May 31, 2010

Flashbacks In The Painted Desert

Recently I made a driving trip from Fresno, California to Colorado Springs, Colorado, and back. The trip was planned as a big loop, taking me out through the deserts of southern California and eastward through the southwest via the historic Route 66 across Arizona and new Mexico, and then north up from Santa Fe, New Mexico into Colorado Springs. The trip back took me further north from Colorado Springs to Denver, then westward on I-70 to Grand Junction, and then criss-crossing the Colorado River through eastern Colorado, through the beautiful and compact Glenwood Canyon, across Utah and Nevada, into that den of hedonism called Las Vegas (I call it Lost Wages), and back home to Fresno via Barstow and Bakersfield.

The whole of the trip consisted of many interesting landscapes of a grand nature, each worthy of it's own essay. Here, though, I focus on the painted desert of the southwest, and how this trip through the high desert evoked strong memories of long ago times.


East of Flagstaff, Arizona, around an outpost called Two Guns, there is a high desert. The desert out there is a gently sloping, not-quite-level land, surrounded on every horizon by red and black hills with stark ridges, and the whole landscape is punctuated with colorful buttes and mesas. Not much grows up there but some short, stunted, wind-blown grass, some knee-high sage brush, a few tumble weeds, and the shortest cacti you ever didn't see, and which, if you didn't get out of your car and take a hike away from the highway, you wouldn't see.

No trees grow up there, and none of the more famous saguaro cactus grow there either. Those saguaro cacti, native to the sonoran deserts of the southwestern United States and a familiar symbol of the deserts occupied by the likes of the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, grow further south in Arizona. The high desert east of Flagstaff is a perfect place for a large meteor to strike the earth.

The desert out there is not devoid of life, nor devoid of beauty. They don't call it the painted desert for no reason. The grasses and sage produce a landscape of muted greens, and these are offset by tans and pinks highlighted by spots of darker greens and streaks of red and brown and black, and even bleached rocks. Unusual flat formations of red rocks and gulches and washes with colorful names like Dead River and Holy Moses Wash add interest and relief to an otherwise monotonous landscape. A million steel fence posts with miles and miles and miles of barbed wire also break the vast landscape into sections, and telephone poles, each holding up two black wires, sagging from pole to pole, cut straight lines across the picture -- usually running alongside a set of railroad tracks coming to a singular point on the distant horizon. You can't cross the high desert without seeing the occasional Santa Fe freight train, chugging slowly but surely to somewhere with a big cargo of American work product.

Driving across the high desert is a good time to think. As I was crossing this red desert at mid-day in late May, I was reminded of a night crossing I'd made with Larry, a high school friend, over this same desert in mid August 33 years ago. We were on our way to another friend's wedding in Newton, Kansas. It was the blackest of nights, made all the blacker by thick wet thunder clouds. A huge thunderstorm of a kind unique to the desert was moving across the desert with us, and the darkness of the night coupled with the ominous storm was oppressive. Hard rain pelted Larry's little red Dodge Dart, and the wind pushed the light car around like a bully.

And all around us, from near to distant, jagged flashes of multi-pronged, brilliant white lightning burst from the clouds, all the way down to the rain soaked sand, giving erie brief illumination to the oppressive darkness. Peals of window-rattling thunder followed each lighting flash. It was a night and an experience to put the fear of God into anyone.

On this bright May day in 2010, rolling along in the comfort of my Silverado pickup through friendly sounding towns like Jack Rabbit and Minnetonka, the desert was seemingly benign. But when I stopped for a cup of coffee in Holbrook, home of the Holbrook Roadrunners, the wind nearly ripped my truck door off it's hinges. The desert can be an unforgiving place, and it is a hard-scrabble life for most of its occupants. This was once, and to a degree still is, the land of the Hopi, Navajo, Havasupai, Apache, and Pima Indians, as well as the now-extinct Anasazi, and, further east, the Comanche and Pueblo peoples. There are numerous other Native American tribes with lesser-known names. The desert is now punctuated with garish and ridiculous-looking gift shops masquerading as Indian trading posts, and the occasional Indian Casino -- sad tributes to these once proud Native Americans.

It isn't just the trading posts that discredit the painted desert. It is a landscape littered with mobile homes and ramshackle houses, and yards strewn with years of rusting and inoperative vehicles and junk. And the vast desert is cut-through by ribbons of black asphalt, modern tributes to the historic Route 66. But make no mistake, these are highways of commerce, full of trucks, cars and R.V.s. Those American visionaries who collectively foresaw our "manifest desitiny" in a great westward expansion, creating a nation of United States from sea to shining sea, knew that their vision was unattainable without a means of transporting people and goods across the great deserts of the southwest.

The United States is a great nation, to be sure. But let's be honest about how we got this land. We took it. We wanted it, and we took it. We took it in bits and pieces and chunks from the Native Americans who lived here for thousands of years; This was their land, though they had no real conception of ownership of the land. We took it in arm-twisted "purchases" of whole territories from Mexico following the war with Mexico, which we precipitated, and which even U.S. President, U.S. Grant, himself, described as one of the most unfair wars by a superior power against a lesser power.

These here-and-there, now-and-then thoughts transported me back, yet again, to that fateful August, 33 years ago. I'd been asked to drive the newlyweds' second car back to California, where they intended to start their married life together. When Larry and I got to Kansas, I discovered what the groom and bride had forgot to tell me; They'd sold the second car. Larry was staying in Kansas to start another term of college, and I didn't have a way back to California.

Thus began a teenage hitch-hiker's odyssey, which will be a set of stories for another time. But there was one crystalline moment of decision on that hitch-hiking journey which flashed back to me vividly. It was a sunny, Colorado early morning, and I was standing on an on-ramp to I-25 south, heading from Colorado back into the painted desert, back to California, back to my job and my own college commitment. A landscape contractor pulled over and offered me a day job, and I had a moment of decision in which I thought to take that job, and take that money, and not head home to California, but, rather, to head east on an indefinite, impromptu, impulsive quest of adventure and discovery. Go east, young man. Go against the flow of the great westward tide.

I sometimes regret that I didn't go on that adventure quest. But I didn't, and now I am where I am, and I do not regret what I am and what I have become. Oh sure, I regret some choices I've made in my life, and I regret some of my worst behavior, and I regret that I wasn't always as good or Godly or charitable as I ought to have been. Life is like that, for people and for nations. There are moments of decision where we may choose our paths and our destiny. And though our journeys are usually not without some lesser moments, we can seek to atone for those lesser moments, and we can be symbolically washed clean in the desert at the Holy Moses Wash, and we can be literally washed clean by the forgiveness of God and those from whom forgiveness is needed, and we still can choose to journey forward with integrity; And some great, adventurous destiny is within our grasp, if only we will choose it.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, what adventures! Strange how newlyweds con you into transporting things for them....