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.