Teachers in grade school sometimes stooped to a call for essays on the theme, "What I Did This Summer Vacation." We’d crank out a stack of hackneyed response and another year of public education was officially underway. There must be a zillion better topics. And yet, although I have worked my way down the neck and well into the shoulders of a bottle of Islay malt (which generally shakes the cranky muse snoring at the base of my skull), there seems to be nothing to say apart from… What I Did This Summer Vacation.
For one thing, I spent two months staying away from politics — no news, no computer, no furrowed brow. It felt good, even though it’s impossible to get around Mourid Barghouti’s remark that, "Staying away from politics is also politics." Vacation started with my family and me flying from Muscat to Chicago. I am always a little nervous flying to the Great Satan. My wife is not precisely an Islamo-fascist, but she is an Arab, and I have an Axis of Evil visa lurking in my passport. The customs guy at O’Hare, however, was a model of civility. "God Bless the Great Satan!" I thought, and we went to look for our luggage.
Lots of good things happened in America, from a family reunion in Iowa to a visit with friends in Colorado. But I would like to propose a particular toast to Alamo Car Rental. Their people were impeccably polite and helpful. In no time we were on the road in a Chevrolet Nondescript, which ran fine and didn’t use much gas. Two weeks later I elected to take the Nondescript on an all-nighter from Colorado back to Chicago in order to savor the smaller national roads at night. At two in the morning somewhere outside McCook, Nebraska the Nondescript encountered a raccoon. In the old days, back when I was driving a 1968 Dodge Polaris, for example, the score for car-coon encounters was unfailingly Car 1, Roadkill 0.
The score this time was nil-nil. The martyred coon had taken out the Nondescript’s toy radiator, and before long the temperature light went on. I pulled over, turned the motor off, and sat in pitch darkness listening to rain on the roof and the Islamo-fascist growling of my wife, who has never understood the wisdom of all-nighters. Once the motor had a chance to cool, I drove on another ten minutes until the temperature light reappeared. I pulled over, turned the motor off, waited half an hour, drove on, pulled over. This pattern was repeated until we reached a crossroads town and checked into a motel just in time for breakfast.
"Now for the hard part," I thought, and called Alamo. I was having paranoid visions of police reports, photographs, forms, forensic analyses of coon hair… "Hmh!" the woman on the other end said in a mildly interested tone once I’d got the story out. "Durn coon. We’ll send another car just as soon as we can." And they did, and there wasn’t any hassle. The notion might draw some stiff resistance from Those Who Know Better, but it occurs to me that there would be certain advantages to excising the federal wart on the eastern lip of the nation, moving the capital to Kansas, and giving any reputable car rental agency a crack at running the republic. Whatever, here’s to Alamo!
We attended Fourth of July fireworks in Chicago with friends and flew to London, where I got right to work on the Piss Artist Special, an ongoing piece of performance art, the self-guided tour of the city I’ve been trying to perfect for a number of years now. To do the PAS, you need a plastic bag for sandwiches, a bottle of water, and a pocket size London A-Z. You also need 20 pounds. Buy a one-day bus pass and board the first double-decker you see. Avoid the constipated entrails of London — no Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, Oxford Street, or Madame Tussaud’s. Go to places like Canada Water, Hounslow, Harrow, Brixton, Peckham, Honour Oak, St. John’s Wood, Sunbury, Hammersmith, Harlesden, Wapping, Spitalfields, Highgate, Shepherd’s Bush, Twickenham, Wandsworth, Woolwich, Battersea… Sit up top in the front, soak in the city, and let intuition determine whether to ride to the end of the line, hop out, change buses, walk, visit a museum, and how and where to invest your remaining 17 pounds (the bus pass will have set you back three).
There are a few pubs in London market areas that open at dawn. The PAS MAL (full name: Piss Artist Special — Meandering About London) is thus likely to lead you to Southwark or Smithfield for an early investment opportunity. But if you care to hold on, the first pint of the tour can wait until 11:00 a.m., standard opening hours. Whatever route you choose, your money should fetch 7 pints at today’s prices, enough to return to base with a renewed sense of the goodness of life. It was a PAS MAL that brought to my attention a sign that read: "Dogs Will Be Allowed on This Bus at Driver’s Discretion." These words are not remarkable in allowing four-legged animals on buses, given the British cult of the dog. What is remarkable is the expectation that a two-legged animal should have discretion, and should be granted the freedom to use it. This is nothing less than a sign of hope, literally, that the human race might yet muster enough horse sense to make it to 2010 without going extinct.
I’m skipping a lot of things to get to the best part of my summer vacation — two weeks on St. Kilda, the tiny group of westernmost Hebridean islands, just visible from Harris on a clear day. There is evidence of human habitation on St. Kilda from at least 3,000 B.C. In 1930, the last islanders were evacuated by the British government. Maintaining a human community in that remote place had become untenable for a variety of reasons, but the story in a nutshell is the familiar one — Those Who Knew Better seemed almost to resent the existence of a group of people who didn’t fit their idea of progress. In 1697 the St. Kildans (population 180) were described as a happy, resourceful, prosperous, self-sufficient community. A few hundred years of attention (much of it well-intended) from missionaries, politicians, philanthropists, tourists, and educators brought an end to that. By 1930, there were 36 impoverished, dispirited, and increasingly dependent St. Kildans left for the government to transport to the Scottish mainland. Some of the younger evacuees adapted fairly well to the new life. Most didn’t. Many sickened and died. The older people longed to return to their island. (For anyone interested, there are two superb books on the subject: Charles Maclean’s St. Kilda, Island on the Edge of the World and Tom Steel’s The Life and Death of St. Kilda.)
I was able to stay on St. Kilda thanks to the Scottish National Trust, which organizes work and archaeological parties during the summer months. My party consisted of 12 people from a wide variety of backgrounds who shared a fascination for the place. There was plenty to be fascinated about — the natural beauty, the colonies of seabirds, the camaraderie, the food (including fresh crab legs, herring, and mackerel), the work, the walks… Perhaps the best feature was the sense of isolation. It used to take "eight strong men" from 18 to 24 hours to row to St. Kilda — a crossing that was unpredictable, treacherous, and rarely attempted. Today the trip from Harris takes a little under three hours by boat, but you still feel like you’ve reached the edge of the world.
The time came, of course, when we had to leave. On the ferry from Harris to Skye, I happened to glance up at a TV screen and see a vaguely familiar tomato-hued creature sound-biting at a camera, loosing a shrill blast of idiot wind the likes of which two weeks of fresh air can make a person forget ever existed. "Hezzbowluh," he was saying. "Hezzbowluh started it." Eleven a.m. had struck, and my work party mate Paul and I were at the ferry bar engaging a pint of ale. "Good God," I said. "It’s G.W. Bush."
"And a right bloody berk, too," said Paul, ordering another round to insulate our re-entry into what SKY News kept assuring us was the brave new real world. A few days later I waded into the thick of that reality at Heathrow Airport, where a terror plot was reportedly in the process of being thwarted. My flight, like just about everyone else’s, was cancelled. I was fortunate to have a place to go for the night, and to have no pressing obligations. The SKY News moral was: u2018This is how the world has to be now. Get used to it. And three cheers for the global war on terror.’ Forty-eight hours later I at last boarded a flight out of Heathrow, dutifully holding a transparent bag containing only a wallet and passport — a security measure ordained not by British Air, whose people clearly considered it a waste of time, but by Those Who Know Better. No horse sense required.
A line from E.E. Cummings keeps coming around. "There’s a hell of a good universe next door," he wrote. "Let’s go." I suspect the people first drawn to the remoteness of St. Kilda many thousands of years ago had something like that in mind, in a literal way. I suspect that many people today, in those interludes when the idiot wind lets up a little, have something like that in mind in a metaphoric way. Maybe it’s time to take Cummings up on the invitation, turn our backs one by one on the tacky version of reality scripted and manipulated by the extremists (be their names Rumsfeld or bin Laden) who seem so confident they have all the answers. Maybe it’s time to light out for the territories to the best of our instincts and abilities. Or maybe I’ve just done too many Piss Artist Specials.
John Liechty [send him mail] currently teaches in Muscat, Oman.