Serendipity

March 4th, 2019

Photo by Michael W. Gos

By Michael W. Gos

Guadalupe River, Texas

My running buddy and I were surrounded by what appeared to be an ocean of college kids, each dragging a tube and some with elaborate beer-cooler/multi-tube floatation systems that suggested these people were not the novice river runner I was. I felt a bit out of place, but at the same time, I was looking forward to trying this classic Texas activity—even if I was bit on the geriatric side.

As we stood on the bank, the bus driver/guide told us about the four sets of rapids we would encounter and how to safely negotiate our way around each. The first was Hueco Falls and we were told to stay to the far left. When he was finished, we waded into the icy water. It was absolutely shocking on entry, but after a few seconds it felt great on this blazing August day.

Feeling like a hippo trying to mount a tricycle, I fought my way onto the tube and began my trip downstream. Seconds later, I was underwater with a snoot full of river and the rather unpleasant sensation of bouncing off rocks. The driver failed to tell us Hueco Falls was barely 100 yards from our put-in point.

After what seemed like minutes underwater, being battered repeatedly, I surfaced at the end of the falls minus my tube. It seemed my day on the river had come to an abrupt end after less than two minutes and I was going to be paying for a lost tube. I struggled over to the left bank and hung on a tree root, just trying to catch my breath.

About five minutes later I heard a young man shout, “Did anyone lose a tube?” I guess my day wasn’t over after all. I retrieved the tube, thanked him profusely and then rested a few more minutes. Finally, hanging onto the tube for dear life, I waded down to a shallower spot where I would be able to once again “gracefully” climb aboard.

The rest of the trip turned out to be much less eventful, and at the end of the day, we pulled out in beautiful downtown Gruene. I returned the tube, changed clothes and headed to the Gristmill for dinner.

Sitting in one of the open areas overlooking the river, I enjoyed a chicken fried steak and a Corona. I planned to attend a show at Gruene Hall that night, so I just hung out there on the deck for a couple of hours watching the river run far below me and listening to restaurant’s music (which, by the way, was far more appropriate for someone my age than the people I had shared the river with that day). About an hour later, Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” came on and instantly, I was 17 again with a guitar hanging around my neck.
Like most kids in the ‘60s, I was part of a very bad garage band. We never amounted to anything, but we had a great time and dreamed of the day we would be more famous than the Beatles. One of the songs we played was this Cream hit and it led to one of my proudest moments. Well, it was at the time anyway. The song ends with a continuous striking of a single chord as the sound fades out. But the chord didn’t give closure to the song. While Cream made it work on the record by fading out the sound, in live performances, you can’t do that; songs need to end.

That open cadence drove me crazy for weeks and one practice day, as we finished the song, I just couldn’t take it anymore and I hit the chord that would give the song closure. Immediately, I, and everyone else in the band, recognized it as the first of the three-chord opening to the Who’s “I can See for Miles.” We segued immediately into that song and loved the way it sounded. Forever after, we performed those two songs together.

Back then, I didn’t understand that music was just math and architecture was frozen music. If I did, this “discovery” would have been no big deal. It would have been obvious if I just looked at it mathematically. But I didn’t know that then; I just knew that the final chord left us hanging and it drove me crazy. I had to close the loop. The way it happened was serendipity at its best—a totally pleasant accident.

Some of our most interesting discoveries have come from this kind of serendipitous event. Penicillin, Post-it notes, Viagra and even microwave ovens were all happy accidents. We are always shocked and delighted when they happen. We treat these events as if they were gifts— or even miracles—and in a sense, they are.

But I really have to wonder if these things we call serendipitous are really accidental or even all that rare for that matter. If you think about it, these “accidents” appear to be all around us, and they are happening far too often to be considered rare. A quick Google search will give you list after list of them—things like The Top 100 Serendipitous Scientific Discoveries. I wonder if they just might be the norm, rather than special events.

If they are indeed as common as I suspect, perhaps the thing that turns these everyday events into serendipity is our ability to see them when they are right there in front of us.
How many do we miss just because we aren’t open to them, or more important, are not expecting them? I wonder if it is possible to not only expect these happy accidents but, more importantly, to make a concerted effort to look for them. Maybe it is somewhat like hunting for morel mushrooms. They seem to be rare and very hard to find, but once you get “in the zone,” you realize they are everywhere. It may take two hours to get there, but once you do, you can gather a basket full of them in five minutes.

I experienced two “accidents” on this day, one not-so-pleasant one over Hueco falls (which I later learned was actually a Class III rapid; I guess I was lucky to just get a little bruised) and another in remembering my “discovery” of the connector between two songs. Yet I can’t help but wonder, how many other happy accidents didI miss on this, and every other day of my life.

How much more could we accomplish if we just made a concerted effort to be open to, and more importantly, to expect these events and be prepared to act on them when they occur?

Ghosts

July 1st, 2018

Photo by Michael W. Gos

By Michael W. Gos

Terlingua Ghost Town, Texas

If you spend a lot of time in any place, even as a tourist, you get to know some of the people there and come to call them friends. I go to Big Bend country a lot, and when I am done with my day’s hiking, I head to Terlingua for some laid-back fun. As a result, I know quite a few people there.

I’ve talked to him for about seven years and this was the first time I’d seen him without his wife. He was sitting on the porch of the Trading Post when I pulled up.

“Hey Don, how are you doing?”

“Hanging by my finger nails, like the cat on the poster.”

“Where’s Jules?”

“Not sure; she and I split up a couple of months ago.”

That really took me by surprise. They seemed like the perfect couple. I never saw one without the other and they always seemed to be having fun together.

“What happened?” I asked.

“She wanted to get married; I didn’t. I guess she got tired of waiting. She said eight years was long enough.”

This was the first time I realized they weren’t married.

I went in and bought a beer and took it out to the porch. We talked for the next hour. He told me about how he was crazy about her and wanted to live with her for the rest of his life, but he refused to ever get married again. He said his divorce years earlier had turned him off marriage for good.

Apparently, that wasn’t an acceptable situation for her. I asked if he was really willing to lose her because of something that happened many years ago. He said he didn’t have a choice; he couldn’t marry again. That made me think about a time in my own life.

I remember the day like it was yesterday, and it ruled my life for the next 15 years. In my football days the coaches drilled into my head that my job on sweeps to either side of the field was to stay in the middle of the backfield. Under no circumstances was I to pursue the ball carrier. Then one day, it happened.

At the snap, the running back ran to the right as the quarterback dropped. The handoff was made and the play went away from me. Not thinking, I took off in pursuit. The ball carrier had a lateral head start of about seven yards, but in order to gain yardage he’d have to turn upfield. I was sure I could catch him; I had the angle. I was already past the center and in a dead run when I saw it happen. The running back handed the ball to the split end on that side, who reversed back to my left. The action froze me in my tracks!

Thoughts flew, but my body remained frozen. I knew I needed to turn back and pursue the play, but it took an eternity to get my rather large body to stop, turn and follow. Finally, word got to all appropriate body parts and I was running up the line again, this time to the left. It didn’t take long to realize that I wasn’t going to make the play. I looked ahead to the corner to see who was there to help, but the corner was empty. Only the left tackle and I were to be on that side of the field, and no tackle would ever catch a wide receiver. I looked up just in time to see the ball carrier run right over the spot I was supposed to be occupying. I could only watch as the play went all the way for a touchdown. I went back to the sidelines, chin against my chest.

“How many times have we told you to stay home on that one?” the coach yelled. “You think we tell you these things for our health? You have a (expletive) job to do here! We told you exactly what it is! How much sense does it take to do what you’re told? You cover on reverses! If you pursue, we lose!”

For days I ran that play over and over again in the theatre of my mind. I had always believed it was best to play inspired — that emotion and enthusiasm would win out over cold, calculated logic every time. Now it looked like, at least in some cases, cold, rational control was far more important. After all, football is a brain game. That is why the intricacies are so hard for most people to understand. But that day I took away a very important, and life-changing lesson. I learned that there are sound reasons for the things we are told to do.

For the next 15 years, that lesson stayed with me. I did what I was supposed to do, stayed within the limits I was given and lived a quiet life. If I had any ideas that could even be remotely considered “wild,” I would always bounce them off someone I trusted before acting on them —and it kept me out of trouble.

Then one day, about 10 years after I finished college, my mother and I had a serious discussion about what I wanted to do with my life. I had been drifting somewhat aimlessly for a long time. I told her what I really wanted to do was to go back to school, get a couple of advanced degrees and become a professor. She laughed and told me to get serious. That was a dream for rich kids, smart kids. She said I should go to work in the steel mills. With my degree, they would probably make me a foreman. That conversation made me start to question the wisdom of living my life “within the lines.”

Both the man at Terlingua and I had fallen into a pattern of letting ghosts from our past limit and even disrupt our lives today. Traumatic events can indeed sometimes have strong effects on us, but when they start to limit our possibilities, our futures, it is time leave them behind. It makes no sense to keep stumbling over objects that are behind us.

It took a couple of years to complete the change. It wasn’t easy; I had a lot of false starts, but I stayed at it and eventually I stopped doing what I was “supposed” to do, went on to get those degrees and to get that life I wanted.

I hope when I next go to Big Bend, Don will tell me he did the same.

Lost

January 1st, 2018

Each of the little rivulets had carved out a whole series of potholes that held pools of water. Photo by Michael Gos

By Michael W. Gos

Colorado Bend State Park, Texas

It was about 20 years ago, when I was still a newbie to Texas. I had spent the morning in Fred with some friends who came down from West Lafayette for a week-long bicycle rally. Being a bit of a slug myself, when they decided to head out for a 100-mile afternoon ride, I decided to try to find Llano and experience Cooper’s Bar-B-Que for lunch. I had heard about this place many times over the five years I had been in Texas but had never had the opportunity to experience it. This seemed like as good a time as any.

So I headed north toward Llano. A colleague had told me it was in the northern, old section of town, just off the main road. He said I couldn’t miss it. What he failed to tell me was it was hiding behind a grocery store and couldn’t be seen from the highway. So I drove through town, looking, but never saw it. Eventually I came to open country and it was clear I had left Llano. Determined to turn around at the next intersection and try again, I sped up and headed out into the country.

But there was no next intersection, at least not that I saw, until I hit the tiny town of Cherokee. There I saw an east-west road. Because it was a town, I figured I could surely make a couple of rights, circling the block and back to highway 16. From there I could make the return trip to Llano.

But there wasn’t a next street. Instead, the street I was apparently now destined to follow became a very narrow, country road. I suppose it was meant to be two lanes but there was no way two cars could pass each other without both of them driving two wheels off the road onto the shoulder. Fortunately, I never had to test this. I drove for miles without seeing another car. Eventually, realizing I was getting way off my intended route, I decided I would take the first county road I saw that headed south and try to hit 71. This time I would approach Llano from the east. But that road never came. Instead, the road I was on turned to gravel and went on for a few more miles, finally dead-ending into a dirt road that was marked with a tiny sign that said “Colorado Bend State Park.”

Colorado Bend is not like any state park I had ever been to. There is no gatehouse or any signs of civilization anywhere. That dirt road just continues—and continues. What seems like several miles later, it dead-ends in a canyon carved out by by a river. The area has only a mobile trailer for a headquarters and an outhouse. Figuring I was now a long way from Cooper’s, and lunch was probably out of the question, I decided to have a look around. After all, I was already here.

I always begin my exploration of a new park with a trip to the visitors’ center to find out what the top attractions are, where I can go to see no other humans for a few hours, where to get the best photos, etc. Since this place didn’t have a visitors’ center, I went into the trailer to see if there was someone there who could give me some information. There was. A park volunteer there told me about a cave and a waterfall, both accessed from trailheads several miles away, and about a cascade just down river that empties a small creek up above into the river below. Since it was close by, I decided to take a look at it first.

As I was leaving, she called me back and added that there were no concessions and no water anywhere in the park. If I wanted water, I’d better fill up right here. I went out to the Jeep, got my always-ready canteen and did just that.

As it turned out, the cascade was amazing. What started at the top of the canyon as a small stream passed through a series of small waterfalls that moved the water down the rocky hillside and then spread it into a number of rivulets that worked their ways down eight or ten different pathways. The truly wondrous thing was that this had been happening for so many centuries that each of the little rivulets had carved out a whole series of potholes that held pools of water. It was absolutely beautiful.

After spending about an hour there and then walking along the river as far as the rock canyon walls would allow, I headed back to the Jeep to drive to the trailhead for Gorman Falls. That hike was rougher, only because the first couple of miles were on a hilly gravel road. But the last mile or so, when it entered the woods, was spectacular. There was a lot of downhill climbing with rope handholds to facilitate a safe descent down to a river that I suspected might be the same one that carved out the canyon I had just been to. At the very bottom, was a small deck with two benches, one that faced the river, the other the waterfall. I sat down for a quick breather (like I said, it was a hard hike) and to maybe get a few photos. I got both done—in about three hours.

As the sun was setting and I was leaving the park, I started thinking about how my getting lost that day led me to a terrific set of experiences—experiences I never would have had if I knew where I was going and had indeed enjoyed some great brisket for lunch. Not finding Cooper’s, followed by my inability to find a way to turn around, sent me on a journey that I wouldn’t have missed for the world, and probably would not have ever taken otherwise.

It seems to me that in life, when things seem to be going badly, we sometimes reach a point where we feel lost. We no longer know which way to go, or what to do next. Sometimes we even begin to question who we are. When this happens, it is always a traumatic time for us. We feel confused, troubled and frustrated. But almost invariably, this is the point where our lives take a turn for the better. (I know…“it can’t get any worse,” right?) But if you think back on the really wonderful life-changing experiences you have had over the years, I would bet most of them began with just such a discomforting moment.

Perhaps the contrast between the bad times and the spectacular times make us really appreciate the latter. But I am sure there is more to it than that. When we reach a point in our lives where we no longer know what to do or which way to go, our journey has truly begun. Life will never be the same. And journeys invariably turn out well in the long run.
By the way, I did eventually find Cooper’s—many, many times.