I have a fascination with the interplay of the natural and manmade. This photo captures a beautiful sunset in Holbrook, AZ, segmented by appealing and not so appealing signs, wires, buildings, etc. This scene is repeated over and over across the country in small and large towns.
From space, the White Sands National Monument looks like someone spilled WhiteOut on the the New Mexico map. Up close, the sand is as white as snow and unlike anything I have seen in this country. Dunes, twenty to thirty feet high, carve the landscape for as far as the eye can see. This quickly becomes one of my favorite – and most surprising – places.
I arrive in the late afternoon at the Ranger’s Station to register for a campsite. There are only ten primitive sites in the entire park. A friendly Asian woman staffs the desk. As I register she smiles and says, “It’s very cool out there. Oh, and tonight, it’s going to be cold!” I think to myself that rangers are like news reporters: they like to give bad news with a grin on their face.
She runs through some rules before issuing my camping permit:
“No fires in the dunes. Please bring plenty of water.”
“Carry in and carry out whatever you need.”
“There are no toilets out there, so bring your own toilet paper.”
“Most people who get lost do so because they set out after dark, so if something happens, just stay put for the night, then make your way back in the morning.”
“What cell phone carrier do you have?” she asks.
“AT&T,” I reply.
“It won’t work out there,” she says. “If you have an emergency, go to campsite 2, they have Verizon. Don’t go to 5 – they’re German and their phones don’t work here.”
“I’ll be just fine,” I smile back at her.
“I’m sure you will,” she say as she closes the registration book . . . with a smile.
At the Backcountry Camping parking lot I repack for the night. The campsite is only a one-mile hike, so I take only minimal gear: tent, sleeping bag, food, water and toilet paper. I leave the Thermarest Pad, assuming the dune field is soft enough for sleeping. As I hike, I begin to sweat. The weight I have gained eating too many burritos and fast food hamburgers feels like steel bars around my midsection.
Campsite 4 is sandwiched in between two 30-foot white sand dunes. The sun is low in the horizon and colored clouds make an appearance just above the mountains to the West. I set up quickly, grab my camera and climb up the hillock to watch the sunset reflect off the gypsum.
For dinner I prepare Backcountry Pantry Teriyaki Chicken and Rice followed by freeze-dried spumoni ice cream, which sticks to my teeth in an un-ice-cream fashion. Exhausted, I check the time to see if it’s anywhere close to bedtime. 5:54 pm. I scan the sky. It’s dark, midnight dark, maybe my watch is wrong. I crawl into the tent to rest my eyes. I dream about magical creatures with bells.
Middle of the night: I wake, cold and stiff from the hard sand. “It must be 3 in the morning,” I think to myself. “Perfect for night writing!” – the long exposure photos I enjoy taking. I unzip my tent and crawl into the cool desert air. I shiver, rub my arms fast, then pull on every layer of clothing I have: two sweatshirts and a thin Spring jacket.
At the top of the drift, I see Holloman Air Force Base shining brightly in the distance. I snap a few pictures, but it’s too cold so I slide back down the dune to my tent. Maybe I can get a couple more hours of rest before the sun comes up. I look at my cell phone. I was completely wrong about the time. 9:53 pm. Damn, it’s going to be a long night!
3:00 AM: A chorus of amphibians outside my tent. Chirp, chirp, rouuuuu. Chirp, chirp, rouuuuu. I dream of toads dancing hand-in-hand in a circle around my campsite. I unzip my tent and shine a light. Nothing. Silence. I zip up and close my eyes. Chirp, chirp, rouuuuu. Their dancing resumes. Maybe it’s a special ceremony. Maybe I am the guest of honor. Or perhaps the human sacrifice? I snuggle into my sleeping bag.
5:00 AM: The amphibians have moved off in the distance – maybe onto another sacrifice. I lay awake cursing the sand for jabbing my rib cage and thigh. Turning on my back doesn’t help. I unzip my tent and crawl into the freezing pre-dawn dunes. The sky is changing color, ever so slightly. What a wonderful time to snap photos!
I scramble to the top of the tallest sand pile. “That would make a great shot,” I think to myself looking at the next dune. I walk. “That one has no footprints.” I walk. “That one is angled differently.” I walk. This goes on for some time and I chase the composition in my lens from dune to dune. As the sun rises into the sky, I strip off one sweatshirt and tie it around my waist.
Time for breakfast! Starving, sweaty and thirsty, I make my way back to my tent. The dunes look different now. Light changes their configuration. The horizon is different too. I walk. And walk.
I don’t find my tent; it’s not where I placed it on the map in my mind. The sand looks defiant now, angry. I see one set of tracks leading in the opposite direction. I compare my imprint – no match. I follow them anyway. Then, they fade away into the earth.
Next I find many tracks: bobcat, snake, barefoot person and hiking boot. I mentally compare the night horizon with what I see in the distance now: a water tower, mountains, sand dunes. Can’t figure it out. I use my camera lens to scan. I see four tents all set up in a row. If I can make it there, I can trace the trail back to my tent.
Approaching, I see that they are not tents at all, but picnic shades. No one here. Dammit. I curse the 275 square miles of white gypsum dunes that stand in between me, breakfast and hydration. I climb again to scan the whiteout. There I see my salvation: a trio several mounds away. I practically fall down one hill and crawl up the next. I come to a road – THE road – saved! Except, I could be anywhere on a ten mile stretch.
I lunge towards the couple and their teenage daughter, whom I saw in my lens.
“Are you camping?” I ask, screaming “Help!” in my head.
“No,” they reply. “Are you?”
“Yes, but I lost my tent.”
They laugh, looking at each other. The daughter comments, “See mom and dad, we should have camped. That’s how we get sunrise pictures of the dunes!”
“Did you get some good pictures?” she asks.
My mind races, “I’m completely fucking lost and first you laugh, then you ask if I got pictures? Can’t you see I haven’t eaten anything this morning and have been without water?” Then, I hear, “Yes, I got some great pictures” come out of my mouth.
“How long have you been lost?” the girl asks.
“Two days,” I lie, looking for a reaction.
Their eyes light up, “Two days?!” There is the sympathy I seek.
“No, I’m joking. Just since this morning.”
The group is of no help in figuring out where I am on the road or in the park. They left their map in the car.
“Good luck!” they yell as I walk down yet another hill of white sand.
“Good luck?” I think to myself. Good luck that I don’t find your car and have a sharp object in my pocket!
I strip off clothes and follow the road. It doesn’t matter which direction I follow. My stomach flip flops eating itself for sustenance. I walk. Then, a miracle. My car! Dusty – the amazing lesbian Jeep that has carried me thousands of miles. True salvation! Only, my keys are in the tent. Dammit again! But, at least I know where the tent is now. Only a mile away.
Approaching my car, I hear “Gud mornink.” A young couple is smoking by their black Ford 500, both dressed head-to-toe in black spandex. I smile.
“Morning,” I reply. These must be the Germans from Camp 5.
“Nice car,” I say.
“Ya, vee thought vee look like Men in Black,” they look at each other and laugh.
I nickname them Boris and Natasha. I know they are not Russian, but the names seem to fit. They are from Munich on a six-week US road trip.
“You must be from camp 5,” I say.
“Ya,” says Boris.
“Und yooo?” asks Natasha, blowing smoke over her shoulder.
“Camp 4, but I got lost this morning.”
They look at each other and laugh. “How deed you git lost? It’s only one-point-one miles to the camp,” Boris says with some authority.
“I was taking pictures of the dunes.”
“Oh, ya, vell, stay on da trail today!” Boris says.
“Ya, on da trail,” Natasha adds for emphasis.
They puff on their cigarettes and laugh as I walk towards my breakfast in the sand.
Obviously, I find my way back to my tent, water and breakfast – freeze dried eggs and bacon. After eating and hydrating, I consider my experience. I determine it unwise to set out on foot without water, food, and car keys. But, I also think that getting lost in the pursuit of such immense, otherworldly beauty is well worth the humiliation of a few snickering strangers!
Wow. It’s been a great month! I would like to thank Celeste Alluvial of Mortal Hearts with Immortal Souls – a woman I have never met – for nominating me for the Versatile Blogger Award. I am both surprised and humbled being this is the second award nomination I have received this month.
Here are the rule for the Versatile Blogger Award:
- Thank the award-giver and link back to them in your post
- Share 7 things about yourself
- Pass this award along to 15 recently discovered blogs you enjoy reading
- Contact your chosen bloggers to let them know about the award
Seven things about me:
- I rarely watch TV, though when I do I have a thing for SciFi
- I am blessed with a diverse group of friends who look, talk and behave differently from me – it makes my life much more interesting
- My favorite cuisine is Korean – I could eat it almost every day
- I’ve always been an artist, I’ve just never had enough guts to admit it
- My religion is Hippie
- My guilty pleasure is pop music – especially dance remixes
- Of least importance in life is celebrity gossip, reality TV shows or viral videos (though sometimes I enjoy wacky YouTube vids!)
The fifteen people I nomination for the Versatile Blogger Award (in no particular order):
- Mike’s Look at Life
- Nick Exposed
- 1001 Scribbles – Random and Abstract Lines
- Eric Murtaugh
- Going Dutch
- Photography Unposed by Kolman Rosenberg
- Fish and Bicycles
- Travel Photography by Dmitrii Lezine
- It is Possible to See it All
- It’s a Magical World Old Buddy
- Ramblings of a Geeky Witch
- The Restless Photographer
- Passive Agressive Paul
- Hella Sydney
- Celluloid Blonde
Great work everyone!!
There is something different about the people of the Zuni Pueblo in northwest New Mexico. I can feel it, but not yet define it, as I enter this American Indian Reservation, located immediately over the border from Arizona on State Road 53. Physically, it reminds me of others to the north and west: Run down houses and trailer homes are scattered in haphazard fashion. Old tires rest obscenely on roofs, holding something in place – the roof maybe? Late model autos, many with cracked windows and missing bumpers, dart in and out of dirt driveways. Zuni schoolchildren walk along beat up, dusty sidewalks.
”]Zuniland is the largest of the New Mexico Pueblos with close to 10,000 residents, most of whom are involved in the arts. Carving, painting, doll making, and zuni fetishes, the animal carvings known throughout the US and world, come instantly to my mind. But there is more to the Zuni, a rich complexity, which feels just out of reach to pale face people like myself.
I arrive at the pueblo’s visitor’s center, a nondescript structure in a line of run down buildings. Several Indians wave and smile from behind makeshift vendor stands on the opposite side of the parking lot. I wave back, but walk in the front door of the building. The man behind the counter is a friendly, talkative, uh, white man.
“Welcome,” he says. “Where are you from?”
“New York,” I reply. “I wonder if you can suggest things to do on the reservation?”
“Sure. The tribe encourages people to sign up for a tour. They offer two options: one is of the old mission, the other adds a walking tour of the village. They both leave at three.”
“May I take pictures?”
“Yes, but only at certain locations and only with a photo permit, which is $10. If you want that I’ll run through the rules for you.”
After filling out the photo permit and paying $20 for it and the tour, I ask about religious ceremonies.
“Not much happening until Sha’lak’o on December 6. If you’re in the area you should come by. It’s really amazing.
“What is it?”
“Sha’lak’o is when the men who are given spiritual authority over the tribe dance the kachinas.”
“Kachina, like the doll?”
“Yeah, kachina are dolls, but in the Zuni religion they represent something from the spiritual world. Men get dressed in colorful costumes and masks to dance the kachinas during certain times of the year. The dances are beautiful and must be executed perfectly. Otherwise, there may be no harvest that year. Sha’lak’o is the winter solstice ceremony, which is one of the most important.”
The man behind the counter and I continue our conversation for some time. I ask about Zuni masks. “That’s an interesting question,” he says. “You would never see a Zuni mask for sale. It represents the kachina and that would not work for the tribe.” About alcohol: “This is a dry reservation, but the leaders grapple with that. There are three roads into town, and there are package stores to the West and North. Only the East doesn’t have one. That’s because the bordering town is mostly Mormon.”
At 3 pm a beautiful young Zuni woman with a wide nose and long, straight black hair named Roberta invites me on the tour. Her speech is particular, in that she pronounces everything properly, as if speaking textbook English.
“Would you like to ride with me or drive yourself?” she asks. “You are the only person for the three o’clock tour.” Her affect betrays no emotion, but also resembles that of a Tassajara monk. I admire it.
“I’ll go with you.”
As we climb into a beat-up green van she asks, “Where are you from?”
“New York,” I reply. “Ever been?”
“I have never been anywhere outside of the pueblo except Albuquerque one time for an afternoon.”
Her response surprises me.
“But my father used to travel for the tribe all the time, and he has been to the Brooklyn Museum to see some art work we gave.”
“Does he still travel?”
“No.” She replies. “He has religious obligations to the tribe now and cannot travel anywhere.”
On the way to the mission, no more than a five-minute drive, Roberta waves at people on the side of the road. Neither she nor I use the van’s seat belts, which look like they have permanently buried themselves in the torn cloth seats. When the slightly rusted van arrives outside the Spanish mission, originally built in 1650, Roberta says, “You can go take photography and I will wait here.” There is a cold wind whipping through the dusty desert streets. I exit the van to “take photography” of the exterior. I notice several children watching me intently from an adjacent alleyway.
Roberta unlocks a chain securing the thick, old, wooden mission door. As we enter, I ask about the significance of the building, “Does this still function as a church for the tribe?” “It’s just a building now, not a church,” she says. “We have murals in here, but nothing else happens.” I get the sense that this is simply a way for the Zuni to make some extra cash.
Inside the main door, we are greeted by a large black and white sign: “Photography Forbidden by the tribe. All paintings are Copy Righted.” The murals, which are the main purpose of the tour, are amazing. High up, near the stucco ceiling, are painted figures, spiritual beings, in colorful traditional dress and masks, dancing. The four seasons are represented through a changing desert landscape.
“You have the four seasons here from the Spring and Summer on one side to the Fall and Winter on the other,” Roberta says then walks to the front of the church to sit down. “If you have any questions, I will answer them now.”
“Is there religious significance to the figures?” I ask pointing at the mural.
“Women are not allowed to know about the religion of our people, so of course I do not know.”
Another surprising response, and I wonder to myself why the tribe would provide a female tour guide when women cannot answer questions about religion, especially because we are viewing religious artifacts.
Roberta and I chat in the old church. It is a fascinating conversation from my perspective, and I try to engage her in my experience – my life – but get the feeling she is not interested. At some point in the conversation – she is telling me about Zuni marriage practices – it hits me. Here is a people who are protecting their culture and religion from outsiders. They are not interested in knowing another way to live; they are trying to live like their ancestors. It is almost the opposite of what I seek to do on this road trip.
“I will drive you on the walking tour if you would like,” Roberta says. “Great!” I say. We climb back into the green beast and drive through the village which surounds the mission. “You can take photography if you like,” she says.
Before leaving, I buy Zuni Fetishes. There are two stores on the main road that are Zuni owned. The other six are owned by whites or Arabs according to the man at the visitor’s center. When I stop at Turquoise Village, I am barraged by Indians outside selling fetishes from their pockets. A woman and man approach. “Please sir, we are trying to get some food, will you buy these?” they plead, showing me an eagle and several wolves. I buy the eagle then two more fetishes from the store. When I exit, a deluge of people shove handfuls of fetishes in my direction, all smiling and inquiring, “Where are you from?” It’s overwhelming. I climb back into my Jeep and head east on the main road.
Somewhere before Albuquerque, I settle on what’s different about the Zuni people from other reservations I have visited. For lack of a better word: pride. You can see it in their eyes and hear it in their speech. While I may be surprised by some of the ways in which they live, they appear perfectly content with who they are in this world. Although I don’t think the Zuni are pleased with history, I don’t feel like I am visiting a defeated people.
The Petrified Forest National Park was one of those unscheduled stops along Interstate 40 in Arizona that turned out to be amazing. I stood and gazed at centuries-old, fossilized trees wondering what secrets they might reveal if asked. This photo is of one of those petrified park citizens.
“Do you know where this vortex thingy is?” a man asks heading up the red dirt trail. “I think it’s up in that direction. You’ll see a bunch of people meditating.” I cough, then walk the other way. “Oh, goody,” he says clutching a Canon Rebel and smiling at his female companion.
Sedona, Arizona is a spiritual tourism mecca and one of those places that people say, “You must stop and see.” I have come in search of energy. More specifically, in search of the energy vortexes said to be scattered around the area. My visit comes at a time when I’m nursing a bad cold, complete with sneezing, fatigue, fever and cough. I have three days to see four sites. More than enough time if I can find the, uh, energy.
The problem in locating, precisely, these “vortexes of subtle energy” is that there are no x-marks-the-spot signs indicating “here is the vortex” or “this way to the energy.” Instead, one must read online accounts and feel their way to the right place. One website (John and Miki’s Metaphysical Site), the one I use to find the vortexes, says: “You’ll notice that the energy is strong as soon as you get out of your car” in certain areas. “Strong” is a relative term.
Red Rock Crossing/Cathedral Rock
The first vortex I assail is Red Rock Crossing/Cathedral Rock, located on Route 89A to the west of town. As instructed, I enter Crescent Moon Park, pay the $9.00 fee, and continue to the farthest point where I can park. From there, I walk a short distance along Oak Creek through beautiful maple, juniper, sycamore and oaks trees. Fall leaves are an intense golden yellow with splotches of orange and green. On the path are pillars, six-inches to two-feet high, of smooth river rocks stacked precariously one on top of the other that people have carefully erected. My cell phone abruptly stops functioning and turns off completely. I click it on several times to no avail.
The website says this center “strengthens the feminine side” that exists in all spiritual beings. I didn’t know that energy has gender, but I’m open to the idea. As I walk, my heart beat increases, though I am not certain if it’s the DayQuil, extra weight I carry around my midsection, or the vortex. The prominent emotion building in me is anger. I scream, in my head, at the other tourists who linger in several landscape photos I wish to take. My iPhone still will not click on.
I recenter myself – after all, this is a special place and I am trying to have a spiritual experience. Breathing in the fresh air and scenic location, I build a small rock tower. Not as nice or elaborate as some, but it adds to the multitude of altars. I pray and set an intention to welcome more feminine energy into my life. Then, I walk back the way I came. Before making it back to my car, I notice a man sitting on a log. He grumbles, then pushes over some of the rock pillars. Apparently I am not the only one who feels anger here.
The next center I pay homage to is Boynton Canyon, northeast of Cathedral Rock about 4 miles. In the parking lot, I notice “parking permit required” signs. Other cars display papers in their windshields, and after minor investigation I see an automatic pay box where for $5 a day I can get a permit – credit cards accepted. I hate being nickled and dimed, so grumble to myself while inserting my card. Total amount to see the two energy sites is now $14.
I follow the Boynton Canyon Trail to Vista Trail, just a short walk. Along the way, my cell phone, which I have clicked a few times, reboots itself. I overhear someone comment, “I don’t know where this what-ever-it-is is, but let’s go this way.” I go the opposite direction, not wanting my experience to be disturbed.
Juniper trees jut out of smooth red boulders. A couple in front of me points out a roadrunner off in the distance. On this trail, I notice a vibrational hum coming from the earth. I hear it in other places, but it sounds deeper here. The website, which I pull up on my iPhone, says this energy center helps “balance the masculine and feminine.” Again I feel my heart beat faster as I approach the supposed site.
I never find what I consider the exact location of the vortex, but decide my visit here is complete after saying a short prayer in an area where others are praying, meditating and even napping.
The third vortex is due east of Boynton Canyon on Route 89A at Airport Road. Up a short trail, the site overlooks the city of Sedona. I see the same “permits required” signage, which makes my masculine blood boil. Here I decide to use the same permit from the last location – and rush through the experience less I be caught. Not until later, do I realize that the permits are good for all locations, all day.
Before walking into the area, I center myself to see if I can really feel the energy. I’m expecting it to hit me like a tab of ecstasy or LSD. It does not. By now, I am exhausted from the short walks taken in the name of spiritual growth. I pause, breath deeply, then walk 200 feet up the path to the overlook. Other visitors surround me, meditating, talking, walking deep in thought. Images of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead play in my head as someone shuffles by expressionless.
This location actually has a pile of rocks enclosed in a metal cage that appears to mark the spot. Offerings – dollar bills, flowers, personal notes, pictures – are placed carefully in between the red stones and wire. I consider reclaiming the dollar bills, but decide karma might not look so kindly on such an action. I have nothing in my pockets but my phone and wallet. I thumb through it for something to leave, but find nothing. I offer another prayer and set another intention.
Once again I experience a light, rapid feeling in my chest – my heart center – sort of like a strong cup of Starbucks first thing in the morning. Being that this is the third time in as many locales, I determine the experience must be due to the vortexes. I meditate, finding a nice, smooth boulder on which to sit. The few moments I spend are filled with incessant chatter . . . from my own head.
The fourth and final vortex I visit is located south of town at a pull out just off Route 179. Pulling into the parking lot, I leave the permit from the previous day on my dashboard hoping to skirt the $5 fee (which I do). It means I have to rush through the vortex or risk a ticket should some meticulous cop cruise the lot.
Bell Rock is a short, beautiful hike to a very “Sedona” place. It overlooks a large bell-shaped geological formation covered in smooth red boulders and juniper trees. The website says of finding the specific location: “Notice the twisted Juniper trees.” I see branches twisting on themselves in a circular fashion as if growing in a slight whirlwind. People are abundant in this location. I notice tourists with cameras, maps, and a familiar look in their eyes – almost as if they have just spotted big game on safari.
This vortex supposedly strengthens all three of the previous areas: feminine, masculine, and the feminine/masculine balance. I don’t notice much in this place – maybe because I haven’t paid my fair share of parking or maybe because the DayQuil is just kicking in. Either way, I pause, then say a prayer for the land and breathe in the fresh air, red rocks, trees and land.
I come to the conclusion that feeling energy in each of the locations is nothing like drugs. In most cases it is not even as powerful as a cup of coffee. But, if I am willing to pause, listen and breathe, I might notice something just below the surface of perception.
Before I leave town, I catch up with my new friend, Malaika, the Australian/vegetarian/dance instructor I met in Oregon. She has spent a month in Sedona – full of adventure – and is about to head off to Florida in a van she bought for $4500. We review her and my adventures, misadventures, love, and loss on the road. It’s fun to compare notes. We agree to meet along the way, perhaps for lunch in Austin or a swamp tour in Louisiana.
Today is MLK Day in the United States – it’s a federal holiday that celebrates a man who changed the United States through nonviolent protest. Enjoy the photo from the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site in Atlanta, GA.