The patio at Deer Creek

On the river

For three weeks we drift down the Colorado. The Grand Canyon is so large as to take hours to approach by car. Finding the flat space at Lees Ferry where we launch our boats feels very random, and I wonder how the first explorers managed. So many miles of walking or riding to reach this place, and so hidden from view. How many ridges had they crested looking for a way to the river before discovering this one?

Our days are nothing like theirs must have been. Our route is well planned and food precisely proportioned. We cook in crews and camp at spots long favored by the elders of our group. We stop for hikes to waterfalls that pour into the canyon, and stand in them, letting the cleaner, warmer water wash and refresh. It is a hundred and ten degrees in Arizona in August, and we are often in the sun.

Mostly a passenger, I spend some part of every day with my feet up and my hat over my eyes, watching a narrow sliver of river and sky without a care. It is peaceful, to be rowed, though less so to row, and several of our party eat ravenously every day. I manage to read three books, mostly in the quiet hours after camp is made, on nights when I am not responsible for the cooking. It’s a beautiful scene, to look up from one’s book and see the canyon walls rise high into the distance, or to see the river wind away into the sunset. For three weeks any conversation can be interrupted by “wow, look at that,” and everyone will. Condors, mountain sheep, hawks, herons, and frogs cause these exclamations, as do waterfalls, landslide evidence, and the cliffs themselves as we wind through one tope of rock into another of a far earlier era.

So often the canyon reveals beauty in hidden spots. These side hikes, hidden caverns, or waterfalls are a surprise, the beauty of place that is invisible from without. The grandeur, the huge vistas and towering walls that sprawl across the horizon is overwhelming and an excellent reminder of real scale. These giant vistas have been photographed though, and can be seen in some sense from the rim, from above. The small canyons, etched by water in oddly smooth curves, with pools in between small waterfalls, that can be swam in or sat beneath, are impossible to discover any other way. They can only be found from the river.

And so for three weeks these small discoveries keep us climbing, hiking, and sweating, up hills and over cliffs, looking for another beautiful spot that takes work to find.

 

Rest

From a comfortable chair in Colorado I watch the house fill and empty. Cousins enter the room, play, read, and leave. Aunts, uncles and parents call questions and advice from the kitchen. Groups bundle up and head out into the cold, to shop, play, walk the dogs and shovel snow.  These are good days, filled with long mornings and multiple pots of coffee shared by all. The dogs, happy to have attention from all fronts, spend the early hours sneaking from room to room and bed to bed, taking several minutes of snuggles from each occupant before moving on. Eventually they demand release into the yard, where they bound back and forth in the fresh powder, hide beneath the pine trees, and bark at passers-by. In good spirits we can not be too stern, and instead usher them back indoors with smiles, coffee in hand. For the first time in months “good morning”, is an earnest welcome.

My hands are weak as of this writing, dry and cracked from the climbing gym and the mountains of Colorado. One new habit for twenty twelve and one family I’ve become comfortable with. The weakness and torn skin are a good feeling, a sacrifice I’m becoming used to.

In the span of a few days we ease into ourselves and into our families. Cousins sit on the same couch though they live thousands of miles apart. They relax with the comfort of having nowhere to be, no schoolwork to finish or reports to complete. These are the compromises of the holidays, a lack of privacy and a lack of urgency, the comfort of a warm home and the chill of the snow.

The gift of rest is that it comes in different ways to each. To the father napping in a chair near the fire while his children play cards, to the boy asleep on a bed in the afternoon sun while the house is quiet, all others having gone shopping. It comes to the younger cousins unbundling after building a snow fort for hours. To the same boy after an hour’s basketball at the chain-link netted courts of the local elementary school.

At the end of another year, in groups or families, by oceans and on ski lifts, quietly and with great laughter, we come together around the celebration of survival. For at its heart the ticking over of the calendar is a reminder that we are still here, still alive and awake. We will go farther, and make new memories, leaving behind this old year and those lost in it. For a few days though the holidays are a time to remember, and to let go.

 

There comes a time

We shape places, I have written, as much as they shape us. In the summer months of two thousand nine I think the same is true of time. Turning thirty on a mountain in Colorado, with friends flown in from either coast, the talk is of the landscape, large themes and shared history. In America, later than in many places, these are the years of settling down, and friends from college, from Asia, from both and neither are moving with me through them.

This is the time of late night texts and early morning IMs informing me of good friends’ engagements to their partners of years. In the middle of this country and far from them, having once again driven enough of it’s spread to appreciate the distances, I am glad for each pair in turn. These tales are not just of impending marriage and rings. They are of a variety only distance can shrink to a pattern. Though I am physically closer to these friends than I have been in years I still watch the aggregate shape, aware of our age.

There are remnants of this current crop of decisions in our past, attempts to shape the age we were before the age we are became a shape of it’s own. A friend who now moves to New York to live with a woman once did so before, from Maine to Hawaii, to try to build a future on an island. A boy I once knew likewise moved back to Shanghai to live with a woman. A couple now engaged once moved into a two floor apartment together, a single bicycle their transportation to offices across town. A couple I knew shared a one bedroom in a Chinese apartment complex built years before, where the shower and the toilet were part of one unfinished concrete room and the price, economical to the extreme for a single inhabitant, became a joke with two incomes. The space itself became their burden, moving together to avoid collision, and they moved on, to another country where issues of lines on a map, visas, instead of physical space would push them forward.

Yes, these are not the first attempts, these synchronized decisions of the summer of oh nine. Neither are they an end, and in another decade they may look like a progression rather than an event. This summer though, as friends move from Boston to New York, move from New York to Boston, move from boyfriend to fiance, change coasts in each other’s company, the clustering of decisions is too much in tune to ignore. Our lives are reflected in the passage of years, and, having accumulated enough of them to weigh someone down with are all seeking people like papers seeking stone.

Cabin air

The view is panoramic.  Living in dense urban environments, I had forgotten the pleasure of watching weather patterns approach or sweep past.  Snow lingers on a hill several miles away, the dense air and thick gray clouds my indication.  On the other side of the valley the sun strikes a forest, and the plumes of melting snow that rise in the wind dwarf the trees themselves.  Blanching down they strike, these huge shafts of light, separating shadow and not across wide swaths of forest and field.

I have forgotten, my mind says, and should be awed by the vantage point afforded me from this cabin in the mountains of Colorado, two hours from the city I have been guesting in.  Skiing up the mile to its door, from the end of the county road where we left the jeep pulled over in a turn-out and locked to wait for our return, I should be awed by the landscape. Instead I am stuck trying to breathe.  There is majesty in the landscape, and there is the pain of my nose as it freezes.  These are competing senses, although both can be described with awe.  Pushing up the final hill I can at last appreciate the expanse of the view finally, both poles stuck in the snow. The dogs can too, having had their run. They are ready to head inside for warmth and the cabin’s restraint of the wind that tugs and pulls and mostly chills.

A map of the United States is a curious thing.  Without an overlay of population or a satellite picture of lights at night there is no sense of exactly how empty, exactly how open is the western expanse.  With one though there seems to be a huge gap, as though the progress westward had not been completed, as though humanity simply leapt towards the west coast.  Half of this country is truly empty in a way hard to remember for a boy from the east coast who has spent the past seven years in Asian metropolises of Tokyo and Shanghai.  In some ways this expanse of snow-swept reservoirs and mountains is overwhelming, something to be acknowledged and accepted rather than interwoven with my images of the wide world.  Over and over I wonder at the people who live up here, not visitors or retirees but children who play over these hills in their youth and herd cattle across them as teenagers, who build houses under the auspice of construction companies founded in these small towns by their uncles or fathers.  I can not comprehend the sense of ordinary they must have for these views, and, on the other end, how trapped they would have felt in Shanghai these past five years, watching the polluted air curtain off the city, particulate walls of white blocking the view after a half dozen blocks.  Would they feel as cut off and alone there as I do now, looking out at the snowstorms almost upon us and yet still ten miles to the south?

Somehow I doubt it, myself a child of the wilderness of the north east, which remains, despite the brilliance of its representation from satellite.  My house, the house my parents are selling even now, is one from which the stars can be seen.  Perhaps not with the same clarity as here, up nine thousand feet from the level of the sea. Yet from a hill in Lansing they are visible with the eye in a fashion impossible to imagine for a child of the sprawl of Yokohama-Tokyo-Chiba-Saitama.  As I type that my memory gives it lie, remembering walking home one night from the last train in Kawagoe, two thirty in the morning as I crossed a river, walking on the bridge’s wide rail above the water’s concrete bed.  The stars shone bright that night, one of summer’s warmest.  Here, in the dry height of Colorado, on the shortest days of the year, they do again, save when obscured by blowing snow.

It is peaceful here, and many things explain themselves to my brain in the ample time it has to consider ideas, bereft of internet and telephony.  With only word games and the printed page to occupy us we construct, knitting and writing, cooking and fire-building, until the dark has worn us down, and the idea of waking with the sun has more to offer than remaining upright.  These four days at the end of two thousand eight are respite from the constant chase of our urban lives, even from the holiday cheer of our visit to Colorado.  They are a chance, too rare and too often filled with gasps, to breathe deep and watch the way weather moves, and the speed with which we are overtaken.

Much of this article is informed by a view of the Earth at night from space, widely available on the internet.  One of the best views of it can be found in Google Earth, by checking the layer “Earth City Lights” under “NASA” in the Gallery section of the Layers sidebar.