I was watching the Mets play the Phillies on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball when the broadcaster announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed. Immediately, I flipped to CNN for more details and watched Wolf Blitzer juggle numerous correspondents as details of the event poured in. I stayed tuned for about 20 minutes, and during that time the crowd gathering on the White House lawn grew from dozens to hundreds to thousands. They waved American flags and climbed atop each others’ shoulders, chanting “USA! USA!” Their celebratory uproar reached a volume that made it difficult for one reporter on the scene to be heard. The surreal spectacle looked like the tail end of a debauched 4th of July barbecue.

2/2 The Road to Jackson Hole

The roar of the V8 under my feet feels very American as we climb through the foothills of the Northern Rockies, yellow/green grass, red/pink rock plateaus like specialty cakes crafted by time and erosion, off to the left deeper foothills, browner, dotted with conifers, the path we drive through treeless, only scrubby brush and hearty grasses, a perfect cross between prairie and western plateaus.

The road is flat and mostly straight, speed limit 75, black cows munching on grass–content to chew and flap their tails–rarely will you see a lone cow stray from the group–sad in a way that I can see them now as something natural and beautiful, soon to be only cling wrapped, sliced pieces of flesh, dredged through terrible cutting machines, consumed by somebody with an appetite for meat but never able to appreciate the beauty of a lone cow chewing on the pale grasses of the plains.

Entering Wyoming, moving Northwest, tree cover here is thicker–low, dense conifers, stout and hearty. Trees say a lot about a place–tropical trees sway with long, loose branches and naked trunks, like a scantily clad, dreadlocked island native. The trees here are short and tacit–little mountain men.

We have sliced through the initial barrier of the foothills and are nestled in a flat line between them and bigger hills to the left. Passing large ranches, ‘real’ ranches, hundreds of acres in size. I imagine working the land here, waking up to bacon and coffee and pancakes and working all day, stopping only for lunch.

Train tracks dip in and out of the landscape, sinking off into the distance. Something about trains is fascinating–long, ugly steel beasts, and yet beautiful, mythic, invoking a sense of timelessness–sameness in a changing world–romantic–reminiscent of the great American work ethic–so large and yet stealthy–creeping through the land with a steady chugga chugga and at times a lonesome whistle that at night pierces, shrill, into your room, into your head like a Blues chord, as if to say, “Don’t be lonely, everything is OK, the train is still going–everything is still relevant.” While other machines are left discarded by the side of the tracks the train keeps on–same old cars and smoky engines–unflappable, as though my grandkids will someday see the same ones–they have an air of immortality, like the mountains forever a part of the landscape–but I know this to be untrue, they will someday crumble, mere wreckage, and then dust.

We crossed the continental divide some time ago and now too are flowing downhill towards the Pacific. But we won’t make it that far. I have trouble believing the Rockies resume close by as I stare out across the prairie but I know they remain hidden behind the clouds to the West, rise up like a fortress–beautiful but also sinister. A mountain ages like a man–slowly creasing and sagging and breaking down–worn away by time until finally gone–dust.

The snow and slope of the land gradually are getting steeper until the mountains that a while ago appeared painted on the horizon are all around. The rancher’s fence that lined the farmland is here, except now rolling up and down with the rise and fall of the land and almost buried in snow. The familiar pointy, tall, skinny conifers and thin, wispy Aspen of the Rockies have returned. We have entered the Teton National Forest, and two mighty moose trudge through deep snow, diplomats to this pristine land.

Driving provides a lesson for life: keep moving and things will change–no matter how far off what you’re going for appears–stay on the path and it will happen–all of a sudden you’re there and it’s surreal because for so long the road was somewhere else–passing through countless points until at last it’s the one you want.

2/3 Reflections on Jackson Hole

One of those times you see somebody else that looks like you–and momentarily they are you–and I see upon their face my own expression–eyes ablaze with joy looking up on steep slopes surrounded by rocky cliffs and trees and the outline of skiers and boarders descending dark against the white background. It snowed all morning but later the sun burst free and as it did felt like a privilege–which is what I see in the eyes of the stranger that is me–humbleness, wonder, thanks for the deep snow and vertical drop and sun–a religious experience, deeply spiritual–but somebody in line jokingly moos and I see the other side–we are cattle, each of us no more important than the other–perhaps some better stock but all doing the same thing–standing in line, gear in hand, telling stories that are just an attempt to stay relevant. It’s why I write this story, to tell that I was there, I skied Jackson Hole, I descended its steep rocky slopes, the sun was out the snow was deep and I’ll never forget it or the looks on my friends’ faces as they laid and rested in the snow, only their grins discernable behind thick clothing and bug eyed goggles–looking like spacemen on the moon, adventurers on their own strange, alien planet and as I remember their faces I also remember mine–my face on another–the face of joy we all wore but was no more important to the mountains than cows being herded through machines and packaged and sold. A mountain is indifferent to all.

2/4 The Return Voyage

Each portion of mountains has a distinct look even among a large chain–the Rockies of Wyoming have a different look than those of Colorado–but they do appear similar, as though cousins. The fairly blunt tops indicate the toil of millions of years of erosion–these are old mountains, some of the oldest in the world–but once they were never here at all–and so it will be in the future–mountains to dust–dust back into mountains–someday a great sea may cover this land, with the top of Jackson Hole an island jutting up through the blue depths–the descendants of cowboys and ski bums making a living, diving to explore the decaying remains of a chairlift.

But for now we are above sea level and it is a glorious sight–rolling along through a valley, the sun breaking over a peak and flooding the land with a blast of light–everything covered with a film of frost– and when the sun hits the land it sparkles and the branches of trees stretch outward like hands straining for the warmth of the sun. All living things reach for the sun, the only certain God.

A fog rolls over the valley, clinging to a river that winds through the trees like a serpent of mist. I imagine myself as a great adventurer starting a day of travel on foot–seeing this same view–taking a moment from his quest to enjoy the vista–I am alive–this is real–no mission is so great as not to take time to enjoy the moments of beauty, such as the epic landscape laid out before me–this is the adventure–everything in between.

Towns proudly display population signs of one and two hundred–horses outside in stables–steam coming from their nostrils, matching the smoke rising from the chimneys of houses that are all warm and snug inside. Few things are more satisfying than a roaring fire on a cold day, the feeling of triumphing over the elements. Men here have beards and cowboy hats and denim and drive trucks–tough and silent and grizzled and yet possessing a simple kindness–a traditional way that keeps them human. Here they are sheltered from the terrible world not too far away–this is a sanctuary–wildlife and mountains and rivers and pure white snow–hidden from the world of man–cold, dirty, greedy, loud, crowded. Living here is a firm stand against the society that cheapens it–fouls it–destroys it. Staying here is a decision to stay human and as I drive through Wyoming I briefly regain the innocence the world has taken away.

Derk Richardson of the San Francisco Chronicle has described the band’s sound as “the heavy sadness of Townes Van Zandt, the light pop concision of Buddy Holly, the tuneful jangle of the Beatles, [and] the raw energy of the Ramones.” Hailing from Concord, North Carolina, the Avett Brothers have burst onto the music scene with the release of their acclaimed 2009 album, I and Love and You, and there’s no looking back.

I had the fortunate opportunity to speak with Seth Avett of the band to discuss—among other things—this very album, their recent rise in popularity, and whether or not beard envy was involved when working with the man himself: Rick Rubin. Enjoy.

Beard

By Rob Bloom

Humor

So I’m growing a beard. I’m not sure how I feel about it, to tell you the truth, and it’s not just because my beard hasn’t come in all the way. See, I’ve got all these splotchy patches—parts of my face where there should be beard but isn’t—so to the casual observer it looks like I’m either midway through transforming into a werewolf or I’ve been making out with a lawnmower.

But that’s not the big problem. My real concern is that, well, I’m just not sure I’m a Beard Guy. Ever since the Supreme Court passed its landmark judgment (Man v. Razor, 1964), Beard Guys have been running rampant: Paul Bunyan, Chuck Norris, Charlton Heston in “The Ten Commandments.” These are Real Men. You know the type: forearms like Popeye, wardrobe like the Brawny guy, and hairy. All over. Seriously, if you were to see one of these guys at the beach, you’d swear they were wearing a cardigan. Course you’d never say anything because you value your dental work too much. Now as much as Real Men love to fight, it’s really only foreplay for their real passion: looking under the hood of cars. What are they looking for? Who knows! Whatever it is though, I pity it because the moment the Real Man finds it—RIP!—that part’s as good as gone.

Macho man? You betcha!

Another thing about Real Men is that they’re low maintenance. But if they did decide to shave for some reason (i.e. they’d run out of bears to wrestle that day), you wouldn’t find them using a pansy Gillete Fusion razor or slapping on some Nivea Aftershave Balm. Hell, Real Men just whip out their switchblades and, in a real manly way, scrape those pesky hairs off one by one. Incidentally, they’d do this while looking under the hood.

Of course, Real Men are only half of the Beard Guy population. The other half’s made up of Intellectual Men, otherwise known as “the beard stroking community.” Seriously, these guys cannot help but stroke their beard while talking. It’s great, though. Not only does the beard complement their intellectual mystique, it also covers up, what I can only imagine is, a nasty dermatological condition that can only be soothed by constant rubbing. But in all seriousness, you can’t help but be intimidated by Intellectual Men. They do the New York Times crossword puzzle (the Sunday edition!) for fun and use terms like “hypertensive encephalopathy” in everyday conversation. They’re also extremely cultured. When out to dinner with Intellectual Men you can expect to hear the following phrases:

a) “This Riesling is absolutely transplendid.”
b) “Do I detect a hint of fennel in this dish?”
c) “Honestly, Bogata is so underwhelming this time of year.”

On the contrary, you will never, upon any circumstance, hear Intellectual Men say any of the following:

a) “So, who do you think will win ‘Project Runway’ this season?”
b) “Did you catch that battle royal steel cage match last night on ‘Raw’?”
c) “So THAT’S why this call this place Hooters, eh?”

This is my problem. I don’t fit into any of these ridiculous and narrowly defined categories that are for entertainment purposes only and in no way indicate either my death wish or my desire to receive angry e-mails from hoards of bearded men—excuse me, bearded persons—who found the above stereotypes to be insulting. Take it easy on me, all right? I’m going through a beard crisis right now.

So what’s a guy to do? Shave or not shave? My wife, the bearer of kisses, is not in favor of the scruff. My parents, the bearers of guilt, made an initial effort to support my beard with comments like “It looks…interesting!” and “Well, you certainly look…different!” but in the past few days, they’ve let their true feelings slip: “You have such a nice face…why cover it up with an ugly beard?”

And then there’s my take on it, which is, quite simply, I feel like an imposter. Like when somebody asks me who I think will win the Super Bowl and, in an effort to fit in without revealing the fact that I know absolutely nothing about sports, respond “The Yankees.” The fact of the matter is that I’m just not a facial hair guy and yet, here I am, walking around, pretending to be a member of Beard Guy society—knowing full well that I can be discovered at any given moment for the fraud that I am. It’s ridiculous. And that is why I must shave the beard! I must be true to myself! I must do this for ME! Well, and for my wife. After all, she’s the bearer of kisses.