There are all kinds of reasons we feel alone in our lives. Some of them are practical, even factual, if you will. I live alone. I spend most of every day alone in my house. I just finished driving about 4,500 miles around the country, about 3,000 of which were done alone in the car. Every once in a while I walk down to a park on the harbor or out on the pier and find a bench and sit alone and watch the water. I don’t do it because it’s relaxing, to calm my nerves. I do it because a bench on the water is a change of scene. The water does all the stuff it’s supposed to do, with the breeze riffling its surface, the sailboats bobbing at their moorings. It can be indescribably beautiful when the light is right and the water sparkles or turns crimson and orange and violet at sunset, but the harbor is just another place to be alone.
I never thought I’d be living like this when I was in my 20s, but I had my suspicions. I used to spend a lot of time driving around the country in a 1968 Dodge camper van writing stories for the Village Voice and various magazines. I made a point of driving through Aspen in the fall to visit an old friend of mine who was a ski bum waitress out there. Her name was Cherry. We were school kids together in Oberammergau, Germany in the mid-1950s. We used to put on our ski boots every morning and ski from our apartment building’s front door to the school down the hill and stack our skis against the wall outside. We would change out of our ski boots into regular shoes, and later when school let out, change back into our ski boots and ski through the village of Oberammergau to the ski area on the mountainside just beyond, ski until the place closed at dusk and then ski home in the dark. It was a magical time, a memory we shared fondly.
She had lived in Aspen for about ten years, alternately waitressing and skiing and traveling the globe. Every summer she took about $1,500 she had saved up and split, but now she was back in Aspen to pick up where she had left off in the spring. She was gorgeous — blonde hair, rosy-tanned cheeks, elegantly muscled body in a t-shirt with a day-pack on her back, moving through town like an antelope through a field. I was sitting in the window of the Jerome Bar and spied her coming down the street and waved. She came in, we embraced ... it had been about a year since we had seen each other ... and she took one look at me and said let’s hike up to the Conundrum Hot Springs tomorrow.
I had heard a lot about the hot springs but had avoided them due to my natural aversion to the idea of walking eight miles uphill to get to them. But now I found myself saying, yeah, let’s go. I had no equipment, no hiking boots, only a down vest and a sleeping bag. So I put together some amateurish supplies — homemade fried chicken, extra set of clothes, a knife, six cans of Coors and a fifth of Henry McKenna in a special plastic jug which I picked up from a local mountaineering store, along with a day pack to put it all in. I thought stupidly that I would come up with some way to put the cost of the supplies on some magazine’s expense account tab, but I blew that off. The logical thing to do was get with Cherry and head for the hot springs, so the next morning I met her and off we went driving up one of the valleys outside of Aspen on a dirt road in Cherry’s little Datsun. Finally a big meadow appeared and we parked. On went the packs, and with a last glance around at the edge of civilization, we hiked.
The climb began immediately — short and steep, longer gradual grades followed by quick dips, and then another steep slope, never a flat stretch. There was a fire in my legs, pulling, straining in the thighs up through the lower back to the trapezius yielding soreness across the shoulders, tightening in the lungs and a numbing sense of futility that the steep slopes would never end that you’d never get there. We walked, walked, walked, crossing a creek once, twice, three times within a mile, gazing down into pools of trout. And you walked on, past the beaver lodges stately as twig mansions in the middle of small ponds at 10,000 ... 10,500 ... 11,000 feet.
Up there, things really started to change. The light crashed through softly blowing aspens, landing on the grass like droplets of clear water. I started out babbling away, telling tall stories about covering Bebe Rebozo and his part in Watergate, what nightmare covering the Evel Knievel jump of the Snake River Canyon was, and Cherry listened and threw back her head, laughing at the folly of talking and talking and talking in a place where the only really important sound was all around us in the wind and the trees. As we went higher, I fell into her natural silence, her easy awareness of everything around her. I felt a lightening of my senses. The creek, once a docile trout stream, now fell steeply over mossy rocks booming into deep pools.
We stopped to rest and discussed the matter of firewood and decided we’d better gather some before we reached the tree line. She took off her pack and began gathering and breaking up sticks as big around as your calf. Collecting together a pile with some kindling, she untied her pack-flap and strapped the wood across her pack. I did the same with mine; we put our packs on and started up again. We crossed the tree line and continued to climb past boulders and hillocks of fallen scree and ended up on a flat ledge just at the top of a hundred foot waterfall and unpacked, laying out our sleeping pads and sleeping bags and getting a fire ready to light when we returned from the springs later. It was getting dark, so we walked further up the trail, and finally across a low marshy slope we could see the hot springs — three indigo pools set dead center in a bowl formed by a long ridge and mountain peak another 2,000 feet above us. Cherry was standing in front of me, taking in the view of the springs, legs together, just staring. There was a stillness in the air around her that was easy to get lost in.
Cherry turned to me. "What do you think?" she asked. The blue pools of the hot springs were like shimmering beads of sweat on the forehead of the mountain in the late afternoon sun.
"You told me it would be like this, but I didn’t believe you," I said. We took off our clothes and got into the deepest pool as the sky darkened above us. The water was a hot luscious caress of bubbly sulfurous fingers. We stayed in there as little by little the mountainsides around us were lit up by the moon, still out of sight, and then it began moving down the mountainsides, and it was about 100 yards away from us, moving much faster, then 50 then 25, and suddenly the springs were awash in moonlight, our naked bodies visible below the surface.
We were believers, dreamers like we all were back in the ‘60s, believing that if we all did our own thing and took responsibility for ourselves, it would somehow turn out okay. Cherry lived out her dreams by hiking in the high boonies; ski-touring a wilderness area for two weeks camping out in the snow; running white water on the Colorado River or the Snake River, any water that was fast and brown and mean. She was the first licensed boatswoman in the Grand Canyon and probably the first American woman to hike alone to the 17,000 foot high base camp on Everest. I was living another dream, traveling around writing about virtually anything I wanted to write about and getting paid for it, living in a loft in New York City for $200 a month, hanging out backstage at the Fillmore East, flying overseas to cover wars. Jesus, that sentence sounds not so much like a dream as a lie. Could all of that have been true? About each of us?
We had no way of knowing it, but by that night at the hot springs we were both on our way to becoming anachronisms. The paper I wrote for the Village Voice would be sold to New York Magazine founder Clay Felker and begin a long slow slide into irrelevancy. The magazines I wrote for would close, one after another. Freelancing, once an impossibly romantic way to make a living, would become the bottomlessly exploitable gig economy.
The stuff Cherry did for real was already being transformed into mass-market products. John Denver and Robert Redford began marketing the mountains to the masses. Ralph Lauren, whose store in East Hampton today looks like the living room of some hunting lodge in Montana, was right behind them with “distressed” denim and pre-tattered blue jean jackets and sheepskin coats that look like they were recovered from the wreckage of a failed arctic expedition. Today, there are entire industries racing to exploit trends that are over almost before they get started. Rock and roll went from being a feeling in your gut to just another product. All the stuff that felt like it was bringing us together ended up pulling us apart. Music that once blasted from East Village tenement windows and filled the air with attitude is inside ear buds. We aren’t living in a bubble. We are, each of us, a bubble. We are alone.
Even walking together up that mountain in Colorado to the hot springs, Cherry and I were as alone as I am in this room. It has taken me decades to begin to understand why, and even now it’s not clear to me. I think part of it is because we were forever trying on new stuff — new clothes, new music, new attitudes, new places to live. Cherry was busy becoming a new kind of woman. I was forever playing catch up, trying to figure out what it meant to be a new woman’s kind of man. Newness filled every corner of our lives. Forward movement was all that mattered. But how can you be somewhere if you never settle down? How can you be a part of something if you’re never really in it?
I got an answer when I was on the road earlier this month. I drove down to Birmingham, Alabama to drop off my daughter at her cousins'. I spent the night in a motel before heading back. I was staying in an upscale suburb and looking for a place to eat supper, so I drove around a bit and checked out what was available. Walking out of the second place with “bistro” in its name, I started to chuckle. What was brand new in Greenwich Village in 2000 had arrived in Birmingham at last. Then I went back in and sat down at the bar and ordered.
The place was filled with people having a great time. The food was downright decent. I thought back to Greenwich Village in 2000. Bistro this, trattoria that. Hadn’t I been in Europe a few years earlier and eaten the same stuff ... only it was actually French because it was in France? Weren’t those crowds in all of the "chic boites" in the Village happy just like the people in Birmingham were, eating “authentic” French cuisine in an entirely inauthentic place? Hadn’t Keith McNally invented the whole damn feel-like-you’re-in-Paris scam with Balthazar? Weren’t these Trump voters in Birmingham chasing the same dream the swells were chasing on the edge of Soho in New York? Weren’t they having as much fun? Wasn’t the food just about the same? Didn’t Keith McNally keep giving the swells new places to go, opening Pastis and Schiller's and Morandi and Minetta Tavern and Pulino . . . I think eleven restaurants in all? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and yes.
We have atomized ourselves. We keep moving on, from one restaurant to another, from one hairstyle to another, from one shirt collar to another, from one make of high heels to another, from one brand of SUV to another, from one Hamptons nightclub to another. Nothing sparkles with enough newness. There is never enough of anything. Enough new fashion. Enough new kinds of exercise. Enough new taste sensations. Enough destinations. Enough parties. Enough money. You keep moving like this, and you end up leaving stuff behind. You leave places. You leave friends. You leave principles. You leave yourself.
One night not long after I left Birmingham I was out walking the dogs and they were sniffing around in the grass taking their time doing their business, and I looked up and saw the big night sky above me filled with stars stretching away out there forever and ever and ever, and I was standing there in a very nice subdivision in Franklin, Tennessee, and I felt as alone as I’ve ever felt in my life. I was surrounded by all of these people who belonged there, and I was moving on. It was a little like that night in the hot spring with Cherry: a big night sky above that ring of mountains, and the two of us down there in the hot spring, and afterwards we dried off and went back to our camp and built a fire and fixed supper and climbed in our sleeping bags, and the next day we walked down the mountain and moved on.
People I know, who are in one way or another people like me, people who have changed so much over the years, people who used to be heavy metal rockers but who are now new age life coaches, people who used to be bartenders but who are now world renowned artists, people who can play the guitar as well as they can pound nails and lay tile, these people who are like me despair at the rootlessness of the Democrats, the damaged “brand,” the absence of a “message.” But it’s not just about political tactics and strategy. It’s about isolating ourselves at the tables of the latest hot restaurant or behind the reflective walls of social media, where we can be alone with ourselves and people like us, and we can see out but they can’t see in. It’s no wonder that Trump’s 35-40 percent base of support seems so impermeable. The pundits tell us that his voters feel collectively resentful and forgotten and left behind. Well, they’re right. We’re the ones who left them behind because we’re forever in transit to someplace new, chasing cool stuff, changing ourselves, altering the country, moving on and not looking back.