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The idea of road tripping the American southwest and mountain-west first occurred to me a month ago when I was wondering how to spend the five free weeks I would have before my planned early August departure for Switzerland. The way I had envisaged it, it was going to just me, doing a grand circle from California eastwards through Nevada and Utah all the way over the Rocky mountains to Denver; then northwards through Idaho and Wyoming till Montana; westwards to Washington state; and finally south through Oregon into California.

It seemed like an incredible idea at the time, and now that I am a week into it, it seems even more incredible.

As it turned out, I did have company for the first five days of my trip. SG, an old friend from Calcutta currently studying in the USA was excited by the idea and decided to fly over to LA so that she could travel with me for the LA — Denver leg of my trip.

Day 1 (June 30), Los Angeles, California to Las Vegas, Nevada.

I had arrived just the previous night from Hawaii, so planning and packing was incredibly hectic. I went to the airport around noon to pick up SG. We had dimsum for lunch, shopped for supplies, did some more last minute packing and left for Vegas around 5 pm.

Vegas never disappoints me. Perhaps it is the extraordinary opulence, the decadence, the lights and sights, the mastery of man over nature. Or maybe I am just thrilled by the unabashed capitalism in action, its open (and legal) gambling and prostitution, its unusually libertarian laws on everything from smoking to public drinking. SG had never been there before and she had the typically overwhelmed reaction that first timers often have.

We walked and talked and went to a bar to drink some cocktails. Around 2 am, after I had accidentally spilled a glass of wine on both of us, we decided it was time to return to our hotel.

Day 2 (July 1), Las Vegas, Nevada to Zion National Park, Utah.

This was my fourth trip to Zion. It is a magnificent national park, with its unbelievable rock structures, high cliffs, deep canyons and blazing red colors. Like the rest of the American Southwest, the word to describe it is majestic.

Zion

Zion

We reached around 4 pm and set up our tents.

Campsite

Campsite

Later we took the shuttle across the park and stopped by the pretty Virgin river. SG and I waded to the middle of the waters and took pictures.

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On our way back, we scrambled to the top of a hill with great views of Angel’s landing. Then we returned to the tent and had dinner. After dinner I had the wonderful idea that we should go on a night hike and even more wonderfully, she agreed. We hiked for about an hour to an overlook from where we could see the valley far below bathed in moonlight. Eventually, we returned to the campsite around midnight and went to bed.

In the middle of the night I was woken up by cold drops on my face. Once I had gotten over the confusion, I deduced that it was raining, so I went out and put on the rainfly. So much for sleeping under a transparent roof. The rest of the night was uneventful.

Day 3 (July 2), Zion National Park, Utah to Green River, Utah.

This was the day we truly experienced the American southwest. What can I say? The extraordinary colors, the gorgeous buttes and the deep canyons, the infinite expanses. The deserts and the mountains, the brutal power of a land that has not been mastered and perhaps never will.

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The American southwest is an incredible place; words cannot describe it, pictures cannot capture it. You have to go there.

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We passed by Bryce and drove through the Grand Staircase Escalante. The road winded through red gorges and white deserts. We could literally see the land changing.

Later in the day, when we were driving through Capitol Reef National Park, SG fell asleep. I decided that she does not deserve to miss these sights for something as mundane as sleep, so I woke her up and we hiked to a huge boulder about half a mile away and then (of course!) climbed it. It was quite an adventure and on the way down she was rather scared, but at the end we had a good laugh about the whole thing.

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We spent the night at some motel in a little town called Green River. Dinner was pizzas and beer (three bottles out a six-pack we bought).

Day 4 (July 3), Green River, Utah to Silverthorne, Colorado.

From the rugged rocks of Utah to the high mountains of Colorado. It was another utterly beautiful drive. The Colorado river, at this point a lovely stream on our right, was a constant company. As the Rockies neared, the sights got prettier. Here are some pictures.

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I had an interesting experience at a gas station. A guy asked me if I knew the way to Denver in a very slow and strange intonation. After I had given him the information he wanted, he said in an even stranger voice (and even more slowly): Thank you sir. God bless you sir. May Jesus be with you sir. I could think of nothing more intelligent to say than: You too.

Towards the end of the day, we tried hard to find a campground but everything was taken. Finally we realised why; it was the Fourth of July weekend! So we started looking for a motel. We ended up staying at a relatively expensive place at the vacation town of Silverthorn, CO. Finished the rest of the beer at dinner.

Day 5 (July 4), Silverthorne, Colorado to Denver, Colorado.

We did a nice little hike in the morning.

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Then it was back on the road. We crossed the Rockies and entered Denver. I dropped off SG at the airport. She was sorry to leave, we had had an amazing four days.

It was time to find a place to stay. I searched online (the airport had free wifi!) and found a cheap hostel right in the middle of the city, exactly what I desired.

I checked in there an hour later and was greeted by a woman wearing an Obama t-shirt and looking like a political activist. No surprise. After all, Colorado was one of the three most important states in the last election and the Obama machinery here had been formidable.

It was also time to do some laundry and I found a laundromat nearby for the purpose. (Later at night, I returned to find that the water pipe serving the laundromat had broken, flooding the street!)

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Had bison burgers for dinner at a place that claimed to make the best burgers in the US. The waitress was extremely hot. The burger was very, very good.

Then I decided to drive outside town to see fireworks. Didn’t get much of a sight (it was too late and the place was too far) but it was a nice drive nevertheless. On the way back I picked up a female hitchhiker who was high on pot and wanted a ride down to the parking lot.

I liked whatever I saw of Denver. People jaywalk all the time. The mountains are close by. The roads are full of interesting shops. The city is both incredibly cosmopolitan and perfectly fits in the mountain west. They say it is one of the most libertarian cities in the US and I certainly saw a lot of marijuana being smoked late at night.

Day 6 (July 5), Denver, Colorado to Craig, Colorado.

I had come as far east as I desired and now it was time to go in a different direction. Also, from now on, it would be a solo drive.

My initial plan was to leave early and go all the way to Park City, where I would crash with a friend. But I woke up and got caught watching the long Wimbledon final (Yay to Federer!).

I left around noon and decided I would spend the bulk of the day in Rocky Mountain National Park. Park City can wait.

It was breathtaking. Imagine snow capped peaks and picture perfect valleys. Think of pretty lakes by quaint towns of the kind you seen in the movies. Above all, imagine a road that goes up to 12,190 feet.

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I stopped so many times. I hiked, I took pictures. I sat on the peak and mused. Every moment was worth it.

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I even spotted a magnificent elk grazing.

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I ended the day at a motel in Craig, CO. Just before I stopped I saw a very beautiful sunset. My pictures probably do not do it justice.

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Day 7 (July 6), Craig, Colorado to Park City, Utah.

It was mostly an uneventful drive with one singular exception.

Near the CO-UT border, I stopped at a pretty little cafe (they had really good espresso) and stared at a picture on the wall.

It was a photograph of a truly gorgeous canyon. I asked the lady at the counter where this place was.

She told me it was about 30 miles north of there. She said I should go there.

Then, with a twinkle in her face (she was old, around 65) she said I should do the hike that starts where the road ends and then cross the fence they have put up at the end of the hike and go some more (“unless you are afraid of heights”)

In a way her attitude epitomized that of the people who dwell in the mountain west. They are proud and dignified but also fun, and above all fiercely independent. This old lady was running this shop in the middle of nowhere and she was encouraging me to jump over the fence put up the authorities. Implicit in it were the magic words, individual liberty and individual responsibility. She did not think that it is the government’s job to put up some damn fence and protect us from ourselves. These people do not like a paternalistic state, they don’t want government dole-outs; they can evaluate their own risks and take care of their own lives. And in the event they do fall off a cliff after ignoring a warning sign or a fence, I can almost imagine them not asking for government help (and if they do, they will make sure they reimburse the cost of the airlift or whatever to the taxpayer). I hope I am not projecting too much of myself into the old lady!

So I went to the spot she recommended. It was about an hour detour. But it was worth it. I have been to many overlooks and this overlook was perhaps the most unbelievable of them all.

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I saw the fence too. Yes, it was mildly scary beyond it. But I was glad there was no sign warning of fines if one

violates it. Well, if by putting up the fence all they are saying is — go ahead at your own risk — then I have no problems. road trip (colorado, utah) 005

I crossed the fence and carefully walked some more and soaked in the amazing vistas. It needed a non trivial amount of my mountaineering skills to make sure I did not fall two thousand feet below.

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It was an utterly, utterly incredible place.

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I sat on the rock and did some math. On the drive back, at one point the road was full of cows. I had to honk for three minutes before they let me through.

I reached Park City around 10 pm.

So that was the first week. 7 days, over 2000 miles driven. Tomorrow I head northwards. It has been a wonderful journey and I hope it continues this way.

Driving across vast swaths of land can put you in a state of mind that nothing else can. It also gives you an extraordinary sense of freedom, especially if your itinerary and route is as flexible as mine is.

This trip has also been enriching in so many other ways. America is such a wonderfully varied country that no single generalization can apply to it. How can one government, even if elected by a majority, truly claim to represent the people? The answer perhaps, is a much greater distribution of power (anti-federalism), counter-balanced by some basic individual rights that no state law can violate. Anyway, that’s a discussion for another day.

I hope to post more descriptions and pictures in a few days.

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1. I am currently in Hawaii. It is most wonderful. And there is something truly special about doing math on the beach. Some day I hope to find out if it is as good as having sex on the beach.

2. I am in the final couple of months of my US stay. This is not the post to express all the things I feel about the last five years of my life — that would take far too long — but I’ll just note a few things. Doing a PhD, at least in math, is much more about learning than research. The USA has its good and bad sides, but I came here, like a lot of Indians, with a somewhat negative view of this country and over the years I have come to love it and much of what it stands for. I really enjoyed my grad life and I think I grew as an individual — my political and philosophical views got more refined, my view of relationships and people got more mature. I will be sad to leave, sad to no longer be a student, sad to leave my friends, a close ex-girlfriend and a lover behind on this continent. But change is a wonderful thing, in spite of everything it entails; and while there are many aspects of my identity I consider significant — libertarian, atheist, mathematician, dreamer — I am perhaps above all a dynamist.

3. Talking of girlfriends and lovers, I completely agree with Kerry Howley’s take on the issue (stated only for marriages, but surely applicable to any meaningful relationship).

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I know I haven’t posted in a fair while.

It’s been a busy time. I finished writing up my thesis and defended last Monday. Then there was a whirlwind trip to Zurich and Milan over the last four days. The next month I will be busy wrapping some things around here; also my mom will be here for my commencement.

Plans for the summer include plenty of reading and writing — I intend to write a series of posts on morality, rationality and political philosophy: in some sense it will be a long explanation of what I really mean when I say I am a libertarian. I might also go for a solo drive across the US, and stop over at campsites and cities, mountains and forests. From storm-chasing in Denver to hiking in Montana — let’s see!

Then, some time in August, I’ll cross the ocean and begin life in a new continent.

While on the flight back from Zurich on Friday I saw two movies — each for the second time — that I had copied on to my mp3/video player. They were Annie Hall and Before Sunset. I wanted to share this small passage from Before Sunset.

I mean, I always feel like a freak because I’m never able to move on like… this! You know, people just have an affair, or even entire relationships… they break up and they forget. They move on like they would have changed a brand of cereals.

I feel I was never able to forget anyone I’ve been with. Because each person have…you know, specific details. You can never replace anyone. What is lost is lost.

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When I walked out of the bathroom, she was still singing the same tune. She had been singing it on and off for the past several days. The song was now stuck in my head. I loved the song and loved her singing it.

A thought struck me.

“You know what, I just realized something.”

“What?”

“I have started subconsciously associating this song with you. I think that whenever I hear it again, I am going to remember you. It could be someone else singing it, it could be years in the future — I don’t think I can ever hear it without thinking of you.”

“Well, that’s nice.”

She smiled beautifully as I shook my head in only half-mock desperation. There was a long kiss.

She slapped my butt playfully. Her lips pursed. “Off you go,” she said.

I walked out of her apartment and made my way back to mine. Somewhere in the middle, I stopped momentarily to let the song play clearly in my head and felt the association stronger than ever. It was a weird sensation; painfully pleasurable with notes of utter beauty and tragic sadness. But then, I am sure I have been through this with other people before.

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Despite the title, this post is not going to be a complete list but more of a little story.

One day when I came back from a rather stressful day of school and in a really bad mood — I was thirteen at the time — my mom suggested I lie down on my bed, close my eyes and play Mozart’s Piano Concerto 15 on my little cassette player. I did as she said. And that was how it all began.

I discovered Mozart and I have been in love with his music ever since. His genius has helped me tide over so many difficult times.  He has made me laugh in childlike delight on so many occasions. I have occasionally tried to express my gratitude in posts like this and this but I don’t think they really do justice to his greatness.

And it would be wrong not to mention the other composers I have discovered since. Dvorak and his amazing ninth. Beethoven. Bach, Vivaldi, Strauss, Wagner. Tchaikovsky. Copland.

And oh, Bizet! I love Carmen. I could listen to the Habanera all my life. In fact I could watch every performance of Carmen that has ever taken place. I have come to appreciate opera more over the years. This aria from the Marriage of Figaro is magical. It is Mozart after all. But if I have to pick one piece that touches me most intensely — sends tingling sensations through my body and makes me feel part of some indescribable greatness — it would be this miracle. Has there ever been another song as moving? Operas are great. I am going to see one this week — Die Walkure — and the very thought makes me excited.

I cannot say I am anything close to an expert on classical music. I know nothing about the technical aspects of music. I can barely tell keys.  I can’t read. I can neither sing nor play any instrument. But I just love hearing the stuff. It makes me happy. It can make me happier than almost anything else can.

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Certain events reminded me

of this funniness I once wrote.

So I called up K —  he told me

of she he was with no more;

So I asked him about the circles

And he said he’d come a full circle.

For some reason that makes me  sad.

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I found this on the internet while searching for related stuff. It was written ten years ago by someone called Brian Wilson.

This is the important year. The beginning of the end. “The Shift” is happening.

[…] “The Shift” is what I call the mass hysteria, the mass group thinking that takes over suddenly, when 95 percent of the population suddenly and ferociously agrees on something that they never cared deeply about before. And what comes next is legislation to force the last 5 percent to bend to their will. To the population caught up in “The Shift”, this sudden new conviction is as strong as religion, and anyone in the last 5 percent who even SUGGESTS a calm debate or alternative is treated like a heretic who should be burned at the stake. If you are getting angry or self righteous at this rant because you suspect where it is going, then you have fallen prey to the mass thinking already.

[…] Now, you might be part of the 1 percent of the population that is like me. If that is the case, I apologize for lumping you in with the rest of the mindless masses. I seem to be immune to “The Shift” in most cases. This isn’t a blessing: I’m continually lamenting the loss of yet another freedom to “The Shift”. Those caught up in the various crusades (anti-smoking, pro-seat belts, pro-motorcycle helmets, etc) joyously give away their freedoms, and seem happy to do it.

This year we are still early enough in “The Shift” that some helmet wearers had some very thoughtful insights. One 50 year old couple who were wearing helmets suggested that the highly publicized deaths of Sonny Bono and Kennedy last year, both by colliding with trees, contributed to the large rise in helmet use. But we are far enough along in “The Shift” that the truly mindless were coming out of the woodwork also. I rode up a lift in Winter Park Colorado with a woman and her 4 year daughter. The daughter was wearing a helmet, and the woman was not. The woman actually told me that she wished the government would pass a skier helmet law, so that she would be forced to wear a helmet just like she forced her daughter to wear one.

For a moment I lost the will to live, and I almost jumped off the lift.

I cannot STAND people who have this kind of attitude. It is not the government’s job to force us to be “safer children”. It is not the government’s job to decide what is an acceptable risk for us personally, and what is not. If you want to wear a helmet while skiing, please do! It is a very good idea. I might choose to wear one also, depending on the conditions and where I plan to ski that day. But you and I need to accept the decision of the informed skier who chooses to feel the wind in their hair, and take the well known risk of going sans-helmet.

That applies today, it will apply tomorrow, and it will apply 50 years from now. Don’t succumb to “The Shift”, in which you suddenly change your opinion at the same time as the rest of the population does, and you hold your new opinion with religious fervor.

I realize this rant is hopeless; I am tilting at windmills. I predict that within 5 years there will be a skier helmet law for anyone under 18. Within 10 years, there will be a skier helmet law for everyone. And 20 years from now, on a ski slope, on a perfect day with a blue sky and perfect snow, I will irritate my friends by playing the heretic. While wearing my government mandated ski helmet, I will wish out loud that just for one run I could feel the wind in my hair.

Do read the whole thing.

Brian’s prediction hasn’t yet come to pass. No  country yet has a universal ski-helmet rule that covers everyone. However many places already mandate  helmets for children and it seems likely that some Canadian provinces will soon pass a a law forcing all skiers to wear helmets. And maybe it will then be California, or some European country, and pretty soon the rest of the world will follow. Or maybe not.

But his thoughts about “The shift” are true, not just in the paternalistic context but about anything really. And if you are thinking that shifts are merely rational reactions to updated human knowledge, I’d prefer you mull over it some more.

***

And now a more personal note. I don’t know what Brian thinks today of his rant from ten years ago. He probably believes his rant made no difference to anyone’s lives. And to an extent he is right. No law has been influenced by his opinion and most people don’t care about freedom anyway. But if he ever reads this, I’d like him to know that it did make a small difference to someone’s life about fifteen minutes ago. His rant made me happy. It made me smile, even if that smile were tempered by sadness and a tinge of hopelessness.

For to believe in individual liberty is to see your strongest moral convictions treated like dirt by ninety-five percent of the population. It is a bit like living in some country in the past where everyone else possesses slaves. When you believe something to be utterly wrong it does not help if the overwhelming majority thinks it is good.

Why did his post make me happy?

I am not happy to be part of a minority that rails against the stupid majority. Such happiness is an enemy of rational thinking. On the contrary, I’d like most other people to think similarly on this core moral issue– my dream world is one where liberty is taken for granted by everyone so that it is not even an issue; where there is no need for me to blog about it or do random internet searches.

His post made me happy because, quite simply, it gave me some kind of support. In a small way, it told me I am not alone. I can not justify this happiness except to say I am human. So thanks Brian, and all those other advocates for liberty who I have read but never met.

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