Many have asked a combination of these questions: “How do you get into the amphitheater?” “Why isn’t there a trail down in there?” “What’s down there anyway?”
I thought by now I’d have some answers and might truly know. What is the amphitheater besides a geologic formation at the end of a plateau that is continually carved out by headward erosion (rain, snow, and ice) and looks like a canyon? By the way, the reason it is an amphitheater instead of a canyon is because a river didn’t cut the area out.
What goes on down there? How does it work? And again, what’s down there exactly? Well… I’ll tell you!
Allurement. Entrapment. Deception. The drawing out and sucking away of life and energy. Complete change and forgetfulness. Sheer bewilderment; the kind that will lure a person in and never let go once it finally has you. It’s a place of secrets that tease at your wonderment. The Breaks hold the very foundation of life.
I promised myself, after being seven hours dehydrated; without water and with a broken walkie talkie; walking down an endless ten mile road that twisted and turned through mountainous ups and downs; after already having two near death experiences hiking and climbing thirty some odd miles in the past thirty two hours; and hoping like hell to catch a ride with the National Park’s Employee Carpool (which drove right past without seeing me) down the plateau when it came around on route 14, that I would never go down in the the amphitheater again. It’s too dangerous. It’s too tempting. The day following my excursion and promise, as I limped along with every muscle aching; every bone screaming, I already felt the call to go back.
This is why I had to leave the southwest. If I was within reach much longer it or something like it would surely take me. There is so much more to life than the desolate and beautiful. So much more to life than to conquer. So much more to life that I will forever be unsure of all of its flavors and tastes. I hope to never reach the end of the new. Too much of anything; of any place can kill you and even if it doesn’t kill you, it can take the rest of life’s flavors and experiences away.
I realized driving through the beautiful state of Oregon a few weeks before my excursion into the amphitheater that there are very few days as ripe as the days of this summer. With that realization, I decided to prolong the picking and for the rest of my life try to take only what I can consume; leaving the rest for the rest as needed. These patches of berries will never be barren and in this way will grow thicker in time. I will enjoy each more and more slowly and become more than man eating berries. I will be the true taster, giving all I pick its individual flavor and the picked will in turn taste and give new flavor to me. The variety is endless! Sample fully. Each is a life all its own, live endlessly!
Edward Abbey says most of us insist on living in one world at a time. He, however claims he is going to attempt to live in two. This is in response to Thoreau, who Abbey believes insisted on living in one world. Where Abbey went wrong in his interpretation is that by Thoreau insisting on living in one world at a time, he was able to live and embrace them all, thus making it one unified, interconnected, singular world.
“The west is best” wrote McCandless who was sucked into nature and desolation’s beauty and wildness. I believe New York City is just as wild as the remotest desert or amphitheater filled with hoodoos, fins, arches, scree ridges, waterfalls, boulder and log jams, rock slides, and a million taunting unknowns. The midwest’s flat open spaces and endless corn, bean, and wheat fields are just as grand as the cities and deserts. The true best and wildest; true wilderness is in each one of us; it’s in our minds and the places we can internally go (if we are willing). We only limit ourselves when we claim one place is the best; from there it consumes us: “Once caught by this golden lure you become a prospector for life, condemned, doomed, exalted. One begins to understand why Everett Ruess kept going deeper and deeper into the canyon country, until one day he lost the thread of the labyrinth; why the old time prospectors, when they did find the common sort of gold, gambled, drank and whored it away as quickly as possible and returned to the burnt hills and the search. The search for what? They could not have said; neither can I; and would have muttered something about silver, gold, copper, – anything as a pretext.” (Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey)
Maybe it’s happiness we are looking for, as McCandless wrote in his last hours: “Happiness only real when shared”. And what kind of happiness can you find burrowing deeper and deeper into something completely external or solitary; one thing; one belief; one passion; or one landscape? You only slip further and further away; getting swallowed by your circumstances. If I stayed another month, I would have been sucked so far in, I’d never leave and would be of no use to anyone including myself; like a junkie who has gone so far, there is no going back. He becomes what he consumes; like the philosopher too deep in his subject; like the artist lost in his work; like lovers too consumed in physical love; like poets too enraptured to put down the pen and live; like leaders who break their own rules; or like nature conservationists who forget humans too are natural. It’s not one thing or another; it’s one thing and another. Everything is part of the balance.
Thoreau says: “I have no more time for this life, I have too many lives to live.” What he doesn’t tell you but what we know from biographic data is that he lived many lives at once; we all must live this way. It can’t be done on landscape alone. That is why the west fails. The moment it becomes impossible to change the circumstances of our lives, is the moment we have gone in too deep. As Everett experienced in the canyon country and similar to my experiences in the amphitheater, the landscape sucks you in and we go all too willingly. I’d follow a wash with waterfalls up to a ridge with the formations fifteen hundred feet above the almost vertical scree ridges and be completely convinced I’d make it; that I had to go that way; that what I was looking for was just over the top of the ridge and I’d go, convinced there was no going back, only to find myself fully awake again at a gateway to death. I’d grab for the rock walls, as gravity caught up to my vertical condition, and my feet would continue to slide, desperate for some small thing, anything to dig my life into. The rock I’d grab would break off in my hand. I’d lay flat on the scree. The slightest movement would send me down to my death and the whispering creek and the rock beds below. “This is stupid,” I’d say “how the hell did I let myself get into this?” I didn’t know; I wasn’t there. The amphitheater possessed me; took hold of my life and, for a time, made it theirs. I’d promise not to do it again and again it would happen.
“As we unravel the threads of that bind us to nature, as denizens of data and artifice, amid crowds and clutter,” says Ellen Meloy, “we numb our sensory intelligence. This failure of attention will make orphans of us all.” I slipped into solipsism, living in Grendel’s realm; outcasted and disconnected, but not sure how or why; actually, not sure if I was aware at all of my aloneness; my aloof state until I was on life’s razor edge.
Everett once wrote: “The love and perception of beauty are real, but they do not lead to happiness, happiness lies in a large measure of self-forgetfulness, either in work, accomplishment, or in the love others.” Self-forgetfulness, then, is a state of belonging; so much so that the thing belonged to becomes your self and the self apart from that is forgotten. I forgot myself out there; that wasn’t happiness, it was aloofness; a complete bastardization from my own humanness. A state of belonging; of togetherness may well have been the better answer for Everett. He surely achieved self-forgetfullness out there with the maze and death of the rocks but what good was that? Awareness and belonging, as we are in relation to everything; not just one thing; a few; or certain people or places; but to all, that may be more so what we are looking for; where happiness is. It can’t be found fully in such a place as the wilds of one region; obsession will not lead us there.
The southwest evokes obsession; solidarity and singleness; separation. We look for connectedness but cannot see it, or refuse. The wide open spaces are not all; they are still connected and therefore not nearly as spacious as they may appear. The landscapes of the southwest lead to false assumptions and conclusions. In reality, conclusions do not exist. “East I go by force but west I go free” (“Walking”, Henry David Thoreau). The two directions share the very same plain; the very same coordinates. Happiness is only real when shared. Look around! We are always sharing. But when we get sucked in to the vastness, that’s when we are convinced that sharing isn’t so real. We lose sight of our humanness and turn ourselves into mindless, lifeless, dead stone and then we fall and shatter lifeless from whence we came.
Thousands of years ago, the ancient pueblo roamed the lands of Cedar Breaks and the Dixie National Forest on the Markagunt plateau, but they never stayed; they didn’t have a fixed home. As times went on, legend has it, fights broke out about customs. I personally imagine it was the custom of continual movement that was being challenged. A secondary leader (Coyote Man) became angry with the people and their disrespect of the customs and turned everyone to stone from Cedar Breaks to Bryce Canyon, seventy miles away. The peoples were dressed in their war paints and maybe some other ceremonial colors when Coyote Man turned them to stone. They make up the amphitheaters and all the rock formations still. It is a haunting reminder.
The settling of Cedar City, legend has it, happened on a fluke. The pioneers stopped in the valley because it was too windy. They would travel again, they said, when the wind stopped… It never stopped. They became stationary and are in a world all their own. They may as well have been turned to stone; separating themselves from the world; sticking to their own, they are as good as stone. But I understand. I could stay and end my life now and escape the world through this landscape of stone ghosts; forever trapped on slick rock and scree ridges, vulnerable to everything that moves, but still stationary. The water never stays and like time, takes tiny pieces of all that has stayed down stream and out to a different part of the world to transform and change and then change again. Each small piece becomes part of something else, somewhere else. Everything is connected. I choose to move like the water; not allowing myself to become stagnant; refusing to become stone, but migratory; part of the movement. You can keep the nostalgia. I’m glad it’s here and that there is mystery and comfort in changelessness, but its an illusion; it’s always changing; most are blind or too stubborn to see and accept it.
For now I’ve let the region go and will leave the rocks alone to their own conditions and movements. I said goodbye to the season as I saw it in the sun and trees and watched as it made its way back to the death from which it started, and I went back to following my own circles. Although my circles are always different, they still swing me back around to places I’ve forgotten I knew, but remembered I loved. Now, with the passing of time I understand and celebrate their and my change.
“Our voyaging is only great-circle sailing, and the doctors prescribe for diseases of the skin merely” (Walden, Henry David Thoreau). If we physically continue west, we will end up where we started; the east. If we go east, we will end up west. We can never put our finger on where one begins or ends. “Years later,” Abbey tells us, “still wandering in circles I will come back to the arches and canyon country and inquire about my old friends.” And Stephen King’s Gunslinger thought:“How we make large circles in earth for ourselves. Around we go, back to the start and the start is there again: resumption, which was ever the curse of daylight.” It all circles back, but how we experience the return is key. It won’t be the same place it was and you will not be the same. There is change in cycles. You can change too; only if you allow it. As you allow yourself to spin, an arch of true movement will form; the orbit will change.
This time I reach for a sunrise and let everything behind me disappear:
This is the land of sunset washes,
These are the banks of the Yellow Sea;
Where it rose, or whither it rushes,
These are the western mystery!
Night after night her purple traffic
Strews the landing with opal bales;
Merchantmen poise upon horizons,
Dip and vanish with vary sales. (Emily Dickinson)
A season at Cedar Breaks and for that matter at any national park isn’t a season in heaven or paradise nor is it one in hell. It’s a season of life, death, and change among cycles and systems many of which are still a mystery at least to most. We do not govern here, although we do interject and play a role, because really a role is all anything in this universe plays; as each in life plays a role in others. It’s a great season for growing, for change, insight, and strength. None of these happen deliberately or as we would expect; for it is out of our control, which makes fertile ground for the unexpected. As much as I’d like to say I embrace the unexpected, I feel I only embrace it when it isn’t upon me directly. As the unexpected happens, we react to it and maybe we should, but what if the goal was not to react at all but to just let it (the unexpected and what it does) happen naturally to us and the world around us? It’s impossible to say where we will end up one moment to the next but I will try to embrace it.
“We have watch’d the seasons dispensing themselves and passing on,
And have said, Why should not a man or woman do as much as the seasons, and effuse as
Dwell a while and pass on, be copious, temperate, chaste, magnetic,
And what you effuse may then return as the seasons return,
And may be just as much as the seasons.” (“On Journeys Through The States”, Walt Whitman)
Whether or not I ever end up in the same place, it will not be the same, nor I. I could stay and in so doing turn to stone, but I choose to go again as I did this May from Brooklyn. Before that, San Diego, Illinois, North Dakota, and the list goes on. In every case, as I am sure it will be with Cedar Breaks, I never returned. I don’t ever intend to. The west is merely a subject like the east, imbedded in its ways. It is the internal living, breathing west that I am after; the one in each of us, for it is the one that is best and is the place that will continually set us free.
So, to the east I go! The only force this time is my own. I now welcome the rising sun and remember where it sets. And someday, I am convinced, there will be a man who lives as now; who lived as they used to then; among others who forgot how; asking questions no answer exceeds; who leaves town to be with the trees. If all goes as should, the backwoods path; the crooked line out there on its own, will hold ruins and remains. The further the roamer goes, the more he will see his different is no different. He will see that all lines lead to the same spool of forgotten thread that we all sew with dull needles. With this realization, he then will chase different parts of the same, which is easiest to see from far away, as others before him have seen. But he will move onward. After one part is experienced, he will find another part and after a while move from that as well.
We all continuously change, everything does. I look out at the rusted limestone of these breaks and imagine its daily, yearly, and long-term changes continuously slip in front of my eyes; of human kind’s eyes. The past makes itself known in all its strange, broken, and twisted shapes: the scattered rock and stone; the eroded hoodoos and fins; the windows and the arches; the trees breaking through, living dying, changing as time demands. We are all breaks; breaking away as time moves on.
This man will refuse to pretend to be frozen; to let one set of great moments in a particular capacity be all there is to life. Here, on a quiet ledge, where I can see change unfold in front of me, I will promise to sharpen the needle and sew on through, around, and under the threads of this universe so that I can breathe every rise and fall of this tangled and knotted spool as time will allow.
I have wanted so badly to say (for poetic reasons) that I am leaving the same way I came: in a frantic last minute rage, giving away all of my belongings, stuffing a few remaining items in a bag, and flying across the country. This is not quite the case. I am leaving behind a group of companions, who I have enjoyed an endless number of spontaneous gatherings, talks, and laughs with. For the season our sensations, emotions, and senses became interlocked. We became one feeling unit. I doubt I will ever see many of them again. This is the happiness and forgetfulness the western explorers sought but could not find. We found it together. Two of my friends and I shared our last few moments together bonding over the Amphitheater. They went in a few days after I did and came back bewildered and mortified. They wondered how I survived and I equally they. We had all experienced the same loss of humanness. After promising each other we would never go back, we talked of going again, but never did. We have since scattered and gone our separate ways. Some of these pictures have text to better explain the adventure.
These are videos of some of the waterfalls and the landscape I took while I was there. And I know I have thrown a lot of pictures and video and text at you in this last update of my journeys out west, but each photo, video, and word demonstrate the area just a bit differently and I believe it takes all of it to even begin to understand the magnitude of such a place. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g51B1Rw4mYA http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QuRw-w18ddQ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_TIv1_qjCck http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_noNiUz5KE http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=25ENaBvf5_k http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7a0RDYcpbbo