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Name: Loon Dog
Bio: A mental health researcher motivated by self-self-defense; has likely dedicated too much of his life trying to define lunacy. Presently travelling through the USA seeking out mental diversity activists to help trace the threads between brilliance and madness.
Photos: Mad America's photo libraries
Mad America: The Great Alternatives Conference: Intro ( 15th Jan, 2010 )
The Beat Gen, 90s Hip Hop legends and Oriental Zen Lunacy ( 17th Dec, 2009 )
Australian Shame ( 1st Dec, 2009 )
Entering the Great American Fruit and Nut Bowl: War Diaries, Inherited Madness and Other Things ( 16th Nov, 2009 )
Stuff in America you don't see on the TV ( 9th Nov, 2009 )
Sierra Nevadas: Clarity, purity, PBJ's ( 4th Nov, 2009 )
Road to Cedar Valley ( 3rd Nov, 2009 )
California Dreaming ( 3rd Nov, 2009 )
Library of Dust ( 23rd Oct, 2009 )
Consumers, Survivors and Mad-Pride: Burrito's and Bears. ( 23rd Oct, 2009 )
Begginings. ( 19th Oct, 2009 )
By chance, the morning after flight, I’m roadtripping up highway 99 to the great Sierra Nevadas with random good fortune. I sit in the back of the car with a young Panamanian art-school grad with a soft Brooklyn lilt and next to her sits my good friend’s younger brother (Pat). His auntie sits up front with a family friend of Pat's, an eccentric San Diegan woman.
We drive north through South West California on Highway 5 pushing through San Marino and the glug of LA suburbs, on to Fresno and Bakersfield.
The highway edges past grass lands owned by the US army and we glimpse a war-game skirmish,tracing dust plumes to rolling tanks.
John Steinbeck sketched this land with stories of the great American westward migration. As the highway edges past farmland, I search for sagebrush, miserable asses and straight-limbed farmhands but mostly I see dry cotton fields guarded by giant still machinery. Fruit orchards begin north of LA, of orange, peach, nectarine and grapevine and nut crops of pistachio, cashew and almond. The natives in the car promote Cali as the fruit and nut capital of America and I wished I knew them better so I could laugh out loud at the pun.
We curl off the bleak mainroads toward Seqouia National Park. Hills start baring to yellow grass plains and we ascend into rocky country as trees whoosh by and I’m taught about red Manzanita shrubs and midland oaks. Conifers begin emerging at 4,500 feet and we wind around shoulderless roads and scary mountain drops.
Signs as we coil upward: ‘rocks and snow not removed at night,’ ‘Caution IceCream Ahead’, ‘Active Bear Alert,’ ‘Entering King’s Canyon.’ It struck me then. I never expected in my life to see a bear in the wild and I want to say “my god” but the two elder women in the car keep saying “oh geeez” and “oh my gosh”, gulping at the mountain views, so I refrain. I dream about those lopey powerful creatures.
The car rounds on a sheer rockface halfway down a massive canyon and we pull over. Outside breathing cold valley wind I get vertigo looking down AND up and roaring waters take my ear and I don’t know where to rest my eyes over rock faces of damp-rust reds with their smatters of luminous green moss and ten new shades of shark-skin grey. The sun breaks the cold shade only on the high mountain peaks, trackless and warm and gold, where birds of prey carve thermal winds.
I’m so fricken happy I want to fold these kind strangers into paper airplanes and fly them off the mountaintop into the keen eye of a Bald-headed Eagle.
Reaching our destination by nightfall, the ‘adults’ generously pay for a single cabin room. The building itself is tacky and mundane and smells like someone had a sweaty party and rushed the cleanup. The décor is all wood veneer and cream stain paneling but outside is a place of freakish beauty. We’re shrouded in a valley of cedar pines, ponderosa’s and cottonwoods. Willows hang over a gurgling stream nearby and there are birds with no names I know and unfamiliar song.
Our motley party squeezes into a single room and we sleep two to a bed. Pat’s auntie and the San Diegan in one, me and the Panamanian in the other, and Pat on a fold-out on the ground. Before bed we stand by the rushing stream, spying large dead, skeletal tree trunks and pine boughs under the spilled moonlight. I try to find the fabled North Star but, of course, the starscape is an unfamiliar maze, none of the party knows because the milky ways are too thick here, expanding and endless like giant smoke clouds. All we see are pots and pans and Orion’s Belt and they twinkle like the eyes of great, worldly, smart-arse sages.
Over the next few days I fill page after page of a notebook waxing lyrical about how beautiful those canyons are. There are conifers that tower over a hundred feet tall with trunks so large they make you feel like a snotty dazzled kid. By comparison the pure granite boulders as big as houses seem like pebbles. We held hands and between the five of us couldn’t circle the base of those monsters. We muttered words like ‘tranquil’ ‘serene’ and ‘magnanimity’ but they did nothing to capture our tingling guts. Mostly we resorted to swearing under our breath, and silence.
We got lost on day trails and the younger of our party ran up whatever mountain we liked the look of while the elders hung below and prepared peanut butter and jelly bagels (PBJ’s) by crystalline pools. We explored hidden valleys led by Pat, a regular mountain goat, over trails we didn’t know existed or that we thought capable of surviving. But we did, hopping through screes and tip toeing over fallen logs wedged over streams where, exhausted, we kept climbing up to bowl shaped cirques and spillway rockbeds, left over from the last ice age and awaiting the next. There were birds; bluejays, swallows and woodpeckers, and grey-coat squirrels and chipmunks. And two days in something big happened as we stood in a sweeping meadow of jiggling cat-tails and wild grass. We saw that black bear. And it didn’t give two shits about any of us. But it made me gulp and I can’t describe the important things about that powerful old creature (I think it was only a yearling).
At night we went to bed bone tired.
Where this relates to madness I’m still not so sure. But that canyon was a disordered place that had such a fine, complex system of balance and synchronicity to it. I know people get quite flowery about ‘wilderness’ but you really just have to go there to see what’s important about it for yourself. Maybe it doesn’t work for everyone but I reckon if you give it enough time it will. A whole lot of stuff that occupies your thoughts regularly just falls away. It gets shat on by Eagles and you wipe it off and wash it away in a cold river.
These places, and it sounds ridiculous but bear with me, are really great natural monuments to the infinity (cue Eddie Vedder soundtrack). Who needs to define a god when you’re out there? It’s all magical and it blows your wandering mind to calm.
The folks I traveled with turned me onto a bunch of naturalists in the States who’re working on ‘eco-psychology’ and it reminded me that David Oakes, my soon-to-be mentor, is also a passionate wilderness man. He says that his recovery from the crisis that led him to be labeled schizophrenic, is possible only because of a diet of good food, political activism, exercise and ‘regular trips to the wilderness’.
So I didn’t plan it, but this is definitely a theme I’m gonna explore over the next few months. I’m set to catch freights through to Oregon and I’m planning to hitch the coast roads north to Portland, which are flanked on either side by misty Pacific ocean to the West and national parks to the East. And from what I’ve heard about the Pacific North West, its full of okie loggers, ‘back to land’ communes, anti-civilisationists, forest activists, Shamans(?!), and eco-psychology naturalist types. So I should find my share of people with different ideas about where and how wilderness and madness meet.
Certainly, on a personal level, I’ve appreciated being away from media and all the other low-level information that gets gunned at you at most steps of city life. I was abusively tired and in the Sierras I found rest. (I'm reassured to see the bags under my eyes receding). And I’m starting to equate ecological conservation to mental conservation and I think there is a lot to be said about the protection of our ‘mindscapes’. There seems to be a mutually beneficial thing going on between eco-activism and ‘psycho’-activism but I still haven't sat down to draw out the threads. I’ll leave it for now and keep my ears open. Anyway, I’m only just starting out.