T for Tom

Retrospective on a Weekend

Posted in Prose by johnsontoms on May 21, 2015

It’s been five years, two months, and two weeks since I believed in God, give or take a couple of days. For all the significant moments in my life that I remember exactly, I can’t actually tell you which specific day it was, but I can remember that it was in the first two weeks of March of four years ago. It was a period of my life where all the days kind of run together, and I didn’t have any reason then to treat a Sunday differently from a Wednesday differently from a Friday. But I woke up that morning, and as I’ve alluded to before, nothing peculiar happened. It was innocuous, the sky was the grey, the trees were blowing in the wind, and I looked up and felt that I was the only one responsible for my life. It was empowering. But I’m not here to tell you what I don’t believe in. I want to spend a few minutes talking about the things I do believe in, and how last week I felt them again in many ways all at once. I feel rejuvenated.

I believe in the sanctity of human power. I believe that our evolution has set apart for a reason, and we haven’t found out the reason yet. I believe that our only steps forward will be harmonizing with the earth and our past. I believe that we can each do this individually, and should do this individually before we can ever hope for a better future as a planet and a biosphere at large. I wish I could swat a wand and change it all instantly, but I can’t. Instead I evolve in my own way, and in these past few months and short years, I’ve done that by returning to nature, and for the first time have started to embrace this united nation as a frontier, the true limits of earth that it really is. And last week was the most holy I’ve felt in years.

Since coming back to America, I’ve been through the Appalachian Trail, up the waterfalls of Jefferson Forest, to the summit of Guadalupe Mountain, across the entire Chisos Basin in the Big Bend Mountains, seen the relics of Pueblo life carved into the Gila Wildnerness, been snowed in at the top of Lincoln National Forest, and will soon be embarking on my third trip into the Grand Canyon. It will be my first trip to the Colorado River though, and every time I’m reminded that it is sincerely the most spectacular land feature this rock of earth has ever created. But last week I nearly touched the heavens in a place called Chiricahua National Monument in the southeastern basin of Arizona.

Nothing can prepare a man for the moments of surprise only nature can create, because seeing truly is believing. I knew through reading that the monument was a relatively small, 100-acre-or-so area up the Coronado Wilderness, preserved for its unique rock formations. Some 100-million years ago Sugarloaf Mountain was an active volcano that erupted for the final time, spewing volcanic ash all throughout the basin. The ash-flows changed the rocks there into a supple Rhyolite, which over the last 100-million years has been eroded to create standing pillars of rock, each in looming up from the ground to make shadows like giants. And from on top of any one of the pillars looking into Echo Canyon, it can seem like a buried army. It can seem like a place untouched, and for that it evokes the spirit of the holy.

More importantly, it is a stern reminder to me that there is a certain beauty that will always exist within the world no matter how hard the darkness of humanity casts over the land. My experiences here in America will be for the foreseeable future always marked by my impressions of my own past, my impressions of the different continents I’ve seen, and primarily the differences in the people I’ve met along the way. I did not want to return to America, and hiking there in Chiricahua I made the remark once, “such a beautiful land spoiled on such loathsome folk.” It’s a bit hyperbole, but it’s a bit truth as well. Luckily I was in the presence of one of the most inspiring persons I know, and she was receptive to hear me ramble. This was something I hadn’t been afforded in quite some time, but it allowed me to vocalize an idea I’ve been tossing around for a few weeks now.

Recognizing that the escape to nature is Muir-ian in it’s own right, I couldn’t help but wonder what facilitated such a transformation in myself. After having spent countless weekends wandering the sidewalks of any European city and wanting nothing but for coffee and conversation, how now did I revert to such apparent lonely desolation high in the mountaintops? Where did I decide I no longer wanted to be among the people of this world? It is, obviously, provoked by the people I am surrounded by. And it got me thinking about freedom.

We’ll never be free, truly, I’ve given up on this. But there is a freedom to be found in different ways, individually. But this freedom here, this freedom in America as I’ve found it, comes with a price. The books will read and the films will show and the explorers will say, “there is freedom in the mountains,” and they are right in some ways. But no matter how many hills I climb and how far away I get from the city, there will always be the underlying purpose that I’m doing this to escape. If I disappear into Yosemite never to return, even fifty years from now after spending every new day of my life there, I cannot forego the recognition that the freedom of that life is chained by the notion of having fled. And no matter how gratifying such a freedom can be, it is to me not honest. I had that honesty in the past, and it wasn’t in America. In places of happiness, freedom existed because I utterly felt no compulsion to lead in any direction – there was an ostensible feeling that the end of any day would lead to bliss. And it didn’t matter what I did. Most of my days were spent walking without a map and I always ended up exactly where I wanted to be, even if I didn’t know where I was going. But here in this country, my escapes are always calculated. I enjoy them for their refreshing qualities, but their limitations are equally heartbreaking.

Echo Canyon

Echo Canyon and the Giants

Finding the holiness then, is the thing to hold onto. I can remember after a day of hiking while obscenely drunk, we ended in the Heart of Rocks, appropriately named. It is the south side of Echo Canyon and follows a draw out into the canyon, mazing through the giant figures above until resting on the edge of a cliff, staring out across the canyon with the sun setting over the range in the distance. We had a long conversation there about the things humans do to each other, and I became unnecessarily and passionately enraged at this. We do so many horrible things to each other. But Alison passively walked away to rest in the hammock, and her calm was remarkable to me for its ease. I know she is not unaware of the things I was saying, but it must be that it no longer weighs on her life. I wish I could find that kind of peace.

For too long we stayed in the Heart of Rocks and immediately upon departure we passed by the Big Balanced Rock for a second time. It’s a 1000-ton pillar that has been carved away at the center to create what looks like a dreidel spinning on a stone column. But this time, to get a better look, I walked into the center of the formations to see its silhouette against the sun. And in this moment, I found my sanctuary. The rocks created a large circle around me, near 50-meters in diameter, but each rising almost 50-feet or more into the air. And in the center was only grass, a few shrubs, and I standing there alone. I felt that they were praying over me, and wishing me a safe journey ahead. I was surprised that this spot, not 10-feet off trail, hadn’t been named or reserved. But it was probably intentionally so, to keep people out. And it was more magical that way – I felt as if I had opened the doors to a temple, and there in the sunset knew that everything would be all right in the end.

Cathedral at Big Balanced Rock (photo: Alison)

Cathedral at Big Balanced Rock (photo: Alison)

There are places where men don’t go, and these places are the last of the cathedrals. Without worrying too much about the world at large, I can go there in good company and find restoration. It is my own prayer and only the rocks are listening. That is something I can believe in.

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