I’m sitting on the landing strip outside of Boulder, Utah in the middle of the night. It’s 3 am. We’re camped out in the sage beside the trailhead of the Boulder Mail Trail and I had a bad dream in cinematic style, the scenes of faces aghast as the news report was broadcast over the loud speakers during a track event.
The moon is waning gibbous and a wind is blowing from the east. I feel far away from home and a little disconnected from myself and my life as I knew it to be.
I spent the last three days in canyons, with little time to reflect on what I was doing – sloshing through Death Hollow creek with wet sandy feet.
I think that it is important to me to take time to reflect when I am traveling.
Last night, we couldn’t find a cheap enough room on Highway 60 and so camped on BLM land outside of Socorro, NM after driving through the flats of the SW desert. We set up our camp, an easy process of laying out the tyvek groundsheet and inflating the sleeping pads, pulling our bags out of the packs and eating a dinner of tortillas and turkey, cheese and avocado we talked as friends do under a sky filled with stars, the Milky Way a thin gauze of light above us, waiting for the shooting stars of the Orionid meteor shower to begin to fall.
I found you on the roadside
right where you said you’d be
restaurant closed and desert sun blaring
the radio silent as I went into the turn
you told me to expect
You’re always hungry when I find you, and so I knew to bring food, a fried salty offering that I set onto the ground between us
at the end of your long walk
I brought a bag of oranges, too, and at the end of our first reunion meal, there was a pile of skins and a pile of bones.
I questioned your assumption that I wouldn’t know to bring enough to eat when we went out walking.
You were right. I didn’t know.
the clinkers made new music under our feet
breaking and sliding as we left our mark
made the landscape something different than it was
in the small ways of footsteps
and broken rocks
The hooves of cattle pressed arcs into the sand, forgetting the bloodlines of Buffalo
Thirst as a way of life, a fact unrecognized having never known anything other than the scarcity of water
Mouths tough for chewing spines and thorns breaking down the woody sage hour after hour
damnable heat another simple fact
This place burned for hundred years.
That’s how it became beautiful.
The simultaneous existence of the places I have been and all the places I have not been and all the places I am and the places I am not is a curious phenomenon.
While I was walking in Slickhorn Canyon out in Cedar Mesa, there were women on corners in the darkest pockets of the city and highways everywhere pulsed with their constant flow of metal and bodies moving toward the lights of cities while people sat in their small homes on the sides of the road in the middle of nowhere watching the news, the entertainments.
People slept under bridges, and lights went out in jails while the third shift workers began to get ready to go in for the night and the second shift workers felt ready to go home.
The world exists as it does, no matter where I am, whether or not I can see what is happening.
The sheer fact of all these places and all these lives blows my mind.
Sleeping in canyons, I was almost invisible.
I am sitting on my porch and it is morning, raining lightly and cloud grey. The air is warm and moist here, humid.
It feels like Thanksgiving.
“I think I would stop more often, if I did this again, make it a point to give myself time to reflect and take notes, write down the questions I had as I walked about the names of trees or the history of places, the thoughts I had about who I am or about my life, the small segments of phrase I wanted to remember.”
It is difficult to maintain practice while traveling. I think I figured that I would be able to grab a few minutes here and there to write down my experience, to take notes.
Even though we were out of signal range, No Service, a lot of the time, walking through open, public lands, I could create drafts to email to myself, I could add to and edit Google docs.
I knew that traveling with my friend and not having spaces of aloneness would impact my practice. In many ways, this writing of notes is a solitary practice. When I am writing, I am spending time with myself. We are social creatures, and if there are people around, our attention orients to them.
One of the things that I most appreciate about my friend is that I can inhabit open contemplation with them, laying quiet under the stars, sharing our thoughts about the world and our experience, the things we are most motivated to do and the people we are, the small beauties we might notice in the color of leaves or the shapes of clouds, the way the Milky Way has dark spots and light spots stretching in an arc across the sky.
It is a beautiful thing, to inhabit that space of looking around in contemplation with another person.
It is not a time for taking notes.
I have tried to learn how to remember conversations and the experience of being in a place with a person.
There is so much that is difficult to capture.
We saw the prints of what looked to be a mountain lion in the sand near the canyon wall, looking for a place to camp. There were two sets, big and set deep in the sand and much, much smaller, pressed in a scamper alongside the bigger prints. An arc out to the center of the sand and then a loop back into the cottonwoods and spiny weeds. “A mother and a baby.” We looked around, wondering about mountain lions, knowing they lived there, and decided to walk on. “The babies will stay with the mother for a long time, learning how to be a mountain lion.” “This would be a good place to be a mountain lion.” We walked along the Escalante River, pondering the local range of mountain lions, how big their territory might be. “I think it’s pretty big.”
I had to pee, but decided to hold it for the purpose of urinating around our camp, wherever it might be. We’d begun looking for a flat spot along the river, but out of whatever wind might move through the canyon in the night.
My eyes had become trained to assess the levelness of the ground, the size of a spot in the sand, whether there was a wind break or a potential danger, a patch of cacti or a big stone not yet turned into sand.
The amount of sand and rock in the canyons is truly amazing. They are made of sand and rock, rock worn by water and wind into sand.
When we found a spot I duckwalked and hopped around the far outer edge of the space we had declared ours for the night, peeing in small spots, making a rough circle. It was a silly thing to do, like something from a Boy Scout manual in the 1950s. I know that hunters try to disguise their human smells, so that the animals won’t know they are there. I wanted the mountain lion to smell us, to know we were there, in her territory.
I was trying to communicate, leaving a message. We are animals in your space. Please be aware of that. Do not be surprised by our sleeping forms in the dark. Do not be curious. We are humans and we are here. I left this message with the smell of my animal urine and hoped that any mountain lion that might be moving along our path in the night might understand the message and go around.
We took the 1-40 from Amarillo east after sleeping poorly in an overcrowded state park through howling cold winds and the yelping of coyotes. I didn’t hear them, because I slept in the car while my friend slept in his poncho tarp-tent, using the car as a windshield.
The wind was blowing in cold rain and snow from the north, and as I drove I watched the grass at the side of the road lay flat and the murmurations of starlings lift and twist from the fields of cotton, rising like waves to fly off in a lurching and dipping bundle of black feathers. The sky was heavy and low, a grey blanket holding gold light in strange places. It was beautiful and the closed car window was sharply cold against the back of my hand as I felt the barrier between the inside of the vehicle and the whole world rushing past outside.
The rains came as we entered Oklahoma and did not stop until well into Arkansas. We crossed the Mississippi after dark, but still knew the river was down there by the thick of the darkness below us.
The next morning, we woke up to a weak drizzle that sputtered at us as we drove over to a coffeeshop on the campus of a random Christian university set into the middle of the Arkansas town. The roads to school were named things like Pleasant Plains Ext and Oil Well Drive. I turned around in a parking lot off of Dement. On Oil Well, there were new sharp edged and shiny shopping centers, small chain restaurants, a Tulum, a Panera, a big beauty shop and a small local dry cleaners. The buildings were commercial developments, built to suit for the companies who wanted to come into the town. They were new and fabricated seeming. Modern commerce architecture.
Two days before, we drove through Holbrook, Arizona and were fascinated by the ruins of the Route 66 attractions, the concrete tepees and rusted out old cars. Faded letters proclaiming America’s Highway. It’s amazing how quickly things fall apart. In some town closer to the border, we used the bathroom in a grocery store and sat on the warm pavement behind the car, discussing our plans to get further along, how we might not get so far as we’d hoped.
It was worth it, I felt, to have spent time sitting out back behind the coffeeshop, taking notes.
All under the built-in awning roof of the shopping center, stretching along in front of the vacant plate glass windows, the empty space, pigeon spikes caked with shit and feathers brutal looking up by the ceiling, dried grasses the color of buttermilk had gathered where the wind blew them, a big soft shape on the concrete walkway that nobody walked down.
It’s amazing how quickly things we build fall apart. If left alone, the natural world soon asserts itself through stripping winds and blaring sun, the setting of seeds and the flow of water. Trees will grow right up through pavement, if we let them.
How much human industry arises in the effort to keep the natural world at bay, or to wrangle its powers, seize its resources, control it, try to make it be what we want it to be, do what we want it to do?
I like the broken old towns, the places that are decaying and the boundaries against nature have grown fuzzy at the edges. I like to see buildings that are falling apart, metal that is rusted. These places, to me, seem more true to the way of things than polished and clean spaces, high-maintenance fabrications for comfort and convenience, a certain type of appeal for a certain type of person.
It was interesting for me to think, for a few minutes, about how new commerce developments, corporate commercial designers of shopping communities, supplant what may naturally arise and evolve from the town and the land and its people and cultures – what shops and architecture, what spaces are utilized and how – with an imposed array of restaurants and commercial office spaces, the architecture of the mid-to-upscale mall. People then patronize these businesses not only because of their design and marketing, but because – simply – they are there. Because these externally designed and fabricated businesses exist, small would-be local businesses do not exist in the way they otherwise might.
Interesting music phenomena:
I thought about that song that I liked when I was a kid, about the horse with no name and the desert, and the next day, my friend played it and told me he’d been thinking about the very same wash over the Bisti that I had been thinking about, where we saw the darkling beetle eating it’s own secretion and I found myself walking in the desert for the first time in a long time.
We heard Phoenix’s Lisztomania in a small local franchise bar bq place in Tennessee, by the Clinch River, played between two pop songs. I remembered when that song had come on heading to Boulder from Escalante in the car of a young man who’d given us a hitch on his way to hear live music. He told us about his life and who he is, what he wants to do, his processes and intent. The landscape and the setting sun were tremendous, absolutely breathtaking and I imagined what it might be like to get to drive that road often. “I’ve never been on this road, so this is the first time I’ve seen this.”
When Lisztomania came on, we all agreed that it was a fantastic song and always produced the feeling that great things are unfolding.
We took small highways out of Utah, driving with the sun on our right side, cutting south/southeast talking about our fathers and their lives. My friend’s father is dead, but mine is still living. We listened to the Eagles song that played after the funeral and I found myself crying for a minute, further down the road, about my dad and the boat he bought when he sold off some more land. He named the boat for my mother, and had it outfitted with all the best fish finding technology of the early 1990s, orange and green pixelated display, a circle-making line suggestive of radar, shapes that looked like sluggish cigars slowly recreating themselves in lurching squares at their edges that formed and then disappeared against the black background while the wind slapped at the bow and the wake pushed at the marsh no matter how slow we went. The boat smelled like fiberglass and marine diesel, hot vinyl fumes in the small cabin.
I cried on the road in the desert because my father entered a sport fishing competition and only won the prize for the best equipment, didn’t catch a thing. I understood that the road had made me weary and stopped crying almost immediately, despite the fact that it felt good.
I came out to the porch to sit and take notes, reflect on the experience of coming home. It’s late and the past two days have been filled with almost absurdly challenging driving conditions, the state of Texas being one of them.
“Wait, a sec, why is Amarillo still an hour and forty two minutes away?”
It only took me a minute in the town of Sudan to realize the mistake. “I knew there was something about Highway 60 back there, that’s why I asked, I knew there was something!” I felt a little defensive, knowing that – as the driver – I ought to drive in the correct direction, take the right turns.
I remembered the sign for 60 on the side of the road, black number shapes peeling and curled at the edges by sun and wind, imprecise and worn-out, but the number 60 nonetheless. We considered continuing east, toward Lubbock and a possible alternate route on Highway 82 through the broad section of Texas, then Louisiana, Mississippi and cutting up through Alabama, but turned the car back toward Muleshoe and the northbound 214.
The setting sun looked like an angel to me, an angel with a dark, dense center. I didn’t say anything about it, about the clouds in front of the setting sun looking like an angel to me.
As we drove through the gold and green flats, cruising along at the 75 mph speed limit past out-in-county houses, brick and white, low and flat, I wondered if I’d made a mistake, saying, “Here, we can just go this way, but north right up to 60.” We would still lose an hour, but we wouldn’t lose an hour and fifteen minutes, and this way we’d end up approximately where we had intended to be, on Highway 60, heading northeast in a diagonal toward Amarillo.
We were going to Amarillo arbitrarily, considering the option of taking the I-40, and the possibility of very cheap motel rooms. We didn’t want to go to Amarillo. We could have just as easily continued east, gone through the deep of the South, the state my friend was born and raised in, right near where my brother lives, passing by the city of a cousin. We turned around though, because it seemed like the right thing to do, to get back on track, stick with the plan we had made, keep to the road we’d intended to be on.
The sunset was long, like they are on flat land, places with no ridges, no shadows, no close horizons. The backside of Southwestern Cheese over on Highway 70 was a silhouetted monolith in the distance, all block shapes and cylinders, towers and something like steam. It looked like a Russian factory to her, something post-Communist, rusted and complicated and leaking even in silhouette. The map told us that Cargill Meat Solutions was headquartered in Freonia and she remembered standing in the meat section of a big store, holding a heavy tube of meat encased in plastic printed with red graphic depictions of ground beef. “What is this?” She had asked, her bicep flexed with the weight of the thing. “Cargill Meat Solutions.” She read the print on the slick wrapper. “Meat Solutions?!” They laughed about it and she set the heavy tube of meat back with the others, dozens of them, because it felt too heavy to toss, despite the fact that it didn’t seem especially fragile.
In the parking lot that night at the big store, they sat in the car and read a Wikipedia article about the multinational meat corporation that had produced the tubes of meat, learned the net worth of the company’s owners and the extent of their operations. Now here they were, heading into the small town of their headquarters, the cheeseburger capital of Texas. The windows were rolled up, and the cows with their heads through the grates of the feed fence at the milk company slid by them like scenery. “There are so many of them.” Her voice held something like awe, despite the fact that the milk company was small, almost quaint compared to a stockyard or a factory. The fields were full of cotton and some low shrubby plant that might have been soy. A massive machine slow-rolled down a road we could not see, sending up dust that hung in the air for a moment and then blew away.
It wasn’t until I turned the wrong way at the stop sign in Freonia, following the road instead of the direction we needed to be heading, and rolled the window down to clear my sense of being rattled by yet another mistake that the reality of the place hit us in the form of a thick ammonia tang overlaying the rich and unmistakeable smell of shit.
The northwestern corner of Texas is home to more feedlots than anywhere in the country, as it turns out. As we turned onto the road that would take us into Amarillo, windows rolled up, the smell outside became a haze that hung over everything, glowing a little in the last light of the day. The small houses beside the road slumped under it. Cars pulled in and out of the convenience store parking lot like nothing unusual was happening. Nothing unusual was happening. “I guess they get used to it, the people who live here.” Behind a chainlink fence, the water cistern had a giant cheeseburger painted on it. A small billboard declared simply that Beef is Nutritious in classic black script on a plain white background.
So, I sat down to take notes on the experience of returning home, and realizing that it is – like anywhere – just a place and that I won’t be here forever and that I feel peaceful about it, this place that is home, and that I am grateful for what it is and what it has been.