Wednesday, July 28, 2010

and the runner-up is...

new mexico just might be the second most perfect state (after oregon, of course).

for starters, it's got solid cowboy sensibility, along with real ranchlands. but instead of libertarian cowboys with a veneer of homophobia & racism (wyoming), libertarian cowboys with a dash of white supremacy (idaho), libertarian separatist, cultish cowboys (montana), urban-style cowboys (colorado), the closest we have to a church-state (utah), or libertarian arizona (more on that later), it's cowboys with a multi-cultural, democratic flair. how refreshing! new mexico is one of only four states with a minority majority - which is to say, no majority at all. it's got diversity, without the mega-populations of california and texas; of the four most mixed states, it's the least populated. it's both bigger in size and less populated than oregon. native americans, hispanics, whites, and african americans are all mixed in a historical soup context of ancient puebloan culture, spanish conquistadors, western expansion, the civil war, and finally statehood.

there's volcanic landscapes and ancient puebloan ruins, including the graddaddy of them all, chaco canyon, one of the most extraordinary places in the united states. there you can step through carefully aligned 800-year-old doorways built by the original inhabitants of the land. there's art-focused santa fe and northern new mexico, where house styles run towards understated instead of ostentatious, and good food abounds. there's public lands, there's grasslands and mountains and rivers, ponderosa pines and desert in the south, and in new mexico one can be as close as you can get to big bend without actually being in texas. there's vibrant tribes and pueblos. there's a hispanic, democratic governor, featured in photographs with his custom made, new mexico-themed cowboy boots up on the desk ( there's conservative, anti-wolf ranchers (one billboard proclaimed, "lock up your children!") and liberal, obama-stickered cars. and it's all blended, mixed together, in a way that very few states are able to achieve.

and arizona? oh, arizona, what are you doing? it was to my dismay that my long-planned trip took me - with no possible way to avoid it - to arizona, right at this time. following the passage of senate bill 1070, even entities i don't usually find myself politically aligned with - like, the city of los angeles - were calling for a boycott of the state. arizona, where you can now get pulled over and detained for not having adequate proof of american citizenship. arizona, where a drivers license from another state and no accent whatsoever is NOT proof enough of citizenship. where the motto is, guilty until proven innocent. it's a new way of thinking in america! wonder why it hasn't caught on sooner?

governor jan brewer followed up that move with a much lesser-known action: banning ethnic studies  classes that "promote resentment toward a race or class of people," "are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group," or "advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treating pupils as individuals" (—update). in reflecting back on my time in an ethnic studies program - designed primarily for pupils of a particular group, since it was at a tribal school, on a reservation - i find it interesting that those classes were the ones that taught me the most balanced view of native and white cultures. 

at first i tried to only spend money on indian reservations (which are sovereign nations, after all, not subjects of the state of arizona) and national parks. it's hard to do that though; i'm certain i scattered some dollars around the rest of the state. i don't know if i found it reassuring or disheartening to come across this passage in "The American West", by michael malone & richard etulain:

"An effort to join the neighboring southwestern territories into one state failed in 1905, mainly due to the refusal of Anglo-dominated Arizona to be joined with Hispanic New Mexico."

ironically enough, there's a new license plate you can choose that says, instead of "the grand canyon state" on the bottom, "live the golden rule". i'm not sure if that means the people driving are ok with children being separated from their parents, or if maybe there's something else they are referring to.

then one comes across this billboard of governor jan brewer:

way to go, governor. you've co-opted one of the most beloved iconic images in recent american history. an image that, at the time it was produced, stood for two things: solidarity among people for the greater good and an increase in opportunities for an oppressed group. you've used that - solidarity and equality - into a promotion for your nativist, anti-equality policies. i suppose it is very western to take the law into your own hands.

you're surely thinking, there must be something good about arizona. it's true, there are some fabulous landscapes. there is organ pipe cactus national monument, still a magically wild and lonely and beautiful place. there's the grand canyon, which can only be felt, cannot be described. there's also many vibrant tribal groups and cultures. of course, these are all the background of arizona; they don't reflect the tenor of culture and society there now. so what did i like in my recent visit, related to human works, not geographical?

well, i have to say i love the new font they are using on road signs. seriously. it shows life, and movement. look at that! especially, look at the snazzy, jaunty little tails of the a and l. have you ever seen a sans-serif font dance like that?!

so arizona, pluses for the landscape and the font choice. but negative, like, one thousand times over for the governor and the anti-immigrant policies.

Friday, July 23, 2010

a note from the road

july 17, 2010

the day started out perfectly, on a cool morning in chiricauhua national monument, in southeastern arizona. i'd been camped there for two days, loving the respite from the heat and sun. after a week in the southern arizona desert parks & the urban heat island that is modern phoenix, chiricauhua was a sub-90 degree oasis, complete with trees for shade. i had already decided, when leaving, that instead of retracing my steps west and north to willcox and the interstate in order to head east, i'd follow the double grey line on my map that wound just south of the monument, right through the mountains. double grey indicated "local road - typically improved, gravel surface" which seemed doable in the jetta. i tried to solicit more information out of the woman at the visitor's center, who wasn't a park employee. "well, let me see", she said, perusing a list somewhere in front of her. "says it's 26 miles to portal. i think it's a fine road, just a bit slow." "so, maybe an hour?" i venture. "oh, i don't think it'd take that long," she replied cheerfully. "but it doesn't require 4-wheel drive, right?" i ask. "no, definitely not", was her answer. 

it turned out to be definitely more than an hour's drive, but definitely worth every minute of it, on a solid second gear road, that as often dipped down into first as rose briefly into third. it wound and switchbacked right over the mountains and exited with a view that was even more spectacular than the origin point, as it dropped down into portal. truth be told, that's just about my favorite kind of road; roads that curve back and forth, through a forest, with views of the surrounding mountains and plains below. i was supremely happy, music loud, windows down, rolling through the ponderosa pine and juniper, which had that wonderful resinous heat smell that these high forests get in the summer.

my destination for the day: gila cliff dwellings national monument, north of silver city, new mexico. first came a long, typically western drive across the high grasslands, the two-lane road stretching arrow-straight in front of me, rising and falling over the ground. just me and, yet again, the border patrol. i hadn't seen them in a few days, but their green-sided SUVs were again more common than passenger cars, and their green-uniformed officers were again out cruising on ATVs in pairs. 

new mexico state highway 15, which runs north of silver city into the gila national forest, was another joyous drive. just two lanes - but paved - it also ran up and down and around corners, through the trees. this one, however, was far from deserted. campgrounds lined the road and it was clearly a recreation oasis up here in the cool, forested mountains. it crosses the continental divide, at over 7000 feet. the park service signs at the beginning of it estimate the travel time to the monument as two hours to cover a mere 44 miles. as usual, though, they are overestimating things, as it didn't take that long. or maybe it's just that it's my favorite kind of road. i was briefly stuck behind a truck with a camper canopy on it from new york state. signs on the back read, "retired", "when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns", and "no riders, except for blonds, brunettes, and redheads". when they pulled to the side to let me around, i got a glimpse of a tanned man with white hair, smoking a cigar. this seemed to fit the collection of declarations perfectly. i waved my thanks and continued on. 

first stop at gila cliff dwellings - the visitors center, where i and four ladies from tennessee watched the educational film together. they were dismayed to learn that you can't see the cliff dwellings from the road. "mother can't walk," they told the empathetic rangers at the center in their sweet southern drawl. clearly now the woman who was mother spoke. "you've got to go up there, we've come all this way!" she exhorted her fellow travelers. but that was the last i saw of them. i didn't see them on the trail up to the dwellings, or at the parking lot at the bottom. probably the heat, trail, and the impending thunderstorm dissuaded them. 

it's too bad, because i think they would have really liked the dwellings. there was a volunteer interpreter at the bottom of the trail, to get you started, and another one at the cliff dwellings themselves, to orient you while you're up there. both were older men, probably retirees. "can i answer any questions?" was how the man at the top began, somewhat startling me. "um..." i really want to ask something, but i didn't have my mind on questions right now. he was experienced, though, and jumped right in there, explaining some of the stone work i was gazing at. "see the t-shaped doorway?" he asked while pointing in front. "that's a chacoan-style doorway, the only one here in the park. it may be that the people who built these cliff dwellings were advance scouts, or volunteer settlers, from chaco. i like to think of them as the avant-guard architects for this area. like, what's that place that lloyd wright built in arizona? talesin west, that's right." 

he's a cheerful man, clearly liking his job, clearly enjoying talking to tourists. the place isn't deserted but neither is it busy; there's a steady trickle of visitors. the group before me is working on a group photo, kids whining that they want to go back, father needling them to sit still on a particularly photogenic bench. other that that, there's no one in the ruin at this time. it's nice, quiet and shady, with the rumble of encroaching lighting and dark clouds contrasting against the green trees. the volunteer offers to take my picture, and then asks where i'm from. this initiates a conversation about oregon, of course. he volunteered at malheur for a while, and at yaquina head in the wintertime once. "it rained 10 inches in january and february that year," he said in disbelief. i believe him, though. "and they'd close it when it got too windy, and it was often closed." 

he continues chatting, pointing out petroglyphs, making sure i see all the good stuff. then he asks if i go to osu, since i live in corvallis, and what i'm studying. "forest economics", i say. "good!" he seems pleased. "you're going to keep them from cutting down all the trees, right?" "i'm an oregonian!" i say. "we love our trees." "well, but there's some out there who'd cut them all down, right?" at this point in time i'm halfway down a ladder descent. i stop, and contemplate the difference between management styles, the various forest protections acts, the difference between old growth and plantations...but i'm ready to get out of there, and don't want to get into it. "i suppose so" i say, "thanks for all your help." and continue on. 

back at the bottom, i stopped to take off my backpack and look around the parking lot. there's cars from michigan, oregon, california, the truck from new york, and new mexico. there's a car with an obama and a "hay is for horses, straw is for houses" sticker on the back, and a minivan with the entire back window covered in a eagle & flag motif, with plates indicating a veteran. and this is what i love about national parks. they are absolutely, without reservation, for everyone - regardless of politics, regardless of origin. i understand fully that park visitation is underrepresented by african-americans and poor people. part of this is that, with the exception of the urban historical parks in the east, most of them you've got to drive to. and there is an entrance fee. still, i revel in these moments. everyone on the trail is cheerful, and friendly, and relaxed (with the exception of a petulant child or two, but that's to be expected). we're all in this together at these moments. we're all here to learn something, to be amazed at this connection to our country's history and beauty - to people that lived here and built something incredible 800 years ago, to the remnants of populations that stretch back 10,000 years. we've all trekked up this long, winding road, dragged our out-of-shape asses up the trail, in order to revel in the views and vistas that present themselves before us. and we'll all continue on our paths to wherever. 

it's still early, too early for stopping. there's too many great shady roads with lovely corners and bends, calling to me still in the warm afternoon sun. i was planning on staying at the forest service campground that is right near the monument, but that won't do now. now i'm in full road-warrior mode. how far north can i get, towards the next destination, el malpais national monument? a quick perusal of the map and i pick out what looks like a promising spot. whitewater, it's called, and it's just outside of a very small town called glenwood. as i get closer, with excitement i realize that it's the same spot i picked up a brochure for at gila cliff dwellings - for a trail called 'the catwalk' that had enticing pictures of bridges and suspended metal pathways in a narrow canyon. yes! this is perfect. i can stay the night there, hike the catwalk first thing in the morning, and continue on. and it's going to be perfect timing, too. tiredness is setting in and the road warrior vibe is ebbing. 

there's the sign for whitewater, 5 miles off the road. i follow the narrow road down, slamming on the brakes at each mad dash by a little cottontail rabbit. the sun's going down, and the final approach is through a small creek. that's when i realize that the lack of campground symbol on the sign at the main road was not a fluke, not an oversight, not a lack-of-an update from a recently revamped camping spot. and i suddenly realized that subtle but oh-so-important difference between the solid-outline tent symbol on map and the hollow-outline tent symbol on the map. campground, vs. picnic area. 

damn. i'm tired, hungry, and i know from earlier perusals of the map that the next campground shown is at least 20-30 miles further up in the mountains. not only will the sun set soon, but i won't be able to walk the intriguing catwalk. no way am i going to want to come back 20 miles the next day. there's no choice, though - i turn around and head back to the main road. and am almost immediately surprised by a forest service campground, just north of the town! eureka! it's not lovely - hard by the highway, few trees, no view, no water. but it's free, and looks deserted, except for a van nearby that looks broken down. the hood is up and the passenger window is covered with plastic instead of glass. there's no people to be seen though, so i relax, cook some dinner, and enjoy the solitude. 

suddenly there's the sound of a sliding door closing from the direction of the van - whoosh-whomp. unbidden, the image of javiar bardem from no country for old men springs to my mind. shit. i quickly slam a car door, to let them know i'm here. as if, like a bear, making noise will deter them from injuring you. then it's just time to wait until they - he? - can be seen; but it's not what i expected at all. it's a man and what appears to be his daughter, setting out from the van, walking - maybe to town? i hear her small voice, at first indistinguishable, then becoming clearer. "...don't know why there has to be all the bugs." "well, says her father, a voice of reason, "you have to remember that god made all the little bugs, to do something important." it's an odd snippet of conversation to overhear. do they often ponder the presence of god and why certain creations were made? could it be that they, like any wild animal, are more afraid of me than i of them? remember they hadn't seen my 5-foot person yet. maybe the dad was imagining the face of javiar bardem, too. maybe their words were talismans, just like my car door slam, to ward off potential harm. 

who knows. they continued on without a look in my direction. and i went to sleep, finally, looking forward to walking the catwalk tomorrow morning.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

road trip 2010

well, my peops, tomorrow i take off for a three-week jaunt through arizona and new mexico.

i could wax poetic and say i'm off to find myself, or to find the west, but neither of those is entirely true.

neither of those things can be found in three weeks, for starters. surely not myself. i've never been a big epiphany person, with startling, life-changing discoveries and realizations. i find that finding myself - whatever that means - tends to happen in small little moments of clarity, that are usually immediately followed up by weeks of befuddlement.

two steps forward, one step back.

and surely not the west, either. it encompasses far too much to be 'found' in three weeks. i've lived here for years, and been thinking about it for years, and still haven't come much closer to knowing it. sometimes thoughts crystallize together or form a chain...only to be driven away by competing ideas, new revolutionary thoughts, or just exhaustion.

two steps forward, one step back.

i've been saying all week, when asked about leaving on thursday, "yep, that's the plan." i keep saying that's the plan instead of yes. partly because i can't really believe i'm going to roll out of here tomorrow. i'm not really prepared and it just seems like something will come up to keep me from going. some child illness, some work crisis, something. i've been on several of these sort of road-warrior trips over the years, so it's not an unfamiliarity preventing me from leaping into commitment. 1991 i spent two weeks driving around with a friend, from oregon to california, nevada, utah, wyoming, montana, canada, and washington. again in 1991 with a friend for 2 weeks: oregon, california, arizona, new mexico. in 1992, alone: all through california for 2 weeks to many national parks. in 1993, again solo: from montana to texas and back. in 1994, again solo: from montana to southern california and back, via utah. in 1994, solo, from oregon to colorado and wyoming. in 1996 from oregon across nevada and back. in 1997 with a friend: from oregon through nevada to new mexico and onto texas and back via montana (no kidding). and then three months and 10,000 miles in 1998, with many friends and a son, from oregon to maine via the southwest and south. with lots of side trips. there's more, but you get the picture.

is there anything more american than the road trip? our country is just designed for it! we've got highways - miles and miles of them. we've got cars - millions and millions of them. we've got cheap gas, wide open spaces, and natural wonders around every corner. the road trip has been the basis for more movies of family hilarity and self-discovery than can be counted. roadways are established to celebrate the scenery, mark important history, encourage tourists to visit ridiculous wide-spot-in-the-road towns with little to recommend them.

god, i'm feeling like an american! i love traveling. i love it. i love it, love it, love it! i love driving alone with the music as loud as i want. i love deciding each day where to go, what to see, where to hike. i love waking up someplace new. i love seeing the desert in summer. i love seeing national parks and monuments. i love stopping in new small towns and wandering around. i love imagining living in all these out of the way places. i am going to be doing a lot of thinking, a lot of reading, a lot of wandering around. i'm going to be living healthy, getting lots of sleep, fresh air, taking my vitamins and flossing my teeth every damn day. hell, maybe even after every meal! what's not to love about the chance to reinvent one's self? for the next three weeks, i'm going to be healthy, relaxed, happy, and have good teeth!

the car is pretty much packed. clothes, gear, food, stove, a box of books, and a box of absolutely essential cds. camera. flashlight.

i won't find the west or myself in just three weeks, but i don't expect to. i just hope to make some progress and remember what that sense of discovery feels like.

maybe take four steps forward, and only only back.