In The Field: Doldrums, minor madness and musings on Moby-Dick for mud season
With the busiest of Summit County’s seasons gone, what follow are days and weeks of often-unwelcome foul weather and an apparent absence of people. May can be an anomalous month in this respect, an oddity of inactivity.
In maritime terms, this time might be called the “doldrums.” The original use of the word was related to the equatorial regions of the oceans, where prevailing winds are calm and where sailors could find themselves adrift at sea for long periods of time before their sails gathered enough wind to pull them from the seemingly timeless void. How that long-awaited breeze must have felt after so much lingering in listless waters…
Over centuries, the definition has expanded to mean any number of things regarding inactivity and stagnation. Summit County knows this state best during the month of May, though here, they are doldrums of the humors — of the mind and body somehow taxed by the long winter. The Summit County resident who has lived here for any substantial length of time knows this, expects the gray veil to be pulled over the surrounding mountains and the combination of sleet, snow and rain that obscures the days as they pass.
It is only rational that, after months of hyper-energized days and late, tourist-inspired nights, a local will desire a change. Anyone who has walked the main streets of our towns in the middle of May has noted the perceptible stillness, the desolate silence: a lack of footsteps and pedestrian chatter, fewer passing cars, neon “Open” signs conspicuously dark. It is as though the community, in unison, has agreed to disperse.
There is a minor madness breeding in locals that, by the end of the ski season, can be seen in and around the eyes — deep-set eyes peering distant, the corners twitching, the whites fully visible around tiny pupils fixed on some soon-to-come other adventure. It is as though they are ready to bolt at any second and head for the door, the car, the highway, the horizon — anything — as though to imply how steering straight through mud season would be nothing short of trusting one’s sanity to the inconstant wind.
This compulsion is entirely normal, though, and when I think on it, I think of all the writers who have made me feel less insane for acknowledging the need for a change. I think of a section in the first paragraph of “Moby-Dick:”
“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul … and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. … With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.”
Summit takes to ship
As I moved through April in the mountains, I heard friends venting more and more frustrations about their jobs or interactions with the more transient guests to the community, and I was somewhat surprised that I did not once see one of our own “stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off” or some similarly foolish thing.
I acknowledge the frustration, though, one that is born from a devotion to intensely equal parts work and play through the previous six or seven months. I think the reason for this is that May is a universal constant in the lives of Summit residents: a certain time when one can, if he or she chooses, go to sea.
The word often used for this is “escape,” and it represents something of a release valve for all of the frustrations that have built up through the previous months. But I would argue that it might be better to think of it in a different way: I suggest the word “engage.” It seems more fitting to think of that time as a reengagement with the rest of the world, of a time for tapping into the happenings outside the bubble of county life, even if that world is Costa Rica, or the Virgin Islands, or the campsites on the outskirts of Moab.
To escape seems pejorative: to flee, to leave something behind, abandon, turn one’s back on something. The better mindset is to see oneself turning again toward the outside world, heading out beyond the normal sphere, to uncharted waters, to sea. To view this time as engagement is to see it as growth and productivity — for mind, body and soul.
Even a May filled with Netflix binging can be engagement, because although it might seem like an escape from foul weather and hard work, it can potentially be a way to engage in other stories, to help us better understand their motives, mistakes and sufferings. Herein lies an opportunity for empathy, and empathy is engagement. Even the simplest escapes are opportunities for engagement — the wilderness as engagement for the senses, the river as engagement for the soul. We are not fleeing from something inasmuch as we are running to something, something different, new, fresh, exciting. Not that life in the Rockies is boring — more like anything elsewhere might be necessary to recharge for summer after so intense a winter.
Summit returns home
It is normal to acknowledge this need to go to sea. It is what keeps us sane. It is why towns in Utah are inundated with Colorado license plates as soon as the ski resorts close. It is why English is heard more frequently than Spanish on the beaches of Costa Rica this time of year.
When the doldrums wash over Summit and I take to my travels, I am grateful to see familiar faces from Summit. It reminds me that the dreary Novembers of our souls often fall together harmoniously in the month of May. It consoles me to know I am not alone in my mild seasonal madness.
Also, something in me knows that because we are out engaging in the world, our own beloved streets are not littered with the knocked-off hats of others.
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