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I hiked recently on a strange November day – where the sun and warmth made silly the layers of clothes I’d brought to keep warm. And on a snack break, sitting on a rock amidst a breadth of identical pines, I noticed a moth skim by. And then, in a patch of sun in the grass, a small beetle moving sluggishly through an obstacle course of criss-crossed vegetation. And as I stooped to examine his progress, I started to wonder about him. This, a November day… one of his last, perhaps? I’m no expert on insects, but I know that for the most part, these exothermic little critters don’t survive the first real cold of winter. Something about the body freezing and the irreversible rupture of cell walls and all. There are exceptions, of course, some of the butterflies (Mourning Cloaks come to mind) actually survive freezing temperatures and emerge in the spring … and maybe some moths too, but in the case of my little beetle friend, prolonged freezing temperatures are a death knell. And this is Montana. But on this November day, a beetle out on a walkabout.

And as it sometimes happens, I began to wonder. What is that like? Imagine going to sleep every time you get cold. The slowing of everything to a crawl, until you can’t move, you barely breath, your heart barely beats. Perhaps even the stop of everything, but then the reawakening on a warm day like this day. A reprieve. And imagine knowing that death comes in this way… the slowing to a stop, the wondering if this time would be the last. The wondering if this sleep will be the final sleep. Wondering if the cold would stay and you would go. It seems so poignant and sad. But I suppose, in a way, it is true for all of us. Death comes, there’s no denying that. And we are left wondering when.

But it’s dangerous to dwell on thoughts of death. Shaky ground. Unsettling. Instead I turned to wondering what he was doing on this day. No point in eating, I suppose, and hardly a need. Hoping to mate? A final coupling before the cold. It seemed unlikely, too. In the end, it seemed like my little insect friend was simply wandering around in the sunlight while he could. Gripping the ground one last time, tasting the air with antennae flicking.

And finally I was sated on insect ponderings, and moved along. There was a trail to walk, after all, and a creek nearby with the promise of trout. And air to breath, and sun warm on me. Life to taste.

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Current

As i stood in the river yesterday, casting a line in the futile hope of catching a fish, it occurred to me that I was standing in “the current.” The water purled around my legs, the current tugging at me. And at the same time, I was fully absorbed in the practice of trying to catch a fish, absorbed by the dappled sunlight sparkling off the river, absorbed in the sensation and scent of what I was doing and where I was standing. Free from thought and concern, I was also “present” in the sense of being free from thought and consequence. And in being present, I was absorbed in the present. Is it a coincidence that current means present as well as moving water? Perhaps not.

It takes some time for the traces and stink of civilization to fade, and with it the frenetic feel and busyness of a productive life. There is no productivity here, at least in a traditional sense. Unless breathing is considered productive. Unless studying the shapes and shadows of saguaro and ocotillo is worth something. Unless sampling endless beauty and soft desert sunsets can be considered a vocation, or learning the nuanced intricacies of sparrow chip and cactus wren whirrings.

By the second day in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, I can feel it slipping away. Gone is the need to schedule my time, or to have a watch, for that matter. Slowly the scent of a flat-screen TV, of piped in heat and water, of a carpet is supplanted by the rain-scent of creosote, the dry must of sand, and the powder-blue whiff of an endless desert sky. Glancing at my truck, I can almost see the shadow of the city spilling out of the back and diffusing in the dry breeze. Gone is the moisture ofVermont; gone is the rusting salt of the winter roads. The desert seeps in.

I am no longer a teacher at a private boarding school inVermont. Those responsibilities fall away, too. I am back to being a student, and there is much to learn from the desert. Lessons in solitude, lessons in stillness, lessons in possibility abound. And lessons to be learned, too, from the bounce of the rock wren that lingers near my tailgate, or the manic wailings of the coyotes, or the way that the ravens dance and play in the wind, barrel-rolling just for the pleasure in it. One could spend a lifetime studying these things, and still have much to learn. For now I am content in this.

The cacophony of shapes and textures here is amazing. Escarpments of bare rock rising like battered battleships overhead, the snake-like profile of ocotillos against the fading light of day, the hiss of wind through the spines of saguaro and organ pipe, the way that the chortle of a raven or the questioning calls of flicker and Gila woodpecker can be swallowed, absolutely, by the stillness of the landscape.

Alamo Canyon. Four “primitive” campsites tucked at the end of a dusty, rocky track. Eight dollars buys you admission to the show, paid at the visitor’s center to a volunteer that seems happy to see you, and excited to tell you about the places in the park you can go that aren’t listed as trails on the map. Grassy Canyon.AjoPeak. Perhaps it is because I am different from most of the usual clientele. Organ Pipe in January seems to be a destination for retirees seeking a warm place to park their RVs and trailers, hoping to catch all of the ranger talks at the main campground. Good people. Students, too. And it occurs to me that if I am lingering somewhere surrounded by those that have retired from their busyness and business, then maybe I am doing something right with my life. Who wouldn’t want to lead the life of one retired. Perhaps I am a student of avoiding work, too.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is not a place that you stop on your way to somewhere else… unless you are headed toMexico. The border stands mute only miles to the south, and the roads are trafficked by green-striped Border Patrol trucks driven by professionals in dark sunglasses. Checkpoints abound, with serious, uniformed employees who ask questions and wait for you to stumble. “Did you, perhaps, pick up a hitchhiker by accident?” one of them asks me. But mostly they wave me through. Vermont plates, a weathered old Toyota stacked full of my worldly possessions … hiking boots with a  stink to them, layers of bedding, packaged dinners, a soccer ball. This place is out of the way. You end up here by trying to end up here.

This monument is a place I’ve always wanted to visit. It is a true and empty desert, but actually quite alive. Don’t tell anyone. There are two short seasons of rain each year in the Sonoran desert, and this abundance of moisture lends itself to abundant and varied life. Lots of birds, lots of flowers (at the right time), lots of mammals, and always the lizards. Were one to sit still for a little while, say on a tailgate in a primitive camp site, you would be visited by antelope squirrels and canyon towhees and cactus wrens and ravens and side-blotched lizards. Gila woodpeckers, gilded flickers, and curve-billed thrashers would perch on nearby cacti. After sunset, the gentle chirring of crickets would ease you to sleep while a distant great-horned owl issued its hollow call. A screech owl might move through in silence. With luck, you might catch a glimpse of a kangaroo rat. But don’t tell anyone. Follow Edward Abbey’s advice and only tell of the dangers of rattlesnakes, of sunburn and dehydration, of scorpions and kissing bugs. When they ask what is out there, simply reply “nothing.” And it is true in a way, a beautiful, empty nothingness.

But each morning, as I climb out of my bed in the back of the truck, I find myself spreading my arms to the world around me and celebrating the fact that I am alive and surrounded by beauty. I find myself grinning at random moments, astounded by my luck at being here to see all of this, at the gift of being alive and healthy. I find myself talking to the critters as if they are friends, to the cacti, even. Even the rocks sometimes. Thanking them frequently.

And all of the time, this body of mine is breathing it in, eating it, reforming it into living cells. The scratches crisscrossing my shins are healing with bits of the desert. My hair and fingernails are growing from the desert. As the traces ofVermontand a third-floor apartment leave me, as the stink of it all seeps out of my clothes and possessions to be replaced by something cleaner, I am slowly becoming a part of this place. With every breath and sip of water, my body builds with the essence of this place.

As the blush of sunset paints the western sky and silhouettes hundreds of cactus sentinels, I can feel it happening. The slow recovery. The coming back into being. The pulse of my body tuning. And in the morning, when I crawl out of bed in the half-light, ready to greet the sun and thank it for another day, I will spread my arms in amazement at being alive to see another day.

West

from history.com

Today I crossed the Mississippi River at St. Louis in a crowd of traffic. Between the dirty sides of tractor trailers and over the troubled stares of the daily commuters rose a giant arch. St. Louis. The gateway to the West. What a place this must have been once, with the steam ships plying the waters of the big muddy and crowds of people arriving daily with obtuse dreams of a verdant west waiting for them. The bustle of industry and optimism. The last stop for supplies and information. Now reduced to a serpent’s twist of highways looping around and over each other, each choked with the carapaces of us… the motorists. Smoke spewing out of tailpipes, tension in the air.

But that arch reminds us that this is the place where the west opens up before us. As it did once and still does. I’ve been in this same place several times. If you’re coming from the northeast, you pass through St. Louis on your way west, no matter your final destination. As I did 16 years ago as a young man going west for the first time. Then, I didn’t see a historical locus of this repeated journey, but rather as a fascinating sculpture visible from the highway. But what I lacked in appreciation I made up for in anticipation and excitement. I was away from home, really away from home, and headed into the unknown. It was exhilarating and terrifying. I remember filling the gas tank every time it drooped below half full.

Now I don’t even have a gas gauge that works, and the excitement and terror is gone. This is familiar ground, this heading into the unknown. I have become comfortable in not knowing, while confident that whatever will come will come and things will work out just fine. And most of the journey that brought me to this confidence started on a June day in 1995, driving by that arch in St. Louis for the first time.

Early this morning in Cleveland, I looked across several lines of traffic just in time to see a feathered body, brown and white, get bounced high into the air. A red-tailed hawk had made a fatal misjudgement at the approach of a high-fronted garbage truck. The body flailed and spun high into the air, and didn’t even touch the pavement before the hood of another car bounced it up again. As the bird touched pavement the first of many tires crushed it down. And it disappeared. Forever.

It was shocking and fast and violent and heartbreaking. A beautiful beating heart snuffed out so quickly and without notice. I had noticed other hawks dead along the highway in Ohio… I suppose the winter brings an influx of first-year birds south and they have to deal with cars and roads for the first time. Maybe they even get outcompeted for the spaces away from the roads. They learn quickly or they die. But it made me pay attention for the day to the carnage of the highway. The blood stains and crumpled bodies pushed to the shoulder and rotting. Deer. Porcupines. Coyotes. Raccoons. Hawks. Owls. Dead among the discarded beer cans and shopping bags and coffee cups. Edward Abbey famously defended his (alleged) habit of flinging beer cans out the truck window by saying that it wasn’t the beer cans along the highways that are ugly, but rather that the highway itself is ugly. Maybe he was right.

 

 

Leaving Vermont

My name is Daniel Harrington. I’m 38 years old, and I just left a steady job, my family and friends, health insurance, and many belongings in order to pack up an old Toyota truck and drive West. Again. It is a recurring theme in my life, this migration. It first happened in 1995, when I had just graduated from college with a biology degree and narrowly escaped unemployment by being offered a job out west. In southern Utah, working with Mexican spotted owls.

And now I find myself looking at my own footprints, watching the lingering ghost of myself driving ahead of me. I drive west again, to work with spotted owls again.

This morning a 22 year-old Toyota pickup with 232K of experience carried me rattling over the dirt and potholes of Route 121. Headed west, out of Vermont, into New York and beyond.

Vermont is a conundrum. According to the experts, the Green Mountains once soared like the Himalayas, or maybe just the Rockies. But they were big, and sharp, and high. That was thousands of years ago, and now the rounded, worn ridges  we see are the eroded remains of those giants. So you would think, while wandering around Vermont, that one would get the sense of the land being old. And that might be true of the hills, but not of the landscape.

Those hills are old, but the trees cloaking them are young and naive. A little over a hundred years ago, Vermont was a hilly land of sheep pastures and stone walls, with only a few trees left for shade or aesthetics. So the forested landscape of Vermont is one that is young, wounded, and recovering. When Europeans first arrived in Vermont, they were greeted by giant pines. White pines over 200 feet tall that looked to them like perfect masts for sailing ships. And so they cut them down. And then they tried to farm, tried to raise sheep until better lands elsewhere pulled the people away and the trees started sprouting again.

This is what I was thinking about, this time, as I left Vermont driving west. I  couldn’t help but look through the skeleton fingers of the winter deciduous trees reaching up, but falling short, as around them the solid pines outgrew them. You see them all around, once you start looking… white pines clearing the canopy and getting taller again. Those pines, those someday giants, patiently reaching up through those young, naive trees, the orphans of an older forest.

I didn’t know it then, but that was what amazed me when I reached the carved canyons of Utah 16 years ago. The presence of that landscape, an ancient presence. Even the twisted junipers and fields of sage.

By the time that we reacquainted ourselves with our vehicle and our gear, and set out once more for the famous salt flats, I must admit that I was ready to be underwhelmed. Maybe it was just being tired. Our tour had been interesting, for sure, but a lot of driving for only a few real “sights.” There was grumbling among the passengers, and already talk of getting some of our money back for all of the trouble and the lack of sightseeing.

Around lunch time we made it to the first real tourist stop… a restaurant made of salt, replete with a gift store, carved salt figurines, and a roof that looked likely to collapse at any minute. But out front was a collection of many flags ripping in the wind, and they were quite pretty against the white and the blue.

And in truth, the place was starting to get pretty. We drove through a salt-gathering operation where trucks, light machinery, and people were gathering the salt into piles to be picked up and carted away, and the triangular shapes of them were strange and symmetric in an increasingly strange landscape. And we were starting to see our first large expanses of water, too.

But it was probably an hour or so later that the Salar de Uyuni began to show itself as the most incredible sight I was to see inBolivia.

It was explained to me by a tour guide at Lake Titicaca that the salt flats at Uyuni are the leftover remnants of a sea that was trapped inland by the rising mountains of the Andesand evaporated. A similar story to the Great Salt Lake in Utah. But in the case of Bolivia, Lake Titicacais on the same high, flat plateau (altiplano) as the salt flats… and Titicaca is certainly not salty. Apparently there is an outlet down near Uyuni, and over the course of however many thousands of years, the fresh water pouring out of the mountains onto the altiplano slowly pushed the salt water down to the vicinity of Uyuni before things dried out and the whole thing evaporated.

In any case, the take-home message is that the Uyuni salt flats is a huge expanse of salt left over from the slow evaporation of an inland sea. And it is very flat. And it had just snowed for several days in the high country.

All of this meant that there was a 2” deep or so layer of water, let’s call it a sheen of water for poetry’s sake, spread evenly across miles of white salt. And the sky was liberally scattered with beautiful clouds to break up the neverending blue. In the distance deep blue hulks of mountains and volcanoes gathered clouds to their heads before letting them sally out across the flats.

And there was not a whisper of wind.

The salt flats were a giant mirror reflecting all of this.

Now, I suppose you can imagine, perhaps, the beauty and strangeness of this. But this wasn’t just an isolated vista somewhere; this was hours of driving in this alien landscape. It looked like we would reach the mountains at any time, but we were driving for hours in this surreal beauty. At times it was almost too much. I could feel brain cells smoking and exploding as they tried to reconcile the fact that I was sitting in a Landcruiser, but that somehow the horizon had disappeared. There were times when I could feel vertigo and had to stop looking out the window and fix my gaze on something concrete and unchanging. My hat on the dashboard. The steering wheel.

After a few hours of this, one of the mountains on the horizon began to separate itself and creep closer. Incahuasi. Out in the middle of the salt flats there exist a couple of small islands, and one of these islands is maintained as a tourist destination. And it is covered in large, ancient cacti. We were told these grow about 1 cm a year… and some of these specimens were up to 12 meters tall. Old beings.

One of the strangest feelings of the day was when our Landcruiser circled half around the island to reach the trailhead on the back side. After hours of driving on a sheen of water, it truly felt like we were a boat taking a wide berth around the shallows and seeking the safe landing on the back side of the island.

Before long we were safely ashore and snapping photos.

salt "surf"

After our allotted hour on the island, Victor broke the news that climbing Tonopa, the volcano to the north, wasn’t going to happen. We didn’t have time.

What we did have time for, however, was a stop on the way back to Uyuni to watch the sun bid its fiery farewell to the day. As the light faded the clouds took up its colors in a wide spectrum of changing colors and textures that was, of course, reflected upon itself upon the skin of water.

And well after dark we rolled into Uyuni in salt-covered vehicles, found a hostel, and brought our guides and cook out to dinner in Uyuni. And slept well. Very well.

4 am. The world still dark and sleeping, but when I stumbled out of the half-finished quarters Victor was already on top of the Landcruiser getting ready for a day on the road. The engine purred, warming forced air to release the frosted windows from winter’s touch. And somehow, magically, we managed to get everything packed up, including the groggy tourists.

Two hours to Uyuni’s quiet morning streets, another half hour approaching the salt flat… and a misty light was growing on the eastern horizon. You could sense the beginning of something beautiful. And then up ahead, vehicles with hazard lights flashing. The Bolivian army.

It seemed a routine check. Raoul’s ‘cruiser was ahead of us, but our army man seemed satisfied with our papers pretty quickly and waved us on. And we almost made it. We were partway past Raoul when some shouts and another camouflaged man waving at us to stop again. And meanwhile the steady sun was gathering its colors for a morning appearance.

And suddenly we seemed to be the focus of a small, disorganized military operation. Two more truckloads of soldiers pulled in from further down the road. Seated in the back seat, watching the commotion ahead of us, I could see a drawn pistol silhouetted briefly in the hand of a soldier. Suddenly this seemed very serious. And it seemed like we were going to be pulled over at this spot, just short of the famous salt flat, for a bit of time.

The word was that there were stolen cars being driven toChileon this road, and they wanted to be sure that these vehicles weren’t hot property. Unfortunately for us, the registration papers weren’t in the vehicles. According to Ema and Victor, they had never, in years of tours, been required to have registration papers for the vehicles. This argument did little for the soldiers. Apparently the requirement was new. It all seemed a little strange – I just couldn’t wrap my head around why they would think that the rigs were stolen if they were chock full of tourists and their equipment. Stolen tourists, too?

But soldiers aren’t trained to think for themselves.

We waited while one drove off to find cell service to call the agency in Tupiza. He came back and apparently whatever he found wasn’t good enough, for soon enough we found ourselves a part of a small train of vehicles and camouflage headed back to Uyuni. We even had our own, quietly threatening soldier ride in the passenger seat with us to make sure there was no trouble.

Victor sneaks a look at our camouflaged (and masked!) companion

I don’t believe that Uyuni is a good place to spend much time. It is one of those towns that seems to have just sprung buildings up in the sole need of occupying a space for tourists to arrive and depart for their towns. It reminds me of a railroad town out west.

I can say with surety that a curb just outside the gate of a military compound in Uyuni is a very poor place to spend hours of your time. And this is where we spent the next three or four hours. Waiting. Tupiza Tours was faxing the registration papers to the military, and until they received said papers and matched them to the vehicles, our trucks were locked inside the gates of the compound while we waited outside.

Unfortunately, since we didn’t know when the Landcruisers would be released, we couldn’t even wander far from the gates to spend our time more productively. Léa borrowed my cell phone to get in touch with Tupiza Tours to express our disapproval of our morning being ruined by them not having the papers in their vehicles. Spirits were pretty low. And it only got worse when a small contingent of camouflaged army men came outside the gate to practice their military band skills. Luckily, their efforts seemed to tire them out and there were long breaks between songs.

Eventually – and I don’t exaggerate when I say I think it was four hours later… they released our vehicles back to our possession. Apparently the caveat for the new law about carrying your registration papers was that if you didn’t have proof of ownership, the military was allowed to confiscate the vehicle for their own use. So it would seem that the situation was less about tourists and vehicles being stolen and driven toChile, and more about soldados hoping to get themselves some stylish rides. An hour or so later we passed the spot where we had been stopped. Not a soldier in sight.