Alan, the Tattooed Wayfarer

 

Nearly an hour after talking about discovering a dwarf star, I notice.

It’s a tattoo of, I think, a compass. Yes, it’s a compass, and Alan Vasquez Soto has it etched on his left forearm inside a circular frame of Spanish words that look like ink ants to me.

Alan’s tattoo peeks out from just underneath his sleeve. I can’t read Spanish. It says “Se Hace” … something. So, I ask.

Alan, a physics senior at High Point University, tells me he designed the tattoo himself last year while doing some star work at an observatory in Chapel Hill. Had it inked at Little John’s, he says.

I know that place. See it every time I come home from work in High Point — tacked to a hill beside busy Gate City Boulevard in Greensboro, sometimes with a homeless guy flying a sign asking for money from cars queuing up at the light.

But back to Alan’s tattoo. What do the words mean?

“Oh,” Alan says. “It means, ‘Wayfarer, there is no way, make your way by going farther.’”

Wait a minute. What?

That’s where Alan’s tattoo story begins.

He discovered the poem when he was a student at Greensboro’s Page High. He loved it, and it’s become one of his favorites, written by Spanish poet Antonio Machado.

Here’s the whole poem in its 10 lines of lyrical beauty.

Wayfarer, there is no path

Wayfarer, the only way

Is your footprints and no other.

Wayfarer, there is no way.

Make your way by going farther.

By going farther, make your way

Till looking back at where you’ve wandered,

You look back on that path you may

Not set foot on from now onward.

Wayfarer, there is no way;

Only wake-trails on the waters.

 

But really, it’s those two lines — all  11 words — that Alan wants to remember. For him, they are more than simply letters on a page.

“It’s really cliché but you know the line,” Alan says. “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”

I do love me some Nietzsche. I mean, anyone who sees music and movement as life-critical as oxygen is way OK by me. But what does his oft-repeated line have to do with Alan?

Much.

Alan moved from Chile to Greensboro a month shy of his 6th birthday. Like every immigrant I’ve ever interviewed, Alan’s parents came to seek a better life and a better education for their children.

But Alan, then an only child, was terrified. He couldn’t speak a word of English. He even didn’t want to go back to school because he was mute with fright.

But his mom was persistent.

“What are we doing here?” she told him. “You go to school to learn.”

Alan adapted. And learned.

A teacher taught him English after school, and within a few months, Alan became the family’s translator. He was the little boy who went with his parents to the doctor, to the grocery store, just everywhere to interpret the world for them.

By age 13, Alan’s life got tougher. His parents divorced, and Alan stayed with his mom. She worked as a waitress and tried to make ends meet as she raised Alan and his little sister, Michelle.

alanfam

Alan with his mom, Ruth Soto, and his sister, Michelle.

 

It was never easy. But Alan’s intelligence helped.

He is some kind of smart. He came to visit HPU, met the physics faculty and saw his potential. Meanwhile, he helped his family’s finances by snagging HPU’s $10,000 scholarship awarded to the smartest students who come to campus.

Alan became a Presidential Scholar and dove into physics, a subject he first discovered at Page.

At HPU, Alan has done everything from designing hovercrafts to discovering a dwarf star. He made that discovery while spending a week with an HPU student and a professor at an observatory perched atop one of the world’s highest mountains way south of us.

Alan discovered the star in Chile, the land of his birth. It was his first trip back to his homeland. How cool is that?

Yet, no matter the excitement, Alan worried about his mom and money. He was a first-generation college student, and he stayed at home to save money and took out student loans to pay for his education. Meanwhile, he constantly looked for financial help.

He thought he found it through a non-profit in Charlotte that provides scholarships to the children of immigrants. He applied, and he received a full-ride scholarship. But he found out he would have to leave HPU and go to a university that partnered with the non-profit to receive the scholarship.

Alan said no. He liked HPU too much.

He liked the opportunities HPU offered and the faculty he found. Plus, he was minutes from his mom. She worked at a restaurant near campus, and he knew he wanted to remain close to her.

I wrote about Alan here. Yet, I didn’t dive into his tattoo or his scholarship snafu. Not enough room. But since we first sat down, his situation has pinged in my brain because I know we all make decisions at some point in our lives, and those decisions change our personal and professional trajectory forever.

That’s what happened to Alan. He decided to stay, not go. And that’s how Alan sees his life. He’s making his way.

That’s why Alan has ink on his arm. It’s his reminder, his comfort. He wants to see that verse for the rest of his life because those 11 words, those two lines written by Antonio Machado long ago, represent his life.

“You know, it’s like in the movies when you see everything go black and people keep walking,” Alan says. “I imagine life being that way. You don’t know what will happen next, and that’s what life is like.”

Sounds terrifying.

“I know. But is there a better way to live your life? It would be worse to stand still. This way, you’re always moving forward.”

Alan sees himself moving forward. But he’s also remembering the past.

Take that Tuesday in October 2015.

starpic

Alan and Eugene Filick with their discovery.

 

It’s 2 in the morning at the top of a Chilean mountain. The world outside is ink-black and Alan and HPU student Eugene Filick stare at a computer screen, not saying anything, checking out a computer program Alan wrote.

That night, Alan’s program had just found a dwarf star.

The name?  SDSS J234158.11-094717.0.

Try to remember that. I sure can’t. So, all I do is cut … and paste.

But for the life of me, every time I see that long line of letters and numbers, I think of “TVC15,” the cool-groove tune David Bowie wrote decades ago about a holographic TV and a guy who crawls inside to find his girlfriend.

It’s from “Station to Station,” one of the first albums I ever bought. I still have it. By the way, Iggy Pop came up with that whole TVC15 thing during a drug-induced haze at Bowie’s L.A. place long ago.

Crazy.

Station_to_Station_cover

Anyway, I digress. Back to the star, the dwarf star Alan and Eugene discovered.

“It’s hard to put into words,” Vasquez Soto says today. “But it was really cool. It’s like when Dr. Barlow saw his daughter for the first time. Seeing that white dwarf star for the first time was like seeing a newborn. It makes you feel full.”

Brad Barlow, Alan’s astrophysicist professor, knows that feeling.

His daughter, Frances Clare, was born no more than two months ago. And ever since Brad was a kid, peering through a telescope in his back yard in Mississippi, he has always been in awe at what he saw in the sky above him.

So has Alan. That’s why he has two lines, 11 words, on his left forearm.

**

Wayfarer, there is no way.

Make your way by going farther.

**

“It reminds me to keep on my path,” Alan says of his tattoo. “Then, I’ll never lose my way.”

alan

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