Monday, April 30, 2018

Opposites in One Hand: Antelope Canyon, Day Six

Newspaper Rock, detail

There are others, of course, and they have had their own singular experience of this land.  They knew it well, far more than I ever will.  They drank its water, hunted its game, and ate its plants.  As we head south, we take a detour west off US Highway 191, to Utah Route 211.  This is a long and relatively flat road, with no stunning scenery. We enter the Needles District of Canyonlands.

The Abajo, or Blue Mountains are to the south, and they wear caps
Abajo Mountains
of snow that cascade downslope of ridges. For most of the trip, they will remain oddly  to the west and immobile, all of their peaks over 9000 feet.  Route 211 rises in elevation as we move south and west, yet a creek appears and a valley, shaded by deciduous trees (which are now bare).  Just before our destination, we slow down.  A hump of rock leans over the road – hitting it appears certain.  But we clear it, and turn to the right and our destination: Newspaper Rock, 500 feet ahead. 

In the west, Indian remains can last for centuries.  In a sparsely populated, dry and warm climate, the material culture of a people survive long after they have been killed or displaced.  Newspaper Rock is a case in point: a protruding, roundish stone at the bottom of a Cliffside, 200 square feet of exposed rock which displays nearly 2000 years of human artistic activity.  These are petroglyphs, which are picked, incised or otherwise carved into a rock face.  This rock has a black, volcanic varnish, and the some 650 figures leap off a glossy black background in shades of white and tan.  Most are clearly animals: deer, buffalo, antelope, and horses (often with riders).  Yet there is a host of abstract figures and symbols, including the “god” type figures from Capitol Reef, the strange boxy beings with headdresses and tails...the most ancient of all the carvings.

The sign informs us of how many cultures have decorated the rock: Archaic Desert, Anasazi, Fremont, Navajo, and Pueblo.  The figure are layered, ghosts of previous etchings can often be spied.  Despite their great age, the rock figures are vibrant and bold; it seems they were made in
Newspaper Rock, detail
the last few years. But they represent a vast span of time.  There is so much disorder to the rock face (disorder is not an accurate word… no one ever tried to order it, or even knew the concept of order as we know it) that we are naturally inclined to find a story here.  Even the Navajo, one of the last people to engrave the rock, felt it must have some latent narrative.  They called it “Tse’Hone” the rock that tells a story.

But there is only a story in Newspaper Rock by practicing extreme visual editing.  You have to focus in on two or three figures to form a little story.  And even then, the figures, are still a Rorschach test.  They saw more about the viewer than anything else. Nothing is fixed. The figures might as well be swimming in a liquid medium.

Across the Arizona line, the landscape opens, as if we had traveled down a series of ragged steps to the world’s cellar.  We find ourselves in a vast expanse of tan and yellow.  Here is the desert as we imagine it.  Sand, ground hugging plants stretching to the horizon – like the dream of a desert that only appears to be real.

the vanishing point, Monument Valley
Most of the family is asleep or drowsy.  The landscape commends sleep.  We move forward , but there is little sense of momentum.  I gaze at the speedometer: 105 mph, yet the rate seems completely natural.  Nothing of note passes us; there is no way to accurately judge speed or progress.  The land simply shallows your speed in a giant maw.

I want to get out and stand in the center of the road and get one of those distinctive photos where the road ends at a vanishing point.  But it is not wise.  Cars come on quickly and silent.  When they do, you are suddenly aware of a human scale in a frightening manner.  At Monument Valley, people do just that, and when you catch them in your forward gaze, you realize the preposterous position they are in; little people about to get eaten by a road.

We stop at the gas station on the Navajo Reservation.  A young white man, his skin speckled and red from drug use, tells me a story of being stranded without gas money.  Does he believe that I will believe him?  Inside, near a case of soda he can't drunk, a man is telling another of how he was arguing with yet another man about the status of Joseph Smith's murder.  "I said, he was killed, so that makes him a martyr, beyond double!"

Outside, I give my friend all the change my family has collected.  He appears surprised – because it is not more?  Because I gave him anything at all?  I tell him to be careful, to be healthy and safe.  Don’t harm yourself, I say, and his face clouds with confusion.  Is he surprised I would give him drug money?  Is he shocked by kind words?

We drive through the staggering vastness of the Navajo Reservation.  Their reservation is larger than West Virginia.  But beyond Utah and Monument Valley, the land is monotonous, and even dreary.  I know it contains secret wilderness realms, true hidden gems, back country that is little explored.  But we only see road.  So we are left wondering what is next.

Our motel in Page Arizona looks out over an alley with a mason block wall with symmetrical windows at the top, like a face without features.  But I am far from annoyed.  It is
75 degrees and sunny, and in the 20s and snowing back home.  I prop open the door and sit on the desk chair half in and out of the room.  My son starts reading the Gideon Bible, ridiculing the King James prose.  I have him read Psalm 23.  I tell him that even people who never read the Bible are familiar with it; he reads, and I explain the words.  This goes on for longer than I expect.  Perhaps he is surprised that these words actually mean something at all.

Antelope Canyon


“Is that place sacred to your people?” that is my first question to our Navajo guide.  He is a young man, round, friendly, calm.  I am surprised to hear no.  But then again, why would the Navajo escort
thousands of tourists through their most sacred space?  Antelope Slot Canyon, although natural, is not entirely so; it was discovered by a Navajo woman grazing sheep in the 1920s, and has been open for tourists through the years.  The slot canyon was formed by flowing water, often at torrential rates, so periodically the canyon floods and sand is deposited.  The company the runs the tours and owns the canyon must regrade after each heavy rain.  Otherwise, the few metal stairs and ladders would not be be at the "proper" level.  Eventually, the canyon would clog with sand and once again be hidden from view.  It would wait for yet another flood, and a curious Navajo. 

So, the canyon is, to an extent, not "natural," but how can any sane person claim it to be otherwise?  The canyon like nothing on earth, and it is nestled in the earth.   With each step, with every shift
of light or perspective, the wall take on a new face.  This in itself is odd, as the rock walls are always a variation of the theme of smooth stone flowing like solidified water.  And light and shadow provides it motion and depth. As we move, we climb.  Sometimes gradually, often steeply.  Other groups are behind and some ahead.  So the guide gently nudges us forward.  Thousand of people will enter the canyon today.  We need to vacate.

When it is over, I am surprised at how prosaic yet grand the end is.  We emerge from a crack in the earth... like a second birth, or a glimpse into the mystery of death.  We are claimed by a subterranean realm that is not quite real (and should not exist) but that is undeniably real, and beautiful.  We get tossed back up into the quotidian without ceremony. 

This is a beauty both simple and complex.  The canyon is a place where opposites can be held in one hand.

Re-born?  Or Rising from the Dead?

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Aches and an Existential Crisis: Day Five

Courthouse Tower

Few people realize how lazy I am.  Nor do they suspect the effort involved in maintaining this state.  The world either conspires to keep me as busy as possible, or it is simply its default setting.  

We are creatures living in a world which places soul grinding demands upon us.  We realize, far too late, that most of the sacrifices we leverage against our precious time was not worth the effort.  People who develop a chronic illness know this all too well. If one is sick, suddenly the mistakes and misconceptions of one's healthy years appear as a sin.  

Many people may be upset with this statement. But the metaphysical underpinning that few, or no efforts are worth the price we pay, is no one’s particular fault.  It rests with God, or the Divine, or the Stars, or the Great Accident of the Unfolding of the Universe.  

Pine Tree Arch
That hardly makes me a depressive. I think that God is testing us.  He/She/Its purpose (and I don’t like assigning God a purpose, but we will do it here as a though exercise) is to force us to either say yes or no to the heavy demands this world imposes on us.  Most of us say yes, and God, I believe, feels sad for us.  "He said yes again," God says, and shakes his/her/its allegorical head.  "Why does he always do that?"  God asks no one in particular.  "It is literally killing him."

As I am standing on a rock at the entrance to Arches National Park, gazing at the snow-capped peaks of the La Sal Mountains near the Colorado border, this sensation practically bowls me over.  The mountains are only an hour and a half away, but they seem more distant – perhaps  on another planet.  Again, the dome has been lifted off the world, and the Space that is the setting of our
The distant La Sal Mountains
planet, the very stage we stand upon, opens like an abyss.  I feel this, but it is gone far too quickly.  How long did I need to stand at the overlook, overlooking those mountains? Overlooking our lives. When would the sensation have drained in the gutter of flesh and blood?  Would I be there still if not for more “pressing” matters?

Then I realize something more subtle about my predicament.   If I die at 85, than I live for another 37 years.  How many of those years will be healthy, if we define this as “ as a man in overall control of his mind and his body?”  Would I then have 27 years?  30 years?  Less?  Our predicament is that we know nothing of all about the most important issue that faces us – how long will we live, and what shape we our elder years will form. 

Seeing the La Salle Mountains from the rocky overlook, I get a glimpse of what is, for me, a cloud burst from eternity.  In this place, the land reflects back monumental distances, colossal formations of rock, jagged and deep canyons of staggering proportions.  This is a world evolving through space and time, just as we are; we share a similar fate.  The stones and sand of Arches outlive us all – as people, as a species – yet none of this matters on the existential level.  In the gut, the land lives forever.  We die soon.

We drive on, and the sense of space becomes, richer, more defined.  Hanging Rock is up ahead: a boulder (an insufficient word) balanced on top of the pillar of stone.  It is not hanging, but perched.  It looks like it may fall at any moment, and maybe it will.  Beyond it, a plain of rolling sand unfolds to the horizon.  There is the impression, which is hard to ignore or transfer into some other image, that the massive stones were placed by an intelligent being without a sense of symmetry. 

Landscape Arch
These formations are impressive, but people come to Arches not for this type of monumental stone, but for the Arches.  Formed by“fins” of rock, the arches formed when that sea dropped, the land rose, and then collapsed back.  There are over 2000 arches in the park, and none of them will remain forever.  Some of the weaker ones, with cracks on the upper arch and thin areas on the sides, could fall in the next major storm, or last thousands of years.  But fall they will.

We see most of the major arches.  Some we miss.  We approach Devil’s Garden, peek around the corner, and decide the terrain is too sandy for our energy level.  We loop back.  Double Arch is popular.  The parking circle is completely full, so people park anywhere along the road.  The arch is so large, that beneath it feels like a spacious cavern.  People bite more than they can chew.  I help a man down a slope, and then pull his smallest child next.  A little girl asks for help on yet another slope.  “To go up or down?” I ask her.  “Down.”  So I hold out my hands and she grasps them, and I swing her to level ground.  There are too many people.

In yet another part of the park is a group of petroglyphs.  These are from sometime between 1530 to 1830, as the figures ride horses.  

Native Rock Drawings

On the overlook trail to  Delicate Arch the land is sufficed with granular copper. The salty green sand gives the appearance of the under-story of a forest in first bloom.  This perplexes the senses.  I feel overwhelmed.

But I am rescued,  We must leave.  We have yet another destination.  Once more, I am struck with how powerfully inert my life is; here, all this time, while I was doing my little tasks, this landscape existed.  We are both mutable, this landscape and I, but I am tenuously so; yet I realize, when leaving, that I must shake this awful feeling.  This election of myself as special, as worthy of an elegy to finite life, is not something worthy to lament.  We all share this fate.  I am not special.  I do not want election.  

People approaching Double Arch
Double Arch

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Pies and Petroglyphs; Capitol Reef National Park, Day Four

The highlands near Grand Escalante, on the way to Capitol Reef

The fact that this land is a study in contrasts helps highlight my investigation of Space. 

A flowering fruit tree pressed against a tan and gray canyon wall is
far more beautiful than its counterpart back home; in the north-east,
flowering trees, Fruita area, Capitol Reef
plants run apace.  Nature moves, if not in harmony, than along the same trajectory.  But in Capitol Reef National Park, plants and rocks stand in marked dissimilarity to what grows around them.  We find singularities. 

Take the Fremont River, which meanders through the valley (named after the early western explorer and failed Union general). Flowing, undulating water cascades between walls of tan and brown stone.  Space here, at least in this part of the park, has been partially tamed by this river, and by people. The net result is not negative. 

The valley was inhabited until the 1920s, and orchards of fruit trees
the Fremont River
still dot the landscape.  They are flowering now, in late March, great buds of white that smell like clover honey.  I fall deeply in love with these trees; back home it is snowing, the cold is soul sapping, but here, in the desert west, the season of life has commenced.  I practice a hand wringing rapture among these groves.

There is yet another human  element in the valley that tames space; this one to protect and preserve what would otherwise be vandalized and ruined.  A boardwalk snakes along a cliff side, which with the aid of signs, and close observation, reveals Native American
glyph in the center
pictographs (painted) and petroglyphs (carved).  People have inhabited the park for 10,000 years.  These renderings are from the so-called Fremont Culture and Anasazi (Ancestral Puebloans) - and date from about 300 – 1300 CE.  The signs tell us that there is no way to assign a meaning to the different pictures.  We will never know that intent of those who created them.  But there is no need.  The impulse to do so is a distraction from the simple pleasure of viewing.

The people who rendered these images inhabited a world of boxy figures with elaborate headdresses and fanciful tails.  Signs and symbols of both an earthly and astral nature. These figures are
glyphs on high
the filtered spiritual dream  world of people living so close to the land, they are the land. Our search for meaning in these images is fruitless for we are not only divorced from the land, but the food we eat, the water we drink, and even the weather outside our window.  

We are all deeply moved by the rock pictures – our first.  Later, when we see more recent Indian drawings, the aspect of time is a corrosive marker.  More recent drawing feature men on horses; they are smaller, stick figures, more approximate renderings of what a person is supposed to look like.  Western thinking has made the old gods and spirits tamer, more realistic – or effaced them entirely.

But we don’t feel sorrow now. Awe fills us to the brim.  We hike a short trail to Hickman Bridge.  On the map it is a tiny spur of a line.  But that line conceals dazzling diversity.  The trail moves up a
smaller caves, bunk style
slope surrounded by black, igneous rocks.  They are out of place around the sedimentary, tan cliff faces, as if some great, deliberate hand took a flame thrower to each, until they were charcoal black. 
At the crest the hill the trail descends to a dry stream, a wash.  

The wash is dry, although the sand is damp to the touch (or perhaps it is just cool in the deep shade).  The sides are pocked with divots and holes, some so large we lay down in them.  The
the "big cave"
wash twists and turns and reveals its secrets: a cave, flushed out by water, smack in the middle of the wash. Water flows through, but it never erodes the roof.  We stand on the roof; we sit in the cave.  I see the traces of maidenhair ferns in cracks.  They do not cease to amaze me – these beings of shade and damp in the desert.

The trail ends (not an accurate word, for it only really ends for us) at Hickman’s Bridge.  Like so many hikes in the west, we move from a confined space of rock, pinyon pine trees, twisted spruces and boulders, to abundant and sweeping space at the turn of a bend.  This produces a shock:  God, you think, this space has been here the whole time.  The narrow space of the wash was just a temporary form.  Space is protean.  Think you have it nailed down with your elbows and it shape shifts out of your arms.
The bridge, really an arch, is sturdy, monumental, and in deep shade.  My son scuttles up the side.  I no longer offer admonishments for these stunts.  At 15, I would have done the
not my photo!
same thing, and he knows the cardinal rule of climbing:  don’t move from one secure perch until your foot and hand have found another.  He  follows this rule, and always remains on his chosen perch.

That night we stay at Austin’s Chuckwagon Motel in Torry, Utah. We eat dinner at a pizza place.  On the door a sign explains that patrons are allowed to bring their “carry and conceal” weapons into their established – but they are kindly asked to keep their firearms holstered.  We are in Utah.  That night, as cold rises with the setting sun, we soak in the motel’s hot tub.

The next day, on the way out of the Chuckwagon, we must drive through Capitol Reef again for our next destination.  We swing through
my last sniff
valley once more, over the Fremont River, passed the Indian paintings, and in and among the edenic rows of fruit trees.  I take one more sniff of blossoms. This park hides one more secret.  Pies are sold at the house of the last settlers.  

We no longer concentrate on Space.  We buy four small, individual sized pies. With one bite my wife tells me that I must drive the car, and concentrate only on a long silver of concrete, and not the expanse of reality - this medium we swim in but seldom notice - as my wife and daughter must eat the best cherry pie they have yet to taste.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Body and Soul: Rainbow Point, Bryce National Park: Day Three

Bryce Panorama 

This voyage is also about gaining elevation – a sub-category of the sense of space.  I full well know the symbolism involved.  Climbing up the mountain for the epiphany – the divine revelation.  I don’t really care how shop worn the imagery is; the physical act of gaining elevation, swiftly, dramatically, is an embodied activity.  You must do it to realize how ‘real’ these symbols are; but this physical activity provides a trigger for something else; a state or point where the physical and some other state, some other dimension of things, is a detectable, living presence.

But our visit to Bryce Canyon National Park, and its impressive elevation, is not an epiphany in the Christian sense of the word.  God or a god will not be appearing.  Rather, I use it in the older,  more literal sense of the Greek ἐπιφάνεια, epiphaneia, "manifestation, and striking appearance." This is the sudden realization of something. Nothing literal may appear. Nothing outwardly happens.  It is already there – only a shift in emphasis has occurred.

This all sounds fuzzy, but there is no remedy for that.  I have tried to attach this experience to the activity of the body, which is grounding for all; we all understand our bodies.  Who isn’t moved by the rich, textured excitement leading to orgasm?  We feel that episode through our total body. Orgasm is an embodied act and yet transcendent.  We move away from the body, through the body. In a similar way, Bryce National Park is a somatic experience that brings us beyond the flesh  An extended orgasm?  Not quite, but a sub-experience of that blessed release.

switchbacks going down
With its highs and lows, Bryce awakens the body.  Perhaps because of this, Bryce is far less visited than Zion.  The park is so high, and nearly always cool, and quite often cold.  So only a paltry 2.6 million people visited Bryce in 2017.  In 2007 just over a million people visited Bryce.    Attendance has grown steadily every year, and shows no sign of stopping.

So we park easily. The rim of the Bryce’s canyon is no more than a few feet from cabins and lodges. Immediately the shock of an open expanse of upright rock and a stupendous drop. One column of stone, called Thor’s Hammer, stands alone, suggestive and phallic.  Maybe that keeps people away? But from the rim, people do mill about. They are from all over the world.  Chinese arrive by bus.  They are enthusiastic travelers, and intrepid.

We begin to walk down the innumerable switchbacks of Navajo Trail.  Nearly everyone hikes this popular hike, a long descent down a narrow canyon. The trail is 1.3 miles long, with a net loss of 550 feet.  And of course, what goes down must come up. 

So as we descend, the crowd thins.  Some Lot’s wife type folks look back and realize that they must climb up what they climbed down and panic.
down & up
We reach the bottom, to Bryce Creek, which is dry, which is a fortunate occurrence.  When it isn’t, the trail is sensibly is closed.  The creek cascades biblically through the canyon, depositing swales of sand, rock and debris, carrying the living and rendering them dead.

The space of the canyon is closed; the unfathomable expanse of Bryce is extruded between stone walls.  This is dreamlike… the extrusion of space between walls of unconquerable stone.  As if
switchbacks going up
Space is tamed by nature – but that domestication is an illusion.  Stones are constantly tumbling down.  Sand is always shifting.  Water and wind sculpt and destroy. We climb back, our legs leaden with lactic acid.  At the top I want to experience Space on a dramatic and wide pallet.  So we head to the south highlands of the park.

Few visit Bryce's south.  Navajo Trail is taxing; perhaps the switchbacks beat the spunk out of most. It is a long drive, and at the far end of the road there is a vast abyss.  If you wish to go further, you must hike through rugged and unforgiving terrain.

the park high point
Rainbow Point, at 9100 feet, offers wide views of Bryce, and the expanse of the Grand Escalante, a series stepping stone rock layers
that expose 50 million years of the Earth’s layered history.  On this clear, crisp day (35 F) we can see distant Arizona on the horizon.  But the essence of this place is the weightless feeling.  We are somatically released by the air, the views, and the sun falling across an expanse of space we fail to comprehend. The grid of the senses are skewed.  Something is far off.  What can it be?  I know less of what I want after gazing at the distant horizon.

I walk away from Rainbow Point satisfied with my dissatisfaction.  I have uncovered a great necessity that I never knew existed.  I need to “climb” a peak of 10,000 feet.  It is a milestone that I must accomplish.  But I question the fitness of my body.  I wonder what benefit it will accomplish for my soul.  And will I have time before I die?

high-point views i
high-point views ii

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Other Zion - Utah: Day Two

a prickly pear cactus, in bloom, Zion

I approached Zion National Park with trepidation. Really. But not because I have an inherent hostility to Mormon’s appropriating Jewish place names for their sacred expanses. As a non-Christian I don't care if Mormons are Christians, if they have a legitimate place in the pantheon of creeds – I have no vested interest in such details. Despite the outward appearance that I practice some kind of unwavering orthodoxy, inside I conceive of the slope upward to the Divine as crisscrossed with multiple trails and all leading to the same, inexplicable, ultimately baffling place.

No, my fears are more modern and primal: crowds… the human hordes. The internet is festooned with warnings about swarms of homo sapiens mooning about this park. In the past decade alone,
line; not my picture
from 2007 to 2017, attendance at Zion Nation Park has doubled, from an already unsustainable 2.6 million to 4.3 million a year.  Nearly 4.3 million people every 365 days cram into the relatively narrow canyon to experience Nature.  Must we elaborate on this irony? No, we can speed past it.  Simply put, if Zion greets us with lines of cars and crowds both inside and outside of park, we need another Promised Land. Far better off we would be to simply park the car on the side of the road, and take a hike up a desert wash to some unnamed (for us) and unknown (for us) mesa.  Then we will call this unpeopled place Zion.

a slope of prickly pair cactus

There is an added feature to my fear.  As the first official stop on our trip, this visit may very well set the tone for the entire tour.  If we leave Zion, the Promised Land, negatively overwhelmed, stumbling with regret, disgusted with our species – will we right ourselves for the remaining days?  I suspected it would be a difficult task. We are supposed to be traveling at a middling time for hordes.  Late March is not the peak season – that is the summer when temperatures reach in excess of 90 degrees. Why would that be peak?  There is also a mini-peak during “Spring Break” and chronologically our trip falls in this zone.  But is it really Spring Break?  We arrive the week before Easter.  Doesn’t Spring Break commonly occur after Easter?  But really the point is moot.  For regardless, it is someone’s Spring Break somewhere, as we near the park.  And they are probably headed for Zion.      

Part of Zion’s problem with crowds, but only a part, is geography.  The popular southern end of the park is a narrow valley flanked by
the writer, heading up
magnificent, soaring peaks. So when cars start pouring in, there is little room for them.  At the entrance, our machines get lodged into the narrow neck of an hour glass.  But there is no ordinary hour glass.  Behind us is an expansive glass bulb of space just below the level of infinity.  But ahead of us is a narrow neck, and that neck continues on the other side, and does not end for miles.

So, as I have stressed, this is a narrow Zion.  Shuttle buses transport visitors to various trail-heads, but one must reach the parking lot and find a spot to even attain field position.  And lo and behold, the
cars slow.  But it is not from the park space pollution – the road has been closed to one lane.  Now the sand has been channeled from a slender tube to a tube within a tube. Things are not
looking favorable. But the movement of cars obeys the teleology of small spaces not yet overly encumbered.  We move along.  We lurch stubbornly forward until we see the Ranger’s booth ahead.

Somehow we did make it through the booth.  We roll beyond the entrance.  The lot was full.  We took a turn around once, and, on the second orbit, found an empty space.  We did it; almost painlessly' an expletive I have never used before fell from my mouth: “sweet asshole.”  I don’t know what that phrase may mean, but it was meant as an affirmation of positive thinking against the dark shadow of the bitter negative.

Yes, you have probably made the observation that I am spending a great deal of time discussing parking, or more precisely the fear of not parking.  Yet the operative word in parking is “space,”
cedar tress abound
space, the investigation of its properties, how we react to it, and it responds to us, how it molds us and we mold it – is the major factor or motivation for this trip.  Here the tiny parking space  of Zion is key to open far grander spaces: the majesty of the West, the physical symbol of the open Self, the endless Over-Soul.  I am nearly jumping in the parking lot.

We decide to hike up The Watchman Trail, just behind the visitor’s center.  It is only three miles round trip, and a three hundred foot climb.There is nothing particularly strenuous about the hike; this is not a test of endurance. This is not Zion’s backcountry. Rather, it was a visual revelation. Each time you turn, you have gained elevation, and each time you turn, the valley below shrinks.

At mid-point there is an indentation in the rocks that is shaded and damp. We take a break, and notice maiden hair ferns, which demand moisture, growing in a damp crease against the rocks.  But most of the way up it is spiked shrubs, prickly pear cactus, and clustered forbidding, stunted trees.

At the top is a loop trail, and each time the trail approaches the
ledge, the view of the valley is laid out before us, sweeping north. 
This is Zion – the Promised Land – or someone’s Promised Land. And the God of this land is space, both the element of space that is “empty” and the contrary element that is “full.”

Full and empty all are all around us, and the world proceeds up and down, in and out of an arch of this existence.  The further up, the thinner, sleeker the space; the world puts on its leisure wear, and becomes a sprinter. All is light and fleet footed.
We are not in our cars or at our desks or crammed into hallways elbowing the neighbor's we are supposed to love.  We are open and free.  We are here:

valley view, from the top of The Watchman Trail, i
valley view, from the top of The Watchman Trail, ii

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

South Las Vegas Boulevard, Looking West. Day One

the writer; the west
The familiar sensation of hot sun and cold shade of the American West.  All in a passing moment, as you move from dark to light.  I felt this twenty-five years before; I feel it again.

Las Vegas at its outskirts is spare to the east coast eye.  It is a patchwork of chain hotels and fast food restaurants, parcels of sand, stunted trees, and trash.  Like the adjacent lot of our hotel; all is still upon arrival, but on the next day on the way to breakfast, there is a collection of bags, and a lump of blankets.  A homeless man is sleeping under a crooked pine. While we slept one-hundred feet away under over-bleached comforters, in view of the heated pool, he wrapped himself up in our scraps and crashed on our abandoned earth.

This matters but what can I do but turn away?  I am not here to save a person. The morning air is cool and dry with a sting that is not altogether unpleasant.  It is a token of warmth to arrive later, wisps of cold that vanish as the sun climbs.  In the immediate distance there are  empty plots of sand, desert plants and human debris. Then a low building in the far distance.

Behind that, a tan haze, and a curtain of mountains to the west, which I now learn is topped by Mount Charleston, which at 11,916 feet is capped with snow.  The face that is turned to us is dusky white.  It remains white even on our return trip, when it reaches 86 in the Las Vegas Valley.  Such extremes are strange to an eastern man, settling oddly upon the joints and bones.

In this immediate moment, Las Vegas raps the forehead with its obvious incongruities.  The patches of sand, the homeless man, the  rows of personal injury lawyer billboards... this is the skelton
the Las Vegas valley
that holds up an incomplete occupation of space, carved up in the cruel dichotomy of this city.  Like the waters of the Bellagio Hotel. This very idea a “lake” and choreographed water, and all accompanied by dancing light, is a nod to the concept that money enables us to disobey the laws of nature – at least for the present.  At least while the water holds out.

Then more: less than a mile from the strip are rows of bail bondsmen, car washes, pay day loan storefronts, cash check outlets, and yet more personal injury lawyers. From mere appearance, Las Vegas is highly litigious. But I won't dwell on the incongruities of this town.  The purpose of this trip is not to condemn Vegas (besides, it is low hanging fruit). No, what I want from this trip is a genuine experience of the West.  Of the Outdoors.  Of a place where Space is both a physical entity and a metaphysical Truth.  I take this very seriously.

Ironically, Las Vegas, a city of rags and patches, begins this serious pursuit. It is captured in the photo above  We see the long shadow; the patch of gravel and sand; the boulder, incorporated into the liminal zone where parking lot meets South Las Vegas Boulevard.  Beyond that, as if cut from another picture, a triangle of tan earth, and further still, Mount Charleston waving and sparkling through the thermals.  What this says to me, and not too subtly, is that this city is breaking apart.  And this is good.  For not too far away, in the line of our sight, is a greater and higher reality.  It is even snow-capped.

That is "reality" to me.  We carve out a bit of sense in the swatch of nonsense that we hear and see all day.  We experience an event, a trip, a love, and it fades to memory.  We can't leave memories alone.  We toy with the damn things, the done things, insisting that they abide by the rules of our own narratives.  And in the process, it all gets lost.  We loose the thread of our story.

But at least we can run away!  Here, in this picture, is revealed the key to that very forgivable human impulse: the sanctuary of the highlands in the distance... of Space without end.  Here, it is cool, snow-capped, simple.  It is probably a lie, but it is a lie that we can feel on the air, in the crisp breeze of the desert shadows.  In the hint of greater warmth in the morning sunshine.  It is the sense that if we don’t like what we see, where we are, what we are doing, we can leave and remake or rebuilt that part of the self that is cracked, broken, or empty with longing. Our country is big enough for such ventures, and there are precedents in our history.

This is, at least, a sliver of the American Dream that I embrace, despite it shade of pathology.  It dovetails neatly with my religious and spiritual ideas.  It resonates with the tune beat out by my mind and heart.  We should not put down enduring roots! Our tabernacle should be portable.  We must exercise caution in what we choose to grasp, for it may grasp us. Everything passes away.  This is freedom.

sunrise over a Vegas sandy lot

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Best Place on Earth: Stories, by Ayelet Tsabari

The Best Place on Earth: Stories, by Ayelet Tsabari, are textured tales about the price we pay for calling a land a home, and then giving it up.  

All the characters in this collection live in Israel, and are in some form or another estranged from their country – and at least one is not even a Jew.  In one moving story “Invisible” the main character is a woman from the Philippines  care-taking an elderly Israeli woman, and living illegally in the country.

Tsabari puts in crisis the very idea that we can every find a home.  For Jewish Israeli’s, this crisis is even more acute, as Zionism was supposed to solve the problem of Jewish homelessness.  But really, the problems is deeper.  We are all homeless in an existential sense.  We all feel fidgety and off-center in our world.  This collection of stories stares this reality straight in the face.