A new story from The Hero’s Journey for The Daily ZU – read the full story at www.thedailyzu.com.
I moved 5 hours from the nearest city, 11 miles from the nearest town (Dolores, pop. 1,500), and one mile from the nearest paved road. Until recently, my nearest neighbor was a ¼ mile away. But noooo, that’s not far enough.
In order to meditate properly, I have to go out and get CD’s of Eckhart Tolle and John Kabat Zinn, then drive 2½ hours past the final stoplight down a winding road without proper pavement, where it’s open range and big-assed cattle and where horses browse in the middle of the road.
Snowcapped peaks jut just above the Navajo and Wingate sandstone in every direction, but at great distance: Sleeping Ute, the Carrizo, the Abajo, the La Plata. Their frosting a cooling juxtaposition to the violet and ivory cliffs.
Through the artist’s colony of Bluff, I skirt the San Juan River on the west. It’s been with me ever since I spit out of McElmo Canyon near Aneth. In mid-February, the unseasonable warmth may have melted the snow in these low, wide canyons, but the Fremont cottonwoods still sport their winter gray bones in groves that spread wide beside the river.
I climb through Comb Ridge, an edgy, serrated monocline dozens of miles long that sprawls through Arizona and Utah, with a strike valley yawning on its western margin.
As Jon Kabat Zinn tells me how to breathe, I wonder where I’ll land in my muddied white Xterra, no longer a virgin. I have no cash to pay the man at the gatehouse at Goosenecks State Park, so I pull in at the Valley of the Gods. What would you rather have, goosenecks or gods?
Described as a Monument Valley in miniature, Valley of the Gods is a flat expanse populated with ossified organisms at the base of Cedar Mesa, a Delaware-sized plateau on the edge of Glen Canyon, the edge of forever. Spires and buttes intersperse with remnant mesas on a sage desert floor that laps up to the cliffs of Cedar Mesa. To avoid the soaked washes that cross the road (or is it the road that crosses the washes?), I park right off Highway 163. I get out and scramble through the sage and ephedra, and I make my way for the point of a crimson chain mesa to see if I can get a better view of the valley.
It’s February, but I’m sweating. I’m asking the Great Infinite what I should do with my life, with my career, about money, with everything. I’m practicing choiceless awareness, the nonselective experience of the infinite field of awareness. I’ve graduated. I’ve gone way beyond breathing, man. Eckhart Tolle had told me the last couple Saturdays driving out this way not to identify with mind content, with name or future or past or form. I am choiceless awareness, man.
What would you have me be? Where would you have me go? I huff and I puff as I make my way across the flats, avoiding thorns and scooping talc-like sand with the toes of my winter boots, totally inappropriate for the conditions or the time of year. I take off my shell and wrap it around my waste.
The powdered sand – some rose and some buff – bares the tracks of deer mice. I tread along the base of the cliffs of a chain mesa. The bluffs are vertical, and I’m not much of a climber. The sun in the cloudless sky dances with me, pivoting with my motion behind the crown of a cherry sundae butte.
As I round the southernmost point of the mesa, the valley opens up and, a mile away, I spot a way up the first tier of the stepped mesa. I cross the intervening space, which is dotted with agave plants. At the base of my ascent, a fine sand slide about a ¼ mile up reminds me of the Lake Michigan dunes I’d climbed as a boy.
The sandy bluffs are a Stairmaster, a walk up the down escalator, as I huff and puff and sweat up the slope of fine grains. I make it up to a strata of flakey shale, and step up to a hogback that connects two towering sections of the mushroom mesas. Multiple headed beasts with white sandstone caps fan out like bereted giants. All the rocks seem capped with some sort of masquerade hat out here. I am, after all, not far from Mexican Hat, just across the highway.
I climb a couple more layers of the brittle shale and top out on a little saddle that connects two monoliths. I decide I AM HERE!
Far to the southwest, the stacks and plugs of Monument Valley seem delicate, almost impossible in their gracile, thin strands against the hard desert wind. The seemingly unyielding southern escarpment of Cedar Mesa stands to the north. To the east, the buttes and fins of the Valley of the Gods, a sacred place to the Navajo, hides in two dimensions, folded by lambency into the backdrop of the Cedar Mesa cliffs. Camouflaged by light, as the sun reaches the western quadrant of the diluted blue sky, the monoliths unfold like origami castles.
Across the highway, massive monoclines faulted with runnels from runoff seem like sculpted, purple sugar. Somewhere over there, the San Juan River, lost in a labyrinth of land. carves cliffs on its way to its goosenecks, incised meanders carved when the wending river cut down through the stratigraphy as the microplate of the Colorado Plateau corkscrewed up over a thousand feet. Presiding over the unseen riverine sculptor which carved its soft profile, Sugarloaf soars to heights of a near mile.
The zigzag deposition, a layer caked tossed on the sidewalk of earth and tilted to one side, seems crazy and inexplicable, just like the entrenched meanders of the San Juan miles west. I turn north and look for the Moki Dugway, a cliffside road carved in spinning switchbacks to the top of the plateau north, but I can’t see it among the maze of rockface, wrinkled like elephant’s skin. I memorize the rook-shaped monoliths that crown the top of the mesa to my north, connected to me by a flat, burgundy saddle salted with wintering sage.
What do you want to tell me? I ask the great What Is.
And a voice deep within answers: Same thing I would’ve said to you if you’d have stayed home.
For the rest of that hike down the talus and slides of sand, I remembered not to seek, and not to not seek. And then the answers came, in tears of gratitude:
I want to be out in this place, I realized as I washed the bottoms of my boots in a clear stream at the bottom of the valley.
I want to live where I live, far far from airplane noise and highway noise and city light. I drove back toward home and saw the San Juan canyons yawn toward horizons cut with mud and wide, flat water and horses with Native men on them. The places were named Aneth and Ismay, not Chicago or New York.
I want to serve where I’m needed, I envisioned as I scanned the razored top of Comb Ridge, escorted by treed washes on its west and east.
I didn’t need to drive and hike all the way out here to arrive at that answer. You can’t seek if you really want to find. It pushes it all away from you.
And yet, I’d never have found out that answer if I’d have stayed home and watched meaningless sports on TV. It’s when I first search, then stop searching, that answers may come. I knew that to be the way.
Yet to surrender isn’t to relinquish with the expectation of receiving anything. That’s not true surrender. It never comes that way. It never even really comes at all. It’s just always there, buried just below a high desert valley stripped clean by wind to become the bones of the earth, the stone, of the Valley of the Gods.