Secrets of the Yucca (Joshua Tree; Days 25, 26)

5.31.2013

Joshua Tree is a very special place.

I arrived there a few hours before sundown, instantly relaxed by its infinite sand and eerie piles of boulder and proud, welcoming yucca trees, and above all else, its remoteness, its gentle quiet, its pristine sensibility. I parked Rousseau in a gravel parking lot and took off tor the wilderness, wandering aimlessly for miles before making camp at a perfectly random heap of rock.

Joshua Tree is an experience, a psychedelic rendezvous with nature, and I found it apt, if not mildly prosaic, to heighten that experience with a hearty helping of natural psychedelic grasses. Salvia, my favored choice for its simple legality and its bookended window of wild hallucinations, began to take hold of my mind quickly after ingestion, and soon, Joshua Tree came alive around me. Resting on a low-lying boulder, I spoke to the trees, conversed with the mountains, watched the colors of the wind blow by; I befriended a particular yucca, far off to my left, and thanked the sun, who I felt to be the ringleader of it all, over my right shoulder. Acquaintances from my past materialized on the rocks around me, a boulder to my right changed shape upon my command, and further out, a mountain giant, or rather, a giant of a mountain, raced toward me until I ordered it to halt. And as the effects of the hallucinogenic wore down, I took to reading, and I was pleased to have Kurt Vonnegut transport to my side and narrate, in his own voice, the words on my page.

When deciding that rock was where I would pitch camp, I never really got around to pitching camp, and I chose instead to simply roll out my sleeping bag and lie on that rock underneath the stars, where I slept a glorious, uninhibited night.

I woke early and packed my things, then hiked back to Rousseau, waiting patiently, and from there we set off for the south end of Joshua Tree, through the park and, eventually, out west toward the Pacific Ocean, toward San Diego. But before getting there, something happened, something which I can't really explain, but something I will try to do very poorly nonetheless, with mixed metaphors abound, and something I can't even really attempt to do without a brief prologue of the existential life and times of Jay Austin.

Many people, I am told, lead perfectly happy lives free from nagging questions of what it all means and how to escape the trivial meaninglessness of an existence that will undoubtedly end and how to come to terms with the inevitable heat death of the universe. I am, unfortunately, not one of those people. No, though I am grateful to live a life colored by a particularly positive disposition, I have been haunted from a young age by existential and philosophical questions to which I have no answers. As an intuitive, feeling, judging introvert, per Carl Jung's personality types, I am perpetually in search of an answer, a single, coherent truth that will piece everything together, that will connect the entire universe and all its mysteries, despite the logical, rational realization that such a thing cannot possibly exist. And as a Highly Sensitive Person, I have a wider range of emotion than the average homo sapien, which makes those more pronounced attempts at grasping an answer gravely disheartening, capable of throwing my whole self into an existential funk that can last for weeks.

My road trip across America was never an attempt to find some nonexistent answer, to put an end to that existential funk, because I knew if I had set that to be my aim, I'd return disappointed, dream unrealized. And so I resolved to simply experience the continent, to see its beauty, to have fun and have adventure and let my being become what it may. I didn't expect a life-changing experience, and if it were to come, I expected it to be incremental, gradual, nearly imperceptible. Someone had written me during the early weeks of my trip wishing me a positively "life-shattering" journey, which was a nice way of putting it, but I knew not to expect the shatter, that those fabled moments of profound change and realization are nothing more than post-hoc myths.

And then came Joshua Tree.

Riding out of Joshua Tree that Wednesday morning, I wasn't thinking of anything in particular. I wasn't looking for anything in particular. It was a sunny day, about seventy degrees, riding forty miles per hour down unremarkable asphalt with pleasant but unremarkable scenery around it. Hey Marseilles played through my headphones, and the taste of almonds floated about my tongue while thoughts of no particular substance floated about my mind. The circumstances that morning were, by all means, notably unnotable.

Then, about twenty minutes into the drive, neurons began to fire wildly. I felt a lifting sensation in my cerebrum, every part of my brain lighting up at once, the indescribable ability to actually feel myself think. I felt as though I was pulling myself up over a wall, about to glimpse what was atop it, an experience I had felt many times before, but this time was different, this time, I had a hold of the wall's top ledges, this time I was hoisting and pulling and throwing myself onto it, this time I had actually arrived at the top. And it was glorious.

I cannot, and could not, ever accurately describe what happened then. In an instant, the universe was inside me, and I could feel every fiber of it, every particle of matter. Every single thing made sense, and nothing made sense, and I felt everything, and I felt nothing. In an instant, I felt every answer to every question I've ever had, and then, nodding in the ultimate realization, the answers vanished with the questions in tow, leaving me not with any practical answer whatsoever, but leaving me without the questions I had battled against for decades. I couldn't even remember what the questions were. All that was left was quiet, peace.

In that instant, my rational mind cynically doubted what was happening, chocking the experience up to a misfired synapse or a mistaken overdose of dopamine. But at the very next instant, another wave of truth hit me, and I began crying, torrents of tears running down my face, not sadness, not happiness, just awe. This is it. I was terrified, I was thankful, I was devoid of emotions and filled with every one of them. I was ready.

And so I waded into it, into the metaphysical ocean before me, and felt a peace and a truth I had never felt before, and it persisted, and the deeper in I waded the stronger it felt, and the harder I felt it, and I cried so hard I had to pull to the side of the road for practical fear of physically crashing at the actual moment of this actual moment. Waves of realization broke atop me. I realized that my wish for all the puzzle pieces of the universe to  click together into something that made sense hadn't happened in an instant; I had been putting the puzzle together for years, and it was only that morning that I realized what I was putting together, how close I was to being complete, and with each piece set into place, the next became exponentially easier, until with one final click, it was done. Complete. And complete was the right word for how I felt: my search, my quest, my life. What now? I recall asking myself, legitimately unable to conceptualize a continuing existence after that moment, unsure of what banalities would be left to occupy my time and thoughts.

A few minutes later, I started driving again, not knowing what else to do, and the feeling came with me, and for forty miles I basked in that glorious glow, that eternal truth, not parting ways with its most intimate form until reaching a gas station on the far stretches of the California Desert.

I was okay leaving it, because I knew it wasn't gone. As of this writing, it is still there, a gentle ocean in my sights, so close I can hear its cresting waves, smell its salts, recall the ecstasy of being in it. Still, I feel that zen and that peace. The questions haven't returned. I feel no stress, no anger, no frustration with the world or the people in it. I feel nothing but truth, truth and peace and love.

I have done my best to explain what happened to me in Joshua Tree, and my best is far from good enough. What happened was indescribable. I didn't see anything, I felt it; I didn't learn anything, I realized it. I emerged from Joshua Tree a different person, if only in my head, and I can quite honestly say that I would not trade that experience for any other in my life. I hesitate to call what I attained there nirvana, for fear of inferring some sort of spiritual superiority, or enlightment; if I was religious, perhaps I'd deem it a spiritual awakening. Transcendence, maybe. Really, I just as easily could have experienced an aneurism or a collapsed lobe. I don't know what to make of my experience, and truthfully, I don't particularly care what prompted it or even what it was. It happened, and from it, life got figured out.

Now, the rest is just for fun.

To Las Vegas (Days 22, 23, 24)

I awoke the next morning feeling hungover, body and mind a mush from yesterday's Grand Canyon climb, and I didn't manage to get back on the road until after noon. When I did, I worked my way east, bouncing up against the canyon's rim at various points, then turned north, and then back west, to the other side of the canyon, the north side, and then north of that, back into Utah, Bryce National Park. The late start and the long drive left me not arriving until dark, and campsite full, I found a small piece of land within the campgrounds to place my fifteen square-foot imprint upon the earth, and there I slept.

High on the Colorado Plateau, which stretches far into Utah, I spent a cold night followed by a frigid morning at nearly 9,000 feet, cold but not cold enough to stop me from taking in some of Bryce's terrific canyon views before departing. At sunrise, I headed out to Bryce Overlook, a magnificent vista peering out at Bryce's hundreds of spindly hoodoo spires, and was surprised to already find throngs of spectators crowding the platform upon my arrival, waiting for the sun to emerge from over the canyon's far wall, which it soon did, and when it did it cast the most otherwordly of glows upon the valley's red rock, a glow so deep and rich it create a luminance that seemed to seep out from within the rock itself. I marveled, working to poke my head over the sea of onlookers, onlookers and their cameras.

A futile effort it was, and so while waiting for the crowds of Bryce Overlook to clear, I sat atop a rock and conducted a simple study, flawed, perhaps, by a small sample size and lack of a quality research assistant, but with fascinating results nonetheless. From my perch on the rock, I counted 46 spectators at the overlook that morning. Of them, 21 had DSLRs, big bulky cameras like my own, 14 had smaller, lighter models, 10 used their phones for photographing, and only one, only a singular individual, was there "just to look," as she told me later. From these 46 individuals, I selected three of them randomly, and I did my best to track the three during their time on the overlook, and to the best of my ability and the reliability of my stopwatch, I captured the average time of their presence at 8 minutes and 45 seconds, and the average time in which they seemed to be seeing the canyons before them, instead of merely composing an image or looking from behind a viewfinder, was a troubling 1 minute and 3 seconds.

"Excuse me, you're in my shot," a man had said curtly to me some time later, when I was leaned over the railing, awestruck by the depths of the canyon below.

"Excuse me," I wanted to reply, his tripod jutting up against my leg, "you're in my view."

I often long to live in a time before the ubiquity of film, before it became so simple for someone, anyone, to become a documentation. How lovely it must have been to look out at a beautiful scene and experience a moment of collective appreciation, unitary awe! How peaceful it must have been to be moved emotionally and not physically, pushed mentally but not out of the way, to gaze at a park's flagship view through one's unobstructed eyes and not the eyepiece of an optical viewfinder. I am a man of the camera myself, and so I knowingly speak with some hypocrisy here, but I hope to never become enslaved by that device in the grave ways my fellow citizens have fallen victims to theirs. There at Bryce Overlook, I saw no enjoyment, no sincere appreciation, no communion with nature; I saw stress, worry about getting the right shot, the literal injection of a manmade object between oneself and the nature in front of their very eyes. Arms flying wildly over each other, an endless game of offense to get one's camera the highest, the closest, the best framed ... and to what purpose? No amateur photographer will do better what Ansel Adams did so well decades ago, what the National Park Service still does to this day, which is to capture the parks in all their technical and natural glory, shot and processed by professionals of the trade. Are these photos, then, nothing but proof that one was "there"? Proof to whom? And why?

And then, were this mongering not offensive enough to nature, the seeming need to place oneself within those photographs, to stand in front of the canyon, or the cliff, or the edifice, hands resting proudly on hips, or arms stretched out to the sides, or subtle smile, composed countenance, this I found, and do find, even more flabbergasting. Landscape photography is an art, indeed, and portraiture just as so, but to force the two together, to produce a bastardized chimera of the two, that, I feel, is a crime again all aesthetic sensibility. If your intent be art, then photograph as such, and capture images of unique context and viewpoint, and strip away all identifying markers, for identifying markers are not important in that world. And if your intent be to document, to say "I was there," then be there, experience the place, wherever it may be, and the passion with which you speak of it to others later on, then, will be all the proof they, whomever they be, need to take your word for it that it not just happened, but that it happened and that its effect was profound.

Alas, Bryce Overlook remained a hazard of tripods and aggressive arms all morning, and there was no peace to be found there, satiated photographers replaced quickly by hungry ones, and so I left Bryce and headed northeast along Highway 12, a lovely scenic byway, to Capitol Reef National Park, an even lovelier park of rainbow mountains, layers of rock blue atop red, purple over orange, stained chapters of natural history on ripe, raw display. An out-and-back trip, I made the return later that evening, back through the many small towns and villages connecting Capitol Reef to Bryce.

In entering one such town, I noticed a commotion in the street up ahead; a dog was running in the center of traffic, cars braking and swerving out of the way, the mutt not breaking stride but courageously bounding forward, past me and out the way I had come. That dog, I knew, was sure to be roadkill if he didn't stop, and so I turned Rousseau around, and followed after him, cutting him off by about fifty yards and dismounting, putting myself in his way, throwing some almonds to the ground so he would take a short break. But as he approached nearer, he seemed to increase his speed, running right past me into the distance. I don't know where that canine was racing to with such determination, but I do hope, wherever he ended up, that he found what he was looking for.

Zion National Park was the epic conclusion to my Utah chapter, I had decided, and it felt incredible to finally make it there a few hours later. Zion is a place unlike any I've ever seen, a ridiculous sort of place, a canyon in a funhouse mirror or a canyon in a microwave, its walls all sloped and melted and congealed in a countless combinations. Zion is not, in my opinion, a beautiful place; its screaming landscape and vibrant forests sorely lack the subtle beauty and peace of calmer canyons. No, Zion is not pretty to look at; it is stunning to look at, for what it sacrifices in aesthetic it makes up for in geographic absurdity. Zion looks like the product a god who got a bit carried away with her options for transforming a landscape, a little too much flourish in an enthusiastic moment of creation, so much crammed into so small an area. And all throughout it, the winding roads on the canyon floor, life not seen in Utah's western regions: bighorn sheep and juniper trees and birds aplenty.

I slept in Zion as I had in Bryce, squeezed in between legitimate campsites, and was not bothered there amidst the sea of laughter and play that accompanied children and families to the park on that holiday weekend. I hit the trails early the next morning, my first hike of the day called Angel's Landing, a legendary climb up the steep face of a canyon wall with a harrowing scramble at the end, balance and safety aided only by a small chain snaking along the last leg of the ascent. Again, I climbed barefoot, and again, I relished the feel of the smooth earth beneath my feet.

As I began my descent, a female voice from behind me called "Hey, nice shoes," and I turned and smiled politely, having heard that comment many times before. But then, looking down, I noticed that she too was wearing no shoes, the very first barefoot hiker I'd seen on my trip! Her friend, who was sporting sandals, didn't take much convincing to lose her shoes as well, and soon all three of us were barefoot, walking proudly down the canyon's switchbacks, a naturalist contingent turning heads as we walked. Their names were Barbie and Frankie, and they introduced themselves as "'She's Barbie,' and 'She's Frankie,'" each the other like a rehearsed routine, and on our way down the mountain we spoke of San Diego, where Barbie was from, and St. George, where they both now lived, and then we parted ways, them off to another canyon hike and me to the Narrows, lives intersecting for just a brief but appreciated moment.

The Narrows, my second and final hike at Zion, was less a hike and more a riverwalk, a delicate cautious trudge through the thigh-deep Virgin River. Still barefoot, and absent walking stick, I struggled to stay upright against the slippery rocks of the riverbed, often hugging the canyon wall for support. Those walls, indeed, are what make the trek so special, what give the Narrows its name. The further upstream one walks, the narrower the walls get and the deeper the canyon draws, gorgeous bends and curves of black stone, dizzying proportions all around.

I had forgotten to fill my water pack before heading into the Narrows, and so I aimed to make my trip a short one, but how difficult it was to turn around with each subsequent bend in the river so much more marvelous than the last! Like a siren song, the Virgin River drew me in further, deeper into her walls, knowing but not wanting to turn back. Only a few miles in, the canyon drew so tight that sun would not pass to the bottom, river too black to reveal what lay underneath, and no longer able to walk with any certainty that I would not fall, pack and all into the water, I reluctantly made an about-face and began the slow retreat downstream, back the way I had come.

By late afternoon, I left Zion, carrying myself along a dreary stretch of interstate for some fifty miles before passing into Nevada and turning off toward Lake Mead, a surprising gem of beauty in an otherwise desolate Nevada landscape. Approaching Lake Mead, I was taken aback by just how vibrant the reservoir was, a glowing, brilliant turquoise with a backdrop of gentle mountains, purple in that twilight hour, at its far end. And on the lake stretched, a hundred miles westward toward Las Vegas, and I felt it a privilege to follow its shores, some of the most glorious I'd encountered on my trip, to the outskirts of the city.

On those outskirts sat another aquatic wonder, the Hoover Dam, creator and lifeblood of the lake. As perhaps the most massive architectural undertaking of its time, and so close to my route, I opted for a brief detour to the dam, hoping to take a brief gander of its splendor before making it to Vegas by nightfall. Rousseau, deemed nonthreatening in size or bomb-carrying capacity, was casually waved through the security checkpoint, and leisurely I winded about the dam's outer roads before passing underneath the Memorial Bridge, a lovely stone structure towering over the Hoover Dam and its Colorado waters.

Having a genuine and long-lived habit of photographing the underside of bridges, which I have always found more intriguing than the tops, I pulled to the shoulder of the road for a quick photograph of that bridge's imposing arch. Engine still running, scooter steadied between my legs, I hastily removed my camera from my pack, framed and snapped a short flurry of shots, and then, as I worked to stuff my equipment back into my bag, Rosseau's side mirrors lit up in a strobe of blue and red.

I turned and smiled apologetically to the officer who had pulled behind me. "Sorry!" I shouted back, "just taking a quick photograph. I'll be on my way now!"

"Sir, please turn off your engine," he growled.

Annoyed, I obeyed, handing him my license and registration when prompted. "When's the last time you've had contact with a police officer?" he interrogated.

"Uh, pretty recently," I vaguely retorted, recalling my speeding ticket in Colorado just days earlier. "On my way out here, back in Colorado."

He frowned, face contorting, and climbed into his vehicle to determine whether I was worthy of an arrest, seemingly eager to find an unpaid parking ticket or bench warrant on my record. Fortunately for me, unfortunately for him, I was clean, and he emerged from the car after some time looking even more vexed.

"Do you see this sign right here?" he shouted, pointing to a conspicuous "No Parking" sign along the shoulder.

"I do, sir," I responded, "but I wasn't intending to park. I was just stopping for a minute to take a photograph."

"And what do you think that's called?"

"Sir?"

"What do you think it's called when you stop like that?"

I looked at him quizzically, unsure of how to best respond without sounding argumentative. "Well, sir, I'd call it stopping. Parking is when you turn your engine off and walk away from the vehicle."

My answer didn't appear to help matters. "Your engine is off, isn't it?"

I raised my eyebrows in surprise. "Well, yes, but it was running until you, well, told me to turn it off."

Our conversation had run into a dead end, and the officer switched lanes for a different approach. "You see that sign over there?" he asked, pointing to a placard twenty feet down the road, above the opposite shoulder. "What's that say?"

"That says 'No Stopping.'"

"Right, and yet here you are, stopped."

My patience began to wear thin. "Sir," I pleaded, "that sign is over there, which is why I wasn't stopped over there. The sign over here says 'No Parking,' which I took to mean something different than 'No Stopping.' If both sides of the road prohibited stopping of any sort, wouldn't the signs just say the same thing?"

The officer was stumped. He inspected my license, still clutched in his hand, yet again. "You're from DC, so you should know all about security of government facilities, y'know. Listen, I'm going to let you move along, but here's the deal: we have signs here, and they actually mean something, got it? So I don't want to catch you again not following exactly what a sign says."

"Yessir," I nodded, "Won't happen again. Thank you."

And off I went, officer following behind, and upon coming to a turnoff with a sign advertising parking on the left, blocked by a row of cones, I had half a mind to do exactly what the sign said and plow through those mysteriously silent orange pylons in a smug act of civil disobedience in the form of civil overobedience. But with the moon already high in the sky, I thought better of testing my luck, and instead carried on over the Hoover Dam, stopping on the other side, legally, for a quick glance, before continuing on toward the city of blinding lights.

Las Vegas is a tremendously fascinating place. It is, in every way, a carnival for adults: slot machines in place of the arcade, prime rib in place of funnel cake, Cirque du Soleil in place of the funhouse. Its sequined girls are Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny for adults, mascots to pose with, and its plastic replicas of multicultural marvels are merely bigger, glitsier versions of the pirate ships and dragons of juvenile theme parks. There are gift shops everywhere, items carefully marketed toward simple minds, and the slushies haven't changed much, spare a few added shots of rum. And then some things never change: the lines, the puddles of bile, the pervasive scent of willing exploitation, all hearkening back to a nostalgia of teenage romance and childhood adventure, all the same but only a touch more grown-up.

Wary in entering Vegas after my tough time in America's other leading center of debauchery, New Orleans, I was pleased to find my pleasant mood unmoored by the social crowds around me. Incidentally, I found Las Vegas to be just the opposite of the Big Easy; rather than walk past throngs of happy people and feel unhappy for knowing none of them, there in Vegas I found myself parting my way through a sea of forlorn, unsmiling faces and feeling happy, buoyed, for being apart from that negative energy. Indeed, I speak in generalizations here,, but I did not find the people of Las Vegas to be a happy bunch. On the streets, in the casinos, I found everyone to appear stressed, anxious, and the only visitors I saw smiling, laughing, jovial were those who were so deeply inebriated they didn't know any better.

The casinos of Vegas were another matter to wrap my head around, complexes of mind-boggling scale, each a neighborhood in its own right, with lodging and eateries and shopping centers and parking for a small city. Upon arriving in the city, I parked at the Aria, toward the end of the strip, and then walked around aimlessly, exploring a few of these sprawling casinos, the Bellagios and the Palaces and the Balleys, before hitting a wall of fatigue and giving some thought to sleeping arrangements for the night.

Feeling particularly liberated after my night in the University of Colorado's chemistry lab, feeling as though all I needed for survival and comfort was a tiny piece of land and a bag on which to rest my head,, I smiled at the notion of simply curling up next to Rousseau on the rooftop of the Aria parking garage. The desert climate was just perfect that night, after all, and with so few cars parked in the garage, I recalled the highest level being particularly empty. Plus, it was an adventure to be had, and I relished any chance for an adventure, the Don Quixote of my soul applauding wildly in approval, and so I made for the Aria with haste, afraid I might collapse in a fit of exhaustion at any moment.

The rooftop was just as tranquil as I had remembered it, and after moving Rousseau to a far corner shielded by prying security cameras, I leaned my pack against a pillar and leaned my head against the pack and, arms folded neatly over my chest, I drifted to sleep under the hazy neon glow of Las Vegas skies.

Forty minutes later, my peaceful slumber was disturbed by strong winds hammering away at the rooftop. I aimed to pass the time reading, but the gusts did not let up, so I ambled down to the strip with sleepy eyes to rethink my options. Truthfully, there weren't many options to rethink, either a night at the Bellagio or a night on a patch of Vegas concrete, and I recommitted to the latter and took myself back up to the Aria parking garage but this time only to the sixth floor, where the walls promised to provide a bit more cover from the wind.

On that floor I found a small alcove by the stairway, largely blocked by a rhinoceros of a sports utility vehicle. Thankful for the truck's cover of privacy, I sidled
past it and set my body on the hard ground, ignoring the faint scent of urine, for a second attempt at sleep.

I did get some sleep, squeezing in a solid two hours of shuteye, before the driver of that big white machine stumbled back to the garage and drove it away, taking with it my shield from the expansive garage. Too exposed to remain, I sighed and lifted my weary self from the concrete, surrendering rest and agreeing to pace the remainder of the night in a casino's twentyfour-hour Starbucks.

I was amazed to find patrons still gambling at that late hour, vacant eyes and mouths agape, dried fingers pressing oiled buttons, all routine, all seemingly automatic, so little life and agency apparent on the casino floor. The coffee shop was equally desolate, but I was grateful for it, and sipped a soy chai latte in a cozy booth with a good book open before me, a worthy way to spend my time until dawn, I thought.

Only minutes in, my mind began to drift, to lose touch with reality, to question the very authenticity of time. The mountains of Zion, which I had climbed just twelve hours earlier, seemed a world and a lifetime away, my two partitioning slumbers of Vegas, meanwhile, doing cruel work of stretching time into infinite threads of seconds and minutes and lights and strobes and casinos, so many casinos, and the familiar clinking and chirps of coins and machines in the distance ...

I woke several hours later, head leaned at an uncomfortable angle against the wall of a coffee shop booth, and I quickly regained my surroundings: Starbucks. Aria. Las Vegas. Cold latte in front of me, book splayed in my lap, I looked around and was pleased to find that I hadn't become a spectacle, the strange man asleep at a Starbucks before dawn, for while that would be out of place anywhere else, there in Vegas, in the windowless basement of a building designed for disorientation, a nap on the sidelines was a perfectly appropriate way to pass the wee hours of the morning. And how good it felt to have slept! Rested, I ordered a tea and read some more, wrote a little, and then got on the road, the ending to a long night in Las Vegas. Off I went to Joshua Tree, off to the great state of California.

To the Grand Canyon (Days 18, 19, 20, 21)

5.28.2013

Canyonland.

Most of Utah, most of the southwest for that matter, was at one time a large sea, and by one time, I actually mean to say over twenty times. Yes, over the long arc of history, Utah was submerged in water for some two dozen individual eras, each carefully and uniquely shaping the terrain. To walk through Utah, then, is to become a mermaid, to experience an ocean from its mysterious floor, to step into another world, of geological formations of brilliant striation and illogical shape. It is to be dwarfed not just by the size of the surrounding canyons, towering above you, but to be humbled as well by the sheer scale of time, to feel wonderfully insignificant, with your some-odd eighty years on this earth, when the landscape around you has been growing, living, and changing for millions.

Arches are but one splendid byproduct of Utah's natural history, the stunning result of eons of erosion that have left gravity-defying arcs of sandstone soaring overhead. My mission while at Arches National Park was to explore a handful of these formations through a primitive hike, and so I set out on the sandy trail early, passing my first arch my 8AM. And what an arch it was! The Landscape Arch, one of the longest in the world, literally hundreds of feet, thousands of tons, of natural bridge supported by nothing, it seemed, but magic.

And then the trail continued, fading, becoming less apparent, nothing but small cairns, piles of rock signifying a human touch, every twenty or thirty feet. Onward I traveled, doing my best to stick to the trail, winding from arch to arch and coming across two of them, one atop the other, really two windows punched into a canyon, and I climbed through the bottom window to the other side of the fin and, somewhere around there, lost the trail.

But it was no matter, for I had my compass and the Rockies to my rear and my own sense of adventure to guide me, and so I skipped about from sloping mound to mound, fin to fin, fin to mound and back again, crawling up boulders and finding myself just moments later fifty, one hundred, two hundred feet above the ground. Early on in this hike, I had taken off my shoes and begun to walk barefoot, and here, on the sandstone smoothed by the waters of a million storms, it felt magnificent, cool glass earth sending splendid sensations through the soles of my feet. Looking out into the distance, I felt freer than I'd ever been, capable of anything and everything the word had to offer; all I had to do was seize it.

And seize it I did, no longer hiking toward new grounds but hurtling toward them, skipping and jumping from boulder to boulder, leaping over narrow chasms with little care or caution,  no longer on a search for arches but instead simply following where the curves and contours of the earth steered me. I lost myself in the scenery, lost myself in the exhilaration, lost myself in the liberation. And then, as was bound to happen, I lost myself in the tactical landscape, too.

Coming to a dead end, the edge of a boulder with nothing but a forty-foot drop on its other side, I turned around to find another way, but all I found there was more of the same: another steep drop. At this point, my senses of logic returned, temporarily shushed as I ran about, and attempted to examine the cache of my memory of those past few minutes, to determine what route had brought me onto the boulder on which I presently stood. Alas, I had been so lost in the moment that there was no cache, no memory of the past, just where I was, and that was it, and I had no idea how I had gotten there.

I dropped my pack and carried out a more thorough expedition of the boulder, some fifteen feet wide and twenty feet long, with a narrow, six-inch rift running through the middle of it on one side, and an otherwise smooth top spare one anvil-shaped extrusion poking up toward the right edge. On all sides, the eighty-degree slopes ruled climbing down out of the question. I was puzzled.

Though I knew it was not the way I had come, I found the rift to be the only stretch in which I could grab some hold, and so I slid myself to the top's edge, right above the ridge, and then placed a foot in it, digging my heel in to hold my position, while I pressed my back and my palms against any small swell of boulder I could find. And like that, I lowered myself inch by inch, each time repositioning my hands to grab something, anything, to keep me from slipping. But boulder to grab was in short supply, so smooth it was, and as the weight of my body shifted from rock ledge to rock edge, I began to slide downward ever so slightly.

I knew it was only a matter of seconds before the weight of my torso dropped off the mound and I would fall to the ground, bloodied and injured and ankle, still wedged in the rift, badly broken, but I had passed the point of no return, now situated in a crucifixion position on the face of the rock, with no way to lift myself back up without losing the very little friction I was still maintaining on this tauntingly slow slide toward the drop.

Frantically, I did the only thing I could think of, unhooking myself from my pack and thus lightening my weight, then in a split second, flinging myself upward onto it, kicking off of it with a mad grab toward the rim, and succeeding, and pulling myself back up onto the boulder with just enough time to reach back and grab my bag before it fell away from me. No, I decided, the rift descent would not work; I needed another way. But how? All other angles were impossibly worse, just as steep but without any sort of hold whatsoever. In fact the only other hold on that whole mound was the anvil.

The anvil: that was it! If I couldn't climb down that boulder, I would repel down it, and I'd use the sturdy anvil as a hold for my rope. I rejoiced at the cleverness, the resourcefulness, of my plan, and minutes later, had my bright red paracord fastened around the whole of the extrusion. It was time to escape that ledge. I grabbed one end of the rope in each hand and squatted next to the anchor, back toward the canyon wall behind me, and feet still pushing out against the rock, I began to lean back slowly, lowering myself to be rest perpendicular to the rock face.

But I stopped. Terrified, I pulled myself back upright, too unsure of this scheme to put my life and my spine in the hands of a $7 rope and a million-year-old piece of rock, sturdy as it may have been. Moreover, the rope I had brought along stretched, eliciting the terrible feeling, as I had begun to rappel, that it was giving out under my weight. I knew this couldn't be the case; though I had brought it along mainly to raise my food sack into the trees in bear country, the rope was rated to hold three times my weight, but its flex and small diameter did little to reassure me.

I tried again, again and again, but each time I backed out, returning myself to the ledge, opting out of that trust fall with no accountability. What was I to trust: the rope, the anvil, the physics of gravity, my own untrained abilities? I simply couldn't do it. Frustrated, I dropped the rope and sat on the rock, stumped, so close to safety but so at a loss for how to reach it. And for nearly an hour, I just sat. The land began to heat, my skin readily exposed, and when I finally resolved that I had no choice but to rappel or get hurt trying, I stood back up, grabbed hold of the rope, and pushed off in one fluid motion, and there I was, slowly and awkwardly but surely and safely walking down the rock. I hit ground, and I was off the rock.

I shrieked in delight, never before so happy to be alive. I twirled around, arms outstretched, giddy and energized and full of vigor. Bursting with joy, I danced and pranced back to the trail, which I located without too much difficulty, and made my way to the trailhead, meeting and greeting every individual I met with a hearty smile. When I saw a hiker struggle up or off a steep step, I'd hurry over to their side and guide them through it, tenderly aiding whole families in their exploration of the arches. I felt, in that state, in perfect flow, as though climbing up and down those rocks like a spider, barefoot and reveling in the countless comments and compliments, assisting those who needed assistance, was all I was ever meant to do, and I found such solace in those memorable moments.

But eventually I came to the end of the trail, or the beginning rather, and Rousseau awaited, and so I boarded the scooter and meandered through the scenic drive of Arches National Park, stopping for a half-dozen overlooks and small trails toward the exit, before rocketing back onto the highway and making my way south.

I had planned to stop next at Canyonlands National Park, a neighbor to Arches, but almost immediately, I felt weary and tired from the heat of the morning and, likely, a bit of dehydration. The euphoria and energy of the morning had worn off; now, I just wanted to sleep, but there was nowhere to do so, and certainly not in the sweltering sun of Canyonlands. So I, regrettably, passed by it, pulling in another thirty or forty miles before I could no longer go on.

I was in the town of Monticello, and it was only 3PM, but I was ready to call it a day, and felt I deserved a rest anyway, and so I pulled into the nearest hotel, a respectable hotel for the first time, and quickly booked a room. Once inside, I collapsed onto the closest of the two twin beds, rising only hours later for a shower and a short walk to the store for some dinner goods. I wasted away the rest of the day lying about and watching television, and for once, I found it not a waste at all, but I much-needed break from the strenuous weeks of travel I had endured.

The next morning, I took my time leaving the hotel, and after a fresh shower and simple breakfast, I set off for Mesa Verde, back in Colorado, a delightful series of Anasazi cliff dwellings built high in the folds of a grand mountain. "Wow, those dwellings look so ... so modern," I joked to myself as I spied the visitors' center through a clearing of trees, chucking in the cavern of my helmet, momentarily yearning for a travel companion to laugh at my poor witticisms .

But really, the well-preserved cliff dwellings were spectacular, and I was grateful for having made the very out-of-the-way detour to visit them. That gratitude was tested, however, on my return west, when, driving through a town so small I could glimpse one 65MPH speed limit sign from the one before it, I didn't happen to catch the 35MPH one wedged between them, and it wasn't until I was out of town that I noticed the flashing blue and red lights of a Colorado officer in my side mirror.

I had always assumed I'd get at least one ticket on my journey, so I made no extravagant excuses to get out of a ticket, instead simply apologizing and passing over my license, registration, and about an eighth of my proof of insurance, the rest having disintegrated after a year of wear and tear under the seat of my bike, and he took them and went back to his vehicle and stared at a computer for an inordinate amount of time and returned, eventually, with a citation for speeding, which he had courteously minimized to one degree. I thanked him and went on my way, not particularly pleased with myself  at the mistake but not terribly hung up on it, either.

My return west took me through the Four Corners region, where the arbitrary borders of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona all meet. I had absolutely no desire to visit the Four Corners Monument, and had not intended to, but I had just finished a particularly large helping of water on a particularly remote stretch of road, and the monument was a mere one hundred yards off said road, so close I could spy a restroom, and so I begrudgingly pulled in.

The Four Corners Monument is just as unimpressive as I'd imagined. Behind a row of booths filled with vendors peddling cheap souvenirs sits a large circle carved into the ground, with a smaller one inside it, and then two intersecting lines split the smaller circle into four equal parts: Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. And that is it, and the tourists love it, each squealing with delight at the opportunity to have a photograph taken with their feet in multiple legal jurisdictions at the very same moment, and after 120 seconds at the monument, which I retrospectively deemed too much, I left. The admission fee to this national treasure was a full three dollars, money I almost had the mind to ask to have refunded on principle alone. In leaving, I groaned when I passed a sign reading "Thanks for visiting, come again!" as though the monument offered anything but first-time novelty, anything that would cause a visitor to come back a second time. The upside of crossing through the Four Corners was that I was now in Arizona, such a lovely state, and working my way through Monument Valley, an epic drive through peaceful flatland punctuated by breathtaking stone monoliths jutting into the sky. Not even a harsh east wind could dampen the beauty of that drive.

By nightfall, I arrived in the heart of the Navajo Nation, proud to be in the presence of the true inhabitants and historic caretakers of those gorgeous lands. I camped that night at Canyon de Chelley, in a real campsite for the first time in what felt like ages, and in the morning I explored the remarkable canyon before continuing west to Flagstaff. The wind that next day was the worst of the trip, a relentless 30MPH gust blowing due east, right against me as I worked west, slowing Rousseau to a crawl on the only road that would take me to Flagstaff, Route 40, a 75MPH trucker route in which patience was not a virtue practiced.

Driving alongside trucks is a special sort of nightmare. On narrow two-lane byways, to cross paths with an oncoming truck is to be hit by a shockwave, often delayed for a few seconds, but from all angles, a violent windstorm to which cars are ordinarily oblivious. And these are unpleasant. But to be passed by a truck is even worse. Occasionally, I wouldn't notice a truck inching up on my left, not glancing in my mirror, but I'd find out soon enough, actually feeling the force of the semi, its displaced air pushing me toward the side of the road, forward and right and into the shoulder, and this was often where I'd end up, fortunate enough to have a shoulder to land on.

But that is only half of the battle. After leaning so hard left you think you'll topple just to stay in your lane, the back end of the truck will soon clear, and then all of that displaced air jumps at the chance to move back, right in behind the truck, and so instantly the winds change and you find yourself being sucked into the truck itself, like a black hole, and it takes twice as much energy and nerve to escape that. And these are in ideal conditions. So out on 40, with the wind already making matters miserable, and trucks passing by en masse, I came closer to falling, on a number of occasions, than at any other point on the trip.

Fortunately, the perilous drive was broken up by a number of stops along the way. The first was Painted Desert and Petrified Forest National Park, a magnificently varied section of Arizona highlighting brilliant badlands, molded moonscape, and wonderful wood that had, over many thousands of years, been petrified to hard, glossy crystal. Next, I came upon Meteor Crater, a gaping scar in the Arizona desert from a massive meteor strike many years ago. I had expected the crater, if only by its style of advertisement, to be something of a tourist trap, but I was pleased to find the site's museum, film, and materials all of respectable quality, and the meteor itself, nearly a mile across, was astonishing. And from there, I detoured to Walnut Canyon, another set of cliff dwellings from a different peoples and different time.

Finally, after a grueling day of battling the wind, I arrived in Flagstaff, checked into a lovely hostel, and headed to a pub for some food, reading, and writing, then back to my bed for some rest. The next day, I woke lazily and ambled about Flagstaff for a bit before heading out to the Grand Canyon's south rim.

The Grand Canyon is, indeed, an absolute wonder, a site so famous and well-visited it requires an entire village, and a nearby town, to support the visitors it receives each day. All around, families and shuttle buses and minivans and pedestrians scurry about, each with its own route and agenda for taking in the canyon. For the canyon simply can't be taken in from one vantage point, it's too large, so it must be seen in sections, from this angle and that, this elevation and that, each viewpoint different and mesmerizing in its own way.

Me, I had decided to take in the canyon the best way I knew how to explore new scenery: not with overlooks or elevated vistas but with an on-the-ground hike, which in this case meant descending into the canyon itself. And if I were to climb into the canyon, I thought, I might as well make it all the way down, down to the Colorado River far below, and so I stopped by the visitors' center to inquire about the best routes down and up. The ranger on duty confidently suggested the South Kaibob Trail for the descent, a steep, 5,000-foot route with no water along the way, and then on the way back up, the Bright Angel, a shallower, longer climb with some access to drinking water at various points.

Overall, he said, the hike would be fourteen miles with a total 9,000 feet in elevation change, certainly not a day hike. I asked him about camping at the bottom, to which he replied the campsites were all full and no backcountry permits were available. I frowned, told him I'd just hike a bit of a ways down before coming back up, and headed out to the trail with that lie fresh in my mind in case anyone else asked. The truth was, I was going to make it to the bottom of that canyon, if I had to stop somewhere along the way for the night, so be it; there was enough canyon to go around.

I had gotten a late start on the hike, it being past 11AM when I first stepped onto the trail, and by noon, the heat was nearing one hundred degrees. The descent was, indeed, steep, not arduous but requiring careful foot placement on the sandy soil, especially barefoot, and by three miles in, my water pack was nearly empty. In the distance I spied the Colorado River, and its blue waters teased me, but I knew was still hours away from that cool current.

On the way down, I was passed by a pack of mules carrying tourists eager for an unearned trip to the canyon floor. I found myself perturbed, annoyed, angry at these individuals, at the selfishness of subjecting another being to such servitude for one's pleasure. To hike on the back of another, I felt, was to not hike at all, for hiking requires harmony with nature, with all living things, and nothing in nature is less harmonious than enslaving another species for enjoyment, pulling a sentient being ten thousand feet up and down a sweltering canyon each and every day.

The mules passed, mushed along by their lead, and I let my frustration, which had been so quiet since I'd left DC, ride along with them. I wanted nothing to detract from the joy of that hike, of the towering canyons and rainbow walls, and so I focused instead on the trail before me, and the trail beyond that, and the water, the cool, clear water, somewhere in between.

Finally, by early afternoon, I arrived at the Colorado, and crossed its narrow suspension bridge, and waded into an icy creek, so soothing against my sunkissed skin, and then walked a short distance further to a pump where I thirstily filled my water pack and drank until my stomach hurt, than drank some more and refilled again. And then, still hoping to make it out of the canyon that night, I began my ascent, a much more challenging stretch of trail with endless switchbacks and winding turns, my only forms of encouragement the canyon rim growing ever closer to my eye and the awestruck words of those climbing with shoes and marveling at my lack thereof. The hours ticked by, my mind wandering, my body thirsty, hungry, tired. Mere minutes from the top, I was almost ready to give up, until a park ranger passed by and we struck up a conversation on national parks and the federal government and other things we had in common, and her words helped to take my mind off of the pain and exhaustion, and without even realizing, I was back at the surface, among a sea of strollers and SUVs and handbags.

In total, the hike had taken only seven hours, but a trying seven hours it had been, enough to leave me craving nothing more than a nice hotel and a soft mattress for the night, which I found on the outskirts of town, and enough to leave my calves, thighs, and feet sore for days thereafter. But I done it, I had hiked the Grand Canyon, down and back, in one day, and at all, and for that I was grateful.

To Arches (Days 14, 15, 16, 17)


After a night of cold but rewarding camping in the Great Sand Dunes of southern Colorado, I left early for Denver, arriving there by noon. I spent the afternoon milling about at a recommended bookstore, writing, catching up on some very appreciated messages from friends back home, and getting Rousseau's oil changed, something that should have been taken care of back in Texas.

Later that evening, I met up with Echo, a lively, life-loving man I had the good fortune of meeting shortly before departing DC. Echo, who lived in Denver, shared my passion for travel, adventure, and intentional living, and it was wonderful passing the hours working our way through beers and good conversation. When our six collective beers were empty, Echo and I refilled by hitting the town, first dining at a local eatery with excellent vegan pizza, then hopping from bar to pub to bar for a touch of live music and taste of the Denver nightlife. Alas, I had to call the night short due to a consecutive few days of short nights, overall fatigue, and a mean case of hiccups, and so by midnight I was back at Echo's, savoring the softness of his plush couch over the hard-packed cold sand of the prior night.

The next morning, we ate brunch at another Denver hotspot and walked through a low-key jazz festival, all the while scheming an adventure for that afternoon. The Flat Irons of Boulder, we decided, would be a great way to spend the day, and so we drove our respective vehicles an hour north to Boulder, then a few minutes further to Chautauqua, for a midday hike.

The steep climb of the Flat Irons, coupled with Boulder's mile-high elevation, left me gasping for air in a matter of moments. By the time we reached the summit some hours later, taking in a glorious view of the town below, I was sweaty and exhausted, but at the same time, felt alive and rejuvenated.

Satisfied with our work for the day, Echo and I descended, past hundreds of pleasant Boulderites taking their dogs or companions for a stroll through the mountains, such a lovely place it was, and then into Boulder for some well-deserved nourishment. We landed at a wonderful restaurant with unimaginably friendly staff and unbelievably delicious food, ate heartily, and then headed back out to our vehicles. Dusk was upon us, and Echo had to return to Denver, and so we said our goodbyes, I thanked him for the fantastic tour of the area, and just like then he was off.

I, meanwhile, had no real plans for lodging that evening, having declined Echo's polite offer of another night on his couch back in Denver, and so I wandered about, aimlessly, giving thought to where I might end up. Camping had been ruled out, for there were no campgrounds within thirty minutes of the town, and a hostel, which had been my safest bet, fell through with the crushing discovery that Boulder's only hostel had shut down in recent months. I asked a passing student what he'd recommend, if he knew of anything practical in the area, and he suggested the city's homeless shelter, which he said was quite nice, so nice that his friends often stayed there while in town.

The idea appealed to me, partially for its diversity of experience and partially for its ability to give me a firsthand account of how our government handles homeless services, my job back home to end homelessness and strengthen America's social safety net, after all, and so I phoned the nearby shelter to ask how many beds they had available, for I did not, of course, want to occupy the very last bed in place of someone who might really need it. Unfortunately, I was informed by the gentleman on the other end of the line that the shelter was not open to drop-ins during non-hypothermic conditions, and thus a night at the shelter was out of the question.

Night darkening and plateau cooling, I grew frustrated, wanting nothing more than a quiet, safe place to curl up for a few hours' rest. Remembering that Boulder was a college town, I thought a university library might be just the place. Hopeful, I drove down to the University of Colorado campus, parked, and began to explore, growing a bit more disheartened each time I came to a locked door.

Then, halfway through the campus, some luck! The university's chemistry building, a towering edifice with lights aglow, was open for access, without so much as a warning against unauthorized visitors. I ducked inside, glad to escape the wind and cold, and then made a quick climb to the second floor, where I imagined I'd find more privacy than the first.

Truthfully, the whole building was empty, it being a Saturday night in late May, weeks after students had returned home for the summer. But still, I walked cautiously, peeking about each corner for a diligent and overworked graduate student or a vigilant security guard. But all was clear, and there, in the middle of the second floor, I found a small conference room, dark and carpeted and unlocked, and I snuck inside and placed my pack on the floor.

It may not have been much, but to me, at that moment, it was just as good as a four-star hotel. In that room I had shelter from the elements, safety from the outdoors, a rug on which to lay my head, and, as though that were not enough, electricity and wireless internet to top it off! Ecstatic, thrilled at my luck, I passed a few hours reading, writing, and researching, then pulled myself underneath the conference room table for a covert night's rest.

I woke early the next morning, as had become the habit, and eager to leave before I got caught, I packed my things and quietly slipped out the door, sneaking along the stairwell and then pushing confidently out from the building's main entrance, as though I were a teaching assistant who belonged there and had just come by before a morning's jog for some papers I had forgotten earlier that week.

Boulder was frigid in that elevated May air, and before departing for Rocky Mountain National Park, I deemed it wise to give the sun some time to warm the skies, passing the time sipping cider in a local Boulder cafe. By 6:30AM, I had joined nearly a half-dozen other loiterers, some early-morning creatives and others casual drifters like myself, all of us standing outside a promising coffee shop waiting for the doors to open. And at seven, they did, and the lot of us rushed in and ordered varying drinks with varying degrees of caffeine, and then out came the laptops and power cords and electronics, and the small shop became a cacophony of clicks and keyboard strokes.

By the time I looked up from my writing, it was nearly noon; I had spent a full five hours merely recounting my experiences and reflections to that point! With a full day ahead of me, I hastily packed away my belongings and took off, slowing only to appreciate a few of the many marvelous acts on Pearl Street before leaving town.

I should probably pause for a moment to mention that Boulder is an absolutely delightful place. Just steps from the Rockies, a young intellectual population, a good-sized town with enough to offer for all, and an overall vibe of proactive community, Boulder was everything I'd hoped it be and then some: climate, scenery, people, infrastructure.

I also simply must call out the Pearl Street of Boulder as a Main Street among Main Streets, a vibrant slice of city I found it difficult to pull away from. On each side of Pearl Street, which stretches a short but superb five or ten blocks, are art shops and galleries, restaurants and pubs, all local, all with their own personality and decor. Then, in the middle of it all, a pedestrian walkway, free of cars throughout the stretch, with benches and fountains and statues to entertain and accommodate the thousands that pass through those streets each day.

And then there are the performers. Oh, the Pearl Street performers are the heart of Boulder, the vanguard of the arts. They are Pearl Street, never fewer than two or three in eyesight, each with his or her own remarkable talent or enthralling ability. The night before, Echo and I had watched a young magician, impressive in both skill and wit, command and amaze a crowd of sixty by pulling a specially-marked dollar bill from a whole, unsliced lemon. We had seen two girls, neither older than fifteen, cover Johnny Cash with a banjo and a full cello, the latter capped with a living, breathing hen. And the next morning the wonder continued: a ten-year-old boy with a guitar and a tune, a clicking android coated in bronze paint, and easily most impressive of all, the man with the harp.

Yes, the man with the harp, that Sunday morning in Boulder, carved out a special place in my memory. From a distance, I thought I heard song from a speaker, a beautiful voice too amplified, too loud, too perfect to be live. But indeed, as I edged closer to 13th Street, I eyed a haggard man, a man who could easily have been mistaken for a bum, tattered overalls and greyed beard, sitting on a bench with a harp. And the sounds his fingers coaxed from this harp were lovely, soft, somber melodies, but they were nothing compared to his voice. Now, I am no connoisseur of opera, and thus cannot say what he sang or how he sang it, but the sweet syllables ringing from the depths of his throat were magnificent, beautiful, glorious. I was awestruck.

I admired for the remainder of his performance, not wanting it to end, wanting to remain there, in that trance, forever, but end it did, and when it did he smiled gently, humbly, and I dumped all spare bills I had in my pockets into his waiting case, and returned his thanks fivefold, and then, with my feelings toward Boulder incapable of being topped beyond the current moment, I left for the Rocky Mountains.

Colorado's Rocky Mountains, massive as they are, can be seen from the southern stretches of New Mexico, the center of Utah, the canyons of Arizona. Their size is incomprehensible. Approaching them, then, driving onto them, is something of a challenge. Rousseau trudged forth stubbornly, slowly, unwilling to gallop up their peaks, instead bucking about in the area's strong winds. To be honest, I wasn't doing much better myself; the sudden altitude climb left me feeling fatigued, grumpy, and nauseated.

The higher we rose, the colder I grew and the worse I felt. Once inside the park, the treeline began to fade, and shortly thereafter, snow began to claim its turf. Feet of frozen moisture curbed the sides of the rode, a telling reminder of just how frigid the air around me had become. The ride seemed to stretch for eons, and when I finally reached my destination of Bear Lake, where I had hoped to hike, I could do little more than shove my flushed fingers in my pockets, slide across ice to the edge of the frozen lake without falling over, and then head back to the bike to leave it, the lake, the cold, the altitude, the park, the Rockies, all behind. Without even thinking, I abandoned the planned climb of the next day, up Mount Elbert, the second highest peak in the contiguous United States, for if this was the way things felt at 12,000 feet, I didn't want to imagine, or near, 14,000. No, I wanted away from it all.

The Rockies, as it turns out, are not as easy to escape as I thought. For hours I fled, south and west, but the Colorado Plateau did not let up, keeping me at elevations of 12,000, 11,000, 10,000 feet until dusk, all the while snow trailing me along the side of the road.

The scenery here, I should say, was absolutely incredible. All around me were fluffy cumulus clouds, not above me, not in the sky, way up there, but to my periphery, at my level, seeming so close that I could drive onto them in mere minutes. And with the peaks of the Rockies higher than those cotton clouds, white seemed to almost blossom from within the range, cauliflower creations of the purest shade of ivory.

Beautiful as it may have been, it wasn't getting any warmer. By 8PM, I couldn't move my fingers, and pulled into a gas station for a cup of hot tea and, if I was lucky, a recommendation for a cheap nearby motel.

Walking into the station's convenience store, helmet still on my head as my fingers lacked the dexterity in their current state to remove it, a friendly attendant remarked on the frigid temperatures outside and reckoned I must be freezing. I nodded, said I most certainly was, and asked him if he knew of any affordable lodging in the area. He thought for a moment, frowned, and informed me that though there was a hotel just next door, it was pricey, and my next options wouldn't be for nearly an hour down the road.

Displeased with this grim news, I frowned as well, thanked him for the help, and sat at an open table to mull over my decision while my steaming tea cooled. In the meantime, he and I chatted about various subjects: motorbikes, my journey, Colorado climate. I found this man, Bill,* his name was, to be affable and sincere and friendly, and I liked him from the outset.

I asked Bill what brought him to that small Colorado town. "Well," he sighed, "the thing is, I'm originally from the midwest, but my dad lives out in Oregon. And so about a year ago I got a bus ticket to go out and see him, and while waiting for the bus all my stuff, bag ticket, all of it, got stolen, and so I was stuck with no money or phone or nothing. And then ...", and here he smiled sheepishly, "... then I walked past a car with its keys in the ignition and I, well, I took it, and started heading west."

"Next thing I know," he continued, "I'm out here, making it over the Rockies, and its late, and I see this accident up ahead of me. This family, they hit an elk, and their car is all banged up, and this elk, it's just lying in the middle of the road, not doing so well. Me, I stop, and I know what I have to do, so I go into the back of this truck I'm driving, which has some tools in the trunk, and I pull out a hammer, 'cause I have to, you know, put this elk out of its pain."

I nod, captivated. He goes on. "And as I'm reaching for the hammer, I hear screams, and a crash, and I turn around and this other family had come around the bend, and they had swerved to avoid the elk and ended up crashing into a ditch, and their car just toppled over and crashed and everybody's yelling. And so I run over and I start pulling them out one by one, and the kids shout that their grandmother is in the back, and she can't get out, and so I take the hammer in my hand and I smash the window and I help her get out to. Then the cops come."

And when the cops came, he said, they called him a hero, but it didn't take long for them to learn that the truck he was driving had been reported stolen, and just hours after he saved that family, he was in jail, locked away in the Colorado Rockies. And when he got released, that's where he stayed.

Business beckoned, and so he returned to his station behind the register, but several minutes later, he looked at me, cocked his head, and called out "Hey, you're not crazy, are you?'

I smiled and shook my head. "I don't think so, why?"

"Well, if you want a place to stay tonight, you're welcome to crash on my couch," he replied.

I was touched by the offer, and told him I sincerely appreciated it, but it was still early, and I had learned he wouldn't be getting off work until nearly 11, and it seemed only practical to use those three hours driving, heading toward Utah, then hanging out in central Colorado.

He shrugged. "Okay. If you change your mind, just let me know."

And change my mind I did. There I was, on a cross-country road trip to discover America and learn from its people, and I had the audacity to decline an open couch from a stranger, a stranger with such a rich history. Unacceptable, I thought. Utah could wait.

"Hey Bill," I called back, several minutes later, "if that offer is still on the table, I would absolutely appreciate that couch."

"Cool," he said. "Jane and I are probably going to eat dinner and hang out for a bit at my place after work, so the three of us can head over together as soon as we close up here," Jane being the other staffer working the shop. She shot over a smile.

As promised, we made it out of there by 11, me doing whatever I could to help clean up, and then we made the short drive back to his place, which he warned me was a trailer, to which I retorted that his house was almost certainly larger than mine, and I felt a pang of yearning for my home back east, and indeed his was larger, nearly four times the size. And the couch, most importantly, was exceptionally comfortable.

Jane insisted I join her in sampling some Colorado herb, which as a polite guest, I did, though Bill appropriately declined to join us on account of his probation, and the three of us talked for hours, interesting, substantive conversation, hazy as it may have been at points. Eventually, Jane left, needing rest before work the next morning, and at this juncture, Bill focused in on his inventory of free things, which he had touched upon in various ways throughout the night.

The thing is, Bill told me, he doesn't buy anything; he gets it all for free by just asking others if he could keep what they planned to throw away. "They should call me the not-so-free free man," he joked of his probation, "almost everything in this house, I got if for free."

And then it began, an item-by-item listing of all Bill had accumulated at no cost. He pointed to a nearby shelf. "See those speakers? Got 'em for free. That poster? Free. Notepad, free, bookcase, free, those signs over there, free. That ashtray? Free too. And look over here. I got that firewood for free from the guy next door, I chop all his firewood in exchange for keeping half of it, so that's free. These books were free, that pillow was free, and this thing right here, whatever it is, that was for free too."

He rose, implying I should follow, and we marched to the kitchen, Bill swinging open cabinet doors. "Plates, all free, mugs were free, this pot right here? Free. Free, free, free," he said, pointing away, "free free free free free. Oh, and the bed over there, for my dog, that was free. The dog food, too. Come, check out over here."

Toward the bedroom we moved, and indeed, nearly everything in there was free as well. Satisfied with his inventory there, Bill passed me en route to the patio door, sliding it open. A wall of cold air rushed in, and Bill rushed out onto the deck. "It's dark, so you probably can't see it that well, but do you see that weight machine down there? That was free. And this, free. And if you peek over that edge, that stuff down there, I got that for free too." I nodded, trembling, subtly sliding back inside where it was warm, where the listing of Bill's free belongings continued for quite some time.

Now, I in no way mean to poke fun at Bill for this winding monologue; if anything, I hope to laud him for such resourcefulness, such thrift, and such enthusiasm for his success. For Bill, when released from prison, had nothing but the t-shirt and shorts on his person to help him face this cold world, and that cold state, and yet within six months, he had used his kindness and craftiness to acquire what really was an impressive amount of basic comforts. And because he had worked for each of those items, he seemed to appreciate them all the more, something so lacking in today's disposable culture.

Yes, Bill was a wonderful being, a person who made a few mistakes in his young life,sure, but was righting his wrongs in the most righteous of ways, through generosity and compassion. I was sorry to leave him so soon after having met him, but the road called, and so I left him my number, lest he ever need me to return the favor if he found himself on the east coast, and I took off for lower ground.

Colorado had not warmed much since the night before, and I faced several miserable hours on the road snaking my way through the Rockies' narrow passes. Toward the west end of the state, I was forced up Monarch Mountain, a formidable peak I'd have to reach 12,000 feet to cross, an arduous and painful climb that hammered away at me for nearly an hour. And then, finally, a small sign reading "Summit" whizzed by, and just like that, I had cleared the Rocky Mountains, and the descent began.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, which sits a few dozen miles west of the Rockies and, in my opinion, suffers from far too cumbersome a name, was, at least in my case, the gateway to canyonland. Unlike the red rock gorges of Utah, Black Canyon is, well, black, and though it may not be the grandest canyon in size or width, it is one of the narrowest, some sections just fifty yards across. The effect of such narrowness is dramatic, vertigo-inducing, with each step toward the edge of the overlook telling your mind "surely that must be the bottom," but reality defiantly proving otherwise, the canyon so slim at points that sun only reaches its depths for fifteen minutes each day.

I enjoyed Black Canyon, for both its grandeur and its more agreeable effect on my body, but it was not my last stop for the day. No, that was Arches National Park, Utah, still some distance toward the sun, and so I trekked on, working my way to the border.

From the very first moment I thought up this adventure, I'd always envisioned Utah as a special sort of destination, not just a place for fun and adventure but for zen, peace, awakening, a place whose crimson canyons had spoken to me so strongly in film and photograph but whose terrain I had never had the privilege of glimpsing in person. of grabbing with my own hands. Before setting out on my journey, if I am to speak candidly, I wasn't sure I'd survive it, so many physical dangers crammed into so short a timespan, and I was okay with that, with the substantial risk, for I knew I'd rather live a life short and splendid than slow and stale. I knew it was too much to hope for a safe quest, outset to return, so instead I wished merely, if I were to perish in the course of my adventure, for that cruel fate to come after my time in Utah, after I had walked among those ancient seas, after I had climbed its canyons and taken in its beauty.

Such expectation is a hefty weight to put upon a swath of land, but Utah did not disappoint. Crossing the border, pulling into Arches, I found the landscape to be more than I imagined: grander, redder, infinitely more magnificent than any painting I could compose in the narrow confines of my mind.

I navigated to the park's campsite, spellbound by my surroundings, and coming upon yet another full lot, I relished the opportunity to bend the law and explore the Arches backcountry. I neither bent nor explored far, however, for I wished not to harm the fragile plant life beneath my feet, and so I pitched camp some forty yards from the RVs and full-height tents of a more civilized life, of company and laughter, and didn't mind the solitude, for there, in that little piece of earth, I was not alone. All around me was history, eons of it, literal eons, and above me, uncloaked from the setting sun, the stars! Even more splendid than the skyscape of the Great Sand Dunes, Arches proudly boats the world's darkest recorded sky, and with good reason. It is lovely. It is the universe untouched my humans, unclouded by their dust, the sky as our ancestors had seen it centuries earlier, the sky under which Emerson once remarked:

"But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime. Seen in the streets of cities, how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of [that] which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile. The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible; but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence."

I was sad to wake the next morning without those stars shining over me, but I knew that was not the last time we'd see each other, and anyway, I had an eventful day to tend to. My first day in canyon county after years, perhaps a whole life, of longing for it, I simply had to hike, and so I set out for Devil's Garden, the park's flagship trail, a primitive trek along some half-dozen arches. Into the canyons I went.

* Note: Names and locations have been changed out of respect for privacy.

To Great Sand Dunes (Days 12, 13)

5.25.2013


Juarez, a poor, scarred town just a stone's throw away from El Paso, was, several years back, the epicenter of a brutal Mexican drug war and, in fact, the deadliest place on earth in terms of overall homicide rates. And though the drug war has since relocated and Juarez is now, for the most part, free from the ghastly slayings and mid-afternoon public plaza kidnappings that terrorized the town in years past, it is still a damaged place, a hotbed of pettier but no less violent crime. Juarez is not a place for anyone to travel alone, much less an American, and especially not an American on an utterly vulnerable motorscooter, and so, itching for a chance to experience the city, I compromised with my better senses and agreed to visit, on foot, for just a few hours.

Walking into Mexico is as easy as walking into an amusement park ride: you insert two quarters into a small metal box, slide through a turnstile, and there you are. No ID checks, no questionnaire, not even a you-must-be-this-tall-to-enter yardstick. No, the only hint I was entering a different country was, well, a pretty big hint, in the form of a fifty-yard no-man's-land between the United States and its neighbor to the south, a zone with watchtowers and redundant barbed fences and telling graffiti memorializing those lost, or killed, in their ambitious pursuit to relocate from one end of an arbitrary border to another.

Once I was in Juarez, the scenery changed. The shops appeared smaller, the buildings older, the people a bit more haggard. Still, though, this place didn't feel like a warzone; it just felt like the central plaza of a developing country's metropolis.

And then I walked a bit further.

Suddenly, a mere two blocks across the border, the mood of the town took a swing. I began to notice families walking, heads down, eyes looking anywhere but into the eyes of another. Everything felt rushed, hasty, as though being out in the sun too long was something to be avoided. I saw no pleasantries exchanged, no smiles from neighbor to neighbor, no women and children milling about without a care. No, children were pulled this way and that, each tethered to his or her mother's hand, no questions asked, and everywhere, there was the sense that trust was not a commodity this city dealt in.

Juarez is, it seems, a city with PTSD, an entire people so terrified by violence, so violated by their own, that armed guards standing outside of a Main Street bank, assault rifles in hand, is the norm. Juarez is a place where a friend is a liability, a stranger is a threat, and a car's backfire is a call to duck and cover. It's a place where a foreigner like myself doesn't belong, its wounds too fresh and too deep for multicultural curiosity to be appropriate, or so I felt.

And so, after a short time, I left. Back toward Texas, back toward the United States, not through a turnstile like the way into Mexico but into an hour-long line, where I watched fellow humans harassed and scolded by customs agents, treated like no American would ever be treated, and ever was treated, for that matter, for when I happened to pull out my passport for a quick glance, my American passport, a customs official called over "Hey! You American?" and I nodded, and he pointed to the right, to the express lane, to the lane of smiles and "welcome back"s where my word and my citizenship were all that was needed to prove my worth as someone deserving of entry to the land of opportunity.

I'm still not bought in on this whole immigration thing, you might say.

In any event, I returned to El Paso, realized I had no recollection of where I parked and spent the better part of an hour searching for my scooter, and then headed off, past the "Now leaving Texas" signs for a third and final time, for my next destination of White Sands National Monument.

Texas and New Mexico seem to have entertainingly different understandings of time and space. I had noticed this earlier, when traveling from Carlsbad to El Paso, where because Carlsbad sits in Mountain TIme but Texas east of El Paso sits in Central TIme, one actually has the unique opportunity to, while traveling west, arrive somewhere before they've even left, leaving the caverns at, say, 4:30PM and arriving at the Guadalupe Mountains, just across the border in Texas, by 3:45. And, no matter how much I recognized that these time zones were arbitrary, approximate means of tracking daylight, I couldn't help but feel, when passing those state welcome signs, that I was hurtling through a vortex, conquering time itself, cleverly cramming another sixty minutes into my day through some navigational trickery.

But in space, things get even more strange, where the authorities of Texas and New Mexico appear to actually disagree on the locations of certain towns or landmarks. On the Texas side of the border, White Sands was declared to be, say, 68 miles away, but then, ten feet later, one would pass a "Welcome to New Mexico" sign, and ten feet after that, almost as if to say "our neighbors to the south got it wrong and we just want to set the record straight," New Mexico will boldly declare "White Sands: 76 miles."

Though I'd prefer to blame Texas for this mishap, for the monument isn't even in that state, I'm afraid shoddy work on the part of the New Mexico highway crew is likely at fault. For it was not just this interstate contradiction that puzzled me; all throughout southern New Mexico, carefully checking against my tripometer, I found subtle inconsistencies of distance: two signs, eight miles apart, suggesting identical mileages, some signs actually adding miles to the count, and then some, after only a four-mile drive, claiming that one's destination was now twelve miles closer.

In any event, I arrived at White Sands after some number of hours and some number of miles and found the national monument to be exactly what one would expect from the name, white sand, but about seven times in the intensity and scale of whatever one could imagine. White Sands isn't just a pile of white sand; it's a sea of it. It's hot, it's blinding, it seems endless. The monument is little more than a fifteen-mile drive between massive white dunes, dunes so large children bring sleds to slide down them. In sum, it's a lot of sand.

Though I enjoyed my scenic drive, I had little else to do there, and so I, retinas ever grateful, left after just an hour. Next, I was off to Santa Fe, a long, windy drive through the pleasant plains of western New Mexico, a drive so long and windy that I had to stop in Albuquerque, just an hour shy of Santa Fe, for the night. Eager for a bed, I pulled into the first motel I passed, quickly booking a room on the far side of the parking lot, second floor.

The room, for which I had exceptionally low standards, fell short of even those. For one, the lights didn't work, which wouldn't in itself be a dealbreaker, for I was there to sleep, but more importantly, the room was flooded in an odor of aged tobacco, of ten thousand cigarettes extinguished at the bedside table, and I couldn't breathe. And so I returned to the front desk, past the open door through which two older gentlemen were injecting a substance of likely illegality into their forearms, and asked for a refund, and then bounded to the other side of Albuquerque, just as unimpressive as the first, but at least with a clean, decent hostel. And there I slept.

The next morning, I enjoyed a scenic drive to Santa Fe, a sleepy town so much more lovely than I'd imagined. Instantly, I fell in love with Santa Fe's architectural consistency, its mud-brown pueblos on each and every street, its astonishing number of art galleries throughout the historic downtown area. And while some of this splendor wore off with the growing realization that most of those shops were nothing more than white people selling other white people Native American souvenirs of questionable authenticity, I forgave this fault without due justification, just so caught up in it all, the history and the culture and the pace.

During a pleasant lunch in Santa Fe, looking down at my scooter from atop a balcony, I determined it was only fitting for it, my trusty sidekick, my obedient steed, to have a name, if only for the purposes of inventing one more synonym by which to call "my scooter" or "my bike." I'll admit that I did not think long on this decision; I was, at the very time, reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Social Contract, and feeling particularly moved by the philosopher's discourse on the chains of established civil society, which so brutally conflict with man's natural liberty, I chose to call it Rousseau, hoping, I'll admit, that attributing the name of such a great mind to a mere machine would not be interpreted as a badge of dishonor.

In any case, Rousseau it was, and with that I finished my lunch, tucked away my book, and returned to the road toward Taos, the nation's oldest continuously inhabited community, for some 1,300 years, tucked away in the northern mountains of New Mexico.

Almost as soon as I personified it with a name, Rousseau began to take on personality. Until this point, she, yes, she, had performed admirably, tearing across the eastern half of these United States without the slightest of troubles. Along the way, many had stopped to ask about Rousseau's abilities, her power, and I always beamed, patting her lovingly, explaining that keeping up with traffic was no challenge at all, her powerful little engine capable of speeds up to ninety miles per hour.

And this was true still, but now, climbing those steep hills of Taos, she began to slow. for the first time, to struggle in achieving sixty miles, fifty miles, forty miles per hour. Fortunately, the roads in that remote section of New Mexico were empty, as so we merely trotted along, Rousseau almost hinting that it was due time I looked around and enjoyed some scenery while on the move.

Indeed, the scenery was astounding. Tiny towns built on the edges of cliffs, proud peaks in the distance, birds flying along well underfoot. And that New Mexico sky once again. I didn't mind the slow pace, not at all.

About an hour later, we arrived at Taos. I parked, paid the admission, and entered the small village, surprised at just how readily I was transported back in time. To my left were small, single-story pueblos of lovingly handmade construction, and further out, a larger multi-story structure sized to fit hundreds. To my right, a small sacred creek, which I later learned provided the town, still inhabited, with all of its drinking, cooking, and bathing water, and beyond that, more dwellings, adobe nooks with rounded contours, the other side of the village.

I was moved. There I was, walking by persons whose families had inhabited this very place more than thirteen centuries ago, a place with virtually no pollution, no blowing debris, no crime nor classism, a place where, after a millennia, the river was still safe enough to drink from. In the distance, children played, chasing dogs about the fields, riding tricycles along the creek, no parents looking on with paranoia or grave concern, for this was a safe place. There was trust. There was community.

After exploring for some time, I began to make my way to the town's exit, but serendipitously stumbled upon a tour on the way out. The tour, led by a young man born and raised in Taos, quickly grabbed my attention, and so I tagged along, thankful to be learning so much from this firsthand inhabitant. For nearly an hour, Julian spoke of the history of Taos, his people's beliefs and their betrayal by Europeans and their struggle to balance their harmonious way of living with the luxuries and comforts of the modern world, a struggle that has cost their village nearly ninety percent of its population, down from a peak of two thousand inhabitants to only a few hundred, Julian, who lives outside of town, included in that count.

Thanking Julian for what turned out to be an absolutely wonderful tour, I departed Taos and continued north, into Colorado, racing the setting sun to Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Colorado, if road signs are any indication, is not very proud of its Great Sand Dunes. Whereas I saw arrows for Big Bend hundreds of miles out, and navigational hints for Carlsbad and White Sands far, far away from their respective landmarks, I worked my way through southern Colorado without ever seeing a sign for the Dunes, spare the one directly outside the park entrance, announcing an exit for the park in one mile.

I do not understand why this is. Great Sand Dunes National Park is a wonder, and the state of Colorado should do everything it can to shout its name from their much-favored rocky mountaintops. Though they appear small in the distance, dwarfed by the monumental scale of the Rocky Mountains behind them, each mile along the park's fifteen-mile pull-in brings them closer, larger, more captivating. Upon arriving at the dunes themselves, one can't help but feel as though the White Sands to the south are nothing but a child's sandbox. These dunes, they are of indescribable magnitude. With some rising over 750 feet, the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, the Space Needle, each of these manmade marvels could hide safely behind any one of those piles of sand without the slightest hint of their presence.

And the dunes are, unbelievably, only part of the park's splendor. Great Sand Dunes National Park, facing north, appears to be pure fantasy, a mashing together of three starkly different terrains into one marvelous vista. To the left are the dunes, created by soil deposits and erosion of the Rockies, literally mountains made of mountain dust. Front and center stand the proud Rocky Mountains, off in the distance but seeming just ever so close. And then, to the right, an alpine forest, fir trees climbing a small range in its own right, a sanctuary for the region's flora and fauna. And finally, in the center of it all where you stand, flowing from the Rockies right along the dunes, a shallow creek, running through sand too fickle for it to ever carve a proper channel, a creek so shallow it can be walked across without wetting an ankle, but still ever-running, the cumulative melt from the those ancient snow-capped mountains.

Yes, the view from that angle looked artificial, doctored, like a poster from Colorado's state tourism board urging travelers to come visit the Centennial State with a tantalizing composite illustration of all the state has to offer across its many miles: sand dunes, and mountains, and forest! But altogether, actually existing in the same plane as they do in Great Sand Dunes National Park, is unexpected, and the effect is mesmerizing.

Climbing the dunes is tough work, for they are, as I may have mentioned, astonishingly enormous. They are also, it turns out, made of sand, sand which collapses underfoot and requires two or three times as much energy as walking on solid ground. And then, were the distance and solidity not challenging factors on their own, the dunes are also steep, so steep that one must carefully chart out their course along the winding ridges that connect each dune, lest they be forced to turn around or make an arduous, often impossible climb up a dune's face.

Out of breath, my large pack not helping matters, I collapsed on top of a respectably high dune and gazed into the distance, watching tiny specks work their way to the summit of those desert hills. I watched the sun set to my right, the hikers return to their tents to my left, and a family of deer gracefully nibble on a dying shrub down below. I lazily gave thought to where I would camp that night.

Earlier, entering the park, a sign had alerted me that the campground was full. The campground,, it turned out, was not full, as the group sites were unreserved and wide open, but those were for large groups, and by reservation only, and I had neither. At first, I considered just camping there, hidden away in some far corner, but pulling through the campground earlier, I had spied a camp warden making his rounds, checking vehicle permits and reservation receipts, and so, not particularly eager for a fine or a rude late-night awakening, I had parked Rousseau alongside a restroom and taken off into the dunes, and there I was, cloaked by darkness, alone.

So I descended, to the foot of the creek, and here I pitched camp, among these sandy giants, shielded from the warden's line of sight, with the most glorious views from the small door of my small tent. It was a cold night, the dunes home to madly wild temperature extremes, but I felt fortunate to be slumbering among such beauty, and doubly fortunate to be woken up, by the cold, around 3AM, at which point I decided to take a peek outside the tent for unknown reasons. And peek outside I did, instantly taken aback, nearly blinded, by the multitude of stars in the sky. And the Milky Way! Right above my head I saw it, a cloudy streak across an otherwise speckled sky, a sky I had never before seen in such clarity and detail. It was breathtaking. I sat and stared for minutes, shivering outside of my sleeping but hardly caring, until finally, reluctantly, I zipped up that window to the heavens and bid that amazing starscape goodnight.

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