Friday, January 6, 2012

Traveling the Southwest

This article was recently published in "Journal Plus: The Magazine of the Central Coast."

Retirement Road Trip 

            There are two kinds of dreams: sleeping and waking.  Sleeping dreams can be exciting, scary, confusing, but have little to do with reality. All my life I’ve dreamed of flying, lifting off on my own power and soaring over earth and sea. Not going to happen.
            Waking dreams are different. They might possibly come true. As a boy I dreamed of playing center field for the Philadelphia Phillies. For a year or two it was possible, if not probable.  Now I’m sixty-three. I still dream of playing center field for the Phillies. No chance.
            Which dreams can come true?  What does it feel like when a dream comes true?  This article is about two dreams that recently came true for me.
            I started my dream career in education later than most. I was almost thirty-eight when hired to teach English at Los Osos Middle School in 1986.  I transferred to San Luis Obispo High School in 1989, enhancing my dream by teaching literary greats like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, Blake, Wordsworth, and many others.
            As my family grew and responsibilities increased, I felt the need to earn more money.  Luckily, I also had an interest in educational leadership.  At fifty, half way through my career, I went back to school to earn an administrative credential. Soon I was out of the classroom and into the main office. I missed teaching, but I was excited about a new challenge.
            A few years later I accepted the ultimate challenge: becoming a high school principal.  What followed were the nine most demanding, inspiring, exhausting, rewarding years of my life.  I am immensely grateful I had the opportunity to lead the San Luis Obispo High School community from 2002-2011. 
            Like all workers, I imagine, I dreamed of someday retiring and having time to pursue other interests.  That dream became more real for me after experiencing a health setback in 2010.  Two arteries in my heart were almost closed, one of them, the left anterior descending artery, also known as “the widow maker.” Wonderfully metaphorical for an English teacher.  Acknowledging the role of stress in heart disease, my cardiologist and I agreed it might be time to think about a different way to spend my days. I did the footwork and in February announced my June retirement.
            My dream come true officially started on July 1st.  I planned three adventures: white water rafting with two of my sons in July; backpacking with a friend in August; a late September/early October road trip through the Southwest with my wife, Melinda, including visits to the Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly and Mesa Verde, places I’d always dreamed of visiting.
            How does a dream come true feel? When living a dream, as while hiking down the South Kaibab Trail from the south rim of the Grand Canyon and seeing a condor perched on a rock seven feet above my head, I experienced a reality where all senses were alive in ways that transcend everyday reality. In “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats writes, “Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Do I wake or sleep?” The line between dream and reality blurs.
            Such was our experience throughout our journey to the Southwest.  The Grand Canyon’s immense grandeur, the staggering work of two billion years, is overwhelming, thrilling, humbling. Standing near the edge I felt the surge of adrenaline from excitement and fear that urges you to back up but also look again, to feel safe but take a risk. Moments of profound quiet, peace and well-being accompanied hiking into the Canyon. Over two-and-a half days Melinda and I walked almost every foot of the south rim, and we never grew tired of the spectacle. I felt like a better person for having experienced the Canyon’s endless beauty. 
            We then traveled to Canyon de Chelly, arriving with time to check into the Thunderbird Lodge and drive the south rim overlook road. The canyon is on the Navajo Reservation and the Navajo oversee everything in the park. We had already booked a half-day tour for the following day, so we spent the afternoon on our own.
            Canyon de Chelly is two main canyons and many side canyons extending for over twenty miles east of Chinle, Arizona.  Red sandstone cliffs gradually rise one thousand feet above the canyon floor.  Navajo farmers still live in the canyon. Ancient ruins rest next to small corn fields. Hogans squat in the cool, quiet canyon light. After the immensity of the Grand Canyon, it took a while to adjust to the intimacy of this new wonder. At sunset we found ourselves overlooking Spider Rock, an 800’ sandstone pillar casting its long shadow against the canyon wall.  We had reached the highest point of the mesa. Thunder and lightning emanated from a wall of rain and clouds to the east. A magnificent sunset illuminated high broken clouds to the west.  Once again dream and reality blended.  Sublime beauty surrounded us.
            The next morning we departed for our tour with our guide David and 11 other eager tourists. We rode in an open four wheel truck with room for twenty. As we bounced along dry sandy washes and through groves of cottonwoods, David pointed out cliff ruins and many beautiful pictograms and petroglyphs. We disembarked in various places to view larger ruins up close, and David recited the history of Canyon de Chelly and answered our questions. Unfortunately, the history included horror stories involving Spanish and American conquerors, and a certain amount of intertribal conflict as well.  Regardless, it wasn’t hard to imagine a time when Canyon de Chelly was a peaceful, cultivated Garden of Eden for American Indians.
            Later we hiked to the White House Ruins on our own, the only self-guided hike allowed in the canyon.  Abandoned sandstone and mortar ruins yielded no easy answers about the people who left suddenly early in the 13th century.  While the Grand Canyon suggested timelessness, Canyon de Chelly whispered a quiet message of impermanence.
            Driving to Mesa Verde, climbing higher onto the Colorado Plateau, the landscape changed from harsh desert and dramatic sandstone formations, to green pastures, juniper and pinon forests, small rivers and far off snowcapped peaks. It was refreshing, especially with the crisp fall air and autumn light. After stopping for supplies in Cortez, we drove due east to Mesa Verde National Park, an International Heritage site.  
            We found almost no one on the park road as we gradually climbed to over 8000’. Turnouts yielded panoramic views of the Four Corners region. Eventually we arrived at the Mesa Verde Visitor’s Center, next to the Far View Lodge where we were staying. We spent time getting oriented and checking in, and then started driving to self-guided destinations on the well-paved park roads.
            Soon we were peering into deep canyons, viewing amazing sandstone cliff dwellings embedded far above the canyon floor and below the canyon rim. Questions flooded us about the technology, logistics and sheer courage involved in building and occupying these small communities in the rock. A self-guided hike brought us inside our first cliff dwelling, Spruce Tree House, where we were able to climb down a ladder into a kiva and closely inspect the architecture.  For the next two days we immersed ourselves in the ruins of the vanished Anasazi culture.
            Inhabited since around 550 AD, over centuries the Anasazi settled into an agricultural lifestyle on Mesa Verde, inhabiting pit houses, pueblos and, for the last 100 years from 1100-1200, cliff dwellings. Theories abound for why they suddenly migrated south to present day Arizona and New Mexico: drought, overcrowding and warfare predominate.  Defense against aggression is one theory about the creation of the cliff dwellings.  Park rangers provided abundant information on guided tours to Cliff Palace and Balcony House. We felt a sense of connection and community with the people who once lived there, like privileged guests with a responsibility to honor and respect our ghostly hosts.
At the end of our journey we spent three wonderful days visiting artist friends in the little town of Norwood, Colorado. Brilliant aspens filled the yard of their country house, mule deer grazed in the surrounding meadows.  We awoke one morning and witnessed a double rainbow arced over the Wright’s Mesa countryside.  It was time to go home. One lifetime, many dreams.

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