Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Reflections: Organ Pipe National Monument

A small tinaja, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, AZ.
A raven is cruising the campground, sweeping by and landing with trills and squawks and all manner of raven-speak. They are one of my favorite birds - so iconically Southwestern, they always make me think of the wild desert places I've visited, lived in, loved. Where do they find water here? Come to think of it, where do the many birds here - Gila woodpeckers, Northern flickers, cactus wrens, desert quail - find water? They're here, so it's somewhere. But apparently it's easier to find on two wings than on two feet.

Craig Childs writes about this general area in his book, The Secret Knowledge of Water (he focuses on Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, which is just west of Organ Pipe). He has traveled through many arid places, always on foot, in search of water, and in this region he says you must go to the mountains to find it, where it is stored in tinajas, or waterpockets within the rock. If you just understand the lay of the land, the geographic circumstances required for such catchment, you will find it. This knowledge has been passed on, from generations of indigenous people and even to Spanish missionaries like Father Kino, who explored a large portion of this region in the early 1700s. But now, people cross this desert under dire circumstances and can't find water, because they don't know where to look for it. It can't be found along what seems to be the path of least resistance: the mesquite flats crisscrossed by dry washes that flash during storms only briefly, and then only a few times a year. The water is stored in the mountains, but to traverse them would make an already difficult journey both longer and more dangerous.

For all the beauty of this place, it has become impossible to ignore what's happening along the border. As we drove back from a hike yesterday, we came across at least a dozen Border Patrol vehicles, parked at angles along the dirt road, not an agent to be seen. Clearly they were out on foot. Any consideration for the fragile ecosystem is lost completely in the pursuit of those who, at best, simply wish to pursue economic opportunities that are made readily available to them once they cross the border, and at worst, are smuggling drugs that current US policies have made highly profitable.

Of course, the impact on the ecosystem, though at the forefront of my own mind having just hiked through it, pales in comparison to the crisis of violence and meaningless suffering that currently pervades the borderlands. I am often struck when hiking in this area, comfy in my synthetic, wicking clothing and three-liter Camelbak full of cool water, by the level of desperation that would motivate someone to cross this landscape in the summer, in the dark, in second-hand tennis shoes and with a gallon jug of water painted black to avoid detection. It's an unimaginable journey. (I should say that I'm referring here to migrant workers, not drug smugglers - that's a whole different issue.)

I sometimes long to just forget it all, to see this place as one of simple and immense beauty, and not as symbolic of a conflict born of economic disparity, in which I am both complicit and on the privileged side. I want the natural world to transcend the muck of human affairs, and I want it to take me with it. And yet, that would be deny the interconnectedness of all things: of humans to the natural world and of it to us; of me to the Gila woodpecker and of the migrant to me. And so here we are in the muck, without answers, except the knowledge that the paradox of pain and beauty represented by such a place is surely one small, inescapable piece of being human.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Rise Up, Egypt!

A little over two years ago, I traveled to Egypt with my family. I haven't written much at all about that trip, but with the recent events there, now seems like a good time to start.

As is often the case with travel, although we saw many incredible sights - the Great Pyramids, the Sphinx, the Valley of the Kings - I find myself more often reflecting upon two less iconic experiences there.

The first was a visit to the Unfinished Obelisk, in the city of Aswan. We had already visited temple after temple, many of them containing huge, hand-carved obelisks decorated by intricate hieroglyphs. As we approached what our guide had referred to as "the unfinished obelisk," I suppose I was expecting half an obelisk, or perhaps one uncarved, barren of hieroglyphs. But as we walked to the edge of the stone quarry, what we found was an obelisk on its side, only partially carved out of the surrounding rock. It was cracked.

Only then did I truly understand, not just intellectually but emotionally, that real people had carved this obelisk, and all the others we had seen. Probably, some guy was chipping away with the ancient Egyptian version of a hammer and chisel, when pow! he hit a weak spot in the rock, and the crack snaked instantly up the smooth carving, destroying years of collective work. The obelisk was abandoned. How tragic! How frustrating, to put in years of work only for forces beyond your control to instantly take it all away! How very human.

I also often think of another moment in Egypt that occurred at a mosque in Cairo. For days we had heard the Islamic call to prayer, the adhan, ringing through villages, broadcast over loudspeakers, echoing across the waters of the Nile. As we entered the main room of this mosque, there was the muezzin, preparing to make the call. We stood before him as he sang, the familiar yet foreign words echoing off the huge domed ceiling, haunting, beautiful, and full of a reverence identifiable across language and culture. If only we all could see that this, too, is Islam: not scary, not "other," but perfectly recognizable to all of us as an expression of human beauty, ritual, and faith.

If the Unfinished Obelisk removed the temporal distance separating me from the ancient Egyptians, witnessing the call to prayer bridged, at least in part, the cultural distance that had separated me from contemporary ones. I remember that now as I watch them celebrate, in the hope that those people in the streets will soon truly govern themselves, and will keep striving, as we all do, for lives lived boldly in the pursuit of happiness.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Trail Awaits

Recently, I was struck by the realization that I have been mountain biking for approximately fifteen years. Since I was a teenager when I started, this was followed by the realization - and these are becoming more common - that ready or not, I am almost thirty. I'm not at all depressed by this development, but I am surprised, which I suppose is only natural. But it's still strange to think that it's been fifteen years since I took my first tentative pedal strokes up Schultz Creek Trail on... what? I don't even remember my first mountain bike. All I remember is my absolute terror of crashing, which undoubtedly made me tense and rigid and therefore led to more crashing, and my dad's limitless patience with me as he taught me to overcome my fear, trust myself, and just let go and ride.

I don't really know what the public image of mountain biking is, but I have a feeling it's of a bunch of heavily gear-laden adrenaline junkies shredding noisily down the trail, spooking horses and taking out tranquil groups of birdwatchers. This may be, unfortunately, a partially deserved reputation, but it is certainly not my own, or the only, experience of the activity.

When I ride my bike on a trail, there is nothing but trail, bike, and body - everything else falls away. I love to climb hills, to fall into a rhythm of breathing and pedaling, only to have it broken by an obstacle - a rock or a root - that requires all my strength and concentration to overcome. One can never maintain the same pattern or expectations for too long while mountain biking, for something new always awaits, whether it is a hairpin turn in the trail or a tarantula crossing in the dusk, each thick leg slowly negotiating the thorny path.

Like so many things in life, mountain biking requires a balance of control and release, of hard work and finesse. Just putting your head down and grinding away will only get you so far; you must also relax enough to dance with the bike, to softly embrace the terrain. Too much tension will cause the body, and by extension, the bike, to be rigid and tight, and inevitably lead to stops or crashes, just as too much control exerted over life can result in inflexibility, missed opportunities, disappointment. Especially when an obstacle appears unexpectedly, the ability to at once relax and push forward, to exert focused effort and simultaneously relinquish the attempt at absolute control and let the trail take you where it may - ahh. That is the ultimate satisfaction, the place where bliss dwells. Bliss on a bike, bliss in life. The journey toward that moment, toward a series of those moments - that's a ride worth taking.