Sunday, January 02, 2011

The Big Ditch

Into the Canyon
with all who are sick with megalomania!

As a guest in the abyss

the dwarf will quickly understand that he is a dwarf.

~Yevgeny Yevtushenko

I cannot travel, overland, through the American southwest without an almost constant reminder that I am a speck. Chicagoans are no strangers to large things, but most of our big shit is vertical.

I recall hearing William Least Heat-Moon describing the shock that must have been felt by the first westward bound settlers upon seeing the Great Plains. He was discussing the Corps of Discovery's first glimpses of the Dakotas after 700 miles of paddling up the Missouri and emerging onto one of the largest grasslands on the planet.

"At first, they must have thought 'Okay, this is a meadow. I understand meadows and this is just a big one.' But as the days became weeks they began to grasp the scale of the place. It's time that brings the Great Plains to life, ...and makes them fearful for the traveler."

As I was passing through St. Louis on Christmas Eve I was already, again, feeling that creeping dwarfism. It's 300 miles south of here so even though I was ripping along at 65 mph...well, you can do the math. 4 or 5 hours to cover what took 10 days 200 years ago.

Passing over the Mississippi was humbling, again. This time I was treated to an amazing view of the Arch, the upper half of which was missing. The low cloud ceiling obscured everything but two gargantuan isoceles struts standing maybe 200 feet tall, and leaning slightly toward each other. I thought "Ah, so that's what it looked like when it was half-built." Of course I knew that those two struts eventually meet in the clouds about 650 feet up, but seeing the Arch like that was like stepping back to 1963. What an absolutely amazing monument.

Passing over the Mississippi always conjures something within me. Now entering the Louisiana Territory. 207 years ago, right down there in St. Louis, the boys found out that Jefferson had just bought the west bank of the river, and everything out to the Rocky Mountains as well.

Running south through Missouri isn't vastly different than Illinois except for the rolling hills. The towns are 5 or 10 miles apart, standard midwest distribution, and you're never too far from "civilization." You break down half-way between Rolla and Joplin there's a good bet a cop will be along in 5 minutes.

Back in 1889 they had this thing called the Oklahoma Land Rush, perhaps you've heard of it. In one day, April 22, more than 50,000 settlers staked claims to government land, and in one case, the town of Guthrie,OK went from population=zero to population 10,000+ in one afternoon. Sooners were the earliest ones who grabbed the real plum spots, thus the term Sooners.

Oklahoma City's population exploded that day as well, and I always think of that (and McVeigh) whenever I pass through OKC. Just 120 years ago that town was almost literally non-existent.

Fuck flying.

Your pilot turns a few knobs, the plane banks, your ass feels the change for a few seconds, and then you level off. The only way you notice that you've changed course is if the sun suddenly floods through your window.

When you leave US44 in OKC, and you get on US40, you know you have changed directions. Gentle southwest becomes due west, and if it's later in the day you thank GM that they installed visors on Pontiacs.

That's about when the "holy fuck I'm out there now" thing sets in. That's when you start to really begin to grasp what Least Heat-Moon was talking about. Hour after hour after hour of flats. The speed limit is 75 out there, and while I always keep it pegged at 65, for some reason 65 seems slower in Oklahoma.

The stretch of US40 between Okahoma City and Tucumcari, NM must be felt, ....lived. It's the time thing. It's 346 miles of absolute flatness, and trees are nowhere to be seen so you can see to the fucking horizon maybe 20 miles away. You start to feel about this big. Like a good wind could blow you off the road like a tumbleweed. You get a broke down car in between towns out in the panhandle, and your heartbeat increases. You're a good 20 or 30 miles from anything, and I mean anything. Exit ramps are an event you anticipate for 20 minutes. You never let the tank go below half full. You question whether you can hold that piss for another 45 minutes if you don't jump off at Groom,TX.

That's when you need to look out the passenger side window for a bit. It's so wide open that you really can look away from the road ahead for 10 seconds without crossing a line. They have continuous rumble-strips to warn you if you're drifting. Looking to the side is when it strikes you just how much ground you're covering, while seemingly getting nowhere. Yevgeny was right.

Right at the border of Texas and New Mexico you change time zones. Another clear indication that you're really out there now. An hour earlier in Tucumcari than it is in Oklahoma City. Chasing the sun as it drops below the horizon, or more accurately, as the earth spins toward me.

Once into New Mexico the terrain changes dramatically. Plate tectonics. One plate sliding under another plate and forcing this plate upward. It's surprisingly gradual, the altitude change. You see mesas and bluffs to both sides of you, but it's not a lot of up and down like in Missouri. Missouri's like a washboard, whereas New Mexico is more of an inclined plane. Only when your ears start popping, and the cruise control starts kicking Poncho into passing gear does it dawn on you that you are climbing.

Once you get to Albuquerque, which sits beautifully at the foot of the Sandia Mountains (sort of the southern tip of the Sangre de Cristos/Rockies) you really begin to feel the history of things. The surroundings crawl with ghosts. It's no longer driving west, it's driving through The West.

1350 miles from home. 21 straight hours of 65mph. Twenty One fucking hours!...and still 400 miles from the South Rim. (of course I stopped in Joplin to sleep.)

I used to love taking these drives with my wife, and I can't help but get nostalgic. Sadness at first, but then a bit of satisfaction. Solo flying in my 50s wasn't my first choice, but I've gotten pretty fucking good at it. Same goes for driving. I wonder how my forbears handled the loneliness of such desolation. You start to realize that we formed little towns and communities for a reason. A certain comfort in knowing that there are 372 others in this settlement.

You can't avoid the mixed emotions when considering our western expansion as a nation. On one hand there's awe at the whole undertaking, and on the other there's the shame felt over the actions of my conquering ancestors. Manifest Destiny showed both our capability to handle huge endeavors, and our utter ruthlessness.

Real Hand Made Navajo Jewelry---> Next Exit-12 Miles

When you enter Arizona, you enter the Navajo Nation. You hear people talking on the radio about racism in Arizona and New Mexico. One Sheriff's race in November was between a Navajo and a "Hispanic." The winner, the Navajo, was being interviewed, and was asked about allegations by his opponent of anti-Mexican racism. I pondered that for a while. A racist Navajo. The station became white-noise before the interview was over, so I'm not sure if they've settled their racial argument yet.

In very few places can you feel the results of American western expansion like you can in the southwest. Around Gallup, NM, which is near the western border of the state, I looked to my left and saw a Burlington Northern & Santa Fe freight train cruising along. As luck would have it, we were going the exact same speed. For almost 140 miles we were side-by-side going 70mph. For two full hours we drove into Arizona, and that same Hyundai cargo container was at my 9 O'Clock. Absolutely astonishing. I took some video, but I'm not sure it does justice. Never before in my life have I experienced anything like that.

Weirdest part was that as I was jumping off in Winslow to get gas, I knew that eventually that same Burlington Northern & Santa Fe freight train was going to pass within one block of my hotel in Flagstaff.

The railroad changed everything out west.

As opposed to last year's trip, I had the most sensational weather anyone could ask for when I reached the South Rim.

The Grand Canyon is....well, fuck it, why bother? Someone said that those who have seen it understand why it can't truly be described with words, and those who have not seen it don't believe those who have.

It's 277 miles long. (4 full hours at 65mph from east to west if you could find a place to lay a highway)

Standing at some points on the South Rim, you can look across 12 miles of chasm and clearly make out tiny Ponderosa pines on the North Rim, only they ain't tiny. You look behind you at the trees on your side, and it hits you that those little fuckers over there are this tall?

The scale of the whole fucking place is off the charts.

And as you look out at Vishnu, at Walhalla Plateau, you get this feeling of absolute timelessness. Teddy Roosevelt stood near what is now Zuni Point on the South Rim and looked across what was then Grand Canyon. Not Grand Canyon National Monument, and not Grand Canyon National Park. He'd gotten some John Muir in his ear by then, and he understood the significance of what he saw stretched out before him. Before leaving, Roosevelt gave a speech near what is now Mather Point.

"Leave it as it is." TR told the crowd. "The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it."

Amen brother Theodore.

It's over a mile deep in some spots, and when you look down into the canyon, well you fully come to understand what a mile deep means. It grabs you by the throat. It's fucking deep. Vertigo. The whole place is just a sensory overload.

But again. it's time that makes the whole thing come to life.

The fucking joint is alive with geology.

Those Vishnu Basement rocks are 1.5 billion years old. Higher up newer. Kaibab Limestone. Higher up, newer still. Coconino Sandstone. The canyon itself is relatively young. Arguments rage over whether it's 4 million years old, or 7 million. Either way, a blink in geological terms. It's the upheaval of the earth's crust due to the underslipping of the plate combined with the Colorado River dragging tons and tons and tons of liquid sandpaper over the rock as it runs downhill to the Gulf of California, that have combined and ripped open this huge gash. It's a huge, fresh, gaping wound in the earth's skin.

That view from Moran Point is exactly what it was, more or less, a million years ago. The ravens have been around for longer.

The first Spaniards to arrive in the 1500s saw exactly what I saw.

There's no evidence that man has marred, but then again we've only been aware of Grand Canyon (American conquerors I mean) for a little under 200 years. Fur trapper James Ohio Pattie first looked into it in 1826, so he gets credit. John Muir and Stephen Mather are more responsible than any other two human beings for the wonders we still enjoy today. Ralph Cameron tried to build dams in the canyon in the early 20th century, and you can feel the creeping commercialism as you ascend the Coconino Plateau. If left to our devices, we'd do our level best to fuck this place up in 20 years.

But it was here long before we were, and it will be here long after we've perished. We're specks crawling around it. Something very reaffirming about that. It helps every so often to remind ourselves that we're dwarfs.


MichaelRyerson said...

That was great, Mike. Thanks.

Michael said...

And thank you for stopping by MR.

277 miles long. That's a hell of a ditch. It occurred to me while standing on the rim that that's almost exactly the same distance as Chicago to St. Louis. Awesome.

Penal-Colony said...

I was kinda hooked from "most of our big shit is vertical" onwards. Can I quote you on that?

Big post, great read.


Michael said...

If you can find a place to use "our big shit is vertical" , it's all yours.

Thanks for reading buddy.

Hope all is well with you.

Penal-Colony said...

I'll find a use, so says Gny. Sgt. Hartman.

I'm reading Joe Simpson's Touching the Void at the moment. I'd say you'd love it, if you haven't already read it. And no doubt you've seen Into the Wild. The book was shite. Hooray for Sean Penn.

Michael said...

I have not read Touching the Void, but I have been told before that I should, so you pushed me over the edge...ahem, so to speak. Hell of a story.

Have you read this? A hell of an ordeal there.

Into the Wild? Nope. I know the story, but I never took the time to see the movie (which I heard was OK.) The book's not so great? Not entirely surprised to hear that.

Penal-Colony said...

Yes, I knew the story. One of the scariest things, they say, about Everest is the number of bodies littered over the mountain. That focuses the mind. Even so, what are the chances of not making it back alive?

Penal-Colony said...


That should read 'not making it back at all'.

Michael said...

Imagine that, climbing a mountain and coming across a frozen human body. Man that's gotta stop you in your tracks and make you consider turning back. Hell of a view from up there, but it isn't worth shit if you're not alive to tell the tale.

Keifus said...

My wife has recommended that I read Into Thin Air by John Krakauer. Non-fiction about mountaineers, the basic premise of which is what the hell is wrong with these people going so high up that it's literally impossible to think?

Awesome pics Michael, and will try to follow the videos when I can. Mixed feelings: we treated the natives like shit well before we started moving west; although for the English colonists it might have taken a whole generation, so there's that. You kind of have to appreciate some of those enlightenment ideas, but the footnotes are so embarrassing.

What president embodies American mixed feelings better than TR? I go more negative on the guy, but the parks were a worthwhile moment of institutional sanity.

Michael said...

While talking about, and giving a private tour of Yosemite, John Muir asked TR to explain his "childish need to kill animals." It's still funny. Can't you just picture it? Those two sitting by a campfire under some huge sequoia, just shootin' the shit about the beauty of nature and Muir hits him with that! Say Ted, about those animals you like shooting...Not many people had the balls to talk to Ted like that either. Yeah, TR was a unique guy, and not all good-unique either.

switters said...

Pardon my french, but you guys are mean. Into The Wild, the movie, is quite good, though highly flawed, as was Chris's motive for doing what he did. Forgive me, it was probably the wood stove in the abandoned bus. Watch the movie, if for no other reason than to rake me over the hot coals it produced.

Michael said...

I'll see the movie when it hits TV, or the discount dvd rack. I like the idea. As for the book, that's hotta be a tough write. Solitude is good, but maybe not for spectators.

100 yr old tongue & groove? You have to pull it up & re-install or just refinish?