As I stepped onto the jet-bridge there was a blast of warmth and a flash of bright light – and then the cool shade of the air-conditioned tunnel. It was a hot summer day in Dallas. My ultimate destination was the mountains of California’s High Sierra, where I’d planned a three-week hike — but right now, the clock was ticking down to the departure of my next connection, and I needed to find the gate. Walk quickly, I told myself. Pay Attention!
Two days earlier, I’d met a college student for coffee. A friend of mine, her mentor, thought she’d benefit from my experience. Over cappuccinos we chatted about a number of things, including the concept of “balance.” The idea that a person could enjoy success at work and participate in other interests. And spend time with friends. And read books. She was young, so family wasn’t in the mix yet. In life there are a lot of and’s, I pointed out. If you want A and B and C, it’s up to you to figure out how.
The connecting flight departed Dallas and winged its way west-northwest. Once we’d settled in at altitude, I pulled out some work I’d brought along and attended to it. But finished quickly. I’d brought along some books, but didn’t feel like reading them. I thought about a race I might one day like to run (or, given the distance, maybe I’d walk it) and spent 10 minutes typing up some thoughts on training. Then I sat back, idle. I would have liked to be more productive. But then it occurred to me that idleness is a natural state. If I had to be productive, what did that say about my independence, my sense of agency, that I could not relax unless harnessed to a set of tasks? So instead I looked out the window.
Far below, dim glimpses of farmland. A cumulus layer, shiny white and slick, mixed with muddled gray. The horizon glowing blue, full of warmth and energy, while up above the stratosphere was dark as night.
After our meeting, the student had sent me an email with follow-up questions — “A bit random, but have you seen Soul the new Disney movie? I was reflecting on our conversation about ‘ands’ and balance and found myself thinking about how Soul was a really good lesson about that specific topic.”
To understand her point, I’d have to rent the movie and watch it. Which I decided to do, although not with much enthusiasm. My fondness for Disney had faded, some thirty-five or forty years ago, been replaced by disdain for cliché and conformity and a wariness towards the empty fantasy that contemporary audiences seem to crave. The film did get mostly good reviews, though. “Disney knows how to pull your heart strings,” someone noted. Another lauded the film as a “sweet, simple, happy, sad, soul-stirring story that reminds you that every now and then that [sic] it’s important to stop and smell the flowers.” But one reviewer was skeptical — “Soul cannot make its discrete parts work as a whole.” Another complained — “It shortchanges itself at every turn by overextending itself.”
Out the airplane window, the scene was static. I tired of watching and turned my attention to a book. But every so often I looked up and found each time I did that the sky had changed. That slick white surface had expanded, frothed, pushed up through gray layers, breaking them apart. I realized that the bright blue light was not the horizon, but the surface of the cloudscape stretching north, while the horizon was tinged white, shading into darkness overhead.
The next time I looked up, there was an endless white expanse. Thick. Heavy. Featureless. It must still have been a hot summer day down below, but it would have been the kind of day where you look up into a muddle of white and gray, diffuse, turbulent, glaring — it would have been the kind of sky that makes you squint, makes you appreciate sunglasses, makes you reach for the suntan lotion since you’ve been warned you can get burned through the clouds.
Later on I would see the white froth bubbling up into thunderheads with wispy flat anvil tops, where the moisture phase-shifts into crystals. Still some layers of gray, persisting here and there at different altitudes — dark and heavy-looking, even though the strata were paper thin. I decided these dark gray layers were composed of moister, colder air left over from the night before. And maybe they were.
To be fair, Soul was cute. And the computer animation was artistic. But the critics were correct – it was a thematic hash. As if it had been created by a team of writers, and each member insisted on including a certain element that was important to them — regardless of how it fit into the whole. The star is a middle-aged, part-time teacher named Joe Gardner whose passion in life is jazz. He’s a talented piano player. But he’s never had that lucky break. Until one evening, when he’s invited to audition for a jazz quartet – and this time he’s accepted. It might be the turning point of his life. On the way home, he’s walking down the street, ecstatic with this sudden fortune, phone to ear, spreading the good news to all his friends. He walks through a construction site, oblivious, while a pallet of bricks crashes right behind him – he crosses the street in front of a huge bus – steps through banana peels and piles of nails without a slip or puncture – dodges an angry dog – crosses the street again and is almost hit by a motorcycle. WHEW! That was close. Confident that he missed death, he takes another step forward….and falls through an open manhole cover.
To someone like me, who’s worked in volatile markets, studied risk management, participated in extreme sports, and undergone combat training (long ago), the moral of the story seemed pretty simple. Pay attention! Watch where you’re going!
Then I forgot about Soul, as the plane descended through a low-lying band of haze. So strange to see a towering cumulus, crisp and white above the haze, a murky yellow blur below. (Was this haze the remnants of a wild fire I’d read about that burned near Lake Tahoe? – or was it dust kicked up by westerly Zephyr winds that I’d read roll down into western Nevada on hot summer afternoons?) A moment later we touched down at Reno. In the terminal bad luck was waiting – my bags were still in Dallas.
Well, the helpful attendant said they’d be on the next flight out. With a few hours to spare, I drove off in my rental car to pay a visit to Pyramid Lake, the ancestral home and tribal reservation of the Northern Paiutes. I was curious to see the place because I’d read about Chief Truckee and his granddaughter Sarah Winnemucca, who is remembered today as the first Native American woman to publish a book. She wrote about the unfair treatment her tribe had received at the hands of white people, whom she described as weak and untrustworthy. A criticism I took as broadly applicable to people in modern society.
Pyramid Lake is a sink from which there is no outlet. It’s fed by Truckee River (named for the chief), which drains Lake Tahoe. After a 45-minute drive through rolling plains of sage, I saw a dusty band of turquoise beneath a range of dark gray peaks. Rising from the waters, a sharp little rock island, which evidently reminded the explorer John Fremont of an Egyptian pyramid when he saw it in 1844 — and hence the English name. (The Paiutes call the lake Cui-ui Pah after a distinctive species of fish, which happens to be some 2 millions years old and is found nowhere else.) I drove around to the other side, and from this vantage, the water was choppy and steel-colored. Gray clouds were gathering in the west. Overhead the boiling cumulus caught the sun and flashed. There was a soft peal of thunder. I walked a quarter mile along the lake, until my feet sunk into mud.
On the highway back to Reno, I saw a spark shoot straight down from the heavens. Moments later rain torrents brought the traffic nearly to a halt.
As it turned out, my baggage did not show up. I filed a claim with the attendant and started out on the long drive south to my destination in the High Sierra. What a relief it would be — after the pressures of work and family and now the last-minute complication of lost baggage (I decided to wait two days before buying replacement gear) – what a relief it would be to start walking. From morning until night. At a slow pace. Just walking. The original purposeful activity. And so simple.
As I drove further south, the desert sky served up a final surprise – a big white cloud, which sprouted above the mountains like a giant fungus, gradually turned the color of a blood orange, until the dusky air in the narrow valley through which the highway snaked its way took on the tint of tomato soup. And then the weirdness faded into black and gray.
After falling through the open manhole, Joe Gardner lands with a thud. He opens his eyes to some kind of ethereal scene. Is he in outer space? A different dimension? The future? Heaven? A crowd of ghostly beings marches along on a conveyor belt (moving sidewalk?) to the Great Beyond, where each soul disappears into a giant sun to the sound of a tiny electric zap. For Joe, this is not the place to be — his first jazz performance is taking place in a just a few hours. He attempts to escape — only to find himself once again falling. He lands in another eerie realm, this one a kind of assembly point for young souls who will soon be sent to Earth to populate the bodies of newborn babies. Before departing, however, they must first discover their special “spark” or passion in life, whatever that may be.
Joe’s passion is jazz — there’s no question about that. He’s still determined not to miss his first concert — he’s somehow got to escape back to Earth. Before he can figure out how, he meets up with a young soul named #22, who has resolutely refused to descend to Earth, claiming that there is nothing down there that interests her. Evidently, #22 has no “spark.”
At this point, the plot becomes rather complicated (the skeptics were correct — Soul is overextended, with too many different parts — indeed, I cringed at the absurdity, had to put the film on pause for a moment before proceeding). To make a long story short, Joe and #22 escape to Earth with the goal of getting him to that all-important jazz performance, which is taking place that evening. Along the way they engage in a series of slapstick adventures, which are meant to convey the film’s philosophical message(s), in between the laughs.
Towards the end, things get heavy. Joe realizes that even though his purpose in life is jazz, that doesn’t mean he has to be a bore, or sit around depressed during the long periods when his luck is bad. As for #22, once she’s inserted in a body, she has to learn to walk (it takes her several spastic steps before she gets it down). She marvels at the taste of pizza. She stares in wonder as a winged samara comes rotoring down from a tall maple tree. After indulging in negativity for so long, suddenly she discovers that life is full of simple joys.
“Maybe sky watching could be my Spark,” she exclaims. “Or walking! I’m really good at walking.”
As I recalled this scene, on the long dark drive south from Reno to the High Sierra, it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, there was something here in this silly film that I could actually relate to.
And I had to laugh, when in the last scene of the movie, a spiritual chaperone in the ethereal zone decides to give Joe Gardner another chance at life on Earth (as to how he’d ended up once again on the conveyor to the Great Beyond — don’t ask). As a parting gift, she offers some sage advice –
“Hopefully you will watch where you walk from now on.”
Running the Long Path has 21 reviews on Amazon, and all but one are 5 stars. Click on the image to learn more.