Spring Break rolls around and you make a break for something that is not everyday. Well, some do that, those that are interesting, and then the rest flood to where the liquor and skin are. For those of us who quest for something that is not everyday, school offers that marvelous gift of many long breaks. It does not offer a stifling routine. That's why people remember it so fondly. You end up with this string of episodes to look back on, and the juxtaposition of times and places and people are so disjointed that they're enjoyable. It's everything but humdrum. This Spring Break I escaped humdrum. I went to Big Bend. I wanted a story.
At 3:30 on a Monday morning, I was sitting in Kirby Lane on South Lamar with an ungodly stack of buttermilks in front of me. I ate the eggs and the ham, but the buttermilks kicked my ass. Our waitress (though that "ess" is more of a guess) had impermeable black hair, most of the time covering a smoker's face, and her fingernails were so long they required both eyes. Our waitress would joke and touch us, which made us uncomfortable. 3:30 in the morning, and night loving city-dwellers were eating dirty food to the noise (though that word is kind) of Nine Inch Nails. The industrial roar was an appropriate partner to the fluorescent lights that fought the darkness outside. They did so tiredly, like we did. We ate, got full, joked, paid, and left that sickly building, surrounded by dirty black asphalt, inky like our waitress' hair, littered, civilized; we left its smoke-filled interior, its pollution, and I drove for two hours in the middle of the night, west, where the fluorescent lights disappear, and then I slept.
It's a break, like overnighting on a train in Europe. You go to sleep one place, where they're speaking one language in one city, where they eat this type of food, and then you wake up in another world where the people look different and speak a language you don't understand and eat food you don't like as well. It's a break. Familiarity is gone. The pace of life suddenly changes. It's like running for a distance, when you get your heart pounding and working one way, and then you stop and your body's moving faster than you are. It shatters equilibrium.
I woke up somewhere in West Texas, its own world, where the sky is bigger than anything else, and the land goes on forever, and you can see it do so. The birds are no longer sooty, the house finches have color and the air has a flavor that's . . . clean. When you shut up, so does the world. Distances are suddenly relative. A twenty minute drive takes you thirty miles, and a town that's right down the road is a hundred and twenty miles away. The world changes. Everything is brighter. That new world rolled past beneath me, and I watched the flatness change to mountains and desert. Tiny towns would fly by and the price of gas would go up and up. You hit a big West Texas town, called Fort Stockton, complete with tumbleweeds - they even make snowmen out of tumbleweeds there, in the winter - and then you head south to Marathon, a blink of an eye and it's gone, the biggest town for a hundred miles. Then you speed into Big Bend, a place where people can't build and cities can't exist. You fly through the desert at seventy miles an hour and the High Chisos mountains slowly rise out of the horizon and you're there. The car stops, as does the motion, and the world slows down.
Your body tries to adjust, and when it does, just as after a hard run, you feel better than you did before. You feel clean and healthy. You feel a sense of release and accomplishment, and it's suddenly really easy to relax. You can take the deepest breath of your life and let it out and that feels good.
In Big Bend, we left everything behind. We left hot food, showers, clean clothes, soft beds, toothpaste, deodorant, roofs, guarantees, electricity, expectation, boredom, television, safety, work - we left them somewhere else, and we walked into the desert with heavy packs on our backs because we wanted to witness this part of the world on its own terms. In the desert, you have to carry your own water, and there was something to the fluid keeping you alive out there weighing you down. It was a delicious irony of dependence. The best part was that I wasn't thinking of it that way. I wasn't thinking at all. I was walking. We were concentrating on walking and we were watching the world, keeping clear of the cacti and making sure we didn't step on a snake, or a spider, or a scorpion. In the desert, everything has spines and nothing is inviting - nothing is made to suit your needs. It's beautiful. We camped on the top of a very large rocky hill that night, and the wind howled to beat the band. You go to sleep when the sun goes down, at 8:30 at the latest, and you wake up when the sun tells you to. And then you walk again. You feed yourself with whatever is lightest, and normally it's freeze-dried and horrible, and you don't care. You don't drink cold beverages anymore, and that warm water tastes really good. You wake up the morning, you look around, and you wonder what you'll do, and then someone points at a mountain and says let's walk up it. And that's that.
You take a break from the norm and find different sources and reasons for action. You start to wonder what the hell you were doing wherever you were before. It seems small, and it seems far away - because it is.
We were sitting on top of that mountain later, Talley Mountain, and we were looking at three hundred and sixty degrees of gorgeous desert, with the High Chisos rising up to the north. Above the Chisos was an enormous thunderhead, getting ready to break and kicking up winds to move in our direction. The clouds ended halfway to us where the bright sun-lit sky began and ran off to Mexico. We high-tailed it down the mountain to camp, hoping to beat the storm, and dusk was upon us, which brought out the animals. I almost stepped on a rattlesnake, which would have rudely interrupted his nap. We came upon a mess of wild pigs, called javelinas, and were carefully surveyed by a large boar. The cacti and aloe plants painted our hurrying legs with colorful scratches and blood. The storm smelled like a storm should - it smelled good. I didn't mind the cold wind, or the animal threats, or the scratches, or the rush down the rocky mountainside, five miles to a camp where I would eat bad food and sleep on the hard ground. I smiled and loved every minute of it, the world stretching out in front of me, barren and uncompromising, every inch of it as alive as I. Every inch of it free and every inch open to me.
This is what you lose day to day. You always have that freedom, but you can't see it because it's hidden behind routine, behind assignments, traffic, fast food, stop lights, exercise, baked goods, preservatives, check-out lines, television, boredom, waiting, domesticity, liberalism, conservatism, bad art, exhaust, toilets, convenience, mattresses, relationships, civilization, newspaper, jet airplanes, Twinkies, flags, poverty - aspects of our world. Aspects that are not necessarily bad but that we are used to. Aspects that we are used to and that cost us perspective. Perspective on what it means to breathe.
That is why you need a break.