Saturday, June 20, 2015

Black Canyon, Part III: Sitting

“Fragrant grasses and white clouds / hold me here. / What holds you there, / world-dweller?” – Chiao Jan, Inscribed on the Wall of the Hut by the Lake (translated by J. P. Seaton, The Poetry of Zen)

The juniper sets a good example: find a beautiful place (in this case, along the Rim Trail, facing upcanyon), then dig in
“What are you going to do today?” people keep asking.  It’s a perpetually interesting question in a place like Black Canyon, where beauty and adventure are just a short drive and/or hike away.  Park Service folks often head down to Ouray or up to Grand Junction, maybe all the way over to Moab on our days off.  (I did that last time I was here, plus Buena Vista, Denver, Yellowstone…) This morning, though, having returned from my sunrise walk, I now sit in the front window, eating a cinnamon roll and sipping coffee, gazing out across the mesas and mountains and nearly cloudless blue sky, wondering, what am I going to do today?  It’s going to be a lovely day and I don’t want to waste a moment of it.

On Friday, anxious to stretch my legs after spending half the week sitting inside for seasonal training, I walked the whole park road again.  Didn’t see anything new, but it was a lovely cloud day—stratocumulus breaking open to reveal a sweep of incoming cirrus. Yesterday, I aimed for East Portal (the only place in the park where visitors can drive a steep, windy road down to the river and the country’s first major diversion dam and tunnel), but didn’t quite make it to the bottom before a thunderously dark hailstorm chased me back up.  Admittedly nerve-wracking (not to mention the bear that popped out of the brush only a car’s length away), but also exhilarating. 

Today, then—what to do today? Although, as usual, I feel obligated to do something exciting, meaningful, and/or  memorable, really all I want to do is walk to the canyon’s edge and sit.  
Sit and listen, sit and look, sit and feel. The birds, the river, the rock walls and the space between them—these are best experienced from a center of stillness. 

Yes, I think I’m going to go sit today.

Important point: find a beautiful place... with enough water (and soil), then dig in 
Some of the best moments I’ve had at parks—the richest, the deepest, the most transcendent—have occurred when, or perhaps because, I’ve been doing nothing but sitting.  Sitting at Pintado Point at Petrified Forest when the sun slipped between dark clouds and the horizon, illuminating everything but the basaltic neck of Pilot Rock.  Sitting on my little cedar-draped island in Tongass National Forest when a loon’s melancholy wail echoed through cool, thick mist.  Sitting on Primrose Ridge in Denali when a caribou trotted boldly across the tundra, curious to know who I was and what I was doing there. Sitting atop Algonquin Peak in the Adirondacks when the cloudbank lowered to leave mountain-islands poking out of a sea of white.  Sitting by the shores of Heart Lake at the Adirondak Loj when the landscape was so clearly reflected in the water that it was hard to tell which was the real world and which was the mirror image.


Rim Trail juniper catching the rising sun

For all my praise for walking—the rhythm, the freedom, the promise of new sights—it’s only when I stop moving that I fully feel a part of a place.  It starts with heightened perception: in the exact opposite of zazen (seated meditation), when I sit outside, instead of freeing my mind from distractions, I become more acutely aware of my surroundings. I begin to recognize how the world is changing around me—I see light move between cracks in the canyon, smell juniper baking in the hot sun, hear the soft rustle of wings when ravens stop craawing and soar away.  Then, like Ed Abbey in Desert Solitaire, I start to “feel myself sinking into the landscape, fixed in place like a stone, like a tree, a small motionless shape of vague outline, desert-colored, and with the wings of imagination look down at myself through the eyes of the bird, watching a human figure that becomes smaller, smaller in the receding landscape...” Eventually, if I sit for long enough, the concept of “I” wholly dissolves into what David Hinton describes as “Presence in all its silent radiance” (in his beautiful, beautiful, insightful and luminous “Field Guide to Mind and Landscape,” Hunger Mountain): “there is no ‘I’ perceiving, there is simply perception, the opening of consciousness become[s] wholly [that which is perceived].” In my case, I become wholly rock, juniper, raven, air, light.

View of the chasm from the visitor center, sunset

View from my front porch -- rays of light before the storm clouds fill back in

It’s a fleeting presence, though.  Inevitably, it starts to get hot. Or cold. Noisy. Boring. The spell breaks and I return to “I”-ness, feeling self-conscious and guilty for just lazing around. Shouldn’t I go for a real hike? Shouldn’t I leave the park one of these weekends? Shouldn’t I be writing or preparing for autumn? Am I squandering the summer, missing something important? I can’t sit for a full hour without anxieties and desires creeping in, or what Hinton knows as a “restless hunger” and “dragon-nature,” as in: “thoughts, feelings, memories, desires… [that] all keep relentlessly appearing and evolving and disappearing into the forgetfulness that is the texture of our day-to-day lives.”

On that note, right now, shouldn’t I be outside? The sun is only getting higher and hotter, the sky a hazier blue; it’s time for me to finish my coffee and head to Rock Point to sit and see what the day will bring.

View downcanyon from the Visitor Center, river glistening in the gathering dusk

[Addendum: I began writing this last Sunday, but before I could finish and post it, headed out to spend the rest of the day walking and sitting and walking again, including a guided wildflower walk during which a volunteer ranger pointed out several dozen species that I’d never before bothered to notice. Larkspur! Claret cups! Tiny little white somethings whose name I’ve already forgotten!  

It’s now the following Saturday. I've returned from a pre-dawn walk all the way over to High Point at the end of the park road, leaving in the coolness of dark, following the dim light of the Milky Way until it was superseded by an assertively orange-pink sunrise, getting home just as the hazy sky has begun to bake.  Along the way, I paused for a soft half-hour at Rock Point again—bright sun, long shadows, cool breeze, river rushing and foaming far below.  One raven sat with me, silent.]

Rock Point (aptly named)

Friday, June 12, 2015

Black Canyon, Part II. Walking

Better to idle through one park in two weeks than to try to race through a dozen in the same amount of time.
—Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Post-storm, pre-sunset walk out on East Portal Road (light breeze, cooler air, grouse booming at me from the brush)

It’s a privilege, I know, to get to live in a national park. While others have to fly or drive from far away—or even just up from town—to experience the landscape I see from my front porch, I can just step out my door and be in what Congress agreed is one of the nation’s most important and/or scenic places. [Side note: that’s also a liability.  I meant to write letters last Friday, but found myself repeatedly dashing outside whenever I glimpsed something beautiful through the window, i.e. dawn walk! Cloud walk! Noon walk! Mist walk! Rainbow-at-sunset walk!... I’ll contemplate the significance of that later. In the meantime, apologies to everyone who didn’t get so much as a postcard this week.]

Rainbows at dawn!

Full moon at dusk!

More than the accessibility, I have the luxury of time.  Time to slow down, time to relax, time to reflect, rinse, repeat.  Rather than desperately try to plan which trail to do and which overlook to stop at in the course of a few hours—or, worse yet, to try to race through all of the short hikes and cram in a stop at every overlook, plus maybe a ranger program and of course a look around the Visitor Center—I know that I can always wait and do something another day. Equally as importantly, I can return to do something again another day—experience it at a different time, in a different mood, with different weather.  (It poured all Saturday.  After a week of blaring, bleaching sun, I thought it was lovely to see the canyon alternately obfuscated and gleaming wet, exhaling mist, but also feel sorry for the visitors who stood at the rim and saw nothing. They’ll know its mystery, but not its distance or depth.)(Interesting, will they remember the place in terms of other senses: the roar of the river, the pungent wet sage?) 

Clouds swallowing up the canyon...

...And the canyon, belching out clouds

I’ve known the canyon in the rain, then, and in the snow, and with the sun beating down.  I’ve watched light slowly creep down the cliffs at dawn, and darkness rise up much more rapidly at dusk. I’ve seen afternoon cloud-shadows skitter across crags and linger in crevices.  I’ve smelled serviceberry bursting into bloom and felt the whoosh of cliff swallows swooping too close to my head. The last time I was here, I met a mountain lion, who paused to glance unconcernedly at me over his shoulder, gave his thick tawny tail a sinuous flick, then padded softly away into the unforgettable morning.

All of this happened while I was out walking.

Rim Trail on a rainy afternoon

I love to walk.  It’s my meditation, my celebration, my favorite means of exploring the world. Everywhere I go, I walk. Walk around cities, walk around parks. Walk to explore and, more often, walk the same routes over and over again, day after day. There’s comfort in the rhythm, freedom in the familiarity.  Instead of concentrating on navigation (Where am I? Where am I going? How do I get back?) and/or trying to sort through a barrage of new observations and sensations, I can turn my feet and mind loose, leaving them open to any and all psychological and/or environmental subtleties. Granted, some days, I’m wholly preoccupied with work or other concerns and hardly notice where I am.  On other days, though, I brim with curiosity—will the clouds build and break into rain? Will the snow finally stop and open into sun? Will the dusky grouse be there and, if so, will he boom at me from the bushes or puff his tailfeathers in silence when I approach?

In the three weeks I’ve been here, I’ve walked the entire park road—over to High Point and, yes, down to and back up from East Portal—been twice out to Painted Wall with stops along the way, once each just to Chasm View and Rock Point, looped Oak Flat three or four times, gone up the hill by the entrance booth just about every morning (looking for that mountain lion!), and taken the Rim Trail to Tomichi Point more times than I can count.  I have no idea how many miles that adds up to (not to mention long days hiking around the backcountry for work), but I’m pretty sure that I’ll wear through yet another pair of sandals this season.

Overlooking the San Juan Mountains from a gap on East Portal Rd.

Seeing me striding along the shoulder of the road, several visitors have kindly stopped to ask if I need help or a ride.  “No, thank you,” I tell them, “I like to walk.” (“Yes, even in the rain,” I assured a nice couple from California last Saturday.)  Several more have expressed surprise or admiration at my mode of transportation. “Thank you,” I tell them, “I like to walk.”  (It’s nothing special, I don’t tell them but I could, it takes no skill or special equipment. In fact, it could free you from what Ed Abbey calls variably your “metallic shells” and “back-breaking upholstered mechanized wheelchairs”—allow you to encounter the park firsthand, eyes and ears open, legs swinging, heart pumping, breath steady, except on some of the hills.) I dare not launch into Abbey’s full Desert Solitaire diatribe:
Look here, I want to say...look around; throw away those goddamned idiotic cameras! For chrissake folks what is this life if full of care we have no time to stand and stare? ... roll that window down! You can’t see the desert if you can’t smell it...take a long quiet walk straight into the canyons, get lost for a while… stand up straight like men! like women! like human beings! and walk – walk – WALK upon our sweet and blessed land!
But I do wish that more people would walk. 

Again, I know that because I’m living here—I’ve been here before and have another whole summer to explore—my plans can be flexible, my pace measured.  And I’m also desperately, delightedly aware that this country is rich with beautiful and unique parks, monuments, forests, rivers, refuges, seashores, etc.—it would be impossible to travel to, stop at, and truly see them all.  But if people are going to take the trouble to turn at the brown sign and drive the narrow, windy road from State Rte 50 up to this park, hopefully they’ll have the time or inclination to park their car at the Visitor Center and walk the trails, walk/run/bike/ski/snowshoe down the road, and/or really stop at any of the overlooks (I’ll write about that next.) Anyone would need at least 3-4 hours, preferably a day or two—enough time and at a pace to let the landscape awe, then change, then cut.

Painted Wall freshly washed and gleaming with light

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Black Canyon, Part I: Driving

What one thinks of in any region, while traveling through, is the result of at least three things: what one knows, what one imagines, and how one is disposed
—Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams

Where tumbleweeds go to die (Cimarron National Grassland, southwestern Kansas)

Disclaimer: Although I enjoy the autonomy afforded by an auto-mobile, I hate to drive and do anything I can to avoid using my car.  Poor thing has been parked for most of the winter, only for me to, mid-May, test its squeaky brakes, give it new tires, and ask it to carry me halfway across the country.

Another Disclaimer: Although I usually avoid interstates, preferring to meander along backroads and “blue highways,” I wanted to get back West as quickly as possible.  My car and I zipped mind-numbingly across 600 miles one day and 700 the next.  Aside from visits with family and friends, we barely stopped or slowed until past Salina, Kansas. Once the landscape began to unfurl—aah, open plains undulating beneath a broken grey sky—we escaped from I-70, cutting more leisurely southwest towards Elkhart.

I think this is my final Disclaimer: Although I hate interstates and really, really hate driving in cities / anywhere there’s traffic, I do thoroughly enjoy rolling along empty roads, windows open, car filled with the scent of sage and songs of meadowlarks.  U.S. 56 is now my second favorite drive in Kansas (behind Rte. 36)—mile after mile of windmills and pastures, punctuated only by the occasional intersection or town, all exposed to that indomitable sky.

My car and I were aiming for Cimarron National Grassland and the Santa Fe Trail. Luckily, I’d scribbled down directions to the Conestoga Trailhead—gathering dusk plus poorly-marked roads plus entirely unmarked turns would have made the spot to find otherwise. The USFS website had given me the impression that this was a popular location, but there were no signs that anyone had been down the rutted road for weeks. I had the whole place to myself—just me, my car, some livestock, and several gas wells humming away on our public lands.

I spent a cramped night in my front seat (I’d had neither the time nor desire to pitch a tent), then woke with the sun, or rather to cattle curiously mooing at and rocking the car.  My plan was to hike for a few miles out and back—not the entire 19 mile trail, but enough to stretch my legs and get a feel for the landscape.  After getting my pack ready and signing in at the trail register (first person for 2015—do people not use the trail, or just not sign in?), I set off.

I didn’t make it fifty yards before I lost the trail. There was a lonely sandstone marker, then nothing. Um. Knowing I was supposed to head westward, I just started wandering, keeping an eye out for prickly pear and, eventually, another stone marker.  Then I repeated the process all over again—wander, watch, aha! A marker! (At least, in grasslands, it’s easy to roam and hard to get lost.)

I felt vaguely sorry for tromping around so widely--the sign at the trailhead had asked me to please stay on the companion trail so as to not damage the historic Santa Fe Trail itself. But, then again, the "historic fabric" was pretty well ruined by the dozens of gas wells (plus wellpads, roads, etc) visible from each trailmarker.
 Maybe a mile later, a stone marker tried to send me right into a fence and tidy field.  There was a gate nearby, and, at its foot, broken signs announced private property and politely asked hikers to secure the gate behind them.  Looking more closely at the signs, I realized that they hadn’t just fallen—they'd been very purposefully cut. That decided it.  Feeling lost, unwelcome, and increasingly indignant (“I have a right to experience American heritage,” I held an imaginary conversation with the sign-cutter, “and explore public lands”), I turned around and headed back to my car, skirting yet another herd of curious cattle en route.

Less a matter of "Please stay on trail" than the message "You're not welcome here; Please go away"

"Who are you?" mooed the cattle, investigating the interloper, "And what are you doing here?"
Fine. So much for Cimarron. On to Comanche National Grassland—my main destination. For years, I’ve been hoping to hike to Picketwire Canyon, home to one of the largest dinosaur tracksites in the country, preserved in the same geologic formation (hooray, Morrison!) in which I’ll be working this summer.  I’d tried to visit the locality four years ago, but my low-clearance, front-wheel-drive sedan had been thwarted by thunderstorms/diverted to Vogel Canyon—a nice enough, though dinosaur-trackless, area to hike. This time, my only-slightly-higher-clearance-but-AWD Subaru and I arrived eagerly at Comanche early afternoon. We proceeded to navigate the rough, muddy road, growing increasingly nervous as the local radio station forecasted several days of rain.  Judging from my odometer, we made it within about 2 miles of the Picketwire Corrals (which are, in turn, 3 miles from the trailhead) when we encountered an impassable drainage—over half a foot of standing water, with thick oozy mud on either side.  

Um.  Option 1: try driving through (and, almost surely, get the car stuck; ruin the road.)  Option 2: park and hike the 5 miles to the trailhead then the 5+ miles to the tracks, hoping to make it back before storms and/or dark. (Darn it, I was going to see those tracks.) Option 3: Option 2, but starting early the next day. (I wanted to actually study the tracks, not rush in and out.)

Sigh. Opting for #3, I turned around and, on a whim, decided to return to Vogel Canyon.  I’d never expected to see the spot again, but at least it afforded an area to park and a trail to walk. I was surprised to find my memories of the place vivid—yes, this was where I’d lost the path before (and again); yes, I remember the curve of that cottonwood; wow, I photographed the sign from the exact same angle, emphasizing the daunting sense of space.  The last time I was there, though, I’d witnessed a transcendent transition from late afternoon to soft dusk to brilliant night, with a spectacularly fat full moon illuminating every dusty shrub and distant mesa. On this evening, thickening and lowering clouds cloaked the sky, convinced me to spend another night curled uncomfortably into my car, and, worst of all, portended rain.

Along the Prairie Trail, Vogel Canyon Trailhead (Comanche National Grassland, southeastern Colorado)

Sure enough, it started pouring at midnight. Waking to the pounding on the roof, I wondered whether I’d be able to get as far down the road toward the tracksite trailhead. As it continued to rain the rest of the night, I sleepily began to worry that I’d be stuck at the Vogel Canyon parking area.  When day dawned bright and new, I strolled out to see the prairie, fresh and alive, only to realize that the road was pure mud—boot-sucking mire, difficult just to walk on. There was absolutely no way my car would get out to the tracks; it was barely (nobly!) capable of slipping and splattering the several miles to solid pavement.

Beautiful morning!  Until the mud tried to swallow my boots, then my car
Relieved, but also tired, stiff, and disappointed, I drove to La Junta and rewarded my car with a tankfull of gas.  From there, I gave up on adventure—plans to visit Great Sand Dunes, Durango, and Silverton shriveled.  Instead, I decided on one last push—300 miles to Black Canyon.  The drive was uneventful, the scenery spectacular.  My car made it through narrow Canon City, over Monarch Pass (complete with a sparkle of snow flurries), into Gunnison, and from that point into ever-more familiar terrain—along the shores of Curecanti (hello, reservoir! Hello, Dillon Pinnacles!), past Cimarron (hello, train!), up the winding road to the park quarters (Grizzly Ridge! Green Mountain! The West Elks, and, of course: hello, Canyon!), where it’s been sitting ever since, resting and slowly sloughing mud.

Five days.  More than 2000 miles.  Traveling far and fast, only sometimes stopping to visit new things, what did I actually see of the country? My impressions and now my memories of each place are dependent on the time of day and weather while I was there, and, more subtly, my expectations and my mood. To me, Cimarron = cattle, gas wells, and a forlornly trailless trail; Comanche = muddy defeat. All of the Midwest = Interstate. Everything west of Gunnison = old friends.

Spiraling in and slowing down, I’ve now had two weeks to revisit most areas of the park and, better yet, have gotten to explore on foot. More thoughts, observations, and photos to come.