The Divided Self
This happens to me on a rare occasion: The part of me that sees leaves my body and witnesses the part of me that acts. I never know when it will happen, only that it requires that I be in a relaxed state and without judgement or fear. Maybe it's the various spirits I devoured in my youth, maybe this is the flashback era. So be it; I like it. Because, contrary to most other separations in my life, this one is spelled by delight. I enjoy the sensation of the split, that moment when one becomes two, when the ethereal me spontaneously breaks from the flesh without pain or melancholy. On this day, my birthday, I'm on the road when this split occurs, and the "I" that sees notices my flesh is starting to show its years. My beard is graying and the skin on the back of my hands is scarred and wrinkled. Even my singing voice is dropping into the inevitable drone of fewer possibilities--I'll never be a pediatrician, never make it to the top of Everest, nor will I spend a decade in the closeted zones of Zaire. Nothing to be done about any of this, I'm reconciled to mortality, and satisfied enough in the here/now to watch myself drive through a divide in the Wasatch Mountains and out of the Great Basin and over Soldier Pass and down the other side into the northern most region of the Colorado Plateau. The transition is dramatic as the diagonal shelves of the San Rafeal Swell rise into view to the south at the same time as the Book Cliffs to the north. This is Utah, I'm on my way to the river and, flowing as a witness to change, it's not long before I'm watching myself getting gas in Moab, paying the counter help and then heading to the liquor store.
I buy a beer and a half-pint of whiskey and the eyes return to the head and I guess I'm back to normal. But there is residue from the experience, and a half hour later while making camp in the sage on Flat Iron Mesa, I burst out in laughter. It's an old joke between the heavens and me that plays itself out when I dance naked under the darkening sky, sandstone buttes on all sides, a twig of sage behind my ear. Can you believe it, I laugh aloud into my private emptiness, three years teaching at an exclusive prep school and they still haven't fired me. What a joke. I know how I talk, I know what I say, I know how I act in the world, a screwed up delirious hammerhead, absurd, this, the illusive strata of culture. Pay your bills and say your prayers, write your stories and hope somebody loves you, grade papers, sweep the floor, dust the books, worry about money, watch basketball on TV and care who wins, walk the hills, brush the teeth, stirfry rice and veggies, trust jazz, change the oil in the car, keep appointment with dentist, write angry letters to newspaper editor and poetry to friends in Seattle and Santa Rosa and Boulder, estudio espanol, scold daughter, wash dishes, talk to dog, go to bed and hold wife, can't sleep, turn on light, read biography of Che, Latin American dictators, U.S. imperialism, the violence of earthquakes, of rainforest destruction--on this night my palms are sweaty under bright Scorpio and I'm racked with laughter, absurd, crazy, hysterical, car insurance, house insurance, life insurance, accident insurance, health insurance, credit card protection and retirement security, living wills and attorney fees, sunscreen, movie queen, doctor of philosophy, who made this shit up? Look here, I'm a Buddhist Leftist Existentialist Environmentalist visioning golden Jew Christ of sacrifice story, can't make sense out of any of it, can't put it any other way, no clear path to follow, and it's only through intuition that I've come to believe that what is said to be normal is to be questioned, what is structured neatly is wrong, ah, and beyond my belief bats whip insects out of the sky and a slice of moon rises from the Colorado side of the earth, the air is pleasant and I fall hard to the ground into cozy sleeping bag and dream heavy of crossing a border into a strange country and in the morning wake with the sun in my eyes and gripping twig of sage.
May 8, Morning
Highway takes me to White Mesa, Ute Mountain Indian Reservation, USA. I pull into the empty parking lot of a spanking new LDS Wardhouse, just one among many that pop up all over everywhere. Ah, yes, I get out, stretch, feel irreverent in the morning sun, stand against the cold grim building and light a cigar. Across the road there's a cluster of houses with dingy vinyl siding and satellite dishes bolted to aluminum roofs. Sorry to say, no sign of a living Native culture here. To the southwest is Comb Ridge, the long monocline that forms the east flank of Monument Valley and the west flank of the Blanding Basin, the plateau on which I stand. North are the snowy Abajos which rise above the town of Monticello and feed into Dark Canyon and the Colorado River. The Mormon settlement of Blanding is just up the road and aptly named--the place is distinguished by its dreary boulevards and its absolute lack of color, by an indifference that expands to ennui, what Baudelaire insists "swallows up creation in a yawn."
While the appearance and other aspects of the town suffer from a dearth of imagination, the Blanding Basin terrain compells that same facility to bloom. An initial glance reveals rolling overgrazed badlands. But to walk a couple miles in any direction across this mesa is to encounter a surprise canyon, not necessarily deep but rugged and thickly vegetated and dramatic in the break and tumble of long-winding escarpment. And always, these drainages carve and fall toward some great ancient riverbed.
Truly, this is the paradox of so much of southern Utah: on the one hand, the towns so often suggest a stale, phlegmatic monoculture, while on the other, the surrounding landscape vibrates with mystery and diverse life. The disconnect is troubling. You would think the land might inspire fresh breath into the people who inhabit it, but as is often the case, it just isn't so. It has become commonplace to suggest we humans are split from the earth we walk upon, that for many of us the grace of heaven only exists in some distant future otherworld. Yet, as I see it, there are severe consequences to this indiscreet conviction, and as repetitive and redundant as it might sound, it should be said over and over again, be made a chant, a mantra, a psalm--the earth is not a commodity. It's time to bring the angels down here.
No, as far as I'm concerned, nature is everything we are and all we have. And that we are losing indigenous cultures and plant and animal species at an alarming rate drains each of our hearts of blood. Forget the medicines that will never be known, forget the cure to cancer that very well might be drained away in our desire for quick profit and comfort--the consequences of an obtuse spirit are graver still. To lose a single bird species to premature extinction is a terrible tragedy that effects the food chain, yes. But to lose that same bird's song also depletes the richness of life and might well affect that most esoteric space within us that is nourished by such richness, the space where poets go to dream, where artists go for vision, where the sacred gets its juice, that space of solicitude where brave revolutions are born and change is made possible, that space where our most valuable resource lies--benevolence, endearment, friendship--that space of compassion from which is born and rises and flowers love. And if our love and our ability to love is drained and diminished, as I believe it is, what do we become then but mechanisms in an order that is dull in color and needs no heart and has no grief to pay.
Evening, May 8
The headwaters of the main fork of the San Juan River rage clear and cold down the steep broken slopes of Wolf Creek Pass, San Juan range, southwestern Colorado. This branch is dammed for irrigation east of Aztec, New Mexico. The Animas River joins the main fork at Aztec, and further west the San Juan is fed by the smaller flows of the La Plata River and the Mancos which originate from the mountains north of Durango.
In Bluff I arrange for a shuttle at the Recapture Lodge, good, happy, helpful folks, and I put in at Sand Island, three days to make twenty seven miles through the desert canyon to Mexican Hat. In this canyon I float beside walls that portray four major geologic epics, the Jurassic, Triassic, Permian and Pennsylvanian. Each is made up of several layers, mostly sandstone. It's when meditating on this ply of rock and mud that I realize the river is time, and the walls are memory, and again, in the antiquity of all this, I'm told of my insignificance. Today I make twelve miles to a drainage just downriver from the Perch Meander ridge. Swift cold green water, a couple class two rapids, less muddy than usual, the canoe handled just fine with a heavy load. I camp on a sandy ledge in red desert cliffs. I smoke and have a drink and stir Ramen and tuna fish into soup.
Spring in the high desert, it's been a lively day of birds. Swallows, eagles, herons, magpies. Twice I looked up to the surprise of the raven's shadow spread on steep ribboned wall above, so much like the cover of one of Castaneda's books. In don Juan's mythology, the raven is an emissary, a guide, and can be a portent to death. It is said that some of us, when we die, become ravens. It is the raven's way to watch for movement, for life within and on the surface of animated bodies. Ironically, the raven also finds beautiful those entities without movement like rocks and dead animals and spends a lot of time hanging around dead bodies. In his book, Desert Notes, Barry Lopez narrates through the eyes of raven, reports on coyote and rattlers, the Blue Mound People, the wind. I'm convinced of the voice because I've been around ravens long enough to know how much they like to talk. Social creatures that they are, they keep their mates forever, and they stay in the same place for their entire lives, which can be thirty years or longer. For me, there's some solace in the fact that the ravens I talked to today I've talked to before, and that there's a good chance I'll talk to them again. I think in my next life I'd like that, to be a raven. I will hang above a river and spend time talking to humans, too, watching their movement, sensing what is strong or weak in their hearts. I will make some my friends and spread my wings and glide for them and ask them to visit often. I will dive bomb others and frighten them and make them cringe and squeal and hide their faces and muffle their yelps in hands squeezed bloodless. I will show up in their dreams transformed, glowing a blinding snowy white.
This is also cow country. The river is the northern border of the Reservation and the San Juan drainage is vital to the survival of the Navajo's cattle. Today I saw two dead cows, one bloated and festering maggots in an eddy, the other a calf draped over a rock and already dried to rawhide and bone. On top of the calf whistled a cow sitting bird. And I couldn't help but think that a month before, when the calf was alive, that this same bird sat that calf and sang upon a solid perch, a friend, and I felt a little sad in passing.
This day has been one thinking of friends, what it means to know people and to be a part of someone else's imagination and to make someone else a part of mine. Because on the beach at the put in, as I'm preparing my canoe, up steps a diminutive fellow with scruffy beard and grimy ballcap, he hoots my name and grabs my shoulders with strong hands. I immediately recognize him, it's little John Radlouf who I haven't seen since leaving Boulder in 1988. We jump up and down and hug and kiss, excited boys. We both worked as instructors for Denver-based Outdoor Leadership Training Seminars, we were rock climbing partners, had done difficult routes together, sometimes getting in over our heads, as friends often do. We also spent winters camping in sub-zero temperatures on the glaciated snowfields of the high Rockies, group leaders trying to teach wilderness skills to people whose romantic vision of the backcountry rapidly dwindled to despair upon climbing out of a damp sleeping bag into boots frozen solid and a snowy blizzard. Today, John rows a raft with an OLTS group, still an instructor, though after twelve years of living out of his car and eating from tupperware, he's tired and looking ahead to change.
I put in after John and his group, but in rafts they're slow to move in the wind, and I catch up in my cruising canoe five miles downriver at Butler Wash. John asks me if I want to camp with them. I want to, yes, but in another way, no, I came out here to be alone, and he understands. Besides, their destination for the day is further downriver than I want to go. So I float on ahead and find a camp. An hour later he eddies out below my camp and we talk once more. He offers lemonade, candy bars, whatever--I know he just wants to give me something, anything at all, it's the gesture that's important, the idea of gift. We shake hands and hug again. Then, after another farewell and his promise to say hello to all back in Boulder, he points his raft into the current and pulls his oars and turns to face the wind and enters some ripples and waves, ah, little John, my heart breaks as you drift in rolling river and weave through rocks and disappear around the bend.
Friends, people that share the trail. Keep your friends forever, Ginsberg said. And in solitude, I understand this best. And say to you, my people, if I never see you again, please, just know there are moments when your face comes to me. I see you as you walk your path, as you climb your hills and plant your gardens, as you write and read your poems and stories, as you play your guitar or piano, as you kiss your lover's breast. I see you as you raise your children, as you teach your classes, as you bury your parents, as you lift in ecstacy one bright morning drowned in worldly success, as you drink too much whiskey and talk out your ass, stoned out of your brains, as you suffer disease and melancholy, moved by art and love, junkies and nuns, farmers and glassblowers and carpenters and healers-- meditating, syncopating, communicating. Now I listen to the slap and whosh of dusky river time, ridge climb brittle slope to watch sunset glow orange and fade over Navajo rim, then down again to sit in darkness, my bare feet on the shifting sand, river wall hovers in starlight shadow, the sky so clear, the wind kicks up, my candle dims, I breathe the original night, you, my friend, your heartbeat in my ear, elevated in this tender interval of ghostly hush.
May 9, Morning
Whitman had a beard. Thoreau. John Muir had a beard. Ulysses Grant and Lincoln and Lee. John Wesley Powell, Lewis and Clark, Jesus. They all had beards. Pound and Ginsberg had beards. Harry Smith had a beard. Che Guevara, Castro, Amiri Baraka, bearded. Gary Snyder. Barry Lopez. Doug Peacock. Ed Abbey. Ayatollah Khomeini. Marx, Engels, Trotsky. Beards. Freud, Dostoyevski, D.H. Lawrence, Jerry Garcia. All bearded. Attend a college or professional football game--you'll be lucky to find a single beard in the crowd. Protestants generally don't go for beards. Nor do Catholics. Insurance agents, stock brokers, bankers, real estate agents, evangelists, republicans, Hollywood celebrities and newscasters, for the most part, almost all clean shaven. Charles Manson wore a beard. The outlaw element, the godless and god-intoxicated, the fornicators, the polygamists, misfits, judges and scholars wear beards. And geologists. It can't be helped. With a passion for rocks, so sprouts and is left to stand facial hair.
Howie and Amy's wedding at Shoshone Point on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, and nearly all the men wore beards. Yes, geologists, archeologists, environmental scientists, potters and school teachers and ridge walkers who seek lightning and moon. I mingled happily through the crowd of bearded ones, carrying a bucket of Bass Ale, nothing held back here, we danced to fiddle in the dust and pine needles rejoicing as a gang of hirsutes, shaggy and mopheaded, whiskered and nappy, bushy and wooly and wispy-matted, brothers, yes, and sisters with flowing locks or head buzzed butch or feathercut, hairy-legged, most, and how sweet to loosen the tips of fingers softly against downy fur of thigh. What a wedding, this.
By dusk the dance was done and most had headed home and I met Kevin Johnson, a longtime oldtime friend, a bearded one, on the very edge of Shoshone Point, 5000 feet above the canyon floor. Howie sat with us and we toasted the canyon rim and all the temple of rock. Kevin quoted Yeats's "He Wishes for the Clothes of Heaven." We are stunned in the roll of language. Twenty five years as a river guide on the Colorado, Kevin is somewhat a legend in those circles. He's wiry and has a beak like a hawk. His eyes are small and his gaze cutting. He's my age, and in our early twenties, we fell in love with the same woman. She didn't go for either of us, which, both of us now agree, simply suggested she was a woman with sense in her head. In l982 I was on a private trip down the Colorado that Kevin was part of. He kayaked while I held tight to the tube of an eighteen foot raft my buddy Wasley rowed. That was my first white water experience and it was blissful and inspired me to learn the sacred art of river.
On that trip Kevin and I took a day hike up a side canyon, a pilgrimage of a kind, we were off to find the ancient granary where Brad's amo box was stashed. Brad, another storied and bearded boatman, died that winter in bed with his beautiful Peggy, in a trailer house, poisoned by a faulty gas heater. Tom Olsen, Brad's best friend, hauled the box up hundreds of feet of cliff to the granary some weeks earlier. For Kevin and myself, to visit Brad's amo box was to be a ceremony of closure.
The canyon wall was steep and the footing precarious. The hardest moves were at the very top near the granary where we had to cross a sheer face with small hand and footholds before stepping around a smooth corner and into the cave. Below us stirred a thousand feet of air.
There sat the amo box in dust. We crowded onto the ledge, the view opened long and awesome, the jut of craggy canyon broke over the horizon, a bend of river in sight, dark clouds, too much going on in the landscape, too much dimension to acknowledge, integrate, and receive. Maybe this little notch in the cliff is where the Anazazi stored food, maybe where they watched for enemies, maybe where they came to pray. Regardless, very spooky so high up the cliff and so close to the edge.
The amo box is exactly that, a box the army guys use to store bullets and stuff. For the boater, it's a waterproof container to keep personal gear and amulets. Like a mind, the amo box is a space where memories are stored and stories concealed. In Brad's we found a picture of he and Peggy together, a love letter from her, feathers, knives, stones, a map, a small notebook with etchings, a cigarette half-smoked. We held his things gingerly and with reverence in the palms of our hands. What exactly each amulet meant to Brad couldn't be known, but to feel as I did the weight of a heart-shaped rock found hidden at the bottom of his box is to imagine the day when my friend picked that rock from the earth, meditated upon it, gripped it, felt something special, and kept it. Of all the stones in existence, that one in particular called to Brad. I felt something extraordinary in the stone, too. Perhaps the fact that it was Brad's. Frankly, at that moment, in a small cave in a cliff high above the river floor, it needed no more magic than that. I looked carefully at every aspect of the stone, shiny and black on one side, a ribbon of quartz on the other. Oily and glistening, salty on the tongue, this stone, shaped by river. After a while I placed the rock back into the box, and soon after that we closed the lid.
When we die so many of our stories die with us. But the amulets, so much like small poems existing eternally on the edge of a breeze, remain. Brad's box, like his heart and mind at the time of his death, brimmed with Peggy, with love. I sometimes wonder if the dead need love. I'm not sure, but I know we, the living, need to give it. So we climb up a brittle canyon wall as a gesture, as a means to exhude spirit, as a way to open to possiblity, as a way to dance, as a practice. I know no way to get closer to the dead. Or, for that matter, the living. And so Kevin and I touched Brad's things and shared stories, and when two hawks crossed the sky and disappeared in the October light, we hugged and cried and gave thanks for all remaining breath.
On Shoshone Point, fifteen years later, Kevin and I talked about Brad and Peggy, the human history that burns in us against the great sweeps of geologic time. I asked of the amo box, and Kevin said he'd heard it'd been removed, but that it wouldn't be a bad idea to check on it ourselves. We were pondering the notion when Howie joined us. Howie the groom and so happy that day, a biologist, a high school track coach, a river rat, a canyon bum, his beard red and wild, he brought the wine. We passed the bottle, and when it got to Kevin, he drank then lifted it to the rim and he quoted Yeats:
Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
A love poem of all things that speaks of transitory nature and of moving gently against one another, a poem so much like the sky around us, the darkness it contains. I don't know that Yeats ever wore a beard. But in the shapely bliss a mile above the Colorado, I took privilege to bestow an honorary one upon him, from the school of river and rock, Mr. Yeats, now a doctor with hair.
Evening, May 9
Paddled ten miles into the wind today. It wouldn't have been so bad but that I packed the boat with the weight in the back to keep the bow higher and canoe drier. I was looking at the only real rapid on this section of the river, Eight Foot. One of the difficulties of an open canoe in whitewater is that it's nearly impossible to keep water out of the boat, and the more water you take, the heavier the boat gets and the harder it is to control. A canoe full of water also gets very tippy and is easy to flip. To flip the canoe is not necessarily a terrible thing--I've done it many, many times, and I've swam a lot of rapids. The problem is being alone when doing it, especially when the boat carries all your gear. Besides, strange things happen in even the calmest water. Space out and drift to the bank and get caught by a strainer, a submerged tree or bush through which current flows, and life gets interesting. Anyway, the way I loaded the boat worked to help keep the boat dry, but with the bow lifted, made more work to paddle into the wind.
Eight Foot turned out to have two very clear, simple lines, one to the right of the rock in the middle, one to the left. Just need to avoid a couple of holes. Follow the tongue, nothing more than that. I hit a series of waves at the bottom of the rapid and took a little water, but no big deal. Eddied out below, tipped the canoe on land, drained it. Sat on the rocks and drank sweet air.
Didn't see another person all day. For me, it's the second or third day that loneliness sets in. After the lonely phase, which passes quickly, the body, the mind gets used to solitude, begins to enjoy it. Strange. Stay out for a week or more and I find myself cozy alone. And when somebody does cross my path, am I happy? Hell no. Who do these people think they are, walking where I can see them. Hell no.
More cow energy today. At this ledge where I'm camped, there's a dead cow a hundred feet away. It's pretty old, no meat on its bones, no smell. I figure it fell off the cliff from above--there's no other way down. One horn is buried in the mud, the other I crack off by steadying myself with a foot against its head and tugging the horn with two hands. Poor dead cow, now missing a horn. I keep the horn to look at later, a treasure to evoke memory. Maybe someday I'll pass it as a gift.
The other cow was alive. But not for long. Stuck in mud to its belly, the river lapping at its mouth. As soon as I came around the bend and saw it in the eddy, I knew it was in trouble. I've dealt with mud stuck cows before. It's pretty hopeless to try to save these critters, but today I tried anyway. One of the problems was that I didn't want to get close to his horns. So I worked trying to dig the rear legs out, dropping to my knees in the river and mud and digging with my hands from around a rear buried deep. I got as far as a knee and pulled, but the leg wouldn't release from the suction. And the cow, which was exhausted--who knows how long it'd been stuck, how many times it reared and tugged and tried to stirr its haunches--just sorta looked over its shoulder, at first afraid, then not so much as perhaps it sensed I was trying to help. Still, I wasn't about to get near its head; I'm no cowboy and I don't have the skill or temperment to take the bull by its horns and ride. Anyway, I was digging around the legs and pulling and yanking, and then the cow shit, and there I was with my nose up against its ass. I hate that when a cow shits in my face. Screw it, this cow was a goner, I couldn't get it out. I straightened and gave it one last kick in the rear hoping to startle it into a frenzy, into a crazy final attempt to pull itself out. The cow did try, I'll give it that much, but it was fruitless, the cow was out of energy. And the sad thing were those cow eyes pointed at me as I paddled out of the eddy, the cow with water lapping at its mouth, what a way to die, shivering cold and starving. If I had a gun I would've shot it. I have a knife, but what would I do, try to stick its heart? What if I missed? And with such thick hide, I'd need a saw to cut its throat, a power saw at that. Really, I don't think cows are that easy to kill. Then why so many dead ones along the river? Navajos, who need these cows for meat, ought to do a little more to keep them out of dangers way, that's what I think.
Morning, May 10
Loss and Joy
Three days in the sun and my skin is cracking and I'm bloody in places. I forgot to bring lotion or bag balm. My lips are dry, my belly is burned, my nails are broken, I make love to rocks. A black bird visits camp, I feed it granola. Three days out and I'm sick of Ramen. I lost my sleeping pad to a late afternoon windstorm. The wind whipped crazy all night and I didn't sleep well on the hard rock. I don't care about sleep, anyway. I feel good, I feel great, I have a cup of coffee.
Take out, May 10
Thought I might find my sleeping pad on the river this morning, didn't happen. I sat up on knees in canoe, my back straight to the music of things, my sadhana, the sun my guru, the waves, the river is time and the ripples calm. A half mile above the take out the land is private, fenced and littered. No more dead cows, thank you.
A heron guides me to the take out. I'm convinced herons enjoy the company of humans. Once spotting you on the river, they very much like to fly ahead, then wait on the edge of a gravel bar for you to catch up, and when you do they fly ahead again only to find another spot to wait. They'll do this for mile after mile. I believe they like the game of it. I know I do. And I sing to them in the hope that we may remain on good terms.
I take out at the beach at Mexican Hat, 10 am, there's no one about. I unpack my boat and put my gear in a pile. I wash the canoe of sand, admire the beauty of the boat's design. I take off my clothes and stretch. Birds whistle from the tamarisk, river carries mud and silt, the sun passes. I look down at myself, my feet, my hands, my prick, my belly, my chest, and think, you, my friend, are naked.