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On the Wings of Words

Creating the vicarious pleasure of travel

The following are full text writings by selected students in English instructor Nina Scott’s 2009 winter term course, The Literature of Travel Writing. Excerpts of each were published in the Spring 2009 Andover Bulletin.

The Water Blessing by Sophia Lee '09
Bangkok Revisited by Alysha Sayall '09
Ascending Mount Shuksan by Theo Lederfine Paskal '09
The Search for Nirvana by John Chapman '09
Hole in One by Mike Siraco '09
Barosaurus Attack by Brendan Deveney '09

The Water Blessing

by Sophia Lee ’09

I was trapped. The steps on the staircase were just wide enough for one person. An old, frail woman stood in front of me and my classmate hugged me from behind and refused to let me turn back and leave. Feeble grandparents, handicapped beggars, homeless orphans, ill parents, and newborn babies all selfishly pushed my classmates and me up the stairs. My claustrophobic fears engulfed me in my entirety and left me suffocating and gasping for a breath of air. My fear of heights did not help me either. One little step could cause my body to fall and knock down the crowd of people lined up behind me. Each individual would tumble down like dominoes out the entrance of the monastery all because of a careless me. I bit my lower lip and closed my eyes.

Unfortunately, I could still smell the danger. The burning incense released an herb-like smoky smell into the air. The smoke stung the nerves in my nostrils and then left a different scent: the smell of the pistol after it had shot a bullet. I smelled the guilt drifting in the air around me. Of course it was not as serious as the guilt of murder, but the amount of shame I felt around me would have fooled anyone into thinking this monastery was filled with regretful serial killers. But somehow, James Bond and superheroes are never labeled with such a name. They have killed just as many, if not more, humans than all of the criminals in this world have combined. It is as if someone who kills and slaughters unlawful people is not a murderer because he or she is “cleansing society”. Convicts are not human beings. They are savages that roam the jungles of suburbia and cities preying on innocent people. Emotions are completely stripped away and the death of these monsters is the only thing that matters. So then, what is good and what is bad? What is right and what is wrong? As long as one wears an extremely tight, spandex suit and is ridiculously good looking, he or she will never have to deal with these questions.

I opened my eyes and started to move forward with the line of people. The mid-April sun barely penetrated through the barred window, making the inside of the monastery extremely dark. It was as if everyone was walking blindfolded, as if we were all lab rats racing to get to the room releasing the smell of the incense and the noise of ringing bells. But in reality, this was no game. It was the act of pure desperation for a water blessing from the Lama, the head of the monastery. In Tibetan Buddhism, the Lama is a spiritual leader. They are the Tibetans’ passage to Nirvana, the perfect peace in the state of mind, an everlasting spiritual high. So when I finally entered the room, I was expecting a revelation or an epiphany, some kind of sensation where I would be transcended into the heavens. But instead, I was dishonorably shoved into the bottoms of Tibetans praying on the floor.

Walking was replaced with crawling and I moved like a snake on my elbows and knees to the Lama. The older Tibetans rotated dark, wooden necklaces containing one hundred and eight beads around their hands, sending one hundred and eight prayers to the Buddhas. Prayer wheels were spun clockwise also releasing mantras. A low buzz of chanting filled the room as everyone moved in five-minute intervals. During the time we rested, I stared at the three golden Buddhas standing to my left. They were each twelve feet tall and were covered in flowers, money, and Khatas, white Tibetan cloth given as a sign of respect. One Buddha sat with his right hand raised and his left hand resting on his legs, another held a bowl with the left hand and touched the ground with the other, and the last one formed his hands into two circles on his knees. Each Buddha was cloaked in a red robe that was ornamented with turquoise and yak bone. Their earlobes hung low enough to graze the top of their shoulders and their red lips held a solemn smile. To me, they were not satisfied. The amount of incense burned or the number of Khatas they received would never be enough. The jewelry that they wore was a clear sign of power and high class. It was feudalism’s comeback. Anything could be sucked out of the Tibetans’ hands as long as it was justified for religious purposes. This abuse of power was seeping through the attentive eyes of the Buddhas, pressuring everyone to empty their pockets and bags for the hope of a better life even though nothing ever came from it before. Devotion and faith come as a package and are intertwined with such force, that it can be impossible to break apart. The border between reality and faith becomes so blurred that the mind is weakened and becomes an easy target for control. What a sad life indeed.

When my line of people finally reached the Lama, a young monk shoved pieces of wax into each of our hands. I carefully watched the locals around me wipe it furiously onto their faces, and I followed. They then lowered their heads into the circular tub surrounding the feet of the elevated Lama. I once again followed. But instead of fully emerging my head into the tub, I tried to steal a glance at the Lama. The young monk that had given me the wax earlier quickly grabbed a stick and smacked my head, only giving me a split second picture of the Lama, a blur of red and gold.

With my head lowered and my body in a surrendered position, I suddenly felt a cold trickling sensation travel down my head and my neck. All that I could hear was the murmur of a chant and the ring of a bell the Lama above me made. All that I could feel was a light pat on the head with a broom. All that I could see was a flow of yellow water that the Tibetans next to me drank with much enthusiasm, as if it was getting them that much closer to achieving Nirvana. It was a disgusting vile color that resembled urine. The smell of it was just the same, and I will never know its taste. How was I supposed to drink this “holy water” when all I could think of was the public toilet at Safeco Field, Seattle’s baseball field? The condition of that field had gotten significantly worse as the Seattle Mariners’ performance got progressively pitiful. They actually had broken a record that day. The 2007 Mariners now hold the honorary title of having the longest losing streak in the history of American League baseball, twenty-three games. That is a whole twenty-three days and give or take forty-six thousand six hundred and twenty-one disappointed fans1.

And I was one disappointed fan. After the blessing, I was once again spanked and shoved out of the monastery and into the glaring sunlight. Yes, it was an experience. Yes, it was different. And no, it wasn’t electrifying. What was electrifying was the knot in my lower back that had been aching since I was rudely shoved to the floor. My respect goes to the Tibetans who are willing to endure the pain and who have the patience to believe in another life. But for now, I think I’m happy trying to live this life right now.

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Bangkok Revisited

by Alysha Sayall '09


Bangkok, Thailand


“Ask that your way be long.
At many a Summer dawn to enter
with what gratitude, what joy—
ports seen for the first time;
to stop at Phoenician trading centres,
and to buy good merchandise,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensuous perfumes of every kind,
sensuous perfumes as lavishly as you can;
to visit many Egyptian cities,
to gather stores of knowledge from the learned.” 1

I arrived in Bangkok, Thailand, with my family in the summer of 2008. The land was familiar to me; I had been visiting since I was young. Yet as I glanced around the clean, stainless-steel walls of the new Suvarnabhumi airport, I sensed that something was different here. The dirt and grime of the old Don Muang airport were gone. A hectic, disordered space had been replaced with organization and method. Flat screen televisions decorated the overheads of every counter, flashing the news that used to be lettered in. The path that I used to walk was replaced by a moving walkway– of which there were a total of 107.2 The whole structure looked as though it was a building displaced from Huxley’s Brave New World. And the symbol of Thailand, the heat that was normally instantaneously palpable upon landing, had been masked by an improved air conditioning system.

As I discovered the next morning, the unbearable, life-sucking humidity still persisted. It was about 10AM, and time for my first meal in Bangkok. A walk down the street revealed several enticing, yet potentially deadly options. Roadside food-stalls lined the streets, each attached to a bike or wheels for easy mobility. Behind them, eager women and men stood frying satay meat, cut and put on a stick, over a small fire. Diners parked their motorcycles on the sidewalk surrounding the stalls, while they ate at bright-colored, plastic tables and chairs. The furniture came in three sharp colors: royal blue, fire-engine red, and kelly green. These were the same plastic tables and chairs that I had seen at so many outdoor school barbeques growing up in Singapore. Back then, royal blue had been my seat of choice, until I shrewdly discovered during a game of musical chairs that red was a far safer choice; it was always left empty, ensuring that I would never be out. Here on the streets of Bangkok, however, there was less time for preference, for the silly games of choice. The roadside stalls were the reality of convenience, with little regard for proper health standards or limitations of appropriateness. I suppose that in a way, my practical, red-seat-selecting self fit right in.

I turned the corner and saw a gathering of men in orange traffic vests. Here were the “motor-cabs” or, in my mind, the take-at-your-own-risk motorcycle taxis. They were manned by young men who appeared to be about 25 or 30, still with enough vigor to try to convince someone to take a ride. “Sawadee-kap, I will take you. To MBK? 10 baht. Less than taxi. Come-kap.” I smiled and shook my head. Even in these pursuits, the Thai people were never pushy or aggressive. To each sentence they added a respectful “-kap,” a word that instantly made any phrase polite. While trying to bargain or persuade you to an unlikely motorcycle ride, they kept their honest and gentle demeanor. The shopkeeper at the market, the beggar on the street: they were always gentle. It was a quality I had rarely seen in those in a desperate state of poverty, even as a young child.

I remember it was in India that I saw my first beggar. I got off the train in New Delhi and, at age 7, was suddenly swarmed by children, some of whom were younger than me. When I had tried to keep walking, they started to pull my arm and grab my mother’s bag. I was too young to understand the complexities of the situation. I saw someone who was needy; and I wondered why everyone did not give. Still today, I am continually lectured on the facts: “don’t you know, most beggars take your money and give it to a gang leader?”, or “the majority of homeless people take you money for alcohol!” But I have to admit that even now, I cannot accept the complexities. I know I have something to give, and by giving it I have done my part. I cannot say if the beggar will do his, and put the small change I offer towards something good, but I know that if I do not give him the opportunity to, he never will. I suppose that was what I felt on those streets of Bangkok. I walked a couple more Sois (the Thai name for street) and approached the staircase that would lead me to the new BTS skytrain. Yet behind the staircase’s steel wall lay a beggar, a man of what seemed to be 50 or 60 years. He was unlike any other human being I had ever seen. He could not sit; he could not hold a cup. He had neither arms nor legs. He lay on his stomach, with a bowl at his mouth. His eyes were in line with the hot, dirty street, if he could even still see at all. Businessmen and tourists moved up and down the staircase of the skytrain, passing by the beggar and barely even noticing him. There are few ways to describe the desperation in this man, the sense of complete helplessness over the only thing he still possessed: his own life. I knew that money could not help him. As I looked at him, laying there like a corpse, I couldn’t even tell you what remained of this man’s ephemeral existence. But I knew, even as I gave up my fare on the skytrain to him that day, that fare could never move him from his motionless state. Had the city, with its dazzling new skytrain and stainless-steel airport, left this beggar behind? I did eventually take a ride on the BTS skytrain—though it took several weeks before I climbed that staircase. An electronic ticketing machine shot out my token, and I swiped it along the machine that let me into the station. The platform, the rail line, even the ticketing machine- all were well above ground. The train was its own network in the sky, a wealthier, more modern society existing above the real one.

The skytrain was clean and full; none of its dark blue seats were open for passengers. There were businessmen in full suit clutching their briefcases, and children in white and blue uniforms that had just finished their school day. The train slowed, and an electronic voice repeated the words “Phrom Phong” from the speakers. I climbed out through the train’s sliding doors and walked down the staircase into the street again. I was attempting to navigate the route to the Royal Park, but in front of me there was no road access. The street was filled with throngs of Thais, marching toward some destination that was beyond sight. Policemen had closed off the road, but did nothing more after that. They stood on the side simply watching, remaining uninvolved. The protesters, as I later discovered they were, lacked any sort of desire to wreak havoc or hatred. They attempted to walk on sidewalks rather than in the street, and joked and laughed to one another as they progressed. Each protestor was clad in a yellow t-shirt, forming a small part of what looked like a yellow sea. This clothing was not a symbol of their protest, but instead a Thai tradition of respect and love. Each Thursday, Thais wore a yellow shirt to represent their wish of “Long Live the King.” It was a tradition not organized by King Bhumibol Adulyadej but by his people, simply as one of their ways to show their gratitude. Publicly acclaimed “the Great,” the king and his wife were extremely loved by their people.3 On roadsides and outside buildings stood vast, life-size photos of them, decorated with white and yellow garlands of flowers. His status was one of a semi-divinity, yet talking to any Thai, they would tell you that it was not underserved. The king and his wife had transformed the former nation of Siam, brought it democracy, run programs to educate its people, and created what today was Thailand. Though this mass of people marched in protest of the government, they would never do the same for their king. This protest was, however, the beginnings of a conflict that would escalate. Calling for the resignation of a senior government official, the peoples’ protests eventually reached the new airport several months later, forcing its closure for a span of two weeks. The park would have to wait.

A couple of days later, I did reach the Royal Park. It stood on the side of Sukhumvit Road, as a small oasis in the middle of an urban metropolis. Trees of deep green were woven between two large fountains, with white stone benches placed between them. In the center was a vast stone courtyard, filled with mothers walking their strollers.

This was not my first time to the courtyard. As a daring 13 year-old, I had adventured to the free, daily five o’clock aerobics sessions one fine Friday. With children, old men, and middle-aged women, I had “worked out my core, legs, and arms” – or at least the vivacious lady that was our instructor told me I had. Today, however, I was looking for a more relaxing routine. Or so I thought, until I reached Bangkok’s Chatuchak market several hours later.

Chatuchak is the world’s largest weekend market. One glance around the small “neighborhood” that you stand in can prove to you that the place is filled with at least 9,000 stalls. The smell of spices, wood and antiques fills the sticky air. On my right sits a teak shop, selling birdcages, figurines, photo frames, and placemats. On my left sits a brass and china stall, replenished with brass Buddhas and hand-painted plates and jars. Before me, the street is filled with food vendors: lunch restaurants with Vietnamese and Thai food, individual vendors selling strips of dried and preserved meat. Before me, a “chai-valla” juggles condensed milk from cup to cup, mixing it with tea in a traditional Indonesian style. As a former Indonesian citizen myself, I know the importance of a well-mixed cup of tea. He attracts a crowd with his dancing and jokes, and soon a Japanese tourist is even filming him. The market is bursting with sounds. Near the “chai-valla” stand two young Thai boys, clothed in their school uniform. One blows into his harmonica as the other dances in front of him, barefoot on the street. I walk past them to the coconut juice stand, where a Thai young man cuts open a coconut for me, pours out the juice into a cup, and tops it with fresh coconut matter cut out from the sides of the coconut. The juice is fresh and pure, and provides a brief respite from the oppressive heat.

As my day at Chatuchak draws to a close, I take the skytrain back to Soi 23. The skytrain leads out into “Emporium,” a new, expensive shopping complex that is frequented more often by tourists than by Thais. At the exit onto the street sits a spirit house, a small structure in the shape of a house that each major building, and even some homes, possess. The spirit house is the first thing that is placed on a property in the construction phase to bring prosperity, and even after it is placed it is constantly bowed at by all who pass it. A wealthy businessman, wearing a suit and tie, watch and all, steps out of the entrance. At Emporium’s corner spirit house, he immediately kneels and puts his hands in prayer.

Bangkok was a city progressing, transforming, and modernizing. But I knew that it had not yet lost its soul and spirit in the process.

1 Caverty, Ithaca
2 Suvarnabhumi Airport Official Site, http://www.bangkokairportonline.com/node/15
3 Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX of Thailand, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhumibol_Adulyadej

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Ascending Mount Shuksan

by Theo Lederfine Paskal ’09

For the final stage of our Outward Bound trip, our group set out to climb Mt. Shuksan in the North Cascade National park in northwest Washington. The local campsite where we are staying the night prior to our peak attempt is the Ritz-Carlton of our trip. We have separate campsite plots, a swimming hole, a clean water pump, and most importantly: a toilet! (Although it didn’t have a flush and was shared by the entire site, but that would be asking too much.) The RVs in adjacent plots house those campers who believe the outdoors experience consists of drinking beers while swimming during the day, drinking beers while cooking up burgers on their fold-out full-size grill, and drinking beers before sleeping inside their behemoth living machines. After two-and-a-half weeks in the backcountry, these luxuries might as well have been the room service of the Ritz, but this was not our focus.

For seventeen days, the shadow of Shuksan has progressively clouded our minds. The anticipation of the day that would “kick all y’alls asses” according to Joshua, our trip instructor, began as a barely visible outline but grew as the sun rose to a clear, definite being, lurking behind us at every hairpin cutback in the trail. By the eve of our excursion, this shadow had grown to be 5.1 miles long and 5,200 feet tall. This indeed was the task ahead of us. Sure, we had hiked over 5.1 miles in a day, but the mountaineer’s rule of thumb states that every 1,000 feet vertical is equivalent to another mile on flat ground. This addition makes our course 10.3 miles, a very present reality as all of us spent the majority of our time at the Ritz resting.

Shuksan is a beast. At 9,127 feet it is one of the tallest non-volcanic peaks in the Cascades. But its most impressive dimension is its girth. Shuksan rises from the ground like a tree trunk to the east and gradually slopes to the ground in all other directions. It has a marbled mix of glacial ice and greenschist rock across its many jagged peaks and cliffs. Five glaciers make up the body of the mountain, some skiably smooth but the more dramatic are steep and shattered like the spider-web cracks on a windshield. The Native origin of Shuksan’s name is understandable: Tsu-Tsan, an onomatopoeic description of an earth-shaking first crack and then rumble of an avalanche. Asahel Curtis first climbed Shuksan in 1903. His climb, which will be ours, is visible from base camp and is easily recognized from afar as the easiest way to the top. The Sulfide Glacier Arm is the ridge of the glacier, which extends from the mountain to the south on a mild decline. Following the ridgeline leads directly to the rocky pyramid peak. Where the tops of the five glaciers meet, Shuksan’s peak springs out like a spade, coming to a perfect point at the very top. (Information from my notes in the journal I kept on the lessons we had)

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The first stage of our ascent was from the trailhead below to the beginning of the Sulfide Glacier. The trail became narrow and windy, and we progressed slowly in a single file line around every hairpin cutback. When a trail is dominated by cutbacks, it usually means a high grade of steepness. Each cutback levels the severity of the steepness, but lengthens the hike extensively. As the case with the majority of our hikes, the width of the trail forced us to proceed in a single file line.

Each step of the backpacker in front of you is your motivation. The “rubber band principle” states how, when you are trailing someone, there is a certain fluidity to the distance between you and the person in front of you. As you drift further back, there is more tension pulling you forward, a force that gives you more leeway the closer you are behind someone. Just do not test the limit of the force too much, or you will snap the rubber band, a break that is virtually impossible to mend. Our single file line is a chain of rubber bands. Stretching and contracting, ripples of the force run through us. Undoubtedly as the day runs on breaks in the chain happen. Suddenly we are no longer one group of linked motion, and everything stops, as we have to wait to merge our bands once more.

These breaks in the rhythm of each step after another can be taken in different ways. Sometimes they are just what you need, a chance to pull out your water bottle from where it is harnessed on the side of your pack like a gunslinger and take a couple sips of your most precious commodity. However, these breaks can be referred to what we came to know as “bitch breaks.” For while part of the chain of rubber bands is resting when waiting for the rest to reconnect, the group struggling to close the gap does not get that momentary break in the monotony of walking along. But monotony can be addicting. You get into the grove of keeping pace for extended amounts of time. Each step is a beat of a drum, constant and reliable. A missed beat throws everything off rhythm. Each foot you place down enables the rest of your body to follow suit and continue along the path. The longer you walk, the louder and stronger the beat becomes. When the drum stops, your body loses that drive to maintain the rhythm and you have to work the beat up again from silence.

The trail was thickly wooded, enough so that we could not look out on the horizon for reference points to orient our topographic map and reason where we were. Navigational skills lost, we could only estimate the distance we had traveled by feel, and our guesses were always much further than what we had actually covered. But, the trees surrounding us began to thin, and more and more snow starts covering the path, signs of our increasing altitude. The trail itself became less and less defined, as it was no longer the only passable way through the woods. Without obvious physical headings, we had to rely on neon trail markers. These markers were placed in intervals close enough so that when you found one and reached it, the next would be visible. This is a good idea in thought, but for us finding the markers was a struggle. We were afraid to venture too far from any one marker without spotting the next. Between sightings, the search for the next marker was a group effort, and a rush of relief came with every “Found it!” We were dependent on these markers, “sailing down the lights” with each neon flag being the beacons along the coast guiding our ship. We would cut through thick brush, over and under fallen trees, and stumble back onto the trail. Of course, when we found the trail again, our instructors, who always hiked as our caboose, were there waiting for us. We had spent unnecessary effort on an erroneous path because we felt the need to get right up next to that trail marker.

To compare our instructors to guardian angels would be wrong. Yes, they taught us everything we knew about navigating and backcountry living, but we all knew that they would let us venture three hours off course before telling us to check the maps. Even then, they would make us redirect our own heading and would refuse to say whether we were right. We knew this from one of Joshua’s perverse stories of a day during an Outward Bound canoeing trip when the group had to paddle until one in the morning just to make up the distance they had gone in the wrong direction.

To reach the base of the Sulfide Glacier, there was one large and steep open snowfield (that we were all surprised to learn wasn’t actually a glacier itself) we, now past the tree line, had to climb. Without any trail signaling how to best attack the slope in front of us, we decided to go straight up. I lead the way up. I had to take three steps for every one step. One chop to make the initial impact, another to make it big enough to sturdily hold our weight, and a final stomp, shifting weight and pressing up to repeat the process with the other foot. With every step came the decision of how far apart and at what angle into the mountainside they should be placed. My legs were obviously much longer than most, so I tried to keep each step at a reasonable distance. A foot too angled into the mountain would be harder to push off of, but one not angled enough caused slippage, so I focused on keeping my tracks level with what would be flat ground. After what seemed like hours of filling my sunglasses with snow from my kicks and sweat from my brow, we reached the Sulfide Glacier. On a ridge, where you feel a sense of having conquered balance, being able to see out to our mountainous surroundings on both sides, we stopped for lunch.

Expending yourself everyday carrying a sixty-pound backpack will, at the very least, give you an appreciation for food. You come to recognize food for what it is on the most basic biological level, a restorative energy source. Never have you ever been so appreciative of four bickies (13-hole, 44-calorie crunchy biscuits known only to Outward Bound alums and prison inmates) topped with peanut butter, which is what happened to be our lunch that day on the ridge. We ate, re-stuffed our bags, and were off with a brand new head of steam within twenty minutes.

Leaving the lunch site, only rolling hills separated us from our campsite. We were of course on a glacier now, so the hills were of snow and ice. The snowfields were lined with ripples that ran all the way down from the top of the mountain. When the rains come, these ripples become rivers, but for us on the way to our campsite they were pestering changes, up and down, of the ground below us. We reluctantly marched on past many spots that seemed flat enough for camping, but when we finally reached our destination, we forgot about the extra effort it took to get there. We were at the edge of the Sulfide Glacier, and at the edge of Mt. Shuksan, with a cliff to the bottom twenty yards from where we set up camp. Looking out over the cliff, we saw Zeus. Mount Baker. Our view of Baker was a peephole into the world of the gods. It was an omnipresent giant staring us down at all angles, and we could not help but stare back.

Setting up camp had become robotic. Pick one flat ground for sleeping, and one for cooking. Pull out the group gear and assemble it from different backpacks. Tarps for sleeping; pots, pans, stoves, gas, all-purpose stirring/serving spoon, and food for cooking. Two hiking poles tied across from one another half way on the tarp create the “A-beam.” In the snow, without rocks, ice axes go through tied loops at each corner of the tarp, finishing the product. Unscrew the caps to the gas bottles, immediately place them in the stove bag, and screw in the pump hose. Pump at least twenty-five times, until it pushes back. Connect the hose to the stove. Open the gas knob the slightest bit, and close it, so the primer disk underneath the main part of the stove fills with liquid. Reach in and light, watch the burst of flame. Let the flame burn out, turn the gas knob all the way, hear the gas coming out, and light the top of the stove. Flame should be blue and contained. Bring water to boil before cooking.

On this night, we made macaroni-and-hydrated-powdered-cheese. We added some canned chicken and tofu to add protein after a particularly strenuous day. It was also a particularly clear night, so the majority of us set down our ground sheets, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag, one under the other, outside the tarps and under the stars. The moon shone bright enough to cast a shadow. Moonlight is pure and crisp, like the water of a wild spring. Glowing with the clarity of the night, Baker stood in the distance and we all fell asleep chin up towards him.

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The next day we traveled as rope teams. The sixty-foot rope that had been weighing my backpack down for the past three weeks finally got some use, and lightened my load. One of the instructors tied into the front of the rope, two of my peers tied into the middle, equally spaced at 20-feet apart, and I took the back. With harnesses attached to the rope, we would now be able to stop any one member of our team slipping down the slope we were traversing by grabbing both ends of our ice axes and jabbing the pick, along with our feet and knees into the mountain. This is the self-arrest position. Roped travel provided safety, but also loneliness.

By midday hiking up the glacier, a heavy mist had fallen over us. It became a gray wintery mix, limiting our visibility to maybe 20 feet, just barely to the person next to you in the rope line. We were literally inside of a cloud, and everything became dull tones of gray. We could not identify the horizon between where the mountain ended and the sky began, so for all intensive purposes we were floating along in this cloud of discomforting moisture. The original separation of twenty feet was lonesome, but that we were only slightly able to distinguish the outline of the closest hiker was isolating. It was as terrifying as it was thrilling, a surreal otherworldly experience of looking up and around from your feet and seeing the exact same, nondescript scene in all directions. The complete lack of detail was beautiful. The occasional tug or slack on the rope brings you back into consciousness and you realize you are grasping the rope tightly with your downhill hand, the other yielding your ice axe. The rope is your security blanket, and you try not to think of how dependent you are on it.

We reached the base of Shuksan’s rocky peak abruptly in the ever-present mist. Both rope teams came together, the first time we had seen all of us together since we started. We came to a 10-foot rock cliff with a crack right through the middle that served as a stairwell up to a rock plateau. Although a relatively simple climb, it took some time for all of us, one by one, to reach the plateau. Once there, we had to wait around as our instructors set up the next part of the climb. It was a 3rd class rock ascent, which is not terribly difficult but does require being harnessed into a rope with someone belaying you on the other end. We were all excited to do some technical climbing, something that had been missing from our trip since the very first days dedicated to rock climbing. But it was evident that the rain was picking up to torrential levels. Joshua came back around the corner to where we were waiting while he was setting up, and told us we had to turn around and make for camp. He let us lean around the corner to see where he was trying to anchor the rope. There was a river of water and rocks tearing down the slope.

We thought our Ithakas had been washed away in the downpour. But, the next morning back at camp, in clear sunlight, Mt. Baker was there to wake us up. Only thin clouds remained in the sky, and on Baker, directly across from us a halo of cloud wisps cut the top third of the mountain from its base. We could see the natural threshold that would need to be crossed to reach the summit. Nature decides when and how an Ithakas is reached, and enjoying the ride along the way eliminates any sense finding her poor.

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The Search for Nirvana

by John Chapman ’09

The monks rise at 4:30 sharp every morning to begin their daily routines. Living life without electronics, they cannot rely on alarm clocks to force themselves awake with screeching noises. Instead, they live diligently, going to bed early and becoming accustomed to rising with the sun. They eat, pray, study, and sleep, and sometimes reach nirvana doing so.

The temples run entirely on donations. It so happens that these Buddhist temples are located in Laos, one of the poorest nations in the world. People give up their lives to become monks and serve their beliefs and communities. Families give up their breakfasts so that their sons and daughter at the monasteries can eat.

Outside of some of the larger, more popular monasteries, street vendors sell beeswax candles and water lily flowers that visitors can use in religious ceremonies and rituals. The also sell sparrows in small bamboo cages that bring good luck to whomever releases them back into the wild. The vendors, though, are rumored to feed the birds opium so that they will immediately fly back to the shops to satisfy their addictions. Many of the Buddhist monasteries in Laos are hundreds of years old and have been renovated and reconstructed over and over again throughout time. All of the construction work is done by the monks without the aid of mechanical equipment. The care that they put into all of their work, including construction, has kept the monasteries thriving and fully functional. More amazing than constructing 50-foot high buildings with bare hands is the traditional Lao art and architecture incorporated into every building in monastery grounds. Hand-carved wooden nagas, or water dragons, decorate the peaks of the roofs and are believed to protect the grounds from evil.

With most of the Vietnam War fought secretly in Laos and with a greater tonnage of bombs dropped on Laos than dropped in all of the countries involved in World War II combined, many monasteries in rural Laos have been destroyed. Three-hundred-foot–wide craters still litter the provinces, and sites where there once were grand Buddhist temples are now being reclaimed by the forest. Life-size statues of Buddha with their faces blown off make such places grim memories of what used to be the towns’ cultural centers.

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Hole In One

by Mike Siraco ’09

It is late morning on a scorching August day down at Cape Cod. After a five-minute drive through the center of Orleans, I am waiting outside a breakfast restaurant with my sister and two cousins. We come eat breakfast at this restaurant at least twice while vacationing down the Cape, regardless of the wait to be seated in the small restaurant.

The restaurant has a sign above its door with its name, Hole in One, written around an oversized plastic donut that has a bite taken out of it. Although the title seems like a witty pun with regard to the donut, the golf reference never made much sense to me. The Hole in One is painted all brown and looks like a tiny two-story house that should be resting on a side road in a small town. A chimney pokes up from one side of the roof and an old-fashioned lantern hangs above the double doors. Beyond the double doors is a very small entrance way with a bench were people wait. Sitting there can be tortuous, however, for aromas of eggs and bacon reach you easily. The building seems out of place, for it just sits in the corner of a big parking lot that has shoe and clothing stores on the other side of it.

We put our name on the thirty-minute wait list and sit on a stone wall where the hot summer sun makes small drops of sweat run down my neck. The place is crowded with a wide variety of people waiting to be seated. Near the door parents hush their young children and tell them to be patient. Groups of beach-dressed teenagers like ourselves wait by the stone wall, not saying much. The morning hunger sets in and conversation seems like too much of an effort. Middle-aged couples walk up to the door and examine at the menu posted outside. Cars roll up, release one member to check the wait, and then either park or leave to find somewhere else to eat.

Picking out the regulars is a simple task. By the time we show up, most of them are already gone or trickling out, for they come as early as five in the morning to get their meal. Most of them are elderly and come in three groups. Men come alone to read the paper and converse with the other regulars. Women come in small groups to gossip and some couples come to start off their morning with breakfast for two.

As we wait, a woman in her twenties with brown hair and glasses comes outside every couple of minutes to call out names on the wait list. The woman is overenthusiastic about it, as if it is her personal mission to find the people she calls out. Many people put their name down but end up leaving if waiting it out seems like too much of a challenge. The woman comes out and yells each name repeatedly until she is positive the guests have left or she finds them. Then she goes inside and comes back out a second later to call another name. The teens near the stone wall put all their focus on this woman, for she is their key to getting fed. With every name she calls that is not our own, we hope the people have left for it moves out name up one on the list.

After what seems like hours the woman finally calls us and we are seated on the first floor. Inside, the restaurant is busy with chatter and frantic waitresses trying to turn over tables as quickly as possible. The tables are close together for maximum seating. There are narrow wooden stairs leading upstairs where even more tables are crammed together. It is so congested waitresses have to constantly squeeze around chairs, and you can hear everyone’s conversation—which often seems more interesting than your own. There is a bar at the front of the restaurant were many old man sit to read the paper and take sips of their coffee. The place has a cozy feeling about it, but it’s the good food and massive portions that keep us coming back.

The waitress finally comes with our food and somehow fits it all on the tiny table. The plates are all crammed together with coffee mugs, syrup holders, cups of butter, and utensils, completely hiding the wooden surface. The melting butter on my cinnamon French toast fuses with the running syrup to make the ultimate sauce. My whole family complains about the coffee at the restaurant, and it always gets me thinking what makes Hole in One special. There are great breakfast places right near my house, and I wonder if Hole in One is actually better. Often it seems like certain restaurants or people seem so memorable and desirable when vacationing because of expectations. People expect things to be great on vacation, and similar experiences near your house feel monotonous.

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Barosaurus Attack

by Brendan Deveney ’09

The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), Central Park West at 79th, New Yalk, New Yalk, 10024-5192 is as much a fortress as it is a museum. The whole structure carries with it a permanence and solidarity that’s foreboding. Ornamentation in the form of grooved columns mounted with intricate scrolls and rooflines sporting various applications of cavetto, ovolo, cyma, and ogee molding, intended to give the illusion of daintiness, is more imposing than refining. The only ostentatious aspect of the entire building is its structural integrity. Stone projections support stone projections, which in turn support columns (themselves merely for decorative effect and structurally entirely superfluous) that serve as daises for the statues of four of America’s great travelers and adventurers. The resulting effect is grossly intimidating. To the left, towers a marble Boone, gargoylesque in complexion and armed with a high-powered musket that looks like a dangerous elongated trumpet. Meanwhile, Clark and Lewis stand threateningly to the left, each outfitted with sword and dagger, flanking Audubon, a man once portrayed as a gentle bird lover intent upon sketching their forms, now ludicrously depicted as a deeply paranoid ornithologist complete with musket and axe.

On the solid grey marble façade at the feet of the explorers the lofty terms “truth,” “knowledge,” and “vision” are inscribed in Times New Roman size 1,650 font. Their loftiness makes the banners strung between the columns showcasing the museum’s latest exhibitions seem insignificant by comparison. The banner advertising the Hayden Planetarium’s show “Cosmic Collision,” replete with the image of a gigantic fireball hurtling earthward in apocalyptic fury, is greeted with relative nonchalance while “The Horses” is almost funny, an effect enhanced by the apparent flaring of the banner-horse’s nostrils with each gust of wind that passes through a similarly located semicircle slit designed to prevent the banner from becoming a sail and taking the whole front of the building with it. Out in front is a green copper statue of a somber Theodore Roosevelt (to whom, an inscription at the very top of the museum informs curious bystanders, the entire mammoth building is built in memoriam) mounted upon a thoroughbred, one leg raised as if in trot (the horse, not Theodore), with two “noble savages” adorned in metallic buckskins and headdress posed at his side.

The Main Lobby not only serves as an entranceway, but a repository for the other sections of the museum and guests who’ve entered it by various other entrances. The room is positively packed and the presence of a massive skeletal display in the very center of the room with only one plaque to describe what exactly the skeletal display is of does not help the flow of traffic. In a crowd around the plaque, visitors jostle and bash one another for prime plaque-reading real estate. Sweaty children rush through the legs of patiently waiting museum-goers and, upon arriving at the source of the assembled mass’s attention, determine that they can exhibit their newfound proficiency for symbolic communication (a.k.a. reading) and, proceeding along these lines, they sound out, mistaken syllable by mistaken syllable, the inscription on the plaque for an average of five minutes until about halfway through the plaque, his parent suddenly appears and, to the relief of the growing crowd, removes him. Then there is a massive convergence toward the plaque, accompanied by a bumbling of and a trampling of feet, as the adults pile forward, read the plaque, refer to the diagram, and point at the skeleton, and then, firmly planted in front of the plaque and ignorant of the death threats from the resenting crowd behind them, they reread the plaque, apparently in order to commit the entire thing to memory, refer back to the diagram to ascertain what exactly it was they were just looking at, and then point again and again until, watching them, I am nodding as insanely as they are, referring to invisible nothings and then staring at the exhibit in what can only be described as remotely traumatizing head-banging.

By interpreting the repeated gestures of the crowd, their uttered ejaculations, and the stunted speech of the preschoolers, I am able to determine that the centerpiece is a life-size plaster reconstruction of the skeletal structure of a barosaurus defending its offspring from an equally skeletal T. rex. The barosaurus is reared on its hind legs, its body like a giant giraffe with a neck proportionally three times as long, a tail of equal magnitude, and a rack of menacing vertebrae. It is an impressive display, but the effect is somewhat lost on me. The barosaurus’s head is elevated so high in the stratosphere of the atrium that I cannot discern its teeth and thereby definitively conclude that barosaurus was indeed a herbivore as the plaque-reading crowd would have me believe. In fact, from my humble vantage point, the barosaurus appears disconcertingly carnivorous. It towers in reared suspension as if about to strike and procure for itself a chunk of high-quality flesh (however absent) from the skeleton of the T. rex.

The sneaker squeaks and chirps in the Main Lobby are just about deafening at this point, and I’m nervously expecting guano to fall from the sky, so seeking solitude and refuge, I move in the direction of my left (less traffic than either center or right) and, after passing through a room with a tree trunk the size of a trailer home mounted on a wall and another with a replica of an ancient Haida boat whose wolverine figurehead looked as though it had just had a grenade forced into its backside, I arrived at The Hall of Human Origins.

The Hall of Human Origins is one of the more modern divisions of the AMNH (there are some 40 buildings in the entire complex, all marked by visible fault-lines in the floor that arise from the settling of its buildings). Its title, however, is somewhat misleading. “The Hall of Human Origins” would seem to suggest that the human species emerged from this very hall, which is, according to information in the Hall itself, evidently not the case. In addition, that Hall isn’t really a hall, but a room. So much for instilling confidence in the veracity of scientific fact.

The Hall itself, though, is like a giant apology for the audacity of the Theodore Roosevelt Central Park West at 79th Street entrance, with an obvious emphasis on efficiency and simplicity, but not on frugality. There are numerous viewing stations spread throughout the Hall’s space; rectangular constructions of glass and steel in which skeletons of human ancestors are suspended. Bright halogens illuminate the pieces, as well as the facial flaws of any viewer on the opposite side of the glass cube as you. With the exception of the blinding radiance emanating from the display cases, though, the room is extremely dark, drawing attention toward tool artifacts and away from the floor, which is a polished concrete, not marble.

A diagram on one of the walls shows the evolution of cranial size over evolutionary history. It suggests an almost causal relationship between the reduction in brow size and the protrusion of the nose. A poorly lit plaque (presumably to reduce Main Lobby–like crowding by evading notice, the absence of which contributes to an overall sense of desolation that is discomforting) informs me that no one knows why our brains got bigger or why we became better looking with time (even before the advent of reconstructive surgery), and I consequently maintain my hypothesis that reduction in brow size is a direct cause of the prominent, non-ape–like noses of men like Copernicus (whom reconstructive archaeologists have shown had quite a honker). It’s probably on account of this lack of knowledge regarding the historical rise in cranial capacity that the museum has chosen to eschew these items, flaunting what it knows (large endowment, dinosaurs existed, as do shoe bombs) and suppressing that which it (and most of science and society) doesn’t (human evolution).

In the Hall of Human Origins there is an extremely high concentration (which means two in a room of three) of those universal, museum-going visitors who purchase the headsets that give you absurd quantities of information, essentially the same that’s on one the plaques, in the form of fact—which it is, most of the time, except when it’s supreme speculation presented as fact or even shoddy guesswork presented as such. I don’t know why, but every person in the museum over 50 who’s restricted to a wheelchair has one. I would think that perhaps it’s just consideration for others who are trying to read informative plaques and the obvious difficulty that manipulating a wheelchair into viewing range of, say, the Main Lobby barosaurus plaque, would present, but that’s not the case, because these folks get easy access to the exhibits. Whole crowds will part for these wheelchairers while their chauffeurs issue condescending coos of “excuse us,” “pardon me,” until their massive noggins are blocking the opposable thumbs of my early ancestor and my head-banging cycle of reference and memorization is interrupted permanently. Wheelchairers, it seems, are evolutionarily predisposed to necessitate mechanical assistance in the auditory as well as the mechanical facets of their lives.

The centerpiece of the Hall of Human Origins is yet another glass case (monotony of structure is disrupted only by consistency of speculation on dimly-lit plaques) wherein are two early homo erectus reconstructions. Their human faces have decidedly monkeyish features, and they are covered head to toe in what is apparently peach fuzz, (Interestingly, there is a decidedly fruity smell to the entire exhibit. Its source, when traced, appears to be the garbage can). The reconstructions stand proudly erect. One of the homo erectus is decidedly male, as evidenced by the exposed genitalia, while the other is likely female, but difficult to discern, with an abundance of hair around the crotch preventing definite conclusion, and sagging breasts as suggestive of a woman’s as a genetic basis for obesity.

While acutely examining this particular specimen of the “What Makes Us Human” exhibit, the guy next to me, with a thick New Yalk accent and a particularly pronounced jawline, jokingly remarks how homo erectus “right thay” looks like some guy he saw on the subway today. I can’t help but think the speaker himself looks like homo habilis, who was several glass displays earlier or, by scale, a couple of million years the predecessor of erectus, but I keep this to myself. (The guy’s kid showed every sign of genetic mutation, and I’m sure he was sterile as the result of some trans-species reproductive mishap).

As I’m standing there, however, I can’t help but wonder why this man sought to speak with me. In this instance, I had simply concluded good old Habilis was exploiting his newfound “tool” (a.k.a. language) and had forgotten his flint at home, but it was a phenomenon I encountered throughout the museum, with complete strangers remarking “isn’t this wonderful?” or simply “wow” so audibly and emphatically as to be an undeniably intentional vocalization meant for public appraisal and response. Such comments were not solely a means by which to advance yourself in a viewing line without a wheelchair by establishing some degree of familiarity, and thereby integrating with the group in front of you. In fact, it happened when the line was short, as well, or when I was standing alone in front of a plaque when someone would remark, “It says here these guys lived 2 million year ago!” and I would say “Really? Incredible!” as though it was entirely new information to me, even though I had just read the exact same fact just recited to me. We ingratiate each other with knowledge, asking each others’ opinions even when they don’t matter and voicing and receiving them even when they’re not necessary. We long for it. We thrive on it. That’s why we blindly accept the facts from the plaques or the headsets without being able to see the teeth. Knowledge ingratiates.

Following my run-in with ol’ Habilis, I decided I needed to return to the bulk of the homo sapien population and, after taking a elevator ride to the fourth floor of the museum (where I made the astute scientific observation, based solidly on visual skeletal evidence, that the triceratops dinosaur could not have supported the mantle of bone mounted on its head and therefore carried out its existence with its head down in a position resembling the planet’s first self-propelled rototiller) and affirming my belief in the extinction of homo habilis and the prior existence of dinosaurs (I have no reason to suspect that artists, looking for another means of expression, invented imaginary skeletal forms for amusement, although there is a sort of abstraction in the missing elements and incompleteness of the skeletons that might be classified as postmodern), I braved the wheelchairers (whom I’d come to learn not only hogged the exhibits, but turned that footpaths into bowling alleys, splaying arms and legs as they galvanized their motorized charge through the museum, oblivious to cries as they listened to facts) and squeezed myself into The Hall of Minerals and Gems.

The Hall of Minerals and Gems is a carpeted spiral along which visitors are conveyed by one another in suffocating density upward past viewing cases of rare stones and crystals to a patio. Here, great petrified tree stumps serve as speedbumps (veteran wheelchairers navigate them with ease, while their biped counterparts can’t seem to) that further slow the spiraling mass of humanity and prevent it from all at once rushing for the fresh air and open space of the dioroma room beyond. The ground of the Hall is coated in a thick, rough, grey carpet, soiled and with a pungent scent. Like The Hall of Human Origins, the room is dark, with bright lights shining on the crystals within their cases.

The security guard in The Hall of Minerals and Gems is the third museum staffer I have encountered thus far, following the obvious guard at the entrance and a bathroom janitor I stumbled upon on my journey from the Main Lobby to The Hall of Human Origins. (I found him sitting in a stall reading Motor Trend in the basement bathroom, which had a layer of gum about two inches deep under the sink countertop—which was mischievously designed to funnel water to its outermost edge so that any bathroom-goer with hygienic intention withdrew from the sink with a damp line of stagnated water deposited on their absorbent T-shirt—and a similar collection on the interior of the grafitti-covered stalls. Many of the toilets in these putrid confines didn’t have seats lids, which struck me as strange, because I saw no desirability in collecting them, or satisfaction to be had in depriving others of them. Their absence, however, seemed to accelerate the crystallization of the urine crusted along the inner lip of the bowl into deposits that were oddly reminiscent of natrojarosite from The Hall of Minerals and Gems upstairs). The officer in The Hall of Minerals and Gems was somewhat extraneous, though. All the cases of precious stones were rigged with sensors and, truthfully, it was about as visually stimulating to put your head on the hot glass and stare into the lasers as your face fried as it was to look at the sparkling rocks.

Submerged in the spiraling crowd in The Hall of Minerals and Gems, I was peristaltically sloughed forward past samples of emerald, topaz, sapphire, cinnabar, quartz, halite, gallium, wedged between two spectacular samplings of biological (not geological) origin. The two museum-goers between whom I found myself pinned epitomized the primary constituent of the non-wheelchairer crowd here. In front of me, a woman in her mid-30s with tight hair, bony, angular joints and ribbed chest like a armored breastplate, wearing flat shoes and glasses and handling a small, whiny child—who was constantly fidgeting—by his collar. Behind me was a rotund man in his mid-50s dressed in a T-shirt and high shorts with gratuitous amounts of what would again be described as peach fuzz, but for the fact that it was the same color as the graphite sample he was intently staring at and was several inches too long to be classified as such. And while this particular subset of man, so evidently prone to be drawn to science museums, was oblivious to the conspicuous rings of sweat under his arms and the fact that every time he swung with his camcorder his ample hair flung beads of bodily fluid (that touched down briefly on the hot glass of the cases before boiling off) within a 3-foot blast radius and unaware of the fact that he was constantly rubbing against me; the woman whose back I faced was highly adept at perceiving even the slightest brush of my body against hers, an occurrence I noted in that it was inevitably followed by a swift, though subtle, jab to my gut with her adequately suited bony elbow weaponry. Thus, I was forced to recline into the sagging gut of the oblivious man behind me, carried forward as though in a La-Z-Boy, fending off jabs if my porter wandered too close to the other less tolerable half of the museum-going population; and after he had navigated the petrified logs I suctioned myself out of his enveloping rolls of flesh and stumbled into The Hall of Meteorites.

The Hall of Meteorites looks like its filled with just a bunch of boulders, though one in the middle, a portion of a meteorite that supposedly landed in Cape York, Greenland, weighs so much that it is supported (like the molding in the Main Lobby, the façade of the front, and probably the whole foundation of the entire building) by columns that extend through the floor to the layer of bedrock underneath the museum, so you figure it has to come from someplace special, like outer space. I’m less interested in the meteor, though, than how they got it here; not Earth per say, but rather the 3rd floor of the AMNH.

The AMNH has four levels, each divided and subdivided in numerous ways into halls and what are apparently not halls (like the section called Mexico and Central American, which I suppose is a possible lure of the museum in that it enables you to say you’ve been to Mexico and Central America and be misunderstood as if you’ve actually been there, instead of being encumbered by saying you’ve traveled to the “Hall of Mexico and Central America”) but on a map the rooms look exactly the same. A trip to the museum is essentially an inexpensive vacation; an exposure to foreign knowledge and cultures with exhibits of humanity on both sides of the glass (Erectus or Habilis) that make us look into ourselves, question our pasts and when we discover the evolutionary and biological commonalities we share, ultimately serves to unite us.

Another observation that stems from the maps of the AMNH is that the AMNH is an acronymphile. Everything is assigned an acronym, and when spoken in quick succession they sound like some sort of instructional exercise video, “I’m going to HoOL, then HoPP, then HotU”. (HoOL (Hall of Ocean Life) HoPP (Hall of Pacific People) HotU (Hall of the Universe).

The HoOl is another one of those exhibit drains like the Main Lobby that visitors from all over the museum somehow find themselves in. At least here the museum has had the foresight to remove the obstacle, a life-size blue whale, and hang it on the ceiling instead of leaving it on the floor. Fortunately too, the plaque is on the second floor and in order to reach it you either have to walk up a flight of stairs or go back to the twin elevators (which, by the way, run as though in balance with the other: when traffic is high they seem to halt on the floor above you and remain there interminably, but when traffic is low and the other elevator most likely empty, three or four people can send the mirrored box screaming down the shaft and you can feel the grind against the wall as it comes to a halt and almost hear the other elevator clanging up above as though in a belfry) which deters the majority of the ground-floor museum-going crowd as well as the wheelchairers and makes this the only plaque I actually enjoy reading: unhindered by the crowd and unenlightened by equally read bystanders of the topic of choice. I am thus freely entitled and empowered to inform myself that blue whales process thousands of water each day (a note should be inserted here informing the plaque’s reader that the museum’s sewage systems by comparison, as a result of dysfunctional, seatless toilets and widespread failures to flush, processes only one or two hundred gallons of water each day), using their baleen, long bristle-like plates that hang from their upper jaws, to filter out krill – the small, shrimp-like animals on which they subsist.

The conservationist effort to save these endangered creatures and all the marvels of the natural world through education that forms the backbone of the AMNH’s mission is embodied here in this plaque. Whales are marvels of scale and of efficiency as are all creatures, which evolution has honed to such incredible perfection that to let it go would be a waste, in large part, as the museum highlights, because of the applications their study may yield (better sewage systems for one). The dioramas around HoOL and extending into the HoAL (Hall of African Life) of lions and antelope frozen mid-chase and stationary tusked elephants pounding through the backdrops of plains and jungles utterly alters the perspective given by the blue monitors that hum and glow contentedly. There is something about the scale and the visceral reality of these beasts that goes beyond electronic images, and transported here explicitly for you, you begin to care.

At this point, I am beginning to realize that I smell awful and am caked in my own sweat as well as that of my porter from The Hall of Minerals and Gems. The air circulation in most of the museum is extremely poor and so I follow a current of air-conditioned cool emanating from a pair of stainless steel into the Hayden Planetarium.

The Hayden Planetarium combines the novelty and modernity of the HoOL with the colossal scales of the Main Lobby. The structure is a massive transparent cube of iron trusswork that supports an overlaying plexiglass exterior. In the center of the Cube is a giant replica of what is possibly the closest thing to a generic celestial sphere ever generated: grey, massive, and round; a virtual Death Star supported by a pair of entirely non-celestial beams that pierce the Death Star’s midsection like giant shish kabob skewers and hoist it above an exhibit of constellations and notable celestial bodies sunk into the floor below. This sunken exhibit is specially designed to be 21st century friendly, with flashing lights and blue LCDs the focal point of which is a gigantic plasma showing the evolution of the solar system. Emanating from the 200-inch television is a noise that is supposed (I assume) to give the impression that you’re floating in the far reaches of the galaxy, a region one assumes from the sound is particularly prone to reverberation and empty but for a couple chucks of metal that alternately grind and plink against one another. In all, the whole glowing arrangement comes off looking more like the Death Star control room than anything else.

Suspended around the Death Star are planetary spheres—Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. I orbit them from the walkway on level two, descending down a flight of plexiglas and concrete stairs to the first level (which is more like an art gallery than a museum, with pictures from the Hubble Telescope and an exhibit about black holes, which reminds me of the one about cranial evolution in that the exhibit would be more worthwhile if we knew anything about black holes aside from how they form) and finding little there, return to the walkway, which has a couple of interesting diagrams like those in cosmology books that talk about red giants and white dwarfs (evidently, they’re races of stars).

I’ve orbited the second-floor walkway about four times, looking for something museum worthy (that is, something affirmative like teeth, not merely informative or speculative) when my orbit is suddenly disrupted and find myself once again being carried by a mass of humanity and the gut of a porter, this time into the interior of the Death Star, which is completely dark with the exception of little red lights that outline paths that lead to plush, satiny seats that recline to a point of back bending discomfort, bordering on contortion, until you’re helplessly staring into the void of darkness overhead and the seat is groaning under you. Thus rendered, the flickering red lights on the paths fade and the voice of Tom Hanks booms from somewhere like some disembodied God and at the very instant he issues the proclamation “and then there was light” the ceiling of the dome of the Death Star erupts in a cinematic spectacle documenting the 13 billion year evolution of our universe condescended and filtered (omitting the most recent 7 billions years of relative universal bore and stasis) into 30 earth minutes.

At the conclusion, I suction myself out of the chair which, I note with dissatisfaction, is somewhat more lumpy (though professedly less odoriferous) than my museum-going porters, and light-headedly drift out of the Death Star down a ramp that repeats the message of our universe’s formation for those lulled to sleep in the dark, starry confines of the interior of the Death Star or genuinely interested. No one stops during our descent.

The discomfort of the semi-prone position one assumes in the Death Star is minimal compared to that which one undergoes while wandering about the Hayden Planetarium, where you continually find yourself looking up.

Plaques are in short supply and plasma screens are on loops that repeat every two and a half minutes. The whole building is relatively barren. The Hayden does excel in one aspect, however, that is, it adequately conveys the relative emptiness of space with a relative emptiness of thought and barrenness of exhibits.

The Cube and contained Death Star perpetuate a satisfaction with superficial knowledge. Its exhibits inform viewers that a black hole’s gravity is so strong that not even light can escape, yet theories suggest that, in fact, there is something that can escape their gravitational force called Hawking Radiation. The Hayden is a permanent monument to lies and half-truths, outdated by theory and discovery even in its construction. (It must be noted, however, that during the construction of the planetarium, the lead astronomer for the AMNH controversially and successfully argued, with an unexpected degree of foresight, that a model of Pluto should not be included in the exhibit. Years later the prestigious IAU (International Astronomical Union) demoted Pluto from a planet to a dwarf planet (which is, in itself, a rather confusing classification since the new definition of a planet established that a dwarf planet is not a planet even when a dwarf star was still considered star. Another confounding nomenclatural problem in astronomy is the misleading term “Big Bang”, an event the oft neglected exhibits of the spiraling exit to the Death Star explain did not in fact “bang” because there was no air to carry sound waves. Still, the film with the voice of Tom Hanks in the Death Star had added such an effect to the explosion of energy that gave birth to our universe, presumably for dramatic effect and hopefully not for the sake of scientific inaccuracy. My fellow viewers never came to know that, though).

The materials in the Cube convey a sort of futuristic theme, with polished chrome, metallic surfaces, glass, and shiny black floors with little white chips of fluorescent space-age material that make it seem like you’re walking on the fabric of space-time itself. But all this sleek modernity compensates for something else, a façade of knowledge with an absence of genuine knowing.

The museum-goers proceed with general bewilderment. They are awed by the spectacle of gigantic spheres, glaring lights, circular portholes, and glistening orbs, yet they miss the true spectacle that inspired it all, the unknown expanse of the universe. Hustling from the Death Star to the sunken interactive displays below, they neglect genuine explanations and plaqued admissions of the unknown in preference for a superficial presentation and the illusion of mastery. Here in the Cube, there is no need to hide plaques in poorly lit light, they are simply ignored: the wheelchairers sit stationary, eyes glazed, plugged into prerecorded spools of knowledge, while their more mobile companions wander with their necks craned back, staring at the Death Star, the planets, and the plasmas while ignoring our susceptibility to the unknown. Why is it that we crane our neck here, but not amid the marvels of our own celestial dome: the night sky?

The ambulatory move like bumper-cars, ramming into one another as they stare upward and rolling off curved railings and down gently sloped ramps in a euphoric state of oblivion to the unknown and self-infatuated marvel at the power of human intellect. They slam into one another, the collisions jerking their head forward then slinging them back to the spectacle of the Death Star and its suspended companions. (The situation is not helped by the fact that absolutely nothing is linear in the Rose Planetarium, even the floor undulates slightly, which only as exacerbates the incidents of drifting collisions.) They ignore plaques that inform readers Titan, one of Saturn’s moon with its genuine atmosphere and seas of the hydrocarbon ethanol, could a harbor for form of unfamiliar life (albeit one with a serious hangover) or introduce a whole new meaning of “foreign oil,” instead staring at the models wide-eyed, gawking at the mere existences of celestial spheres and pursuing no more knowledge than simple knowledge that something is, without the impulse to ask why? Or how?

Museum goers are hoarding themselves in the gift shop as I pass, gathering up the superficial knowledge they came to find in the form of freeze-dried ice cream billed as “astronaut food,” absurd jewelry that looks like polished versions of natrojarosite “the urine crystal”, Nature’s Fire Undersea Volcano (which lets you make your own miniature Hawaiian Island) and a rainbow-maker, which sounds really exciting until you realize that they’re only miniature rainbows and the whole contraption is just a prism that sells for an absurd $38. The whole gift shop is so exorbitantly expensive and so full of those oblivious, museum-going men that are literal clones of my porter in The Hall of Minerals and can suck small children into their gut and not becoming aware of it until sometime later, that it comes as little surprise that the angular women deny their children access, holding onto their collars, which distend from circles, to ellipses to lines. The kids are literally strangling themselves over the sparkling objects in the gift shop’s windows, remaining remain braced against the fabric of their t-shirts gasping or screaming until their fathers emerge from the gift shop with rock candy on a stick ($5.95) and the child relaxes while the mother allows the shirt to fall limply back, the augmented collar now exposing half of the child’s upper body. I skip the gift shop, fearing a repeat of the extrication process I endured in separating myself from my porter in the Hall of Minerals, and proceed out the AMNH revolving door and into the city beyond, the wise words of Tennyson echoing in my mind:

Life piled on life

Were all to little, and of one to me

Little remains: but every hour is saved

From that eternal silence, something more,

A bringer of new things; and vile it were

For some three suns to store and hoard myself,

And this gray spirit yearning in desire

To follow knowledge like a sinking star,

Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

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