In The Furnace of Daylight
Turtle Island Pt.3: April thru June
JULY 2005 • TEXT & PHOTOS BY AUSTIN R. PICK
Coming in low over the desert, from Phoenix headed for Joshua Tree, we'd just crossed the California border by about 20 miles when a back-of-mind buzz from the engine-box swelled rapidly and pitched to a heated whine, the floor vent coughing up a few sad gasps of smoke, funerary incense of failed rubber, with the awful noise rising in distress as we neared a rare rest stop —the first and last, we were to learn, for 50 miles— and riding the exit ramp curve the engine cuts out as we enter the parking lot, leaving us with a shrinking momentum that carries us, is just enough and carries us coasting at a slow roll into the slender white arms of an empty parking space, our highway yacht finally run aground after all these thousands of miles, beached in an ocean of smoldering sagebrush and altering the old aphorism to read: "California and Bust," for we'd made it, after all.
Three days stranded in the desert town of Blythe, seeking shelter from the interminable heat in the little public library, alternating our meal plan between the one diner and two Mexican restaurants, and sneaking back at night to sleep in the van where she rested in the Goodyear parking lot, awaiting the arrival of a working alternator. Burning off our breakdown karma, I suppose, which we must have owed the road after months of good fortune, after a month of running the van hard in the mountains and deserts, the high forests and low boulder-brained canyons of Colorado, Utah and Arizona—the American Southwest...
From Texas we'd driven two days to sunny Colorado Springs, reclining along the rolling fold where the monotonous expanse of the great plains gets crumpled and goes smashing skyward, forming the precipitous front range of the Rockies. Shaking the last of the panhandle dust from our hair, we docked the vansion in front of the little bungalow where Eric's friend Lizzie was living with her two lovely roommates, all students at Colorado College. We settled right in, joining their disheveled little family and feeling at home among the spontaneous and unstructured lives that seemed to flow ceaselessly through the bungalow's open doors. Between potlucks, parties and long wandering hikes in the mountains, a sudden blizzard left us sequestered inside for a few days, meditating and watching movies in the snow-covered womb of the house.
Eric and I both practice Vipassana meditation, a tradition with roots in the Buddha's teaching of Dhamma (also called Dharma), "a way of life," as teacher Paul Fleischman explains, "that leads to personal realization." Two traveling Dhamma bums, we meditated in the van or in whatever space was available to us, in the living rooms, closets and unused corners of the places we stayed, often joined by curious friends and fellow practitioners alike. We each meditate for a host of different reasons, I think, but primarily to try and center ourselves in an acceptance of the present moment as it is, free of obscuring filters. And we both struggle with this discipline, wrestling with the code of ethics the practice advocates, with the notion of living like monks amidst the permissive youthful culture we were moving through. This was especially difficult, we found, in a house full of beautiful free-spirited girls, but not without insight, after all...
Leaving our friends in Colorado Springs, we passed through the rangy foothills and river canyons of south-central Colorado, stopping along the way at the burgeoning new age mecca of Crestone, a crusty country outpost encircled by an assorted spiritual retreat centers, but found nothing there that sustained our interest more than the unambiguous splendor of the surrounding wilds. We drove on, running the ridges of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison before ascending into the venerable and thickly snow-crusted heights of the Rocky Mountains. There we spent several bright, beautiful days in the mountain playground town of Crested Butte, strange oasis in an ocean of snow, where the walls of white along the roadways were sometimes as tall as the van. We explored the area in the company of a few musician friends, snow-shoeing the steep slopes of the Ruby Range, finding the soft repose of those stone giants, in their robes of grey aspen and mottled evergreen, belied by the crisp treachery of unbroken white, our every step an effort, an exhilaration.
Two days later and we were down in the desert, exploring the dry striated canyons and ancient cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, where the sheltered ruins of a lost people continue to lend dimension and fullness to the austerity and reaching openness of the high plateau despite the bustle and blurbery of tourists. Are we tourists too? Perhaps we're all tourists, merely visitors in the harsh and uncompromising wilds of the high deserts and canyon lands, but I felt more like a pilgrim, come to open myself and be saturated by the realized purity of the earth's elements interlocking in an incidental harmony, exfoliated layers laid open like deeply lined palms, cradling the cadence of eons...
And so we went into the vast furrowed landscapes of southern Utah and northern Arizona, the red rock country of the Colorado Plateau, with its innumerable canyons engraved by invisible rivers; fins of rock serrated by windborne sand; impossible monuments of lumped and congealed sandstone; elephantine lips of calcified crème; temples of terraced and broken sea beds; goblined buttresses and towers; brilliant streaks of mineral color and the twisted resilience of juniper; alien forms of cactus and yucca afire with blossoms; crusted lichens in patchwork abstraction; the scuttle of lizards and inquiry of owls; clouds stacking grandly in the measureless heavens; our own lingering footfalls in the hot sand; the sigh of the shade; the cool glaze of moonlight; the silence, the sun...
We rush and rush forward, spindling sentences too flimsy to sling around the roaring locomotive of the living planet come shooting through the canyons of our minds, filling the beaker of the brain stem with primordial bliss, making my head spin in the crackling gatling barrel of post-Mississippi America, the skin of the earth continually unfolding in multiform permutations of the Buddha-dharma's most excellent exclamation: everything impermanent and momentously expressive of the same organic algorithms that structure each individual consciousness, my own now newly clarified by the tectonic scale and majestic grandeur of our grand planet in a crumbling show, the abiding genius of unimpeded existence revealed in even the slightest turn of cliff-side thigh, kissed by morning light. We meditate daily and vagabond along the emerging vectors between cathedrals of wilderness and bursts of weather in the big empty, celebrating our affinity with the natural path. "Sabbe sankhâra anicca," said the Buddha: Ever changing, everything flows...
Viscously, through the arid extremes of temperature and relentlessly pressing sun, ever only as fast as our feet would carry or our wheels would spin, we passed through some of the most remarkable places on the planet. Such was the season of spring, an extended sojourn through the freakish beauty of the American Southwest, the glowing lonesome naked earth heart of the continent. In all we ventured on long hikes and multi-day excursions in nine of our country's most unique National Parks, and I return assured that I couldn't have known, will never fully know the true scope of this great land, its resonant depth and soundless splendor; return somehow assured that the writhing song of civilization, the heated surge of humans and concrete, the rapacious reach and ruin of this nation-state, is but a momentary noise of flies, trifling and burlesque, a brief tremor of sensation in the resting body of calm, arising along a long arc, but eventually to pass away, ground under and grown over, made anew...
"That thing made it all the way from Maryland?" said the ranger at Canyonlands National Park, looking us over in our dusty bug-splattered stegosaurus van, two hubcaps missing, gone to who knows where. "And she's gonna make it back again?" he quipped, grinning skeptically. Oh she made it back, all right, in some semblance of one piece. But just a few weeks after that first jesting premonition, we began to have our doubts too.
Finding space to settle for the night in the National Forest just south of the Grand Canyon, we bedded down early in preparation for our planned all-day hike from the rim to the river, only to be awoken after midnight by a phantom cantina that had materialized in an adjacent campsite, a corral of clinking shadows dancing in the fractured light and mariachi blare of a few parked trucks. Desperate for a quiet spot to sleep, we fired the van and headed further into the dark forest. But gone to mud after a recent snow melt, the lone road grimaced and squelched, spattering up into the glow of our feeble headlights as we skittered, slid and finally fishtailed off the embankment, ground down and angled dangerously. Inextricably stuck, we crawled into the back and tried our best to sleep. It was quiet, at least. But with the van pitched at a thirty-degree angle, we awoke to find ourselves crumpled against the low side, bleary-eyed and befuddled.
As we were walking into town the next morning, a coyote dashed across our path, a blink-fast blurring of the forest's texture, and I began to suspect the mischief of the trickster at work. There was no sign of the phantom cantina, either, when we passed that spot again. Accepting the fact that we'd have to scale down our ambitions for the Grand Canyon, we tucked in to a big breakfast at the local diner, and were relieved when the owner himself said he was happy to come tow us out. Free of the mud by mid-morning, we still had enough daylight to dip into the Canyon's enormous void, descending twisted switchbacks to Plateau Point, and back again, measuring out one small convolution in the labyrinth of the river's millennial signature. The Grand Canyon speaks of slow unfolding, and by day's end we were beginning, dimly, to understand our muddy mishap as a message, a suggestion that despite our captivation with the wildness all around, perhaps we were moving through it too fast...
And coming in low, from Phoenix headed for Joshua Tree, the desert refused our efforts to leave, held us for a few more days in the furnace of her wide-open skies, at least one more lesson, boys, patience and time for reflection. Thus tempered, we were soon enough rolling again over the asphalt dry, briefly exploring Joshua Tree's bouldered gardens before cresting the broad rise and catching our first glimpse of the Los Angeles basin, presided over by the great orb of smog that hangs there like the manifest hubris of that boiling city by the sea, the broad turquoise of the pacific suggested distantly through wrinkles of mirage...
A recent rash of highway shootings had been in the news, and made us hasty to skirt the city on our way to Orange County, where we relaxed in the early summer sun while staying with my aunt and uncle. We then headed north to Claremont and joined Eric's anarchist friend Andy Hoyt in his work at Pomona College's community garden, where I helped in building the Earth Dome and discovered a surprising connection: it turned out that the girl I was working alongside was good friends with a counselor from the language village where I'd worked in Minnesota, who was now a student at Pomona. We arranged a lunchtime reunion the next day, grinning over the odd synchronicity as we recounted recent miles.
Moving on, Eric and I followed the Pacific Coast Highway to Santa Barbara, an idyllic mediterranean haven luxuriating between sculpted mountains and miles of shimmering coast, lending credence to my growing sense, easily supported after months in the desert, that California really is a Promised Land of some kind. We stayed in the company of friends for a few days before we let our meditation plans pull us away, heading inland across the valley to the California Vipassana Center, nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, near Yosemite National Park. There we had the pleasure of serving a course being offered in both English and Cambodian, which was largely attended by people from the Cambodian communities of L.A. and San Francisco. We endeavored to provide a supportive course atmosphere while enjoying the energy and enthusiasm of our fellow servers, several of them Dhamma bums like ourselves, willful wandering pilgrims in the American wilds.
When the course finished, four of us slung packs and set off from Yosemite's south entrance, swiftly ascending along the Chilnualna Creek to the sloping granite domes of the High Sierras, reveling in the roar of the creek's myriad waterfalls as we ventured into the park's sparsely visited fringes. Having somehow forgotten, between the four of us, to bring even matches, we hunkered to meditate under wrapped sleeping bags and then bedded down in the chilly fireless night, our hunger merely a soft grumble amidst the sounds of water and wind. We spent the next morning exploring the wilderness playground of the Sierra's high alpine amphitheatres, marveling at the ethereal glow of the glacier-sculpted landscape, where each boulder, tree, and sly shadow conspires in perfect proportion amidst sprays of running water and sparkling light.
After returning to the center, Eric headed to Santa Cruz to attend a training course for his upcoming summer job as a wilderness guide, while I stayed on to serve a special workshop that was being held. It was the first time in more than two months that he and I had spent any real time apart, and the space was definitely welcome. A week later I headed to the coast and joined Eric and friends in the redwoods town of Felton to see the Old Crow Medicine Show. The show lent an odd symmetry to our cross-country travels because we'd seen Old Crow in Asheville too, several months back. And when the power somehowe blew out, plunging most of Felton's main street into darkness, the wily string band simply asked the crowd to "dance quietly," and continued to play on, raising the rafters in the redwood night like an old-fashioned barnstorming.
After the show I returned with Eric to UCSC's Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems, where he'd been staying with a friend, and then took off for my own explorations of San Francisco before heading south with Eric to Monterey, where one of my college professors had relocated. We joined him and his zen sangha for morning meditation before cruising down Highway 1 and hiking up into the gorgeous coastal slopes of Big Sur. Making our last zigzag through the state, Eric and I piloted the van into the Sierras once again, this time to drop in on Andy Hoyt, who we'd last seen in L.A., at his family's cabin in the mountain town of Pinecrest.
Andy had gathered a crew of friends and fellow anarchists for a sustained party and celebration of the mountains, complemented by long hikes and late nights around the campfire. Eric and I were absorbed in all the activity for a few days, but soon grew restless and decided to push on over the mountains and into Idaho, where we knew a meditation course was being held. Thanking Andy for his hospitality, we struck off, choosing the most direct route over the Sonora Pass, the second-highest highway pass in the range. Pitching us into what seemed like a fast-forward panorama of the Sierra's sprawling splendor, the high pass corkscrewed through some of the most dramatic miles that I drove during my year on the road, and quite entirely fried the van's brakes.
We pressed on anyhow, driving fast through Nevada, and made Idaho in good time. Sparsely inhabited and largely mountainous, Idaho rolls greenly to crisp white heights and really is, I think, one of the country's hidden gems. Potatoes aren't the half of it. We slid into the Sun Valley and attended the last half of a Vipassana course being held there at a rented site, one more submersion in the turbulent tides and deep still depths of silent meditation, sitting alone in supportive company. After the course we followed a slow arc through southern Idaho, stopping in several places to drink in the sweeping landscapes, enjoy the hospitality of our new meditator friends, and also to get the brakes fixed. Then another breathtaking drive into Wyoming and down to Jackson, where I dropped Eric after fond farewells for the start of his summer job.
And just like that, I was alone again, endless miles of open road before me. I had little inclination to wander any longer, though, and knew it was time to move on. While we were in Colorado I learned that I'd been given a teaching placement in Japan, and my mind had begun to focus toward that approaching horizon, less than two months distant. Headed home now, I hit the long straight of I-80 and drove the van hard, flying across the plains and eventually retracing some of the same route I'd tracked a year before, through Chicago and Virginia, to complete a spiraling clock-wise circuit around the country, one great turn of the wheel...
In the past year I've tried to live as simply as possible, keeping only what possessions I could carry in a van or a pack, a turtle shell to go a'traveling with, often relying on others for shelter but always providing something in return, whether it be washing their dishes or warming their bed, sharing tales or simply a stretch of road.
I haven't written much, in these dispatches, about the dark shapes I've seen on the American landscape, the belching smokestacks crowding city skylines; shriveling small towns slumped around strip malls and superstores; the appalling filth and stench of western feedlots; open-pit mines and clearcut forests; McMansion sprawl and the creeping homogeneity of chain store consumerism; the bland unimaginative flatland of Anywhere, USA. Unfortunately much of this, it seems, goes without saying, and I've been much more interested in conveying some sense of the irrepressible vitality and beauty of the country, the scale and spirit of the essential America, always ultimately rooted in the land. This country has enlivened and inspired me in ways I couldn't have expected, and opened within me a sense of empathy and connectedness I've never felt before. This land is my land, now, our land, and this land is a profound teacher, if we're willing to listen.
I know my own aridities better now, am better acquainted with the fluctuations of my inner selves among strange attractors and shifting contingencies of meaning, tumbling in time within the sandstorm sanctuary of this particulate pageant — we abrade, are abraded, eroded, worn and refined by the way of the world and each other, shaped and shaken down to a shimmering essential crystalline shot blown through the cannon of cosmos, casting long question marks into the canyons of consciousness, and drifting, drifting, often obscured but occasionally sensing the brink of things, miles and miles on the long-gone road, retracing the difficult route to the hidden observatory of our inner geometries, millstones grinding fine...
Stay Well, Stay Wide.
First distributed via email in July 2005. Later revised and expanded for FudoMouth.net.
I know that part of the certainty in my aim is an anger that will not allow the rolling woodlands and hilltop pastures of my psyche to be bulldozed by TV, non-nutritional food, fabricated news, tweed socialization, pedantic file-cabinets of knowledge, or loyalty rallies to leaders, states, gods, and licensures. —Paul Fleischman
Live with gratitude for food and thankfulness also for any difficulty, pain, or sudden disappointment, seeing those too as grace. —Bahauddin