strange visions

Georgia O'Keeffe: Ghost Ranch Landscape, 1936

Ghost Ranch Landscape: Georgia O’Keeffe

I slept an extra night in Santa Fe after the stay at the zen center. I wanted to go to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, and also poke my nose into downtown. The O’Keeffe museum made me think of my mother, as I remember that’s where I first heard of her (O’Keeffe) as Mum had a book of her paintings. She and my father have both dropped into my mind from time to time on this journey. At the beginning, in Canada of course, when I drove through Saskatchewan, where my mother had lived as a child, and through Manitoba, where my father had spent his youth. Mum again whenever I visit a cousin, as it’s her side they’re all related to. And driving, especially as I’ve drifted west, well Dad comes up, because of how many road trips he took us kids on, many of them into the States. I’ve stumbled on a few roads that I know I was once on, but they’re all long ago. The last few days, I crossed paths with my 15-year-old self. We drove through Las Vegas back then, swam at Lake Mead, oohed at the Hoover Dam. Funny thing, though, is back then, I hardly noticed where I was. My memory of Lake Mead? It was like swimming in hot bath water. No one camping then, because it was the summer, and no one but a tourist would think of summertime camping in the desert. But natural and man-made wonders, what’s the big deal, eh? Well, I will excuse myself. My 15-year-old self didn’t have any perspective. Or imagination perhaps. I like to think I’ve developed some since then.

ab santafegalleryIn Santa Fe’s galleries I picked out a few paintings I’d like to have. Fortunately, it seems I have expensive tastes (which is supposed to mean discerning, right?). Fortunately, because it means I didn’t have to wrestle with indecision about whether to buy anything that I liked, which is just as well, as I don’t own a wall to hang paintings on anyway. I finally remembered the distance I wanted to cover, so got myself back into my car, and started driving. Still feeling leftover lack of urgency, from my days in the zen center, I guess. But I don’t like to get caught driving at night, so finally got into my car, and headed west.

Driving out of Santa Fe, I didn’t really know what to expect. I was on my way to Winslow Arizona, picked as a simple waystation. On the way I saw on the map the Petrified Forest National Park, and thought that would be a good route to take, just a little diversion. Really, looking on a map, well, it just doesn’t prepare you for what you’re going to find.

Words kind of escape me here. I think maybe the descent from Santa Fe (from 7000 feet or so) was the first thing. Vast landscape, tremendous landscape, imposing landscape. This was different from the prairies. Maybe it was because of the slope I was going down, and the size of the sky. There was a point when I was completely awed by the dry land spread around me and the sky above. I was facing a wall of grey, and I thought about what kind of valley I might be going into. There must be mountains there somewhere, but I couldn’t see them. Weather is what I was looking at, a sheer wall of grey nothing. The road just dropped into it. Pretty unnerving. The double strips of interstate highway were reduced to ribbons across the land. Semi-trucks as toys. And looming ahead, weather.

I haven’t really been unnerved by what I’ve seen, not much on this trip. On the prairie outside Winnipeg, that sight of big sky, and a grey wall of cloud etched with lightning, yes, it was there too. My own insignificance in any grand scheme, clear. But no tornadoes, no flash floods, no living through natural disasters for me, so far anyway. I’ve skirted by them all trip. Smoke from forest fires early in my trip, and recently I saw some burnt out trees, residue of the summer’s burning. The sun shone for me as I drove through South Carolina, and now people are dealing with horrendous flooding. It’s weird.

It was Monday I was driving out of Santa Fe. The road briefly dipped into a cloud (or the cloud dipped down to the road) and I drove through heavy rain, slowed down, flipped on my lights, and wondered how far? I’d checked the weather for where I was starting, and where I was sleeping, but not this that I was now going through. I’d forgotten there could be many climate zones in a day’s driving. But then I was through it, and on my way to Arizona. Anti-climax. Whew. The rest of the day was a mix, dry dry land, with clouds waiting on the horizon, rain occasionally slipping down. Lots of rocks.

The Painted Desert Inn, inside the park.

The Painted Desert Inn, inside the park.

I turned off the highway for the Petrified Forest, still looking to the sky for weather, which was happening in more than one direction. But I drove through the park, with my car shrunk again, faced with views over the Painted Desert in one direction, and then through the strange desolation of these southern badlands. It’s such an alien landscape (to me) that I just kept stopping the car to get out and look. And I wasn’t alone, either, lots of other cars doing the same thing. Took lots of pictures, some maybe good pictures, but they just can’t  catch what’s out there. Framed, the landscape loses its power. You can’t tell from a picture how big it all is, and how all around you. The pictures serve to remind me though.

The Painted Desert (fancy name for badlands)

The Painted Desert (fancy name for badlands)

Somewhere in that switch from New Mexico to Arizona I crossed into another time-zone. Didn’t realize it, and so I thought I had less time in the park before the gates closed than I actually did have. As a result I managed to not stop at every viewpoint. Good thing too, because in the end I ran out of daylight anyway. And coming out on the south side, I ran into more weather, the edge of another thunder storm. Back on the highway, I ran away from that, and watched the light disappear (days are shorter now) and so drove my last half hour to Winslow, Arizona, where I had a room waiting, in the dark. For once glad to find the motel right off the highway. What a day.

Inside the Petrified Forest park. The sky is impressive too.

Inside the Petrified Forest park. The sky is impressive too.

Who did this?

Who did this?

And this?

And this?

And then there was Tuesday. Tuesday I drove from Winslow to Las Vegas, with a little detour to look at the Hoover Dam. All along the way I was just shaking my head at landscape, so starkly beautiful, dry (what sere means, maybe) and then I crossed the Colorado River into Nevada, on this extraordinary engineering marvel: a bridge. Bridge, like forest, river, tree, they’re not descriptive words, they are categories. Anyway, across the bridge and down a winding road to have a looksee at the dam. What can you say? Wow works. The view of it, of the lake (Mead) that’s a result, the bridge, seen from underneath and above (I climbed the stairs to have a walk back across it, and have a look down from the span). Spent some time there, at the dam, marvelling at the contrast of the lake against the dry, dry hills, and some of those hills bristling with metal towers carrying electricity off to, well along with other places, to that peculiar town in the desert, Las Vegas.

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Lake Mead, backed up behind that dam.

I spent the night in Las Vegas, not out of any particular desire to be there, but because it was on the way. The next morning (now we’re up to Wednesday) I got up, loaded my car, and took a drive down the Strip. Good grief, the things people dream up to entertain themselves. It’s another (to me) alien landscape, and I didn’t stay. Did stop off at a stationery store, to stock up on refills for the pens I like to use. One of the few things I’ve bought myself on this trip, a bit of stuff I will use (I ran through several during the retreat at Upaya). These pens that I really like aren’t made anymore, so the refills are hard to find, in Canada anyway. I’m good for a good while now, though.

Leaving Las Vegas

Leaving Las Vegas

Ten, twenty minutes out of Las Vegas, going north, I was practically alone on the road, cutting through flat desert, bounded on both sides with more dry hills. It struck me that the hills would suit watercolours best, if one were to paint them. Ironic I suppose, given how dry they are, but the colours, off in the distance have that texture somehow.

I had picked out Bishop, California as my next sleeping spot, so I took a left turn at Beatty, Nevada and drove west so I could cross into California at  Death Valley. On my map, they’ve coloured Death Valley green, because it’s a national park. I find that strange. Not that it’s a national park, but the choice that the map-makers made to designate all parks as green.

First sighting down into the valley.

First sighting down into the valley.

I’ve run out of words to describe. You can only use so many superlatives. Awesome? The word has become devalued, but maybe it gets it across. Alien, sounds a bit clichéd, until you remember that Death Valley stood in for some of the scenes of the Tatooine desert in Star Wars. It seems it rained in Death Valley a day or two before I found myself there, and so some of the roads had ‘flooded’ warning signs set up, which under the circumstances (now hot and more typically dry) was kind of funny. No water on the roads, but there was dried mud that had been washed up. And a lake, which I suspect will disappear pretty quickly. Again, I kept stopping my car to hop out and take pictures.

Coming from Beatty, the road drops for about 13 ear-popping miles to bring you (me) down to sea level and then a slight dip below. Then climbs back up and then does it again (to where I found the lake).

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Can you spot R2D2?

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After rain.

Coyotes. Adaptable creatures.

Coyotes. Adaptable creatures. Even cactus doesn’t seem to want to live in Death Valley.

Then the road climbs and climbs it’s way on a boggling switch-back road to take you across another range, where cactus starts to grow again, before dropping back down into the valley where Bishop lies, along US highway 395.

A nice night’s sleep in Bishop and I was off again. I’d thought to drive through Yosemite, but I was so blown away (again, still) by US 395, that I just followed it, up, up, up out of the valley, past elevation markers of 7000 feet, down and up again, highest point, 8000. More ears popping, and really, my head a bit floating (not sure if that was true of if I imagined myself into it, but I didn’t feel great at 8000 feet).  Somewhere I saw a sign that said “end of scenic route” and I laughed out loud. There is no end of the scenic route. There is just the end of the day, and Thursday ended with me dropping down into the Sacramento Valley, in California’s Central Valley (through actual trees for awhile!) to my next visit with cousins, in Davis, near Sacramento.

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Mono Lake, along US 395; just another day on the road.

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