Story by Anthony Mathenia Photos by Rebekah Mathenia .
Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa
Where are we at? Where are we going? Soon we will all be dead, returned to the earth. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.
The vastness of Arizona stretches out all around me, home to the nameless dead. For me the sad part isn’t dying. It’s fading away and being forgotten. There’s something to be said about blowing your brains out in your prime and living forever, instead of rotting away in eternal obscurity. There’s something to be said about leaving your mark.
I contemplate the markings at Newspaper Rock at the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. Birds. Deer. Wheels. Serpents. We do not know who made the stone markings, but at least their work lives on.
In the ancient myth of Enoch, the antediluvian holy man, was instructed to write the sacred secrets of heavens and earth on both stone and clay. If the world ended with fire, the baked clay would survive. If the world ended by water, the stone would live on to tell his story. Written into the myth is this deep throbbing need to continue to tell our story despite all costs.
This is why I write. This is my story.
Petrified Forest National Park is a nuclear explosion. Rock solid bits of wood litter the land landscape. Fell trees snapped like broken bone. It’s a pretty war zone. Souvenir collecting is tempting, but condemned by more than just the weight of the national park service. There is a higher power at work. Stealing bits of petrified wood carries threats of lingering curses. The information center displays letters of people who stole and lived (just barely) to tell the tale.
Lesson learned: buy your petrified wood from any number of the souvenir shops dotting the nearby backroads. Five-dollars is a small price to pay to avoid a curse so bad that a gypsy would be fearful.
We eschew collecting and enjoy the curse-free vistas, bordering up against portions of the beautiful painted desert. Here the gentle rock formations are banded with brilliant reds, purples, yellow, blues, and whites. It’s hot, vacant, beautiful. Our drive continues as we press back toward home, cutting through northern Texas. Just over the border in Amarillo is the Cadillac Ranch, a public art installation. Here mid-century Cadillacs are buried nose-first in the ground, at an angle mirroring the Great Pyramid of Giza. The sculpture is a constant work in progress. The viewing public is encouraged to add their touch, by adorning the cars with spray-can art. The cars are a constant evolution of graffiti tags in a crayon box of colors.
My addition is an ancient pictograph adorning rocks and cave walls all across the globe. This same image inexplicably appears across the American southwest, Armenia, Italy, Spain, the Alps, the Middle-East. It appears on Newspaper Rock. A squatting stick man, waste adorned by twin dots. One of the humanity’s first memes. It’s meaning lost to the ages. What was it to cause disparate cultures separate by oceans to decide to uniformly draw the same image? What was the story they wanted us to know?
“The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail. “
Regardless, I’ll try. Recently, I went hiking into the Abyss of the Grand Canyon.
I am living in Flagstaff, Arizona. A good town for the vagabond, good enough to settle down for a long time in the vagabond mind (3 months). Of course, we must settle our restlessness by never settling. I know this all too well.
Flagstaff isn’t too big, and there is beauty all around. Enough National Forests close by for a lifetime of exploring, the red rocks of Sedona 40 miles south, and of course the Grand Canyon 70 miles up the road. An easy hitch, two rides tops.
I’ve been to The Canyon three times with other people; this time I go alone. Sometimes a man needs separateness to see the loveliness and love the rest of it. Or something. Vagabonds are usually lone vagabonds, lone wolves, steppenwolves.
“The man who goes alone can start to-day; but he who travels with another must wait till the other is ready, and it may be a long time before they get off.”
I decide to hike the Hermit Trail, one of the more difficult and least populated trails at the South Rim. Getting to the trail head is the worst part, as I have to take two standing-room-only shuttles packed full of rim tourists with Nikons around necks and a yawning old driver deadlocked in dead end job. One of the stops is called The Abyss. The driver:
Now approaching The Abyss. This is The Abyss. Please exit through the back doors to The Abyss. Step carefully over the white line as you descend into The Abyss.
Edward Abbey in the late-sixties, with prophetic foresight, writes in Desert Solitaire:
Industrial Tourism is a threat to the national parks. But the chief victims in the system are the motorized tourists. They are being robbed and robbing themselves. So long as they are unwilling to crawl out of their cars, they will not discover the treasures of the national parks and will never escape the stress and turmoil of those urban-suburban complexes they had hoped, presumably, to leave behind for a while…the automotive combine has almost succeeded in strangling our cities; we need not let it also destroy . out national parks.
For the most part, though, the Grand Canyon can never be destroyed. It is invincible and perpetual. Let the rim be overrun by the terrifying tourists. The inside of the canyon itself will remain relatively untrodden. The sloth of the American public guarantees that.
Finally I make it to the trailhead and start hiking down into the true abyss. All is still on this mid-October afternoon in the canyon. It grows warmer as I descend, naturally, but it is not yet overly hot. Colors. Green junipers and cottonwoods and firs in front of me, red jutting cliffs with probably hidden caves behind that, white almost checkerboard-looking cliffs beyond.
I arrive at the bottom, 5000 feet below civilization. I walk on past the Park Service campsite thirty minutes to the Colorado. There is a sandy area where I put down my bedroll and sleeping bag. I probably will not even need the sleeping bag, it is warm enough without it. I have no permit (the $5 seemed excessive), but this is no campsite.
The same sun shines down on the Colorado river at the bottom of the canyon as shines upon Times Square, but it shines upon two different worlds. Here is stillness. Not silence, the roar of the Colorado is heard, the buzzing of bees insects, the occasional chirpings of the birds that frequent these parts, the unfortunate though fortunately distant rumbles of airplanes (but that’s a whole nother world). No, not complete silence, but stillness. A deep pervading peace. And magnificence. Natural magnificence. In New York, there is no denying the empire state building is mechanically magnificent, mechanically masterful.
But what is it when compared to this canyon? Nothing. To me they cannot be compared. It would be like comparing an wealthy man in a suit talking on a blackberry or an attractive woman in the dress with earrings costing thousands of dollars and a wild tiger in the wilderness. The former is attractive because it looks distinguished maybe, wealthy. Impressive in a material sense. Can be attained with the proper resources. To those who strive for wealth and power, it is attractive.
The latter is pure unrestrained wild unattainable unfathomable fierce beauty. The wild tiger, the wild canyon. Here is the place for the yodeling vagabond. Here is true beauty.
The Grand Canyon cannot be shaped by the will of humans. No people can chisel or hammer the canyon to fit their needs. The empire state building was built to fit our needs. The canyon rises above or actually sinks below our petty human ant like comings and goings.
And so, sublime sub time and beyond time and mind.
But even as I curse the distant rumbles of the airplane which disturb the natural tranquility of the canyon, seeing it flying through the sky and seeing the white trail in its wake fading behind it, it is magnificent. Yes, it too is beautiful. I am proud of the human race to see an airplane in the sky. It is an accomplishment, a testament to our abilities but also our restlessness. Who but a restless people would create such a speedy hurrying vehicle?
Anyways from here the sound of the airplane is like a song. The airplane sings along with the birds and the rest of nature in harmonious pitch. In its distance, I can appreciate the airplane, its usefulness, even its genius. All looks and sounds beautiful from where I sit beside the river, the red rocky cliffs soaring above me, the Colorado cutting through in all its primeval fierceness, the light and shadow of the setting sun. From the ugly smoke filled city of head aching confusion, the airplane looks ugly. Just another noise. Adding to the chaos. From here, where all is still and quiet and there is no ugliness, the airplane only adds to the glorious scene.
A little after sunset a bird on the cliffs opposite the Colorado chirps. Another answers it on that side. And one on this side. The bird on this side sounds the same as the second on that side. I don’t know their names.