The public telephone in front of the Starlight Hotel rings and then rings again. Heat radiates from the hotels asphalt parking lot, partially obscuring turquoise doors and giving the impression of a desert mirage, the hotel threatening to disappear at any moment. The telephone continues to ring as cars stream by on the boulevard, adding exhaust and noise to the dreary scene. Around the base of the pay telephone, stubborn weeds that until now have held off the oppressive heat, grow yellow and wilt under the afternoon sun. Two more rings and the telephone is silent.
A dirty blue 67 Impala swings into the hotels driveway, crosses the parking lot and pulls into a parking space in front of the turquoise door marked with the number three. The engine turns off and the car door opens. A thin man steps from the car dressed in Levis, a white tee shirt and work boots. His uncombed brown hair is short and his graying beard has not seen a razor in a week. He opens the cars back door, reaches into the backseat and emerges with a brown paper grocery bag. Standing upright and holding the bag in one arm, he fumbles in his pants pocket, finds his room key, kicks both car doors closed, crosses to his hotel room, unlocks and opens the room door. Entering his room, he sets the groceries on an unmade bed, pulls the key from lock and closes the door on the sun-drenched day.
She hangs up the receiver on the telephone sitting on the Formica kitchen table and looks out the window at the brown grass and sagging chain link fence that outlines the boundary of her yard. A plume of dust rises down the road to the left and begins to move closer in a series of jerky stops and starts. A dog tentatively barks from beneath the front porch as the mail truck makes his way house to house along the dusty road. Standing, she opens the screen door, walks quickly across the yard to the refuge of a spreading pepper tree and leans on the fence next to her mailbox. The dog puts his head down, content to remain in the shade and let his mistress defend the property from this daily intrusion . She is dressed for the desert heat in a short loose cotton sundress and flip-flops, with her long black hair pulled up off her neck into ponytail high on the back of her head. She watches the mail trucks approach through tired green eyes, set in a sun bronzed face just beginning to show the first trace of wrinkles.
"Good afternoon," Eileen, nothing from Martin, the mail carrier says, handing her a pile of catalogs and bills.
"No luck on the telephone either," she replies, "but Ill keep trying."
"See you tomorrow," he says shifting his jeep into gear and letting out the clutch on his way to the next mailbox a quarter mile down the desert road.
Martin steps out of his room onto the low concrete porch, sits on the top step and takes a long pull from a half-empty beer. Hanging his head, he studies the pavement between his feet and tries to recreate the reason for the anger that drove him out his back door, into the Impala, onto the highway and to the Starlight Hotel. Finishing the beer, he sets the bottle down, stands and walks to the phone booth outside the hotel office. Digging in his pocket for change, Martin deposits the coins and dials a telephone number with a desert area code two hours to the east. The phone on the other end rings and then rings again. He turns his back to the telephone and with the receiver at his ear looks out at the endless parade of cars. Pick-up, Eileen, he says under his breath as the answering machine clicks on. Listening for a moment to her voice, he turns and places the receiver back in its cradle. Leaving the telephone he opens the door to the office of the Starlight Hotel, forcing the desk clerk to look up from her magazine.
"Excuse, me," he says, "I'll be leaving this afternoon."
"Youre paid up," she says, "just leave the key in the room."
"OK, thanks," Martin says, opening the office door to the ringing of the public phone.
With the mail in her hand, Eileen crosses the yard to the kitchen porch where she lays the pile in front of the door. Turning, she walks around the side of the house to a small garden plot of tomatoes, zucchini, onions, beans and jalapeño peppers. Reaching down she positions a hose at the top of the tomato furrow and twists the handle on the hose bib. Eileen watches as the water flows slowly down the furrow to a dam at the far end, where pools and begins to seep into the sandy soil. She begins to pull weeds as the phone rings. Looking over her shoulder, she quickly adjusts the position of the hose and than stands at the second ring. Running around the corner of the house, she scoops up the mail, throws open the door and reaches for the telephone. Putting the receiver to her ear, she hears the frustrating sound of the dial tone. Slamming down the phone, Eileen throws the mail on the table, crosses the kitchen to refrigerator, pulls a slip of paper from under a magnet, returns to the phone and sits down to dial the number on the paper.
Martin lets the office door fall close and sprints the short distance to the phone, which is now silent. Lifting the handset he hears the dial tone even before it reaches his ear. Martin stares for a moment at the sign for the Starlight Hotel that lays claim to reasonable rates, air conditioning and cable television, but does not mention in-room telephones. Crossing the parking lot, he props open the door to number three.
Eileen puts down the telephone and sits at the kitchen table, a warm afternoon breeze on her face she stares out of the open window across the yard and into the sand and brush of the desert. After a moment, she picks up the pile of mail and goes through it quickly, sorting out the catalogs and tossing the bills onto the kitchen counter. Choosing a catalog selling clothes made of Peruvian alpaca wool she absently leafs through the pages, questioning why she had knowingly fueled his anger and frustration. "Call Martin," she commands throwing the Peruvian catalog into the garbage can.
Martin emerges from the hotel room with his paper grocery bag, opens the door of the Impala and puts the bag on the back seat. One more trip to the room produces a duffle that goes on the seat next to the groceries. Slamming the back door, he opens the drivers door and climbs behind the steering wheel.
Eileen checks the number on the scrap of paper, picks up her telephone and once again dials the number.
The Impala backs out of the parking spot, pulls to the exit where it stops waiting for traffic to clear. Martin looks for a moment to the east and thinks about the two hour drive through the pass, across the desert basin, down the main street of his home town and finally to the little stucco house with the garden and tomatoes just days from harvest. Turning the Impala to the west he crosses the eastbound lanes and begins to shift up through the gears as the pay phone in front of the Starlight Hotel rings and then rings again.
Getting there is not the plan, I just like the feel of going home - John Hiatt
The slow rhythmic sway of the train, a message sent from the sleepers, telegraphed up through the wheels to where Hank sat in the window seat was comforting, hypnotizing. Outside the window the night slipped by, shadows of phantom trees alternating with glimpses of a sky punctuated by the occasional star shining dimly through the threatening cloud cover. Settling deeper into the leather seat, he conjured up a mental map of the trains progress. The Sacramento Valley, Sierra Nevada and Great Basin behind him: the Wasatchs, red rock country and Rockies ahead. Hank was content to let the miles pass, relentlessly moving him toward the rising sun.
California behind, Colorado ahead: movement providing solace, a respite from urgency, a pilfered day or two with no need to excuse inaction. Ties to California loosened by a shrinking family and the tedium of coastal overcrowding, not yet replaced by commitment to the poor sketch of a plan carried loosely in his unfocused mind.
Cresting the Wasatch Range, the rising sun illuminating a light snowfall as the train followed a narrow river canyon into a hardscrabble railroad and mining town. Rolling by the plain brick station, passing slowly by tired storefronts, muddy backyards and quiet dawn streets. A village trying to coax prosperity from the residue of a bypassed economy. He wondered why people stayed; a sense of place, lack of options, inertia or a complex mix.
Was it possible to feel a sense of place for movement? Could motion replace the feeling of home; wandering replace the need to be rooted? Leaving the familiarity of California inspired a sweet melancholy. A syrupy sadness, but not an overwhelming sense of loss. Family memories, both good and bad; the baseball team he grew up with; an intimate knowledge of twisting backroads; beaches where he learned to body surf; the native vegetation blooming after the occasional wet winter: a very short list of what he would miss.
As a gregarious conductor entertained the passengers, Hank turned away to watch the red-rock country of Utah unfold. Eroded by wind and water, the landscape was carved into a labyrinth of cliffs and canyons, begging to be explored; calling for him to walk without a plan, weaving randomly through the sage, following canyons that would lead him nowhere, providing beauty as his reward. Closing his eyes he could feel coolness of the deep shade beneath the cliffs and the soft sunlight and artificial warmth of a late afternoon sun striving to reach the canyon floor.Ranch roads, dirt, gravel or broken asphalt crossed the sage. In his imagination they led to weathered compounds; a small house, outbuildings and corrals. Perhaps occupied, with a battered pickup in the yard and a couple of horses or possibly abandoned, a testimony to struggle and a hard life in the pursuit of belonging to the land, to place.
Relentlessly, the train consumed miles, his destination growing closer with each turn of the steel wheels. A destination chosen for reasons he only partly understood. He could quote a list: open space; clean thin air; the smell of sage; silence; a yearning for a home and the chance to graft his life into a community, to develop a sense of place. An opportunity to replace fatigue with energy. Behind the reasons, a gnawing doubt that he was engaged in a fools errand. A fear that he would remain a permanent tourist.
Riding the California Zephyr in reverse, Hank crossed the border into Colorado, the next stop, his. Slipping an unread paperback into his backpack he wrestled with the idea of extending his ticket and continuing east with the train, sinking into the languid security of the swaying train as it chewed up endless miles. Understanding that committing to continual movement was foolish, impractical; the idea was nonetheless comforting. As the train decelerated into the station, Hank walked toward the door, waited for it to slide open and stepped onto the station platform.
A cold wind swept across the open sage plain, flowing down directly from the high country. Hank took a deep breath of the crisp air as the Zephyr accelerated out of the station leaving him alone, backpack at his feet, surrounded by silence.
Late afternoon sunlight snuck around the drapes hung over the frosted windows. The rays fell across the plank floor, landing on the jukebox in the corner. Decorated with colored glass, brightly backlit with incandescent bulbs and dating from the early 60s, it was filled with 45s of country classics and a smattering of flower-power rock and roll. The room was quiet, the bartender sitting silently at his station watching a midday gameshow with the sound off. Dust particles floated in the sun rays around a hand full of tables, adorned with Tabasco, napkins and bowls filled with peanuts. Mismatched wooden chairs were tucked haphazardly under the tables waiting expectantly for customers. Overlooking the scene were neon signs advertising Hamms, Busch and Pabst, left behind by traveling salesmen who no longer included the tired tavern on their weekly rounds.
The sound of footsteps crossing the wide rough hewn boards that made up the front porch forced the bartender off his perch as the door swung open to three young men. Lean and dressed identically in green work pants, gray uniform shirts and stacked heeled, black leather boots, they filled the room with unexpected energy. Before they had a chance to shout for the usual the tender began to draw three pints of lager. Collecting the beer with thanks and comments about the dry, hot and dusty day they settled at the table closest to the jukebox. The tallest set a handheld radio on the table and adjusted the squelch to silence, while another pumped quarters into the jukebox and selected songs.
As Marty Robbins began to sing about heartbreak and death in El Paso the three started telling stories about wildfires from their past. The first spoke about bravery in the brush of California, the second described forests in the Sierras exploding in flames, while a third spoke of close calls and near disaster. The stories were handed around the table, songs came and went on the jukebox, and the level of beer in their glasses subsided as they made plans for an evening off.
Hands went up for a second round just as the radio squawked out a code followed by a roll-call of responding stations. As their location was called, a siren screamed from the fire station located directly across from the bar on the country two lane. Chair legs scraped on the wooden floor, pockets were emptied, dollars dumped on the table and goodbyes yelled as the three sprinted out the door.
The bartender watched the door swing shut, plunging the barroom back into twilight. Looking at the half filled glass under the tap, he pushed the handle closed and took a sip as the last of the jukebox selections faded to an end.
Practitioners of transcendental meditation possess a personal mantra which repeated over and over allows the chanter to quickly reach a state of tranquility or peace. I have never had the fortitude nor the discipline to meditate, but I do have a personal mantra; leaves. Broad leaves from deciduous trees in particular.
The season is important. Early in spring, just after bud break when the new leaves are fresh, soft and a vivid green. Midsummer when the green has darkened and the surfaces have expanded to provide shade from a sun high in a pale sky. The reds, yellows and oranges of autumn. Dry leaves hanging on limbs, falling and building deep piles on the ground. I have favorites. Box elders in the river canyons of Utah, maples and birch on the coast of Maine, sycamores along dry creek beds in the coast range of California, aspens painting a Colorado slope and cottonwoods planted as windbreaks in the vineyards of central Chile. Leaves impress me.
I love trees, the bark, the trunks, the limbs and the roots. Bark, whether smooth and paper thin or thick and gnarled, protecting, peeling and cracking, shedding and stretching to accommodate growth. Trunks and limbs, the framework of the tree, the structure which pushes the tree upward toward sunlight. The roots, a solid anchor, keeping the tree firmly in its world while finding minerals and water for the tree to grow and reproduce. The entire tree is a work of art, but leaves speak to me.
Like bark, roots, limbs and the trunk; leaves must work, turning sunlight into energy, pulling carbon dioxide from the air and returning oxygen and water vapor. The function of leaves is spectacular, but it is not what sets them apart. Leaves and the play of sunlight, color and shadow animate and give life to trees. Leaves have the power to change my emotions, to alter my moods.The leaves of an aspen, birch or cottonwood shimmering in the afternoon sun as the union of light and wind create a magical performance. The contrast of a deep red maple against the dark green of a conifer forest or the vivid green of box elder and cottonwood leaves along the bright red canyon walls of slot canyons in Utah are memories not easily forgotten. Sycamore leaves in fall turning red and drying to a dusky brown as they finish the work of a long California summer are sad, but inspirational. The red, orange and yellow leaves of autumn die and drop, announcing the coming winter. Deciduous leaves provide benchmarks for our progress through the seasons. Leaves possess the ability to change and alter my perspective. Leaves breaking from buds in spring bring optimism, the bright green of new growth and shimmer of leaves in the wind bring joy, the contrast of red leaves against green evokes surprise and the tapestry of fall colors inspire awe. Falling leaves on a sunny, cold day produce sweet melancholy that is sad, but also healing.
On a crisp autumn afternoon in northern New Mexico along a road coming out of the high desert and entering the village of El Rito, leaves had an especially profound affect. A ninety degree turn on the highway brought us onto the main street where the road ran between two adobe walls with rows of cottonwoods planted behind each. Low sunlight filtered through the orange and gold leaves and cast quivering shadows on the ground. Leaves fell silently and slowly to the ground where the wind piled them against the downwind wall. Behind the adobe walls the battered village stood as a testament to the difficult realities of life in rural New Mexico, but leaves and the low, soft autumn sunlight created a scene of beauty and a sense of comfort and renewal.
Our trip to New Mexico was taken at a time of personal loss and was an attempt to find hope and heal. The rawness of my emotions combined with this timeless view of El Rito, gave me the strength to come to terms with our loss. We tried to capture the moment on film, but as with all scenes that are a combination of both emotion and landscape the results were disappointing. The pictures have been lost, but what has not been forgotten or even eroded was the impact of that healing scene. The autumn cottonwoods of El Rito also helped to solidify leaves as my personal mantra.
Stanley Crawford gave me the idea. In his essay, "A Farmers Bookshelf" he describes the books and magazines that inhabit his shelves and are important to his life as a writer, activist and farmer living in Northern New Mexico.
After finishing Mr. Crawford's essay I looked at my small oak bookcase and thought about how it has changed over the years. In the past, I had bookcases stuffed full of books, both read and unread. When the cases were full, the books found a spot on the floor, were piled on my nightstand or tucked into nooks throughout the house. Over time, the clutter and disorganization overcame my love of living among piles of books and we had a garage sale. The sale was a success, with my books bought by a used book seller trying to keep his shelves full and his register ringing.
About the same time as the rummage sale, I was given an electronic reader. With only a small bookcase and what seems like unlimited storage on my reader, the number of physical books I own grows at a slow pace. In theory, I keep books that strike a special note, justifying a physical copy to allow the leisurely turning of pages. The books on my shelves represent subjects that are important to me. As a result, a tour of my bookcase should tell me something about myself and illuminate topics that have captured my imagination over the years.
In the upper left hand corner of my bookcase are old books, some coming to me from family and some that I found in used book stores. The vintage, but torn, copy of Treasure Island and The Short Stories of Jack London from my dad. The silly stories of H. Allen Smith and the beautiful Waterless Mountain about the Navajo from my mother. In this section there are also books handed down from my grandparents. Books about copper mining, carpentry and one unique book, "We Pointed Them North" about cattle drives in the old west. This tattered book contains a handwritten note by my great-grandfather W.R. McGinnis, a true cowboy who drove cattle north from Texas, before settling in Montana. Classic novels, agricultural books, and wood-lore complete the old book section. I keep these books out of sentimentality and occasionally leaf through or read sections for the nostalgia secure within their pages.
Next to the old book section is the area occupied by Mr. Crawford. His books "Mayordomo," "The Garlic Testament" and "The River in Winter" tell about living close to the land and explore the limits of our resources. Wendell Berry's books also live in this section as do those by Charles Fergus. These authors are old friends that ask questions about land and community. Simple questions with complex answers. Close cousins to Crawford and Berry, on the bookshelf and in attitude are the naturalists, conservationists and environmentalists. Craig Childs, Mary Austin, Edward Abbey, John Wesley Powell and Aldo Leopold. Writers who have helped shape my thinking about the natural world and the ripple effect of our actions. John Muir should be present, but I lent his books out years ago hoping to spread his love of the untamed.
Near the bottom of my bookcase, you can find the books that deal with politics, history and world leaders. Discussions about financial crises, explanations of wars and dissections of politics inhabit this area. Tibet, Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa, the mid-east, immigration and the crash of 2008, make the list as do biographies of Nelson Mandela, Georgia OKeffe, Andrew Wyeth and John Wooden. Books that I turned to searching for knowledge of a complicated world. It remains an open question whether an understanding of events and those who shaped them has helped me chart a coherent course in life or if my time would have been better spent enjoying a good novel.
Speaking of novels, sprinkled throughout the bookcase are stories and adventures that were too good to be given away. The list includes classics by Hemingway and Steinbeck, but you will also find Larry Watson, Jim Harrison, Norman Maclean, Victor Villasenor, John Nichols and Tom McGuane. Writers who have kept me company through many a long evening or Sunday afternoon and continue to fuel my love of the American west.
One other type of book can be found in my bookcase. This group deals with faith or the lack of it. The basic tenets of Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam occupy this section, as do the journeys of individuals searching to come to terms with their own faith. Multiple tomes explaining or debunking religion are also tucked into this most disorganized area of my bookcase. Searching for clarity in books about spirituality has led to contradictions and ultimately to confusion about a journey I believe is best traveled alone.
At the beginning of this essay, I suggested that a tour of my bookcase would provide personal insight as I enter my seventh decade. Unfortunately, as I complete the catalog its clear that any revelations are buried deep within the clutter of both my bookcase and my mind. Additional concentration and meditation is definitely needed if I am to arrive at any expanded insight. Understanding that I am falling short of Mr. Crawfords example, but not being particularly good at self reflection, I think I'll grab a book, call in the dogs, open a window and spend the afternoon reading.
And the hills turn brown in the summertime - Kate Wolf
I live on the edge of town, with my back to my neighbors and my face to the Badlands. Behind me are views of spires, trees, lawns and lights. In front are thousands of acres of open and harsh land. A land of poor soil, severely eroded arroyos and abandoned dreams. When I was younger I ran through the badlands, but today I walk.
In the depth of summer when the badlands are baked by a triple digit sun, the walks are best in the morning or evening. The dried brown grass and hard baked ground reveal the foundations and trash from forgotten homesteads and ranches. In the canyons, where the air is still and silent, weathered concrete, eroded earthen dams, broken glass and rusted metal speak of hard work and eventual defeat. Testaments to people who believed that the badlands were their future and fought to pull an elusive dream from little soil and less water.
Summer walks also provide surprises. A cool breeze on a ridge top. Hawks riding thermals in the evening light as they search for a careless squirrel or mouse. Deer beginning to stir from their day beds in the shade of a dense sugar-bush in deep ravines. Summer walks are bittersweet, filled with the expectation of cooler days to come.
My walks during autumn cover the same ground as those of summer. The earth is just as hard and the grass is drier, but the feeling I bring back from these walks is one of hope. Breezes are easier to find and in the morning the canyon air has a briskness that promises to end to the blistering heat of July, August and September. Also arriving with cooler weather is a nervous anticipation of rain. Each autumn I wait for rain and let myself believe that this will be the year when the rains will start early, arrive regularly and stay late. I watch the clear blues sky with faith and hope. Winter rain in arid lands is not assured and as I grow older, every rain storm is appreciated as a gift. When rain arrives, whether it is a soaking mist, a downpour or a light shower, the scent of wet, dry grass causes me to celebrate.
The rains bring winter and the badlands experience a metamorphosis. The earth accepts the water, seeds swell, roots gather moisture and green shoots and sprouts emerge. The cold of December and January delays growth until late February or early March when the badlands produce, on backdrop of emerald green grass, a kaleidoscope of blue ceanothus blossoms, yellow fiddle-neck flowers and the white blooms of sugarbush, all accented by the yellow of mustard and a multitude of purple, red and blue flowers I cannot name.
Spring in the badlands is a time for walking through knee high grass with flowers and breezes for company. The growth of plants in spring also covers up the detritus of human failure and allows me to forget about the dreams that have ended in the ragged valleys. Walking through the green of spring, it is easy to forget that you are in the badlands and in a month the softness of spring will be gone. As summer arrives the grasses will mature and release foxtails, filling boots and socks with hundreds of spikes to be individually pulled after each walk. The foxtails will be followed by heat, drying out the grasses, ushering in the realities of another, long, dry and hot summer.
I walk in the badlands for both body and soul. The long walks up and down the ridges, over faint game trails keep me in shape and bring me home tired and sore. The badlands also serve as a salve for my spirit. My walks have seen me through losses and difficult times. The simple act of walking over these eroded hills has allowed me to come to terms with difficult choices, accepting what I cannot change and understanding what I can. The cool breezes and hawks allow me to return home more tranquil than when I walked out the door.
I live at the edge of town, my back to my neighbors and my face to the badlands. I admit that I do not read the local paper, know the name of our mayor nor can I address the latest civic controversy. I do however, know where game trails begin and end, am able to discuss the coyotes howling at night, describe a circling hawk and live the changing seasons. I will continue to walk out my door, cross the road and take long walks along the ridges and into the arroyos of the badlands.
When I was young I dreamt of open roads. Long stretches weaving through mountains and crossing plateaus and deserts. Two lanes negotiated in an old truck, alone or with a friend and a dog in the cab. Beautiful sunrises and sunsets, rest stops under majestic shade trees and cool evenings around a campfire. Good music on the tape player with interludes in roadside diners, food heavy with grease and flavor. California, Oregon, Utah all across the American west, visiting small towns, meeting new people, all with the goal to keep moving.
Today I dream of trails. Winding paths taking me into canyons, along streams and up onto ridges where the views reach for miles. Long hikes with a light pack, comfortable boots and friends for conversation. Nights spent out in the open watching the stars or in tents listening to rain. Crisp morning air, cool breezes on hot summer afternoons, sunrises and sunsets. Above timberline in the Sierra, out on the slick-rock and in the canyons of the Escalante or among Aspens in the Rockies. The sound of flowing streams and the impossible cold of high mountain lakes. One step at a time, the only goal to keep moving.
I'm unsure about my dreams in the future. They may contain roads and trails. They may not. I am certain that they will contain sunrises, sunsets, a friend for conversation and a wish to keep moving.
Throughout the arid west, abandoned buildings sit along desert two lane roads. Derelict, slowly weathering they appear to be disappearing back into the soil. Gas stations with pumps looted for artifacts, cafes with off-kilter bar stools behind empty door frames, homesteads with broken windows and motels advertising never to be occupied rooms. Deteriorating buildings representing someones hopes and dreams. Broken dreams that burned brightly before burning out or ventures that were ill-fated from the start, never gaining traction, failing at conception.
On desert drives I have speculated on the history behind these long abandoned buildings. In some cases, the reasons are clear. Businesses built around a railroad spur that no longer carries trains, a town catering to mines where it is no longer profitable to dig, a farm in a barren plain where water has been diverted to a thirsty city or a cafe built at the junction of highways made redundant by an interstate.
The reason behind other ruins are a mystery and spark my imagination to consider the motivations of the individuals who conceived and built the homes and businesses. The cafe built in the middle of the sage, a motel at an inhospitable destination or a farm house sitting in a sandy desert, all defy explanation. Were the owners looking for solitude at all costs, ignoring both economic and natural realities? Did hard times and a poor situation force them to take unjustified risks and follow a dream destined to fail? Those who can answer these questions are gone leaving only the skeletons of their dreams behind.
Stop and explore those buildings that are not boarded up and you will find a surprising amount and variety of relics. Curtains, dishes and old bottles are common, but it is not unusual to find furniture or tools. Evidence that people left quickly and completely. When the mine closed, the trains stopped running or the bank account was drained the occupants packed a bag, closed the door and disappeared leaving one world behind as they traveled toward another.
The large currents that shaped the history of the West are captured in books to be studied and discussed. We know why and where groups of people settled and we understand why they moved on when economics or weather changed. Left unexplained are those homes, farms, cafes, hotels and gas stations hanging to the roadside where life was and remains hard. The stories of those individuals who made the decision and took the leap of faith to venture out to live on the margins, continue to fascinate. Were they searching for solitude, striving to live in a stark and beautiful landscape or were they merely confused and misled, seeing opportunity where none existed?
Regardless of the reason for their existence, I will continue to pull over to the side of desert roads and explore derelict buildings, exercising my imagination, fascinated by the people who laid foundations, built walls and shingled roofs in pursuit of a difficult dream, veiled in an uncertain future.
I recently picked up a compilation of essays entitled "Dirt, A love Story" in the discount bin of my favorite bookstore. A topic of great interest and greater importance, often overlooked and always taken for granted. After reading the first three essays, I realized that I had strong feelings about dirt or more accurately, I care deeply about soil. To paraphrase an old agricultural adage, Dirt is what gets under your fingernails, soil grows crops. Putting the book down, I decided to record my own thoughts about soil without the benefit of the essayist's insight. Only after having my say, would I finish reading the book.
Granitic, clay, loam, loess, sand, silt, the list of names describing soil is long, extensive and to my mind, colorful. Some names are descriptive, but most have achieved their ability to describe only by personal interaction with soil they represent. To know what clay is you must walk across a sticky stretch of ground after a drenching rain, feeling your feet grow heavy as clay builds up on your boots. To understand loess it is necessary to travel through a vertical sided arroyo and study the multi-colored layers laid down by wind and exposed by rushing water. To appreciate loam, you must dig down with your hands feeling its richness or better yet hold it to your nose, smelling the fertility.
It is tempting to rely on science to describe soil. Parent material, particle size, percentage of organic matter or method of deposit are all valid and well understood ways to classify soil. The benefit of these classifications are that they are universal, well understood by farmers, engineers and others who work with soil. Despite understanding these definitions and acknowledging their importance, I see soil emotionally, asking myself about the natural and human forces behind its formation and destruction, listening to the hidden stories that soil can tell.
Years ago in the midst of one of Californias periodic droughts, I wrote about a spattering of rain hitting a dry dusty vacant lot in an industrial area. Large infrequent drops from tentative clouds, raising dust as they hit the neglected and abused soil. A sad soil, its condition brought about by compaction from tractors used to disc weeds and its future reduced to supporting the foundation of concrete tilt-up warehouses. A soil, robbed of its ability to support life, devalued by our relentless drive toward production, efficiency and economies of scale.
Contrast this degraded soil with a deep rich ground, loose with organic matter and filled with nutrients. A soil that you can dig your hand into several inches deep. Formed as wind or water ran out of energy and dropped sediment to form flat loess plains or alluvial fans. A strong soil able to support plants that in turn allow animals to thrive. The plants leaving their roots, leaves and stems to enrich the soil. Animals contributing to the fertile mix as they live, die and decay. Rain and sun serving as catalysts, driving the cycle upon which life depends.
Soil can be beautiful. Deep red soils in the south of France that for centuries have been processed into the dyes that color the plaster of medieval towns. Sand dunes formed into graceful curves accented by the warm glow of the setting sun. Designs created as silt is deposited along waterways, to be sculptured into intricate patterns by the ebb and flow of seasonal floods. The lack of soil can also create beauty. In the red rock country of southern Utah, it is the lack of soil combined with the power of wind and water have created beautiful stone sculptures and slick rock plateaus, rippled by the brush of erosion.
Harsh, arid landscapes also demonstrate the life giving power of soil. Hidden in the rocks of Escalante or the arid expanses of the Mojave are pockets of soil trapped in ravines or rock outcroppings that collect water allowing life to spring from patches of sandy soil. Plants cling to these mini-oasis putting their roots down, before finding bedrock and spreading outward in a continual search for hidden moisture, bringing life and color to desolate landscapes.
The soils that bring me the greatest joy are those supporting thriving orchards. Existing in a symbiotic relationship, the soil contributes to the health of the tree, while decaying leaves add to organic matter and relentless root growth loosens and aerates the soil. The net impact is a stronger soil and healthier trees. Underlying this mutually beneficial relationship is the commitment of growers who clear land, plant trees and take on the responsibility to nourish both the trees and the soil. An economic and a philosophic commitment, requiring focus and persistence over decades.
On the other side of the soil equation, I am saddened when I see soil unnecessarily abused. A hillside cleared of brush and grass, laid bare to the rain and wind. Poorly constructed roads, feeding water into gullies, growing into arroyos that channel topsoil into creeks, rivers, lakes and finally the ocean. Silt clogging stream beds, filling lakes and overwhelming fragile estuaries. I bristle when I see poorly conceived construction projects or earthwork undertaken, because there is an available, but unused backhoe or dozer. An afternoon spent on heavy equipment resulting in damage to soil, damage that may require a lifetime to repair.
Our relationship with soil is complex, extremely important and many times terribly misunderstood. We appreciate the beauty and food that soil provides us, but avoid thinking or caring about the consequences of its mistreatment. We continue down this path of benign neglect despite ample lessons from the past and present. Our own dustbowl in the thirties and the catastrophic loss of soil currently occurring in China are striking examples, but our individual actions bring about incremental losses that contribute to the degradation of the soil reservoir. Decisions we make on our own parcels of land, large or small, that can either harm or protect soil.
Having clarified my feelings about soil, I am ready to read the remaining essays in "Dirt". I am looking forward to the authors insights and perspectives, hopeful that they share my soil-based joys and concerns. I will scratch my head as I read, trying to understand why a book on such an important topic was exiled to the discount bin.
Photographers are both blessed and cursed with the habit of seeing. The man or woman driving down a mountain road with one hand on the wheel, looking back over their shoulder at a subtle ray of light flowing down through the trees is likely a photographer. The person who can tell you what changes have transpired to a scene that was visited years before possesses the habit of seeing. The tree that has been cut down or perhaps a tree that has grown enough to change the view will be noticed by the person who spends their time looking for a worthy photograph. If you need to know from which point on the compass the sun is rising, ask a photographer. Interested in the quality and depth of light, again ask a photographer.
The habit of seeing is a blessing to photographer. It helps to sort through the mundane and the exceptional, or more accurately, allows a photo to be taken when the mundane for a brief moment becomes the exceptional. The blessing of seeing is essential for a photographer and keeps them returning to same scene over and over. These pilgrimages may be as simple as returning to observe the late afternoon sun, when the morning sun was from the wrong angle. It also may be as quixotic as waiting for an old building to decay to the point that it tells a story of the harsh passage of time. Photography in its strict adherence to the reality in front of the lens requires the photographer to constantly practice the habit of seeing.
The habit of seeing can also be a curse. Finding a scene with poor light, making the effort to return at a better time only to find that it remains an uninspired photo can be disappointing. Stumbling upon a picture at the wrong time, knowing you wont be able to return can be frustrating. The curse associated with the habit of seeing is that photographers are not only aware of day to day changes, but also of slower changes that cannot be reversed. The old home that has been torn down, weeds in a field where crops are no longer grown, the slow reduction in the number of boats in a small towns fishing fleet or the absence of the old couple that took the same route on their morning walk for years. Photographers have a heightened sense of changes in their world, some for the better, but some that are sad, disturbing or hard to fathom.
The habit of seeing is a blessing and a curse. It brings rewards, but can also trigger sadness. Above all, the habit of seeing is a gift, a gift worth cultivating.
The world changes. It is foolish to think that it doesnt. So today, after many years, when I went to the website; praythenews.org and found it inactive, I shouldnt have been surprised. Despite my long absence from the site, I felt a strong sense of loss. The website was founded in 2001 by Carmelite nuns in Indianapolis. A reclusive order faced with an aging population they hoped to open up to the outside world and attract those with a calling to their way of life. The website delivered thoughtful and compassionate commentary about news from around the world.
I frequently visited praythenews.org in the early 2000's to better come to terms with the chaos engulfing the world. I took comfort from the sister's viewpoints. Whether I agreed or disagreed, their writings were well reasoned and above all contained a measure of grace missing in conventional commentaries. There was also solace in the knowledge that they were lifting their viewpoints up in prayer daily.
Somewhere along the way, for reasons I cannot articulate, I stopped visiting the Carmelite sisters. Today, with venom floating on the airwaves and longing for a measured view of events, I clicked on praythenews.org only to find it closed. The website told me that the order had deactivated the site and moved away from Indianapolis. Further research revealed that the sisters, reduced in number to only nine and with an average age of over 70, had sold their monastery and now shared a compound with an order of the Sisters of Saint Francis.
Praythenews.org is gone, but the sisters internet farewell assured me that they would continue to pray the news on a daily basis. With compassion in short supply, I hope they are able to keep their word.
Driving north from the Snake River through western Idaho, we followed a two-lane road that took us through grain country. It was late summer and the harvest was almost complete. The scenery consisted of rolling acres of freshly cut golden grain stems, the grain itself transported to silos and mills. In the middle of the fields, on top of small ridges stood farm houses, surrounded by trees, flanked by barns and served by one lane gravel roads snaking across the terrain. Above the scene was a clear blue sky, punctuated by clouds that sped from west to east toward a collision with the Bitterroot Mountains.
I saw the scene as a beautiful pastoral, filled with light and the order that a well run farm brings to a landscape. The combines and tractors pulled up in front of barns suggested the end of long growing season and the beginning of preparation for the upcoming year. Despite the warm August day, I felt the arrival of autumn and progression of the seasons. A mellowness came over me as a vague desire to be part of this life gnawed at my emotions.
Expressing these thoughts to Lindsey brought a lesson in perspective. Where I found beauty in the scene, she saw drudgery. I saw poetic symmetry in rows of stalks marching up gentle hills, she imagined hard work, heat and dust. Lindsey pictured a life of isolation in the solitary farm homes. I imagined independence and cooperation between distant neighbors. My view of a simple life on these farms, for her was a prison sentence, a life without opportunity.
We talked about our different perceptions and kept driving. Within an hour, the grain began to be interspersed with patches of conifers that steadily grew to become an unbroken forest, punctuated with streams and ponds. The mood changed as we absorbed the scenery and our conversation moved onto other topics, but I filed away a new understanding of my wife, myself and the subtleties of perspective.
Juan's Tia stood across the courtyard with a quizzical look on her face as her nephew ushered three strange men through the courtyard door. Single and in her seventies, she had spent her entire life in her fathers home. Shaking each of the strangers hands, two from Chile and one a gringo, she graciously answered questions. No, she wasnt sure how many generations had lived in the house, but her father had told her that it was old when he was a boy. Yes, the wood beams and plaster were original, but the tile in the courtyard had been patched and replaced. Yes, she would be happy to give a quick tour.
A classic Mexican courtyard home, the house presents a windowless plaster facade to the street. Entry is through a small door in one side of a larger double wooden carriage door. The courtyard is surrounded by disconnected rooms, access from one to the next is under a covered porch. Bedrooms, a modern bathroom, an ancient kitchen and a living area all facing the tile courtyard where an elderly avocado tree grows providing shade and nourishment.
Before automobiles, the house served as a way-station for traders traveling up from the Tierra Caliente to Guadalajara. Tia's grandfather provided lodging and cared for traveller's horses in the back garden. Tia had one more room to show her guests. A showroom filled with new caskets, some on display, some stacked vertically in reserve. Tia serves as the town's funeral director, providing caskets, crucifixes and flowers for her friends and neighbors.
Juan and the strangers say their goodbyes, step into their truck and resume their own journey, following the route of those early traders on the road north to Guadalajara. Blessed by a glimpse into a world not their own.