Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Year of the Cave

Inevitably, the year's end is a time of reflection. When I worked with my parents and brother on our old-fashioned family Christmas letter, I came to realize what an epochal year this has been, for all of us. Whether documenting and reporting rare bryophytes in the New River Gorge of West Virginia, teaching political science at a prestigious university in Scotland, or representing clients at bail hearings in Alaska—the Studlars have been busy. (Sue, Don, and Ross pictured above, Carl pictured below.)

My portion of the letter reads as follows:
“Ross has declared 2013 'the year of the cave,' although that moniker does not fully summarize the diverse events. His year began in West Virginia, and the highlights of the first few months were environmental activist events. He attended the Forward On Climate Rally in Washington, D.C., then gained unique new education at Mountain Justice Spring Break, a camp which drew student and professional activists from around the country to rural West Virginia, to study and protest mountaintop removal and fracking, in cooperation with local concerned citizens. It featured classroom trainings, tours of desecrated landscapes, and a march on the state capital. In the midst of the camp, Ross received a job offer on his cell phone—from Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Ross made the westward trek in his Subaru Outback, first to the Grand Canyon for a backpacking trip with a friend, then to Carlsbad, New Mexico. He served as a seasonal Park Ranger from May through October. He guided tours of the developed caverns, and led or acted as “caboose” for off-trail adventure caving tours. He navigated the winding maze of Spider Cave and the vertical climbs and tight squeezes of The Hall of the White Giant, and was relieved to discover that he is not particularly claustrophobic. He narrated evening bat flight programs, sharing science and mythology about bats, before the swirling cloud of winged mammals emerged from the cave's natural entrance. Ross made sure to visit nearby Roswell to rekindle childhood fascinations with UFOs. A few days before his expected layoff from Carlsbad Caverns, Ross managed to secure a winter Volunteer Ranger position at Wind Cave National Park, which is located in the black hills of South Dakota. On his road trips, Ross met the archeological marvels of the southwest, including multiple petroglyph sites, and the Great Houses of Chaco Culture National Historical Park; he also visited natural wonders like Delicate Arch and Cataract Canyon. Although Wind Cave's complex maze of underground passageways has its intrigue, Ross has been most enamored with the rolling prairies and pondersa pine forests found at the surface, and their wildlife—including bison, elk, pronghorns, coyotes, prairie dogs, and black-footed ferrets. Ross also made two trips to the Pacific Northwest, to attend the wedding of a friend from The Homestead, and to exhibit comics work at the Portland Zine Symposium.”

My activist endeavors, and the stinging interruption in work from the government shutdown, should serve as a reminder that there is much to be done to make the world better. This interview with Noam Chomsky gives us a good reminder of the uphill battle ahead, and that each of us CAN make a difference. In the face of environmental, economic, and humanitarian crises, we should remember the heroic life of Nelson Mandela, and strive to achieve a tiny percentage of similar courage.

But on a lighter front, I wish to reflect on my explorations of dark worlds, in the Year of the Cave. At Wind Cave, I will remember the winding tunnels and boxwork, which resembles ethereal spiderwebs. At Carlsbad Caverns, I will remember the spacious Guadalupe Room, with its pincushion ceiling of soda straws (thin stalactites.) To arrive there, we had to face the four challenges of Hall of the White Giant, then go beyond, down subterranean muddy slopes and boulder fields. I won't easily forget Slaughter Canyon Cave, where, upon emergence from the blackout, I led a crew of boy scouts to create a light show, by blinking our headlamps onto the Christmas Tree, a formation that looked and sparkled like its namesake. I keep a map of Spider Cave on my wall, the wondrous maze, with its calcite formations that seem to be made of marshmallows, and the dark red and gray pattern of crusts that grow on its walls, the excrement of strange bacteria. Caves are truly alien worlds, with life forms so strange that they—alongside deep ocean extremophiles—have forced science to revisit and expand its definition of life. And there are creatures quite related to us—the bats—who perceive the world so differently, via echolocation, that we cannot fully imagine what the world is like through their eyes. In 1974, philosophy professor Thomas Nagel asked “What is it like to be a bat?,” and his essay had an influence on the study of consciousness. I borrowed some of his ideas, and tried to blow minds on my tours of the King's Palace at Carlsbad Caverns.

As surface dwellers, our bodies don't know how to react to subterranea—we quickly lose orientation and sense of time; and, with extended stays, our circadian rythms go out of alignment. Long term cave explorers may keep awake and active for 24 hours or more, then take a long sleep.

Over time, people have found many symbolic meanings in caves, from the dragon's lair to the womb of Mother Earth. Carlsbad Caverns early explorer Jim White named the first several features he encountered after the devil. Later explorers named features after characters from Greek mythology, or the Lord of the Rings series. The Mescalero Apache tell a story about two disabled men who were lost in a cave, then visited by the mountain spirits who led them to light, and granted them new powers and new gifts. The Lakota tell a story of how the ancestors of their people , and the bison, were created underground, and born into the world via Wind Cave, the “breath of life hole.” As I journeyed through caves, I came to know that strange combination of security and fear, awe and apprehension, which cave explorers have known since ancient times.

And caves are truly a new frontier. Almost every square inch of earth's surface has been mapped, but many thousands of miles of cave still lie in darkness and await discovery. New and unimagined worlds await.

 Top two photos by ©Susan Moyle Studlar

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Bison on the Prairie

Yesterday, I made this oil pastel drawing from life, and viewed this shaggy bull from the security of my car, near the southeastern end of Wind Cave National Park. It was like a pleasant fall day, with temperature around 50 Fahrenheit, and the sun dropped lower in the afternoon sky as I worked; I had already been for a hike in the prairie. Today, the temperature has plummeted, the wind whistles and the snow flurries, and visibility is less than 50 feet. A change in weather similar to the one described in the story of Tatanka! (See previous post.) In these conditions, the bison endures, faces the wind head-on, and relies on his many layers of fur and fat for warmth. I applaud the animal's durability. As for me, I am agreeable to be inside right now, but wish that I had a fireplace. Happy Holiday season, everyone!

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Thunderbeast has a taste for salt

At last, my blue Subaru Outback, with its ton of books and clothes and art supplies and camping gear, chugged up the final hill. On the hull and grill were the collected dust and unfortunate insects from the National Parks of Rocky Mountains, Arches, Canyonlands, Mesa Verde, and Chaco Culture; the cities of Denver and Albuquerque; and the long string of townships and open country along interstate 70 and highway 55. Finally, I came to the entrance of Wind Cave National Park. I would stay here for a while. Beside the emblematic wooden sign, painted brown with engraved yellow letters, was the great beast of the frontier. The bison, or American buffalo. Probably a bull, with its looming shoulder hump, massive head, shaggy black fur, curved horns, muscular forelegs. He lumbered along the prairie, sniffed the air, brought his head low to munch the grass. I pulled over for a photo, but stayed in the car. I thought it best to be safe with a wild bison. Upon resuming the drive, I shortly passed a sign: “Buffalo are dangerous. Do not approach.”

Further up the road, there were more of them. They wandered about the prairie, and in the road. No fences barred their path. I slowed dramatically, and as I approached, they ambled to just barely out of the way. The road cut through open prairie. The great blue dome of sky above stretched to far horizons in all directions. The omnipresent grass waved in the wind, and so did the branches of the ponderosa pine trees, at the prairie's edge, and covering the hills. The beast of American yore in the setting of yore. The great plains.

A few miles on, a coyote ran across the road, and continued his bounding until he was a toy in the distance. More cautious than the bovids, he looked back towards me and continued to run away, this time at an easy lope.

Parts of the prairie were pockmarked with holes. Beside them, the prairie dogs stood on their hind legs and surveyed the landscape, ready to sound the alarm. The ones near to the road bounded on all fours to the nearest hole when my car rolled by.

I pulled up before the visitor center, exited the vehicle and entered the building, met my new co-worker Amanda, received instructions for how to reach my new residence. In a hidden corner of the prairie, the housing area resembled a miniature suburb, complete with the backyard basketball hoops and volleyball net. The biologist Barb, from two doors down, having received a Facebook message from Amanda, greeted me as I pulled in, and showed me to my door. A sizeable apartment, with two bedrooms, and a desk in the living room. As the first to move it, I claimed that precious wooden cuboid. I tested my gizmos, and found an absence of phone signal or functioning internet. I wished to connect with friends, and inform them that I had arrived. But I lacked the means.

My smart phone, for all its high-tech bragaddocio, wasn't good for much here, except an alarm clock. I later learned that north from the visitor center, at the junction of roads, phones could gain signal. On a cold and windy evening, I fired up the engine of my subaru, and drove uphill. The car chugged and strained less than it had on the road trip, for its great load of stuff had moved into the apartment.

Up hill, at the junction, I pulled over, and turned off the engine. A group of ten or more bison grazed, their humped forms silhouetted against the darkening grey sky. My phone gained a few bars. I called my friend Raven in Los Angeles, and she answered. As we talked about my adventures in Arches and Canyonlands, a bison ambled my direction, and others followed. I thought it perhaps coincidence. I soon realized it was not. They walked to my vehicle. Then the creaking and popping noises of tongues on metal. They licked the salt, which had accumulated on my hull throughout the road trip. As more of them surrounded me and the car seemed to rock gently under the caress of beastly tongues, I became concerned. Only a narrow bit of metal was between me and an unpredictable herbivores. Should I turn on the engine? Would it disperse the bison or anger them? As more gathered, I asked Raven for a pause in conversation. I had seen the animals move from the path of cars, albeit reluctantly. I turned on the engine. The bovids backed off, by a few feet. Before they could resume their pursuit of salt, I drove further up the road.

It is wise to exercise caution around bison. We often underestimate the herbivores. Bison evolved alongside wolves, grizzly bears, forest fires, and subzero winter temperatures; they were bred in a world where only the strong survive. Against real or perceived threats, the bison often practices the strategy of “the best defense is a good offense.” It's first weapon is it's thick skull, used as a battering ram. At full gallop, the beast becomes a freight train with fur. It will also gore with horns, and kick and stomp with hooves. Between 1980 and 1999, in Yellowstone National Park, bison injured more than three times as many people as grizzly bears did.[1]

Hence, the Native Americans played a deadly game every time they embarked on a bison hunt. (The Lakota are the first people of the Wind Cave area.) There is at least one cliff used for a “buffalo jump” in Wind Cave National Park, as documented by archeological evidence. In this famed technique, Native American hunters drove the bison herd to stampede over a cliff—and break their legs. More hunters waited below and finished the animals with arrows and spears. Then the people reaped the rewards, the raw materials for many months of survival in a harsh land. The bison's hide became clothing and the canvas for teepees, its liver and muscles became meat, its bones became weapons, its hooves became glue, and its manure became fuel for fires, which kept people warm when the snow fell. Extra meat was preserved as pemmican, an older equivalent to high-energy bars, and a needed source of winter sustenance.

Considering the bison's essential and central role in life, it should be no surprise that the Lakota people honor them in religious stories. Wind Cave is sacred to the Lakota people, who describe it as their place of emergence—where they came up from their subterranean birthplace, to inhabit the surface world. The bison too, were born at Wind Cave, according to Lakota stories [2]. When the wise medicine man Tatanka had a vision from underground, and saw the people on the surface caught in the throes of winter, he came up through Wind Cave, and transformed himself into a bison . He sacrified himself, gave his body, so that the people could live. Hence, The Lakota would not dishonor the Earth by wasting a single portion of Tatanka's precious gift.”[3]
I am amazed and intrigued by the stories which the native people tell, as I usually am when I travel the wild lands of this great nation. Albeit, the “wild” part has been greatly reduced since the white man showed up with a gun. White men exterminated the wolves, bison, grizzly bears, black bears,cougars, and many other animals from this prairie. Thanks to some forward-thinking people in 1913, the bison came back to Wind Cave, in the form of imports from Yellowstone and the New York Zoological society. These animals became the ancestors of the modern herd. Today, forward-thinking people bring back another noted animal, a smaller one with an elongate body. I shall have more to say about that endeavor in future posts.

1. Bison and people can safely share the range, provided that we observe each other from a distance. More survival tips from Rich Johnson.
2. The Lakota creation story is online, at the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe site:
3.  "The Lakota Ways", PBS Homeland documentary site
4. For amazing footage of the Yellowstone Bison herd (and their clashes with wolves), see the National Geographic documentary Thunderbeast.
5. The above drawing was inspired by a Chiricahua Apache story wherein the young hero Child of the Water faces a monstrous Bison.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Wonders of Arches and Canyonlands

Chaco Culture and Mesa Verde were places to remember. However, solitary travel wore on me. Packing and repacking the car was always up to me, and so was driving. There was no opportunity for 'I'll plan the course while you fill the tank with gas and thermos with tea'; every small step had to be taken by me, and me alone. Nonetheless, I anticipated gladly arrival in Moab,Utah. My first visit to this place occurred twelve years ago, when I was a freshman at Denison University. The then-president of the Denison Outing Club, a fellow named Andrew, described Moab as a “Mecca” for outdoor recreationists. With Arches National Park right at the doorstep, Canyonlands National Park not far away, and thousands more acres of remarkable public lands in all directions and inviting adventure, Moab is well-situated. I was glad to see that Poison Spider Bicycles was still there, and still had the same ominous mural on the side of the building. The post card of that mural, which I sent to my parents after I rode Slickrock Trail on my last venture to Moab, is still up on the bulletin board, back home in West Virginia.

 I discovered the Lazy Lizard International Hostel by a search on the internet. I arrived at night, with an approximate location given by GPS, but the lights were dim. After circling my blue Subaru Outback a few times around the gravel parking lot of a host of storage sheds, I found the hostel on the other side of the fence. I nervously entered the old refurbished house and payed the uniquely low price of $11 for the first night, for a bed and locker in the dorm, and access to shared bathrooms with hot showers, and the kitchen and common room. In the common room, American and Australian guys gathered on the couches and chairs, and watched and discussed Monday Night Football. Uninterested in the game, I sat at a table near the back by the kitchen, plotted my trip to Canyonlands, and interjected a few off-hand comments about America's most corporate sport. And then something piqued my interest. Three young women, fair-skinned and dark-haired, gathered at a table near to mine, ate spaghetti and conversed in French. After gathering my nerve I approached, and struck up a conversation about the archeological wonders I had seen in New Mexico. As I suspected, they spoke english too. They had come from Switzerland and France, on vacation from their varied vocations and schools, and were on a trek across the western U.S., to experience its marvels. (In addition to universal health care, Europeans get longer vacations, making all of this possible.)

The next day, I toured Arches National Park, alongside my new friends—Laure, Celine, and Flavia (left to right in the full group photo at Arches.) We rode in their red rental sedan, with American hits like Johnny Cash's “Ring of Fire” and Lynyrd Skynyrd's “Sweet Home Alabama” sounding through the speakers. We went from one of the famous Arches and its associated short trail to the next. I was relieved to no longer be traveling alone, and happy to have more than one form of natural beauty to observe in the southwestern deserts.

Arches National Park is a landscape that inspires. On my previous visit, I did some of my best photography (still to date), with a small 35-mm film camera. Now, I was awed again. The red and pink and orange sandstone, in impossible loops and spires and bridges, towers above and around us, invites climbing, and walking through. The blue sky extends for vast distances in all directions, and errant clouds paint streaks above the arches. In the far distance are snow-capped mountains, after long stretches of desert and layers of shrubs and sandstone. I felt small among the arches, not much bigger than the dark-colored crustose lichens which grew on the rocks. And I felt that I was looking through windows into near and distant worlds, disbelieving that I was still on earth.

Arches gave inspiration to Edward Abbey (1927-1989), where he worked as a backcountry ranger. The cantankerous outdoorsman authored many books, and became an icon to an impressively broad range of earthly people, including outdoor recreationists, park rangers, nature writers, wilderness advocates, and radical environmental activists. Abbey's novel The Monkey Wrench Gang became a sort of blue print for some forms of environmental direct action. Abbey's memoir Desert Solitaire left its mark on me; and I still quote its passages on vultures, and on the many ways to view Delicate Arch....

We posed before Turret Arch, and Double Arch. We looked through Landscape Arch, where the landslide had occurred in 1991. Along the way I chatted with Flavia about skiing the alps, the superior cheeses found in Switzerland, the wonders of Crater Lake, and my sysphian labor efforts when I worked at a nursery with a despotic manager. In the mid-afternoon, we set out on the trail to Delicate Arch, one-and-a-half miles each way. And I fell silent. I caught the mood of the others who walked this path. Like in a church, they spoke only in hushed tones. And so did I, and kept my camera engaged, photographing the red sandstone hills of reverence.

We arrived at Delicate Arch. The most famous of the arches, whose image adorns countless post cards and book covers. The symbol of Arches, and Moab, and the wild southwest. A sandstone landscape in red pink and orange, reminiscent of Mars. Plateaus and ridges beyond, snowy mountains beyond that. Delicate Arch like a looming gateway, with the blue sky shining through its 'doughnut hole,' and the moon above. As the sun dropped lower in the sky, the arch's shadow grew more exaggerated. If National Parks are secular sacred sites, then Delicate Arch is this temple's most holy place.

On the sandstone surrounding the arch, a dozen or so tourists found places to sit or crouch or stand or lie down, or walked about, as I did, to see the arch from multiple viewpoints. I followed a man with a fancier camera, and photographed the arch from a deep 'worm's eye' angle, after he did. More tourists arrived. Perhaps 25 persons were on the sandstone when the sun set, and turned the pinkish terrain to brilliant orange. Seated next to Flavia and Laure, I let my camera rest, and experienced Delicate Arch with my bare eyes, in its final sunset glory. The same “movie” of sunset by Delicate Arch will happen tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. And the panorama of landscape is grander than anything even CGI can produce. Even in the age of the smart phone, these old entertainments endure. (The nightly mass exodus of bats from Carlsbad Caverns is another example.) As we walked back down the trail, I overheard the young man behind me talk to his friend about how it was good to be reminded of the big grand things of nature which exist beyond ourselves, and represent a scale of time grander than we can imagine.

Apparently, the Delicate Arch ritual has changed little since 1968, when Edward Abbey published Desert Solitaire. The old maverick's words ring true as ever....

There are several ways of looking at Delicate Arch. Depending on your preconceptions you may see the eroded remnant of a sand-stone fin, a giant engagement ring cemented in rock, a bow-legged pair of petrified cowboy chaps, a triumphal arch for a procession of angels, an illogical geologic freak, a happening—a something that happened and will never happen quite that way again, a frame more significant than its picture, a simple monolith eaten away by weather and time and soon to disintegrate into a chaos of falling rock (not surprisingly there have been some, even in the Park Service, who advocate spraying Delicate Arch with a fixative of some sort—Elmer’s glue perhaps or Lady Clairol's Spray-Net). There are inevitable pious Midwesternes who climb a mile and a half under the desert sun to view Delicate Arch and find only God (“Gol-dangit Katherine where's my light meter, this glare is terrible”), and the equally inevitable students of geology who look at the arch and see only Hyell and the uniformity of nature. You may therefore find proof for or against His existence. Suit yourself. You may see a symbol, a sign, a fact, a thing without meaning or a meaning which includes all things.”

The next day, my friends and I explored the canyons. Our first stop was Dead Horse Point State Park. I was stunned to see what looked very much like another Grand Canyon. We went on to Island in the Sky at Canyonlands National Park, which seemed to contain MULTIPLE Grand Canyons. The environments surrounding Moab are truly wondrous.

I spied an article in the Moab Sun News, that the local Helen M. Knight elementary had undertaken a special project called “Look Where We Live”, to introduce young folks to the landscape of Canyonlands—by painting outside. The project was launched in part because a survey found that only 30 per cent of local children had ever visited Canyonlands. A colloboration with the Bates Wilson Legacy Fund and the National Park Service, the project will culminate in an exhibition of student art to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Canyonlands National Park. With or without me, more people are discovering the power of art to connect people and nature. (Or maybe I should say re-discovering: the first person to suggest the idea of National Parks, George Catlin, was an artist, and Yellowstone became the first National Park after congress saw Thomas Moran's watercolor paintings of its shooting geysers and boiling hot springs.)

I hope to return to Canyonlands, and undertake drawing and painting of my own. But for this time, the road beckoned. This adventure was coming to an end. Late in the day as we drove through dusk, Flavia learned of my fondness for heavy metal and Iron Maiden. She had seen the band in concert! Soon “Fear of the Dark” resounded from the speakers, followed by “Aces High.” Then the classic metal riff of Deep Purple's “Smoke on the Water” made a fine compliment to a landscape cast in azure and violet, as we returned to Moab.

The next morning at the Lazy Lizard, I bade farewell to my new friends with hugs and chocolate-covered espresso beans and promises to exchange photos by email. Their red sedan rolled south, bound for Mesa Verde, and eventually California. My blue Subaru Outback went north and east, to go across Colorado and the rocky mountains, through Wyoming, and finally to South Dakota, where work at Wind Cave National Park would soon begin. The prairies awaited, and the great American buffalo.

Photo of Ross at Canyonlands by Celine Vidonne

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Alone Before the Sun Dagger

“I left the caverns for as good a reason as I went there.” Well, not exactly. Being a Ranger for the National Park Service is a deeply rewarding line of work, but it is not quite the fantasy which most park visitors seem to think. Most people think that once admitted to the park service, one can stay for life, and live for free in America's wonderlands, with a fat federal salary and full benefits, and “get moved” from one National Park to the next by request. In fact, most park service jobs are seasonal, which means that the worker is laid off after two to six months. The pay is less than half that of a public school teacher in California, and there are no medical benefits, and no assistance with relocation. Park housing is often provided, but the ranger is charged rent; and the ranger must supply their own food. One seasonal job does not automatically lead to another; one must apply and compete with hundreds of other fully qualified individuals. And if seasonal jobs are impossibly competitive, permanent jobs are yet beyond. Permanent jobs for the National Park Service typically offer higher pay and more benefits, but remain specific to a single National Park Service site. To move to a different site, one must apply for a different position and re-enter the mass competition. Most field work in National Parks is conducted by seasonal staff. Permanent employees are more commonly found sitting at desks, much like their urban counterparts, albeit with a longer commute. (Over half of permanent National Park Service employees opt to live in town, where there are private homes, public schools, are other amenities.)

Hence, in a repeating cycle in my years of seasonal work, I anticipate the end of the term with a bit of fear and dread, but also a sense of opportunity. To be cast off alone again, to face unemployment and find new work. My last day at Carlsbad Caverns was November 2nd, and I knew not where I would go next, until October 31st. On which day I was “hired” as a Volunteer Park Ranger at Wind Cave National Park. With so few seasonal jobs in the winter, it is not uncommon for summer seasonal rangers to accept winter volunteer positions, even though the “rank” is lower. Some volunteer posts, including this one, offer a small stipend and free housing.

The offer for the volunteer post was a welcome relief, and a thrill at the chance of new adventures, in a new part of the country. South Dakota was barely on my map until now (although I do fondly remember visits to The Badlands and Mount Rushmore from my youth). Wind Cave was the first cave to become a National Park (in 1903, under Theodore Roosevelt and congress). It is one of America's longest caves, and is known for its unique “boxwork” formations. The park also boasts prairie and pondersa pine forests, and a herd of bison. I look forward to the setting, despite warnings about the winter weather.

NPS photo, public domain

Once again, I had to gather and organize and re-organize my chaotic mass of belongings, and pack them tightly, and play the jigsaw puzzle of the subaru. I pushed the vehicle to the limits of its spatial carrying capacity. I departed from the caverns later than planned, and was further delayed by the need to replace one of my vehicles headlights, for which I received crucial assistance from fellow ranger Jon, who also allowed me to sleep on his couch, because it was late and not the best time to launch a prolonged drive. He also urged me to visit Chaco Culture National Historical Park, for its amazing archeological sites. I took his advice.

When I reached Albuquerque, I underwent a stressful rush up and down the streets, guided by GPS, trying to arrange all car repairs and gather all supplies needed for my upcoming 'survival' quest at Chaco Culture NHP. I also stopped at Astro Zombies and the Comic Warehouse. Both of these fine comics retailers now carry work by yours truly! I advise all fanboys to go visit.

At last, after some days in Albuquerque, I entered my blue subaru outback, and headed north and west. I turned off the GPS. The NPS website gave dire warnings about using GPS to guide a trip to Chaco Culture NHP—it could get one lost or stuck in no man's land. To avoid this, I followed the map and signs. Into the desolate desert of rocky orange sandstone bluffs I went, on bumpy dirt roads. I established camp in Gallo campground, near to where the ancients had farmed.

As nightfall came on, the temperature dropped like a bowling ball. Heat radiated from the ground and walls, unimpeded by moisture or trees. Initially clad in a long-sleeved t-shirt and jeans, I added another layer every fifteen minutes or so, until I wore full thermal underwear, two layers of fleece, rain pants, a winter jacket, hat, scarf and gloves. Although I had all of this, I had no campfire, for I carried no wood. But even the tiny flame of my pocket rocket stove brought some gift of warmth. And it boiled water for hot tea and the hydration of some thai beans. Generally, I had to keep moving to resist the night's terrific cold. I paced across the campground and read The Life of Pi by flashlight. The half moon cast an indigo glow across the sky; the stars too were bright.

That night, I covered myself in two sleeping bags and a fleece blanket, with my therma-rest a vital barrier between me and the ground. I became warm eventually, so long as I stayed buried in layers. Getting up in the middle of the night to use the facilities was a bitch.

As the sun rose in the morning, the landscape warmed quickly. The desert's 45-degree farenheit swings in temperature are hard to believe, until one experiences them directly. I was back to my original attire when I explored the ruins, and hiked Pueblo Alto trail.

With intrigue I examined the wreckage of Chetro Ketl, Pueblo Bonito and Pueblo Alto. Between 850 and 1250 A.D., the ancestral pueblo took on these extradordinary feats of construction, in an inhospital desert. These Great Houses are built of sandstone and mortar, with wooden logs for structural support. The people hauled the thousands of logs by hand, from forests up to 70 miles away. They probably had to haul food from outside as well, as the desert gave them little sustenance. Some of the housings are acres in size, and contain hundreds of rooms, including the circular kivas. Perhaps twelve generations worked to build the same Great House, a span of time difficult for we modern humans to comprehend. In 50 years time, I wonder if we will all be cyborgs, or if New York City will be wholly annihilated by climate change and rising seas.

In 1977, artist Anna Sofaer shed new light on what was behind the Chaco engineering feat. She observed a petroglyph of concentric circles on Chaco's Fajada Butte on summer solstice... and a “sun dagger” of light formed, to perfectly bisect the circles and mark “the middle of time.” This prompted the Solstice Project, wherein archeologists took closer examination of the archeoastronomy. They found that Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonita were aligned on an east-west axis, which captures the passage of the equinox sun. They found many other amazing astronomical alignments in the buildings. Hence, Chaco Culture has been called “the American Stonehenge.” It was likely a place of worship.

As I gazed into the kivas, I recalled a story, which was read to me many times as a child. Arrow to the Sun a pueblo legend as reinterpreted by Gerald McDermott (with guache paintings which mimic native styles.) I was delighted to see this very picture book for sale at the park's visitor center. Glad to know that it can still captivate the young, and perhaps corrupt their minds with education. In the story, the sun god sends the spark of life down to earth, and a pueblo woman becomes pregnant. When the boy comes of age, he goes on a quest to find his father, which takes him to the sky and a series of trials, in the form of four kivas: the kiva of lions, kiva of snakes, kiva of bees, and kiva of lightning. In that final kiva he is tranformed into a super-powered, electrified demi-god, worthy to join his father and help the people.

As a child, this story was to me a power ballad, told in a small number of words and pictures. I was thrilled and moved by the Kiva of Lightning, every time I heard the story. It seemed to tap into something deep and potent. Upon recent re-reading, I recognize the tale as a quintessential example of the “monomyth” which Joseph Campbell described in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. And it ought to be a familiar story to anyone who has read the Bible. The details are always different, sprung from a particular culture and its particular environment. But certain common plots threads recur, across all continents, and across time and space. One of these is the virgin birth. In the southwestern United States alone, the Native American mythic heroes also include Child of the Water (Apache), conceived when his mother White Painted Woman lay out in a rain storm and allowed water to run all over her belly (or a more discreet place, in some versions of the story); and Clay Pot Boy (Pueblo), whose mother was impregnated by earthen clay. All of these heroes eventually sought and found their divine fathers, in one way or another.

And all of them went out alone, to meet their trials and face their enemies. In life, I have set out alone many times, but still have never died and been reborn, nor have I developed super-powers. In my lonely travels in the southwest, I found some joy and discovery, but wished a friend was along, with whom to share them. My next destination was Moab. There, things would change.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Free from the Shutdown and Atop a Mountain

 At the Pecos River in the town of Carlsbad, on October 17th, "Cave Rangers" celebrate the news, just received by cell phone, that work will resume tomorrow.

The American flags fly again, at the visitor center at Carlsbad Caverns, and at the other 400 sites managed by the National Park Service. Business resumed on October 18th, with the reopening of the federal government. The first guests to come through the visitor center doors received a hug from the chief ranger.

And for all the damage it has caused, the shutdown has had at least one positive side-effect. We appreciate National Parks all the more after having been locked out of them, just as a man who was temporarily wheelchair-bound finds new joy and exuberance in walking and running. Many are the ways in which people restore their bodies and spirits in the National Parks, the egalitarian landscapes which Ken Burns calls “America's Best Idea.”

I have a special affinity for hiking to the top of a mountain. Many are the summits I have scaled, in National Parks, State Parks, and National Forests. Most recently, Guadalupe Peak, at Guadalupe Mountains National Park (pictured below.) The highest point in Texas, the trail makes a steep ascent, through mesquite gulleys to piney forests, and finally to boulder fields with shrubs and lichens, 3,000 feet above the starting point. The rolling planes of Texas spread for countless miles below; earth and sky meld at the horizon, inestimably far away. The wild landscape is interupted only by the highway, and an increasing number of oil-wells.

For the Mescalero Apaches, Guadalupe Peak is one of the four sacred mountains, and home to the mountain gods, benevolent spirits who bestowed upon the people various gifts, including the agave, the staff of life. (The agave or century plant is an all-important source of sustenance in a harsh desert. The Mescaleros use various parts of the plant to make food, soap, medicine, clothing, sewing needles, the pointed tips of weapons, and much more. When roasted, the plant's pulpy interior is said to taste a bit like a sweet potato.)

Many Native American tribes claim sacred sites on mountains, all over North America. And the same phenomenon occurs on other continents. Religions across the world give special significance to high places. In the Biblical story of Jesus, the savior dies on a hill. On a summit, the earth and sky meet. It is the liminal space where the terrestrial realm touches the ethereal.

We earthbound humans may not be able to see the “big blue marble” of earth from space, like the astronauts of the Apollo missions. But the view from atop a mountain may be the closest we can come.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Bound and Shackled as the Balloons Rise

No American flag flies over the visitor center. And the lights are out, blinds drawn. No one walks on the pathway from the visitor center to the cave's natural entrance. An eerie quiet pervades our mesa of fossilized reef, and the rolling plains of desert beyond. The sky above is blue and silent, with clouds like frozen trails of cotton. Grasshoppers clad in resplendent colors leap and hop about, with soft clicks and whirs. The ringtail cats wander through the outdoor amphitheater by the cave entrance, as though reclaiming the space, in a miniature version of The World Without Us. Welcome to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, one week into the shutdown of the federal government.

The scene that I witness is one that few people can. The entrance to this park is blocked by a gate, with a sign that reads “Park closed due to absensce of appropriations.” I possess a secret code, due to my status as a seasonal Park Guide. Now, my uniforms are in the closet. My iconic flat-hat is on the coffee table next to me; kept against a flat surface so as to retain its shape. Even I am not allowed to witness much of this quiet park. Having been furloughed, along with all but five or so rangers at the Caverns and 87% of my National Park Service colleagues nationwide, and 800,000 federal employees running the full gamut of public services—my approved activities have tight limits. I may still inhabit the park housing, and travel into and out of the park by automobile. I may not go into the cave, or the office, or the visitor center, or the gym, or even hike the trails. These are all federal facilities, and deemed off-limits for the duration of the shutdown. I cannot help but wonder if the bats are conducting their own King's Palace tours, in the absence of humans.

For some, morale is low. My comrade Susanne has been despondent about this situation, angry at the government powers, and concerned about her loans from graduate school. I have offered her movies and games, but they provide only small comfort. Some of my colleauges have conducted thorough cleanings of their residences, or returned to occasional pursuits of music or art. Some have cleared the park until further notice, and now navigate their vehicles through Texas or Arizona. I too find that I am quite unwilling to stay in the park for very long. Trips to the outside world have become a daily occurrence, and I normally escape to the town of Carlsbad, where the library provides opportunities to use fast internet and look for a new job, and a nearby gym affords a chance to practice martial arts. Before the shutdown, My last day at the cave had been set for November second: what is to occur now is unknown.

Luckily, this weekend, I made an escape further afield. Riding with Cassie—a charming young woman with blonde hair, who drives a beastly red pickup truck—I experienced the long road 285 through the desert no-man's lands of New Mexico, due north. We listened to classic Guns n' Roses, and the audiobook Blind Descent as the engine rumbled. Christina also was on board, driving separately, so as to undertake an extended stay in Albuquerque. At the home of Leslie, a friend of Christina, we took up residence on beds and couches and cots, and slept for only a short while. We arose at the break of dawn, for the balloons.

It was a cold morning, and my fleece vest and rain jacket weren't really enough. We stopped en route for breakfast burritos, laden with green chiles, in the New Mexico tradition. There was a line of cars at the exit to the balloon festival, while the sky had turned to indigo: dawn was incipient. We waited out the line, and found our space in the expansive parking lot, and walked towards the assortment of booths and trailers, which reminded me of the carnivals of my youth. We stopped at one for hot chocolate, which provided a valued source of internal warmth. To the fields we went, to observe the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in full form.

The fields were vast, and hot air balloons, in varied stages of inflation, were everywhere. Out of the dusk came a roaring flame, and the orb above it expanded. In spurts, the balloon fired and grew. Finally, it rose into the air, lifting its basket, and two human passengers.

Hundreds of balloons went skyward; one wave followed the next. The sky turned violet and orange with the rising sun, and the balloons kept coming. It was daylight, but still cold. The most decorative balloons went last. There was a butterfly, a hummingbird, a gargoyle, Spider-Pig, Snow White, Elvis, the bees, and Smokey Bear. Evidently, the Forest Service icon had not been furloughed, even though large numbers of real wildland fire crews had. The balloons drifted up and away and vanished in the distance. Like the bats of Carlsbad Cavern, they fly upward from a central location and dispersed across the landscape. Unlike the bats, who must fend for themselves, the balloons had chase vehicles to look out for their safety. The balloon pilots, above the earth in the open air, must have experienced considerably more thrill and freedom than we earthbound spectators.

And it was ironic. Hot air balloons and airships are a longtime symbol of human progress, imagination, and overcoming limits, from Around the World in Eighty Days to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen to the epochal image of the first real-life hot air balloon, built by the Montgolfier brothers, in France in 1782. It was the first untethered flying machine, the first time that humans could fly like birds.

Yes, even as these great orbs rose into the sky, we were bound and shackled. Our progress stymied, thanks to the federal shutdown. Scientists who seek cures to Alzheimer's and Parkinson's and track disease outbreaks and other health risks forced to stay home. Permits for renewable energy projects halted. All 401 National Park Service sites closed. The EPA prevented from monitoring the quality of the water we drink. The FDA unable to conduct food-safety inspections; the Labor Department unable to enforce occupational safety. And millions of low-income women and children at risk of losing access to proper nutrition, due to the "furlough" of WIC. All because the tea party has rejected the structures of representative democracy upon which our nation is founded in order to stop the Affordable Care Act. Even though the tea party Republicans cannot win this battle, they have taken control of the Speaker of the House, Coward-in-Chief John Boehner, who has thus far prevented a vote on a clean budget resolution, which would end the shutdown. I retain hope that we are better than this. That the Republican party will find its sanity, that the gates of Carlsbad Caverns National Park will reopen. And that both parties learn to prioritize helping people over fighting wars for oil. That we find a way to save our people from hunger, poverty, and the monstrous hurricanes, droughts, and floods which will result from global climate disruption.

To my distressed comrades in the lonely confines of park housing, I have shared the closing line of Alfred Bester's science fiction novel The Demolished Man: "There has been joy. There will be joy again."

Monday, September 30, 2013

Beast of the North Woods

One month to go at Carlsbad Caverns. Assuming that I don't get upended by the pending government shutdown. Either way, I'm thinking about where to go next. Perhaps to the west coast, where most of my comrades dwell. The north woods of Washington and Oregon.

At the high altitudes, at my old home of Crater Lake National Park, the rain and snow fall hard. The mountain hemlock trees bend under water's weight. Somewhere among the column trunks, a beast glides for branch to branch, quick and silent. The fisher (Martes pennanti), of the weasel family (mustelids.) Equipped with claws and canines, a voracious appetite, and an amazing lack of fear. Ready to take on prey that is armed, dangerous, and much larger than itself (i.e. a porcupine).

When I encountered footprints in the snow, in a snowy spring at Crater Lake, I developed a fascination with the creature who left them behind. The fisher now appears in my sketchbook, and co-stars in my new comic book (currently being penciled and inked.) The fisher has had considerably less interest in me, being preoccupied with the pursuit of rats and rabbits. However, I am sure that as I trekked through the forests of the north, the fisher has watched me--from an unseen vantage point in the trees.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Of Zines, Forest Wonders, and Aliens

Much has happened in the past month. My journeys have taken me to the bountiful forests of the pacific northwest, and back to the mysterious deserts and caves of the southwest, a few times. Alongside fellow artist Lesley McClintock, I had a successful exhibit at the Portland Zine Symposium. In preparation, we had a memorable art-jam session, as well as an “open mike” gathering and reading, at the Independent Publishing Resources Center (IPRC). The IPRC had tools ranging from old-fashioned letterpress and printing press to high tech computers and scanners, and varied cartoonists and zinesters working away to finish their publications for the big show. There was an energy present, which reminded me of my alma mater The Center for Cartoon Studies, and made me envious of the independent artists of Portland, who have regular access to such resources. At the symposium, I sold or traded a stack of my own comic books, and returned with a pile of new and different works by the other exhibitors, which I am gradually reading.

Back at Carlsbad Caverns, I reintroduced myself to the world of caves, and worked frantically in preparation for guiding my first tours of Lower Cave and Slaughter Canyon Cave. No sooner had I completed these interpretive missions, past such luminary speleothems as the Texas Toothpick, the Monarch, and Skeletor (shown below, driving his slaves), than I had to depart for my next expedition to the west coast.

This one brought me first to Seattle, then to Mazama, Washington. I was witness to wonder, both in the mighty forests of Mazama, and the wedding of Brad Halm and Erika Kercher. Brad is an ol' Homestead friend of mine, and co-founder of the Seattle Urban Farm Company. Erika is an Outward Bound instructor, based in Mazama, hence the wedding location of their favorite place to hike, climb, canoe, and grow a garden. For me, the wedding was another Homestead reunion, with multiple Homestead and post-Homestead comrades sharing a cabin in the woods, with camping space in its yard, which I capitalized on. The ceremony took place in a field, against a backdrop of towering evergreens and volcanic rock-faces. It would be hard to imagine a better send-off to the next phase of life, with the spirits of earth as witness. At night, the lights of countless stars glimmered through the black void of space; perhaps they bore witness as well.

On my drives between Carlsbad and the airport in Albuquerque, I contemplated visitors from space. For betwixt these locations on Route 285 is Roswell, a small New Mexican town, whose name, for the world, has become synonymous with UFOs. I finally made landing at the International UFO Museum and Research Center. Established in 1994, the Museum is devoted to the UFO phenomenon, and especially the "Roswell Incident." In 1947, on the morning after a violent thunderstorm, rancher William “Mack” Brazel found strange wreckage and debris scattered across his sheep ranch in the desert of southeastern New Mexico, and later made the 75-mile journey to Roswell to report it to civilian and military authorities. After inspection, the air force announced to the press that a flying saucer had crash-landed, but changed their story to a weather balloon a few hours later. At the UFO Museum, the walls are covered with affidavits and testimonials from witnesses, who claimed that the flying machine was from another planet, and contained materials not of this earth; that the military recovered alien bodies along with the wreckage; invented the weather balloon story as a cover up; and silenced anyone who knew otherwise with bribes and threats. The Roswell Incident makes for an intriguing story, whatever the origins of the aircraft in question.

Especially in my youth, I regarded the possibility of extraterrestrial visitors with a special sense of awe—and fear. While vampires and werewolves could send shivers across my frame, I had confidence that these creatures were pure fantasy. Aliens on the other hand, might be real. When I saw the 1993 film Fire in the Sky, I became apprehensive about walking in the woods alone, especially in my home territory of West Virginia. I was concerned that I might be next, and didn't want the little grey men to put a needle in my eye. In recent years, I have become less afraid of otherworldly travelers, and more concerned about global warming and nuclear war. After revisiting some of my childhood wonders and fears at Roswell, I expressed them in my sketchbook.

I wish happy and safe journey to my readers, and hope that you stay clear from all threats. terrestrial or extraterrestrial!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Facing the Scorpion

In the darkness, a pallid bat hears the sound of crawling legs.  The bat swoops in to face dangerous prey. The scorpion does not yield easily, and stings repeatedly, even after being snatched in the bat's jaws. Unaffected by the stings, the bat enjoys a hearty meal. It remains mysterious how this small mammal can be immune to the scorpion's potent venom. Pallid bats inhabit much of the western United States, including Carlsbad Caverns National Park.


Friday, August 9, 2013

First Contact in Ancient New Mexico

In recent travels with my parents, I experienced more of the great state of New Mexico—the state which looks and feels like the set of a science fiction movie. I'll have more to say about the otherworldly frontiers of the land of enchantment soon. For now, I'll share a piece of my own science fiction art, inspired by New Mexican artifacts.

At Three Rivers Petroglyph Site, near to Alamogordo, the rocky hills are docrated with more than 21,000 glyphs, chiseled into stone by the Jornada Mogollon people, between 600 and 1100 years ago. The images feature birds, insects, mammals, humans, circular symbols, abstract geometric patterns, and animals with geometric patterns on their bodies. A trail winds through the gallery of stones, and gives us a rare and up close view of the mysterious artwork. So many centuries hence, it is hard to know the meanings of images—archeologists and others can make but educated guesses.

We observed a bug-eyed creature, etched in the stone. We speculated that it was a record of humankind's first contact with aliens, centuries before the Roswell incident. I imagined what such an event might look like, and recorded this dream in my sketchbook.

UPDATE on previous post: After the rainstorm, the mighty thunderhead of bats rose from the cave. Evidently, the rains brought out more insects, and brought more bats from other regions for a stay over in our bat cave, just as the inns in Portland become crowded with travellers when a convention on local organic food takes place. Unfortunately for us, the additional bats didn't stay at our cave for long, and we have returned to a small but captivating nightly exodus of bats.

CURRENT EXHIBITION: On August 10 and 11, I am exhibiting at Portland Zine Symposium (Oregon), alongside fellow artist Lesley McClintock! I shall exhibit and sell my comic books Frog Stories, The Raven and the Crayfish, and others, as well as posters (Thunderbird!) Lesley shall offer prints, illustrations, and paintings, taking inspiration from Crater Lake and the forests of the Pacific Northwest. It shall also be great to see my comrades Chris Seigel and Nolan Calisch of Wealth Underground Farm!

Topmost photo by © Susan Moyle Studlar

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Revival for Insects

As I write these words, rain falls in a steady drizzle, across the expansive and flat landscape of the Chihuahuan desert. I'm glad to be inside this old stone house, with a cup of hot tea, listening to the persistent tapping and gushing. The desert needs rain. We have not had enough of it in recent years. Cacti and ocotillo and agave have extraordinary abilities to sustain themselves on low water, but even they will eventually meet their limits. And the drought is the most likely explanation why our numbers of bats have been lower than previously years. Carlsbad Caverns is famous for the Brazilian free-tailed bats that rise from the cave in a giant thunderhead, composed of hundreds of thousands of individuals. Bat flights this year have featured only a thin, steady stream of the flying mammals. The bats feast upon flying insects, mostly moths and beetles. In a drought-stricken landscape, there are fewer insects, which prompts bats to go elsewhere.

Even with the drought, some rugged insects persist. I am familiar with this desert's diversity of ants, as both the large and red and the tiny and black varieties scamper through my dwelling, and leave no tiny crumb of foodstuff or minute leg of cricket uneaten. And there are the cicadas whose song fills the air on the mid-morning hike to Slaughter Canyon cave. The desert is a fearsome, eat-or-be-eaten world, and so many invertebrates are armed, with stingers, fangs, or chemical defenses. On my night walks, I have encountered tarantulas (see previous entry), scorpions, centipedes, and millipedes. By night and by day, wasps and tarantula hawks buzz past.

It will take more than today's rainfall for the desert to recover from drought, but it is a beginning. We must bring a stop to anthropogenic climate change, for it is the cause of much of our recent spate of planetary extreme weather. In the meantime, as a tribute to the insects, I am sharing a few drawings (above and below.) These hornets were inspired by a nest which a friend and I found on a hike in the forests of Oregon. But they are equally fitting to the desert, and its panoply of insects who bite and sting for defense.