Red Rock

To the tune of Carly Rae Jepsen, we rattled up the last stretch of the fifty plus miles of poorly maintained dirt roads that had abused my 17-year-old Volkswagen’s ailing struts on and off that day since the turn-off to El Chaco in New Mexico. As incredible Arizona red rock monoliths loomed and disappeared in our dust trail I cringed in the back seat, seething inwardly until the last karaoke stanza of “Call Me Maybe” trailed off and relative silence returned. Unwilling to let go of my indignation just yet, I suppressed a smile. This wasn’t what I imagined Arizona would sound like. Suddenly Gwen Stefani steps into the spotlight, then any trace of a smile vanished as Akon’s in-house backups began yodeling, “WEEHOO . . . WEEYOO!”

My contemplative idiom entirely shattered, an eyelid twitched as I shrank into myself and prayed for strength. Eventually, we arrived.

After driving on the Trail of the Ancients through western New Mexico from El Malpais, visiting El Chaco National Historic Park on the way to the Four Corners Monument, we were staying the night on the Arizona Navajo reservation in a hooghan whose hospitable owner has put up for rental on AirBnB. After passing a white gelding and a few mares grazing on the unfenced hill bordering the dusty road, we pulled into the ranch. We met our friendly host (and his friendlier dogs), who suggested we take a hike around his land after settling in. With the red-rock Chuska mountains looming on the horizon, and a few solitary mesas standing guard at their middling outposts, Johnny and I set out to see what we could see.

The nearest scrubby ridge concealed a rocky red gulch that appeared to be a dry stream bed, which became our path. The soil in this part of Arizona feels much more like loose, dry dirt than the sandy floors of New Mexico. All the rocks have fluid shapes, as though softly formed by wind and water over a longer period of time than I can comprehend. We crossed ridges, rock shelves, and tiny canyons, following the streambed. Lola and Miller, our host’s dogs, stayed with us, ranging about, chasing lizards and digging at prairie dog holes. We passed a horse skeleton, scattered by water or scavengers over hundreds of feed down the streambed – huge, dry bones bleaching in the sun. The dogs sniff them but seem to prefer consuming bones with some bit of stinking black flesh still attached instead.

Disappointed at not finding the cliff he’d been searching for over the latest hill, Johnny turned back to the ranch. His ambling form quickly disappeared, swallowed up by the vast expanse of land our Navajo host was kind enough to share with us. We’d traveled too quickly. Our minds hadn’t caught up with our bodies speeding down the interstate, and we were still relying on our outdated North-Eastern sense of scale and geography. We’re not used to spaces like this. A cliff or canyon can look like it’s just over the next ridge when really it’s miles away, only appearing so close because we could see so much farther in the dry atmosphere, and the cliff is massive. Even the lighting on the geography played tricks on me; I couldn’t seem to spot the depressions between ridgetops until we were upon them, or Johnny reappeared, a tiny white dot emerging straight out of the earth.

I continued on alone with the dogs as the sun crept lower on the horizon. Spying a rock shelter in the distance that reminded me of the amphitheaters in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, I weighed the risk of being trapped in a strange new land riddled with prairie dog holes after nightfall against the reward of reaching the rock formation. I looked at the dogs and the dogs looked at me, and we took off for the eastern horizon.

We crossed ridge after ridge. Scaling rockbalds and tiny canyons, vaulting over prairie dog warrens and praying I wouldn’t suffer a broken ankle for my zeal. Eventually, all of us panting, and the sky behind us turning a deepening shade of dusky purple, I realized I’d made another error in scale. The rock shelter was too far away.

I called the dogs and we turned back to the west. Eyes stinging from the wind, ears deafened by the same, alone in the middle of one of mother nature’s harshly beautiful and equally dangerous playgrounds, I suddenly realized where mankind’s love for dogs began. Indefatigable, obedient, and eager, Lola and Miller were my traveling companions in our little slice of wilderness, my eyes, ears, and nose. Where they looked, I looked. When they froze, I froze. A pang of fear struck me when Miller shot off like a bullet after a jackrabbit, crossing two hills and a narrow ravine in seconds, Lola in hot pursuit, the both of them leaving me far behind. But their owner trained them remarkably well; they returned when I shouted after them, albeit reluctantly. Still far from home but reunited and reassured of our companionship, we turned again to chase the sunset.

The High Desert

Juniper spice and pinyon. A tree whose bark smells like vanilla and sugar warming in the sun. Scents mixed on a dry desert breeze suddenly bring a world I’d read about to life. My brothers and I made camp at Joe Skeen campground on the outskirts of El Malpais National Monument, a protected portion of a chain of both ancient and rather recently erupted New Mexico volcanoes that so littered the surrounding plains with jagged volcanic rock, cinders and hardened black lava flows that the Spaniards named it “the bad land”.

That morning we’d driven west from Albuquerque to visit Junction Cave at El Malpais. A number of lava tubes remain underground in the area, formed when the outside of lava flows hardened and insulated the lava within, allowing it to remain molten long enough to flow out of the larger mass and leave a cavity behind. Some of these have collapsed in a couple spots, revealing the tunnel to aboveground explorers. Junction Cave is the NPS’s advertised easiest cave, requiring no special equipment besides headlights. After slipping through the bars of a narrow iron fence at the entrance (probably made so narrow as a warning: if you have trouble fitting through this opening, you don’t belong here) and after a pair of bobbing lights materialized into an older couple coming the other way near the mouth of the cave, we had the place all to ourselves. Inside we couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces. It got so narrow and low before the end that we were only able to slide on our stomachs, using our toes to push ourselves forward through the silent dark. It was pretty cool.

That evening our campground was at the base of a small mesa that wrapped around the area to the north and east, providing some shelter from the wind that passes through the flat, open plains elsewhere in New Mexico. We had nothing but time, so I went exploring.

I scrambled over sandy slopes and boulders to reach the top of the mesa overlooking our campground, taking care to search the rock ledges for rattlesnakes before trusting them with any appendages. There are ants anywhere one cares to look out here, including to my dismay patrolling the sticky vertical highways of my treasured vanilla tree, which I later learned is the famous Ponderosa Pine. Having mostly escaped the gnats swarming the campground below where Johnny was coking rice and beans, I took a moment to soak in the sun washing over me.

Then, jumping from rock to rock where I could, stepping gingerly around rabbit warrens, snake holes and ant hills when the sand overcame the natural pavement, I wandered alone over the sandy plateau. I passed and wondered at red cactus flowers, rock mortars and shallow dry pools in the sandstone boulders. Piles of desiccated scat from an animal much larger than me lay scattered under scrubby twisting bushes and tufts of coarse grass. I lost a staring contest with a tiny desert rabbit and as a consolation prize took the time to memorize the shape of its tracks in the sand. There were bigger paw prints too. This was cougar country, and I didn’t know how long it takes for wind and rain to obliterate tracks up here. I was a little more alert after that.

I’ve never seen anything like the high desert. It stretches for hundreds of miles around the Sandia mountains and Albuquerque, the largest of the few urban oases out here. The tan and brown and ocre-stuccoed architecture of the region blends into the environment, and the few scattered homesteads we pass on the interstate sprawl haphazardly across the plain – 1 story ranch houses, old SUVs and ramshackle sheds arranged like man-made compliments to the natural décor. Every now and then a massive string of railroad cars breaks the emptiness. I tried to count one and gave up after the 105th car. Property values within an hour of Albuquerque drop to as low as $300.00 an acre for small parcels. Anyone with a little bit of know-how and an adventurous spirit could build a homestead out here for almost nothing. Maybe someday…

Dallas

Texas was to me the first truly alien place we encountered after crossing the Mississippi, and my first taste of the scale of the American West. I’d read about it in novels and histories for years, heard stories from friends, family, and fellow travelers; how nothing out East compares to what’s beyond that river. As we sped along gently rolling, straight highways at 80 miles an hour, the intoxication of travel was in full swing.

Driving through the Texas oil fields I was struck by the irony of the ponderous wells dotted across the open plain, laboring their endless labors, rusting heads bowed in servitude and toil beneath the shadow of gargantuan electric windmills looming overhead, their long arms slowly marking time until the end of an era. I wonder how many oil wells one of those windmills is worth, or vice versa.

The AirBnB we stayed at in Dallas was run more like a European style hostel than a rented room in someone’s home. There were fifteen other guests sharing the subdivided suburban estate, including two charming young women from Brazil, some Latino city construction workers, a reclusive heavily tattooed couple and their kid, and of course, three white guys from Jersey.

However, none of these were the most interesting guests we met. I encountered Sharon and Chris in the kitchen around dinner time and struck up a conversation. The husband and wife couple are from Pennsylvania. She’s a tax preparer, and Chris does something with computers that is location independent. Sharon is sweet and motherly – she brought us water as Chris was showing us how to play disc golf out in the yard and told us about her adventures driving up the Pacific Coast, which we are about to do ourselves. Chris wears a bushy brown and white beard and long, thick white hair slicked back. His eyes are just a touch wild as he looks warily down the bridge of his nose, chin raised slightly. He giggles rather than laughs, revealing teeth slanting slightly inward within the fluffy beard. We enjoyed learning the sport with him on a course he created in the hostel’s backyard. He demonstrated a few techniques and asserted that “you really gotta huck that fucker” to get the disc to catch the air right – no wishy washy throws. You gotta mean it. Our lessons were interrupted briefly between holes when he’d take a break to sneak up on his wife as she was reading in a hammock, for a kiss.

He feels more like a nerdy college freshman than an older man, cemented by our conversations about self driving cars, Harry Potter, and his invite to play the psuedo-RPG card game Munchkin later that night, to which we enthusiastically agreed. As we prepared to leave the next morning, en route to Albuquerque, he knocked on our door to give us hugs and what I feel I can only describe as fatherly advice that “scientists don’t know shit, they’re always changing their minds. Always assume you don’t know shit too and you’ll stay grounded.” Then he was gone.

Altogether a charming character, and most certainly a character.

Conviction

Well, I’m still not a city person. We spent four hours in the New Orleans French Quarter and came on back to our airBnB. We shopped the shops. We saw the sights. Bourbon street nightlife is off limits with a fifteen year old in tow, but that’s not much of a draw to me anyway. Kind of the opposite really.

We got our fudge at the Fudgery on Decateur, which was every bit as good as I remembered. We had very good jambalaya at the Napoleon house, a restaurant recommended by a passing pedestrian who overheard me whining at an expensive menu posted on the street that “I just want jambalaya”. It wasn’t as good as I remember it being in Baton Rouge, but I think that’s because nothing could measure up to the circumstances under which it was acquired and consumed in copious quantities there. After rescuing as much of the stuff as I could carry from a huge Red Cross food bucket at the shelter Delta One and I were sleeping in I was stuffed full of excellent chicken and sausage jambalaya, sometimes twice a day, for something like five days in a row. For free, with all fear of gluttony waived for I was duty-bound to consume it lest the donated food go to waste.

Culinary reminiscences aside, so far the most impactful thing to me from Atlanta and New Orleans was coming into contact with some of the homeless population here. At intervals the mood of my day was grounded by the sight of a wizened old man and woman asleep in each others arms in a doorwell, or a dejected guy holding a sign stating he was a forgotten marine corps veteran; or the soggy man sitting near the aquarium entrance beside the Mississippi, taking shelter under its steel and marble awning as the rain drove relentlessly in off the river. His eyes accused me as I passed in my $120.00 rain jacket, warm, dry, and treating the chilling rain as an adventure, a stroll beside the choppy brown waters of the Big Muddy through a strange city in a new place.

I have heard in my short lifetime many conflicting messages regarding the intersection of wealth, compassion, faith, and poverty, from people who value the ideals of selflessness put forth in all the world’s prevailing religions. I’ve been told, it’s not your time, you need to save for yourself; don’t give money to beggars, they’ll use it for drugs. If you must give, go through an agency, but be careful because so many non-profits are crooked. Best not to give at all, just volunteer when you can…It’s enough to take the humanity out of the sleeping forms in the doorwell, or the eyes set behind features weathered by hard times and experiences I can’t begin to understand.

As I walked past that sodden man in his dirty undershirt under the aquarium awning, I thought, he has no raincoat and I can easily afford to get another – doesn’t that mean I have one to spare? But I kept right on walking.

Why couldn’t I do something as simple and easy as giving another man a coat?

I think there’s a fear in me, a deep and paralyzing fear, one I am quick to recognize in others but slow to see in myself. It’s the fear of realizing I’ve been living wrong, of looking the truth in the face and discovering there’s a hard road behind it. I’d rather live in my little world, skimming the surface of life, content with a certain level of discontentment.

But that’s not really what I want. At some point I’ve got to take a leap. Every conviction I ever envied began when its holder decided to not only believe it, but to do something about it. I have some vague idea of what that something means to me. But the words vague and conviction are not compatible.

~

“I sit and look out upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all oppression and shame;

I hear secret convulsive sobs from young men at anguish with themselves, remorseful after deeds done;

I see in low life the mother misused by her children, dying, neglected, gaunt, desperate;

I see the wife misused by her husband, I see the treacherous seducer of young women;

I mark the ranklings of jealousy and unrequited love attempted to be hid— I see these sights on the earth;

I see the workings of battle, pestilence, tyranny, I see martyrs and prisoners;

I observe a famine at sea, I observe the sailors casting lots who shall be kill’d to preserve the lives of the rest;

I observe the slights and degradations cast by arrogant persons upon laborers, the poor, and upon negroes, and the like;

All these—all the meanness and agony without end I sitting look out upon,

See, hear, and am silent.”

-Walt Whitman
I Sit and Look Out
Leaves of Grass, 1900

Before Departure

I was not made to work on cars, or wash houses, or paint guard shacks or weld. I wasn’t created to design games or paper packages, or build houses and trails. No one set me on this earth to write, to move rocks, to plant trees or mow lawns. These certainly are all things I can do, have done, and could do well with time and practice. Some of them are things I should do, occupations or chores which are a part of life – but they are not my purpose. I believe like us all I was made first and foremost to live! To know what is meant by that phrase. And if as some say life consists of work, but as others say a man come into his own would scarcely tell the difference between his work and his play then I think my life should in part consist of many quiet moments like today.

To me life is found not mostly in the living, but in the time taken to reflect on what has been done and what is still yet to come. Here is where I go quietly to observe life, when I’m not busy living it: to restive places like the mountains and mountain valleys, little streams and starlit rivers. City lights above deserted streets which I walk in waking sleep. And alone, a few feet up a rope ladder I made myself, in a tiny verdant city all my own.

Today I am blessed and thankful for my perch amidst the trees where I can watch a baby deer napping just below, thin and innocent, sweetly drowsy on wobbly legs. I can see the chipmunk that lives in the rock wall I built sunning itself on a fallen branch. The birds are chirping just a few feet overhead. I’ll even enjoy the bumble bee that’s been licking the salt off my legs for the last ten minutes.

Musing on the plywood deck of our tree house eleven feet off the ground one sunny Sunday, I thank the Lord for teaching me that all my talents are not mine but his and are at his command. I pray he’ll teach me to love his service, to know his desire – and I know I will never work a day in my life.

~~~

 

How I long for release. Not some quiet peace that steals slowly over my soul as I sit here astride this noisy stream – though that I would gladly take. I want total release of toil and strain like a giant I have read of in a forgotten soldier’s recollected nightmare, shrieking his pain into the hazy red sky as metal angels of death in swarms ceaselessly protest his continued existence. I want to let out all the little torments, the setbacks, the long festering pinpricks and unacknowledged shackles in one racking cry and have done. So seldom is this luxury afforded us. So little have I experienced to earn it.

I came to this place in answer to an irrepressible call, a summation of forces from every direction which reaching critical mass allows only one outlet to its power, a solution describable more as an undeniable imperative than a conscious thought: the all consuming urge to escape. To tear out the driveway and run to exhaustion and whatever silence one may find. I never regret following this impulse. As usual, but not as always, God appears outside the norm, on an accidental side track to the race. He speaks to one willing to enter the inexorable flow of brooks and souls through time, to assume the imperturbable serenity of a frog motionless on a tiny rock in the midst of the stream. Today I am a blue and gray and orange frog perched on a rusting metal rock at rest in the midst of a stream of water and events.

Our tiny refuges provide solace and sustenance for a brief while – all that is necessary to return rejuvenated to the fight, the race, the river of life.

Home on Transition

My brothers and I recently began a road trip which will take us from northern New Jersey to New Orleans, San Diego, Seattle, and back before the end of the summer. I have a few purposes in keeping a blog going during the trip, not least of all that it’s lots of fun, but also to keep interested friends and family in the know and to keep me writing. However most people who know me are aware of and often annoyed by my aversion to or at least general ineptitude for digital communications. Things like texting, emails, snapchat, and now, blogging. I’ve kept a journal with thoughts for this blog running for going on two weeks and also for several weeks leading up to the trip but in typical fashion haven’t posted any of it until now. Ain’t nobody got time to read all that at once – and this trip also frequently and deliciously involves periods of little to no cell or internet service, which contributes to the backlog. We’ve been in San Diego now for a few days, so I’ve taken the time to schedule posts on every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday for a little while.

Thanks to everyone who takes the time to follow along, and I hope you enjoy reading!

~

After about six weeks at home in Sussex County, it was time to hit the road again. It was an odd transition out of AmeriCorps back to “normal” life and about as soon as I made it I was ready to make another. Home is a beautiful, beautiful place. I love Sussex County, and I love our property, and my family – but I know now is not the time to be a homebody. Now is the time to explore.

So I treated my time at home as an extension of the adventure I knew was coming, or as a bridge between AmeriCorps and this summer road trip. I tried to keep busy as soon as I got back, knowing from experience that the longer I sit still the harder it is to get up. My aunt called me on the road during the last hour of the trip home from Vicksburg and offered me a job at her plant starting in four days, which I worked for three weeks. I spent the next three planning, packing, fixing up my car, spending time with the family and my friends and generally getting ready to leave. But in the meantime and between time I had some interesting experiences, some of which I think are worth sharing.

My job as a temporary maintenance worker at the manufacturing plant in Morris County was to fix up the security guard shack, grind welding beads, and vacuum cobwebs off 20 foot ceilings using a ridiculously long string of shop-vac extensions. I’ve designed parts for manufacture at my previous internships at Hasbro and PCA, and I’ve toured fabrication facilities in Rochester and the Mars Chocolate factory production floor in Hackettstown NJ (once you’ve had hours-old peanut M&M’s, you’ll never be able to eat them out of that crinkly yellow package again) – but I’ve never actually worked in a factory. Arguably I still haven’t, because I didn’t work as molder or production technician, but the experience was still interesting.

My first two weeks or so as a fresh-faced, orange safety vest-clad newbie were spent cleaning, spackling, painting, and generally repairing the cluttered approximately 8×10 foot guard shack and receiving life instruction from the friendly security guard who much to his good-natured chagrin was forced to stay at his post with me and the wonderfully fragrant chemical fumes filling our tiny box during the renovation. I would really love to repeat some of our conversations but I don’t want to get either of us in trouble.

My boss assigned me a veteran employee as a mentor to make sure I had the proper tools and knew what I was doing. I liked just about everyone I spoke with at the company, but I had the good fortune to be assigned to Luigi, who despite my assurance to him that I did in fact “know my ass from my leg” about painting, taught me many things about how to paint like a craftsman at a level above the common laborer. That doesn’t mean I can, because I still have relatively little experience, but I soaked up what I could. Every day was generally a new lesson in some area of construction or life in general, but my favorite was welding. The shop at the plant has a tungsten inert gas welder, or TIG for short. After I finished restoring the guard shack I spent some time grinding down welding beads on some of Luigi’s work before my boss gave him some time to let me play with the machine. Ironically, there’s something magical about entering the world of this icon of modern industry.

After work on the first day I got to use the welder, I sat out on the small second story balcony outside my parents’ room, our family parapet overlooking our tiny fiefdom. As I watched the sun dip into the Great Appalachian Valley, I thought about a different kind of sun – a blaze of ghostly blue light shaping the molten surface of the dark alien landscape a few inches from my visor earlier that day. With hearing aids out and ear-pro in, I explored in eerie silence a mystical plane of existence where light jumped from my finger tips and steel bubbled like butter in a skillet, bending the fibers of reality as wide eyed and beaming under the heavy black mask I suspended my disbelief. Later, sensory deprivation from grimy goggles and earplugs provided just enough disconnection from reality to allow me to slip away into the magic of grinding metal and grit, to shatter and shoot off into space in a burning shower of sparks along with atoms that I imagined lay dormant millions of years before removal, refinement, and a final cataclysmal end beneath a power grinder in an exodus of speed, heat and light of such magnitude as to suffice for the next billion dormant years.

Luigi is a self proclaimed relic of an old world, a period when industry and timeless craft went hand in hand. Born and raised in New Jersey, he fondly remembers attending the same Catholic school I did in its hey-day before its recent closure. He didn’t see a teacher who wasn’t a nun until after the fourth grade.

A former contractor before the industry prospects turned unfavorable, he learned his father’s trade, who learned it from his father before him. He has sprawling family ties and a sense of heritage to cement them (he is a great-great uncle, and at two points in his family history five generations lived concurrently). To hear him talk is insufficient; it’s arguably more a visual experience than auditory. The mid-century Jersey Italian dialect and body language are almost too good to be true. He’d be a perfect caricature if he were not so fiercely intelligent and self aware.

Now in his early sixties, Luigi sports a neatly groomed salt and pepper mustache beneath close cropped, curly black hair that’s just beginning to take on a silver sheen. There are deep creases in the leathery skin on the back of his neck. His face is appropriately weathered with time and experience, but harbors none of the tired resignation of so many working men his age. He moves quickly, fluidly and with purpose. The only outward nod to his physical age is the comical interjection of “ooch, owch, de knees” when he bends with as yet unhindered speed. His most striking features are his hands. Huge for his height, with thick fingers encased in scarred and calloused skin, they are deft and durable tools earned and honed over years of constant use. As I watch him work I imagine I am observing a lifetime of physical wisdom in motion as plaster, wood, stone and metal obey the man’s manual commands in almost reverential deference.

He is confident and demanding, expecting excellence while patiently nurturing growth. He can bitch about management while still taking pride in the often avoidable work their laxity and mindboggling wastefulness frequently mandates. As we bustle about the plant he’ll bullshit with the guys and smoothly compliment a lady in interjections between tales of Canadian fishing adventures, motorcycle crashes, and unfathomable incompetence. He understands the science behind everything from oxidation and electrically nonconductive impurities to the expansion of galaxies and spontaneously combustible wood fillers – and he sees God behind it all.

It took me over a week to finish a room he says would’ve taken him two days – and I believe him – but he says I have a touch for welding. I very much enjoyed my brief sojourn under his tutelage and I hope he did too. Before I left I did manage to explain to him some of the magic of one of the few tools I know better than him: computers.