My Moment of Zen

It was almost three in the morning when I finally saw it: the southern entrance to Zion National Park. I had been driving for almost four hours. From the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, winding around the basin for almost one hundred miles, to feel the earth slowly change from desert to hills. My sister drove for most of this, we switched positions about Page because she was feeling tired from driving as well. I took the wheel as the cold winds started to come through the car. We left the Grand Canyon with snow gently falling. The temperature dropped throughout the day and you could feel the howling winds growing more desperate. After Page, the slow climb to the North Rim before continuing on Highway 89, meant that temperatures continued to drop to a balmy 29 degrees. Neither of us were prepared to return to winter. As we climbed up the hill, the sun finally left the horizon and the first stars came to greet us. The winding road wasn't much help either, taxing the already depleted senses. After the North Rim, the mountain becomes a National Forest, civilization fades into the distance as the road becomes windier. The few cars that passed only reminded me that I had a lane to stay in the center of, otherwise the road became more and more blurry. Tired quickly became exhaustion as the double digits of the clock grew from 11-12. By 1, the first signs of civilization, the small town at the border of Utah and Arizona was nothing but a red-light and gas station, offering nothing to really help keep me focused. Finally, the left turn to leave Highway 89 to State Route 9, meant that there was more twists and turns and hills. Exhaustion faded into that state of depleted where the eyes start to blur and the brain starts to nod off into moments where you don't remember what just happened. The gps said three more miles. It felt as if those three miles were each three hours, time started slowly fading together. Then it happened, the small stones that held up the brown painted sign, "Entering Zion National Park," appeared. Pulling off to thank the universe that I made it, I get out of the car. The goal was to make it to Zion by Thursday, and while technically it was Friday by a few hours, goal achieved. Turning to go back to the car, the exhaustion faded as I saw the miracle of the universe unfold in front of me.
 There between two crests of the mountains, taking over most of the southern sky was the Milky Way. On the East Coast, this is a rare sight, too much light pollution means those colors of the galaxy aren't as alive. I stood there, almost in dumbfounded admiration, wondering for how long had I been driving and not seen this beautiful sight? Those depleted senses then faded into almost childlike glee and excitement. I grabbed the tripod and camera and began to sit in the middle of the road and just watch. The last car I had seen was hours before, so I was in little danger of being hit. The silence was deafening, no cars no rustle of trees, nothing surrounding me, I was completely alone here in this moment (my sister was long asleep in the backseat of the car). Sharing the stars only with the camera. The cold was there, but even that faded as I just sat in wonder of these stars. I was a child in the moment, lost to the world, my senses were not apart of me. From my understanding of buddhism, this was the closest to nirvana that I have been. Completely entranced, mesmerized by the gentle glow of the sky. I kept thinking about, how would life be if you had never seen a star before? I felt that this was me, seeing the stars for the first time, I was just in awe of how each tiny dot was a burning nuclear reaction. Every element that we are composed of comes from the centers of stars, and each molecule inside of me felt that it was returning home. Everything was stripped away in that moment, transcended to just sit and breath in this sky. While the previous days were amazing, this moment, being lost underneath the stars, was the highlight of all of it. This was my moment of zen. I should take a moment and back up to explain how I arrived at this moment of bliss…

You think you know where I'm going, The truth is I haven't got a clue. 

The Wild Reeds

 Like every great moment of Zen, this one began two days before in Texas, where we were awoken by an emu that was about fifty feet from the car. The long ride to Amarillo meant that we pulled into town at about one am. We set up camp and quickly fell asleep, the car ride alone across Oklahoma and the storms meant that we were all past shaken and tired. We knew that this was a campsite, it was a legitimate business that was established right of the interstate, but we did not know that the site was next to a large farm. Awaking, slightly startled at first, to find a four foot tall bird that is not the most friendly creature to begin with, looking into your car was a little strange. Clearly we were on the bird’s territory and he did not like that. Of course, I thought that this was a golden opportunity to go and capture an animal that I rarely have interactions with on a regular basis, got out of the car and charged headstrong at the bird. Luckily, he was wiser than me, and he started backing up, until he saw Scout, then he was not exactly ready to concede his territory. Scout, on the other hand, was not sure what was happening and was treading lightly around the bird, he didn’t bark or make a noise, instead he sniffed and looked very concerned that I was moving closer to what could have only been from his perspective a giant bird that could easily have carried him away. After our momentary excitement, we all packed in the car and were off again towards Flagstaff. 

 The goal was to make it to Zion by Thursday, another day away, via Flagstaff. I promised my sister that I would take her to the Grand Canyon, and in terms of travel, this path seemed to make the most sense, because of a permit to go down the Virgin River Narrows on Friday, we were on a path to get to Flagstaff by Wednesday evening, then turn north to Zion on Thursday to camp and then we could make our way back south to Flagstaff to hit I-40 by the following Friday and put her on a plane back home. Also, many of these parks do not allow dogs, last year when I traveled to the Grand Canyon, I left Scout with a wonderful border in Flagstaff. This would be a good way to get him to a place that he would be safe, while we traveled north and pick him up for the rest of the journey. 

 The Great Plains of the Texas panhandle slowly became drier and more yellow as they morphed into the sandy plains of New Mexico. When you read about the great migrations of people from Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico into California during the 1930s it is hard to believe that this once had more people and was more stable. The pictures of the walls of dust that were stories high flying through over the continent are hard to believe today. The large quadrupeds that the Spanish, and subsequent English, brought with them radically redesigned the Plains, from grasslands that held native waters to one that is heavily reliant on an aquifer that will go dry due to over taxation of resources. There is something almost mythic about the gentle turn from grasslands to desert. Last year, this was more apparent in the hill country, further South on I-10. There the landscape changed in a stark and drastic way when the rocky alcoves took over the landscape and turn the entire scenery a yellow that stretched for miles. Here, further north, the gentle slope from green to yellow is so gradual that if it weren’t for the mountains growing in the distance it would be hard to notice the change. 

 Arriving in New Mexico, I pulled off the interstate to a rest area, mostly to stretch my legs, but to also find information about the state. I knew that we had a seven to eight-hour drive ahead of us, and that we were in good standing with time. Why not go and see something while we were here? The person behind the desk was extremely helpful and said that there was Chaco Cultural National Park, Los Alamos National Park, and Pecos National Park, all within a short drive from I40, going north. With the possibility to see other national parks, I quickly changed courses to new adventures.

 We headed towards Pecos first, westward on I-40, then turning north before Albuquerque. I knew almost nothing of the park, it was just another park. Obviously, it had to have some significance if it was a national park, so we continued northward. But after visiting, this was easily one of the best moments I had up to this point. As we drove, the southern Rockies started to demonstrate their majesty, with the snowcapped peaks and the beautiful tree lines that were standing in the distance. It is the middle end of May and there is snow on the mountain tops that is visible for miles. For some strange reason this was intoxicating. We left on Monday and the weather was already approaching the low 90s, and here there is snow on the mountains. Arriving at the visitor center, I got my usual badge, patch, and park map, and that was when I began to realize how important this place really was.

 I study Latin American history, while it is primarily South American history, I had an amazing study at Appalachian State about the Spanish colonial system in the New World. One of the works that I read was When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away, about the transformation of Spanish society among the indigenous peoples of the Southwest. This was a fascinating work, that opened my eyes to periphery colonization, versus center forward that the Spanish did in places like Mexico. The use of the church in the periphery was central to the “civilizing” methods of the Spanish in New Mexico. Yet, because of the Spanish lack of treating indigenous people like human beings, the Pueblo revolted in the 18th century. I remember reading this and being absolutely amazed the role that church organization had in the American Southwest. The Pueblo were eventually successful in driving the Spanish out for a short while.  

 At the visitor center, I realized that Pecos National Historical Site was one of the main places that the Church established a base of operations and that the indigenous people had destroyed during the revolt. We drove to the end of the trail to find the ruins of the Spanish church. There are the stone walls that were once a part of a bigger mission that are still there, while most of the building was destroyed. The scene was amazing, the snowcapped mountains in the backdrop, while there was the orange building standing in front of us. The entire time I was lost thinking, how did I not realize that this was the place that I have read about so many times? 

 Not only was I lost in this moment, so too was my sister. For me, I was history nerding it out, going, oh and this was what led to this, and this affected the Spanish here, and on and on and on. While she was genuinely interested in the architecture, the people, the reason that they were living in this mountain community. Over the past few days, we shared stories of growing up, of discussing the different perspectives that we have on our family, relationships, and life. By the time we reached Pecos, those conversations had blossomed into both of us being lost in that moment. Yes it was in two different directions, but the fact that she admitted afterwards was that she was impressed because this was something that she had never experienced before in her life, meant the world to me. While both of us felt this amazing pull of Pecos, we were on a deadline to the next park.

 Traveling northward, we passed through Santa Fe, into Los Alamos. This is one of the truly breathtaking routes, because you snake along, near Bandilier National Monument, before climbing to the top of the mountains at Los Alamos. The snowcapped peaks that were in the distance at Pecos, we were now at the top of. Los Alamos is a small town that was a part of the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. This was where they test dropped the nuclear bomb before using it on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The test site is miles away, it was at Los Alamos that they were more or less testing and putting the final touches on the bomb.

 One of the sad aspects of National Parks, is the fact that they are so closely linked to the political problems in Washington. The Manhattan Project has three different branches, Oak Ridge Tennessee, Los Alamos New Mexico, and Hanford Washington; the three places that developed this technology. These are some of the newest national parks in the United States. Yet because of Congressional inaction to pass a budget successfully in the past years, these three parks are orphaned from a home that is on their own. In Oak Ridge, they share the building with the Museum of Science and Energy. In Los Alamos, the park is a part of the town hall. When I went inside, and said that I was from Oak Ridge, it was in that moment, all of the rangers/volunteers were instantly curious what was life like there? I felt that I had the same questions for them, and we conversed about how the bomb was made and the history of the two areas for a few moments, before I was back on the road. I would gladly go back to the town of Los Alamos, even if it was in the middle of what felt like nowhere. 

 Leaving Los Alamos, our destination was the Petrified Forest, in Arizona. I realized at this point that we were barely going to make it to the destination before they closed if we did not get in gear. The drive down the mountain into Santa Fe was beautiful as it was going the other direction, and we got back on I-40 around Albuquerque. When I traveled this path last year, I was amazed by the beauty of the city along the road. I kept waiting to see those iconic landscapes and people from Breaking Bad, though. Unfortunately, we were on a bit of a time crunch and we couldn’t soak in the city as it properly needs to be. 

 We arrived at the Petrified Forest right as they were closing the office and the gift shop. Saddened by the fact that we were only going to be there for the duration of going through the park, I did buy a patch at the gift shop and got an idea of where the different parts of the park were. I didn’t realize that part of the Painted Desert was in the park. I thought that only the petrified remains of trees were in the park. Driving to the park admittance desk, the ranger was amazing and offered the coveted Jr Ranger badge to me (ahh all was right with the world, and thanks to that park ranger for his understanding!). 

 The park is arranged in a giant loop, the first part is the Painted Desert. Here, the beautiful scenic landscapes stretch as far as the eye can see. The red hills that fade into haze blue are wonderful. It was here that my sister really came out of her shell. The red dunes amazed her. One of the things that I have learned spending time with her the past few days, is when she is genuinely excited. While the cold winds were blowing at our faces the entire time that we were there, she was smiling and laughing. She wanted her picture taken, she kept asking me, how was this created? What formed that? While I might not have all the answers to those questions, this was one unasked question that was being answered by her interest in the place. To me, that was one of the greatest gifts that I have gotten out of her being here, being able to see the world from someone else’s eyes for the first time and share that amazement with them. This was a blessing that I have gotten, never would I have thought that I would have shared that moment of awe with my sister before. Driving through the park, at the Blue Mesa, I was showing her how to use the DSLR camera to take stunning pictures. Her shots rival mine with their ability to capture the colors and the landscape.  

 My sister was deeply interested in the idea that a tree could become petrified. She kept bringing up the fact that this barren landscape is what you think of when you think of dinosaurs roaming the world. The windswept mesas, the plains, the harsh conditions might be conducive to life in general. While I understood that there were petrified trees, I don’t’ think that I realized how truly beautiful they are. The geodes are richly colored, purples, reds, greens, yellows, are layered in what was once the tree rings. This is absolutely stunning to see in person, the pictures I have do not do them justice. There are somethings that I can understand, and everything else I have to acknowledge that is the ways of the universe. This is one of those moments.

 On Wednesday, we made it to three National Parks in one day, and we still had more driving ahead of us. I think both of us agree that the trip really began on Wednesday, because that was when we were really at peace and understanding of where we were and what we were going to be looking at in the coming days. While we continued on, the rains and winds were pounding. The cold front that brought the tornados the night before in Texas, had a sister cell in Arizona that caused extremely cold winds (down to the low 20s in the valley) and rains. While the Prius gets great gas mileage, due to the constant uphill climbs, and the hard headwinds, the gas mileage went down to the low 30s per gallon. For most cars, this is anything to be ashamed of, for the Prius that is not a great thing. The 10 gallon tank doesn’t bode well for low gas mileage, as we found out about 10 miles outside of Flagstaff. The gas light kept dinging as we were driving on the interstate and there was just nowhere to pull off with a gas station. Tensions ran a little high as we were desperately looking to find a gas station. Finally, at the last moment, as we were running on the Prius’ battery power and that was going fast, we pulled into a gas station. We continued on to Flagstaff, where we made it to the hotel and crashed for the night.

 The next day our adventure was to go to Zion. Again, knowing that the drive was less than 8 hours and starting early, I knew that we had some time that we could visit other areas. On the way into Flagstaff, there was a sign at the start of town for Walnut Canyon that I suggested that we go check out. This too, was an adventure that I knew nothing about before we arrived, but quickly was amazed by what we found.

 Walnut Canyon National Monument is a historic indigenous site. There is a small village that you can walk around. While most visitors are there to discuss the indigenous people, the canyon’s geology is absolutely fascinating. This is in a volcanic area and you can see the ridges at the bottom of the canyon of the changes over time. I was fascinated by the geology more than the indigenous community aspect. The village sits on a small island in the middle of the canyon. You are able to walk almost 360 degrees around the village and see back in time. My sister was really interested in the history, which is an interesting change of pace, because it is usually the other way around. After walking the loop, it was time to head norrhward up Route 89.

 Leaving Flagstaff, I had mixed emotions. Part of this was the fact that I had to leave Scout for a number of days and just general worry and loneliness about missing my buddy. We have spent a lot of time together on the road and he is a source of both happiness and companionship. I miss him more writing this and thinking about how important he is to me. What kept going through my head was the last time that I made this long drive northward to the North Rim and Page. Last year was a time of hardship and problems. I drove here because I wanted to demonstrate that I could do this, that I could achieve and be this person, that those limitations of who I was were starting to strip away and I was emerging as a new being. One of the things that kept me going through that transition was the Grateful Dead song, “Brokedown Palace.” I couldn’t help it, I had to listen to this song as we left Flagstaff. The soft harmonies and the words, that are so epically true were cutting to the core of me at that moment. “Mama mama, many worlds I’ve come since I first left home.” No truer words were spoken in that moment. I have found that my mind often drifts back to the desert and that freedom and power of a completely different landscape. This in a strange way, feels like an ancient home to me. Coming back to this place, to be a part of something that was greater than me, felt like I was returning home, to a mother and telling her of all the changes that I have gone through. I have changed for the better and so many worlds in between I’ve traveled to get to this point.

 On the other hand, I wanted to share this moment, this magic of seeing the Grand Canyon with my sister for the first time. I had been encouraged over the past few days with how she reacted and wanting to share that experience. I remember being overwhelmed last year when I first stepped out of the car and walked the North Rim down to the Lodge. Feeling so small, so tiny in the presence of greatness was overwhelming. I admit it, I cried when I stood there that first time seeing it in all the epic grandeur, but that is another story for another time. I didn’t want to spoil her experience by having my negative emotions charge the air. 

 Ultimately, I decided that it was for the best to go to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, to let her see the more tourist area first, then we could hike down some during our return from Utah in the next few days. The long drive up to the Canyon was interesting, the valley and canyons that litter the landscape are highlighted as you move higher and higher up towards the rim. When we first arrived, we went to the Watchtower, a really amazing spot overall. Yet, it was the early afternoon and the place was packed. School groups in particular, were the most problematic. There had to have been at least a thousand people between the parking lot to the tower. On our short walk to the tower, I was excited to show her the canyon. Yet when she got to the edge and saw down into it, there was a moment of apathy. Clearly she had other things on her mind and the beauty before her eyes was not one of them. We climbed the Watchtower, congested with children and elderly people going up and down the very small stairwell. Several times being bumped, or bumping into people. We made our way back to the car and I suggested that we continue on to the visitor center. Along the way we made several stops and took pictures. Unfortunately, again, people were very rude in sharing spaces and we had to be slightly rude to get the pictures that we wanted. So far, our experience with the Grand Canyon was not turning out so well.

 We made it to the Visitor Center and tried to get a badge, yet they were not as eager to hand these out. The patches that I collect were not at the Watchtower’s gift shop and the line for the Visitor Center’s gift shop was out the door. Thursday, so far was not boding well for success. How could one day be so amazing, and the next be, meh at best, to slightly grading, to frustrated at people in a national park? This doesn’t make sense. One goes to these places to share and be human again, not to stand in line for tourist gifts, or to struggle to share just a moment of such scenery with another human being. This feeling of hostility towards others is something that I really do not like in myself. Add to that, that I started feeling this in a sanctuary was beyond comprehension. 

 I pushed us to walk around the South Rim’s trail to try to see if there were better opportunities for pictures. While congested, there were several spots that were great to take pictures from. Ultimately, we ran into the same problem, over crowded park and people who were rude and not wanting to share this amazing place with others. By the time that we left, we were both burnt out and tired of people and knew that it was going to be a long ride ahead. The cold that was there in the morning was returning, when we got in the car it was snowing and neither of us were prepared for the new chill in the air. She drove first until we got to Page, then I took the wheel as she went to the back seat to sleep.

 Over the next four hours, I was lost in this state of anger, frustration, and tiredness. Why did I react in such a way towards those that were clearly trying to have a good time? Was this a byproduct of my state leaving Flagstaff? Were there some other issues that I was not wanting to admit that were bothering me from the previous few days? All the above was the correct answer and I had to settle into a grating excoriation of myself in my head for being less than what I know that I want to be. I am better than this, I told myself, don’t fall into those mental traps that you always do. While it is easy to talk yourself into seeing the worst, it is even harder, for me atleast, to talk myself out of those. Usually it takes a day to get over that feeling of just sheer stupidity at being upset at nothing. I have been working on fixing this, but change is a slow process. 

 That is why pulling into Zion at 3 in the morning was such a big deal. That calming effect that only nature can give alleviated all of those thoughts and problems. I sat like a child and let the world float away. I was energized by the stars in a way that I wish that I could explain. I think that Walt Whitman got at that feeling the best in his poem, “I heard the Learn’d Astronomer Speak.” In it, he talks about hearing scientific thoughts and processes, yet there is something magical about just going and experiencing things for yourself. I sat on the side of the road taking pictures for almost an hour, a few cars drove by, but for the most part I as alone and content. 

 Even now as I write this, I’m sitting at a campsite under the stars with the dying embers of a fire outside of Bryce Canyon. I look up and se the small dots that are millions of years old, and think, how lucky I am to just sit here and be able to look upwards and see this mosaic of lights and time sprawled out in front of me. I’m reminded of a line in a Trampled By Turtles song, “I’m surrounded by forever, but I don’t have any time/ Left to wander in amusement, left to ride, my breath is dyin’.” 

Nathan Widener