Time the Revelator

What draws millions of people a year to the Grand Canyon? Of course, it is the beautiful rocks that have been etched by the Colorado River over millions of years. But subliminally, what draws people to the canyon is that it is a manifestation of time. We talk about time in quirky ways. There is this long-standing idea that time is this force that is measurable. It’s five o’clock somewhere…It’s about 45 minutes away from downtown Atlanta….Time then is a distance that is something that is quantifiable. Maybe that is the problem with current lexicon or way that we use language, is that it is a measurement of distance. If we are to take the physician’s approach, then time is the postmodernist nightmare of subjective reality. Einstein, in his infamous theory of relativity stated that the only constant in the Universe is light, everything else, from gravity to time, then is subjective. For me, it is hard to look at the Grand Canyon and not see a objective quantification of time. There, stacked in rocks, layered, is the manifestation of time in front of you. Millions of years on display, to slowly be worn down by rain.

Betting back to the other problem of time, is how do we measure it? With distance, it is easy, there is the inch, meter and mile, to all demonstrate distance between space. Yet, with time, we are measuring not distance that is observable, but distance between the present and the past. That is the problem. The present sifts into the past like sands in the desert, moving and shaping in a subtle and nonlinear way. Who made up the measurement of a second? The snap of a finger? Is that the best calculation of the basis of our current understanding of time? What then is a second in relationship to the Grand Canyon? What then is a second in comparison to the Milky Way?

I mention all of this, because in reality, I am fascinated with time. History is the movement of people over time. I think that the reason that I love photography is that it is basically capturing that moment in time. I can manipulate the shutter speed from 8000ths of a second, to over 30 seconds. That is time manipulation. I am manipulating time over a fixed plane to capture something that was there, but was not there. Long exposures are beautiful because they expose how the understanding of time is a fragile misconception of ourselves. I love looking into the chasm of the Grand Canyon, because I can feel the movement of slow geological time, capturing those moments within myself. I also love looking into the night sky, seeing backwards in time, feeling an ancient connection to reflections of light that have traveled millions of years to my eyes. All of this is the past, yet it is the present for me (another possible problem with our language of time/conceptions of past/present?).

Maybe we should do better to say that time is moments. I realize that this is even more vague language, but in many ways, this seems to capture the raw essence of what time really is.  A moment to one is not a moment to another. A moment in the scale of the Grand Canyon could be thousands of years to me. A moment to an ant, might be thousandths of a second to me. I realize that this is starting to travel down a path of subjectivity, that becomes harder and harder to congruently fit together how these ideas work on a larger scale. But if we are to conceptualize time as moments, simple snapshots of one’s life, then we are able to see the passage of time in a much clearer manner. You don’t have to have the minute details of their everyday existence to know the much larger picture of their life. History then, is the collection of moments that make us who we are, not about distance, but rather, a photo album of an individual who they are and how they are moment by moment. While I love David Byrne, I heartily disagree, time is holding us. That these moments are our design of who we are and how we present ourselves to the universe.

That then begs the question, do we define the moment, or does the moment define us? For example, that moment that the perfect song comes on and we instantly have that memory of a song in the moment. Or, transversely, a terrible car wreck that destroys not only property, but alters an individual’s life for forever. Maybe the other problem here, is that search for meaning, that we try to ascribe to make ourselves whole and understand that there is an order in the random chaos of this infinite universe.

Within that random chaos, we are proverbially stuck, flesh and bone that is connected to some memory of the past, a collection of moments that somehow defines who we are. That canon of memories, then is the masterpiece that we create of our lives. We shape and mold those moments, to make ourselves We highlight ourselves as the heroes in this moment, forgetting that from another’s perspective, we could be the villains. This story that we have of ourselves is what makes us who we are, yet if that is the case, then what are these moments, but hollow ghosts of reality? Psychologists say that you don’t have memory until you have language. Then is that the problem? That we have this problem, in lack of true communication with another person is the root of discontent? While the Socratic method is wonderful, I struggle with this conceptualization of what we are and time throughout my personal and professional life.

This moment marks a anniversary. This is the weekend of Memorial Day, a celebratory time in the United States, supposedly to honor those who have fought and died in wars, that we have turned into as the unofficial start to summer. This was the moment that started a series of chain reactions that both reformed and reshaped me to who I am today. While I don’t want to go into the specifics, because that is too personal, this was the slow breakdown of my life and gradual reformation. At this point last year, I had a plan, I knew here I was in the next 30 years, teaching career, PhD, beautiful wife, dogs, llama farm (slightly joking, though if academia doesn’t work out this is the option C…), children surrounding. The daydream that brought comfort knowing that there were goals that made the struggle worth it. I knew the big milestones that were to come. I had just been accepted at a major institution in Florida and was about to start the process of moving to Miami. Life wasn’t going to be easy, but by the same token, it was a path forward that was going to be made. Yet, that didn’t happen, this was the start of the long fall down the stairwell of life, loosing most of those things that I thought were going to be my life.

In the intermediate chaos of those few months, I found myself more and more drawn to nature and photography. I spend days lost in the woods with Scout, searching for meaning, searching for answers. I found my long-lost love of music, singing and playing guitar, wanting to play and write songs again. I discovered that I am stronger than who I thought I was. That the comforted daydream sometimes is really a nightmare that we convince ourselves that we want.

I’ve been really torn the past few days, it’s hard for me to think about. That moments are what they are, but yet, it is how we define and redefine them that makes all the difference. Again, if you were to ask me a year ago, would you be sitting, writing a blog about travel, about 30 miles outside of Joshua Tree, I would have easily laughed ad you. I probably couldn’t have pointed out where Joshua Tree was on a map at this point last year. That moment of complete loss and destruction, while it was more than I care to admit. In conversations that I’ve had with a friend that I met in August, they said that the first time they met me, that I was a broken man. That they could see that I was completely and utterly destroyed on the inside. Yet, here I am, maybe not completely stitched back together, but at least the thread has made it to the holes, and needs to be tightened. I am different than I used to be. Throughout the chaos of the intervening months, I would tell people, look this isn’t me, you should have seen me when. No, that isn’t right either. I am me, I have to always be me. That is the only way forward.

I’m sitting in Twentynine Palms, in the cooled evening heat, the wind is blowing from the west. In this moment, I am put together again. I was here last year, only for a few days, passing through almost, I remember that drive through Twentynine Palms, then Joshua Tree before Yucca Valley. That long drive down to Palm Springs, the air is radically different on the other side of the mountains. I remember seeing the Joshua Tree for the first time, the bent trunk, the limbs that are scattered to the wind, the palm itself that seems to grow in each direction. I was fascinated and ready to see more. Yet on the Palm Spring side, not many of these trees grow there. Because of time constraints. This time it is different. This moment is different.

 

Las Vegas was a cauldron.  The way that we would say that in Tennessee is: “It’s hotter than the hinges on the gates of hell.” But that might be a bit dramatic here. Faulkner discussed the “unspoken character” of all Southern literature was the heat. If that is the case, this was a fever ready to kill the patient. The heat was on the lower side of the 100s and all three of us, sister, dog, and myself were miserable. The morning wasn’t terrible. We set up camp at Red Rocks National Forest. The winds from the night before meant that the weather was a constant low temperature. The problem was, when I planned this trip, my understanding was her plane took off on Thursday. This was not the case, her plane left on Friday morning, which meant that we had another day to find something to do in Vegas with the dog. Not an easy task.

We took down camp about mid-morning and then decided that we would try to go to Valley of Fire. I’ve seen pictures, and the orange and red valley of rocks was a place that I wanted to go anyway. I didn’t realize that it was so far north of Las Vegas. Arriving at the park, we were informed of a few good trails to go down, specifically the White Domes, and the Fire Wall. We packed in the car and drove the short distance to the Fire Wall. This was a really fascinating geological trail, because the colorful waves in the rocks were almost like that of Vermillion Cliffs in Arizona. The basin at the end of the Fire Trail was worth the trip. The only down side was the temperature on the rock was approaching 100 degrees by noon, and all three of us were feeling the heat exhaustion.

We traveled to the end of the road to the White Domes trail. Supposedly this trail was once used in an old movie and still had the set up there. Also, there was a slot canyon (another reason that I was ready to go on the trail). The problem was the heat was only starting to climb when we arrived and by the time we made it to the canyon, it was almost unbearable. There were moments that both my sister and I were worried about Scout and his safety. Not only is he a black dog, he also has a pretty long coat of hair as well. We never finished the trail, my sister volunteered to take Scout back to the car and let me try to find the slot canyon. I had success because the trail was not clearly marked at the bottom, meaning I probably went off trail lost for at least a mile. While this might be a great hike, it was very confusing not knowing which way to go.

Turning around, I made it to the car, feeling as if I was going to dehydrate on the spot. Gulping what little water we had left, we started towards Las Vegas again. We were going to be staying at an Airbnb in the area and had to kill some time before we arrived. Even though we tried to time things for the early afternoon, we were still way too early. This was when I decided that we would try to go to Lake Mead and try another adventure.

Driving up to Las Vegas, there was the attempt to go to Hoover Dam. The problem was Scout, many parks are not dog friendly and this is one of them. It is a beautiful structure, the problem is that it is very non dog friendly. I noticed that Lake Mead was very close by and it was a National Recreation Area, aka, another park to visit to add to the list of places that I’ve been to this year. I knew little to nothing about the park, but this is the beauty of going on the road with no specific time frame to hit, that you have time to go on side adventures and see things that you never knew about before.

We arrived at the visitor center and was told that the best trail that would be short and dog friendly was the old railroad line trail. This was the train line that carried many of the supplies for the construction of Hoover Dam. The trail was pretty flat and had some shady spots due to the construction of tunnels. We started down the trail and the intensity of the heat radiated back from the ground. It was so miserably hot. Both my sister and I talked about how strange it was that only a few days ago that we were in knee deep snow on top of mountains and now we were in such insufferable heat. The tunnels were nice and offered a refuge for a few moments from the sun. They were full of bats, but because they are so small, it was difficult to identify them at all. When we left the trail, we made our way back to the visitor center to earn the official badge.

Finally, it was time to escape this insufferable heat. The room was ready and we made our way to the northside of Las Vegas. The house was nice and we spent the evening getting ready to take her to the airport. We had a nice celebration/send-off dinner and both were ready for bed when we returned to the house.

The next morning was bittersweet, on the one hand, I gained a freedom; and on the other I lost a companion on this part of the journey. We awoke and drove to the airport. Surprisingly, Las Vegas seems more like the city that never sleeps, because traffic was just as active at 6 in the morning their time, as it was at 5 in the evening. My sister got out of the car and was off on her own adventure home.

I’ve wondered what she has thought of this trip. My sister is a wonderful person, but she is not necessarily the “outdoorsy” type. On this trip, we went from camping, to hiking, to going through snow, freezing water, up hills, down canyons, into the intensity of the sun, and almost all variations in between. This was a different slice of life for her. Camping in the car was something that I doubt that she has done before (not to say that I’m proud to do it myself, it sometimes just is done). I’m proud of her, this was her chance to see something of America that I know that she had never experienced. Hopefully she was able to take this experience and pull some larger life goals and understandings out of it. From what I’ve seen on her social media, I think that she is proud of those long hikes and hard day’s work. It’s good for her in the end.

After dropping her off, I made my way southward, down I15 towards Joshua Tree. The goal was to camp near the park and spend the next few days in the park, lost like a child. After entering California, the GPS said that I needed to go through the Mojave National Preserve. Almost giddy, I saw this last year and I wanted to go through the desert, to experience something real and unique here. Driving a short way, the landscape changed and the cacti and Joshua Trees started to emerge. Ah, I’ve never seen such a beautiful sight. The twisted branches that curve in unique designs towards the sun. There is a magic in each of them. As the Fleet Foxes once said, “Unique in each way you can see.” The trunks hairy and husky, branches bent with the green ends that sprout small white buds. Magic in the world created these trees. Something about them speaks to me in a deep way and I’m not sure why. A mountainside covered with these trees is heaven. The Mojave has a smaller version of the tree that the national park is known for, and they cover the eastern side of the park. Driving through this made me feel as if I was going home.

I made it to the park office and asked for a trail or something that would be ok for a dog to travel. I was told that the only real trail on the trek that I was going was the sand dunes on the way out of the park. Making our way the few miles westward, Scout and I pulled into the parking lot. The car temperature gauge read 99 degrees, and here I was going to take a small, black, long-haired dog up a sand dune that was probably going to be radiating heat (there are times that I wonder how smart I really am). The shifting white sands beneath our feet was difficult to travail. The intensity of the sun blaring down was almost too much. We made it halfway up the dune and it was so surreal. Here we were, in close to 100 degree weather, the sun beating down on us, the yellow sand almost white from the glare. In the distance, lush green near the mountain side that was capped white with snow. To stand there, and take that in, almost was too much. It was at this halfway point, that I decided that we had had enough, and that it was time to make it to the car. We turned around and quickly scampered down the hill. Along the way, we ran into a lovely Scottish couple, who were past the point of being burnt. They were a shade of pink that was crisp. They were wonderful people, I just kept feeling sorry for them because of the lack of sunscreen they had on themselves. I knew that they had pretty much second to third degree burns and that their trip back to Scotland was going to be miserable. We talked a while about the Southwest and traveling, they had been to many of the places that I was at, just missed each other somehow. We exchanged pleasant goodbyes and Scout and I were off towards Joshua Tree.

I had planned on trying to stay in Twentynine Palms, because I remembered that there was a vibrant arts scene there. I remembered the murals that lined the walls and I felt that there was a magic in the air. I found a campsite near the city on Airbnb and I was ready to make my way there. The ride down the 10 and eventually along Route 66. The feeling of the desert is absolutely amazing. There is a life in the fire of the west. I haven’t seen tumbleweeds, but you can feel the cliché’s: hot, rugged, wind beaten houses, strung together without telephone wires, people who are harder than the dirt that they live on. There is an elegance to it that city life doesn’t have.

I made it to the campsite and established base of operations. The site was a great place, only a few miles away from town. When I arrived, the wind was blowing pretty steady, enough to make the tent need to have steaks. The problem, it was this hot air that stung the skin as if it was lashes. I went to get stakes and finished prepping. Tomorrow, I’ll be ready. Tomorrow, the sun will shine and the birds will call me forward.

Time is a funny thing. We have this limited amount that is mercurial. Some days are great, others are terrible. How do you know which one time brings? If it is time that reveals all, then do we have any agency in the matter, or are we stuck on that proverbial mousetrap of fate, doomed to play a cosmic tragedy over and over and over again. Heidegger talks about present and being, how being is about being in the moment, that there is a historical person that you once were, and a present person that you are. Maybe that is the trick, to not get bogged down and lost in that past person, but be the person of the present. That makes the future slightly more hopeful and gives you that agency so much longed for.

 

My Moment of Zen

It was almost three in the morning when I finally saw it: the southern entrance to Zion National Park. I had been driving for almost four hours. From the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, winding around the basin for almost one hundred miles, to feel the earth slowly change from desert to hills. My sister drove for most of this, we switched positions about Page because she was feeling tired from driving as well. I took the wheel as the cold winds started to come through the car. We left the Grand Canyon with snow gently falling. The temperature dropped throughout the day and you could feel the howling winds growing more desperate. After Page, the slow climb to the North Rim before continuing on Highway 89, meant that temperatures continued to drop to a balmy 29 degrees. Neither of us were prepared to return to winter. As we climbed up the hill, the sun finally left the horizon and the first stars came to greet us. The winding road wasn’t much help either, taxing the already depleted senses. After the North Rim, the mountain becomes a National Forest, civilization fades into the distance as the road becomes windier. The few cars that passed only reminded me that I had a lane to stay in the center of, otherwise the road became more and more blurry. Tired quickly became exhaustion as the double digits of the clock grew from 11-12. By 1, the first signs of civilization, the small town at the border of Utah and Arizona was nothing but a red-light and gas station, offering nothing to really help keep me focused. Finally, the left turn to leave Highway 89 to State Route 9, meant that there was more twists and turns and hills. Exhaustion faded into that state of depleted where the eyes start to blur and the brain starts to nod off into moments where you don’t remember what just happened. The gps said three more miles. It felt as if those three miles were each three hours, time started slowly fading together. Then it happened, the small stones that held up the brown painted sign, “Entering Zion National Park,” appeared. Pulling off to thank the universe that I made it, I get out of the car. The goal was to make it to Zion by Thursday, and while technically it was Friday by a few hours, goal achieved. Turning to go back to the car, the exhaustion faded as I saw the miracle of the universe unfold in front of me.
 There between two crests of the mountains, taking over most of the southern sky was the Milky Way. On the East Coast, this is a rare sight, too much light pollution means those colors of the galaxy aren’t as alive. I stood there, almost in dumbfounded admiration, wondering for how long had I been driving and not seen this beautiful sight? Those depleted senses then faded into almost childlike glee and excitement. I grabbed the tripod and camera and began to sit in the middle of the road and just watch. The last car I had seen was hours before, so I was in little danger of being hit. The silence was deafening, no cars no rustle of trees, nothing surrounding me, I was completely alone here in this moment (my sister was long asleep in the backseat of the car). Sharing the stars only with the camera. The cold was there, but even that faded as I just sat in wonder of these stars. I was a child in the moment, lost to the world, my senses were not apart of me. From my understanding of buddhism, this was the closest to nirvana that I have been. Completely entranced, mesmerized by the gentle glow of the sky. I kept thinking about, how would life be if you had never seen a star before? I felt that this was me, seeing the stars for the first time, I was just in awe of how each tiny dot was a burning nuclear reaction. Every element that we are composed of comes from the centers of stars, and each molecule inside of me felt that it was returning home. Everything was stripped away in that moment, transcended to just sit and breath in this sky. While the previous days were amazing, this moment, being lost underneath the stars, was the highlight of all of it. This was my moment of zen. I should take a moment and back up to explain how I arrived at this moment of bliss…

You think you know where I’m going, The truth is I haven’t got a clue. 

The Wild Reeds

 Like every great moment of Zen, this one began two days before in Texas, where we were awoken by an emu that was about fifty feet from the car. The long ride to Amarillo meant that we pulled into town at about one am. We set up camp and quickly fell asleep, the car ride alone across Oklahoma and the storms meant that we were all past shaken and tired. We knew that this was a campsite, it was a legitimate business that was established right of the interstate, but we did not know that the site was next to a large farm. Awaking, slightly startled at first, to find a four foot tall bird that is not the most friendly creature to begin with, looking into your car was a little strange. Clearly we were on the bird’s territory and he did not like that. Of course, I thought that this was a golden opportunity to go and capture an animal that I rarely have interactions with on a regular basis, got out of the car and charged headstrong at the bird. Luckily, he was wiser than me, and he started backing up, until he saw Scout, then he was not exactly ready to concede his territory. Scout, on the other hand, was not sure what was happening and was treading lightly around the bird, he didn’t bark or make a noise, instead he sniffed and looked very concerned that I was moving closer to what could have only been from his perspective a giant bird that could easily have carried him away. After our momentary excitement, we all packed in the car and were off again towards Flagstaff. 

 The goal was to make it to Zion by Thursday, another day away, via Flagstaff. I promised my sister that I would take her to the Grand Canyon, and in terms of travel, this path seemed to make the most sense, because of a permit to go down the Virgin River Narrows on Friday, we were on a path to get to Flagstaff by Wednesday evening, then turn north to Zion on Thursday to camp and then we could make our way back south to Flagstaff to hit I-40 by the following Friday and put her on a plane back home. Also, many of these parks do not allow dogs, last year when I traveled to the Grand Canyon, I left Scout with a wonderful border in Flagstaff. This would be a good way to get him to a place that he would be safe, while we traveled north and pick him up for the rest of the journey. 

 The Great Plains of the Texas panhandle slowly became drier and more yellow as they morphed into the sandy plains of New Mexico. When you read about the great migrations of people from Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico into California during the 1930s it is hard to believe that this once had more people and was more stable. The pictures of the walls of dust that were stories high flying through over the continent are hard to believe today. The large quadrupeds that the Spanish, and subsequent English, brought with them radically redesigned the Plains, from grasslands that held native waters to one that is heavily reliant on an aquifer that will go dry due to over taxation of resources. There is something almost mythic about the gentle turn from grasslands to desert. Last year, this was more apparent in the hill country, further South on I-10. There the landscape changed in a stark and drastic way when the rocky alcoves took over the landscape and turn the entire scenery a yellow that stretched for miles. Here, further north, the gentle slope from green to yellow is so gradual that if it weren’t for the mountains growing in the distance it would be hard to notice the change. 

 Arriving in New Mexico, I pulled off the interstate to a rest area, mostly to stretch my legs, but to also find information about the state. I knew that we had a seven to eight-hour drive ahead of us, and that we were in good standing with time. Why not go and see something while we were here? The person behind the desk was extremely helpful and said that there was Chaco Cultural National Park, Los Alamos National Park, and Pecos National Park, all within a short drive from I40, going north. With the possibility to see other national parks, I quickly changed courses to new adventures.

 We headed towards Pecos first, westward on I-40, then turning north before Albuquerque. I knew almost nothing of the park, it was just another park. Obviously, it had to have some significance if it was a national park, so we continued northward. But after visiting, this was easily one of the best moments I had up to this point. As we drove, the southern Rockies started to demonstrate their majesty, with the snowcapped peaks and the beautiful tree lines that were standing in the distance. It is the middle end of May and there is snow on the mountain tops that is visible for miles. For some strange reason this was intoxicating. We left on Monday and the weather was already approaching the low 90s, and here there is snow on the mountains. Arriving at the visitor center, I got my usual badge, patch, and park map, and that was when I began to realize how important this place really was.

 I study Latin American history, while it is primarily South American history, I had an amazing study at Appalachian State about the Spanish colonial system in the New World. One of the works that I read was When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away, about the transformation of Spanish society among the indigenous peoples of the Southwest. This was a fascinating work, that opened my eyes to periphery colonization, versus center forward that the Spanish did in places like Mexico. The use of the church in the periphery was central to the “civilizing” methods of the Spanish in New Mexico. Yet, because of the Spanish lack of treating indigenous people like human beings, the Pueblo revolted in the 18th century. I remember reading this and being absolutely amazed the role that church organization had in the American Southwest. The Pueblo were eventually successful in driving the Spanish out for a short while.  

 At the visitor center, I realized that Pecos National Historical Site was one of the main places that the Church established a base of operations and that the indigenous people had destroyed during the revolt. We drove to the end of the trail to find the ruins of the Spanish church. There are the stone walls that were once a part of a bigger mission that are still there, while most of the building was destroyed. The scene was amazing, the snowcapped mountains in the backdrop, while there was the orange building standing in front of us. The entire time I was lost thinking, how did I not realize that this was the place that I have read about so many times? 

 Not only was I lost in this moment, so too was my sister. For me, I was history nerding it out, going, oh and this was what led to this, and this affected the Spanish here, and on and on and on. While she was genuinely interested in the architecture, the people, the reason that they were living in this mountain community. Over the past few days, we shared stories of growing up, of discussing the different perspectives that we have on our family, relationships, and life. By the time we reached Pecos, those conversations had blossomed into both of us being lost in that moment. Yes it was in two different directions, but the fact that she admitted afterwards was that she was impressed because this was something that she had never experienced before in her life, meant the world to me. While both of us felt this amazing pull of Pecos, we were on a deadline to the next park.

 Traveling northward, we passed through Santa Fe, into Los Alamos. This is one of the truly breathtaking routes, because you snake along, near Bandilier National Monument, before climbing to the top of the mountains at Los Alamos. The snowcapped peaks that were in the distance at Pecos, we were now at the top of. Los Alamos is a small town that was a part of the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. This was where they test dropped the nuclear bomb before using it on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The test site is miles away, it was at Los Alamos that they were more or less testing and putting the final touches on the bomb.

 One of the sad aspects of National Parks, is the fact that they are so closely linked to the political problems in Washington. The Manhattan Project has three different branches, Oak Ridge Tennessee, Los Alamos New Mexico, and Hanford Washington; the three places that developed this technology. These are some of the newest national parks in the United States. Yet because of Congressional inaction to pass a budget successfully in the past years, these three parks are orphaned from a home that is on their own. In Oak Ridge, they share the building with the Museum of Science and Energy. In Los Alamos, the park is a part of the town hall. When I went inside, and said that I was from Oak Ridge, it was in that moment, all of the rangers/volunteers were instantly curious what was life like there? I felt that I had the same questions for them, and we conversed about how the bomb was made and the history of the two areas for a few moments, before I was back on the road. I would gladly go back to the town of Los Alamos, even if it was in the middle of what felt like nowhere. 

 Leaving Los Alamos, our destination was the Petrified Forest, in Arizona. I realized at this point that we were barely going to make it to the destination before they closed if we did not get in gear. The drive down the mountain into Santa Fe was beautiful as it was going the other direction, and we got back on I-40 around Albuquerque. When I traveled this path last year, I was amazed by the beauty of the city along the road. I kept waiting to see those iconic landscapes and people from Breaking Bad, though. Unfortunately, we were on a bit of a time crunch and we couldn’t soak in the city as it properly needs to be. 

 We arrived at the Petrified Forest right as they were closing the office and the gift shop. Saddened by the fact that we were only going to be there for the duration of going through the park, I did buy a patch at the gift shop and got an idea of where the different parts of the park were. I didn’t realize that part of the Painted Desert was in the park. I thought that only the petrified remains of trees were in the park. Driving to the park admittance desk, the ranger was amazing and offered the coveted Jr Ranger badge to me (ahh all was right with the world, and thanks to that park ranger for his understanding!). 

 The park is arranged in a giant loop, the first part is the Painted Desert. Here, the beautiful scenic landscapes stretch as far as the eye can see. The red hills that fade into haze blue are wonderful. It was here that my sister really came out of her shell. The red dunes amazed her. One of the things that I have learned spending time with her the past few days, is when she is genuinely excited. While the cold winds were blowing at our faces the entire time that we were there, she was smiling and laughing. She wanted her picture taken, she kept asking me, how was this created? What formed that? While I might not have all the answers to those questions, this was one unasked question that was being answered by her interest in the place. To me, that was one of the greatest gifts that I have gotten out of her being here, being able to see the world from someone else’s eyes for the first time and share that amazement with them. This was a blessing that I have gotten, never would I have thought that I would have shared that moment of awe with my sister before. Driving through the park, at the Blue Mesa, I was showing her how to use the DSLR camera to take stunning pictures. Her shots rival mine with their ability to capture the colors and the landscape.  

 My sister was deeply interested in the idea that a tree could become petrified. She kept bringing up the fact that this barren landscape is what you think of when you think of dinosaurs roaming the world. The windswept mesas, the plains, the harsh conditions might be conducive to life in general. While I understood that there were petrified trees, I don’t’ think that I realized how truly beautiful they are. The geodes are richly colored, purples, reds, greens, yellows, are layered in what was once the tree rings. This is absolutely stunning to see in person, the pictures I have do not do them justice. There are somethings that I can understand, and everything else I have to acknowledge that is the ways of the universe. This is one of those moments.

 On Wednesday, we made it to three National Parks in one day, and we still had more driving ahead of us. I think both of us agree that the trip really began on Wednesday, because that was when we were really at peace and understanding of where we were and what we were going to be looking at in the coming days. While we continued on, the rains and winds were pounding. The cold front that brought the tornados the night before in Texas, had a sister cell in Arizona that caused extremely cold winds (down to the low 20s in the valley) and rains. While the Prius gets great gas mileage, due to the constant uphill climbs, and the hard headwinds, the gas mileage went down to the low 30s per gallon. For most cars, this is anything to be ashamed of, for the Prius that is not a great thing. The 10 gallon tank doesn’t bode well for low gas mileage, as we found out about 10 miles outside of Flagstaff. The gas light kept dinging as we were driving on the interstate and there was just nowhere to pull off with a gas station. Tensions ran a little high as we were desperately looking to find a gas station. Finally, at the last moment, as we were running on the Prius’ battery power and that was going fast, we pulled into a gas station. We continued on to Flagstaff, where we made it to the hotel and crashed for the night.

 The next day our adventure was to go to Zion. Again, knowing that the drive was less than 8 hours and starting early, I knew that we had some time that we could visit other areas. On the way into Flagstaff, there was a sign at the start of town for Walnut Canyon that I suggested that we go check out. This too, was an adventure that I knew nothing about before we arrived, but quickly was amazed by what we found.

 Walnut Canyon National Monument is a historic indigenous site. There is a small village that you can walk around. While most visitors are there to discuss the indigenous people, the canyon’s geology is absolutely fascinating. This is in a volcanic area and you can see the ridges at the bottom of the canyon of the changes over time. I was fascinated by the geology more than the indigenous community aspect. The village sits on a small island in the middle of the canyon. You are able to walk almost 360 degrees around the village and see back in time. My sister was really interested in the history, which is an interesting change of pace, because it is usually the other way around. After walking the loop, it was time to head norrhward up Route 89.

 Leaving Flagstaff, I had mixed emotions. Part of this was the fact that I had to leave Scout for a number of days and just general worry and loneliness about missing my buddy. We have spent a lot of time together on the road and he is a source of both happiness and companionship. I miss him more writing this and thinking about how important he is to me. What kept going through my head was the last time that I made this long drive northward to the North Rim and Page. Last year was a time of hardship and problems. I drove here because I wanted to demonstrate that I could do this, that I could achieve and be this person, that those limitations of who I was were starting to strip away and I was emerging as a new being. One of the things that kept me going through that transition was the Grateful Dead song, “Brokedown Palace.” I couldn’t help it, I had to listen to this song as we left Flagstaff. The soft harmonies and the words, that are so epically true were cutting to the core of me at that moment. “Mama mama, many worlds I’ve come since I first left home.” No truer words were spoken in that moment. I have found that my mind often drifts back to the desert and that freedom and power of a completely different landscape. This in a strange way, feels like an ancient home to me. Coming back to this place, to be a part of something that was greater than me, felt like I was returning home, to a mother and telling her of all the changes that I have gone through. I have changed for the better and so many worlds in between I’ve traveled to get to this point.

 On the other hand, I wanted to share this moment, this magic of seeing the Grand Canyon with my sister for the first time. I had been encouraged over the past few days with how she reacted and wanting to share that experience. I remember being overwhelmed last year when I first stepped out of the car and walked the North Rim down to the Lodge. Feeling so small, so tiny in the presence of greatness was overwhelming. I admit it, I cried when I stood there that first time seeing it in all the epic grandeur, but that is another story for another time. I didn’t want to spoil her experience by having my negative emotions charge the air. 

 Ultimately, I decided that it was for the best to go to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, to let her see the more tourist area first, then we could hike down some during our return from Utah in the next few days. The long drive up to the Canyon was interesting, the valley and canyons that litter the landscape are highlighted as you move higher and higher up towards the rim. When we first arrived, we went to the Watchtower, a really amazing spot overall. Yet, it was the early afternoon and the place was packed. School groups in particular, were the most problematic. There had to have been at least a thousand people between the parking lot to the tower. On our short walk to the tower, I was excited to show her the canyon. Yet when she got to the edge and saw down into it, there was a moment of apathy. Clearly she had other things on her mind and the beauty before her eyes was not one of them. We climbed the Watchtower, congested with children and elderly people going up and down the very small stairwell. Several times being bumped, or bumping into people. We made our way back to the car and I suggested that we continue on to the visitor center. Along the way we made several stops and took pictures. Unfortunately, again, people were very rude in sharing spaces and we had to be slightly rude to get the pictures that we wanted. So far, our experience with the Grand Canyon was not turning out so well.

 We made it to the Visitor Center and tried to get a badge, yet they were not as eager to hand these out. The patches that I collect were not at the Watchtower’s gift shop and the line for the Visitor Center’s gift shop was out the door. Thursday, so far was not boding well for success. How could one day be so amazing, and the next be, meh at best, to slightly grading, to frustrated at people in a national park? This doesn’t make sense. One goes to these places to share and be human again, not to stand in line for tourist gifts, or to struggle to share just a moment of such scenery with another human being. This feeling of hostility towards others is something that I really do not like in myself. Add to that, that I started feeling this in a sanctuary was beyond comprehension. 

 I pushed us to walk around the South Rim’s trail to try to see if there were better opportunities for pictures. While congested, there were several spots that were great to take pictures from. Ultimately, we ran into the same problem, over crowded park and people who were rude and not wanting to share this amazing place with others. By the time that we left, we were both burnt out and tired of people and knew that it was going to be a long ride ahead. The cold that was there in the morning was returning, when we got in the car it was snowing and neither of us were prepared for the new chill in the air. She drove first until we got to Page, then I took the wheel as she went to the back seat to sleep.

 Over the next four hours, I was lost in this state of anger, frustration, and tiredness. Why did I react in such a way towards those that were clearly trying to have a good time? Was this a byproduct of my state leaving Flagstaff? Were there some other issues that I was not wanting to admit that were bothering me from the previous few days? All the above was the correct answer and I had to settle into a grating excoriation of myself in my head for being less than what I know that I want to be. I am better than this, I told myself, don’t fall into those mental traps that you always do. While it is easy to talk yourself into seeing the worst, it is even harder, for me atleast, to talk myself out of those. Usually it takes a day to get over that feeling of just sheer stupidity at being upset at nothing. I have been working on fixing this, but change is a slow process. 

 That is why pulling into Zion at 3 in the morning was such a big deal. That calming effect that only nature can give alleviated all of those thoughts and problems. I sat like a child and let the world float away. I was energized by the stars in a way that I wish that I could explain. I think that Walt Whitman got at that feeling the best in his poem, “I heard the Learn’d Astronomer Speak.” In it, he talks about hearing scientific thoughts and processes, yet there is something magical about just going and experiencing things for yourself. I sat on the side of the road taking pictures for almost an hour, a few cars drove by, but for the most part I as alone and content. 

 Even now as I write this, I’m sitting at a campsite under the stars with the dying embers of a fire outside of Bryce Canyon. I look up and se the small dots that are millions of years old, and think, how lucky I am to just sit here and be able to look upwards and see this mosaic of lights and time sprawled out in front of me. I’m reminded of a line in a Trampled By Turtles song, “I’m surrounded by forever, but I don’t have any time/ Left to wander in amusement, left to ride, my breath is dyin’.” 

Congaree

It’s a deceptively easy question, almost benign in conversation, “where are you from?” When learning a foreign language, that is one of the key phrases that is taught. While this is a question that we ask almost acutely in getting to know one another, has so many other meanings and connotations that it becomes difficult to separate the easy answer of geographic and place based answer.

For example, I am from the mountains in East Tennessee. This is fairly straightforward, yet it underlies that there is a much deeper understanding of who I am caught between the subtle words of location. Geographically, it is a pinpoint that defines who I am, yet this is much more. Going to the area and feeling the land move, the gentle hills, the trees that come alive in the spring, the flame colored earth that is the eulogy of warmth before a gentle cold that starts to take hold, this is what helps to define who I am. The geographic landmarks of the hills, springs, and water warn flats and hollows are but a simple part of this. IMG_6219-1.jpgThe land defines the culture, each of these microcosms of geography highlight and redefine each individual. I mention all of this, because it is the cultural baggage of who we are, who I am, that not only defines myself, but the way I interact with the world around me.

Almost a century ago now, the creation of the New South’s economic power started to come into view. The rebirth of cities, such as Atlanta and Charlotte, alongside newly emerging economic centers, such as Hickory North Carolina, meant low skill low wage jobs were the spoke in the broader wheel of this new economy. Migrants from Appalachia made their way to the city, with the hope that there was a brighter future, a hope that one day that they could return to their homeland.  You can hear it in the origin of Bluegrass and Country Music, the longing to go back to their, “Kentucky hills,” or to be part of the “Tennessee mountain home,” once again was the central theme of the newly emerging working class migrants from the mountains. Granted, the resource rich mountains did have some jobs, the coal mines were the primary way that many were able to stay in the region. The coal towns were a product of further north in Appalachia, here in Anderson County especially, the Coal Creek Wars came to define the relationship between labor, the state, and prisons for the next half century. It is the people that were able to leave and make a life in the city that are interesting. For almost a century, the population of Appalachia has been slowly diminishing, the sociological term is “brain drain,” This is where the best and brightest look for a way to make it, and due to the low economic conditions in Appalachia, mean that they have to find work in the city. How then do these migrants think of themselves and, “where are they from?”

This past year, I took a position a position teaching at a well-established regional college near Atlanta. One of the questions I asked my 250 plus student body population, “How many have ever been to the Appalachias?” To me this was an hour’s drive up the road, many of the Southern Appalachia’s greatest beauties lie in Georgia and southern North Carolina. Their answer astonished me, only five had ever said that they had been to the Appalachias. Growing up in the western side of the Tennessean mountains, this answer was baffling. I could not imagine never seeing these scenic vistas, or experiencing even the Smoky Mountains. This question of where I am from, the ability to relate to another human being, about something as fundamental as experiencing a mountain was difficult for me to try to communicate. Yes, the topic of conversation had nothing really to do with the Appalachians, but I was quickly becoming aware that I now had to struggle to reconceptualize how to communicate with another human being, was a profound struggle. Not to mention a vague and lighthearted distrust of flatlanders. How does one then describe who they are if the lexicon that they use, carries no weight with the listener? That made me rethink, who am I? What makes me, me? Who I am as an individual? Granted these questions of introspection usually are those that visit at those hours that sleep has yet to come, for some reason they were at the forefront of the travel to Congaree National Park this past week.

Earlier this spring, I made plans with a graduate school colleague to visit Congaree National Park because I’ve heard of the amazing biodiversity and swamp geography. While the plans were made months in advance, this was almost perfect timing because I was able to finish grading and able to test out new equipment. In the past week, I purchased a Canon 6d and I learned that Lightroom can geocode photos, which is a handy tool if you are taking pictures and traveling, trying to remember where each location was. The trip was to go from Knoxville and meet in Charlotte to then travel down to Columbia. What I didn’t realize was how important that drive was going to be to me.

The easiest way to get to Charlotte from Knoxville is to take I-40 through Asheville, then turn on to I-77 south to Charlotte. This is a six-hour drive, assuming that traffic isn’t bad around I-26 in Asheville or going down I-77. Geographically speaking this is pretty straightforward, the Knoxville valley then turns into the heart of the Eastern side of the Appalachians in East Tennessee/Western North Carolina. After passing the Gatlinburg exit on I-40, civilization almost disappears and you watch the mountains in the distance, melt into the sky, the road dives around rock blasted areas, through the literal heart of mountains with tunnels. From Asheville, the slow climb to the top of the mountains, before the almost rapid descent to the bottom near Marion and the flattening out until one reaches I-77, brings beautiful scenery to the driver.

The reason that I know this all too well, is because in the past three years, I’ve driven both sides of I-40 countless times. In the fall of 2014, I traveled from Sylva (near Cherokee North Carolina, exit 27), to Surry (north on I-77 near Virginia) every Tuesday and Thursday for the semester. That semester, I put about 17,000 miles on my car. Last year, I traveled back and forth from Sylva to Knoxville for another countless number of times for work. Needless to say, I know this road well. But this time, it was different. Like visiting an old friend, the road was welcoming, the mountains were more than just landmarks between destinations, they were a kind of home, a refuge that I didn’t realize that I needed. After getting around Gatlinburg exit, there was a constant smile on my face, feeling the welcoming embrace of returning home. Each turn in the road was another friend I felt I hadn’t seen in years. The entire time, being lost in the road, being lost in the moment of realizing how much this small stretch of highway was, meant everything to me. I became the small, my fraction of a second time that I was present here, in comparison to ancient mountains that were thousands of years old made me only realize how tiny my time on this earth really is. The light traffic only meant that I had time to absorb the fresh green of spring around me. You could feel the almost magical state of life returning to the woods and beckoning you to come to them. What I kept coming back to, is the almost confidant quality of these mountains: how many times had I had a great day teaching and was reflecting on how amazing that connection felt with students, or struggled to find the right way to handle a situation, to fix things that were broken. These mountains, while impersonal my connection to them was, held some of my most personal secrets in the way that only a mountain can. A stony stoicism that is obstinate. How again, can you describe that to someone who has never experienced a mountain before?

I left for Charlotte at four and arrived by 10, the traffic on I-77 was a bit of a mess, which meant that I was more than ready for sleep. I awoke the next day and meet my traveling compatriot near UNCC. We drove to Columbia, about two hours away and entered a different climate. While the mountain air was, cool and composed, the piedmont’s temperature was on the steady climb to the low 90s. The marsh like air was a complete change to what I’ve been use to for the past few weeks. Congaree is a magical place of life, you can feel it when you step out of the car, the singing birds that great you, the skinks that surround you on almost every tree, you can feel the life surrounding you.

The park was a national monument in the 1990s, and became a national park in the early 2000s. The lush green of the park was mesmerizing. The trail that we took was the boardwalk to the Western loop trail that was recommended by the visitor center. This gave us the clearest views of the Cypress trees that litter the ground with their knees and take over the forest floor. The smallest change in elevations, even a few inches, meant a completely different ecological zone, from a mostly dirt floor was a grass covered. After about a mile, the boardwalk ended and you are put on a mud path through the woods. Make sure that you bring mosquito repellant, because these were more than a nuisance. Several times, both of us were smacking full mosquitos that smeared blood over our arms, making us look like we had been caught in a combat zone. The marsh plain and path had many different points of interest and the self-guided tour gave clear ideas and instructions on why each area was important. Around mile 3.5, the boardwalk returns and there is an amazing area to watch the river. Several turtles were waiting for food at the bottom of the boardwalk. While most of my photography revolves around landscapes, Congaree’s wildlife was an excellent change of pace. I captured several turtle, skink, snake, and woodpecker photos. Congaree’s swamp was well worth the trip, next time, I would like to have a canoe or paddle boat and go out on the swamp to explore more of what the park has to offer. I feel that I didn’t get the best pictures, but what made up for it was the ride home._MG_6404-1.jpg

I returned to Charlotte at about five in the afternoon, parting ways with my friend and having a wonderful dinner, it was time to go home. I punched in home address on the GPS and I was expecting to return basically the way that I came. Yet that was not the case, the GPS took me southward towards Kings Mountain, then across and up I-26 to hit I-40 at Asheville. The road through Shelby and lower central-western Carolina was fairly uneventful, it was when I hit I-26 that I realized how much place and location actually started to mean.

In the fall of 2015, I taught at a school in South Carolina, thinking that this was primarily for an online course, I was badly mistaken. I had signed up for a hybrid 8-week course that meant that I was driving to Florence South Carolina twice a week from Sylva North Carolina, another 200+ mile trip. Each school day, I left the house before noon to arrive in Florence at 5, taught American History II at 6-8, then was on the road back to Sylva by 12-1 am. While it is very clear, the life of an adjunct is one that is not sustainable, this is not the purpose of mentioning that. Every day I had to find something new to entertain my thoughts on the drive to Florence, I learned that semester what a podcast is and discovered some amazing interviewers, such as Marc Marion. As summer became fall, the drive back on I-26 from Greenville South Carolina to Asheville became more and more the reason that I would be amazed. One of the least traveled interstates (in comparisons to others in the South), is that section between Greenville to Asheville, I believe they call the rapid descent from Hendersonville to the piedmont as “the Gulch,” because of the 7-10% gradient, that then has the slow rolling hills of South Carolina. The speed limit is 70 MPH, but because of the lack of traffic, that turns out to be the minimum speed. It was here, in the sparsely populated, and remote area of the two Carolinas, that as summer turned to fall, I watched each night with splendor as the stars came out and were magical. That feeling of being so insignificant, to be lost like a child under a blanket, where you are safe and protected, yet full of life, is the most magical feeling as an adult.

Coming back from Charlotte the other night, was that same feeling of rapture at seeing those mountains. There is nothing more empowering than having the radio of the car turned up, drowning out your own voice, singing at the top of your lungs, and feeling that sense of home. The problem with saying smile, is that seems almost too weak of a word to describe the feeling/expression. I was in a state of almost euphoria feeling the mountains return and being a part of them. The sun setting in the distance, further north, casted a pink and purple on clouds, was in direct contrast to the lush green of the mountains. By the time I was near Asheville, the stars were starting to come out and again, that feeling of home was so overwhelming.  I was too caught up in the moment to do anything other than take a few pictures of the mountains, but that doesn’t even begin to demonstrate how amazing that moment was. While I am not from this area, I feel this deep connection to the place and would say that it has that quality of home that for myself that is not found in all corners of the world. Even if I’m not from here, can I call this home, can I lay claim to being colonized by this area?IMG_4636

This question of home, location, and place are common themes in the human experience. The legend goes, that when the Spanish arrived at the Yucatan, they asked, “Donde esta aqui?” To which the local Mayan, who looked slightly confused, responded, Yucatan. Asked a second time, the same answer, thus the Spanish marked the toe of Central America as Yucatan. Only centuries later, did anyone care to decipher what Yucatan meant in Mayan: Loosely translated as, “I don’t understand you.” That is the critical problem with language and trying to describe these mountains, the words that we use to describe them are temporal and don’t really take into consideration that the listener has to experience this moment or it is always lost in translation. I return to this question of where am I from, because in many ways this definition of myself is so hard to formulate into anything that means something to another human being. Even though I am something in the ballpark of 95% genetically similar to another human being, there is something deeply different in my experience that I struggle to communicate with others. I’ve been reading Dan Flores and his discussion of the natural history of the Western United States, which is a fascinating read, but throughout it, he points out that there is a fundamental difference between place and location. Transversely, location is a geographic point. That place is where you are connected, through language, experience, through culture. In the past few months I have had the ability to teach outside of Atlanta, having to leave the confines of the mountains. Maybe that’s the problem, that I am part of that larger economic trend, of Appalachian refugees, looking for better economic opportunities somewhere other than home, and have this hagiographic vision of a place that is always lost in memory, or a translation of myself in a former life. Meaning, that I need to quickly learn the banjo and get on the hipster return to the earth movement currently en vogue. Or maybe, I’m the strange one evolutionarily. Thousands of years ago, we descended from the great savanna apes, and never really found refuge in the mountains, maybe it was my ancestors that were the strange ones and encoded me to be different, with that love of a place that is foreign to all of those around me.