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."