The mind, wandering lonely like a cloud

Clouds over a rainbow, over pods of hundreds of dolphins at Channel Islands National Park

“I wander’d lonely as a cloud…”

Our trailer, before it was christened the Gray Whale (as opposed to the white…), came off the Airstream assembly line as a 25-foot, front-bed, Flying Cloud. To be honest, although this was the right model for us, I was never too keen on this particular name. The other Airstreams are a bit less florid and whimsical: the “Classic,” the “International,” even the “Sport” and “Basecamp” have simple, robust, descriptive names that tell you either what you’re getting or what it’s used for. The Flying Cloud? Robust it is not. As for “flying”, I doubt the line of cars waiting (patiently) behind us in construction zones across America would find that very apt, either. In fact, if she is ever flying, something’s probably gone dreadfully wrong…

The Flying Cloud, stationary

But like all of us except for, perhaps, that boy named Sue, we got used to our name, and even started to grow fond of it. While I don’t recall the exact moment where I made peace with the Cloud, I do remember why I did. It took place on one of our drives to and through the national parks. Starting in the southwest, we saw our share of desolate, austere beauty in this first stage of this trip. On one particular drive—perhaps it was descending 5000 feet to the Death Valley floor, or flying past the crumbled mountains of Joshua Tree at sunset, or maybe it was being blown through the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive on a particularly windy day in Big Bend—I made what I thought was a pithy comment using borrowed pith, “I wander’d lonely as a flying cloud,” stealing the first line of William Wordsworth’s poem, Daffodils.

It was especially pithiful since it was the only line of the poem I could remember. And it remained that way for a couple of months, as we wandered the first ten thousand miles of our journey and I kept on inappropriating the only line of a classic poem I knew.

Flying clouds near Grand Canyon National Park

Luckily for the rest of this post, Wordsworth’s poem came up in a daily readings book of mine a few days ago, reminding me that there was a lot more to it than the first line.

“I wander’d lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils,
Beside the lake, beneath the trees
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretch’d in never-ending line
Along the margin of the bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced, but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:–
A Poet could not but be gay
In such a jocund company…”

So it was about flowers, not clouds.

Flowers in Big Bend, where the blooms really started

Spring has started to join us on our trip, first in the desert in Big Bend, and now in the western foothills of the Appalachians. In fact, we just attended the Spring Flower Pilgrimage in the Great Smoky Mountains last week, and I believe that Wordsworth might find the term “pilgrimage” apt, even if he wasn’t so hot on Flying Cloud.

Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park

And while we haven’t yet experienced a field of daffodils quite like the one described above, this spring on the road has reminded me of the mystery and wonder that comes from finding beauty out in nature, that hasn’t been tended by anyone—the way a cactus can be just spiny and green one day, and covered with flowers overnight.

Cactus blooms in Guadelupe National Park.

The way dogwoods grace the pine monotony of a forest like your grandmother’s fragile lace tablecloths, or wild plots of tiny irises many miles deep into a forest can enchant, and make you look over your shoulder for the person who planted them, because things like this don’t just happen on their own…

Dogwoods have been with us ever since Arkansas

And there are flowers that stick in memory and delight, many ages and ages hence. My parents camped with us in Arizona for a week, but nearly every day they would talk expectantly of the next leg of our trip, through Texas, and the fields of bluebonnets we might see in the spring, if we were lucky. They had lived there for a number of years, and this wispy bit of Texas brought a smile to my Dad’s face the likes of which only bratwurst and baseball had done before.

To be honest, I wasn’t that excited about the flowers. We were out to see far grander things, whether they be canyons or rios. Flowers, like the Flying Cloud name itself, are a bit too florid for me. But the bluebonnets were something they asked about often as we made our way from Arizona to Texas, whether on the phone, in texts, or on Facebook: “Have you seen any bluebonnets yet?…Nice sunset, what about the bluebonnets?” Bluebonnets began to haunt our dreams as they did my parents’.

This wouldn’t have surprised Wordsworth, though, because he concluded his poem like this:

“I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought;
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.”

What wealth it was! The roadsides and fields of Texas (any treeless glade you could find, really) were covered in bluebonnets—and not just blues, but reds and oranges, pinks, yellows and whites of a host of other wildflowers of which I’ll never know the name. Each blossom on its own wasn’t much, just a simple, flimsy wild flower.

Bluebonnets up close

We had lived the last 8 years of our lives in China, where roadsides of even the poorest small town of five million are beautiful manicured with roses, tulips, and peonies, planted often by migrant workers or pensioners who need a bit of extra income (sort of a CCC for the over-50 crowd). On their own, none of these flowers would have stood a chance of making it into one of those gardens. But together, you couldn’t plant a garden to rival them, no matter how many migrant workers you requisitioned to tend it.

Bluebonnets en masse.

And Wordsworth was right, I didn’t know the wealth I had in front of me as we sped down the highway, not until we left it behind for the oil fields of Shreveport. But I can still sit in solitude on my trailer’s couch and dream of them. Perhaps more importantly, I can think about the delight they brought not only to me, but to my parents, and can dream of that as well.

When beauty–and the memory of it–is shared, perhaps we’re not wandering so lonely, after all.

3 Replies to “The mind, wandering lonely like a cloud”

  1. Great piece. I’ve never seen the bluebonnets but I imagine they’re like the great swathes of wildflowers I see out here. Glad you got to experience something your parents enjoyed too.

  2. This is wonderful! I love the way you’ve incorporated Wordsworth’s poem into your writing. It’s one of my favorites, and I appreciate the way you’ve added meaning to it through your own travels and experiences.

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