See No Evel

My great good fortune continues. First, I arrived at Weiser, Idaho the same week as the annual Old Time Fiddler’s Contest. Then I got to the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon just in time for the Huckleberry Feast and Pow Wow. Now I have arrived in Twin Falls, Idaho at almost the exact 25th Anniversary of Evel Knievel’s legendary jump across the Snake River.

The Snake River Canyon at Twin Falls is maybe a third of a mile wide. It has the familiar sheer basalt cliffs of the canyons of Eastern Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Dark brown rock, crumbly looking, like the Thing from Fantastic Four, drops away from the straw colored grass at the lip. Here at Twin Falls there’s a difference – not only is the canyon a lot wider than most, but at its bottom, there are the carefully tended greens of a gold course. Water siphoned from the Snake has created a little emerald oasis at the bottom of the cliffs.

I walked up to the Bob Turgidson Visitor Center, where a sign proudly proclaims “One man’s dream came true”. By which I understand that Bob’s dream was to create a visitor center, which seems a small dream. “Dream small and succeed!” might be a good slogan.

The visitor center gives Bob short shrift, however, and concerns itself more with Evel Knievel. Outside the visitor center there is a full color hand drawn plaque which shows the red white and blue sky cycle, a sort of two wheeled rocket, as it flies across the canyon. It is clearing the great earthen ramp, its nose pointed up at the 45 degree angle that will give it maximum distance. (The ramp, by the way is still visible back behind a farm house about a mile distant. The docent of the visitor center will happily point it out to you). In the plaque, the sky is light blue, the beetling cliffs black. The sky cycle seems to hang in midair – maximum thrust, giddy flight. It is the moment just before the premature deployment of the safety chute that brought Evel back to earth, short of his goal. Betrayed by technology (I disregard the doubters that claim that Evel, panicked, yanked on the chute himself). O Evel, our Icarus! I bought the 25th anniversary mug, as well as a bag of fool’s gold, which seemed the fitting complement.

After the moving experience of Evel’s doomed flight (Motto: “Dare to Fail Big!”) I went to Shoshone Falls, about 3 miles upstream. A beautiful cascade, the green water plunging 210 feet down over tawny cliffs (higher than Niagra!, the sign boasts). However, there is a dam built across the top, and there are many signs which apologize for the lack of water which occurs from time to time, when all of the Snake gets diverted for agricultural purposes. I was reminded of a hiking trip to Yosemite I took with my father in September some years back. It was the end of the dry season, so most of the famous waterfalls had dried up. We went to see one, at that time just a sheer gray face of rock, a little wet. Nevertheless, tourists dutifully trotted up to have their pictures taken in front of where the waterfall would be, were there water to fall.

Now I am on Route 50 in Nevada which proclaims itself “The loneliest road in America”. Miles of sage brush stretch out to the horizon and the hazy rounded humps of the hills in the distance. It is interesting to drive this treeless landscape. The haunches and folds of the land are all visible, and sometimes the bones protrude. It would be quite restful, were it not for the high winds that occasionally buffet the van, sending it skittering sideways.

I have loaded on great quantities of water, and am heading for Burning Man.

Professor Monkey’s Discourse on Labyrinths

WARNING: This letter has little in the way of adventures and scenic byways. It is primarily a lecture on labyrinths which was prepared a while ago by Professor Monkey. He insisted that I mail it out because, for the Professor, it is publish or perish. Those not interested in spiritual metaphors may judiciously employ the delete key.

Preface

I have been doing a bit of scenic t’ai chi as I ramble on my way. Whenever I come to a beautiful piece of scenery that offers a relatively flat space and some concealment from staring eyes, I like to run through the form. It is at once a sort of obeisance, a way to slow down, a dance with the view, and a meditation on the view and its surroundings. I’ve demonstrated t’ai chi to the Olympic mountains, to streams, waterfalls and lakes, and soaring rock formations. And the back of a Motel 6, but I suppose the divine is everywhere, right?

So it happened, that as I was hiking in the Olympic peninsula rainforest I came to a bridge over Canyon Creek. I looked upstream, to where the stream leapt and tumbled through a green tunnel of vegetation, roaring out under the bridge below. I went through the form, peering around to see if there are any hikers. Do I want there to be hikers or not? I’m not sure – I’m a shy exhibitionist. I suppose my druthers would be to have a few hikers seated discretely off to the side, watching politely and with great interest. When I’m through they could walk by and hand me a flower and say, “That was lovely, thank you.” I would least like for a large hiker to come barreling across the bridge shouting “Out of my way, Chi-Boy”, farting as he passes.

Anyway, I was hiker-free, and I completed a couple of rounds, then looked down to check my feet (Are they parallel and shoulder width?). There in the center of the bridge lay a folded piece of paper that said “Sol Duc, River of Strength”. I opened it and read it. It was a little prayer to the river. Around it, I noticed small stones, a few pennies and a piece of ribbon. Offerings, I thought. I replaced the paper, and continued my t’ai chi, my own offering to the river. But I knew that others had passed this way and had a similar response to the river. Other seekers on the same path.

The image of seekers following a path launches Professor Monkey into his

Discourse On Labyrinths.

(have your blue books ready)

This trip, I have walked two labyrinths, one at Hollyhock and one at camp Winnarainbow. For those of you unfamiliar, a labyrinth is usually a path drawn on the ground. It is unicursal — a single path leading into the center and back out. The simplest labyrinth would be a spiral.

In the more complicated labyrinths, the path meanders closer and further away from the center, even as it leads inexorably inward. It is not meant for disorientation, but rather as a walking mediation. The path inward is a path of concentration, of contraction into the inner world. At the center, you can pause and lay down a burden, and/or pick up a gift. The path outward is a path of expansion back into the outer world. A labyrinth is the opposite of a maze. Mazes are meant to disorient. A maze has many false paths leading to blind alleys. A maze leads from point A to point B as long as you can steer clear of its pitfalls.

Q: Do you think that life is more like a labyrinth or a maze?

Labyrinths offer many metaphors. This trip, I found myself aware of the metaphor of fellow travelers. You’re walk along, your path twisting, doubling back on itself, and suddenly you find yourself walking in parallel with someone else. Another person on a different part of the path has joined you, and you walk together for a while and then one or both paths diverge and you are separated. But maybe your companion will reappear at another time. You head away from the center, your erstwhile companion heads back toward it.

Q: Do you have faith that you are both travelling to the same place, if in opposite directions?

At camp Winnarainbow, in Mendocino, the labyrinth was constructed of small rocks out in a hot and dusty field. We walked the labyrinth after closing circle, as a sort of walking meditation. And it was a joyful one, with strolling seekers meeting other seekers coming along the path. Some people held their hands out by their sides, and you could give a kind of spiritual low five to them as you walked past. There was an aromatic herb growing in the path, which when crushed underfoot gave up a scent somewhere between oregano and mint. I could imagine myself a bhodisatva walking on scented air. As seekers walking in passed seekers walking out we paused to hug and say a good thing about one another – a spontaneous reflection of what we had seen that was great in one another.

When I arrived at the center, I squatted there, focusing on the objects left that had been left there – a ganesh, a rubber duck, a crystal, a clown pez dispenser – trying to leave there my own self-judgment and possessiveness, praying to allow myself to be who I am, love that, and blossom. And as I looked at the sere fragrant plants, a shower of water fell from above me, landing only on those plants. A miracle! I looked up to see Mahalia, a fellow camper, watering the plants.

Q: How big does a miracle have to be before it qualifies? If it is explicable is it not a miracle?

This part of my trip has found me doubling back, visiting again people I have seen before. I danced in Seattle with Viola from the Catalina dance camp. I went scuba diving with Rani, another friend from Catalina, in the dark, cold waters of the San Juan Islands. I stayed at the home of Txi (pronounced chee) Whizz and her faithful canine companion La-dee-dog, both of whom I met at camp Winnaranbow. La-dee is 14 years old and in decline. She’s deaf and her hips are arthritic. Txi is very torn up because she is not certain if it’s best to put La-dee down. She wonders if she is keeping La-dee alive just for her own enjoyment. She worries that she might put La-dee down just for her own convenience. It is hard to let go of a companion who has walked the labyrinth with you, even when it is time for the paths to diverge. Harder when it is your choice, not the choice of your companion. Hardest when your companion can’t voice an opinion.

Q: Do you think that Txi’s path and La-di’s might continue to intersect even after La-di has died?

Breitenbush was clearly a nexus for seekers. I met at least four different Questing Males there. All of them had given up a successful career to go out and find their particular grail. We all came galloping into Breitenbush, kights errant, pennants flapping, as if that place were a spiritual rotary. Take the waters, do some yoga, yada yada yada, and off we go questing in another direction. Hoofbeats fade into the distance…

Q: Did the Questing Males miss the fact that they just passed through the center of the labyrinth?

I’m not sure why there were fewer questing women. Perhaps women seekers are just less dramatic than men, though I have a gnawing suspicion that it has to do with women being more clever than men in general.

Q: Do the women tend to realize that wherever they are, they are at the center of the labyrinth?

Two letters ago found me optimistically sweeping my foot in front of me, as I blindly felt my way along the path. Of course that metaphor presumes that there is a path to find. There’s another metaphor that says that even if your headlights only reach 30 feet in front of you, you can still safely accomplish a journey of 30 miles with them. Again, this supposes that you are on a road. What if you happen to be out in the middle of the desert with no road, and its cloudy so you can’t see the stars or the moon? You’d just drive around in circles, scaring the night dwelling creatures.

Q: Maybe it would be better to stay put and save the gas and wait for dawn, wouldn’t it, Mr. Smarty-Pants Metaphor Man?

END of Professor Monkey’s Discourse on Labyrinths

(pencils down)

All of this is leading us nowhere in particular, which is precisely where my trip may be going soon, because within a couple of weeks I’ll have run through all the camps which Professor Monkey and I scheduled way back in the Spring. I’m heading to Montana to visit with my friends John and Debre. Then perhaps a storytelling festival in Utah, then Burning Man in Nevada. That’s the end of the scheduled activities. I’ll probably stop in the Bay Area to recharge for a week or two. After that the Great Aimless Drift commences. Santa Fe and Austin appear to be on the agenda.

Professor Monkey peers anxiously into the Magic Eight Ball to find out where this might lead, but all he gets is “Answer hazy, try again”. This is not a satisfactory answer for Professor Monkey.

Personally, I’m mostly relaxed about the future. I know that I’ll keep travelling through September, and that I’ll arrive in New York by November for the wedding of my much-loved cousin Maria. I’ve discovered that as I slow down, unexpected things emerge from the landscape. I never would have found the Huckleberry Feast had I not wandered to Breitenbush. Professor Monkey couldn’t schedule it – usually the feast is earlier, but this year it was late because the huckleberries ripened late.

My experience of central Oregon, where I am now, has been a good example. I had seen it mostly as country that I needed to traverse on my way to scheduled activities. I had no expectations for it. As I’ve slowed my pace, meandering the backroads, I’ve come across painted hills, sudden basalt canyons with waterfalls cascading from their rims, badland rock formations so startling that I need to pull over and do the t’ai chi again. Yesterday, I looked up from my journal, and clouds of flaming red were shooting up from the ridge in front of me. I made a sound like somebody had hit me in the stomach.

Oh but Professor Monkey wants to know about meanings and directions and whether there is a path or not and where it’s going. He chatters and bites his nails. He fumes and frets.

I don’t know why he’s so worked up. After all, I’m the one who’s paying for gas.

Q: Who saved the money in the first place?

Professor Monkey at the Hot Springs

I went to Breitenbush because I had received the call three times in succession.

The first was at Coast Mountain Lodge, the household of the Ralph and Lannie Keller who ran the kayaking trip I took (see Serenade for Kelphorn). Their household is a sort of Appropriate Technology Swiss Family Robinson. A hydroelectric generator runs off their small stream, and they use passive solar to heat their shower water. They grow oysters in front of the lodge and raspberries behind it. Although they don’t usually take in guests, they allowed me to linger on after my trip as a sort of paying member ot the family. Lannie stood in the kitchen surrounded by the bags and containers of food that she was preparing for the next kayak trip, and said to me “You should check out Breitenbush. I think you might like it”. I mentally filed it away.

The next day, in Hollyhock, (See First Balance, Then Movement) English Peter peered at me through his round glasses. “I’ve found my next vacation!” he said, and turned around the book he was reading so that I could see it. The heading on the page read “Breitenbush”. Hmmmm.

The following day, a woman in the hot tub said “I had a great experience at a place called Breitenbush”. Okay, Okay, I got it. I’m supposed to go to Breitenbush.

I suppose I’m like most people in that I want to find meaning in the stream of seemingly random events that I swim through every day. The Buddhists talk about monkey mind, the ceaseless chatterer that prevents us from being fully in the present. Well, my monkey mind likes to take on the guise of Professor Monkey. He stands at a lectern, his glass perched on his simian snout and he discourses on the meanings of things. He loves to amass events into patterns. Professor Monkey is delighted to find so clear a message from the cosmos and dispatches me to Breitenbush.

I arrive at Breitenbush, and neither Professor Monkey nor I have a clue as to why I am there.

Breitenbush is a determinedly rustic hot springs retreat center. The buildings are unpainted wood, the landscape mostly overgrown and natural. The sauna sits over a spring, a shack that looks like a small tug boat with steam rises from the top of it. Most of the soaking pools are made of piled stones. The meals are strictly vegetarian. Most of the soakers are in the nude. It’s quite interesting to hang out with nude people, I think.

Breitenbush often hosts retreats. The previous weekend the Northwest Radical Faeries had been there, and I discovered bright red feathers from a boa along the path. (It occurred to me that it would be kind of fun if different political organization traded members like Major League sports does. Imagine a member of the Christian Coalition being traded to the Northwest Radical Faeries for a first round draft pick. Or a member of Greenpeace being traded to the American Beef Council). The weekend coming up, there was a gathering of Reiki masters. The retreat has its own generator running off geothermal energy. It heats cabins with the hot springs water. They’re pretty much off the grid, so if you’re concerned about Y2K, maybe you’d like to go and soak in the Millenium.

By the end of the first day, I feel like I’ve been dosed heavily with sedatives. I can barely make it to ten o’clock. I sleep soundly, wakened by the breakfast bell. Talking to the other guests, I realize that my experience is quite common. Everybody is zonked. Most people attribute this to decompressing from the “real world”, but I haven’t been in the real world for a while, so I think it must be something else. Maybe some sort of somnolence vortex.

My second night, I mentioned this to the Reverend Paul Six. “Oh there’s a lot of lithium in the water”, he replied. In honor of (response to?) the solar eclipse, Paul Six had just spent a lengthy evening covering the nature of the zodiacal signs and what it meant when they were in each of the planets. At times during the presentation, he would light up from within like a prophet, his face flushed and shining, his white hair molded to his scalp, his gleaming blue eyes seated in the side of his head like racing glasses.

Paul Six did a personal reading for me in which he determined that I was too guarded, and that my defensiveness prevented me from fully experiencing my own life. He suggested that I move from New York, where defensiveness is de rigeur, especially for a sensitive Piscean like myself. A smaller benevolent community such as Breitenbush might be just the thing.

Although I think some of the Reverend Paul Six’s points are quite valid, Professor Monkey and I determine that I was probably not sent to Breitenbush to meet him. (By the way, I asked for a chemical analysis of the water, and the lithium level is not particularly high, it seems to me. But I’m no biochemist.)

The next day, I participate in a sweat lodge. Lilian “Lala” Gallindo leads the sweat. She is an Indian from the Warm Springs Reservation (she calls herself Indian, not Native American). Lillian is short and olive skinned with a mass of curly black hair, a streak of white spraying from her hairline. Her heritage is part Aztec, and she has a central american look to her. She is the mother of eight kids, and is kind and firm. She allows me to put my eagle feathers on the altar, and tells me how to use the owl feather (it’s not supposed to come out during the day, just at night). I have some trepidation before the sweat – my heat tolerance is not all that great. But I trust Lillian as soon as I meet her, and that reassures me. Besides, Professor Monkey is insistent – maybe this is why the cosmos sent me to Breitenbush.

The sweat lodge is a domed structure maybe four foot at the center made of branches tied together. It is covered over with blankets. The floor is packed earth covered with bracken ferns, and there is a pit in the center. We crawl in dressed only in shorts. There are about twenty of us, and we’re pretty much overlapping – bare legs overlapping sweaty bare legs. It’s hard to sit upright – my head pokes into branches or the blankets overhead. The guy next to me is hunched over as well. “Now I see how the elders get that way”, he says.

Rocks are heated outside in a fire, and seven of them are shoved through the front door of the sweat lodge on a pitchfork, one at a time. It’s like spiritual shuffleboard. They roll into the pit, and Lillian arranges them with a pair of deer antlers. Cedar is sprinkled on them, and the scent rises into the air. The door to the lodge is closed and the rocks glow red in the darkness. Lillian throws water on the fire. We commence a round of prayers. You can pray for anything you want, and to whomever you want, although I get the sense that if you want to pray to Jesus, it’s best not to mention Him by name.

We get through four rounds, adding seven more stones each time. The heat builds up, and everybody is sweating pretty well, but Lillian is merciful, and before it gets too intense she calls out “Door!” and the door is opened, and steam pours out, and cool air in, and we’re done with another round.

At the end, I’m pleased and clear headed. I give Lilian one of the three eagle feathers I have. This is a hard moment, because although I want to practice open handedness, the fact is I want to keep that feather. As soon as I give it to her, I really would like it back. But I push down my feelings of outraged greed. I don’t want to be an Indian giver.

I stay at Breitenbush for a few more days. I try to take Paul Six’s advice and sink down into the moment, trying some meditation and practicing my t’ai chi. By the end, I’m no longer feeling zonked. In fact, I feel pretty energized. The staff members have begun talking to me, emerging from the woodwork like shy woodland creatures.

When I leave, I decide to head east via the Warm Springs reservation, to see Lillian’s store, but really to see where the call to Breitenbush might lead me.

Lillian is not at the store. In fact, trying to locate Lillian seems like trying to grasp air, but I persevere, and find her the next day. She invites me to the Warms Springs Huckleberry Feast and Pow Wow. We head off, and it’s a little odd for me to be there, because the Feast is kind of like a big family gathering, and I’m pretty clearly not family. Kids run up and down along the river, looking for crawfish, and throwing rocks at each other. People sit at tables chatting, smoking. I pass by one pickup truck and hear snoring. Inside an enormous belly seems to have pinned a sleeping man to the bed of the truck.

Lillian breezes about, rarely introducing me, mostly leaving me alone. In fact, nobody goes out of their way to make me welcome. But although I’m not exactly embraced and looked after by the tribe, neither am I shunned. They all just sort of let me be. We have arrived late for the feast, but there is plenty of left over salmon, and cabbage and potatoes and carrots, and some of the older Indian women are still cooking up fry bread, which is a sort of Indian zeppole.

Lillian leaves early, but I stick around for the pow wow. The pow wow is held in the long house, a big rectangular buliding with two rooms – a kitchen with a big pass through window, and a main room with an open floor and benches lining the walls. There are four big drums at the end of the room, each with a circle of drummers around them, mostly beating in unison, and singing. Each group drums for several songs, and then the next group takes over.

There are dance contests for various age groups, and it’s fun to see the various age groups do their thing – the little kids still getting there sense of rhythm together, bouncing almost in time to the music, flinging their limbs about, the elders stepping along stately and self-contained, the young men wiry and explosive. For the older groups there are often not more than 5 or 6 contestants. All of them wear handmade finery, and it makes me realize that it doesn’t really take much money to have a good time. There are dances to honor the elders, and a dance for a young man who hasn’t participated for a long time, and is dancing for the first time in regalia. It is touching to see him welcomed back, like the prodigal son, dancing together with his family.

There is open dancing between the contests, including one social partner dance. An older woman named Kate comes over and pulls me onto the dance floor. It’s a very simple dance. You move together in a side – together step following the line of dance around a big circle. When the verse changes, you and your partner rotate in place, then go back to following the line of dance. There’s a fun twist to it. A woman comes on to the dance floor with a broom. She sweeps her way over to a couple, and hands the broom to the dancing woman, cuts in and begins dancing with her partner. Now the woman who lost her partner starts sweeping and cuts in on a different couple by handing that woman the broom. On and on it goes, the couples mixing by broom exchange until the song is over.

At the end of the evening, I discovered that Kate was the fund raiser, so I went over to give her $20 for next year. She insisted on announcing it to the crowd. I was embarrassed, but that didn’t matter to Kate. “We always acknowledge our gifts” she said. Which made me think about what it means to accept the responsibility for having giving a gift.

I slept that night by the side of the long house, so now I have camped with both cowboys (see Post Card from Red Lodge) and Indians. In the morning I stopped by Lillian’s store one more time, but of course she was not there.

In the end, Professor Monkey is baffled by my Breitenbush mission. Could it be that I was sent to Breitenbush in order to give $20 to the Warm Springs Confederated Tribes Year 2000 Huckleberry Feast? The mind boggles.

Or is the call simply to move forward, not worrying about where everything is leading? Or is there no call at all, and was the tripartite summons to Breitenbush mere coincidence? Professor Monkey holds his tongue.