Wild, wild west week 3

Monday, April 6

I am tempted to entitle this entry ‘winds of change’, for today’s blustery weather brought with it renewed vigor and hope.

As the morning winds gusted, we packed up and headed northwest from Chinle, on our way to our destination of Monument Valley, Utah. Leaving the limits of Chinle, the countryside opened out to ranchlands where sheep and few cattle grazed. Painted horses dotted the landscape. The conditions of dwellings seemed to improve slightly, with rows of old tires on rooftops holding the shingles in place. Shingles and siding really don’t work here in this windswept place. Picture dustbowls and tumbling sage and honest to goodness sand dunes and you’ll understand why.

Approaching the community of Rough Rock to the north, we first spotted the tapestry of red, blue, and green metal rooves of a new housing development, which felt cheerful somehow. Turning into the town proper, it was good to see community buildings, schools and a senior center and a trading post that still functioned as a small grocery, clean and well-stocked with basics. The employee there was friendly and engaging, seemed genuinely happy. Her boss, a woman, was teaching a class at the community college, but she could show us the rugs. Don bought a nice small one, which had been woven by a local woman, from her.

Continuing on our way, the sandy terrain gradually began to be punctuated with red sandstone buttes once again as we neared the border of Utah, though several were blackened plumes, which don imagined to be the cores of ancient volcanos. I poo-pooed that notion, but it turned out he was right.

Arriving in Monument Valley, we were greeted by a sand swept terrain of long vistas where majestic, iconic buttes tower like guardians. These too are sacred lands for the Navajo, who believe they emerged from Mother Earth into this Sparkling World, where Mother Earth meets Father Sky.

The hotel and visitor center here is aptly named ‘The View’ and is an exceptionally well designed building that blends harmoniously with the landscape. The color of sandstone, its lowslung curves follow the ridgeline on which it perches, making it appear to be part of the land itself. The windows and balconies of each room, along with those of the lobby and dining room, face east toward the Mittens, two sentinel buttes believed to be spiritual beings watching over the expanse. We could have simply stayed there, drank in the view from our porch, slaking our thirst, but a 17 mile driving loop through the sands promised delight.

Which it did! At first, I thought id wanted to hike the 3 1/2 mile walking trail, but the strong winds quickly disuaded me. I understand now why persons in the desert wear head wraps and cover their faces. Stepping out of the car for brief walks at each viewpoint filled my ears and my nose with sand. My eyes were protected by glasses but my mouth was instantly parched, like someone had stuffed it with cotton.. At one point the wind was so strong, we felt as if we could be blown from the ledge on which we were walking. The sand hitting my skin at times felt like sleet, my scalp like it hadn’t been washed for weeks. It was fabulous.

Around every bend was perfect frame for my lens. Each weathered tree offered to reach for the sky, or carress the edge of a butte. Each tower allured with its elegance. Just when you think this earth has revealed all her secrets to you, she lifts up her skirts to one more, and you are smitten again.

Today felt like play… full of presence and joy. And Don is so patient on these adventures as I say, ‘just one more’ or ‘ can you turn back? did you see that tree?’ … as patient as I hope I can be with him when he says ‘just one more shop, one more conversation about rugs, with just one more shopkeeper’ , for he clearly delights in those weavings and stories nearly as much as I do the earth.

Back in the hotel, we perused the vast store of Indian arts in the ‘Trading Post’ . The woman who created this Navajo owned-and-operated business came from a long line of entrepreneurial Indian traders, who deeply valued Native American arts and crafts, and a strong line of matriarchs like her grandmother, a herder of sheep and a weaver. We visited the information center, which contained educational materials and displays on the Navajo people, customs, culture, beliefs and reverence for the earth. The hope of this place, in addition to providing a boost to the economy here, is to promote a greater understanding a respect for navajo ways, and to educate the people on reverence and care for the earth. Dignity is built into its very structure. I felt that in the employees we encountered here. They seemed genuinely welcoming and bright.

Of course, there is compromise. Just to have tourists drive through your lands is intrusion enough, but the resources used to run this place (water, for instance, that is drawn from a well 8 miles away) take away valuable resources from the people who live in the valley, some of whom do not have running water in their homes. I am grateful to have been extended the invitation to be in this land that fills me with wonder and reverence and peace, but I remain conflicted about commercializing the earth and it’s people.

A dinner of mutton stew and flatbread left us satisfied, and we returned to our room to watch the sunset paint on the sky a lavender and mauve backdrop for those magnificent still lifes. The wind relaxed for the night. The moon has just risen to stand in the sun’s stead, watching over us all as we sleep


Tuesday, April 7

While the first half of our trip, traveling southeastward from denver through utah into arizona was an education and experience of mind-boggling geologic history, it seems the northward journey has turned to one of exploring the human story. How these two will play with one another in my heart and mind I cannot say. What will rise to the surface, seeking further attention? What will settle deeply, becoming a part of my very substance?

Today we came upon an unexpected treasure, the remains of an ancient village perched on the rim and slopes of a small canyon. Seven hundred fifty years ago perhaps one or two hundred persons called this village of masoned and mortared, multi-roomed and multi-storied, stone structures home. Hovenweep, the Ute word for ‘deserted valley’, must have been in its day a sweet one..with seeps offering water in a dry climate, plentiful protein from pine nuts and small game, and surrounding mesa tops for growing corn, squash, and beans…supporting the families who lived here.

The entire canyon rim could be circumnavigated in a mile and a half walk, as I imagined the ones who lived and loved in this place may have often done. Walking the path from tumbling towers of stone to homes crafted inside hollow sided boulders to many-roomed footprints of family apartments, I could almost hear the sounds of children scurrying by, laughter in their throats, smell the smoke of cooking fires, see the women grinding corn while sharing everyday stories of sorrow and joy.

I was struck by how sophisticated and advanced were the building techniques of this culture, one I had mistakenly categorized in my mind as much more primitive than this. It was interesting to me that the not-quite-100 year old trading post we had stopped at enroute to this place was crumbling badly after a just few short years of disuse. Of course, to put into context, in 13th century Europe the great gothic cathedrals were being built.

I am dumbfounded at the creative response we humans have to life. Plunked here with the raw materials of existence, we have figured out how to survive…how to feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves. Perhaps there was some ancient instinct, senses we have forgotten, visions we no longer can see, but as I take in all that was discovered and developed I cannot fathom the how’s and the why’s.

A raven landed on the double-coursed wall of the hovenweep castle as Don and I stood pondering its D-shaped towers. Raven is such an integral figure in the creation stories of the peoples here. I understand why…they have been with us here everyday….

Later, we visited the archaeological museum at mesa verde where I was overwhelmed once again by the vast human story we are writing here. What does it mean?

Walking that ancient path between abodes this morning, I was a skipping young girl, heart full, carrying a message from my mother. Tonight i wonder, what might that message be?

Wednesday, April 8

I began the day feeling exhausted after a nasty response to last evening’s dinner. Feeling subdued, I looked forward to a quiet day at mesa verde. I was not disappointed. We are here before the park goes into full seasonal swing and so, though the ranger-led experiences into certain cliff dwellings are not available, the crowds are nonexistent. The self-guided literature is excellent, and so I served as guide, reading to Don, a practice which suits both of us perfectly since I love to both learn and read aloud he ‘loves it when I read to him’ .

In fact, on the 45 minute drive to the mesa top, I read to Don the Eskimo Raven Myth I’d found on the smithsonian’s website for educators. In this story, raven shows man how to fish, what to eat, how to build huts (like the beaver), to make fire, grow food, etc. In other cultures Raven is understood as a wise messenger, a keeper and teller of secrets and mysteries, one who helps the people to see. He comes to afford understanding and perception. In still other creation stories Raven is responsible for going into the darkness and bringing forth the Light. He brings the sun and the moon, water and fire to earth.

And so, it was quite fitting that he appeared yesterday, a unifying symbol of the vast array of secrets humans have uncovered in this place order to survive and the understandings Don and I have gleaned on this trip. And yet, I wonder what more it is that I am being invited to see, what secret, what light from the darkness. What will I carry with me from this sojourn.

Arriving at the mesa top, we stepped out of the car into the biting wind and donned a few more layers before following the trail down into the cliff dwelling. The trail, like many we have traveled, was labeled with species of trees, shrubs, and flowers, along with their growth habitats, identifying features, and uses – medicinal, clothing or shelter, dyes or food. I have come to recognize quite a few….utah juniper and oregon grape, serviceberry and cliffrose, pinyon, hackberry, and cottonwood. The color palettes in this part of the world are quite stunning. Whether yesterday’s azure blue, clay red and sage green or today’s higher elevations sandstone yellow and spruce, ones eyes are filled with delight.

Descending, we came to the first alcove where water was once gathered from the seeping sandstone. I have come to understand how the ability to carry and store water and food was so integral to our survival, evolving alongside agriculture and settlements. Tightly woven baskets and, later, pots allowed us to live where water was scarce or infrequent, to gather more than we needed immediately in order to eat later, to store up for lean or cold times. One vessel was found here 700 years after it was left behind with an intact stash of 22 quarts of dried corn.

In the museum yesterday, I was intigued by a ‘recipe’ for sweet bread. One needed to chew an amount of cornmeal so that one’s saliva converted the starches in the corn to sugar, and then mix the chewed meal with ground meal, pour into a husk lined depression, cover with more husks and damp earth, then cover with fire. Now who figured that out? I am always confounded by the invention of bread, in whatever culture it appears.
Who whispered these things in their ears? Raven? Spirits? The plants themselves? (I think about george washington carver listening to his peanut plants here) Those senses, instincts, altered states and other ways of knowing that have atrophied in us today? Trial and error, accident or observation?

Then there is the finger weaving of yucca fibers, hair, and turkey feathers into delicate nettng for socks and leggings.Oh, and the stone digging tools (that look quite like Don’s digging iron) used to excavate holes in bedrock 6 feet deep and 20 feet in diameter, or to cultivate fields of corn .

In the cliff dwelling itself, again I was flabbergasted at the ingenuity and skill of these people. As I have been so overflowing with passion over the vastly creative earth, in the abundantly diverse ways in which she expresses herself, I am likewise being filled with wonder over these amazingly adaptive and creative beings who sprung forth from her.

Indeed, descending into that kiva, I felt viscerally how these people came to understand the earth as mother, from whom they had emerged. There in that hollowed out room, even without a fire, I was struck by the bosomming warmth of the earth on this cold and blustery day. I understood the true shelter the pit house provided in protection from cold, from rain and storm, from heat and snow, especially when built under the overhang of bedrock. How often during this trip have don and I sought shade or warmth under an alcove of rock.

And still, I wonder and I wonder, how this structure came to be. Not just the practical, physical work of chiseling it out of the bedrock with stone tools, but the very idea of it. Did some earlier person crawl into a hole somewhere, snuggling into the belly of the earth, to notice the relative warmth? Did they witness the burrowing of animals in winter and wonder, as do I?

At first, their pit houses were not so deep, but shallower depressions covered with tree branches supported by larger beams. These houses made me wonder if it was easier to keep the logs upright (especially in these winds) with their feet wedged in the hole and that was the realization that led to digging holes. Perhaps they’d observed a beaver lodge being built.

These people came to believe that they had emerged from below, within the earth, into this surface realm. When they learned eventually to use stone for their living spaces, constructing sturdy above ground structures, their pit houses eventually became sacred places for ritual and ceremony, a reminder of and reverence for where they’d come from. A small hole was added opposite the hearth to represent this passageway…like the opening we all emerge from when we are born from the warmth of the mothers dark womb into the cold, bright world.

Later, we visited the remains of the puebloan villages atop the mesa itself, structures which came before the cliff dwellings. We learned that there was a vast network of these villages in this region, that there were likely more inhabitants then than there are now. We observed the progression from single family pit houses with attached circular storage rooms to multiple house villages, individual family living spaces attached to one another with communal storage and gathering places. During warm weather, the communal places were above ground in plazas atop of the kivas. Gatherings moved underground in the winter and also for sacred ceremonies. There were also corn grinding rooms, pottery making rooms and weaving rooms in a community of interconnection. Eventually the villages grew up, literally, especially under the alcoves where floor space was limited. One entered the second story rooms from the roofs of the first, the third stories from the roofs of the second. Rooftops became workspace. Even some kivas evolved into two or three storied towers.

No one knows for sure why the people decided to build in the walls of the cliffs, when the mesa farming villages were thriving. Were these the cities of the day? Were they for specific purposes, separate from daily life..celebrations, winter retreats, administrative or government centers? Were they for defense or protection from enemies who would have had difficulty accessing them via the hand and toe holds pecked into the sheer faces of rock? Likewise theories abound as to why they were suddenly and completely abandoned, with one elaborate multi storied, multi roomed, multi kiva-d ceremonial center on the mesa top never completed or used.

We are a wonder and a mystery.

We scoop up the earth with our hands and make of it ladles and walls, paintings and weapons, dresses and cars. We deplete her and move on and she rebounds with some new abundance. We chew her up and spit her out and she makes sweetbread.

We teach our children to compute and to plant, to read and to dance, to love and to fear, to pray and to weave a new tapestry. The colors and textures of life are so wild with potential.


Thursday, April 9

Today, we began the long journey home. These will be prolonged days of travel, covering more distance in these 3 days than we did on the 3 days coming out. We hadn’t quite made that realization until we began mapping our return.

We began our drive this morning in the southwest corner of Colorada and ended it coming out the northeast corner. We have stopped near the small town of Ogallala, Nebraska for the night. What a changing landscape we journeyed through on our way.

Heading north from Cortez and the high desert landscape of Mesa Verde, almost immediately the terrain gave way to the evergreen spires, white aspen bark, and winding, sparkling rivers of the San Juan mountains. I hadn’t realized how hungry my eyes were for valleys and peaks, for water and trees until we headed up that valley and my heart sighed. There is great beauty in the mesas and buttes, with their exposed rock faces of salmon and russet and sand, in sheer cliffs and rugged eroding plateaus and towering megaliths, but for me there is something more soothingly elegant and inviting in the alpine landscape.

From there the climb back through the rockies began, with their photo-worthy vistas around every bend. Gradually, at first, we noted snow pockets tucked into low lying shelters next to the river. Soon we were driving through snow covered north facing slopes. We spotted strings of beaver dams and passed through old mining towns…silver, and gold, and coal (this last ore still actively pursued in some places)…. both of which have permanently altared the landscape.(hmm..I intended the word ‘altered’ here but but this invites room for thought) We passed through pricey resort towns and simple quaint villages, one of which, the small town of Red Stone, enchanted us entirely. We stopped in the park to use the public restrooms there, and then walked across the street to the tiny general store, which sold everything from bagels to fishing lures, wine to ballcaps. Evidently the village of small cottages was built for the miners who once worked for the coal industry here. Derelict and historic coke ovens lined the highway across the footbridge from the park restoration project.

Back on the road, Don made contact with the Edwards, Co gallery shop owner, who had wanted to see his work. An hour later, he was showing her his wares from the back of the car, like a snake-oil peddler from his covered wagon, or a navajo in the bullpen of a trading post. I strolled through the fabricated ‘downtown’ as they did their business, popping into the bookstore for a spell, appreciating the break from the car.

Speaking of the Navajo, we began reading the book, Spider Woman’s Granddaughters, an anthology of traditional and contemporary writings by native american women. The lengthy introduction revealed to me the many cultural biases by which I unknowingly perceive value and success through my protestant-anglo conditioning (public schooling and employment, for instance) but this statement , “native people suffer the ravages of despair brought on by too much shame, too much grief, and too much inexpressible and helpless fury” perfectly condensed the gambit of feelings with which I empathized in the people of Chinle.

As we drove out of the east side of the rockies, and around Denver, again, almost as if someone snapped a cloth smooth, the land instantly flattened. Now we were seeing ranches and windmills, long horns and oil drills.

As the sky began to ease into twilight, we crossed into Nebraska, with its long horizons. Soon it was dark…inky dark, with no lights on long stretches of road but our own. The great dome of the sky was littered with stars by the time we pulled into our hotel.

And now it is time for sleep.



Sunday, April 12

We have arrived back home after some grueling travel days – 3 twelve hour days at the end. I have come out onto the porch this morning to ease my way back, hoping to quell the landslide back into the same old rut. It is interesting to me the way my practice of journaling (pen to paper, or digital) flourishes when I am away. Is it merely that there is so much to process in the ‘other than this’, or is it something else? It seems to me, rather, that it is as if some ‘other’ part of me has room to come forth, to take a look around, to reflect the light that she sees.

I am reminded now of Mark Nepo’s quote, ‘We must meet the outer world with our inner world or experience will crush us; if we don’t assume our space as living beings, the rest of life will fill us completely the way water fills a hole”

Don spotted a Raven this morning over coffee and toast (it’s the only food in the house)

On the drive through Nebraska, Iowa, northern Indiana- flatlands as far as the eye can see, arrow-straight roads sliced through fields, brown with winter and awaiting the seeds that will bring them to life. We picked up the book, A Thousand Acres, which we had last read while driving westward, at the beginning of this journey, through Kansas and eastern Colorado. Here, as there, there was a sameness to the land, no potential surprise waiting around the bend to keep one’s eyes engaged. It was possible here to glance up from the page, every 30 or so, or lay the book down upon my lap, and be assured that the landscape would be much the same as the last break I’d taken for a sip of water, or tea.

Of course, there WERE the barns, I could count (on)… red barns with green roofs, weathered grey barns, multi-gabled barns and barns whose eaves nearly kissed the ground, hexagonal barns complete with cupolas, pristine barns and ramshackle barns (mostly the latter). I snapped photos of these when I could, whizzing by at 75 miles per hour, as time itself may have done for many of these family legacies.

The sea itself once covered, then dotted this landscape with estuaries and tidal wetlands. Once upon a time one might have seen pelicans rather than windmills along this drive, before the farmers lined the fields with tile to drain the water away. It still lingers, just there, beneath the surface, this sea inside, patiently waiting to resume its place, I imagine.

We paused from our reading to ponder our time away, what we had seen, what it had meant to us. In the stall at a rest stop, the native person’s concept of personhood rose up from the bowl to question me. I thought about their exalted ideals of relationship and community (human and non-human alike), their disdain for individualism (to which we in the west have been indoctrinated… hmm, then are we truly individuals then?) I wonder if I can even begin to comprehend what it feels like, being incubated and immersed in that cultural understanding? Would I even experience a separate self, have a name for it, need a name for myself? How would I think of myself? Ah, perhaps this is the crux, perhaps one wouldn’t think of oneself at all! Would I simply intuitively know I am an integral part of a whole, or would such ‘knowing’ itself be unnecessary?

Oh, I suspect I don’t even have the language to express it, let alone comprehend it. Yet, there is a part of me that yearns for this felt-sense of authentic belonging and one-ness the way my very cells longed for water in that dry, dry climate. I felt it that day in Chinle, the richness of belonging in the midst of poverty.

And yet, and yet, here as in all things, I expect there is balance being bidden, gifts that both ways of being possess that might grace the other, some fleeting or imaginary point where the pendulum is still before swinging. A balance between east and west, left and right brain, particular and whole, occidental and oriental, self-determinism and blind obedience.

I expect western ‘individualism’ was an outgrowth and a balancing swing from a life of prescribed and proscribed roles and rules, from being a mere cog in the wheel of interdependent survival (for which community was essential) – that it sprung from a deep search for meaning – who am I? – that has run amok and has left us bereft of a sense of communion and common good.

“Whose am I ?” is the deep question now asked of the despairing and isolated who are able to survive seemingly without the need for, or a sense of necessity to, the other. We are dispensible. Some say we are merely evolving and growing as a human race in the same way an individual does… from dependence to independence (rebellion from the all-knowing Mother) to interdependence (return to the feminine ways of interconnectedness, relatedness and communion)…. but that is a western model of maturity, after all… separation and autonomy.

We talked about these things as we drove, during breaks in the novel about a dysfunctional, enmeshed family, whose dynasty is coming dismantled. And perhaps that is the way of life, after all. Mountains rise up and crumble, becoming too big to withstand the weight of gravity or the wear of elements like water, both of which seek balance. Things are broken down to their individual components.

I expect I want there to be that sweet spot, that ‘perfect’ balance, where one’s uniquely gifted self-expression finds a place of deep belonging and contribution to the whole. I want Frederick Buechner’s ‘ place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep need meet’ or Howard Thurman’s ‘Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive”

I did feel alive on this trip, so much so that I almost suggested that we forgo the stop for the canoe I had found for sale in Illinois and had made arrangements to pick up. I realized that the fierce driving desire for freedom and a sense of aliveness, which the canoe represents and affords for me, had faded, for I WAS feeling alive on this trip, unencumbered and present, with permission to take time to listen and to reflect, to bring my self forth and take her along.

We discussed these things too, as we drove. What does the word ‘vacation’ mean. What does the word ‘vocation’ mean? Both words appear to have a similar root (though they don’t) while vocation means a ‘calling” and vacation means ‘freedom from’ (I suppose one could stretch meanings here and hear one as a ‘calling to’ and one as a ‘calling away’, like breathing in and breathing out.) Vocation is connected to vocal, or voice, self-expression. Perhaps it is true that sometimes one must step away in order to see, to hear, to make room. Perhaps there is value in ‘individuation’ in order to discover who you are separate from. What are the gifts you alone are called to bring forth, the voice-song that is yours to add to the harmony of the choir.

The Hindus, of course, understand that this is a requirement of this stage of life. The forest-dwellers vacate the community after they have carried out their stage of life as civic homemakers, raising children and contributing to the needs of the community. They go into the woods to separate from those roles, and to allow the next generation to more fully assume them, unencumbered by the burdens of big shadows. In the forest, they disentangle themselves from those roles they have served, which have attached to them in self-definition. They become both stripped and still, discovering their own voices, deep with wisdom, before returning to lend that wisdom back to the village, now without the need to be affirmed, for even that attachment has been relinquished. Born again, the christians might say.

Back in the car, on the second day, having finished the novel, we read some essays from the book, Red, by Terry Tempest Williams. In the story, The Bowl, she relates the tale of a woman who, after seeing her gaunt face in the mirror, goes off into the wilds, leaving family and city, to retrieve her soul. She knows her life AND those she loves depends on it. She goes looking for her true nature where she left it, in the place of her childhood. There, she sheds her clothing, bathes in the river, feeds and rewilds, re-members her self. After a time, she picks up some clay balls from the river and crafts a bowl for herself, then begins to form the remaining pieces unwittingly into the shapes of family members (and some desert animals with the remainder…. here she claps her hands and almost expects them to dance). Suddenly, a flash flood begins to swell the narrow canyon and she seeks higher ground, gathering the clay creatures into the bowl. She momentarily worries about the animals in the canyon, but quickly surmises they have taken care of themselves, seeking refuge. Finally, the storm passes, the wash recedes, and she hears birdsong again. Holding the bowl, she tries to get up but slides down the slickrock, scraping her legs badly. She reaches the wash (with bowl and contents intact) but soon another problem presents itself for she is up to her knees in wet red clay. The more she pulls one foot free, the more deeply the other sinks. At last, setting the bowl down, she lies prone and simply rolls in the clay, wallowing …and eventually delighting, with laughter… until she remembers to worry what her husband and children would think! What example is she setting! Then she recalls that she is alone. She sits up, looks at the bowl, takes the figurines out and plants them in the wash, surrounded by the small animals, leaving them to be on their own. She then takes the bowl and fills it with water from the spring, drinks deeply. (I am reminded here of the caution to put the oxygen mask on yourself first in the event of a plane crash) The next morning, waking with new leaves sprouting overhead, the woman realizes she can go home to her loved ones.

We drove into town quite late, having played guessing games the last hour or so– giving one another clues about what part of our trip we were thinking of—to keep ourselves awake. When I walked in the door, home felt surprisingly welcome, familiar, not strange the way it can sometimes after being away for some time. I found the laptop where I had stashed it, under the chair, and pulled my memory card from my camera. I culled out those photos of trees, hanging on to the edge, standing alone.

They kept me up until 5.

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