“Do you wanna go see the Pooter?”
“The Pooter. You’ve never heard of it? It’s amazing. It’s what everyone does around here.”
A quick Google search revealed that D’s pronunciation of the Cache la Poudre River’s nickname was, in fact, correct. It occurred to me that somehow, during this entire adventure, I had never spent any time in any body of water. This was probably my last chance to remedy that.
So we went down to the Pooter. And despite (or perhaps because of) the 94-degree weather, it was remarkably refreshing.
The Cache la Poudre runs just Northwest of Fort Collins, Colorado, into the heart of the Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forest along a low one-lane highway. Rafting down the river seems to be a popular pastime — we watched at least a dozen inflatable floatboats of smiling families work their way downstream — but we just wanted to get our feet wet.
Quite literally, in fact. We set our sandals by the banks and walked along the smooth grey stepping stones until we found a spot where we could comfortably sit down and water devour our ankles. We picked out the smooth, multicolored rocks in the river bed and began skipping them like little kids.
The river was just cool enough to let you forget the heat. The atmosphere was just quiet enough to let you forget about civilization. It was one of the few times I truly let myself relax.
That sounds strange, doesn’t it? You’d think I’d have been relaxing this entire time. Yet as wild and fantastic as my Ghost on the Highway hijinks have been, only a portion of them involve truly letting go. Most often I’m busy shuttling from one place to another, negotiating some strenuous hike or intellectually engaging museum visit, all the while relentlessly thinking about what I’m going to write for this blog.
My mind just never shuts up. It prefers to be stressed, and its definition of success entails stressing over the most creatively rewarding venture possible.
I came to Fort Collins at D’s invitation. D and I had only been friends for a few months but apparently that was enough time to let her feel comfortable inviting me to crash at her place.
Fort Collins is a modestly-sized college town in Northern Colorado, a place often overlooked as tourists flock to Boulder, Denver, and Aspen. It’s just large enough to offer the basic amenities of a city (including a mild touch of hipness) but small enough to still feel somewhat livable.
What I liked best about Fort Collins, however, was the simple lack of sprawl. There seemed to be no suburbs in Fort Collins; I turned off highway 287 at Laporte, passing rickety barnyards and front lawn chickens, and immediately found myself in city limits.
What a great scene, I thought. One could conceivably buy a farmhouse out in the boonies and yet be only 10 minutes away from a fancy juice bar in Old Town.
One of my favorite “hip” places in Fort Collins was the Lyric. The Lyric is a locally-owned movie theater that runs independent and arthouse cinema. Its space is eccentric, inviting, and reflective of a true passion for community and creativity.
Truly independent and creative movie theaters are something I always try and look for whenever I visit a new city, and the existence of one is virtually a prerequisite for me liking a town. It’s something that has become sadly less common as our country grows more gentrified, more commercial. But the handful of movie houses that truly care about the art of cinema, that take the difficult and risky steps to inspire and enrich people’s knowledge of film, to me that’s nothing short of heroic.
The next time you’re in a place like the Lyric in Fort Collins, or the Tower in Salt Lake, or the Roxy in Missoula, do yourself a favor; put the phone/tablet down for a few hours and go watch a real movie.
On this particular night, the movie that D and I agreed on was “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” a documentary about the iconic Mr. Rogers. The story was fascinating, well-crafted, and surprisingly touching. Fred Rogers was more than just a children’s TV host, he was a sincere visionary, a man on a sacred mission (he was actually an ordained minister) to fill people’s lives with love, compassion, and self-confidence. I will admit that there were several portions of that documentary that had me close to tears.
Later that night, as we were drinking beer on D’s back porch, I began to reflect on the documentary and the feelings it inspired. The sheer sincerity of Fred Rogers and his mission made my own work, my own ideas, my own life feel small by comparison.
Most of my writing is tinged with irony, self-abasement, sarcasm. Even those moments in this blog where I’ve attempted to grapple with heavy emotional shit always seem to come up short, at least in my own mind. I’m always couching deep feelings in one dumb joke or another. It’s a shallow and obvious defense mechanism, but for some reason it’s the only way I know how to operate.
The next day was all about the road. I was determined to get all the way back to Madison from Fort Collins. This meant some 15 and a half hours of driving, mostly through Nebraska and Iowa.
Among seasoned road travelers, Nebraska seems to have a special reputation for being singularly, spectacularly, excruciatingly dull. That’s not to say that all of Nebraska is devoid of entertainment value (Omaha and Lincoln are pretty cool, or so I’ve been told), but the sheer size and flat topography of the state make the experience of cruising its highways (or rather, its single highway, I-80) seem like running around on a hamster wheel.
That day, however, I was up for the task. I was ready to get back home, back to reality, ready to begin whatever kind of life lay ahead. I listened to old CDs I’d forgotten about ages ago, dug podcasts about journalism and psychology and hostage negotiation. For a time I even listened to a local Catholic radio station, where the host patiently and pedantically articulated the conditions under which Protestants are allowed to receive the sacrament.
By nightfall, I was in the comparatively less boring region of Eastern Iowa. My bag of raw almonds and various gas station energy drinks were keeping me awake, and I began to grow confident that I would make it home that night.
Then, almost immediately after I crossed the Mississippi into Wisconsin, the rain began to fall. Not just a drizzle, sheets of rain. A soul-wrenching storm straight out of Genesis. And all of this occurring on highway 151 in Wisconsin’s Driftless region, an area famous for its steep bluffs and serpentine roads.
I had an eerie flashback to the Texas Flood I experienced last year. There too I felt cowed, terrified. My economy car dipped and plunged through one puddle after another. My visibility was comparable to a 14-year-old labrador with cataracts.
I pushed forward out of sheer will, sheer desire. I had promised myself I’d make it back tonight, I couldn’t come this far only to quit. I had defied disaster so many times during GOTH, how could I let myself come up short an hour away from my hometown?
I began to follow a slow-moving pickup truck hauling a trailer, guiding myself by the flash of its warning lights. Here I had a bit of a revelation: this was not a disaster, this was the perfect way to end my journey.
I once watched a Masterclass video by playwright David Mamet. In one of the lessons he talked about the difference between an adventure and a vacation. In an adventure, he says (and here I paraphrase), the participant always wishes they were back home. Billions of people enjoy reading and watching adventures, but no one wants to read about a vacation.
At its best, Ghost on the Highway is an adventure. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Being frightened, being depressed, being ridden with anxiety, these are not things to run from. They are essential components of a properly experienced life. They are part of what enriches us, what makes us appreciate the things we’ve always have and will continue to have and what we’ll obtain when things get better in the future.
If nothing else, the storms of our lives make us more interesting. They give us raw narrative material which we can process into one of the best things one person can give to another: a story. Thus not only can we learn and grow from our experiences, others can as well.
Slowly, by degrees too small to notice, the rain began to let up, more of the road became visible, my surroundings became more and more familiar. I tuned into the Madison radio stations I know and love.
I pulled into the parking lot behind my apartment, stumbled inside, and collapsed into bed, eager to wake up for whatever adventures awaited tomorrow.