Home Again, Home Again, Jiggety-Jig

n the window of my apartment, there is a little fountain that I made. It’s not hard to tell that I made it, because it consists of a fair sized white pasta bowl filled with smooth black rocks, sitting on top of a cement pedestal. A small fish tank pump is buried under the rocks, and sends water burbling up over them.

When I came back to my apartment after travelling, the fountain was turned off, and all the rocks inside were dusty and dry. The larger rocks were streaked with white precipitate. My brother, Christopher, had been staying in my apartment while I traveled. He turned the fountain off because the constant sound of the running water made him want to pee.

I looked into the fountain and saw a rock that I had forgotten about. It’s a brown round rock, about the size of a big yoyo. It fits into the hand with a nice weighty solidity. Carved on it is the word TRUST.

I bought that rock last Christmas. I hadn’t set out to buy that rock. I had been commissioned by my sister Anne to go and find a rock with the word LISTEN on it for my Dad. Dad had asked for a rock with the word LISTEN on it as a Christmas gift, something that he could put on his desk to remind him to pay attention to those around him. Christopher suggested that the best way to use that rock with the word LISTEN on it would be to wing it at my Dad’s head. That would probably get him to LISTEN alright.

I finally found a store that sold rocks with words carved on them. (New York really does have everything). But when I found Dad’s LISTEN rock, I also saw this TRUST rock, and realized that it was for me. This is how my Christmas shopping usually goes – one for you, one for me. On a good day one for you, two for me.

When I found the TRUST rock, I had just quit work and didn’t know what I wanted to do next. I was going through career guidance books, and helpful men were trying to coach me on attaining my next set of goals. But a number of women I had talked to who went through transitions told me “just do whatever the hell you want to, and your next path will make itself clear.” I really liked that advice and had resolved to take it, but I had trouble trusting that things would unfold right. I brought the rock as a sort of prayer made physical, a prayer for me to let go of trying to figure out the endpoint and to simply trust the process of change.

On my trip, I tried as hard as to refrain from looking for a “big picture” or a worthy ultimate goal. I tried to stay as present to all of my experiences as possible, not projecting into the future or dwelling in the past. Well, you’ve had the dubious pleasure of following me through the journey, so you’ll know that I was not smashingly successful. I will probably always have a greater affinity with Professor Monkey and Iron Karl than I do with a true free spirit.

But when I got back to my apartment and saw the dusty streaked rock lying in the unused fountain, I realized that the even though I was back in my old digs, the journey had brought me to a new place. The prayer of that rock had been answered – I have a lot more trust in this process than I did when I left.

I don’t trust that “everything will work out.” I figure that right now, I am in a kind of blessed oasis, and that sooner or later, life will lower the boom and I’ll be smacked a good one, and left reeling. I’ve seen too many good people get served up horribly undeserved things to expect that life will always be good if I just have the right attitude. But I do trust that being open to change, being confused and unsure and flexible, is in harmony with the nature of this world. I trust that if we have any purpose here, it must include being who we are in the places that we find ourselves. I trust that if I remain in the joyful, painful present, that if remain open to the experiences of my life without the need to analyze from whence they came, and control whither they are going, then I may just manage to remain alive until I die.

Thanks for accompanying me on this journey.


Into the Vortex

I’m up in the Great Smokey Mountains in a high mountain valley called Cade’s Cove. I’m peering into the Primitive Baptist church, a very plain white clapboard structure. The interior is entirely unadorned, just raw brown wood planks. Ranks of plain pews fill the rough floor from the altar to the door. There is a congregation inside singing a plodding hymn, but with harmony and a tired kind of fervor. I stick my head a little further into the doorway, and an elderly woman catches sight of me. She motions for me to come inside, indicating that there is a place to sit. I decline, and an elderly man also gestures at where I can sit. But I don’t want to sit there, because although I like to hear the singing, I think that I’m going to like it for about as long as a Charles Currault montage, which means about 45 seconds before I cut away to a new scene. I don’t want to be boxed in between Ma and Pa Kettle when I’m ready to leave.

I’m just turning away from the church when I hear a loud bang and rattle, as if someone had hit a big metal tool box with a sledgehammer. I crane my head around looking for whence the sound came. I see a white van which seems to be parked outside of the parking lot, at an odd angle, backed up to a tree. It looks a lot like mine. I realize in a hot rush that it is mine. I’m horrified. This is the second time this trip that I have been rear ended by a tree.

The first time was in Sedona, Arizona about a month ago. To reach Sedona from the high mountains of Flagstaff, you descend down Oak Creek Canyon, a narrow wooded canyon of the eponymous oak. The road swerves slowly, like a water slide for the elderly. At the foot of the canyon, the landscape opens up and suddenly there are massive red and white rock formation set all around, domes and altars and cathedral spires, a completely different landscape from the cool mountains 50 miles to the north. I arrived at Sedona at sunset, which is its time of greatest beauty. The rock formations glowed in the red light of sunset, and I had to pull the van over to watch the day flare to an end.

The town of Sedona unfortunately does not share the beauty of its surroundings. The main strip is given over to the sale of Native American and New Age tchotchkes . On either side of the highway, the town sprawls in low buildings and cookie cutter retirement developments. Luckily, the town is hemmed in by National Forest, so development is limited in the extent of its sprawl.

Sedona is a place of oddly mixed elements, a stew that has not cooked all the way, so that the flavors remain unmerged. There is the tourist trade, so obvious on the main strip. Then there are the retirees, tucked away in the developments of identical adobe shades. There is also a strong hiking and mountain biking contingent. And finally, there are the rainbow people, occupying a low place on the totem pole, except for where they bring in the tourist trade.

The rainbow people are the New Agers, hippies, mystics and crystal healers. Transient rainbow people used to drift through Sedona in greater numbers, from what I understand. They used to camp in the National Forest. Out west, National Forests often allow for dispersed camping, which means you can camp anywhere you want as long as you are more than ¼ mile away from a main road. A lot of transient rainbow people camped in the woods close to Sedona. The powers-that-be decided that there were too many of them in the woods, so they mandated that camping was illegal within about 5 miles of Sedona. And the Forest service has allowed the dirt roads leading to the nearest camp sites to become badly deteriorated. I drove on one to get to a hike, and I eventually had to stop when I encountered potholes of more than a foot. To put that into a class/lifestyle distinction – a VW van could not drive that road, but a Ford Explorer could.

I camped in Sedona in an RV park of modest size and scruffy appearance right at the mouth of the canyon and the head of the strip. The icy waters of Oak Creek lapped the back of the RV lot. There were a number of RV’s in the park that had not moved in years. People who lived in them were long term residents. One woman I spoke with said she’d been there for six years. She had been in the same parking spot for four years. Her RV was a little tin apartment, a vehicle mostly in theory. But now the RV Park has been zoned for high density development, and the owner is trying to sell to a developer who will make a cluster of small stores which will help feed the aching endless need for more tchotchkes. And so the transients, even if they’re only theoretically transitory will be moved further out of town. Perhaps one day the town will set up a little museum to the Rainbow people showing dioramas of how they used to live in the area.

One diorama would certainly have to do with energy vortexes. (The town already hands out maps to the energy vortexes in the visitor center.) An energy vortex is place where energy is focused so that it is much more intense than in other places, and affects the physical/mental processes of people in and around the vortex. While I was in Sedona, I did my own investigation of energy vortexes. I climbed up Cathedral Rock, a great dome of rock topped with towering spires. When I got to the top of the dome and clambered to a spot between the spires, I found myself greatly afflicted with vertigo. I could not stand up and look straight up the spires. On another hike, I walked into a canyon. As I rounded a turn in the path near a great dead Douglas Pine, I suddenly felt extremely heavy. The sensation was like walking with heavy clothes on through a still body of water. I passed that spot twice on my hike, and both times I had the same sensation.

But I think the clincher was probably my experience with the van. It was morning and I had just had breakfast. I got in the van, ready for a hike, and backed up out of my spot. I twisted around in the seat, looking over my shoulder as I backed up. I looked through the rear window at the tree behind me. I was in the process of backing up and looking at the tree when there was a loud bang, and it was clear that I had just hit the tree that I was looking at. I jumped out and ran around to examine the damage – cracked bumper, dented rear panel, crumpled license plate. I looked around, and all the other campers, their attention momentarily arrested by the loud bang, were already turning back to whatever business was at hand. This was hard to fathom, since I felt that my day was so dramatically altered that it would take a while to become accustomed to its new aspect. But I guess the misfortunes of others quickly fade in our perceptions while our own linger for a long while.

Now one way to explain my accident is that the tree was growing at an angle, the bottom part of the trunk that I hit being about a foot closer to the van than the top part of the tree which I was looking at. Another is that I am a boob and should not be driving, but I reject that one out of hand. I prefer to believe that the accident was the result of my driving into an energy vortex that day, and that the van was drawn into a non-linear acceleration that drew it precipitously into the tree. Maybe the loud bang was the sound of the vortex collapsing and disappearing. This is an important part of the theory because for the duration of my stay I did not see any other vehicle drawn into that particular vortex.

The second time the van leapt rearward into a tree, there in the parking lot of the Primitive Baptist Church, was the result of my being in a little too much of a hurry. I had parked the car and jumped out, only intending to glance at the church. In my thoughtless haste, I set the emergency brake, but neglected to take the car out of drive and put it in park. I was not aware that a car in drive would roll backwards. Now I know that.

Other tourists spoke to me after I had driven the van back into the parking lot and was surveying the damage – heavily dented hatch with the window entirely blown out, door and rear panel creased, bumper shattered. They tried to comfort me and point out bright spots. I was certainly glad that the pilotless van had managed to miss all the other vehicles in the parking lot, and I thank God that it didn’t hit a person. And there was no damage to the frame or motor, so I could still drive it. One helpful woman said that I should also be glad that my wife wasn’t there. Because if I had a wife, and she were there, she’d be yelling at me.

It was only much later when I reflected on this that I wondered why I couldn‘t have been supplied with a non-existent wife that might comfort me. Or maybe one that would have been driving and would have put the damn thing in park in the first place.

Halloween and the Day of the Dead

Sometimes, the days organize themselves. Halloween became Elvis Presley day. The night before Halloween I drove up the Natchez trace and into Tupelo, Mississippi, the birthplace of Elvis Presley. The Natchez Trace Parkway traverses beautiful rolling countryside, the trees now changing colors. I hadn’t expected to see colors on the trees so far south, but here were sumacs and maples blazing red, the greens of other hardwoods shading into browns and yellows. As I drove, I thought of how lucky I’d been on this trip to have caught so many different landscapes in beautiful times of year, to have been in the Northwest at the peak of Summer, in the Sierras and the mountains of the Southwest as the Autumn burst into gold, and now in the uplands of the South watching the lingering Summer move into scarlet and brown. The van has had a succession of beautiful landscapes for dance partners, each bedecked in a set of colors that show it off to striking advantage, each with its own sway and rhythm.

I arrived in Tupelo after dark, and drove around attempting to find the center of town, but was unsuccessful. I did find the camping area at Lake Elvis Presley, however, and drove the van up there. I did not put my envelope of money in the box at the gate, as I often neglect to, preferring to deal with the payment on my way out. This time, I was waylaid by the park ranger on my way out of the bathroom. He was a stringy white haired man wearing a Lake Elvis Presley Park Ranger tee shirt that I immediately coveted. He quivered with indignation. A small dog standing on the seat of his pickup truck quivered, too, whether with indignation I could not tell.

“You didn’t put your money in the honor box!” the park ranger cried.

“No,” I admitted.

“You’re supposed to put your money in the honor box if you want to stay here,” he said, overwrought, and implying, I felt, that I had brought dishonor on myself, and all my kin.

“Okay.”, I said.

“Okay what?”.

Though I was tempted to say “Okay, sir,” I merely said “Okay, I’ll stay”, and gave him the $13 dollars required to camp there. Only a little mollified, he left me chastened and quivered back to whatever ambush in which he lurked, waiting for other scofflaws and dastards who might fail in the timely use of the honor box.

The next day I drove down to the Elvis Presley birthplace, a tiny two room house, really not more than a tidy shack. It would not open for another several hours and I attempted to find anything else amusing to do in Tupelo. Failing at it, I drove out of town to Memphis and Graceland, leaving the two interior rooms of Elvis’ birthplace unviewed.

Graceland is a pretty modest structure for a mansion. It’s a three or four bedroom place with stone walls and a couple of white columns out front. But for young Elvis out of a two room shack in Tupelo, an adolescent just cresting into manhood, it must have appeared a shining example of upper middle class solidity and respectability, the very symbol of wealth and ease. Elvis was 22 when he bought it and moved in with his parents.

I drifted through Graceland with my audio tour tape player excitedly spouting details. The décor of Graceland is largely 60’s and 70’s, which is to say outlandish. But just as in the Liberace museum, it was the video that suddenly made Elvis real for me. The video was of Elvis giving a news conference on returning from the army. In the video he’s twenty four, he’s back in Graceland and at ease and – I didn’t expect this – he’s beautiful. I’ve seen many handsome men, but only a few beautiful ones, and young Elvis is one of them. Mostly it’s his smile. He looks at the camera, a little slow, maybe sullen, his eyes hooded like two dark storm clouds, and suddenly the smile breaks over his face and it’s like a glorious shaft of light from behind those clouds. It’s a smile so playful and infectious that you just want to go with him and do whatever fun thing that he has in mind. That’s the thing with young Elvis – he looks a little rebellious, but really he’s all about having fun. He’s not Brando or Jimmy Dean, born to suffer.

On the grounds of Graceland are scattered remnants of hobbies impetuously embraced and quickly discarded – slot cars, target shooting, racquet ball, horseback riding. The impression I got was that Elvis never moved much past the surge and giddiness of late adolescence or early adulthood. All the décor is in a style that made the teenagers in the tour groups say “cool!”. And his later costumes with their capes and sequins and American eagles have the bravura of adolescence.

Maybe this is why late Elvis seems so sad to me. Early Elvis is joyful, but late Elvis in the preposterous jumpsuits seems vague. Is it that his flowering young manhood was a happy combination of factors that all peaked synergistically during his time of beauty, and that later simply got out of synch with one another? Did drugs and the isolation of fame lead him out into some personal wilderness? Did he simply never let go of adolescence even when he reached middle age and could no longer hold onto it? I don’t know, but I’m glad that for a while we had young Elvis, gold lame Elvis, the joyful and sexy Sun King.

The day after my Halloween at Graceland it rained and misted. I’ve been lucky with weather this trip and I’ve rarely been rained on, but for the Day of the Dead, rain felt appropriate. I did not expect to find myself on the battlefield of Shiloh that day. I had driven out of the Buford Pusser home and museum and saw the signs for Shiloh, and so I turned the van that way.

I went into the visitor center and looked at the film that they showed, noting that General Grant seemed to have sported a beard that he purchased in a novelty store. I’ve been in several visitor centers in National Parks that show movies, and they often feel ironic. “Look”, the movie says “Here’s what you could see just outside the door, if only you were to leave the theater.” Of course, in the case of Death Valley it was so hot outside that going out of the theater meant baking your head like a potato, so staying inside in the cool dark made sense. And at Shiloh the landscape does not reveal the drama that played out for two days 137 years ago, so the film helped to set the stage.

The rain fell off and on, and white mist played over the wide meadows as I drove over the battlefield. The trees were turning rust and yellow and the landscape is rolling and graceful, hushed and a little melancholy in the rain. Here, in April of 1862, an army of 40,000 Confederates launched an attack on an army of about 43,000 Federals. They caught the Federals off guard, still in their tents, and pushed them back. Some of the Federals found a defensive position in a sunken road, and lay there firing at the Confederates. The rebels charged through a peach orchard, and were repulsed again and again by Union fire, the blossoms of the peaches falling on the bodies of the dead and dying. A shallow pond lies near the sunken road and wounded from both sides crawled there. I don’t know whether the truce of wild animals around watering holes held there. I do know that the tour says that they made there way there and they bled together and that the water turned red with their blood.

The fighting around the hornet’s nest, as the sunken road came to be called, went on all day, tirteen separate assaults surging across the fields, repulsed. Finally the Confederated lined up all the cannon they could muster – 62 pieces – about 300 yards away from the sunken road. They shelled the Federal troops until they retreated, and then they captured several thousand of them.

With that, they pushed up to where the Federal troops had formed a final defensive line. With daylight failing they waited for the next day to launch their final attack. But in the night Union reinforcements arrived, swelling their numbers, and at dawn Grant launched a counterattack that took back the land the Union had lost and forced the Confederates to retreat. In the course of two days , the same piece of land had changed hands twice, and both armies ended up about where they started. Except that in killed, missing, and wounded the Federals took about 13,000 casualties and the Confederates about 10,000.

It was warm after the battle, so General Grant ordered the dead to be buried quickly, the Union troops and the Confederate troops placed into separate mass graves. After the end of the war, in 1866, the Union troops were disinterred and placed into individual graves in the National Cemetery at the top of the hill. They left the Southerners where they lay.

I walked through the cool drizzle to the marker for the fallen Confederates. The sign said that there were about 700 men buried there. The drifting curtains of heavy mist muted the sounds of the place, and I placed a small rock on top of their collective tombstone. It was a lava rock that I had picked up someplace in Idaho, brick red and jagged, bubbles and pockmarks bearing witness to the sudden violence of its birth.

I drove back out of the park and toward Nashville where friends waited, and a comfortable bed.