Snapshots Taken At A Low Point

I had a little downtime in San Francisco. Staying with family, visiting with friends. Eating, sleeping and drinking a lot. In a way, it was a difficult stop travelling, because everybody else was in ordinary time, and I’m still in non-ordinary time. I’m not used to scheduling my day in the way everybody else does. I wanted to visit with everyone, and I wanted to leave at the same time. After two weeks I hit the road, and swooped through some very varied scenery. Here are some snapshots of my progress.

Snapshot: Rock Creek Lake

Driving South from Mono Lake, I decide to camp near the town of Tom’s Place. I pull off and begin the ascent into the Eastern Sierra. I drive around a corner and suddenly there was a hillside covered in yellow and orange quaking aspen. I have driven out of Summer of the valley straight into the Fall of the mountains. The aspen peek out from under the pines, a vibrant understory, a layer of underpainting, a bright silk scarf at the neck of a green shirt. I decide that this would be a great place to ride. I find a stable up near where I camped, and the next day, I take a four hour ride on a large black mule named Ray. I keep whistling “15 miles on the Erie Canal” unconsciously, but none of my riding companions seem to notice. Ray doesn’t seem to care one way or the other. We ascend up through the glowing stands of aspen, into the pines and long, golden/green meadows that stretch up to abrupt grey peaks, dusted now with snow. The air is crisp and thin (we’re at 10,000 feet), and the sky is blue. I reach forward and pat Ray on his warm black neck. His fur feels stubbly and dusty under my palm.

Snapshot: Below Towne Pass

I am driving up the grade into the Panamint Range, which is the steep range of mountains on the west side of Death Valley. It is early in the morning – about 8:00. There are many signs warning about the danger of overheating your engine, but I figure at this time of the year and at this time of the morning I should have no problem. The temperature gauge mounts, and I keep an eye on the temperature light. The gauge has gotten about two thirds of the way up – higher than I’ve ever had it before, but still in reasonable range I think. Suddenly, there’s a rude buzzing, and then the oil pressure light starts blinking. Oil Pressure? I was prepared for the temperature warning light, not the oil pressure light. Have I blown a seal of some sort? I pull into a turnout, my bowels clenched in anxiety. Now I am suffering not only from low oil pressure, but also from high anal pressure. I walk up the hill from the turnout, looking for some cover, but the hill offers no contours, and the vegetation is about a foot high max. Squatting up there, I would be the most conspicuous landmark on the hill, and this is a popular turnout. Other tourists pull in, looking at me questioningly. I trudge back to the van, still fully freighted.

I check the oil, and the level is fine, as is the level of coolant. I call my mechanic, but as this is Sunday, he isn’t there. I decide to let the van cool down for a while. After a half hour or so, I start it back up, and the oil light no longer flashes. Very, very slowly I ascend to the summit, and then glide down into Death Valley.

Snapshot: Salt Creek, Death Valley

The Salt Creek Interpretive Trail in Death Valley seems like an elaborate practical joke. There is a boardwalk smelling of creosote, and a series of signs describing the riverine environment and its inhabitants, only there is no water, just a baked cracked stream bed. The first sign talks about how unusual it is too find water in this environment. “Smell the water” it urges, the command seemingly an exercise in imagination. On I tromp along the boardwalk and its cheery, delusional analysis of the water that has boiled off in the heat and the creatures that have fled. I pass stalwart German tourists turning pink in the heat. I am tormented by a huge persistent horse fly. I dutifully walk the entire trail, and find only a few lizards and some mud. If this is the only home of the rare and endangered Death Valley pupfish then I can state with confidence that it is extinct.

[Note to alarmed environmentalists. I talked with a ranger at the visitor center, and he told me that although Salt Creek was dried up at this time of year, that further up the valley there is a lake that feeds the stream which still has water and pupfish in it. However any pupfish that linger in the creek and get caught in its shrinking puddles get baked to death in the mud. Death Valley pupfish en croute.]

Snapshot: Badwater

Badwater will undoubtedly rank as the low point to my trip. It sits in the middle of a huge expanse of desert, and consists of a tepid alkali puddle, and a sign which reads “Badwater, elevation –282”. The tourists hardy enough to brave the heat to come here park their cars at the turnout, then walk down the small incline to the sign. Each group or individual poses by the sign and asks the last person to pose by the sign to take their pictures. I have my picture taken there, too. It’s hard to grasp the concept of being 282 feet below sea level. I’ve been 90 feet below sea level before, but at the time I was underwater.

A woman next to me says “Oh look” and points back to the cliff behind the turnout. It is a red jumble of stone, sunscorched, the life baked out of it, and it rears over the road. Tilting my head back, I can make out a small hand lettered white sign, about 300 feet up. The sign reads “Sea level”

Snapshot: Sunset on Artist Drive

It is getting toward sunset, and I have decided to take the van down Artist Drive on the advice of a helpful ranger. The name Artist Drive conjures up the vision of black clad bohemians hunched over their pads in a small café, their fingers stained with nicotine, scribbling furiously. But Artist Drive in Death Valley is so named for the colorful rock formations that line the road. At sunset, the light mellows toward gold, and the colors in the rocks begin to glow. I come upon a large ridge – a wall of stone, flat topped, dominating the space over the road, filling the eye. The face of the wall is adorned with irregular columns, interspersed with fans of sand that have washed down. The light has caught it full on, and it reverberates with the color of a great orchestral brass chord. It is a Handel trumpet concerto with full throated organ accompaniment. It has the otherworldly glow of 19th century landscape painting. The colors of the cliff face intensify as the sun sinks toward the far mountains, gold and rose, honey and wine. I leave before the inexorable shadows creep up from the base, leaving a single illuminated peak, a shout at the end of day.

Snapshot: At the Liberace Museum

In Las Vegas, I have decided to visit the Liberace museum. I watch a video of the maestro (in one scene he is wearing sequined red white and blue hotpants for the bicentennial) and stroll past rhinestone encrusted cars and pianos, to the hall where his spangled besequined costumes are on display. Here is a cape and suit with so many beads and bangles on them that the thing weighs 200 lbs. Here is the worlds largest rhinestone. I’m totally inspired. What a flaming fag he was! And so lovable. Here was a man so totally over the top that the top disappeared, and he was in orbit, a planet unto himself.

I am reminded of a quote I heard from the gnostic gospel. “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you hold back what is within you, what you hold back will destroy you.”. It’s clear that Liberace held nothing back. He was comfortable with who he was, and the whole museum is a tribute to his elaboration of himself, taking things to whatever absurd extreme he deemed appropriate. The video made it clear that he did not take himself seriously, but that he did take seriously his connection to his audience. He loved them, and wanted them to feel that love. He wandered among them like some bespangled and fruity latter day saint.

I was struck by the contrast between the Liberace museum and the Picasso Museum in Paris. The Picasso Museum is overwhelming. Room after room of masterworks in every medium imaginable. A dizzying array of styles. One has the sense of a ferocious self-confidence, and an unwillingness to stop at a point that was merely comfortable. Picasso constantly pushes forward, challenges, reinvents. Picasso moves outward, questing, aggressive. Liberace elaborates the inward, absurd, humorous, comfortable. Picasso the ardent heterosexual, Liberace the coy homosexual. Picasso the challenge to growth and development, Liberace the challenge of self-acceptance and liberation.

Somehow, it seems like it would be more fun to have Liberace as a friend than Picasso.


About Tom Weiser
This blog is devoted to the development of the Bad Lama's Guide to Meditation.

One Response to Snapshots Taken At A Low Point

  1. Pingback: Halloween and the Day of the Dead « The Journeys of Thomas Anomalous

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