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.

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