“What are you thinking about at this moment right now?” I asked as we sat on the cool stone in the shadow of the massive red rock stone arch spanning out over our heads. This arch was a giant circle hewn from the stone by decades of wind and rain. The blue sky beyond it spread out rather infinitely with just a few little cumulus cloud puffs floating through it casting delicate shadows over the red rock towers and cliffs in front of us. We’d hiked up from a grassy valley to the stone towers and the aptly named ‘Marching Men’ rock formations and then onwards, trudging through beach like sand, passing wind blown sand dunes, delicate curves etched in their crests, and winding twisted junipers, aged and grey.
“War.” replied Violet. “Endless war. The concept of ‘inheriting war’ is so… strange… and sad. That a kid feels he has to go off to war to be a man and have stories to tell about the war because he heard stories from his father…” She trailed off.
“It’s been going on long before this – the Iraq and Afghan and Gulf and Vietnam and Korean wars… and all the little wars in between.” I replied. “Go way back – to the Crusades and such – and you have knights always going off to war and you are either going to be a knight, a farmer or a craftsman. Most people wanted to be knights – to have stories to tell of battle, to have scars… It hasn’t changed much.”
We sat in silence. I thought about a painting I’d painted five or six years before called “Breathing with It” about breathing with the tension, the inner wars and fires and waves that crash upon our mental shores. They all pass. A lot of people could use to learn to breath with the myriad phenomena that come up in their minds.
A stark black raven circled over head and called to another perched on a tall rock tower. The sun slowly circled to the west, We left our perch and climbed higher up on the rounded mounds of red sand stone, shimmering in the sun, the white sandstone glittering and the expanse of Arches National Park spreading out – interconneting cliffs, valleys, red rocks and segment of fingers of rock pointing straight up into the air.
We drove down an eight mile dirt road out to this red rock garden across a wide open grassy plain. We’d left the crowded expanse of the park behind us for this silhouette of fingers rising out of the horizon. Earlier we’d hiked through another massive arch peppered with sweaty tourists, out of breath from the quarter mile hike to the upper lip of the bottom of the arch. We had a plan to go sit on the opposite side of the curving rock wall that connected between the double arch and our choice of sitting spit. The climb down from the lip that most tourists stop at, peer over and gasp at was steep but not unpassable. With our sketchpads and camel packs, we scaled the wall, walked along the lower edge of the towering red rock walls and made our way to the opposite side where we climbed up and sat in the crook of a gorgeous arch that looked some some kind of hugely exaggerated Gaudi arch from Park Guell. It’s column – at least eight feet thick, maybe 24′ circumference – came down and twisted in giant stone chunks to the hot sloping rocks below. We sat there, in the bottom of it’s curving window, in the shade, drawing, laughing, talking and expanding.
I made a trip back along the hot expanse between the two arches and climbed up the other side where I entered back into tourist land. Tourist land in Arches Nat’l Park, Moab, Utah:
- Mom, Dad, 8 kids
- Two older women from the south. Why yup, that’s a big stone arch there.
- Healthy Dad, Healthy Mom, two healthy kids. Maybe from california or Washington.
- Kids who don’t want to be there, parents who are hot
- Younger guy off for a hike alone.
- Lines of RVs, all vying for a parking spot
I went to our vehicle and drank some ice cold strawberry lemonade (Santa Cruz Organics…. mmmm….), read a passage out of “Training the Mind” by Chogyam Trungpa about the value of effort to overcome laziness and that even with discipline, one still needs to exert a certain amount of effort to put your foot forward, one after the other on the path. Overcoming laziness is the act of engaging our practice and focusing the mind to hold it steady and not veer off course with all the different trains of thought that come up. I though back to the landscape sketch I’d been doing and just how hard that is for me sometimes – to stay focused on drawing the landscape without following my lines into imagination. Just another part of the practice.
A bit more to drink, a bit of reflection and I got some other things needed for a picnic lunch: manchego cheese, herbed salami, an apple, flatbread crackers, cherry tomatoes, a cucumber, a knife and a cutting board, and some Green and Black’s Hazelnut Currant Dark Chocolate and then I made my way back to Violet and our sitting spot. As I passed through the flocks of tourists, I worked hard at not judging what I seemed to immediately perceive as laziness. The overweight seated guy drinking his can of Coke, the parents who keep irresponsibly cranking out the kids, one after the other… all of them on their path, wherever they need to be in that moment. Learning to breathe with it.
I made my way to the first double arch and then, after a climb down, over, across and up (at which point, not paying as close attention as I should be, letting my mind wander a moment, I slipped and took a chunk out of my elbow) Violet and I ate.
We spent some more time drawing and this time I let my hand flow with inspirations from the patterns of the landscape: the streaked rocks, multi-colored by the minerals that have dripped down over them in various patterns and colors of burnt reds, siennas and oranges, yellow ochres, subtle metallic blues and occasional greens, in various sizes and proportions, nooks, crannies and the like and little swallows darting in and out of their homes made in the cliff walls. Their lines of flight made delicate cuts and curves through the air, juxtaposed against the massive tonnage of the rocks that surrounded us, as they darted playfully in and out of the arch we sat in.
Eventually it was time to change our spot and that’s when we opted for the less traveled dirt road across the valley to the distant rock outcroppings, much larger in person than from a distance. Just the day before we’d had an adventure off on some random roads when we’d gone to the Canyolands National Park.
The drive from Arches to Canyonlands was about forty five minutes and that day we went to the Island in the Sky area, the northern half of the park. A mile walk along the canyon rim, further than most visitors traverse, granted us an immaculate view of the layers upon layers of canyon walls, towering rocks and narrow passages that led down down deeper and deeper, deeper and deeper, to the canyon floor and the river far below.
From where we sat, there was no sound – literally: silence. Not a breeze, a bug or an airplane. Just this vastness spreading out before us and the warming silence we breathed in from where we sat under a rock, slanted and providing shade from the hot sun.
We walked back towards our vehicle and then started to make our way along the roads to other view points. Storm clouds were approaching and we stopped at an overlook, hiked out on some smooth boulders and watched the massive rain clouds sweep up through the canyons. Streaks of lightening cracked the sky and we could see the canyon floors getting soaked. The storm passed by us, leaving us dry but windblown. The intensity of the weather – the distant rain, the clouds, the lightening – coupled with the magnificence and colors of the canyon was exhilarating and we left when the sprinkles got a bit more intense and the wind was too strong.
A few more overlook stop and we spotted a dirt road off to our left into a wide open meadow. Why not? We’ve been driving a Toyota Sequoia, a big powerful SUV loaded with all of our stuff – from camping supplies, luggage, to our Bonnaroo art/vending stuff – so we had no concerns about the road. We sped down the orange/red dirt road, listening to some kind Brazilian samba music, across the open meadow, hoping to end up at the bottom of some canyon. The sun came out and the greens popped against the reddish stone backdrops.
Eventually the road twisted, turned, and popped us out at the top of a canyon that was painted with the most intense of colors – a bright turquoise green, deep lines of black, red and purples… the bottom, where a stream trickled, was the same bright turquoise green. We threw a stone in and counted how long til it landed and counted 150 feet to the first ledge before the bottom. We chilled there for a bit – dazzled by the colors of the canyons, made brighter even and more intense by the recent rain storm that had just passed through. As we drove out, we were sent off by a magic sunset over the bright green meadows, wet and sparkling in the sun, and the red rock canyons and spires that spread out to our right.
There is something magical about exploration and finding some unexpected treasure – inspiring beauty, a teaching, love, openness – at the end of that journey.
The next day, when we left the bluffs we’d driven out to in Arches our trail of dust along the dirt road shone gold in in the evening light and the rounded rocky bluffs we left stood tall, silent, and dark, as silent sentinels in the setting sun.
Later, after dinner, the star circled overhead and the fire case and orange glow over us and the rocks surrounding our campsite.
Now we’ve left the tall red sandy spires of Bryce Canyon – looking like drip sand castles on the beach – and are on our way to the Grand Canyon, somewhere I’ve never been and while these kind of places become icons in our minds, sometimes mocked, sometimes poked at, usually known at least in name by all, to stand in their presence, to soak in their memories and color palates, to be inspired by their beauty and grandeur, is as unique an experience as any.