“Martin Buber tells this tale: ‘Rabbi Mendel once boasted to his teacher Rabbi Elimelekh that evenings he saw the angel who rolls away the light before the darkness, and mornings the angel who rolls away the darkness before the light. ‘Yes,’ said Rabbi Elimelekh, ‘in my youth I saw that too. Later on you don’t see those things anymore.’” (Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)
I first read these words a little over a decade ago, toward the end of a road trip I took just before my final year of college. Ostensibly on a mission to visit the archive of Thomas Merton, the writer and Trappist monk, two friends and I had taken the trip mostly because we could. Guessing, correctly, that the time when our freedoms would so distantly outpace our responsibilities was not long for the lasting, and helped by my college’s liberal attitude to undergraduate grantmaking, we dragged an egg-shaped fiberglass trailer out of our northern California hometown and didn’t return until two months were through.
Can I say we took advantage? We certainly tried. Besides Columbia's Rare Book and Manuscript Library on 114th Street in Manhattan, we had no definite destinations, there was nowhere we had to be. Our route traced a long and lopsided figure 8 on the map that carried us to Chicago to New York to Philadelphia to DC to New Orleans to Texas to Seattle to Humboldt County. Along the way we drank in the houses of friends and slept in the driveways of strangers. We crashed weddings in borrowed clothes. We wrung the last drops of our combined liquidity from an ATM in New Orleans and decided that Merton himself would probably spit down on us from heaven if we missed the midnight show at the Maple Leaf Bar. (A sprint in the small hours of the morning got us to San Antonio, where an acquaintance offered us pot and cash to mow his lawns and the mother of a friend graciously overpaid us to organize her files.)