When I was a boy growing up in an isolated valley in eastern Washington in the days before the Internet, I was restless despite the vastness of the sky I lived under. Even though the horizons were far away, I felt trapped by circumstance and the expectations local culture held for me. My family, having no wealth other than our love for one another, hadn’t the means to let me pursue my dreams of living elsewhere and becoming something the local society schemed to deny me. But I had a good brain, abundant willpower, and excessive drive, and I knew the way of escape resided within me. So I began working at steady jobs when I was 13 and saved my wages with the goal of going to college somewhere other than the valley. As I rode various pieces of farm equipment on my road to and beyond the valley’s horizons, I often sang Volare aloud under the cover of ill-greased bearings, setting my imagination, if not myself, free to wander the distant promises those horizons implied.
I long ago escaped from the valley given time and experience. It tried its best to hold on to me, but the depth of my desire was greater than the strength of its grip. Now, after nearly a lifetime away, I no longer feel resident in a claustrophobic petri dish even though my present horizons are much closer than those of the valley. While I now live in a world encircled by mountain chains and the skyscraping products of unrelenting human endeavor, I was freed by the stroke that tried, but failed, to fell me. I may be too wobbly to navigate on my own much beyond the boundaries of the acreage we own north of Seattle, but I am now free to explore all of its mysteries.
All those I can find, anyway.
I’ve had my fill of the great wide world. No, I haven’t seen most of it even though I’ve seen a great deal and communicated with much more of it due to my education, the needs of my clients, and the wonders of modern technology. But I no longer feel trapped by circumstance and the expectations of others, even though I’m limited by the aches and pains of an aging body
But a wonderous, magical thing has happened in my reduced circumstance. Even as my physical horizons have shrunk, my mental horizons have melted away. I can now detect and engage in the infinite from any place in my shrunken world. It isn’t the proximity of death that is responsible for my entry into these uncharted waters; it is the fulsomeness of the time I have to explore the nooks and crannies of my cloistered world. In each nook and cranny lies a mystery, a mystery we cannot see while speeding over and through the hurdles of daily toil. Unlike those on that journey, I have the time to find these nooks and cranniess, the wisdom gained from experience to explore them, and the inclination to wonder at and seek the promises that they offer rather than pursuing those I made to myself as a younger, stronger man.
While walking the narrow lanes surrounding our property during in the daylight , I am as open to the infinite as when standing under a starlit sky unencumbered by the light pollution of civilization. For in the minuteness of nature there is as much mystery as in the vastness of space, as much wonder as can be found in a portrait of the Crab Nebula, and a close proximity that allows for investigation without the need for expensive tools designed for use only by experts. All I need for exploration is my cane and my imagination; for I am not seeking scientific fact, I am exploring side roads – all the side roads I can find, all the side roads I couldn’t see speeding by on my way to work, all the side roads that beckon to me from entrances hidden in forests, hedges, and grass, all the side roads revealed to me in the richness of the time I now have on my hands.
I have come to appreciate the curiosity and wisdom of Emerson and Thoreau, the value of personal exploration and discovery rather than routine travel along the constraining paths of scientific knowledge, the value of curiosity rather than the meek acceptance of conventional wisdom. I am not seeking to convince others of my own crackpot theories; I am seeking to appreciate, firsthand, the abundant and sometimes conflicting mysteries of life, of creation, of being, of the meaning of it all.
In the time remaining to me, I am striving to appreciate the miniscule role I’ve played in time’s great stage play. For the tiny mysteries resident in the side roads I’ve discovered remind me that they, in their accumulation, are greater than all that humanity will ever become. We are nothing more than a recent sprig of life yet to prove itself, while they, in their accumulation, are the ancient strands of its web.
Who knows what I’ll find down each of these side roads other than the wonder and enjoyment of my clumsy searching. I know all too well what I’ve found down humanity’s side road, and I’ve had my fill of it. I am as ready as I was in my boyhood for something new, for more magic, for the lure of a likely leprechaun hidden somewhere in the reach of a newfound side road.
Thank god for the wisdom to appreciate the vastness of nearby horizons and for the help of canes that support and sustain my ability to engage in my search. I am all the richer for the experiences that these side roads provide, since life’s rarest jewels lie hidden there, free of the pollution of mainstream cliché – which is why the things mined there are so rich, so rare, so precious, so worthwhile of my endeavors.