For the last 10 days, I've shut down the Shutdown. Haven't read a newspaper, logged on, or tuned in to a single episode of All Things Considered, and evidently, I haven't missed a thing. While our partisan politicians have been stonewalling with all the apparent maturity of hissy-fitting middle schoolers, I've been doing a little stonewalling myself—i.e. bicycling along the ancient roads of Majorca, Spain's enchanting island outpost in the Mediterranean, where arid mountains contrast with azure seas, and stones upon stones are the lay of the land.
We biked up and down mountains, past old terraced olive groves, and over 500+ kilometers of ancient winding roads and lanes that were once oxcart paths or pilgrims' passageways enroute to astonishing mountaintop monasteries. And nearly every kilometer was accompanied by a dry stonewall, hand-built without any mortar or cement. Pedra en sec. Just stacks upon stacks of stone from the Tramuntana mountains that pack and settle in a tight jigsaw of architecture.
Some of these walls date back to the 13th century, back to the Moors and the Romans. Today, they are still noble and dutiful, marking the way and patiently retaining whatever it is that retaining walls retain, while posing for those of us who pass by, centuries later, on high-tech bikes clicking shots from our iPhones.
When you're pedaling up 26 switchbacks of one of the steepest mountains you've ever pedaled up, a sturdy stone wall is a good companion. It says: Take it one rock at a time, one rock on top of the other, don't worry about which one comes next. It coaches: Build from the bottom up, it will all work out. It whispers: slow and steady. It laughs: Hey—it's cool, give yourself a break, see, there are gaps here and there, some pieces fit better than others, but it's okay.
I miss those walls today as I slowly emerge from jetlag haze. I need their gentle containment, their assurance and age-old wisdom, as I re-enter my real life, far from magical Mediterranean islands and days where my only concern was riding to the next cafe for a midday espresso or cervesa. I am reluctant to come home to the constant media grumble of all that is wrong in DC, of all that is broken and shut-down. I think what amazes me most about being away, traveling abroad, biking across an island in a land ancient and foreign, is how miraculous it is that so many things do work. That I could board a plane on one side of the ocean and land safely on the other. That a bike I'd never seen and never ridden before worked beautifully for six long days in the saddle. That people I'd never met and couldn't understand were friendly, generous, helpful. That hotels booked through some Internet magic actually had my reservation. That there were clean sheets and perfumey tiny soaps by the sinks. That cab drivers didn't wreck. That paella and Sangria were plentiful. That while I was away my children went to school and made it to soccer practice. That my dog was walked and my plants watered. That loving friends picked up the pieces I left behind and made sure all was taken care of. All so I could ride a bike with my husband alongside amazing old stonewalls.
As we traveled our last leg home this morning at 1 a.m. with airport cab-driver Eddie Gibson, Jr., a Charleston native who welcomed us back with tales of growing up downtown and proud stories of his father who had been a famed Tuskeegee Airman, and as I went in to give my worry-prone daughter a hug and could hear the relief in her sleepy voice that we were home, I was in awe that the stones all tell a story, and that they all, mostly, stay in place.
I have to agree with G.K. Chesterton, that "The whole order of things is as outrageous as any miracle which could presume to violate it." That's not to say that there isn't plenty of disorder and political craziness. But that's the sideshow, not the big picture. The big picture is that somehow things do work, one stone on top of the other.