Time the Revelator

What draws millions of people a year to the Grand Canyon? Of course, it is the beautiful rocks that have been etched by the Colorado River over millions of years. But subliminally, what draws people to the canyon is that it is a manifestation of time. We talk about time in quirky ways. There is this long-standing idea that time is this force that is measurable. It's five o'clock somewhere...It's about 45 minutes away from downtown Atlanta....Time then is a distance that is something that is quantifiable. Maybe that is the problem with current lexicon or way that we use language, is that it is a measurement of distance. If we are to take the physician's approach, then time is the postmodernist nightmare of subjective reality. Einstein, in his infamous theory of relativity stated that the only constant in the Universe is light, everything else, from gravity to time, then is subjective. For me, it is hard to look at the Grand Canyon and not see a objective quantification of time. There, stacked in rocks, layered, is the manifestation of time in front of you. Millions of years on display, to slowly be worn down by rain.

Betting back to the other problem of time, is how do we measure it? With distance, it is easy, there is the inch, meter and mile, to all demonstrate distance between space. Yet, with time, we are measuring not distance that is observable, but distance between the present and the past. That is the problem. The present sifts into the past like sands in the desert, moving and shaping in a subtle and nonlinear way. Who made up the measurement of a second? The snap of a finger? Is that the best calculation of the basis of our current understanding of time? What then is a second in relationship to the Grand Canyon? What then is a second in comparison to the Milky Way?

I mention all of this, because in reality, I am fascinated with time. History is the movement of people over time. I think that the reason that I love photography is that it is basically capturing that moment in time. I can manipulate the shutter speed from 8000ths of a second, to over 30 seconds. That is time manipulation. I am manipulating time over a fixed plane to capture something that was there, but was not there. Long exposures are beautiful because they expose how the understanding of time is a fragile misconception of ourselves. I love looking into the chasm of the Grand Canyon, because I can feel the movement of slow geological time, capturing those moments within myself. I also love looking into the night sky, seeing backwards in time, feeling an ancient connection to reflections of light that have traveled millions of years to my eyes. All of this is the past, yet it is the present for me (another possible problem with our language of time/conceptions of past/present?).

Maybe we should do better to say that time is moments. I realize that this is even more vague language, but in many ways, this seems to capture the raw essence of what time really is.  A moment to one is not a moment to another. A moment in the scale of the Grand Canyon could be thousands of years to me. A moment to an ant, might be thousandths of a second to me. I realize that this is starting to travel down a path of subjectivity, that becomes harder and harder to congruently fit together how these ideas work on a larger scale. But if we are to conceptualize time as moments, simple snapshots of one's life, then we are able to see the passage of time in a much clearer manner. You don't have to have the minute details of their everyday existence to know the much larger picture of their life. History then, is the collection of moments that make us who we are, not about distance, but rather, a photo album of an individual who they are and how they are moment by moment. While I love David Byrne, I heartily disagree, time is holding us. That these moments are our design of who we are and how we present ourselves to the universe.

That then begs the question, do we define the moment, or does the moment define us? For example, that moment that the perfect song comes on and we instantly have that memory of a song in the moment. Or, transversely, a terrible car wreck that destroys not only property, but alters an individual's life for forever. Maybe the other problem here, is that search for meaning, that we try to ascribe to make ourselves whole and understand that there is an order in the random chaos of this infinite universe.

Within that random chaos, we are proverbially stuck, flesh and bone that is connected to some memory of the past, a collection of moments that somehow defines who we are. That canon of memories, then is the masterpiece that we create of our lives. We shape and mold those moments, to make ourselves We highlight ourselves as the heroes in this moment, forgetting that from another's perspective, we could be the villains. This story that we have of ourselves is what makes us who we are, yet if that is the case, then what are these moments, but hollow ghosts of reality? Psychologists say that you don't have memory until you have language. Then is that the problem? That we have this problem, in lack of true communication with another person is the root of discontent? While the Socratic method is wonderful, I struggle with this conceptualization of what we are and time throughout my personal and professional life.

This moment marks a anniversary. This is the weekend of Memorial Day, a celebratory time in the United States, supposedly to honor those who have fought and died in wars, that we have turned into as the unofficial start to summer. This was the moment that started a series of chain reactions that both reformed and reshaped me to who I am today. While I don't want to go into the specifics, because that is too personal, this was the slow breakdown of my life and gradual reformation. At this point last year, I had a plan, I knew here I was in the next 30 years, teaching career, PhD, beautiful wife, dogs, llama farm (slightly joking, though if academia doesn't work out this is the option C...), children surrounding. The daydream that brought comfort knowing that there were goals that made the struggle worth it. I knew the big milestones that were to come. I had just been accepted at a major institution in Florida and was about to start the process of moving to Miami. Life wasn't going to be easy, but by the same token, it was a path forward that was going to be made. Yet, that didn't happen, this was the start of the long fall down the stairwell of life, loosing most of those things that I thought were going to be my life.

In the intermediate chaos of those few months, I found myself more and more drawn to nature and photography. I spend days lost in the woods with Scout, searching for meaning, searching for answers. I found my long-lost love of music, singing and playing guitar, wanting to play and write songs again. I discovered that I am stronger than who I thought I was. That the comforted daydream sometimes is really a nightmare that we convince ourselves that we want.

I've been really torn the past few days, it's hard for me to think about. That moments are what they are, but yet, it is how we define and redefine them that makes all the difference. Again, if you were to ask me a year ago, would you be sitting, writing a blog about travel, about 30 miles outside of Joshua Tree, I would have easily laughed ad you. I probably couldn't have pointed out where Joshua Tree was on a map at this point last year. That moment of complete loss and destruction, while it was more than I care to admit. In conversations that I've had with a friend that I met in August, they said that the first time they met me, that I was a broken man. That they could see that I was completely and utterly destroyed on the inside. Yet, here I am, maybe not completely stitched back together, but at least the thread has made it to the holes, and needs to be tightened. I am different than I used to be. Throughout the chaos of the intervening months, I would tell people, look this isn't me, you should have seen me when. No, that isn't right either. I am me, I have to always be me. That is the only way forward.

I'm sitting in Twentynine Palms, in the cooled evening heat, the wind is blowing from the west. In this moment, I am put together again. I was here last year, only for a few days, passing through almost, I remember that drive through Twentynine Palms, then Joshua Tree before Yucca Valley. That long drive down to Palm Springs, the air is radically different on the other side of the mountains. I remember seeing the Joshua Tree for the first time, the bent trunk, the limbs that are scattered to the wind, the palm itself that seems to grow in each direction. I was fascinated and ready to see more. Yet on the Palm Spring side, not many of these trees grow there. Because of time constraints. This time it is different. This moment is different.


Las Vegas was a cauldron.  The way that we would say that in Tennessee is: “It’s hotter than the hinges on the gates of hell.” But that might be a bit dramatic here. Faulkner discussed the “unspoken character” of all Southern literature was the heat. If that is the case, this was a fever ready to kill the patient. The heat was on the lower side of the 100s and all three of us, sister, dog, and myself were miserable. The morning wasn't terrible. We set up camp at Red Rocks National Forest. The winds from the night before meant that the weather was a constant low temperature. The problem was, when I planned this trip, my understanding was her plane took off on Thursday. This was not the case, her plane left on Friday morning, which meant that we had another day to find something to do in Vegas with the dog. Not an easy task.

We took down camp about mid-morning and then decided that we would try to go to Valley of Fire. I've seen pictures, and the orange and red valley of rocks was a place that I wanted to go anyway. I didn't realize that it was so far north of Las Vegas. Arriving at the park, we were informed of a few good trails to go down, specifically the White Domes, and the Fire Wall. We packed in the car and drove the short distance to the Fire Wall. This was a really fascinating geological trail, because the colorful waves in the rocks were almost like that of Vermillion Cliffs in Arizona. The basin at the end of the Fire Trail was worth the trip. The only down side was the temperature on the rock was approaching 100 degrees by noon, and all three of us were feeling the heat exhaustion.

We traveled to the end of the road to the White Domes trail. Supposedly this trail was once used in an old movie and still had the set up there. Also, there was a slot canyon (another reason that I was ready to go on the trail). The problem was the heat was only starting to climb when we arrived and by the time we made it to the canyon, it was almost unbearable. There were moments that both my sister and I were worried about Scout and his safety. Not only is he a black dog, he also has a pretty long coat of hair as well. We never finished the trail, my sister volunteered to take Scout back to the car and let me try to find the slot canyon. I had success because the trail was not clearly marked at the bottom, meaning I probably went off trail lost for at least a mile. While this might be a great hike, it was very confusing not knowing which way to go.

Turning around, I made it to the car, feeling as if I was going to dehydrate on the spot. Gulping what little water we had left, we started towards Las Vegas again. We were going to be staying at an Airbnb in the area and had to kill some time before we arrived. Even though we tried to time things for the early afternoon, we were still way too early. This was when I decided that we would try to go to Lake Mead and try another adventure.

Driving up to Las Vegas, there was the attempt to go to Hoover Dam. The problem was Scout, many parks are not dog friendly and this is one of them. It is a beautiful structure, the problem is that it is very non dog friendly. I noticed that Lake Mead was very close by and it was a National Recreation Area, aka, another park to visit to add to the list of places that I’ve been to this year. I knew little to nothing about the park, but this is the beauty of going on the road with no specific time frame to hit, that you have time to go on side adventures and see things that you never knew about before.

We arrived at the visitor center and was told that the best trail that would be short and dog friendly was the old railroad line trail. This was the train line that carried many of the supplies for the construction of Hoover Dam. The trail was pretty flat and had some shady spots due to the construction of tunnels. We started down the trail and the intensity of the heat radiated back from the ground. It was so miserably hot. Both my sister and I talked about how strange it was that only a few days ago that we were in knee deep snow on top of mountains and now we were in such insufferable heat. The tunnels were nice and offered a refuge for a few moments from the sun. They were full of bats, but because they are so small, it was difficult to identify them at all. When we left the trail, we made our way back to the visitor center to earn the official badge.

Finally, it was time to escape this insufferable heat. The room was ready and we made our way to the northside of Las Vegas. The house was nice and we spent the evening getting ready to take her to the airport. We had a nice celebration/send-off dinner and both were ready for bed when we returned to the house.

The next morning was bittersweet, on the one hand, I gained a freedom; and on the other I lost a companion on this part of the journey. We awoke and drove to the airport. Surprisingly, Las Vegas seems more like the city that never sleeps, because traffic was just as active at 6 in the morning their time, as it was at 5 in the evening. My sister got out of the car and was off on her own adventure home.

I’ve wondered what she has thought of this trip. My sister is a wonderful person, but she is not necessarily the “outdoorsy” type. On this trip, we went from camping, to hiking, to going through snow, freezing water, up hills, down canyons, into the intensity of the sun, and almost all variations in between. This was a different slice of life for her. Camping in the car was something that I doubt that she has done before (not to say that I’m proud to do it myself, it sometimes just is done). I’m proud of her, this was her chance to see something of America that I know that she had never experienced. Hopefully she was able to take this experience and pull some larger life goals and understandings out of it. From what I’ve seen on her social media, I think that she is proud of those long hikes and hard day’s work. It’s good for her in the end.

After dropping her off, I made my way southward, down I15 towards Joshua Tree. The goal was to camp near the park and spend the next few days in the park, lost like a child. After entering California, the GPS said that I needed to go through the Mojave National Preserve. Almost giddy, I saw this last year and I wanted to go through the desert, to experience something real and unique here. Driving a short way, the landscape changed and the cacti and Joshua Trees started to emerge. Ah, I’ve never seen such a beautiful sight. The twisted branches that curve in unique designs towards the sun. There is a magic in each of them. As the Fleet Foxes once said, “Unique in each way you can see.” The trunks hairy and husky, branches bent with the green ends that sprout small white buds. Magic in the world created these trees. Something about them speaks to me in a deep way and I’m not sure why. A mountainside covered with these trees is heaven. The Mojave has a smaller version of the tree that the national park is known for, and they cover the eastern side of the park. Driving through this made me feel as if I was going home.

I made it to the park office and asked for a trail or something that would be ok for a dog to travel. I was told that the only real trail on the trek that I was going was the sand dunes on the way out of the park. Making our way the few miles westward, Scout and I pulled into the parking lot. The car temperature gauge read 99 degrees, and here I was going to take a small, black, long-haired dog up a sand dune that was probably going to be radiating heat (there are times that I wonder how smart I really am). The shifting white sands beneath our feet was difficult to travail. The intensity of the sun blaring down was almost too much. We made it halfway up the dune and it was so surreal. Here we were, in close to 100 degree weather, the sun beating down on us, the yellow sand almost white from the glare. In the distance, lush green near the mountain side that was capped white with snow. To stand there, and take that in, almost was too much. It was at this halfway point, that I decided that we had had enough, and that it was time to make it to the car. We turned around and quickly scampered down the hill. Along the way, we ran into a lovely Scottish couple, who were past the point of being burnt. They were a shade of pink that was crisp. They were wonderful people, I just kept feeling sorry for them because of the lack of sunscreen they had on themselves. I knew that they had pretty much second to third degree burns and that their trip back to Scotland was going to be miserable. We talked a while about the Southwest and traveling, they had been to many of the places that I was at, just missed each other somehow. We exchanged pleasant goodbyes and Scout and I were off towards Joshua Tree.

I had planned on trying to stay in Twentynine Palms, because I remembered that there was a vibrant arts scene there. I remembered the murals that lined the walls and I felt that there was a magic in the air. I found a campsite near the city on Airbnb and I was ready to make my way there. The ride down the 10 and eventually along Route 66. The feeling of the desert is absolutely amazing. There is a life in the fire of the west. I haven’t seen tumbleweeds, but you can feel the cliché’s: hot, rugged, wind beaten houses, strung together without telephone wires, people who are harder than the dirt that they live on. There is an elegance to it that city life doesn’t have.

I made it to the campsite and established base of operations. The site was a great place, only a few miles away from town. When I arrived, the wind was blowing pretty steady, enough to make the tent need to have steaks. The problem, it was this hot air that stung the skin as if it was lashes. I went to get stakes and finished prepping. Tomorrow, I’ll be ready. Tomorrow, the sun will shine and the birds will call me forward.

Time is a funny thing. We have this limited amount that is mercurial. Some days are great, others are terrible. How do you know which one time brings? If it is time that reveals all, then do we have any agency in the matter, or are we stuck on that proverbial mousetrap of fate, doomed to play a cosmic tragedy over and over and over again. Heidegger talks about present and being, how being is about being in the moment, that there is a historical person that you once were, and a present person that you are. Maybe that is the trick, to not get bogged down and lost in that past person, but be the person of the present. That makes the future slightly more hopeful and gives you that agency so much longed for.


Nathan Widener