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.


  1. Congratulations on your new volunteer position in S.D. I look forward to reading about your adventures there. I had never heard of Chaco Culture N.H.P. before, very interesting. Arrow to the Sun is one of my son's favorite stories, one that I had never read growing up but I have learned to love it as well. The kiva of lightening is his favorite also! The art work in the book is fantastic, with his exit from the kiva of lightening and subsequent transformation being our favorite. Good luck with your travels.

  2. Shanda, great to have you back on the comment-line! I'm not sure I'd heard of Chaco Culture NHP until recently either... notably, it is also an UNESCO World Heritage Site. I recommend the film The Mystery of Chaco Canyon, which lays out all the sky-alignments in detail. (I only scratched the surface of that subject here.) Glad to know that 'Arrow to the Sun' still rocks and rivets the youngsters and their parents!