Unexpected Beauty

Tracey and I prefer the views and vistas earned by placing one boot in front of the other. The way our old old hickory tree wears the seasons surpasses almost any view through a windshield. Nevertheless, we ventured out recently to drive about the northern part of our state.

This is one of my favorite times of year here. The leaf-looking traffic is gone. There is a lull-between-the-holidays peacefulness that reminds longtime residents of days gone by. There is unexpected beauty still clinging to nooks and crannies, and the mountains uncovered reveal once again their majesty, and hidden beauty, and the power of the hand that formed them.

As much as I have written about the hazards of petroleum based civilization, I am not immune to that uniquely American enjoyment in the sense of freedom and self-mastery that comes from the open road. There is nothing as liberating and nothing as American as piloting a vehicle where we want, when we want. From horse and buggy to wagon train, railroad to Interstate, the appetite for movement is written into our history and ingrained in our culture. We came by that longing honestly, long before we were told that everything we do must be counted in a cost of carbon.

We enjoyed our trip, the fresh air, the smattering of fall color in the highlands, the quaint roadside shops, a homemade cinnamon bun with a bad cup of coffee and a winning smile from the proprietor. The overcast day was drawn like a blanket over the soft grays and muted colors of the highlands, as if the mountains were taking an afternoon nap, dreaming of holly berries and hoarfrost. The occasional shaft of sunlight made brilliant by the somber silver and slate sky created a sense of expectation over the next hill and around the next bend. It was gentle day, a sleepy day, a day that hinted of changes to come, inspired thoughts of the axe and the woodpile, and suggested a pot of chili bubbling on top of the wood stove.  

We thoroughly enjoyed our dappled gray day in the highlands. It was a memorable day for us. Sadly, our contentment was not shared by a couple we overheard at a local shop who had driven all this way only to be disappointed by the failure of the foliage to perform to their expectations. For them, there was nothing worth photographing, and the weekend was ruined. Surrounded by the sounds of water falling on rocks and the music of a mandolin playing in the background, immersed in the smell of caramel apples and hot boiled peanuts and in plain sight of an array of pumpkins that would have been the envy of any backyard gardener, these unhappy travelers grumbled and poked their discontent into the ubiquitous little boxes to which most of us are now attached. They headed for home, annoyed at having no colorful pictures to post to prove to their friends what a wonderful time they were having, oblivious to the subtle beauty all around them.  

For many of us now, expectation often exceeds experience, and when this becomes habitual, we are destined for disappointment. A virtual world of idealized images and intensity now stands between us and direct experience, burdening our perspective with unattainable goals. Our species has been staring at screens for over a generation now: big screens at the theater, screens in the living room and the bedroom, and the bathroom; screens at work and screens in our pockets. Advertisers have always asked us to compare our lives to what we saw on those screens and now, we do it without their prompting. In a final surrender to the virtual, we weigh our own idealized projections against those of our “friends.”  

Are we losing our ability to perceive reality with our own native senses? Are the idealized images enhanced by technology muting the colors of everything else? Will our need for the intense and the instantaneous lead us ever onward into the undiscovered territory of the virtual world, where happiness and contentment are entirely dependent on technology – and marketing? What will we do when the power goes out or the battery dies? 

I don’t know, but I can smell that pot of chili on the stove. I suppose I could post a picture of it, but I would much rather spoon it up.  

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