September 16, 2020
The cliché that “travel is broadening” has taken on a special resonance these past few days, as Jean and I departed our home in Olympia the day before a smokey closure of the skies restricted and narrowed people’s daily lives. Friends and relatives throughout the world emailed us, hearing and reading of the hellscape that has become the West Coast of the United States, asking in grave tones of concern about our welfare.
Our reality though, a mixture of relief and embarrassing luck, is that we headed to Spokane, just as Olympia was driven inside by the smoke, and left for Yellowstone, just as Spokane joined in the company of the miserable. The air quality forecast for the next days as we head for Moab then Mesa Verde then the Grand Canyon is all reasonable and “moderate.” We seem to have gotten away from the center of trouble.
On the other hand, not really. Or not for long.
As we have driven 80 mph – yes, that’s the legal speed limit – down the byways of the Intermountain West, I’ve been contemplating the notion of vastness. Montana, Nevada, the Dakotas. They all have symbolized the American idyll; a kind of mythic emptiness. I’m humming “I Can See for Miles and Miles” by The Who.
Jean plops The Dixie Chicks into the CD player and we listen to ‘Wide Open Spaces.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dom7VlltBUc
The American road, where “travel is broadening,” is about an opportunity to lose oneself in that vast emptiness.
When I was 11 years old, Dad, Mom and I drove across the country from New York to San Francisco, mostly along I-80 or its 1960’s pre-Interstate forerunner. The miles stretched out across open, relief-less plains. We measured each day by distance traveled. There were days where we “made good time.” Others where we slept-in a bit or stopped long enough to smell a few roses. But to my child’s time perspective, it all seemed to go on forever. This land, this Country, seemed endless.
Now, I am wistful for that perception of vastness. The world all seems to be caving in on itself. The air pollution from China wafts its way to Puget Sound. The air pollution from California streams in satellite images across the troposphere to New York. And beyond. Invasive species slip past ecotones. The unseen Coronavirus breaks out in Wuhan. It cannot be contained anywhere human stupidity, narcissism and ignorance reign. Oh, that there were borders to contain such contagions! Where is the vastness when you need it?
Has my professional land use and parks planning background removed me from the magic of vastness? Now the miles and communities all seem inter-related. I can see the uniqueness of each place and the relationships of each place to all others. There is an all-too familiar ecological reckoning that turns the 1000 miles of Montana into discreet and even fragile segments. Where is the vastness when the whole is understandable?
For some, the vastness lies within.
Jean and I were greeted by two young women in the gardens of Historic Temple Square in Salt Lake City yesterday. While the streets outside the square were nearly devoid of people – even during a weekday, downtown SLC felt quasi-deserted – the square had a few pairs of young, modesty dressed women walking with casual purpose, greeting touristy folks – like us – with smiles and hellos.
“How are you,” one of them asked us.
“Just fine,” was my polite reply.
Those two words were sufficient cause for them to stop and talk. One was a Korean-Canadian named Ms. Kim. The other, Ms. Fiu, was of Samoan heritage. What soon became obvious, was that part of their LDS mission work was doing exactly what they were doing with us. Engaging visitors in conversation. Conversation with a goal.
“Do you have any questions for us?” asked the Samoan waif.
Jean and I – mostly I – asked several questions. Why is the Star of David on the Assembly Building? What does it look like inside the Temple? (They had a series of photos and pictures prepared for the inevitability of such questions.) What portions of Temple Square are open to non-Mormons? Why do LDS adherents now shy away from the term Mormon?
Their responses to our questions were quite helpful and knowledgeable. It was important for Ms. Fiu to sprinkle the name Jesus into her sentences, but nevertheless, she was responsive and relentlessly positive, as was Ms. Kim, about all our inquiries. Then the time for questions of us started – with a bang.
“What do you think the purpose of life is?” Ms. Fiu asked.
Jean and I looked at each other. I hesitated, so Jean moved first. “The first thing is to do no harm.”
“Yes! That is important,” Ms. Kim said with an attentiveness seemingly borne of practice.
“I’m a retired teacher,” added Jean. “So, for me an important purpose of life is to help others.”
“That’s wonderful,” said Ms. Kim. “That’s true for me too. How about you, sir?” All three proceeded to turn to me.
“I agree with what my wife said.” I paused to think if there was something more I wanted to add. There MUST be something more to say, I thought to myself. I didn’t want to offend the young women, but I also felt like life was more than usefulness.
“I also think the purpose of life is to understand more and more about the universe. The vastness. The awesome beauty of it all. And to as fully experience what it means to be human as possible in this short short time we are here.”
Ms. Kim seemed to take in what Jean and I said. Internally reflect upon it. Ms. Fiu, on the other hand, had work to do.
“For me, the purpose is to better know Jesus,” Ms. Fiu said with a wide smile that had her face mask fall below not only her nose – which had been the previous position – but now below her mouth.
Then, came the predictable question from Ms. Fiu.
“What is your religious background and your relationship with Jesus Christ.”
“Well, I’m Jewish. I have no relationship with Jesus.”
Ms. Fiu was taken aback and a bit confused. Jean took a moment to add that she had a Catholic upbringing, but they were not interested in that. The focus went back on me.
“What do you mean, no relationship?” asked Ms. Fiu.
I explained – and seemingly needed to – that Jews believed in the Old Testament, not the New Testament that had Jesus as its central figure. Just like many Christians did not believe that the Book of Mormon was divinely inspired, Jews didn’t believe either of the two newer books came from G-d.
What I didn’t say was that I didn’t believe in the supernatural. What I didn’t say was that the science of cosmology was, thank you very much, as awesome as awesome gets. That the human ability to contemplate the vastness of the very large and even the vastness of the very small was a gift that, if not giving life some directed purpose, gave life enough meaning to satisfy my need for purpose. Satisfied my need to enjoy being alive.
Those two young women seemed really happy, actually. Leading pleasant and purposeful lives. Ms. Kim, provided evidence of connection to the larger popular culture, knowing about and enjoying the CBC show Kim’s Convenience. Ms. Fiu, not so much. She hadn’t heard of Melanesia, even as she knew she was Polynesian. She really didn’t seem prepared to learn about other views in the world as “legitimate” compared with the truths she had discovered and now espoused. She spoke with joy about the potential to join her family in the hereafter and live with them forever (a certain hell for many I know). But all of us. Ms. Fiu, Ms. Kim, Jean and I, expressed a need for awe. A need to understand our smallness in a wondrous vastness.
Leaving Historic Temple Square quickly added to our confrontation with Nature’s awesomeness – and not in a happy way. A freak windstorm had hit the city just the week before with 100+ mile per hour winds. The power was still out in parts of the city. Huge trees lay upended on the sides of residential streets and gigantic limbs lay cracked on the sidewalks which in turn were cracked by the limbs. Pandemics, race riots, leadership disasters, firestorms, economic catastrophes and did we really need windstorms?
In what had become a theme for our trip, we moved on to safer climes. Moab. The desert. Surely fires can’t get us there! We drive south through the “moderately” polluted air to one of America’s foremost centers for outdoor recreation. It is there that we had the immediate opportunity to contemplate the vastness of time and its ability to turn the improbable into the obvious.
Arches National Park contains over 2000 natural land arches. 67,000 acres of rosy sandstone, scraped and blown and freakishly contorted by the ages into formations of beauty and power. The explanations by parks interpreters seemed reasonable enough. For millions of years, the area was under an ocean. Silt deposits eroded from ancient mountains built, layer upon layer, thousands of feet thick of sandstone. Then the earth’s continental movements pushed that land mass higher and higher until it rose far above the sea. Differences in the density, strength and composition of stone layers resulted in differences in erosion rates. Water infiltrating the rock, freezing, and breaking that rock differentially, eventually resulted in the awesome spectacle that draws folks seeking inspiration from throughout the world.
Everything about the national park makes one feel small. Even the very small. The dry flat land base of the park’s floor contains an odd mixture of bacteria, mosses, fungi and lichen called cryptobiotic crust. It takes hundreds of years for this crust to form a protective layer, and a single human foot to destroy it. The cryptobiotic crust absorbs and holds moisture. It reduces erosion. It enhances habitat so that a variety of arid-loving plants and animals can thrive. And it needs humans to protect it. Now THERE’s a purpose, Mses. Kim and Fui!
Tomorrow, we will take to the river. Rivers have sources and rivers have destinations. We will raft the Colorado, jump into the flowing waters, bob and weave through the currents, balance our own volition with those of one of the continent’s most important water bodies. We will have no effect on the river, though it will provide us with memories and meaning.
The Colorado’s flows will accompany us on much of the rest of our journey. It gouged the canyons of tomorrow’s Canyonlands National Park and for 5 more days, Grand Canyon National Park, where we will walk and lie astride millions of years of awesomeness.
There is a vastness in the contemplation of the ages. I am not yet inured to wonder.