August 27-September 28 2002 / Seen in America: Cross-Country to the Southwest Parks
A Patriotic Journey
Written at Carlsbad Caverns National Park
We spent the whole day in the cave today. In the morning we go with a few others, led by a young ranger, for a walk lit only by the crude candle lanterns we each carry. The tallow smell of the candles, their heat on my hand, the feel of the soft dust underfoot, the shapes of rock around us only partially seen. The tiny pools we must step around or over. The thick darkness when we sit in the soft dirt and all of our lights are put out. It is suffocating, like a corporeal presence, the darkness.
Then we return to the surface, where we follow the path of the bats, only going within the cave instead of from it, zigzagging down and down and down, seven hundred fifty feet through the natural entrance (instead of going down by elevator!). Daylight recedes and is replaced by a few carefully placed lights which here and there illuminate wonderful formations, curtains, domes, pencils and towers and gushes of rock.
Fully below, we sit and eat our sandwiches, and then follow the path around The Big Room. Later that day I describe it all as frozen Beethoven. It’s not Bach, for it is not as orderly as Bach. Visual Beethoven, in its richness, variety, power, and weight. Beethoven transcribed into rock.
We have one more experience in the dark, at the end of the day on another ranger-led tour. Although I am prepared for it, and enjoy it, I still must fight against panic as the dark suffocates me, pulls air from my body, lies over my face…
There are not many people here right now, and the cave was very quiet. People spoke in whispers. Few sounds echoed throughout the great space.
Yesterday, at dusk with the silent people, the flow of bats above us, and today, deep within our earth, walking in silence amid a few faint echoes—the ranger asked us, “Should we be here?” A strange and provocative question. Yes, I said, if we come respectfully, we should see all that the earth has to show.
That’s why I’m here, to see all that the earth has to show. Not for my benefit, not to please myself, but to bear witness, to celebrate, to worship indeed.
Written at Carlsbad Caverns National Park
This morning, quite early, as we walk across the street to have our breakfast, we see hundreds of swallows flying low. As we watch, we see that they are wheeling in turn over the swimming pool, skimming down to take a drink, a tiny beakful of water. They are not the only animals which drink from the pool, we have discovered. Last night, a small skunk with a very large tail, held high behind, walked alertly across the road and passed through the fence to the pool. There are at least three cats we have seen in the evening, drinking from the pool runoff. And there are deer which graze in the dusk, past dusk, just across the road. When everyone has come down the hill from the batflight and settled into their rooms, the deer will probably drink, too.
This day was a hiking day. We drove south for 35 miles to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, just over the border in Texas. It’s a wilderness, hiking park. We chose a ten+ mile hike, first along a little river, shallow, hot, briskly flowing, then up into a lovely canyon filled with oak and maple trees, and flowers, mixed incongruously with cactus. Two deer crossed the trail just in front of us, the first ran across as we startled it, but then we froze, and the second walked across slowly and disappeared into the forest.
We watched a green and bronze hummingbird sipping from some I think sohor flowers, on a tall stalk. A full life, contained in that tiny body, those whirring wings, that long black beak, and we spy on him without his knowledge, a strange intrusion.
There were butterflies of all kinds, more I think than I have ever seen in one place. Rich deep yellow ones, a monarch, orange and black fritillaries, a hummingbird moth, enormous iridescent black and blue ones, black and yellow swallowtails. We saw a dead yellow sulfur butterfly floating in the water, and a praying mantis eating one; it stopped to look at me when I bent close.
At the top of the trail, quite steep, we stopped at The Notch, which looks from one side of a high ridge over to the other, where we saw a marvelous panorama of carved-out knife edges and sheared-off cliffsides. The sense of privilege, to be able to be in this place and see these things, is very powerful.
All of this—the caverns, the mountains—are the remnants of a great reef that grew here millions of years ago. What a peculiar thing, that we are here to see it and walk on it, on the billions of dead sea creatures. In the cave, we were invited to look closely at a great piece of limestone, and there they were: shells.
Written in Benson, Arizona.
At sunrise we drove again down the road to Guadalupe and beyond, miles of dry spare land, lined on the one side with the silent ancient reef mountains, in eons past teeming with life, all now frozen in rock.
The long approach to El Paso a dreary, ugly mass of unsavory signs (Show Girls! All Nude!), beat-up auto shops with piles of cannibalized cars out back, dubious motels and cafes, construction sites, all of it ugly and hurtful to the eyes and spirit after the cleanliness of the park landscapes. Gee, even birds try to clean out their nests of droppings and debris.
But finally we got through it, and just ate up the miles, far past our day’s nominal goal, and on into Arizona. At a rest stop, the heat was tremendous, dry and scary, reminding me of the heat in New Delhi, where you thought carefully whether you really needed to expend the energy needed to cross the street.
We redid our plans, and found Saguaro National Park, a small place set aside just to preserve the saguaro cactus, a plant I have never seen before. At the park, there is a small scenic driving road, and some walking that can be done from it.
The great cactuses marched up and down the low hills like soldiers, perhaps like that terracotta army found in China, silent but upright and sturdy. They must live for seventy-five years before they even put out new arms. After twenty-five years they may be only a foot tall. Within, they are dense and elegantly-constructed, as we saw in a slice of one at the visitor center.
I so love the array of plants! The land is rich and thick with them, all kinds of forms and colors and sizes. We found a trailhead, but just as we began to walk, a storm cloud opened up, and we hustled back to the car to try to wait it out. The rain and wind thrashed all around us and the smells rose. I was so frustrated! I desperately wanted to walk in this place with its naturalist’s eye candy! The pungent odor of creosote bush filled the car.
Finally the rain slowed and stopped, and we drove around the road some more until we came to the other end of the trail. Although the sky was dark and threatening, we got out and walked. We were surprised that the rain had not soaked immediately into the ground, but instead lay in puddles, making the trail through the cactuses soft. Leading, as always, I kept an eye out for snakes and such. But mostly, the cactuses. Here were low chunky robust barrels of green and spines, with gorgeous dense orange flowers nestled in their tops. I bent close to look within, and saw how the waxy flowers were dotted with raindrops. We came close to a saguaro, and I gingerly touched its smooth sides, between the rows of spines. It was solid as wood.
Dark clouds grew darker, and more thunder rose, and we thought we ought to move along. Just one more saguaro, just ahead, a bit off the trail. It had a neat round hole about ten feet up. Using my binoculars, I looked inside. OH! I think that’s a snake in there, I can see layers of pale brown with some black bands, and maybe that’s his head, looking from left to right. That’s a snake, up in that hole! Lurking there, waiting for a bird to come in. Making a living how he can.
Sniffing and looking, touching, listening—I’m overwhelmed by the rejoicing plants, the festival of form—the reassuring tenacity of life.
But the lightning moves closer, and I’m scared, too, so we hurry back to our car, hop in, and drive to our motel through a violent downpour. Not for us, standing out thirstily in the rain.
Why is it that nobody writes about how wonderful the desert smells? About how ravishing its array of form? Because there is no underbrush, each individual plant is seen separately, in all its elegance, like a piece of wonderful sculpture.
The desert as a form of art.
Written at Kitt Peak Observatory
Last night in our room we thought to look at a little television, and came upon a remarkable broadcast: the United States Congress meeting in joint ceremonial session at the Memorial Hall in Lower Manhattan, close on Ground Zero, where the very first Congress met. Our Congress was meeting now, there, to symbolize its commitment to and support of New York City, as the one year memorial of September 11 approaches. We watched nearly all of the remarks, music, and ceremony. For me, it was very helpful and important, for it was the very first time I have even been “present” through television with others who were thinking about 9/11.
Today was a day to observe the mighty and audacious works of humans rather than nature.
Ever since the first experiment conducted there, I have been fascinated by the curious structure called Biosphere 2. Originally, the idea was to see if by somehow recreating all the various biomes on earth, a small group of humans could live, sealed up, inside the huge glasshouse. There were eight of them, and they stayed in there two years, and really it almost killed them
Well, today we went and visited Biosphere 2, and were given a long tour. Now people do not try to live in it anymore, since (surprise!) you can’t duplicate Planet Earth and we need every tiniest bit of it to survive, but at least scientists make experiments by manipulating atmospheric gases, moisture, and the like, and try to learn things.
The tours were very good, and I was surprised at how many people were on them, at a rather early hour of the day. The design of the building is a great tribute to imagination, engineering, and problem-solving. It is sealed off from the surrounding earth (which they style, pretentiously, Biosphere 1) by a stainless steel box, so that, supposedly, there is no interchange. Of animals there are insects, microbes of various sorts, and I believe that is all. So it is terribly artificial. Like a big toy, really. One man, Mr. Bass, actually owns the whole thing, and much must be maintained to please him. At present, Columbia University runs it, and students come from there and elsewhere to play with the big toy.
It is an attempt to reduce the most complex set of interlocking systems in the universe, perhaps, to something that can be placed under a glass dome. Yes, a fine tribute to the reach of humans!
After visiting the Biosphere, we drove west to the place around which this entire trip has been planned, Kitt Peak Observatory, where there is a wonderful program for people like John who are amateur astronomers. You can come and stay all night and have a big telescope at your disposal and see whatever you would like. We had planned for a night when the moon is dark, and built the whole trip around that date.
Well! Of course, it turns out that Arizona is having what they call the monsoon season right now, and there were heavy rains all afternoon. Not very good for seeing…
We drove across the scrubland, into an O’odham Indian Reservation, where the road up the mountain to the observatory is. Along the road were a dozen of the tiny roadside shrines that people seem to make nowadays, to mark where a person has died on the highway. The road is about 50 miles long, and there were twelve of these. It is not easy, still, being an Indian.
Driving up the mountain we are amazed and tantalized by the sight of the huge observatory, perched seemingly on the very edge of a cliff high above. It all looks like a scene from the finest science fiction movie.
The drive is beautiful, but I am dejected because the weather is clearly not going to give John a night of seeing. There are dark storm clouds all around, and lightning plays here and there.
At the Visitors’ Center, we learn that, well, no, it doesn’t look very good for the program tonight, and why don’t you walk around and look at some of the telescopes (there are twenty-four of them!) until your guide arrives.
So we trudged up the hill to the largest telescope, which has a mirror of four meters across. Now, this does not mean very much to me. I don’t know about these things the way John does.
But when I emerged into the presence of this object, seen behind glass but fabulously present nonetheless, I was stunned by its staggering size, its sheer presence, the huge machine designed to see so far, so far into the past, so far away from me, to see such mysteries as cannot be comprehended. To build such an object, such a machine! To have the tremendous imagination, audacity, the enormous DESIRE to SEE. To try to understand, to try to know.
All the science fiction ever written cannot duplicate the beautiful spirit of the human mind. No alien ever invented can match us humans in our yearning, our boldness, our reckless NEED TO KNOW.
Ah well. Then we were marooned, by a great downpour, there at the telescope viewing gallery, and we so high up it was as if we were raining ourselves, as if we were those giant rainclouds. Finally we made a run for it, back to the visitors’ center, with the lightning around, and totally soaked we were.
So no telescope program, but instead we had a fine dinner in the cafeteria (veggies at last) and tucked in to our little astronomers’ bedroom, and slept a long time, there high on the mountain, in the dark, with the wind and the night animals, and the great telescopes around us, their cold eyes trained on the unknowable depths of space.
Written at the South Rim, Grand Canyon
Finally we are in my west! There are pine trees all around, and the air is sweet and clean, unlike any air I have ever smelled in the east. I’m home!
We drove all day, and finally came the up and down, the steadily rising land, until now we are at 7000 feet and somehow I feel at home. We settled into our wonderful room, that looks out upon pines and ravens, and we walked briskly along a new paved path, and finally to the edge of The Canyon.
Oh sublime spectacle! Oh great manifestation of the powers of nature on earth! Oh surely the greatest of all the great landscapes on the earth! If there exists such a similar place in the universe, or even a greater one, there there will be no humans to rejoice in it. So here, just here, in Arizona, United States of America, here is this one place in all the universe and no other place.
And I here to see it.
Written at the South Rim, Grand Canyon.
I have been dreading this task now before me, to write some words to capture our experiences here in the past two days.
We attended a brilliant interpretation of the life of the Canyon, its history, by a strange, intense park ranger. He quoted the words of an early geologist, Dutton by name, who wrote the very first monograph report about it for the US Geological Survey. This Dutton was a poet, actually, and there is a copy of the report, a reprint of course, for sale in the book store here. It cost $75. It is a work of arts, the written arts and the pictorial, too. This ranger quoted Dutton about the Canyon: “A disturbing immensity…”
A woman on the shuttle bus today, sitting next to me, said how the Canyon shows the handiworks of the Lord. Oh yes, I agreed, but I did not worship the same Lord as she, I am sure. Instead, my God is the God of physics, the God who dictates, animates, the history of each molecule of mineral, each molecule of water, each stain of color, each crystal, each array of crystals, so that at the present time I may behold such a stupendous work of art as this place.
The immensity is indeed disturbing, as much beyond comprehension as the ages of the rocks that make it up. Disturbing to contemplate our brief lifetime here on this Earth, our brief history, compared to the eons so tantalizingly revealed as we walk down along the walls. How present we think we are, how terribly important! Yes compared to what lies around us, casually displayed without artifice, we are mere microbes strutting foolishly along a vast landscape, quite laughably unaware of its dimensions.
Seen in America, at the Grand Canyon
--a black tarantula with hairy red abdomen, turning to raise this abdomen in threat
--in silence, a mule deer buck, with fine antlers, grazing alongside a path at dusk, and we freeze, watch, and move, as he watches and grazes
--an elk at dawn, in the pinyon pines by our room
--early morning intense sunlight rendering pink the shadows in the folds of our clothing, reflected from the deep red sandstone wall we hike past
--a young Japanese couple, tromping unseeing down the trail past eons of wonders, their ears filled with earphones and their pop music
--a turkey vulture, perched confidently on a precipice, hopping into thin air 4000 feet up and spreading his wings to glide, as if swimming, in the air
--gleaming white clouds, like mounds of the finest sheep’s wool, piled up against the glittering blue sky, and there too is the blackest storm cloud, and lightning, and all somehow framed by the ruby pit!
--a waterfall of languages
--the eye-watering pungency of mule urine and dung, the mules themselves lovely warm-colored animals, their intelligent brown eyes upon the Bright Angel Trail beneath them, more careful than their human riders imagine.
--a wondrous array of vultures clinging to the pale limestone cliff, their great black wings outstretched; it is their home, a home we could never inhabit
--lace and horrible monoliths and elegant terraces and temples and comfortable red sand underfoot and under the red, nile green, and rose and bloody red and bitter orange and pale saffron yellow, and then the deep purple and the navy blue, and finally the black, at the bottom.
The bottom: Brahma and Vishnu, the Makers of All, those present at The Beginning.
Written on September 11, 2002 at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon
A resounding, heartless NOTHING for remembrance at the South Rim. So, once again, I was by myself. To substitute, I turned on the television at 5 am local time, to New York, to Ground Zero, where the names of the dead were read in slow cadence, and families came together to mourn, again, and again. At 5:46, local time, I made my own moment of silence by stepping out into the pine forest around our room and standing there, where the elk stood yesterday, just standing on the earth, that they once enjoyed.
We crossed the Navaho lands, but swiftly, in the car. The Navaho are living on this land, slowly. In the shadow of, and nestled against, towering red palisades of mountains, jagged, forbidding, yet surely intimately known. The land appears “empty,” but only to those who do not know it. If you know it, if you live upon it and within it, every crag, every notch, every fluting, is filled with meaning and comfort. Your home place.
Here and there are small gatherings of buildings, a little house, a six-sided Hogan, a fenced-in place. A truck. A modest road to all this. And beyond, the glowing red mountains, perhaps not fearsome after all, but rather protecting, enclosing, sheltering. The mountains and land so red that the white clouds above reflected pink beneath.
We seemed to be somehow driving through a paint-box, along an artist’s palette, within a butterfly wing, into a wondrous bouquet of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet flowers.
Surely a life lived as a part of such a landscape takes on its colors and its largeness.
Written at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon
We have decided that the Grand Canyon is a universe of its own, with human history, biological history, and geological history, all quite separate from the larger universe in which it is contained. But it’s actually hard to think of the “larger universe” as larger! The thing is so immense that you can’t see the ends of it, of course, and so deep that you can seldom see the bottom, and then only tiny glimpses, and so varied in its rocky architecture that you might as well be looking at great cities of stone, each with a different culture and so different in the buildings it erects. An entire world.
Yesterday we hiked for a while in a fine Douglas-fir and Ponderosa Pine forest. Every once in a while there would be an opening in the forest, and there was the Canyon, implacable, gorgeous, a great theater for light and shadow, for displaying great swathes of distant weather. I remembered the tiny exquisite “Dolls’ Theater” formation at Carlsbad Cavern, also made of limestone as is so much in the Canyon.
We get up very early every morning, about 6, and quickly dress in the dark, and drink our juice and eat our bananas, and maybe a sweet roll or donut, put on our boots, hoist up our packs, and go out in search of coffee for me and tea for John. Sometimes we are successful in this quest and sometimes not. Then it’s off to the trailhead and onto the trail, quick quick, we want to be hiking by 7 or shortly after. This morning we went about three and a half miles down this side, down about 2000 feet, on the North Kaibab Trail, which meets the South Kaibab down in the Canyon and goes up the other side—a trail we hiked on over there. On the other side we met some thru-hikers, people hiking Rim-To-Rim. Many women, rangy, cheerful, powerful, determined, carrying enormous heavy packs. This morning we met some of these folks, too. The way it’s done is to go down on this side and come up the other side, which is a thousand feet lower, and a shorter up, too.
I would so love to do this! I can’t imagine what it’s like in the bottom! The river! The great ancient rocks: the Vishnu Rocks! I’d like to see those ancient rocks, cross over the Colorado River, do that thing.
There were some mule riders this morning, trail workers they were, who came down and passed us, four mules and two guys. Later we passed them where they were doing trail work, sawing logs for water bars, heaving rocks here and there. I looked at a cut of a juniper they had made, something familiar to me in this very unfamiliar place. The guy told me that they pack all of this kind of thing up, to dispose of on the rim, not to leave it down here.
You couldn’t spend much time here and not become a passionate citizen of this universe. You get sucked in, drawn in inexorably, as if by the pull of gravity. A peculiar weightiness is here, a mighty drama, some of it frozen as if in a great book or temple, and other, full of life, lively, tantalizing, like great theater.
Yes, the stage of the gods.