To my mother's lifelong chagrin I'm not and never was a religious person. I was a skeptic at a ridiculously early age. Of course, over the years, one would hope we evolve. While I'm still fiercely skeptical I allow for, and try to be open to, new insights and experiences - call them religious or spiritual, or what you will.
In my life I've had two of, I guess, what one would call "out of body" experiences. Not surprisingly they were both in nature and both in the great Southwest and, no, I wasn't drinking at the time. The first was in Arches National Park in 1994 and the other in Southeastern Arizona just a few years ago. In both instances, as I drove into Arches National Park and Chiricahua National Monument I had to pull over to the side of the road because I felt light headed. Then, after taking a deep breath, I actually felt as if something deep inside of me was rising out of my body and expanding into the outdoors. Weird, huh? Here's the thing though - it was a deeply "connected" spiritual experience.
The great playwright (and my favorite) Eugene O'Neill described this much more poetically and eloquently than I can when he wrote in, "Long day's Journey into Night" the following:
"You've just told me some high spots in your memories. Want to hear mine? They're all connected with the sea. Here's one. When I was on the Squarehead square rigger, bound for Buenos Aires. Full moon in the Trades. The old hooker driving fourteen knots. I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moonlight, towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself -- actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself! To God, if you want to put it that way."
O'Neill gets it precisely right. I felt as if I was dissolving for a few minutes. Of course, both times, after I felt myself come back into myself, I was overwhelmed and tearful and grateful and full of humility and love for having this gift of life bestowed on me. What a literal mind-blower.
You know, of course, I've tried to get that to happen again and it hasn't and I doubt it will. It's not something I can will to happen - it is organic and ethereal and can't be manufactured.
It's so weird, of course, that I seldom, if ever, discuss this with anyone. Yet, here I am writing a blog post about it! Old age has clearly corrupted me and now I'm probably oversharing and it's TMI and all but I don't give a damn. It happened.
The irony is that one of my worst Ranger interactions happened in Chiricahua the very next time I went to visit. In fact, if my first visit was a "peak" experience let's call this one a "valley". I'd planned on camping and pulled into a site and began unloading my camp stove when a Ranger walked up and said, "You can't leave any of that stuff outside your truck". I was momentarily confused and the Ranger said, "We have a strict policy. Nothing left outside - either in your vehicle or tent". I explained that I had to remove some things because I slept in the back of my truck and couldn't fit all my gear in the cab of my truck. Ranger said, "Well, then, I don't know what to tell you but it doesn't look like you can camp here".
I understood why Edward Abbey called them the "Tree Fuzz" (despite being one himself for a couple of years). I've camped all over the West and never met a more obnoxious and unhelpful Ranger. In fact, I love most of them I meet. They're underpaid and under appreciated and protectors of our most cherished places.
Still, it was apparent that this particular Ranger hadn't gotten the customer service memo. So, I thought, to Hell with it. I'll just drive back to Cochise Stronghold in the Dragoons. Of course, before I did I wanted to drive up the road and go to the Visitor Center to express my dismay. As I pulled out of the campground, at say, 15 mph, another Ranger with his window rolled down, gave me the universal "slow down" sign by moving his hand up and down. I couldn't believe it. I could only go slower by stopping. Two fools in one 15 minute period. I drove to the Visitor Center and they said the "Head Ranger" would call me.
He did call the next day. He left two messages. The first was actually to me when he said that, "while we have no bears we follow best practices for camping" and the second, was when he apparently, dialed the wrong number, and was all about personal information that I had no business knowing. Honestly. Talk about weird and inept and disheartening.
So there you have it. Life in a nutshell - lots of weirdness, banality, oddities and a few moments of existential bliss.
Of course, I've been back to Chiricahua. I took Lupe and then actually made reservations to camp there with the Casita. One week before my arrival date I received an email telling me that, due to construction issues, the campground would be closed despite my reservations. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised.
Oh land of Chiricahua - how I love thee.
The humans? Not so much.
Of course, I'll be back. And soon.
So there you have it. As the great Jeffrey Lebowski said, "Strikes and gutters, my friends, strikes and gutters."
I was unprepared to retire when I did. While the circumstances might be unique for each "retiree" I don't think I'm alone in that feeling. Most of us go from being productive "members of society" to being a little lost with this new stage of our lives. That probably sounds strange to many of you still working who look forward to retiring- I know it was a foreign thought to me. But, like many things in life, you can't realize how different it feels until you're there.
I remember telling a friend I went from daily trying to make the world a better place to having little purpose. She asked me, "So, you wanted to change the world? You did all that academic work, got your doctorate, and worked in school districts to help kids and change the world, right?" "Yep", I replied. Her response?
"How'd that work out for you?".
Brilliant, even though it did sound a little like Dr. Phil. It was a painful truth. She said three things that resonated afterwards...
1. Trite as it may sound, maybe all any of us can do is be the best person we can be. Set that example and quit trying to "change anything" except yourself.
2. Do all the things that you've wanted to do. That's not selfish, that is leading a productive and meaningful existence and following your heart is an opportunity that many people never get.
3. Surrender to what is.
So, I took her excellent advice.
I have been a traveling fool since that conversation. I work at being the best husband, father and friend I can be. Two new lights of my life, Finley and Joaquin, have been born. I have found a new love- photography. I have embraced my love of music and literature. I have re-established some long lost relationships that are deeply meaningful to me. I have seen and been places I wanted to see my entire life. This year is no different. I'm getting into my "golden years" and I'm loving it. Turns out this next stage of my life is a powerfully poignant and beautiful time.
Here's where I'll be the next few months:
April - I'll head to Utah and the Colorado Plateau. Zion, Monument Valley, Canyonlands NP, Kodachrome Basin and the Valley of Fire in Nevada.
May - Arizona - Painted Rock Petroglyph CG, Kartchner Caverns, ghost towns, Chiricahua National Monument, Bisbee, Madera Canyon.
June - San Onofre, Pinnacles NP with Lilly.
July - Utah, Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming and Glacier NP in Montana with Lupe. Point Mugu with Lilly and Lupe.
Aug - High Sierra fishing with son Jordan (and maybe Kevin?). Sequoia NP with daughter Lilly.
September - Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Redwood NP, and Harris Beach in Oregon.
October - Arizona and a visit to Little House Customs for some improvements to my little trailer and camping along the Mogollon Rim.
November - Still not determined but that sounds like desert time, doesn't it?
Come on and join me!
See you on The Road...
This will mostly be a journal of my travels. I may include other items that interest me. Feel free to join in.