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Bryce Canyon, Utah
I toe the edge of the abyss. Seven o'clock on a January Sunday morning,18 degrees Fahrenheit. The wind whines and, with a slight shift, whistles through the red and grey sandstone columns that jut from the walls and rise from the canyon floor. Sun-cast rays pink overhead clouds. The stillness harnesses sound, the crunch of snow under boot a hundred yards away clearly audible. Someone calls from a canyon wall and the echo reverberates among the passageways until, just as it seems to be dying, it amplifies before finally fading away. The air is so suspended, so caged, that when a raven climbs down past me the whoop-whoop-whoop of its wings is clearly discernable, and the only sound.
Once, in Istanbul, Turkey, I worked in a factory where most of the men refused to wear their company-issued work shirts. I noticed this, and asked why. I was told that the men were too proud, that to wear the company shirts suggested a subjugation to which no self-respecting Turkish man would accede.
It is an amphitheater, not technically a canyon. Layers of sediment laid down over millenniums form the crests and lines of this remarkable scene. The Indian legend relates that the people and animals that once inhabited the area were bad people and bad animals, and so were cast in stone; an extensive, aboriginal Mount Rushmore to the wicked.
I see aboriginal faces, lean, tight, solemn. They carry Kalashnikovs and rocket-launchers left over from the long Soviet war of the '80's. The men are taught never to cry after the age of six. They are tough, weathered. They are of another land, another time. They are tougher, more resolute, and as a race capable of unimaginable cruelty. Their Pashtun motto: hospitality, and revenge.
A red world; crimson sky, vermilion cliffs and crevices, crayon canyons falling away in white-covered layers toward the emerging sun, mesas, spires, tables of rock and sand, all crumbling, tumbling, weathering, and wearing; the days, the months, the years and ages a relentless attempt to level. A light capping of snow on the higher elevations enhances the scene. As I stand above it I wonder of the impact it has on me. I wonder why a scene of grand beauty affects me so. What is it in my being, my constitution that causes me to come and stare? How does it cause such serenity? I stand over the distant Colorado Plateaus Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, against which Bryce Canyon nudges on its western edge, and simply embrace.
In Sacramento I missed the turn, and drove back around. I saw a man, a bum, standing on the side of the road, and he was - what was he doing? I turned about, just to pass the man once again. Naw, couldn't be... When I came back upon him, I slowed and peered, and verified my original impression. The bum was standing on the side of the highway. In one hand he clutched a bunch of dollar bills, under which his other hand held a lighted match. He was burning his money.
Historical records provide insight. Original journals of discovery, including those of Lewis and Clark in 1803-4 as well as those who built the transcontinental railroad in the late 1860's, convey the awe in which Americans have always stood when confronted with the freedom of broad, open spaces. There is something primeval, I believe, in this common reaction, something instinctual. I look up and see that the sun, having broken out over distant plateaus, has reclaimed the sky crimson. The cloud film just moments ago so colorful is now slate grey.
I've worked my ass off for the last twenty-five years. I'm in pretty good shape; the kids are out of college, I've got a place in Vermont. For the first time in my adult life I have some choices, I have some money. I've got a 401K, I've got my company-paid medical insurance. I get five weeks off a year now. I'm even starting to wear my seatbelt. The letter from Social Security indicates that if I just keep it up, I'll be able to retire in another fifteen years. Yeah, I'm in pretty good shape.
I stand and gaze over this remarkable landscape as the sun now blares over the distant plateau, illuminating the vermilion below in a new light, this red world evolving before my eyes. I struggle to understand what the vastness actually gives to me, and what I take away. What I remember, and why I remember it. I seem to grasp it with all my heart, with all my mind. I drive hours to see it, plan vacations years ahead to do it, and then fill photo albums to remind. For some reason it just seems as though my soul longs for the wild.
I don't know why.