The American West: Big trees, big rocks, big holes, little thoughts

August 31, 2014 in North America, Travelogue, United States

Big Trees-Sequoia National ForestIn the American west I remember how big the world is.

How insignificant I am on her skin.

What a blip on the radar of geologic time humanity is.

How wide and deep and endlessly round is the cycle of life and death, birth and regeneration, creation and metamorphosis, towards an end that is out of sight beyond the curve of the horizon of the universe.

Trees big enough to drive our truck through. Old enough to remember what this land looked like when people pioneered the coast in log canoes, 1500 years before the continent would be “discovered.” Tall enough to see beyond the short and brilliant arc of progress that has been the establishment of these United States of America.

An ocean that whispers against miles of pebbled beaches about the islands our feet walked on the other side of the planet within the year. An endless grey sea that I stood and looked out at, knowing that people I love were looking back. I wonder how many generations of travelers and explorers have stood on one beach, faces turned toward the deep and sent their love, their best wishes, their deep prayers for the things that matter most out across the waters with faith that open arms would receive them on the other side.

Deserts that yawn with hot breath in an attempt to swallow the whole world. The glistening salt flats of Death Valley. The yellow hills of Nevada, daubed with dusty green smudges of plants, clinging to the fringe of botanical society; like the tough settlers of these western wilds. It feels like the Mojave might go on forever.

And then there is the canyon.

One of countless, and yet the queen of them all. I never get tired of standing on the rim and staring off across the optical illusions created by her incomprehensible volume. I am awed to stare, down, down, down, onto the tops, far below me, of piles of rocks still a thousand feet above the floor of the Grand Canyon. The Colorado River looks like a dusty brown snake winding its way along a narrow fold in the earth, its massive size and power obscured by the mile of air between my feet and the rushing water. I feel as if I could step off the brink and sail, like a kite, down between the rocks, catching a thermocline like the black California condor I can see circling far below me yet far above the river bed, whooshing back up on inky wings buoyed by hot air, streaking between the canyon walls in a spiral dive. I imagine what the strata of the rock would look like as I swooped down past the layers of white and gold, rust and greenish, over the shale fields and along the narrow cut where water washes to plunge off of the edge of an escarpment, laughing its way to the canyon floor.

“Jenny? You okay?” I hear The Man ask, over the rush of wind past my ears. He knows I have a compulsion to leap off of things. It grips me every time I stand on a train platform; sometimes so intensely that I often choose to stand behind a pillar. Cliff faces also sing to me. I have to take ahold of my mind and remember that I am not a bird, or a kite: only a girl who wishes she has wings. I turn my back and focus my attention on the movements of a small lizard living under a dried out piece of tree branch instead.

Grand Canyon Family

This morning we drove the eastern end of the south rim and out across the painted desert.

Passing through the driest rainbow Noah could never have imagined, past the ancient sentinels of Monument Valley, who have guarded the border of Utah since long before the Mormons thought it was a good idea to call this wasteland their home. I’ve stared out the window for miles, watching the colours change, counting the strata in the buttes, playing games in my head with the shadows that undulate along the rock faces as the angle of the sun stretches them. I’ve imagined every Zane Grey book I’ve ever read as tiny outposts of civilization appear and then disappear.

I giggled as two donkeys came into view: standing stock still, in the middle of absolutely nothing, eyes closed, ears alert, hooves firmly planted, looking for all the world like they were praying, or meditating, or whispering, “Beam me up, Scotty!”

The children have been wishing for camels.

It’s hard for young people who’ve lived in North Africa not to, in a landscape like this. Someone asked if a particularly big butte was one single rock, like Uluru, in Australia. Mostly, they’ve been chipping away at their first day of school work in a while. It’s not like they haven’t been learning, I just gave them the summer off of their book work. I tried to read. I’m up to the point in My Promised Land where Ari Shavit is explaining the economic revolution in Israel and how their military expansion fueled the subsequent tech boom, in much the same way the space race did in the USA. As much as I’m finding this book fascinating and enlightening, and thought provoking, the landscape kept tugging me back out from between the pages.

  • The stark blue of a sky without promise of rain
  • An artist’s palette of yellows and greens
  • A veritable study in every nuance of crimson
  • The shadowy effect of a horizon painted with dust
  • Peach coloured mini-tornados of sand being swept like a broom across the desert floor
  • The breath taking surprise of summiting a long slow hill to find the rust coloured landscape magically transformed to almost white rock
  • A row of horses: chestnut, chocolate, toffee, painted grey, and roan: walking a ridge with tails stretched out behind them in the wind
  • A long black snake stretching forever and out of sight: train cars wending eastward
  • Shimmering sparkles stretching away from the highway through Navajo country: a thousand broken glass bottles
  • A mud hut, barely decipherable in the landscape; a pioneer echo
  • The skeleton of a giant oak, bones bleached whitish grey and sanded by the gritty wind, stark and misplaced
  • A lizard, squashed on the roadway
  • Carrion birds, iconic reminders of the realities of the environment

And then there’s us:

Whisking across this lonely corner of abandoned landscape in our climate controlled space ship, cool, comfortable, supplied with iced tea and cheese popcorn to munch. Music to hum along to. Books to read. Art supplies to draw with as we pass the time. It’s magic, really, when I consider the differing experience that it would have been to cross this section of the planet a hundred years ago, two hundred years ago; a thousand years ago.

The world seemed crowded last week; tucked into our second story walk up apartment in Berkeley, elbow to elbow with a sea of humanity on the train, driving through the endless suburbs that stretch south from San Francisco to… where? Do they ever end? Walking in the pre-dawn darkness and watching the sun come up over the lights of Las Vegas with my cousin, it seemed the whole world was a city. Not so. Not in the American west, at least.

The greatness of America is contained in the greatness of her wide open spaces

The size of the trees and canyons and enormous rocky outcroppings worn away over millennia by wind and sand and that are still dizzying in their hulking presence. It is here that I am reminded that I am small, that the seemingly limitless power of my mind is dependent on such minor things as temperature and water and that neither of those things are guaranteed. And yet, even here, the triumph of the ingenuity of humanity is apparent at every turn. It almost makes a girl believe that we’ll triumph as a race instead of burn hard into mass extinction as seems to be our evolutionary trajectory.

I slept last night in my tent beneath a sparkling firmament. I lay in the chilly darkness and thought about the miracle of my life on this unlikely planet. I counted my blessings in the heavy breath of my children in their tent nearby, and the warm, familiar, hulk of The Man; wrapped around me like an octopus, as is his way.

I basked in the good gift of time with my cousin Ruth, who braved her first sleepless nights in a borrowed tent to squeeze in an extra day with me. We toasted our matching orange toenails in the glow of campfire light and giggled while our men smoked pipes and discussed alien theories and told stories from their childhoods. We whispered about shared adventures and coming dreams. She’s the little sister I never quite got.

I fell asleep thinking about my tiny life on this seemingly gigantic little planet; the insignificance of me and yet the power of one life in transforming the arc of history. I drifted off wondering if I’m making good use of the spark of my existence and pondering the ways in which I might leap into the abyss and fly, in the abstract sense. As I sank from one consciousness into another and the first dream found me I leapt, screaming into the void… and soared.

Grand Canyon Leap