginity. Silly and fun, it brings back memories of what it was like to be an angry, creative, emotional teenager.

There is a huge amount of material on this website, and with each click there is more to be discovered. Peter has put together a vast scrap book of punk rock memories; a music and culture fanzine for the internet era. If you are into old school punk this is a site that I highly recommend checking out!

Existentialism

existentialismIt is widely claimed, both by its supporters and detractors, that existentialism is an unsystematic philosophy. I recall one of my own advisors in graduate school disparaging the “moodiness” of existential thought as “adolescent” because she found it lacking in rigor. In it she saw something resembling a dark “perspective” or “attitude” ruled by emotions and feelings rather than a coherent, rational philosophy consisting of clearly articulated and integrated claims about the nature of reality. Walter Kaufman, on the other hand, praised and admired what he saw as the passionate unruliness of existentialism, characterizing it as a healthy and exciting revolt against traditional philosophizing. The “unsystematic” nature of existentialism, thus, might be thought of either as a flaw or as a virtue depending on one’s attitude toward “systems” in general.

British philosopher David E. Cooper is a supporter of both systems and of existentialism. In his book Existentialism he presents a reconstruction of the philosophy as both coherent and logical, rejecting what he calls the “silly” view that it is at best a version of psychology and at worst a joke. Instead, Cooper contends that existentialism in fact constitutes a “movement of thought that, as our century closes, is increasingly perceived as the distinctive direction of that century’s philosophizing.” (p. viii) [This second edition of the book was published in 1999.]

The reason why it is so common to characterize existentialism as something other than a coherent philosophy stems from a number of sources, according to Cooper. For one thing, those thinkers commonly labeled as “existentialists” disagree about quite a bit; including whether or not they are indeed existentialists! Most centrally, Cooper highlights the friction between the ideas of Heidegger and Sartre (in fact devoting an appendix at the end of the book to this topic) in order to show the real problems involved in trying to square the ideas of two thinkers who, by any account, must be included in a book about this subject. Secondly, since key figures such as Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus were novelists, there is a tendency to rely very heavily on their fiction, rather than their philosophical texts, in trying to reconstruct existentialist ideas. But fiction is very rarely intended to be systematic, and so this may be more of a distraction than an aid in ferreting out a coherent existentialist philosophy. There is also the problem that some thinkers – like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche – are central to the development of the existentialist tradition, however they are more like precursors or influences than they are existentialists in the sense of Heidegger or Sartre. The overall problem, then, is that when we use the term “existentialism” to refer to thinkers, we lack clear criteria by which to categorize them, perhaps mistaking superficial differences between thinkers for deeper philosophical differences, conflating philosophical ideas with fictional narratives, and confusing influences on thought with the content of the thought itself.

Cooper’s project, then, is to clarify the meaning of “existentialism.” He does this by imagining an “ideal existentialist” who “embodies the best wisdom … to be gleaned from actual existentialist writers.” (p. 10)  By scrutinizing the ideas of a variety of thinkers associated with the tradition, Cooper focuses in on the common center of those ideas, funneling and solidifying them into a figure he calls the “Existentialist.” While the ideal Existentialist – like the ideal Christian, or Scientist, or American – may not exist as a flesh-and-blood person, this figure nonetheless embodies the core tenets of what Cooper claims to be a systematic existentialist philosophy.

The initiating issue that serves as the starting point of this philosophy, according to Cooper, is an engagement with the problem of human alienation and the explication of a strategy for its overcoming. In this regard, Cooper roots the existentialist tradition in the same issue that concerned Hegel and Marx, both of whom diagnosed human alienation as the result of historical conditions. However, unlike Marx, the Existentialist does not hold that alienation is a recent historical problem, but one that is “spiritual.” In this, the Existentialist agrees with Hegel, who also sees alienation as a step in the direction of the development of self-consciousness. But unlike Hegel, the Existentialist does not agree that the human mind is an extrusion of some greater, self alienated cosmic mind. It is the individual, human mind itself – not universal Geist – that experiences alienation, according to Cooper’s Existentialist.

This individualized conception of human thought is related to the Existentialist’s preoccupation with phenomenology. Since alienation grows out of our own uniquely human ways of thinking, its overcoming requires that we examine and mend those patterns of thought that have brought us to our alienated situation. Existential phenomenology, in attending to the unfolding of lived, mental experience, helps to construct a description of the structure of inner human consciousness. In this description, the Existentialist comes to reject the idea of the “self” as a substance. Humans are not “things” determined by the influences of cause and effect, but conscious, non-substantial processes that strive freely toward goals and aspirations of their own making. The “self” of the Existentialist is a freely choosing and ongoing project.  Additionally, the Existentialist also embraces the phenomenological concept of “intentionality,” which holds that all of our conscious experience is experience of something. We never just “think” in an empty vacuum. Rather we always think about something, and  thus there must always be an interconnectedness between the thinking “self” and the things that “self” is consciously oriented toward. Our understanding of ourselves, thus, must always be developed within in a context of engagement with other things and other consciousnesses. (p. 47) We are, as conscious beings, always already “thrown” into relationships with others.

9780806501956The recognition of our “thrownness” into a world with others is a fundamental part of existentialist philosophy, according to Cooper. Phenomenologically, we are “beings-in-the-world,” already connected to others by the ways in which consciousness itself operates. We are not mere spectators, but actors embedded within lived, concrete contexts and relationships. It is our engagement in these relationships that brings meaning to existence. Humans are not substances that “exist in splendid logical isolation from anything else.” (p. 75) No, humans create themselves by choosing to interact with the “things” that they consciously encounter and confront. This is how we build our lives, making ourselves into “writers, criminals, cowards or whatever.” (p. 76) In contrast to the Cartesian notion of the mind as an isolated, nonphysical substance sitting apart and separate from the rest of the physical world, the Existentialist describes human consciousness as something that does not exist at all without the world it inhabits. This particular point is one that Cooper thinks has been obscured by Sartre, who, in Existentialism is a Humanism, referred to the Cartesian Cogito as his starting point. This assertion inspired a hostile response from Heidegger, who in his Letter on Humanism, rejected Sartre’s “dualistic” position, which he claimed made a false distinction between the worlds of mind and matter. But, as Cooper rightly points out, in Being and Nothingness, where Sartre gives a much more detailed account of consciousness, it is clear that he does not differ so radically from Heidegger at all, but rather concurs in the characterization of consciousness as a “nothing” or a “clearing” within the very fabric of Being rather than as a substance existing separately from the rest of the world. Human consciousness is like the hole within a doughnut, which cannot exist apart from the dough itself, but which is also distinct from the dough as a kind of “lack” or clearing in the dough. Similarly, human consciousness is like a clearing within Being itself, and so is not a substance determined by the causal laws governing the physical universe itself. Consciousness is a “nothingness” sitting within the physical world, free to construct its own perspectives and interpretations on the world into which it has been thrown (or torn?). When regarded as we actually are phenomenologically, human beings are not mere objects, separate and aloof from the rest of Being. According to the Existentialist, human consciousnesses are more like clearings within Being. Within consciousness, thought unfolds freely, and thus it is always actively involved in choosing how to comport itself toward the world it inhabits.

This is logically related to the existentialist concepts of authenticity and inauthenticity according to Cooper. Because of our freedom to choose, we experience an unsettling sense of responsibility for the course that our lives take while being-in-the-world-with-others. This sense of responsibility may at times feel overwhelming, and so there is a recurrent tendency for humans to lapse into inauthentic ways of life. We become tempted to lie to ourselves, and to claim, falsely, that we are substances among other substances, subject to the same push and pull of external forces that determine the movements of mere physical things. By lying to ourselves in this way, we experience relief from what can often be experienced as a crushing sense of guilt. After all, if the course of my life is determined by forces outside of my control, then I cannot be blamed for my failures or shortcomings. Rather, blame may be placed on my economic condition, or my upbringing, or my genetics, or my psychological constitution. While all of these factors may be a part of the pre-given world that my consciousness has been thrown into, none of them necessarily determines what I am going to do with my life once I exist within the world. Even a poor person, for instance, has to choose how to live with or react to poverty. When living in a state of inauthenticity, a human being forgets this, instead falling prey to the delusion, for instance, that the world of poverty determines a specific way of life, rather than recognizing that it is the human actor who determines what to do when thrown into a life of poverty.

The inauthentic way of life is encouraged by our absorption into the “They”; the society of others who seek to use us as means to their own ends. This is part of the ambiguous nature of our relationship with others. On the one hand, we need others in order to situate ourselves, to react against, and to see ourselves reflected. It is in relationship with “them” that we discover our own power of choice by way of negotiating a place within the world. However, in this there is also a temptation to fall prey to “them,” forgetting of our own power of choice, allowing ourselves to become cogs in the social machine. For instance, it may be tempting for a person living in poverty to view himself or herself as a victim of economic circumstances, and thus fall prey to others who offer rescue while promoting some sort of economic or political agenda.  In abandoning one’s self to the interpretations and schemes of others, a human being can lose sight of their own powers of interpretation, and instead of authentically taking hold of life, act like a passive pawn in someone else’s game. When we think of ourselves this way, be become inauthentic.

Inauthenticity is a form of thinking that covers over the truth of existential freedom, and for this reason, the term is loaded with normative/ethical connotations. As Cooper points out, this is one of the issues that seems to divide Heidegger and Sartre. While Heidegger emphasizes authenticity and inauthenticity as states of Being, neither good nor bad, Sartre tends to cast inauthenticity (or bad faith) in moral terms as something that is unethical. Cooper suggests that there may be something a bit disingenuous about Heidegger’s insistence that a word like “inauthentic” is not intended to have any normative connotations. Consequently, in Cooper’s characterization of the ideal Existentialist, he highlights the ethical importance of striving toward authenticity in one’s self and in others as a part of the existential philosophy. Existentialism, thus, is non a form of “amoralism,” but contains an essentially ethical message: Our own freedom is dependent on recognizing the freedom of others. “Only if I regard and treat others – or better, regard them through  treating them – as loci of existential freedom will I receive back an image of myself as just such a locus.” (p. 187) The ethical message here is articulated as what sounds like a version of egoism insofar as the grounding of Cooper’s existentialist morality lies in the desire for the individual to be treated as free, and not in some sort of altruistic desire to make others free. In other words, it is only because I want to be recognized as free that I treat others as free. Indeed, this focus on individual liberation, according to Cooper, imbues the Existentialist with a degree of elitism, since in pursuing personal authenticity, the focus is on “private perfection” (p. 193) rather than the more “grand,” democratic project of perfecting the world for everyone. And yet, in the end, the outcome may be the same. If I do unto others as I wish them to do to me, it may not matter that my motivation is egoistic. Others will still benefit.

Nonetheless, Cooper does suggest in the closing paragraphs of his book that there may be a more “grand” kind of existentialism that can be found in the very practice of philosophy itself. He points out that while philosophy is in one sense elitist – being pursued by a small group of people who withdraw from the mainstream of society in order to devote their lives to reflection on the human condition –  as a discipline, it is nonetheless devoted to making contributions to culture as a whole. The collective lessons learned by those who have withdrawn from the “They” in order to become “authentic” in turn flow back to society, giving guidance to others in search of their own authenticity. Perhaps, then, this is the final step in the Existentialist’s overcoming of alienation. By first withdrawing from, but then returning to, the They we may find the closing of a circle that is part of the ongoing rhythm of existential thought. Alienation is overcome when, after first resisting the world around us, we come to understand that such resistance is dependent upon our antecedent thrownness into that very same world that we find ourselves bristling against. Our reintegration is accomplished by authentically embracing the totality of the existential struggles that are part and parcel of being-in-the-world-with-others.

My criticisms of Cooper’s book are few, and mostly related to his strategy for constructing the ideal type of Existentialist. While I find very little to complain about in terms of the final “system” of existentialism that Cooper ends up with – it pretty much encompasses what I always took to be the major doctrines of the philosophy – I do question some of the choices he makes along the way. For instance, early on in the book Cooper insistently excludes Albert Camus from his consideration of existentialist thinkers. His reason for this exclusion is that “unlike the rest of our writers, it is not at all his aim to reduce or overcome a sense of alienation or separateness from the world.” (p. 9) But this makes it appear as if Cooper has already settled on a definition of “existentialism,” and rather than considering all of the evidence at hand, he has decided to leave out thinkers, like Camus, who don’t fit his a priori conceptions. While I personally question whether it is true that Camus really is unconcerned with the alleviation of human alienation (his essay The Myth of Sisyphus is focused precisely on this topic), could it nevertheless be the case that some existentialists while not necessarily offering a solution to alienation could, in a more general sense, simply be concerned with the issue of human alienation?  If Cooper’s definition was broadened in this way, then he could include the insights of Camus, a thinker who, like Heidegger, seems to me centrally important to an understanding of existentialism. The exclusion of Camus is especially strange as later on in the book Cooper, in various places, draws on the ideas of Iris Murdoch, a thinker only peripherally connected to the tradition, in order to shape his definition. Including Murdoch, but excluding Camus, is a very odd decision indeed.

20120617-154833A less serious criticism has to do with Cooper’s repeated denigration of certain subcultures – like beatniks, hippies, and punks – as misrepresentations, or hollow examples of, the lessons of existential philosophy. Cooper never gives much of a justification for these repeated attacks, which I presume are rooted in his assumption that the members of these groups are themselves shallow and unphilosophical. This is, of course, a sweeping generalization. I suspect that Cooper has not really studied these subcultures in depth, and so his comments in this regard are probably best just to throw away. However as someone who still has a bit of the punk rocker in him, I personally found such repeated insults annoying.

As a whole, I really admire the work that Cooper has put into Existentialism. I suppose there are those, like Walter Kaufman, who would object to the entire project of trying to delineate a systematic philosophy of existentialism. I don’t share such an objection, however. The philosophy articulated in this book is clear, sensible and – even if I don’t agree with all of its tenets – very attractive in its general contours.

Directory of World Cinema: American Independent 3

directoryThe third volume of The Directory of Wold Cinema: American Independent 3 is now available from Intellect Publishing. Edited by John Berra, this installment of the directory consists of a series of essays addressing the work of figures such as Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, Dennis Hopper, Sofia Coppola, Darren Aronofsky, Larry Cohen, Zalman King, and Ti West.

My contribution, “Sublime Nihilism,” focuses on the films of Darren Aronofsky, who directed Pi, Requiem For a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, Black Swan, and Noah.

Cover for Cinematic Nihilism

marmysz_1-2-2-1-draggedI’m currently polishing and organizing the manuscript for Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings. The process is coming along smoothly, and I anticipate having the final draft completed within the next month.

In the meantime, the folks at Edinburgh University Press have put together a cover, which I think looks really good. It would be great to hear what people think of it.

Ed Ruscha

momaruschaAs I strolled through an exhibit of Ed Ruscha’s work at the de Young Mueum, I fell into a mood that was at once melancholy and humorous. Although the curator’s descriptions of his paintings and photographs emphasized Ruscha’s connection to western landscapes, roadways and cities in California, I myself actually felt absorbed into a world existing nowhere in particular. The exhibit’s repetition of images and words drew me closer not to California or the West, but to open spaces existing in no-place and at no-time. Instead of the western United States, what I experienced in these paintings was the evocation of a vacuum of nothingness.

This reaction was particularly powerful when viewing Ruscha’s “Standard” Paintings. Ostensibly depicting a single gas station, the initial canvases are done  in simple, straight lines with red pumps and a sign that juts outward to the left:

standard5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

However,  one’s mind is progressively moved away from the initial clean, modernist rendering itself toward an increasing void as, in successive paintings, the station is consumed in flames:

standardflames

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

then rendered in dark shadows, as though the station is now burned out and charred:

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until finally fading to nothing more than embossed outlines with no color at all:

standard2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you just focused on the initial image, you might think that it was intended merely as a neat and tidy modernist representation of a service station. It is only when viewed  in the context of the other paintings that you experience the progessive destruction of the initial image’s cleanliness, rigidity and control; as though you were watching still shots from a movie about impermanence. The gas station slips away, and what initially seemed comforting and solid is gone, leaving nothing but an outline of an absent entity. In me, this elicited both a chuckle and a shudder. I chuckled in response to the clever way the artist drew my thoughts from something-ness to nothing-ness, while shuddering in the presence of the resultant void.

Throughout the exhibit – from stark, linear representations of streets, to bleak paintings of box-like industrial buildings – a mixture of  humor and melancholy continued to bubble up in me. I think it was the recurring juxtaposition of straight, simple lines against bleak, dark emptiness that provoked this response. On the one hand, the linearity of the paintings suggest stability, order and structure. On the other, this same linearity helps to highlight the open blankness of the backgrounds over which the lines and angles hover. Perhaps it is this incongruity that was the source of my ambivalent reactions to other Ruscha pieces such as “Hollywood/Vine”:

hollywoodvine

 

 

 

 

 

 

or “Untitled”:

blanksignruscha

 

 

 

 

 

 

Appropriately, the last paintings in the exhibit were renderings of the words “the end.” The ambiguity evoked here was manifold. Certainly, there was the literal sense in which the exhibit, at this point, was now coming to an end, but there was also the broader reminder that all things must come to an end. The vertical lines on one piece – evocative of scratches inscribed on celluloid film stock – make viewers think of the end of a movie, or more generally of the end of the use of film in the digital era:

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The apparent rustiness of a “dead end” sign suggests the end of the road; or perhaps the decay leading to the end of life itself:

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And the final piece in the exhibit, “The Absolute End,” signals not just the last painting in the exhibit, but leaves viewers with thoughts about the complete end of everything:

absoluteendrusch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On my way out of the gallery, I checked myself to verify that I still existed. And yes, as far as I could tell, I was still there. However, as I walked through Golden Gate Park, back to the car, my attention kept being called to the backdrops of things; the spaces against which the trees, cars, flowers and the people around me made an appearance.

I chuckled and then shuddered.

Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings.

videodrome-3I’ve signed a contract with Edinburgh University Press for the publication of a collection of essays to be titled Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings. The completed manuscript is due to the publisher by the end of January 2017.

The peer review process has so far been quite rigorous (and sometimes stressful!), but I think this has helped to shape and clarify the aims and purposes of the book. I’m excited about the result.

The collection consists of essays addressing nihilistic themes in an international variety of popular films. Some of the essays have previously appeared in journals such as Film and Philosophy, Film International, Screen Bodies, The Journal of Popular Culture, and The International Journal of Scottish Theatre and ScreenOther pieces new to this collection include an introductory essay addressing the philosophical history of nihilism and its relation to film; an updated and revised treatment of nihilistic themes in George Romero’s Dead films; an essay on Fight Club; and an essay exploring the nihilism of Yukio Mishima.

Part of the fun of working on this project includes selecting screen grabs from the various movies discussed in the book as illustrations. I also get some say in the cover design. Currently, I’m thinking that the image above, from David Cronenberg’s 1983 film Videodrome, would make a great cover!

Mammoth Lakes

John and JunekoWith the summer quickly coming to an end, my wife and I decided to take a four day vacation in Mammoth Lakes, CA. This is a destination we had never been to before, although when we were teenagers we did make an abortive attempt to visit. In those pre-internet, teenage days our paper map was more misleading than helpful, and we ended up wandering about on the west side of the Sierras, looking for a nonexistent route that would take us to Devil’s Postpile National Monument – which sits on the east side of the Sierras – and on to the town of Mammoth Lakes. This time around, as middle-aged adults, we were wiser and equipped with Google Maps, so the 300 mile motorcycle ride unfolded smoothly and without too many confused meanderings.

Our route took us east on highway 4, through California’s Central Valley and Gold Country, over Tioga Pass in Yosemite National Park, and then south to Mammoth Lakes on highway 394. We followed a slightly more circuitous route on our return trip, adding another 100 miles in order to avoid too much backtracking. 400 miles is too much distance to cover during one day in the saddle, and by the end of the trip my rear end was bruised and sore. My wife was sore as well, but she avoided the lasting, visible damage that I incurred. I think I either need to travel fewer miles or get a pair of inflatable pants in order to continue these long distance rides.

FZ1My bike is a 2005 Yamaha FZ1. The guys at the shop refer to it as “the last of the good FZ1’s” due to the fact that 2005 was the final year in which this particular model was carbureted. All models since have fuel-injection; a feature which I personally believe would be a benefit to me, since at high altitudes – like we experienced on our ride to Mammoth Lakes – my Yamaha has a tendency to hesitate during acceleration, making it necessary to vigorously rev the throttle in order to raise the engine’s rpms to avoid stalling. Fuel injection, as I understand it, would eliminate this problem.

Other than that issue, the FZ1 is a great bike. It has a 1000 cc inline four engine that is very powerful, making around 130 peak horsepower. It is relatively light and maneuverable, and despite my complaints about developing a sore butt during our latest trip, it is also quite comfortable for two-up riding. Just avoid super long distances in one go and you should be OK. I’ve modified the FZ1 with a 4 into 1 Yoshimura exhaust (complete with a new jet kit that also probably doesn’t help with high altitude performance), and a Corbin “Gunfighter” seat. I’ve replaced the sprockets, chain and various oil seals here and there. The only really major repair the motorcycle has required during its 50,000 mile life  is replacement of the fuel pump.  Overall, this is the most reliable bike I’ve ever owned. It has safely taken my wife and me on many memorable rides over the years, and although I have been looking for something new, it is with some feelings of hesitancy and regret that I consider selling the FZ1. I’m so used to this bike that I’m not really sure that I want to let it go.

Bridge

The first leg of our trip took us on Highway 4. Running east/west between the SF Bay Area and the foothills of the Sierras, it is a route we found attractive mostly for its directness to our intended destination. There are a few interesting sights along the way, of course. Traveling through the Delta region, we passed over some picturesque bridges that span waterways cutting through the lush farmland of the western portion of the Central Valley. The smell of cow manure and chemical fertilizers hang in the air in these places, stirred up by the tractors that plow fields of crops while sending plumes of dirt and dust into the air. This, by the way, is why there is an elevated incidence of lung cancer in the Central Valley: particulate matter suspended in the air from farming.

The city of Stockton lies right between the Delta and the approach to the Sierra foothills. Stopping there long enough to get our bearings straight, we lingered in a neighborhood that was a cross between rural farmland and urban ghetto, parking beneath a sign that read “Vandals will be prosecuted.” There was a surveillance camera atop the sign, and as we looked over our map, a number of cars carrying young men drove past us, scrutinizing our presence. We felt like we might become victims of a drive-by shooting, so we rode over to a gas station where I tried to get directions. This, however, was the kind of place where: 1) Most of the people I tried to talk to ignored me, and 2) No one seemed to have any idea of what lay outside of the city limits. There was, finally, one young man who reassured me that we were probably headed in the right direction. Once we got around the detours and road construction that were causing us some confusion we would be headed roughly where we wanted to go. It turned out that he was right, and we eventually did find our way to Copperopolis, the first town marking our departure from the Central Valley and our entrance into California’s Gold Country.

CopperopolisImagine driving onto a movie set that is supposed to depict a small, clean American town and you will no doubt picture in your mind something like Copperopolis. As we exited the highway and entered the village, my wife and I thought at first that what we were looking at was a brand new suburban housing development. After stopping to fill up for gas and giving the place a closer look, however, it turns out that this was actually Copperopolis itself. Although originally founded in 1860, the town has been completely rebuilt from the ground up. As their website proudly states, this is “A whole new town with a historic past.” Tidy as a pin, and artificial as a movie set, Copperopolis consists of a nice little central square, complete with bandstand and gazebo, surrounded by brand new buildings fashioned in an old west style. As we rode around the downtown, we saw no people. The place looked abandoned except that there were sandwich board signs out in front of some of the businesses assuring visitors that they were open and operating. We passed by some restaurants, a day spa, an art store and an ice cream parlor. Honestly, it felt weird. I was reminded of the movie A Boy and His Dog, in which the main character finds himself held captive below ground in a comical yet menacing facimile of an all American town. To be fair, Copperopolis certainly feels safer than Stockton, and it sits in an ideal location to cater to visitors to Gold Country.

SonoraDeparting Copperopolis, we hit highway 49 and traveled south. The temperature had suddenly spiked to an almost unbearable degree, and so we stopped in Sonora for refreshments. Sonora is a charming old mining town, first established in 1848. Years ago, we spent a mini-vacation here, staying the night and attending a very lively karaoke performance put on by local singing talent. I still recall our amusement when listening to a long-haired redneck’s rendition of Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” during which he strained beyond his own abilities to hit the high notes of the vocal crescendo. There was also an older woman who sang Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” in a flat monotone that was reminiscent of the Flying Lizards. This time around, we stopped at The Heart Rock Cafe downtown, right along Washington Street. Air conditioning, bagels and cold drinks energized us to continue our journey down highway 49 and then onto highway 120, which would take us through Yosemite National Park.

RoadHighway 120 is beautifully scenic, though arid at points. There is an ascent into the Sierras around Big Oak Flat that is quite spectacular.  The road winds higher and higher, it becomes hotter and hotter, and the view of the scenery below becomes more and more panoramic. Other than the heat, the one annoyance of traveling this route is the fact of frequent traffic stoppages due to road maintenance. I’ve lost count of the number of times that we sat in the blazing heat for 1o or 15 minutes, waiting uncomfortably for the road to open so that an escort vehicle could lead us past construction areas. Regardless, the countryside is beautiful and once we reached the top of the winding rise at Big Oak Flat, it was a pretty straight shot through Groveland and on to the entrance to Yosemite.

Yosemite ValleyThe views from Highway 120 in Yosemite National Park are absolutely spectacular! What begins, from the west side, as a heavily forested road finally gives way, toward the east side, to breathtaking views of rocky peaks, alpine lakes and granite mountains. As we cruised at a leisurely pace along this road, I found myself overcome with a sense of ease and well being. Despite loads of tourists, the presence of this landscape transported me mentally into of a serene world where things are simple and uncomplicated, yet monumental and awe inspiring all at once. All I had to do was go on autopilot, maneuvering the motorcycle down the roadway, easing through curve after curve, while a vast valley of rock unfolded before my eyes. These formations, formed by millions of J&Jyears of glacial activity, lay there, meaningless and uncaring. This is about as permanent as anything that I will ever experience in my lifetime. Here, I had the feeling of being in the presence of something bigger than myself. I suppose that’s the feeling religious people cherish; but while their God is beyond this world, mine is within it and made of stone. The Hindus claim that God, or Brahman, is “Thou before which all words recoil,” suggesting that the infinite nature of the Holy is something that human language is incapable of conveying. This is how I feel about the grandeur of Yosemite. Words cannot describe it.

Tioga PassThe descent through Tioga Pass, out of Yosemite and then south on highway 395 was the last leg of our journey to our final destination. This is a section of road that I had never traveled before. It is quite scenic, certainly, but in contrast to the views we had just witnessed, the long, straight, fast road made me more impatient for our arrival at Mammoth Lakes than anything else. Besides, my backside was definitely aching and my stomach growling.

The town of Mammoth Lakes is, I’ve heard, the single most popular destination for skiers in the US. During the summer months, it appears also to be extremely popular with mountain bikers, as the ski runs, devoid of snow, now become paths that are tackled by hundreds of two wheeled adventurers. The town reminds me of Lake Tahoe, with hotels and restaurants spread over a 25 square mile area that is surrounded by forests, mountains and lakes. So while you are, in a sense, amongst nature, you are not at all far from the buzz of civilization. Families with kids and tourists are in abundance. During our stay I consistently heard British, German and Japanese accents in the crowds of shoppers and restaurant patrons. There is a Starbucks. There is a Von’s grocery store. We stayed at the Westin Hotel in The Village, a small, central collection of hotels and shops that serves as a hub of activity near hiking trails and the entrance to Devil’s Postpile National Monument, which was to be the location of our first hike the following day.

After an excellent meal at Gomez’s, where my wife had fajitas and I had a really good fish dish called “Wahoo Mexicana” (which, incidentally was so good that I had it again the night before our departure), we walked around town a bit, only to discover that the 8,000 foot altitude was robbing us of oxygen. Yes, this is the high country, and you need to acclimate. Both my wife and I were huffing and puffing as we climbed the high flight of stairs to the hotel, and the next morning when I went for a swim in the hotel pool, my heart was pounding in my chest like pneumatic hammer.

On day two in Mammoth, we caught a bus from The Village to the Adventure Center, where we then boarded a park bus to go into Devil’s Postpile. Tourist information suggests that you take public transportation to the entrance of the national monument, but what they don’t tell you is that the town busses stop running at around 5pm, which was after the time that we finally came out of the park. Luckily, the park bus gathered up us few stragglers and gave us a lift back to town at the end of the day. Otherwise, we would have been facing a 5 mile hike back to the hotel.

Unless you have a permit to camp in the park, you are not allowed to bring in your personal vehicle, and so the park busses ferry hundreds of hikers into the valley each day. The ride is a bit unnerving, as the roads are little more than winding, single track fire lanes that are shared by full-sized busses going in opposite directions and piloted by drivers who seem very confident in their abilities to drive fast. Radio communications between busses alert them to oncoming vehicles along the way so that they don’t have unexpected encounters as they barrel up and down the steep and narrow roadways.

PostpileOnce off the bus, the hike out to Devil’s Postpile itself was short and easy. The postpile is a curious array of volcanic columns that, upon cooling, formed into regular, hexagonal basalt posts jutting out of the earth about 60 feet into the sky. They look artificial; as if extruded from the ground by a massive Playdough Fun Factory. Hiking up a trail to the side of the feature allows you to view the posts from the top. From this perspective they form a surface that looks like a tiled floor stretching to a cliff and sudden drop off. Though Top of Postpilenot on the spectacular scale of Yosemite’s natural wonders – like Half-Dome or El Capitan – Devil’s Postpile is amazing in its own way. Here you feel like you are peeking at a mere portion of the Earth’s inner power, frozen as it bursts through the crust. Standing at its base, I imagined traveling downwards, along the path of one of these posts, finally diving into a sea of molten rock at the center of the planet. Paff!

Rainbow FallsFrom the postpile, it is about a 2 mile hike out to Rainbow Falls, an almost perfect, 100 foot high waterfall that cuts through a river canyon. The trail to the falls leads through a forest, much of which was burned by a massive fire in the 1990s, but which is now in the process of rejuvenation. The vistas are vast and well worth the exertion of the high altitude hike; although here, as in most places that we hiked, there is a veritable traffic jam of people on the trails.

Warning SignIn order to avoid the rude surprise of a missed bus, on our second full day in Mammoth we took the motorcycle up Lake Mary Road in order to hike around Horseshoe Lake and then up to McLeod Lake. This region is studded with a variety of small lakes and sits at an altitude that allows for some wonderful views. One of the first surprises that greeted us were signs warning against swimming in the water or even sitting on the beaches. Apparently, during recent earthquakes, poisonous gasses were released from the ground, and they now seep up and collect in low lying areas, potentially causing anything from headaches to death! As testament to this hazard, there are swathes of dead trees near Horseshoe Lake that have been killed by exposure to the natural toxins. Despite all of this, the lake was filled with swimmers and kayakers, and the beaches were well populated with sunbathers and picnickers. I didn’t see any dead bodies, so either these people were lucky or the signs are a hoax.

McLeod LakeThe highlight of the day was the hike out to McLeod Lake. Up a steep, forested rise, it sits less than a mile from Horseshoe Lake. Nestled among the trees, this small alpine lake was uncrowded and the waters were warm enough to dangle your feet in. Surrounded by mountains and silence as we sat on its shores, I could imagine that we were far away from civilization. This was perhaps the most relaxing part of our visit.

Half DomeAfter a good meal and a good night’s sleep, we mounted the FZ1 and headed back through Yosemite on our return trip to the Bay Area. Along with perhaps a thousand tourists, we took a quick detour down into Yosemite Valley in order to view some sights that we had not seen for many years: El Capitan, Half DomeYosemite Falls. The scene from this lower, valley level perspective really put me into a state of awe. Standing there, staring upwards, I felt very tiny. It was not just the fact that my body was so small in comparison to the rock formations towering above, but also my conception of the time frame over which these features had been formed. My own life, in comparison, is nothing but a blip on history’s radar screen. The granite that makes up El Capitan, on the other hand, is over 100 million years old. During the hundreds of years that people have been visiting this place, I’m just one of billions of human ants that have appeared and then disappeared, briefly standing in the shadows of this peak.

“Thou before which all words recoil.”

FZ1