Reflexions on my 28th Year

Every year, since my 23rd birthday, I share a blog post, summarizing the year and my experiences. It’s a personal retrospective I share in order to string a narrative through the year, and define and describe my life as it stands at the time. This is the fifth installment. 

Darkroom was just selected by Apple as one of the best apps on the App Store for 2015. It’s an indescribable honor to be featured alongside great products by a company I have admired and looked up to since I was a child.

When Matt and I started Darkroom, we wanted to model it after the Apple and Leica ethos. To us, that meant no gimmicks, and a profound respect to the user and their time using our product. It’s humbling to see that recognized today with Darkroom rated so highly and Apple recognizing it. Thank you for all your support throughout. I’m excited about Darkroom’s future. 


Today is my 28th birthday. I’m on a Greek island where 6 weeks ago thousands of people were arriving daily. It was an overwhelming experience and we’re back here to profile the locals. It’s a village of dreams and fantasies, and I’m thankful to spend my birthday here among a fantastic array of friends and friendly faces. 

We have only a few days left on the project, and after 2 months on the road, I’m spent. Over the past few weeks, Sara and I have started seeing mental snapshots of what some of the pages in the book might look like and we’re unbearably excited about bringing it to life. This book will be the first step in a long march to capture and share this historic event. We’ve seen this crisis from many angles, and witnessed it first hand. 

The world is in a precarious place today, and a nuanced understanding of reality is important as we continue to shape our policies and opinions through our elected officials. An educated public is a fundamental component of a healthy democracy, and we hope to do our part in sharing what we’ve experienced and learned first hand. 


When I left my job at Instagram, I wasn’t sure what I was leaving it to do, and at many points along the journey, I wasn’t sure whether or not I made the right decision. The decision to leave was made out of an inner conflict with where my life was headed. 

In San Francisco, what success was measured by and what I as a competitive person was competing with was pulling me down a road that felt foreign to me. Even today, when I try to more purely pursue my passions, it’s hard not to look over the Facebook fence and see what my friends in Silicon Valley are doing and not feel like I’m dragging my feet in the sand and falling behind. 

The same trait that made me successful in my time in the valley is also making it very hard for me to pull away, but what brought me to Silicon Valley is not what was keeping me there last year, so I had to face that reality. That much I knew. Where I go from here, I’m still figuring out.

It has taken a long time — Too long if I’m being honest with myself — but I’ve made a bit of progress. I’m still not where I want to be yet, but I’m working through it


A lot has happened this year:

Released Darkroom – February
London Trip – February
Middle East Trip – May
Released Darkroom 2 – August
PNW road trip – July
Month in NYC – August
Displaced – October to December

…along with a lot of other little trips along the year. I’ve visited so many countries, met so many people, and wrote a lot of code. Like, a lot. I’ve gone on my first backpacking trip, and I started writing my first book.


I feel more self aware than I ever have before, but I’m struggling to articulate it and actualize it. Sometimes it felt like I might be running away from something, but I feel good about how I’ve grown over the past year. I’m looking forward to a year of introspection and solidifying some big changes in 2016 as I crystalize Darkroom’s future and write Displaced’s first draft.

As 2015 comes to an end, I feel cautiously good. I feel like my relationship to the world is stronger and more mature. My thinking is still morphing, and I’m re-evaluating my emotional reactions and decision-making process. It’s taking time, but I’m slowly becoming more aware of the journey, and ultimately, that’s what helps me steer and push forward.

Thanks Sara Kerens for the photo.

Entering Washington

I was ready to get out of Portland. It had be a few days and on the one hand, I was starting to feel a lot of the same anxiety and stress that caused me to leave SF in the first place. On the other hand, I felt like I may not get the chance to visit the Pacific Northwest with Sierra again, but I can fly and Uber around Portland whenever I want. Alright, we passed by the maps section at Powell’s Bookstore and I picked up a PNW map.

 

I remember from my last road trip through the Southwest that highways are to be avoided, and byways are where the fun is. I can’t go past 55mph comfortably anyway, and there’s usually less traffic. Byways usually wind through the country more, and have better views, and stopping to take photos is much more accessible. Plus, in a car as non-aerodynamic as a 1991 VW Vanagon, getting stuck behind a semi-truck makes the van shake like a salt shaker. Google maps is fine for avoiding highways, but tracing the white lines of the byways on a paper map and always having a full overview of the trip has a certain romantic quality to it.

 

After Powell’s, grabbing a beer flight at Bridgeport near Tom’s apartment, hunched over the map tracing my route north along the 101 to drive around Olympic National Park clockwise, David (Tom’s Personal Trainer. A tangent we don’t need to get into) showed up and shared stories his honeymoon in the Cascades and Rockies of Washington.

 

Ok then, I guess I’ll cut my trip short around Olympic NP and retrace David’s honeymoon. He pointed out a very thin and long lake east of Seattle called Lake Chelan with a small secluded boat-access-only town called Steheken on the norther shore. Apparently you can take a boat out to the hiking trails, and charter a flight back. Sounds right up my alley. I marked the path on the map. In the process, my eyes adjusted and I noticed that the map also listed all the public campgrounds in the PNW. Hallelujah! It’s been driving me nuts trying to find campgrounds, ones that have any first-come-first-served spots, and ones that are a reasonable distance away. The instant availability of the entire internet means I’m constantly researching the options trying to find the best one, wasting hours and getting frustrated in the process. You can’t comparison shop on a map. Cool.

 

Later that night, after doing a load of laundry, packing up, setting the alarm for 5:30 AM (I’m a little anxious about those first-come-first-serve spots), I started looking up hikes and things to do around Seattle. That’s when I started looking up photos of the hikes on Instagram (Thanks guys for Places search!) I started losing my mind in excitement. Washington’s mountains look so majestic, so large and numerous, so accessible and well documented, I was left in a bit of a state of shock. Jealous of Seattleites and longing for some deeper connection to the mountains, I decided to try solo backpacking for one night along one of the popular hikes. This is not an entirely straightforward proposition though, seeing as I have a major release coming up in 3 weeks that I’ve been slaving at for months, so having an active internet connection is important, and I’ve never done an individual backpacking trip before, so there’s that anxiety, but on a popular trail, in a popular area, for one night…I should be fine.

It didn’t take long for me to get out of bed, still riding that wave of excitement. Quietly left Tom’s apartment and made my way to the van which was conveniently parked right outside a Safeway. A quick supply run later, I had an audiobook going, the engine running, and my tank half full. We’re on, baby!

 

Leaving Portland due west on the 30, I passed by a large forest on my left, and a river to my right. This being 6:30 AM, there wasn’t much traffic, so I was making good time. The road turned right, I crossed the bridge and was back on my way north.

 

It was surprising to me how quickly I was able to get outside Portland and find myself in the open country again. On either side of me, large factories, pillars of steam rising, and piles of timber lay as far as I can see. All along the drive north, timber seems to be the regional industry of note, and every pile makes me a little sad. I’ll have to read that Wikipedia page when I get some internet. Presumably, our sustainability and conservation history plays a role in ensuring we don’t wipe out the Redwoods, and as a city slicker like myself, I don’t know the first thing about the timber industry. It seems to employ most people in the little towns I drive through on the byways, and the subculture of wood carvings and trinkets line the outside of the rest stops and walls of the diners.

 

An hour or so into the drive, I pull over into a diner on the side of the road for some coffee and breakfast. The first thing you see when you walk in isn’t wood panelling with rustic bar stools. It’s a wall of gum and rolling hot dogs with a bored clerk in front of a wall of cigarettes. You see, this is a combination Gas Station and Diner. First one I’ve seen! Sure enough, the bar stools were attached to the side, I grabbed one, and my exquisitely mulleted waitress got me my menu and coffee and off I was doing my usual let’s-read-everything-twice-and-just-get-two-eggs-and-sausage routine. Next to me, two self-proclaimed regulars sat down and started chatting. It was actually really nice to see it, they were older, but they were heckling the waitress and she was heckling right back as if they were in a redneck Cheers revival. “…Wifi stopped working…called them, got some foreigner. Couldn’t understand a damned word she was sayin!” “Only in America.” Yeah. Only in America. 

At some point, I crossed into Washington. I wasn’t sure when that happened, maybe when I crossed the bridge? It’s not totally clear to me. In any case, the byway was almost empty the entire drive, I got into my campsite, nobody was there, I went to pay, and discovered, much to my joy, that it was free! (Well, the pass I had to buy cost $30), but it was nice! Unfortunately, there’s no service here in the campsite, and I’ve been working for a few hours making filters.

 

Tomorrow I’m driving early to Olympic National Park, and hopefully going on a nice long hike. Hopefully I can catch some REM cycles despite the ATVs and gunshots nearby. What is it with gun ranges and ATVs and campgrounds here?

Two Steps Back and Three Hopeful Steps Forward

Of the hundreds of bike rides I’ve been on, one stands out above all others. It was my first attempt at riding out to Stinson Beach by way of Muir Beach along Highway 1. I didn’t have an internet connection, and I hadn’t checked the elevation map beforehand, so I didn’t know what lay ahead of me. At some point, I stopped, looked at the road ahead of me, and turned back. 

Today, after months of built-up angst about my increasing weight, I got up, put on my cycling outfit, loaded the mountain bike into the car, and drove out to Tennessee Trailhead for a ride in the mountains. The trail starts out flat on paved road, eventually forking off into dirt and winding its way up 800 ft. The weather was fairly gray and cloudy, but the fog added a beautiful surrealism to the green-covered smooth hills on either side. After two weeks in the Middle East, the air felt refreshingly clean and crisp, and the sound of the crashing waves made their way through Tennessee Valley. That all felt great. What didn’t feel great were my legs and my lungs.

After the first hill, I thought I just needed to take a breather. I was hunched over my handlebars trying to catch my breath.

On to the next turn.

I barely made it up when I looked up the trail, saw the third hill coming up and had to stop again to catch my breath. When I could barely lift my leg up to my pedal to clip in and keep going, I knew the time had come. I was barely 2 miles in, and it was a 20 mile ride, and it wasn’t going to get much easier. The last time I tried mountain biking, my rear brake was stuck pretty badly, and I had an excuse. This time, I couldn’t blame anything other than my lack of exercise and increasing weight.

I’m afraid I added a new ride to the list of ever-memorable failure rides today.


Weight gain creeps up over time. I stopped being active over a year ago as I contemplated the decision to quit my job, spent a lot of time traveling, and started working on Darkroom.

I knew I had been gaining weight, but I wasn’t aware that I was losing muscle mass. A popped shirt button here and a slightly tighter fitting pair of pants there and you look back after a year noticing a meaningful difference. This trip was a sort of shock to my system because it caused a disruption to my routine. I couldn’t wear the same comfortable, broken-in pair of jeans and loose shirts anymore – I was going to a formal wedding. 

It’d been a while since I last wore my suit and dress shirts, and putting them on gave me a sense of how far I had strayed. 

For me — and I reckon a lot of people who lose a lot of weight — a constant fear had been that the weight loss was temporary. For three years I held either a downward or flat weight graph, and had been reaping the rewards, emotional, social, and physical. This weight gain over the past year is a terrifying reversal and has become a constant, ever-present source of anxiety and disappointment. 

My stubbornness against buying any clothes a size larger than what I used to comfortably wear before means I now walk around in uncomfortable new jeans, and I occasionally have to re-button a button in my shirt that popped off while I was sitting. It also means that I’m constantly walking around with a source of aggravation like an unscratchable itch. A constant reminder that I have let myself down and let go of an important part of my post-collegiate life. 

And if you know me at all, you know that I don’t take to personal failures lightly. 


The benefits of health are huge. Not least of which is the added  self confidence and positivity. It’s hard to maintain an active and spontaneous dating life without self confidence in how one feels emotionally and physically. It’s hard to remain social when the added anxiety affects ones mood.

I’m making some short term changes to change the tide and get back to a happy place. I currently weigh 185-190b. At my lowest, I clocked 170lb. I suspect that with my lost muscle mass, my weight gain is closer to 30 pounds. At 175, I felt satisfied with my weight, physically and emotionally. At 170, I was ecstatic. I imagine my efforts at weight loss will help me regain a fair amount of muscle mass, so I’m setting my target at 175 for the next 2 months.

Towards that effort, I’m going foor the low-hanging fruit for these two months: 

  • I’m reducing drinking to 1 night a week and 3 drinks maximum.
  • I’m reducing my dinner to smaller meals instead of the main meal of the day and shifting those calories towards lunch.
  • I’m starting a gym routine. I’m expecting to do a combination of running, weights, and yoga, along with weekend bike rides.
  • As far as Diet goes, I’ve already reduced my pasta/bread/rice intake, so I’ll continue that, but I’ve been pretty bad about tortillas and chips, so those will go as well.

It’s not nice to be unhappy with your health and body, but what’s less nice is denying it or not doing anything about it.

Reflexions on m 27th Year

It seems like the years follow a cycle of change and stability. Last year was relatively quiet. In 2013, not much happened apart from enjoying the ride. 2014 was different and can be broken down into three parts.

The year itself started as a continuation of the theme of 2013: Enjoying experiences and the joy of life. I took my parents on a trip to Hawaii and followed it with a winter full of skiing including a trip to Park City which turned out to be an incredible skiing experience with great people.

 

Part 1: Leaving Instagram

Early in the year, I wrote in my journal: 

I still feel scared. For years I've wanted to start my own company. I can't sit here for another 2 years and find myself looking back in regret.

Coming into the new year, I began asking myself hard questions about where I wanted to be and what I wanted to get out of my time, and I wasn’t able to answer them within Facebook & Instagram. I had a great run of personal and career growth in my time there but it stopped, and my attempts at restarting it sputtered. Eventually, the opportunity cost of time became too great, and a choice of how I wanted to spend my time became necessary.

It wasn’t an easy decision, and took a few months of mental gymnastics, back and forth, questioning and re-validating assumptions. I’m sharing the following journal entry, also written in the early months of the year, to give you a sense of the internal struggle:

To describe the past week as a roller coaster ride would be doing a disservice to the thrill engineers of the industry. I go from the deepest, most gratifying sense of self satisfaction to a deep pit of fear, anxiety and distress. Right now I'm at the bottom. My stomach feels empty, my brain has been buzzing since 7 in the morning, unable to focus on anything but the single issue: What the hell am I thinking?

At this moment, I'm convinced I won't be able to persuade anyone to work with me. I'm convinced I won't be able to come up with a worthwhile idea. I'm convinced that even if I was wrong on the last two counts, I'll still come up short on execution. 

There are currently 3 things keeping me going: The knowledge that it logically makes sense to do it, the urging of my friends who have made similar moves, and the knowledge that failure, along with this self-doubt is as common as table salt.

From my viewpoint right now, I can't imagine that the money I'm leaving on the table would be more fulfilling for me than the lessons and stories that will ensue. I know in my heart that when I look back at this decision, I will be glad I did it, glad that I took this leap of faith into a dark abyss. And yet...

Is this what entrepreneurs refer to when they talk about the pit of despair? It certainly feels like it.

That feeling of despair hung over me for months. I share this not for pity or exhibitionism, but for two reasons: The first is purely documentarian and selfish; This is, after all, my own reflection on my year. The second is to share my personal experience with anyone who may be going through a similar experience. Knowledge that a struggle – privileged as it may be – is a shared experience, has always helped me push through. In hindsight, I can look back at that fear, and though it’s still there, I can say that it was the right decision to make.

Through this experience and others this year, I’ve resigned myself to a life of perpetual imposter syndrome. To this day, I feel the pang of anxiety as a technical conversation gets underway. Will this be the conversation that outs me as incompetent? No matter what I learn, what I accomplish, or how much I grow, it’s there, forcing me to question, re-evaluate, and challenge myself. In any endeavor, trivial as it may be, the better I become, the higher my standards, the lower my ability to meet them.

Those first few months of the year weighed so heavily on me, I stopped cycling, I stopped dieting, and I became afraid of downtime. I filled my weekends with skiing, bike rides, scuba lessons, motocross lessons, camping, and travel. I cherish those experiences now, but they were distractions. Increasingly, I spent time in Google Maps Engine plotting my road trip. I was off and running.

Part 2: Travel

In late June, I bought a 1991 VW van. A couple of trips to REI later, I had it packed and ready to go. I picked up Ben at 4 AM and we headed south. I didn’t know what to expect going in. I imagined a trip where I would spend a month of solitude in the mountains, but I chickened out, and invited friends. I ended up spending only half the trip on my own, and was glad I had friend with me for the other half. I met some great people on the trip, some of whose stories I shared on this blog already. 

Today, I yearn for the clarity of mind I had on the trip, and the simplicity of life it accompanied. The Southwest was a beautiful place to be in May, and a van turned out to be just what I needed at the time. I was forced to step out into the world in a way I had never done before, and I was forced to interact with people that didn’t come naturally to me. I grew up in Syria, where the class system was more formalized. Interactions with strangers was distant. In America, interaction with strangers is the norm, a part of daily life. It takes active effort for me to put my guard down, and living in a van was a forcing function. Bob, whom I met in Death Valley, stands out to me from my travels. His life offered a pure alternative to mine, and it was refreshing to see someone dedicate themselves so wholly to their love.

I also ended up reading quite a bit on the trip. 10 books in total, and those books helped frame some of my thoughts. Specifically, Man’s Search For Meaning, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and, yes: Eat Pray Love. These books helped me think back to why I do what I do for a living, and what motivates me to do it. I think I lost sight of that at some point, and it felt good to see it again. The day took on a routine that started with breakfast, reading, cleaning, planning, packing, driving, arriving, reading, cooking, campfire, and sleep. The routine freed up time and space for even more introspection.

I arrived back in San Francisco 4 weeks later with a clear head, a slower heartbeat, and a smile on my face.

Then Ryan quit, and I had an unemployment companion. Luckily, the World Cup had just started, and we no longer had to struggle to fill our time. We both had an upcoming trip to Norway planned, and the downtime in between was spent playing pool, drinking beer, and watching soccer matches. In itself, that experience was a wonderful break from a lifelong obsession with productivity and work. 

3 weeks in however, a thought began to gnaw on me. What if my birthday blog post ended there? How would I feel about it? I decided that the story of the year ending in a bar would be disappointing. Ryan agreed, and in lieu of an actual idea, we decided to make a bet: We’d both commit to releasing an app to the app store by the release of iOS 8, and the one to make more money, wins. Clearly, neither of us released an app. However, the project that sprouted out of that bet is what keeps me busy today.

Back to travel.

We made the bet, and a week later, we picked up an Über to Oakland International Airport. 9 hours later, we landed in Oslo, and I’ll leave the recounting of what happened there to Ryan: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4. Norway was the second-best trip of my life, second only to the van trip. The recall of what those hikes felt like sends me nostalgically back to the mountains and the grass and the snow and those ringing sheep.

A couple of weeks in Norway and Ryan headed back stateside, and I made my way to Amsterdam, Paris, then Detroit. Those last three destinations passed in a blur as I frantically worked on my project. It had been so long since I’d been so thoroughly engrossed at work, it was like rediscovering it all over again. The pride, the ownership, the challenge, and the rewards were intoxicating. I made it back to San Francisco with a working prototype. 

Part 3: Back to Work

Stay tuned.

15,000 Words: Days Two and Three – Logistics

For lunch, I got a “Woody Allen” from Carnegie Deli: A monstrous pile of pastrami with a couple of pieces of bread to hold it together and some sauce to lubricate all that meal down your throat. It’s a typical New York place, with the autographed headshots of celebrities lining the walls, and people with attitude serving you. Couldn’t have asked for anything better. Half way through the sandwich the stomach cramps started and my body was wondering what post-apocalyptic situation had transpired in which the only food left was pastrami.

Lunch time in Manhattan should be its own tourist attraction. 1.6 million people need to be fed at least three times every day in a (relatively) tiny area. You can be at Central Park at 11 AM and see people eating. Walk south for an hour, and watch people eating on every corner. Hop in the subway and get out at the southern tip, and people are still eating. How does all that food get distributed? My god, there must be thousands of stores, restaurants, streets carts, and other food vendors in Manhattan.  Assuming that most of these vendors need to restock daily, and ignoring the production of the food, my brain spins trying to imagine all the trucks with delivery schedules and boxes of food. How does it stay fresh? How do you have time to deliver? It’s like Santa trying to deliver gifts to all the children on christmas eve, it’s a logistical magic trick!

Then there’s the water. I bent over to drink a sip of water from the water fountain in the Public Library. How did that water get to that fountain? Where did it come from? 1.6 million people drinking about a gallon of water every day, apart from showering, cleaning, cooking, and waste. Just how big is that reservoir? How have New Yorkers not drank all the water in the ti-state region by now? 

Anywho, my stomach was hurtin’ from all that pastrami, and I needed to walk it off. Down Fifth Avenue I went, careful to stay away from the sunny side of the street. Considering the improbability of actually seeing the sun in the slot canyon that is Manhattan, it wasn’t very hard to do. 


I have mixed feelings about traveling alone. On the one hand, having complete freedom over my schedule is freeing, on the other, it can get lonely. Yesterday was the former. Walking around aimlessly, my mind drifts in and out of consciousness, prompted by its visual stimuli. These few days in New York have been really helpful for me. You see, my brain operates like Wario from Mario Kart 64. It’s slow to start, but when it starts, it moves with the inertia of a freight train. That is, it takes a bit of effort for me to commit to a task. However, once the commitment is made and the motivation budgeted, context switching becomes really expensive. This modus operandi lends itself to bouts of forgetfulness and single-mindedness. Just ask my Mom to tell you stories of me getting onto the school bus and leaving my bag on the street, or stories of walking into a lunch joint at 10:30 in the morning and wondering where people are. 

New York has restarted my brain. Sure, I get excited about work after doing a demo and I’ll wanna sit at a Starbucks and crank some code out, but the Starbucks’ in Manhattan don’t have seating, and meeting people usually involves public transportation across the boroughs, a task I’m very inefficient at. All of which involves me walking a lot (Averaging 7 miles a day). I left San Francisco concerned, and I haven’t had a chance to dwell in New York.

15,000 Words: Day One

Day One.

It’s hard to write given a deadline. All my writing has been driven by emotional spurts, pouring out in-the-moment, raw. So why am I sitting in the dark, cross legged in my friend’s apartment in New York City, wondering what to write about? Some context may be in order for the first installment of “15,000 Words”.

I’ve been feeling overwhelmed recently. In starting a company, my brain is on overdrive, from the moment I regain consciousness from sleep, till I lose it back to sleep. Mostly: engineering, design, and project management occupy the brain. However, more and more brain cycles are consumed by tangential thoughts, and insights are being gained without being articulated. What follows is my attempt to navigate this new environment.

I’ll be talking here about the industry, trends I see, and biases I observe. Some politics may find its way here, but it’ll (hopefully) be carefully treaded. I’ll talk about the process of starting a company, my challenges along the way, but I have yet to determine the level of detail to get into.


So here I sit, having just spent an evening of sober karaoke (see my FB feed for that explanation) with a bunch of my ex-coworkers. This isn’t technically my first time in New York City: A couple of years ago I spent 4 days here for Electric Zoo, but half that time was spent on an isolated island, and the other half was spent wandering. Not quite enough time to say you’ve “been” to a place. This is the first time I spend a whole week here with a purpose.

The first indication that I’m in a different place, right off the airplane, was the diversity. San Francisco, or at least my exposure to it, is not a very diverse place compared to NYC. From the African lady who sold me my bottle of water to the Sikh Uber driver to the large group of Hassidic Jews in the arrivals terminal, this is not a place to be painted with a broad brush. One lady in particular stood out to me in the terminal. She was an older lady – I would place her in the 70s – was sitting next to a similarly older gentleman in a Yamaka. She had a tight black flapper hat on, bright red lipstick, and a black dress. She looked perfectly composed, and perfectly authentic, in a way no costumed-outfit can look.

In the cab, watching the city pass by, Manhattan’s skyline lit up in the distance, you begin to feel it. New York doesn’t feel like a place to settle to me, it feels like a place to fight. Like the driver told me: “I don’t like it here, I’m not comfortable. You can make a lot of money here, but you can’t be comfortable.” Those words rang true for me. You can feel it in the bricks here. This city was built on the backs of industrialists, tycoons, and political bosses. This place has a buzz. Nobody has time for your shit. I like that. The city feels like it’s posing a question to me: “What you got, punk?”

In Two Places at the Same Time

I think he had a thing for me. The fidgeting with the necklace, the puppy-eyed stares, the head nod to the side as he said “Oh you’re too funny.” I’d chock it up to cultural differences but I know quite a few Dutch people and they’re – well they are artsy types – but they like their Dutch women and their macho attitude. I was happy to indulge the Airport’s Tourist information clerk, and he was more than happy to indulge me with information, gently dropping hints like “Oh that’s where I live” and offering me tips on how to cross the river to that side of town. 

Normally I’m cranky at Airports, but this was a pleasant flight. It was one of those two hour where-did-the-time-go flights. More of a commute between San Francisco and the South Bay than an international flight from Oslo to Amsterdam. I kept trying to find the cranky passport agent who’s going to give me shit about my Syrian past, but a right and a left after the tourist office had me standing on a train platform.

I’d been worried about explaining to the passport agent why I’m flying in alone, without a place to stay, without a plan of what to do or who to see, without even a reason for why I’m visiting other than “I thought it might be neat.” Luckily for me, there was no passport agent to explain anything to, and by the time I landed, the AirBnB I had requested right before my flight went through. I had to pick up the key from the host’s friend in Amstel, a station 20 minutes of public transportation away from the apartment. 

So here I am, standing in by the train platform, waiting for the train that the ticket machine assured me would get me to Amstel station, wondering why my train’s information on the information screen is greyed out, when everything else is in white and blue. 

“psssssshhh” The PSA system comes on, says a few sentences in Dutch, of which I pick up the name of my train, followed by an English translation gently and softly informing us that my train won’t be coming. Up I go to the train information kiosk. Central Station is where I need to go, then transfer to platform 4B. Very well then, back down I go to the same platform, waiting for the train. It arrives, I get in, fate held in the hands of an overworked information agent.

Waiting for the train, I was feeling anxious. I wasn’t feeling anxious about the delay or having to figure out how a new public transpiration system worked, I had no doubt I’ll get what I needed to get done worked out. I was feeling anxious because for the past two weeks I’d started working on a startup, and it has perpetually grown to consume me. Hiking in Norway, I was thinking of names, analyzing market placement, scrutinizing my value proposition, and reassessing my assumptions. 

Working on the Airplane, I was making the sort of progress that makes us programmers look closer to the movie representation than anything else: The kind of work in which you can visualize the entire picture of everything that needs to be done, knowing exactly which files to edit in which way, what code to write and what pictures to draw, and you have to go through the rather mundane process of writing it down in code. Working in that mode, an innocent bystander might see an extremely focused person, frowning their brows slightly as they type at an approximate speed of 90-100 words per minute, bobbing their feet up and down on their balls as the caffeine attempts to manifest its energy in physical motion. To interrupt that, say by an airplane landing, is to cause a disruption in the brain that’s a bit hard to explain to people who doesn’t work using their brain.

When a programmer is in their flow, they’re thinking not about what they’re doing – They’ve already thought about that minutes before – but they’re thinking about what needs to happen next. They’re also thinking about how the next task fits into a larger system that has to work together. In the head of a programmer working in their flow, a bystander wouldn’t see 1s and 0s streaming by nor would they see ifs elses and switches. Rather, they’d see boxes and arrows, systems constructing themselves and interlocking the teeth of gears together. To be snapped out of that is to introduce a dissonance between the necessity of physical existence and the many unsolved problems in the head.

So I was sitting in the train, anxious, waiting to get back to an internet connection and a power supply so I dump out the half-built system in my head. The train arrives, I find platform 4B, hop on the next train, and on to Amstel I go. By this time, I’m confronted with the reality of having not had a bite in about 10 hours. My host’s friend is waiting for me, I’m in a bit of a rush. Two stops into the ride, we arrive at Amstel, I get off, get on wifi, fire of a message to my host’s friend, and two minutes later I’m standing in the station alone again with my apartment-for-the-week’s key in my hand. Now I have to get to the actual apartment. 

The overly-friendly and interested information agent at the Airport had printed out instructions for me to take the 65 bus north. I go down, try to find the bus, and struggle to find a bus stop. I talk to a friendly young couple who pull out their iPhones and use it to give me an 8-step process of getting home.  Lacking in alternatives, I head back to the station, increasingly agitated and hungry, with no way to head home. On my way in, I find the 65 pull in. Apparently I had to go a few feet forward to find the sign. I ask the driver if he goes to my stop, and he shakes his head negatively, points up above the hill to his left, and says that’s where the northbound bus stop is. I look, see a 65 stopped there, and break into a sprint. I get there huffing and puffing, step into the bus, then, and only then, realize I have no bus ticket. Lacking in alternatives once again, I head back to the station.

Thankfully, there happened to be a lady in an orange vest walking around with an “i” on her back. I explain my predicament to her, at this point carrying a yogurt and a sandwich, eagerly awaiting the first quiet moment to gobble them down, and she points me to the bus ticket machine. First card doesn’t work. Second card doesn’t work. Ok, no train ticket for me. As a last resort, she points me towards the ATM. First try, the debit card finally works, and out comes 20€, my ticket home.

I get home, walk in, turn on the bedroom light, unpack my laptop, connect to the internet, and 4 hours later, at 2AM, I lie down on the bed, finally with the system transcribed into code, working, and my brain clear.

Conversations, Conspiracies and Conservatives

Three and a half weeks in, the routines became rituals, and the amount of decisions that need to be made slowly declined. Whereas my morning routines used to involve thirty minutes of phone time as soon as I woke up, followed by an automated shower, a trip to the local cafe for a latté and a pastry, then the drive to work, my new routine involves rushing out of the 30˚ sleeping bag into the 35˚ ambient temperature, popping open the stove and the pantry to get the oatmeal and the coffee prepared as soon as possible, using the heat from the stove to warm up the van and my Little Buddy (a brilliantly named propane-powered space heater I picked up early last week) to warm me up. 

It’s a good morning this way, I don’t mind the cold really, it’s the heat that kills me and agitates me. Usually by the time breakfast is done, the windows are fogged by the heat, the van is cozy, and I get to sit and enjoy breakfast along with my homegirl Fairuz. Pack the bed, do the dishes, brush my teeth, adjust the solar panel, and my reward is two-to-three of uninterrupted reading time in the one sunny spot between the trees.

So I wake up, perform the morning ritual which has become a starting marker on my day, get in the van, and head over to Convict Lake. I’d seen Gregg Boydston whom I’ve been following for a while on Instagram shared photos from there which made the place amazing. 

One the way, I pass through the town of Bishop. On the main street, I come across a Vanagon, parked at an angle towards the street. Cool! I get closer, and see a Vanagon pull out of the parking lot. Huh, that’s weird, you don’t see that many in one place. I get next to the place, and in front me, the clouds parted and the light shined like it had never shone before. The music radiated like it had never played before, and no less than fifteen Vanagons sat side by side, with a shop window open. A Vanagon Specialist.

Coming across a Vanagon specialist on a trip is like coming across a coffeeshop that has freshly ground Kenyan beans drip-poured after a month of drinking Folgers. It’s like finding an Aspirin when all you’ve been given are slaps on the face to make you focus your pain on another part of your body. It’s like coming across a specialist after 5 mechanics reach to the back of the bottom drawer trying to find something, anything, that would fit that weird hose your van has, regardless of origin or compatibility.

I pull in, my spirits riding high. I walk in, there’s nobody there. I look around, shit. Fox News is playing on the TV. At this point, my beard has grown over an inch, and I’ve gotten into the habit of twirling the end of my mustache as I drive, making me look like a Turkish Basha with an ear for downtempo electronic music, out camping. I wonder how this is going to go.

Five minutes of idle chatter with another waiting customer, the shop owner arrives and jumps right in: “What year is that? What’s going on?” “It’s a ’91, my headlight switch melted, I got a replacement, but I don’t have the connector. Can you help me out?” We chat, he doesn’t have the part, but he might be able to find it for me. We move on to talk about engines, I mention a Subaru engine conversion that people do to their vans which more than doubles the horsepower, but isn’t smog-legal in California. I joke that I just need to find a nice Arab smog certifier and chat with him about the homeland and as soon as I said those words his brain clicked into high gear, he stood up, got a smile on his face, excited about what’s to come.

“Are you a liberal?”

Huh, that came out of nowhere.

“Uhh, yeah, you could say that”

He takes this as a cue to jump into a 10 minute tirade on the hypocrisy of liberalism, how the other states that don’t have smog rules are sharing the air with us and how we’re creating an uneven playing field, how the Indians on the reservation next door charge the same price but pay less for gas, how abortion is immoral, how immigrants need to be stopped.

How he jumped from one conclusion to the other was amazing to me. I was more impressed than anything, I wanted to give him a pat and the back and congratulate him on TV well watched, but at the mention of immigration I perked up myself. I knew what was about to happen, it’s happened many times.

“If we closed down immigration I wouldn’t be here”

“Where did you come from?”

“Syria”

“Did you come here legally?”

“Yeah”

“See you did it right!”

“Do you realize how much time it takes and how much money it costs to come here legally? It took us fifteen years, and many thousands of dollars.”

At this point, the conversation usually turns to some variant of “If you’re too poor to come, you shouldn’t come”. My mention of Syria as my place of origin usually takes a couple of minutes to register and locate on the hazy, foggy mental map of the world, and then the mention of Islam comes. This is my favorite part.

“I’m not Muslim, I’m Catholic Christian.”

I love being Catholic. It’s not like being an Orthodox, a Protestant, or any other obscure offshoot. No. I’m fuckin Catholic, bro. The Pope is my homeboy, what you got on me? It’s like someone assuming you’re not driving an American car and you tell them it’s a Ford. It’s the most blunt of Christian beliefs. 

He gets confused at the introduction of nuance and realism into the stark black & white vision of the world, and the conversation ends with:

“I’ll tell you the best argument against abortion.” – Somehow we were back on this topic – “I was adopted, if I had been aborted, I wouldn’t be here working on your van”. Point actually well made, I wanted to give him a hug for deciding to specialize in Vanagons. 

I don’t want to give off the wrong impression. The commentary in that section of the story is not how I felt, it was how I reacted in my head. In truth, I side much more heavily on the liberal end of the spectrum, but I believe in nuance. Nothing in the world is black & white, and people are neither strictly right nor wrong, especially in these areas of debate and belief. I also don’t think arguing with someone on these topics is worthwhile. We’d be arguing at the leaf nodes of the logic tree, not the root, where we disagree. It doesn’t matter what you think about Obamacare, abortion, religion, immigration. I want to have a conversation about human nature, what our tendencies are, how you prioritize and weigh factors in your life. That’s the difference, not right or wrong, just different priorities.

Unfortunately, he didn’t have time to work on my van and I didn’t have time to wait. Slightly dismayed but more amused, I continued up the eastern foothill of the Eastern Sierras, showing my van Sierra the backside of her namesake. “You think this is cool,” I told her, “Just wait till you see what’s on the other side of the peak!”

Weird things happen to objects when you name them. Ever seen bestowing my van with a name, I’ve felt a kinship toward it. Yes she has a temperament, and yes she’s needy, but I can’t help spoiling her. She has trouble up the hills. You see, she’s only got 90 horsepower, and coming up a mountain pass, she’ll pull a hearty thirty, and on a downhill, she’ll pull a lively seventy. The problem with going thirty uphill though, is that the heat starts overpowering the wind’s ability to cool the engine, and the heat starts to scare me, after what happened in Death Valley. So I scratch her in her favorite spot, that little patch of soft metal right above the driver’s side window but below the windowsill, and I comfort her. I open up the heater on full blast, and I start: “You can do it, baby, just two more turns, you can see the peak, there it is, see that sign? Come on, Come on – HEY PASS ME MAN I DON’T HAVE A TURNAROUND! – it’s ok baby, it’s not your fault, it’s coming up, it’s coming up! HEY! Summit, 7,800 feet! YOU DID IT!”

I arrive, spending the whole trip looking for some dispersed camping in the many national forests around that area to no avail. I find a campground sign near convict lake, turn into it, find a spot, take a swig of whiskey after finding out it’s $25 per night (relatively, even a nice spot on this trip would’ve cost me $15, most were free). I find a spot, park, open the door, and immediately I hear “Hello neighbor!”. I look around through to trees to find the campground host on a chair outside her RV waving. I head over, wanting to know about some of the hikes and the area around. She’s new, but she has maps and packets which she lends me to read over. Her name is Christy, and there’s a guy there, shirtless, bald, muscular, with shorts and a pair of skater shoes on. His name is Jay. He was from London.

I ask them where I can go to get a good steak and some fresh Asparagus, then he silently goes in and fetches me a pork steak and some asparagus. Huh, how awfully kind! “How much do you want for it?” “Nothing mate, just enjoy!” “How about a trade?” “I’ll tell you what, you get the beer, and I’ll grill the steak.” Sound good to me! Off I went with them, slightly disappointed by him putting on a shirt. Suddenly we looked less like an Arab and a Skinhead walking together and looked more like an Arab and a punk English man walking together, much less poetic. 

Anyway, we walk over, some idle chatter later, the steaks are done, we eat, we drink, we feel good, and then they mention Chemtrails while I was dozing off a bit. “Chemtrails? What are those?” Jay and Christy proceed to explain the conspiracy theory to me, I’ll leave the explanation as an exercise to the reader. Out of this conversation follow a few more conspiracy theories: Capitalism, Religion, Society, TV. I’m fascinated by this topic of conversation and want it to keep going on. I’ve never met anyone who believed in those theories, and I wanted to find out more, but the beer was working its way and I lost focus. We started feeding the chipmunks. 

I woke up the next day, said goodbye to Jay and Christy, and took Sierra up towards Tahoe. One mountain pass later which Sierra championed, we descended into the casinos of the California-Nevada border in southern Lake Tahoe. Through the casinos were $35 campgrounds, tall thick pines, clear blue lakes, 5pm rush hour traffic, overpriced rent, overcrowded brunch, and home. Home sweet home.

Elevation: Sea Level

Waking up to the sound of generators and crying children in a puddle of sweat wasn’t high on my list for the trip. 75 degrees at 7am does weird things to me, I get irritable and frustrated. It was becoming increasingly clear to me that my plan of spending the day kayaking in Lake Mead wasn’t really going to pan out. I needed to get the hell out of the desert, as soon as possible. I had my fan blowing hot air in my face, the window down with hot air hitting my side, and the blasting sun glaring down the left side of my body, stuck by the adhesive force of sweat to my shirt and seat. I wasn’t happy. 

The fastest way out into the Sierra Nevada – my van’s namesake – where elevation, sweet sweet pine trees, and shade were waiting for me, was through Death Valley.

I didn’t know much about the valley, but it was May and the summer hasn’t hit in earnest, and I’m just going to blast through the damned thing anyway, my baby’s got this, Sierra can make it. Or so I thought.

Little did I know that the heat wave hits hard and fast in the valley. Little did I know that this was the weekend it hit. Little did I know that the valley was a valley because it was surrounded by 5,000 ft mountains. Little did I know that Sierra would have to struggle, at 25 mph, up a steep hill, for half an hour. Little did I know that Sierra, at 2,000 feet, after two and a half hours of driving in the noon sun, would start dipping its RPMs, Little did I know that Sierra as a matter of fact, wouldn’t be able to make it. 

Well, here I was. Heat unlike any heat I’ve ever felt. The only saving grace was that my cowboy hat was just wide enough for its noon-shade to cover my body. Only my feet were exposed, and if I leaned just right, the shadow of my body covers those as well. It was a good look, as you can imagine.

Out of options and signal range, I flag down a car, ask them to take me to the visitor center so I can call AAA. This awesome Swiss couple stops for me, gives me a ride to the nearest gas station, drop me off, where I proceed to find out that the phones are down. Ok, cool. I described my situation to them and they tell me I broke down not 200 ft from a ranger station I didn’t see ’cause I was monitoring my RPMs. 

Ok, time to hitch a ride back. I got this, I don’t look like one of those bums who hitch rides on the side of the highway. No, I’m an educated professional from a good family, people will stop. 

You never empathize with hitchhikers until you find yourself stranded looking for a ride. I’m sure if any of the people just stopped for me to tell them what’s up they’d realize I just needed a lift 15 miles on the single road I know they’re going to go on (there are no turns on the 190). 

I walk up the road to a restaurant, where I found my first thermometer of the day. 116 degrees. In the shade. One of the employees gives me a ride back to the car, I give him $10 for gas money, put the van in neutral, and roll back down the hill to the ranger station.

Ain’t no ranger in the ranger station, pay phone doesn’t work. Ok well, I have only one option: Hope that the breakdown happened because of the build up of heat, hope that the evening will cool down enough for me to attempt to cross the pass the next day. Off to the campground 100 feet away I go, I turn right, I’m the only car in the 12-spot gravel campground. I park the van so it provides shade for me, sit down, and start reading. 

In pulls a couple of cars, a couple of people walk out, and I strike a conversation with one of them. Solitude doesn’t seem to have the effect of introspection on me, it seems to just make me more likely to approach strangers and have a conversation. The urge to talk apparently doesn’t leave me when I’m in the wild. After I talk to one of them, he goes back to join the other, and proceeds to tell him in detail everything that just happened. Huh, they’re being pretty loud, I can hear everything they’re saying 70 feet away.
 

They invite me over to chat, I sit down and find out they’re writing a book together on the mines around Death Valley. Turns out this place is chocked full of late-19th and early 20th century history dating from 1849 when the first white people came and gave it its name, till the 20’s and 30’s toward the end of the gold rush era. It also turns out that they’re called Richard and Bob. I immediately find out the cause of their conversation volume: Bob is old and bad at hearing. Bob gingerly drops the fact that he first started coming to Death Valley as a teenager in the mid-30s. The Middle of the 1930s! He was a teenager! That means he’s in his 90’s! The man has seen the development of the national park system, World War II, The Korean War, Vietnam, The Internet, the raging 60s, The growth of cars and the highway! And at his old age, he’s still backcountry camping in the desert. Man oh man, what a guy! He drinks his water from a tin cup, he wears wool pants, his shoes are worn down to his socks, his wrinkles tell the story of more than 80 years of ceaseless exploration. It was like sitting next to John Muir, I had so many questions to ask, I was overloaded and just stared in admiration.

When I asked him what his story was, he started “I’ve been single all my life” – No wonder he still has his vitality. When I asked him what his secret was, he said “I eat right, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, and I am thankful for the creator, you gotta do right by the creator”. No kidding! I asked him what the biggest change he’s seen in society, and immediately he replies: “Divorce! And Graffiti! And Tattoos!”. Huh, didn’t expect that. I was expecting him to say something about how technology is separating us and people don’t interact with each other anymore, to which he replies: “I love the internet, I use it, and I keep in touch with Richard over email and share photos with him”. My god, this man is my idol. 

By this time, the sun began setting, the valley started taking on a pink hue, the cloud took an orange glow on their underbellies, and the setting sun through the shadows of the mountains down into the valley, 2000ft below us. When you stop and clear your head, Death Valley really is an amazing place. There was not a single sound to be heard in the middle of the park, other than the whooshing of the leaves in a nearby tree. Richard tells me the moon won’t show up tonight and we’ll get to see The Milky Way. I get excited. Richard has been stargazing all his life and knows all the constellations and points them out to me, I corroborate on my iPhone, and sure enough, there’s Mars, Saturn, Venus, Scorpio, and on and on. At about 10:30, the Milky Way glows in its majesty, we all grow quiet and think about the reality of what that milky white strip is, what it represents, and watch it grow from a small bow near the horizon to a large strip above our heads. I set my alarm for every hour, sleep outside my van on my sleeping bag, glad for life, glad for my new friends, inspired by Bob, and respectful of Sierra, who once again taught me that the landscape is only a setting, not the story. The story is with the people who know the area, who can point out its history and know it like a good friend.

I woke early at 6am by the light of dusk, packed quickly, turned the key, backed the van, and out I went, Sierra now satisfied in my lesson for the day, took me up and over the first pass, down the second valley, up the second pass. On one of the last turns, I find a Joshua Tree! Around the bend, about twenty more Joshua Trees! As I crest the top and tilt back down, I see the mountainside spiked with these gorgeous trees, lifting their arms up to the sky, thanking the sky for the water and the sun that gives them life. I’m out of Death Valley now, ahead of me, The Sierras shoot out from the valley floor. I’m looking at Mt. Whitney now. It’s rocky and barren on this side, but I know what’s on the other side. Home is on the other side.

Holy Smokes!

“Hey, you smell that?” I asked.
“Smell what?”
“There’s a burning smell man! Something’s burning!” I yelled.
“Relax, it’s probably coming from the outside. Stop freaking out.” Ben tried to calm me.

I’ve never known myself to be an anxious person. I’ve always considered myself a happy-go-lucky kinda fellow, not afraid to make fun of myself, and not sweating the little stuff. That was before I started hanging out with people who speed through thick trees on steep slopes on snowboards, and before I drove into a thunderstorm in the high plains of Utah in a van containing everything I own, 100 miles from the nearest service shop, and 400 miles from the nearest specialist.

But Ben wasn’t thinking about all that when he asked me to stop freaking out. He’d been thinking about that time earlier in the day when we stopped by the Kayak rental shop in Page, Arizona to return our two kayaks. We’d spent the day paddling around Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border, going around the Lone Rock and climbing the sandstones around Wahweap.

We unload the kayaks, small talk our way around the van with the storeowner who wants to learn more about Sierra. “Here, come check out the back.” I lead him around the passenger side towards the back, when I glance down. “Fuck.” Sierra has diarrhea: Green-tinted goo is leaking out of her back side. My first thought was that it must’ve been wiper fluid, what else is green in a car? A quick Google search revealed what it actually was: Coolant. Shit, that’s not good. Four days into the trip, this was the first problem I encountered with the van. It won’t be the last. 

There’s an ironically beautiful reduction that happens when you encounter a car problem on the road. “Whelp, I can’t go anywhere, and I don’t know how to fix this.” Suddenly your priorities become very clear, and the options dwindle down and you know exactly what you need to do. It’s actually kind of nice, fate is in the driver’s seat. We ask the storeowner if there are auto shops he recommends nearby, he recommends Eagle Automotive. We call them up, they can take us, we breath a sigh of relief, turn Sierra on, drive her slowly monitoring the temperature gauge. It’s only a 2 mile drive and we get there in no time. 

When we arrive, we encounter the shop owner, an older gentleman with a belly and a voice thickened with decades of heavy smoking, and a younger guy working as an understudy. As we pull in, we overhear the owner chastising the employee, explaining to him what “We’re overbooked means”. Phew, glad we got the right guy on the phone. We tell him our story and he takes us in. The employee who’s working on Sierra looks like a real rough kid. He’s got the goatee, the attitude, and the burly build. For ten minutes though, he was arguing with the shop owner: By hell or high-water, he will not go down into the pit to work on the car: There’s a spider there, and he’s mortified of spiders. He puts me on watch: “Listen man, keep an eye on that little fucker, if he moves, look where he’s going. I’m going to get a spray”. Five minute later he comes back with an industrial grade insect spray. “Hey man, there are two spiders now, they’re right over there.” He doubles down with fear, cautiously steps down the stairs one at a time, and proceeds to make it rain down on the two spiders a flood of anger, fear, and concentrated hatred of bug spray. If the spray didn’t kill them, they would’ve drowned in the pool of toxins, poor things. They were pretty big though, to be fair.

The guy working on the van turned out to be a fascinating character. Ben and I had been wondering how people manage to end up in places like Page, and why they stay. He casually informed us that he was a local felon and that it’s really hard to find jobs as a felon. We also informed us that he, as a half-Navajo, doesn’t really like the Navajo people and that the Navajo people themselves don’t like a lot of other tribes. He said they were pretentious and always acted like you owed them something. His broad generalizations of the Navajo people rung in my head throughout the trip as I criss-crossed through the Navajo Nation. Most of my interactions rubbed me the wrong way with them. In most of them, there was an emanating sense of apathy and lethargy as they dealt with us, whether we were buying a tour for Antelope Canyon, paying the entrance fee to Monument Valley, or just ordering lunch. As a victims of generalizations, I try to not to generalize, but what I describe was a common theme among most, though not all, of my interactions.

30 minutes of waiting later, the guy found the problem and managed to fix it: It was an old rubber cap on an old plastic hose that had frayed and eroded and was leaking badly because of the heat. They got it worked out and off we went, Steinbeck’s Travels With Charlie playing through the stereo, on the road towards Moab where Ben had a flight to catch the next day. 

Six hours later, we were 20 miles south of Moab, making good progress, we turn left at the Canyonlands National Park sight to get to the campsite for the night. For the past couple of hours, it had been raining, and it got late into the night. The closer we got to Moab, the harder the rain fell, the darker it got, and the closer the thunder got. When we turned left, the thunder was ahead of us. The more we drove, the more it became clear that we were driving head on into the heart of the storm. Vanagons are known to have weak headlights, so we couldn’t really tell what was happening too far ahead and around us. Every time the thunder clapped, the world was illuminated for a few milliseconds, just enough for us to see why it was called Canyonlands. Ahead of us was some of the most epic, majestic scenery I had ever seen. It was made more epic because of the dark, roar of the thunder, and the rain, but it was a humbling feeling. It was easy to miss the Open Range sign in that majesty, which accounted for the herd of cows sleeping by the side of the road. “WOAH LOOK OUT!” Ben yelled. I quickly turned, the glowing eyes staring at me, paralyzed with fear, I swerved left slightly, passing a the cow as its upper body wanted to turn away, but the paralyzed legs wouldn’t respond, so it stood there, taut, leaning right, looking right at me. Thankfully we were going about 30 at the time, and drove past the rest of the herd going 15.

Steinbeck had been contemplating the soul or America when the bad smell started. Ok, fine Ben, it’s coming from the outside. Two minutes later, the smell was persistent, and getting worse. “Shit man I’m not feeling good about it, I’m going to pull over.” We wait for the next pullout a few hundred feet ahead, pull over, turn the van on, my heart thumping and a lump in my throat: Smoke. 

Ben rushes back to get the fire extinguisher, I get out of the van in the muddy, rain-filled ground trying to figure out where the smoke is coming from, can’t find it anywhere. That’s actually a good sign: The engine is in the back and there aren’t any flames. I get back inside, pop open the instrument cluster, and the smoke pours out. So that’s where it was. Once I let the smoke out, it stops, and things settle down. For the first time we have time to think. I pull out the shop manual for the van, and dumbly rummage through it, unable to comprehend anything I’m looking at. 

We decide we can’t camp where we are both because of the rain and because of the location. We also decide that we need to get Ben into Moab so he can at least get a cab to the airport. Ok, let’s take stock. The smoke came out from the instrument cluster, so it’s not mechanical, nor is it the engine or the brakes. It must’ve been electrical. I turn the key, the engine starts. Let it idle, nothing happens. Ok, let’s try going forward. I try to turn the headlights on, nothing. The headlight switch is stuck, it won’t even turn. I try the turn signals, they work, I try the high beams, they work, but I can’t use the headlight switch. By this time, we had reasoned that because this was the first time we used the headlights, they must’ve overheated something in the instrument cluster and melted it. 

We decided to drive into Moab, relying on the high beams. I try to click the high beams into the on position, and they don’t hold. Shit, I’m going to have to hold the level up for the next 25 miles. It’s fine, I think, we’ll be there shortly. What proceeded was the most terrifying 30 minutes of driving in my life. My middle finger kept getting tired and loose and the high beams would go off, leaving us driving 50mph in the dark for a split second in the rain. Trucks would pass and throw a shower of rain into us, smothering the high beams. I slow down, take it easy and safe, and roll into Moab, turn right into the Motel, make soup in the back, check into the smoking room, and call it a night. The cows were still there on the drive back.

Note: What we did was stupid in hindsight. We should’ve camped the night and not driven with the high beams. It was stupid and reckless.