Monday, August 29, 2005

Childe Falstaff's Pilgrimage / How the West was wondered at

Just got back from amazing vacation to Utah, Nevada and Eastern California, so figured would put long, long blog about it (if only as excuse for staying away from work for one more day). So here goes:

Day 0

New York to Vegas, reading Bulgakov, coffee and Oreos on the flight. Mustn't help person on seat next to me who's making ppt for conference he's attending and clearly has never used Powerpoint before. Need distraction. Try watching television. Remember why I don't watch television. Look out of the window. Total darkness. Thank God for iPods.

Later, at Vegas, the smell of easy money already in the air, even at the airport; the taste of the city like the sheen of polished marble in the airport lounge as I wait for T. to retrieve the wallet he's forgotten in the plane. Trying to adjust to the three hour time difference. Trying not to strangle T and N who've both been to Vegas before and act like I'm three years old and have to have all the sights pointed out to me. Trying to convince the woman at the rental car counter that the tattered paper booklet that N carries in his wallet is really an Indian driver's license and not just something the dog dragged in to chew on. Then driving down the Vegas strip (after T and N have helpfully shown me the way to get lost leaving the airport - "See, this is where you take the wrong turn") all the tackiness of that city, the cheap tinsel lights, the easy escapism. The crowds, the noise, the faintly unwashed vibe of the whole place. I feel suffocated with the articifiality of this town. I can't believe people come here for fun. Only when we get into our hotel room and lock the door do I feel that it's safe to breath without risking some pollution to my soul.

Memorable Sight: Twenty minutes of incessant lightning in a massive cloud bank over the mid-west - seen from above, the flashes look like cannonfire in some besieged city. It's like watching the war footage on CNN with the volume turned low, only more beautiful.

Song of the Day: Joni Mitchell This Flight Tonight.

Day 1

Quick breakfast at the IHOP, five more wrong turns, and we're finally out of Vegas. Before us, the horizon opens up its welcoming arms, the desert unrolls like a grubby old carpet, the mountains stand waiting politely, comb-overs of sand over bald heads of rock. Two jets streak through the azure sky, their white trails underlining the sense of terrible distance. A hundred miles to the hills, to an amazing mountain highway, the curves so perfect that the car does 80 miles an hour easily. Then a quick turn-off to the right and suddenly the desert gives way to forest. We have arrived at Zion.

A park shuttle takes us up into the canyon. Great walls of red and black rock tower above us, as though the wrath of the gods had solidified into stone. We feel awed, gazing in wonder at the sheer surfaces of the rock, worn smooth with countless millenia of wind and water. Amazing to think that this little stream that runs alongside could have made something so massive. The road follows the river faithfully, holding its hand, a wide-eyed child gazing fearfully at the blank faces of strangers that tower above it.

The road ends at the Temple of Sinawawa - a gorgeous natural amphitheatre - walls of stone hundreds of feet high, with a thin stream whispering through it like the chant of some watery priest. The water is pure and cold and green here, it giggles playfully, but all around it the cliffs stand aloof. Even breathing in this place seems like a profanation. I sit in the cool of the bus stop waiting for the shuttle to return. A fat squirrel comes over and nibbles on my shoes. A child is crying for his Gameboy. I think of Eliot "Those who have crossed /With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom / Remember us - if at all - Not as lost / Violent souls, but only /As the hollow men / The stuffed men."

Afterwards the steep trail up to Weeping Rock with a dog-eared copy of Raymond Carver's poems stuffed into my waistband. And still later, sitting under a tree at the Zion Lodge, falling asleep with the book laid across my chest, dreaming of Tennyson "Sighing for Lebanon,/ Dark cedar, tho’ thy limbs have here increased, /Upon a pastoral slope as fair, / And looking to the South, and fed / With honey’d rain and delicate air". Then back down the canyon to our car, the high places rising above us again, majestic like thrones (Eliot again: "This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms"). Then out of the park and on to the the Grand Staircase National Monument.

Who would have thought the earth could have so many colours. That the dust could blossom more vivid than flowers? In the distance the cliffs stretch away - Vermilion and white and pink. Closer to hand, a meadow of brilliant yellow, bison grazing its lush grass. The landscape has changed again, narrow gorges have given way to grand vistas of mesas, scraped on to a blue background of sky with a knife that could have been Van Gogh's. As we head out towards the cliffs, the sun is setting, the clouds glow with a transient glory (Keats this time: "As when a cloud the golden moon doth veil, / Its sides are ting'd with a resplendent glow, / Through the dark robe oft amber rays prevail, / And like fair veins in sable marble flow"). Yet perspectives are treacherous here - we have driven for half an hour now and the cliffs seem no closer, the horizon eludes us. Then chance and a stranger point to a dust track leading into the desert, (Eliot: "This is the dead land / This is cactus land / Here the stone images / Are raised, here they receive / The supplication of a dead man's hand") and away we go, trailing clouds of glory (or at least of loose sand) behind us, slip-sliding our frantic way down a dirt track at speeds too fast for belief. The landscape is beautiful beyond our wildest dreams - layer after layer of colour shows through, the earth has turned into a striped Navajo blanket, and above it all the tops of the red cliffs turn slowly golden in the sunset. The road ends at a deserted town (post office, saloon, a scattering of wagon wheels), then goes on to a dry creek bed, next to which the town cemetery calls to us with its ghosts. But we have no time for these, we are haunted by a grander spectre, by the peacefulness of this landscape, by the sense of having discovered something that is for our eyes alone. Others may pass this way again, but they shall not see this light like liquid gold pouring in from the mountain ridges, the sky will be different for them, the clouds will have a different shape. This place, this moment, is ours and ours alone.

Driving back to the highway, night is beginning to fall. Wild hares leap out onto the road in front of us, ears raised like radar, then scurry back into the brush. The clouds, jealous of the colours the earth has shown us, choose this moment not be outdone. They too gleam out in every possible colour - pink, orange, red, violet, purple, indigo. A spectrum of light like a bruise growing slowly old. We linger for a few minutes by the marker that points to the town we have just visited, reluctant to leave. Behind us, the dust of our passing settles like the frenzy in our hearts. We sigh, we move on. We have promises to keep, hotel rooms to occupy, and miles, two hundred of them, to go before we sleep.

Song of the day: Big Bill Broonzy singing Keys to the Highway

Day 2

Starting off from Vegas again. Had to come back last night because N forgot his passport in the hotel room. As we have breakfast in the same IHOP (chocolate chip pancakes with coffee - all the essential food groups for a happy, if not healthy life) and head out on the same highway a strong sense of deja vu grips us - it's the same road, the same mountains, the same sky. Even John Hurt's voice on the stereo singing Avalon Blues is the same.

At some point in Utah we leave the past behind. The landscape is different here, yet also familiar, as though every painting of Western landscapes you'd ever seen had been about this view. (Agha Shahid Ali writes: "Certain landscapes insist on fidelity". That is so true.) We are headed to Bryce Canyon this time. On the way we cross Red Canyon, The landscape seems soaked in blood here. The hoodoos rise rebellious into a sky of brilliant blue. We are lucky - the weather is perfect.

A quick meal at the Bryce Canyon lodge, and we're all set to go exploring. N and T decide to brave the Navajo trail - an ancient track that leads down into the canyon and through the rock formations (including an area of the canyon called Wall Street because the rocks seems like skyscrapers - sheesh!). I, learning that the trail has just been opened this very day after being closed for a month because of rock falls, decide to stick to the easier Rim Trail along the canyon's edge. It seems comfortable enough - a nice paved track with a high wooden railing running along it and convenient benches along the way. I figure I'll have a leisurely little stroll. Then I turn a corner and find myself on a steep track of loose rock that skirts along the edge of the canyon (I'm afraid of heights - looking down from a two-story building makes me dizzy - you can imagine what being on a broken trail along the edge of a 1500 foot drop to the canyon bottom does to me!) all the way up to Inspiration point (500 feet up). I decide to brave it anyway. By the time I get up to Inspiration point, I'm gasping like a beached fish, my heart is pounding like a psychopathic woodpecker and the book in my waistband is soaked through with sweat (Ford Maddox Ford's the Good Soldier). I finger my three day stubble and feel like Kerouac.

The view from up here is amazing. Down in the canyon, hoodoos huddle together, like an army of abandoned chess pieces. Taken together, they look like the spires of some intricately carved temple (think Khajurao) except that the forms are more varied here, and the only sculptors are water and the wind. Bands of colour run through the hoodoos. The sky is an electric blue, and white clouds march away in well-ordered ranks to the horizon. From inspiration point, you can see the country around for miles in all directions - before you the wilderness of rock that is the canyon, behind you lush forests of pine and mountain meadows.

An hour later I'm at Bryce Point (another stunning view, this time complete with little arches like windows in the wall of the canyon) reading my book when T and N return, panting, out of breath. They have gone down 900 feet to the bottom of the canyon, climbed up to the top of a ridge, then gone down to the bottom of the canyon and climbed all the way up to the top again. All in a distance of about 3 miles. They look exhausted. We head back to the visitor's centre, get our car, drive to Rainbow Point. The view of the canyon from here (an elevation of over 9000 feet) is impressive, but we're beginning to get a little tired of hoodoos. More impressive is the view from the adjacent Yovimpa point - here the horizon is literally hundreds of miles away - you can see all the way to the Navajo Mountain. This is distance as you've never seen it before.

It is time to move on again. As the darkness gathers, we play Jasraj and Shakti and watch the mountains pass by on either side. We are headed for Highway 50 - claimed to be the loneliest road in America. This is not hard to believe. The road map shows a stretch of 120 miles of road without the slightest hint of habitation, not the smallest town, not a single gas station. Just miles and miles of emptiness. We grab a quick dinner and head out.

An hour later we pull over to the side of the road and step out of the car. All around the silence is complete. The road stretches straight for miles, but there is no traffic on it. In fact, there isn't a speck of artificial light to be seen anywhere. We are totally, inalienably alone.

And then we look up. In all my years, I have never seen so many stars, or known them to be so brilliant. The infininity of the universe gleams above us. We can see, as clear as though it were a streak of paint, the arm of the galaxy curving over our heads. For the first time I realise why it is called the milky way - I always thought it was a hyperbole before - but there it is, a liquid spiral, a highway of light running through the night's wilderness. And the stars! It occurs to me for the first time that if the universe is truly infinite, and if the farthest reaches of it were not retreating away from us at speeds faster than light, then there is no reason for the night sky to be dark at all - every point in the sky should have a star corresponding to it, the entire sky should be one solid block of gleaming light. The sky here is not like that, but it's close. I'd never imagined that there were such riches hidden away above our heads - that the sight that the lights and pollution of the city kept hidden away from us was so grand, so densely packed with pinpricks of light. The sky seems to be raining needles. This is the way the sky must have looked to our forefathers - to the apes who first climbed down from the trees, to the cavemen fleeing the advance of a new ice age, to the first farmers walking out into their tentative fields, to the sailors and explorers for whom the clear sky at night was their only map, the one they carried always with them, even to the cowboys and settlers who first came to settle this land a little over a century ago. This sense of connection to the ages of man is also a terrible sense of loss - what profit it a man if he gain the earth but lose the heavens? I think of Whitman "Rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself, / In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, /Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.". So this was what he was talking about.

Then, just as the wonder of the sight threatened to completely overwhelm us, the moon arrived as a rescuer. There, leaning against our car on the floor of the Utah Desert, we saw the moon rise golden over the top of a nearby mountain, like a rose opening, or a yellow chick being born - the first little beak peeking out at first, and then little by little the rest of the three quarter moon following, till it hung, large as a doubloon in the sky, bathing the desert around us with its ghostly light (Shelley now: "And like a dying lady, lean and pale, /Who totters forth, wrapp'd in a gauzy veil, / Out of her chamber, led by the insane / And feeble wanderings of her fading brain,/ The moon arose up in the murky East, / A white and shapeless mass.").

Another hour and we were in Ely, Nevada, desperately trying to find a night clerk to let us into the hotel room we'd booked. But the memory of that glimpse we'd caught of the majesty of the universe stayed with us, will stay with us forever.

Song of the day: Yeh Raat Ye Chandni Phir Kahan

Day 3

Looking for a place to grab breakfast in Ely. Welcome to the West. The Silver State Diner. Elk steak specials and coffee as dilute as dishwater. T orders cereal - thus moving five year old inventory. I sit there with a hodge-podge of Tarantino and Oliver Stone films running through my head, wondering when the shooting is going to start. A man at the next table is extolling the virtues of the Yankees. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Then out on Highway 50. Miles and miles of road running absolutely straight to the horizon. Endless valleys of grasslands between parantheses of low mountain ranges - the only signs of human habitation here being a line of electricity poles marching to infinity. It's blazing hot outside. We stop to get gas in Eureka, Nevada and there are T-shirts on sale saying 'I survived Highway 50'. We hope we do.

It's amazing that there are still places so remote in the heart of the United States. There is no cell phone connectivity in these towns, the gas stations could come straight out of 70's Hollywood, the bars and restaurants are still wood panelled. One coffee shop in Eureka proudly advertises a Cappucino machine, but that's about it.

As the 50 comes to an end, the desert goes in for a final hurrah. White sands stretch on both sides of the road, the monotony broken only by the graffiti in black rock that strangers have left on the highway shoulders. Bono is singing Unchained Melody. Fifteen minutes later we are in the middle of lush green fields, and we can already smell California ahead. It will take us another two hours to get there, though, the highway is not lonely anymore, but rather jam-packed with vehicles. We inch our way past Carson City, climb up the mountains (another change of landscape - this time to pine forests - this country is incorrigible) to Lake Tahoe. We come upon it suddenly, the flash of blue like a kingfisher's wing, then the wide expanse of the lake stretching out below us. We stop at a vista point and take pictures. The lake is not one, but three incredible shades of blue. Given that just two hours ago we were in the middle of the desert where the only water we saw was the mirage of heat shimmering on the horizon, so gratuitous a landscape amazes us.

By the time we get down to the town of South Lake Tahoe, though, our enthusiasm has evaporated, like water spilled in the desert heat. There are too many tourists here, too much of a crowd. We decide to have lunch and drive on. We find an natural food place and have organic sprouts and salads along with exotic fruit juices (I have something called a Bugs Bunny - carrot and apple and celery juice). I feel like I've stepped into a Thomas Pynchon novel - I seem to be surrounded by people who haven't realised that the 60's are over. Welcome to California.

Leaving Lake Tahoe we head out into the mountains again. Our destination is Sonora Pass, 9600 feet high. On the way we go through a couple of other high passes. The views are spectacular, and, frankly, unexpected. The roads climb steeply here, for the first time in the trip we can hear the car straining.

Meanwhile we are running out of fuel. We'd planned to refill in a couple of towns along the way that we'd seen on the map, but they turned out to be little more than a cluster of houses (average population: 50) with no gas station in sight. On the top of a 7500 feet high pass the warning light flickers on - we have less than two gallons of fuel left. We climb down the mountain warily, N barely touching the accelerator so as to save fuel. The map shows us a town just two miles after we come off the mountain. This turns out not to have a gas station, as does the next one. We are now dangerously low on gas. The last town for miles around is Walker - if there's no gas pump there the next town is at least 40 miles away - we won't make it. We pull into Walker and see a battered old gas station. Never before have three grown men been so ecstatic to see so fundamentally ugly a building!

With our tank topped up again, we head back into the mountains again - climbing close to 4000 feet up to get to Sonora Pass. The air turns cold - there is still snow on the mountains here. From the top of the pass the view is not particularly spectacular, but there is a strange sense of accomplishment in having made it up here - the landscape is one of loneliness and desolation - we are in one of the highest, most remote places in this part of the world. It's an amazing drive, skirting the top of the Yosemite forest, a beautiful winding mountain road through thick pine forests. As we head back to the valley, the sunset flames like a wild fire over the tops of the trees.

Song of the day: Mark Knopfler Sands of Nevada

Day 4

Breakfast in Stockton. N convinces us to try Denny's - T and I crib, he sits happily eating grits. I discover to my horror that if you order toast in a diner it comes with a half inch thick layer of butter. I have to go find the waitress and tell her that I just want plain bread. She looks vaguely offended.

Today is Yosemite day. A quick two hour drive and we're heading into the Yosemite Valley. As we approach the main valley, majestic rock formations tower above us. We've been told that we pass the mountain called El Capitan on our way to the main information centre, so we spend our time imagining that every little rockface is El Capitan. Then we see the real thing and know. The mountains are fascinating here - the highlight being the Half Dome - a mountain cut neatly in half by a passing glacier. There is the same sense of awe here that we felt in the other canyons, the sense of ancient and powerful forces having left their imprint on this place (how many million years to make this valley, how many billions of tons of slowly lumbering ice to carve out an entire mountain). The waterfalls are a little disappointing, if only because there is little water in them, but the sheer colossal majesty of the granite mountains amazes us.

Yosemite valley itself turns out to be fairly disappointing. We sit in a shuttle and go all around, but there are no new sights to be seen. The park is crowded with visitors, everywhere we go there are crowds. The information provided is poor, so that we end up wasting a fair amount of time just trying to find our way around. We leave the valley two hours later having had a meagre meal of sandwiches and power bars picked up at a grocery store and with the sense of having wasted a precious hour or two.

Our next destination is Glacier Point, a place from where the Yosemite Valley can be seen in all its glory. On our way there we stop to admire the view from the mouth of the Tunnel - this is a spectacular landscape, but there are just too many people here. As I stand in a crowd of a dozen other tourists all taking the same picture from the same spot a feeling of suffocation grips me. I need to get out of here.

We escape towards Glacier Point. Another mountain drive waits for us here, we spend the time discussing the evolution of rock music (just think of it as our own special brand of geology). Glacier point itself does not disappoint us, the view is beautiful. From here you can see the Nevada and Vernal waterfalls, as well as a whole set of other mountains. I am thinking of Tennyson again: "The splendour falls on castle walls / And snowy summits old in story: / The long light shakes across the lakes, / And the wild cataract leaps in glory.". There are no castles here, of course, but there should be.

Unfortunately Glacier Point is also overcrowded with gaggles of tourists. People are standing at opposite ends of glacier point shouting inanities to each other and laughing. I hate people. I have dim fantasies where I imagine them falling down a sheer cliff face. The noise these people are making annoys me so much that I pull out my iPod, play Sabbath at full volume. This drowns out the voices of the others, and I can finally begin to enjoy the sights. On my way back to the car I spot a beautiful bird sitting on a tree just by the parking lot. It's blue all over - light azure in the wings, and a darker navy head. I watch it till it flies away.

The next stop is Mariposa Grove - a small grove of Giant Sequoias on the southern tip of Yosemite. Here we gawk at massive trees - over 200 feet high. T informs us that the Redwood National forests are far more impressive, but I'm still bowled over by the sheer size of these trees. We walk about the grove for a bit until we get a crick in our necks from always staring up. The light is starting to fade - it's another hour or so to sunset. We are tired now, and a little jaded. We decide to drive to Fresno and have a hearty dinner, before heading over to Bakersfield to spend the night.

In Fresno, we decide to look for an Indian restaurant. Just for the heck of it. Ten wrong turns, two sets of directions and a lot of borderline illegal driving later, we still haven't found one. It's getting late now, and our final destination is still a couple of hours away. Tired of searching we finally give up the hunt outside a trashy chinese joint, where we end up eating the buffet. It's amazing how the smell of slightly stale Chicken Teriyaki is the same all over the world.

By the time we get to Bakersfield, we are all exhausted, but there's a sense of having accomplished something now. It has been a good trip.

Song of the Day: Kishori Amonkar singing Hansadhwani

Day 5

Back to Vegas today, to catch our flight. Breakfast at IHOP again (T puts his foot down). Chocolate Chip Pancakes out of sheer nostalgia. California waitresses. Then the long dry road across the desert, past a ridge covered with windmills, skirting the edge of the Mojave national preserve, a flat landscape of almost unbearable heat (thank God for air conditioning), back into Nevada again (the border marked by a sudden rash of casinos). Then another half hour circling Vegas, looking for a gas station to top up the fuel tank in, a final check of the car, and before we know it we're back in the airport. I feel like an impostor - leaving Vegas without actually having seen it. There's a board up announcing an exhibition of Impressionist paintings at the Bellagio. It's called 'From Corot to Van Gogh'. Who would have thought it? In Vegas, no less! I feel depressed.

Then sitting on the flight, watching the darkness curve towards us, finally catching up with it over Chicago. The couple on the seats next to me spend all five hours of the flight watching some sort of World Poker Tournament on TV. I try reading my Gogol, then settle for three hours of music on my iPod. I'm depressurising now, losing momentum. All those nights spent away from home, all the distances that I've escaped from, are all coming back to me now. I arrive at JFK with my head full of tiny warning bells - e-mails, chores, meetings, all flooding back like flotsam on an incoming tide. On the A train headed back to T's place (I will head back to Philly the next day - I can't stand the thought of another two and a hour train journey at this point; besides it's one in the morning) I feel wrung, ready to be hung out to dry.

Song of the Day: The Beach Boys California Girls

Day 6 (Aftermath)

I wake up in the morning feeling more positive. Thank God it's Sunday. I check mail, scan my blog for comments. I can already feel life returning to its usual round. T and I have bagels and cream cheese for breakfast, with espresso to follow. It feels so good to be back in civilisation. Riding the number 1 train into Penn Station I have the sense of coming home, or rather of the return to something familiar that is not quite home - the feeling you get when you step out of the airport and see the remembered sights of a city you've lived in, and know instinctively that home is not far away now. It's a wonderfully warm and safe feeling.

I spend the next three hours on the phone, catching up with the world. This feels good, because it's me doing the catching up now - I'm gaining on the world, it's not the world overtaking me anymore. Once I'm home I check my fridge and find the fruit I'd forgotten to eat before I left has gone bad, I need to get more water, I'm out of milk. There's a pile of laundry to get done. The regular grind is starting again. Tomorrow I will sit and download my pictures and blog about the trip. 2300 miles of highway, a 2,500 mile flight (going and back) and ten train switchovers later, I'm finally home. And content.

Song of the Day: Simon and Garfunkel Homeward Bound

6 comments:

Heh Heh said...

huge difference between the way you and i percieved the ghost town, innit?

Falstaff said...

HWSNBF: Uh huh. Not sure I really percieved the ghost town at all - the fact that people actually lived there didn't interest me in the least - except as a convenient explanation for why there was a road there. I was only interested in the natural beauty of the place.

Plus after you blogged about the ghost town (and did a good job of it) I had to come up with something else,no?

TouristForever said...

Hmmm.whatsup with constant cribbing about tourists when you are also one of them?

Shame that you did not enjoy Yosemite. Hope you could vist it in winter when it is a whole different snowy world and with no tourists it is really mesmerizing.

Anyway good narration though I think your itenary was too packed!

Falstaff said...

touristforever: Two things:

a) I'm a tourist, not a Tourist. I don't travel in large groups with whiny kids in tow. I don't feel the need to strike up conversations with total strangers. I'm not motivated by a desire to do everything that everyone else does. I don't see the point of taking pictures of myself in every place I visit. I respect the silence and majesty of nature and don't go around shouting at the top of my voice or playing loud music. I'm not trigger happy with my camera. I can read a map and don't wander about cluelessly from place to place getting in everyone else's way. I'm respectful of other people's privacy and space. Ergo, I'm not a Tourist.

b) You can't seriously expect me to be consistent, can you? I mean next you'll be telling me I can't hate people because I am one! Haven't you ever logged onto the Internet from a group server and wished everyone else would log off so you could get faster access? The whole basis of competition is that you don't want other people, like yourself, around. Me I'm fine with, me I could hang out with for hours. It's other tourists I object to! :-).

Oh, and it's not that I didn't enjoy Yosemite, exactly - I did. It's just that it didn't really match up to the rest of the trip.

Anonymous said...

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ggop said...

Falstaff,
Agree with you completely on Yosemite. Next time, you should go in winter. I've been meaning to go - when its very cold, Californians wither away :-)
gg