Twenty years ago, I considered myself "too old" to do a full week of field work. Didn't have the strength, I thought, didn't have the stamina. I would send younger men and women out in the field in my place to face the physical challenges of a full week of work. But now, after eight years of the Bush Administration and, to be fair, eight years of the Obama Administration, I'm out doing exactly what I supposedly couldn't do 20 years ago. As has been well documented in the press and the blogosphere, the Middle Class finds itself working harder and harder for fewer and fewer rewards as the wealth gets concentrated to a smaller and smaller elite and businesses try to "do more with less," and this trend has affected me, as I find myself this week in Central California for a full five days of soil sampling.
To my surprise and relief, I'm still up to the challenge, although I've never felt older than I felt back in my hotel room each night, sore, sunburned, and unable to stand up straight without grimacing. I'd still be sore the next morning, but somehow still managed to get out of bed by 5:30 each morning, down to the hotel lobby by 6:00 for the hotel's free continental breakfast with jump-suited crews of oil-well and agribusiness workers, and to the job site by 7:00 for another full day of outdoor work on my feet. At the ripe old age of 62 1/2, I was able to complete the work but was real glad when Friday morning finally rolled around and I knew it would be the last day of this particular gig.
Whatever preconceptions or mental impressions you might have of California, I can almost assure you the town I'm working in doesn't match that vision. I'm in the Central Valley, which is flat as a pancake, no mountains or beaches anywhere in sight. Agriculture is the predominant business, and this town is surrounded by almond orchards, hops farms, and open fields of I-don't-know-what. It's virtually indistinguishable from Moultrie, Georgia, right down to temperatures this week in the high 90s.
So when we finished the job today, mercifully at the early hour of 1:30 p.m., instead of heading back to the hotel for a well-deserved long shower and nap, I headed east, all sweaty and in my dirt-encrusted field clothes, determined to keep driving until I hit the High Sierras and snow-capped mountains for a taste of the California of my imagination.
It didn't take long - I-80 took me up past Sacramento and the rest of the valley, and the car started climbing - first 1,000 feet, then 2,000, then 3,000 and 4,000, etc. - all the way up to Donner's Pass at 7,227 feet. I drove a little further, past Truckee and just a few miles short of Reno and the Nevada state line, but instead of continuing to drive all the way back home to Atlanta, I finally turned the car around and headed back west to my hotel.
Nietzsche supposedly said that which doesn't kill us makes us stronger, and the Stoics said that the obstacle is the way. This week felt at times like it would kill me but it only made me stronger, and it also put me face-to-face with my obstacles, both physical and perceptual.