Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Go West

I have some thoughts.  They will not be coherent.  At least, I don’t think they will be.  We will have to wait for the end of this post to see if the thoughts add up to anything.  Not that this situation is all so different from other posts, but at this moment I feel particularly ungrounded and unsure about what I am feeling.
            The Waller Grant Caravan of Wonder has been back on the road for seven nights.  Today begins the second week of what we hope will be a four and half month journey through the West.  We have a little less time and a little more space to cover for the second half of our adventure.  And if you have been following the blog lately, you will know that we had a three month lay-over in North Texas, where my wife, Knightsmama, cared for her father following a stroke.  In these past seven days back on the road, we have visited Balmorhea State Park, Davis Mountains State Park, Marfa (Texas), Carlsbad, and Santa Fe.  Last night, we arrived at the Alpen Rose RV Park in Durango, Colorado.  We have a lovely pad, Site A, with full hook-ups, and picnic table.  Right now the boys and Knightsmama are exploring downtown Durango, hanging out in a city recreation center where Dr. J. is playing basketball with some boys, and Captain Crunch is climbing an indoor rock wall.  It was below freezing this morning; it is about 70 and bright and sunny right now. 
The Durango in Durango
Yesterday was the first day of the last class I will take through American Military University to qualify me to teach humanities, so I have been completing introductory assignments and beginning my first readings for the class.  The course concerns the Enlightenment.  Our readings move us from Catherine the Great’s Russia to Thomas Jefferson’s America.  Also, today, I have repaired four drawers in The Monster.  Drawers break fairly often because when we haul The Monster down the highway at 60 miles per hour and we hit a bump or pothole, all hell breaks loose like a quarterback’s brain on the concussive side of a blitz.   Ever so often, we just need a time out to catch our breath, let things settle and reconnect.
            So I am sitting here looking out my window at a beautiful red rock formation streaking across a mountain wall.  I am trying to catch my breath.  Literally, since we are at 6500 feet elevation, and I can feel my heart beating a little bit stronger to move the oxygen around.  Figuratively, because the adventure has begun again and there were moments in the past months that I didn’t know if it ever would.  And because, we are in The West.
            Already it is hitting me how different The West is.  West of what?  West of the Mississippi, sure.  But really, west of the 98th Meridian.  In August, we began the adventure  just east of the 98th in Wills Point, Texas, heading north to Tulsa, then east to St Louis.  There, we toured the Museum of Western Expansion and rode to the top of the Gateway Arch.  But, next, we traveled east eventually to Maine, then south reaching South Carolina before being called back to Wills Point.  Now in April, we have crossed that geographical boundary where The West begins.  We watched the land flatten and dry out; we watched trees disappear.  Around Midland and Odessa, we witnessed the pumping wells of the second or third Great American Oil Boom.  Then we entered the rising mesas of the Davis Mountains, cooler, still arid, with brief respites of ground water.  Almost 600 miles from Wills Point and still in Texas.    Perhaps Donald Judd had it right out there in Marfa:  cement blocks, rectangles, unpainted; that’s art.  (Personally, I don’t think so, but I can understand how an Easterner gets reduced to simple geometry out here.)
Searching for Meaning in the Desert
            Then after a night on top of a mountain at the McDonald Observatory viewing the stars in pitch black skies, we headed north and spent an afternoon viewing the mysterious workings of ancient seas and reefs, tectonic movements, hydrogen sulfide, and all sorts of other processes to create the wondrous caverns at Carlsbad. Equally dark but quite a contrast.  The far and near.  The above and below.  Yet still, time incomprehensible:  light years or geographic eons.  I ponder this now:  did I think of these things rumbling in the subway in New York City, or gazing from the rocky shores of Bar Harbor, or driving in Vermont valleys penetrated by the stabs of fall colors.   I was not so small or so alone as in West Texas and Southern New Mexico.  It’s down right existential out here.
            Even in only a week, we have gone further.  Almost 700 miles from Marfa to Durango, Colorado, by way of Santa Fe.  But it is more than miles.  Marfa, founded in the 1880s as a stop for the railroad.  Santa Fe settled by the Pueblo people around 1100, named a provincial capital of Spanish America in 1610.  Since in October we visited Plimouth Plantation and a few years ago, the family explored Jamestown, let’s say this again:  Santa Fe has been a town since the 1100s and a “Western European” town since 1610.  It is always a mistake to think that The West is new.  The West doesn’t have the same kind of patriotic historical obscurity that Boston, New York, Philadelphia, or Richmond has—the haze of noble revolution that obscures who dealt with the Penobscot, Narragansett, and Rappahannock. Instead, The West has a mere century and a half of dime novels and western movies and television to ennoble and horrify, or so we are supposed to believe.
In Carlsbad
            But I am getting off point, a bit, in examining my confusion.  What really puzzles me is the fact that my family stopped traveling west, never crossed the Mississippi until my father moved me, my sisters, and mother to Texas in 1964.  My mother’s ancestors stopped in Franklin, Tennessee, in 1820.  My father’s ancestors stopped in Southern Illinois in the 1850s.  My family was part of the great Scots-Irish migration over the Appalachian Mountains, and then they ceased traveling.  But there was another group of folks who kept going.  They were wildly ambitious men like Sam Houston ready to create another empire.  They were mountain men like Jedediah Smith.  They were dreamers for wealth and gold like Mark Twain or entrepreneurs like Levi Strauss.  Cattlemen like Charlie Goodnight.  Or just plain folks who wanted a small stake in something new.  My folks stayed put.
            Like Walter Webb, the University of Texas historian, friend to J. Frank Dobie and Roy Bedichek, pointed out, for normal people (my phrase) western expansion stopped at the 98th meridian because all the old tricks, the cultural institutions and practices, quit working.  In the east, you have rivers to travel.  In the west, not so much.  In the east, you have wood for fences and homes.  On the plains, not so.  In the west, you needed horses, windmills, barbed wire, and the colt 45.  Expansion had to wait until someone  invented these.  
            So we crossed the high deserts north of Santa Fe, traveled into Georgia O’Keefe country and were excited into exclamations.  Then we kept going higher and passed over into Chama, then into the lower reaches of The Rocky Mountains into Pagosa Springs and Durango.  Here we find a second West.  Of course, there is more than one "West."  Of course.  I began to sense something different in myself.  I do not know what it is.  Something about freedom.  Something about strength.  Something about ascending and sitting taller in the saddle.  Something about bears and elk and wolves, not prairie dogs and coyotes.  Something about trees and water, not cacti and sand.  Whatever the desert is, it is not ennobling.  One watches horizons not peaks. 
Looking South toward Abiquiu

            So I still don’t understand what I am feeling.  But let’s say the obvious, this part of The West is different.  It calls something out of you that the East and The Desert Plains do not.  I don’t know what it is.  But I like it.  I wish I could say this more clearly, but I wanted to record the confusion, the intuition, the recognition that there is a power here that is unlike what we have seen so far.  It is not Western European Enlightenment; it is not civilized. It is not Nomad Existenialism and Aloneness.  It's something larger.  It is not cynical or ironic or empty.

Soundtrack.  Linda Ronstadt:  "Colorado."

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