"Now John Henry was a mighty man, yes sir. He was born a slave in the 1840's but was freed after the war. He went to work as a steel-driver for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, don't ya know. And John Henry was the strongest, the most powerful man working those rails.
John Henry, he would spend his days drilling holes by hitting thick steel spikes into rocks with his faithful shaker crouching close to the hole, turning the drill after each mighty blow. There was no one who could match him, though many tried.
Well, the new railroad was moving along right quick, thanks in no little part to the mighty John Henry. But looming right smack in its path was a mighty enemy - the Big Bend Mountain. Now the big bosses at the C&O Railroad decided that they couldn't go around the mile and a quarter thick mountain. No sir, the men of the C&O were going to go through it - drilling right into the heart of the mountain.
A thousand men would lose their lives before the great enemy was conquered. It took three long years, and before it was done the ground outside the mountain was filled with makeshift, sandy graves. The new tunnels were filled with smoke and dust. Ya couldn't see no-how and could hardly breathe. But John Henry, he worked tirelessly, drilling with a 14-pound hammer, and going 10 to 12 feet in one workday. No one else could match him."You can imagine my surprise when the mighty man himself sat down beside me, put his big hand gently on my shoulder and said, "Let's talk". Okie Dokie. We came to the point very quickly, standing there beside those thousand graves. A thousand lives, a thousand dreams, and the lives and dreams of all those who loved and were left behind by those workers. What a waste.
And for what gain? To get to the other side of the mountain, of course. I couldn't help but think of the giant mountain that lies smack in the path of America now as it was the source of my insomnia to begin with. What was on the other side of this crisis, this breaking down of what has always worked? If we could only see what was on the other side of the mountain, we'd know what action to take on this side. After all, if there is nothing but desolation and deprivation there, why then, let's just stay over here and make the best of it. Repair the status quo and all that.
But that doesn't seem to be our cultural bent. Our Declaration of Independence claims our birthright: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The American Dream is about progress, not happiness. We have to get to the other side of the mountain at all costs.
I wondered if we couldn't just travel the extra distance around the mountain instead of killing ourselves bashing through solid rock. Mr. Henry grinned big and bright and set off at a pace I could hardly match. I concentrated so hard on keeping up with him, I didn't pay attention to the landscape. Before long, I realized that I had lost my perspective. Where the heck was the other side of the mountain? All I knew for sure was that I was indeed going around the mountain. My heart sunk when we arrived back at the sad graves.
There hadn't been anything different on any side of the mountain except perhaps fewer dead people. There were just more mountains, and trees, and glorious towering rocks, and sweet babbling streams, and the soft murmur of life moving about its own business. But here I was, back at the hole in the rock, watching the crowd of head-smackers growing larger and more desperate to get through to the other side by the shortest route possible.
John Henry and I backed quietly away. We sat there on a rock awhile and let the fading moonlight wash over us. He never did ask if I wanted to go back to the other side of the mountain or even to the top of the mountain for a better look at what lay ahead. Mr. Henry just waited until the sounds of panic and thrashing about faded from my ears, letting me hear the stream and the soft rustling of forest life again. Then he asked to see what was in my pack. I must have looked surprised because a laugh rumbled deep in his chest. "I know you'll be heading back around that mountain. That old American Dream is bigger than both of us for sure."
So we dug through my pack: Right on top was the photo of my beautiful family, grinning and waving to me like the pictures in Harry Potter's world. I couldn't help notice they were suited up for a grand adventure. There were tools in the pack that I've picked up over the last few years: tools for healing and living comfortably in the natural world and nourishing each element of my space. I found a few souvenirs of other trips, trinkets of sad stories and happy times that have made me ready. And we found a whole lot of extra room, empty pockets that seemed to accuse me of glaring negligence.
"Well, you'd best get going." He stood and dusted off his britches and stretched his long muscles a bit. What! Didn't he see the empty pockets, the missing pieces, the obvious lack of preparation for what was on the other side? Mr. Henry just rumbled again and gave me a one-armed hug that nearly squashed all the air from my lungs.
"What is on the other side?" When I just stood there with my thinking loops a-whirling, he smiled and tapped me on the forehead. "It's just life. It's just the living. Don't go dying just to figure out what's on the other side of life."
Well, there you go. Now you've heard the tale exactly as it happened. On this bright, cold morning, it all seems a little like a dream. But I tell you what, if you are still awake at 3:00 am, with the evening news anchors droning their annoying muzak, and you just laying there wondering what in the heck you're going to do, get out your pack. Get out your pack and look through it. The American Dream is about the freedom to live, to be happy. What you've put in your pack all these years has less to do with getting there than it does about being here.