Saturday, September 29, 2012

Love Letter to NM

Autumn envelopes the high desert and mountains. It tingles bare arms with a cool breeze; it tinges the aspens and cottonwoods with gold. Despite being one of the financially poorest states, New Mexico is culturally wealthy. Its gold may be in chamisa or rock formations, but it is also in the multiplicity of cultures continuing to vie for survival and stretching their roots ever deeper into the sand. I will always be an outsider to the pueblos or cathedrals or mountains or vast desert that I visit, but I feel welcome nonetheless, as if this part of the world is somehow a memory of home.

As I walked, meandered, tasted, breathed deep, and meditated, I composed a love letter to northern New Mexico. These photos summarize the top nine reasons why someday I’ll return.

1. The land is sacred, and Spirit is overwhelmingly present everywhere I go:

near a monastery or cathedral

(St. Francis of Assisi Walking on Water statue)

with representations of yei

or from within a favored place to meditate, sheltered from sun in the desert.

I also briefly visited a mosque atop a mesa; I glimpsed the rooftop ladders leading into kivas. The West is big enough to accommodate many beliefs.

2. The natural world will not be ignored, even as the subject of art. The crows and ravens share their voices throughout the day,

a jackrabbit hides from a possible predator,

the flowers demand careful appreciation,

and a coming storm is reason to stand in awe and await the rain.

3. I once lived in a black-and-white world but, like Dorothy, stepped into my own colorful Oz.

4. After visiting Abiquiu and Plaza Blanca, I respect Georgia O’Keeffe’s artistry all the more.

5. Recording the landscape has been a preoccupation of artists for centuries—not only O’Keeffe, one of my favorite American artists, but also filmmakers. Standing in the creek bed where Daniel Craig tried to outrun aliens (Cowboys and Aliens) gave me a new perspective on Plaza Blanca, as did photographing Chimney Rock and Gates of Heaven on the ranch where Billy Crystal herded cows in City Slickers. I was told that, down the road about a hundred miles, Johnny Depp is filming The Lone Ranger. Our cinematic preoccupation with this stretch of New Mexico crosses genres and time periods but still can’t capture the essence of being surrounded by these formations and all that sky.

6. Even the desert provides unique tastes, from the sharp vitamin C tang of the two-pronged piñon needle or its mellower seeds (blue corn-piñon nut pancakes are a must) to the inner kernel of salt in a “salt bush,” nature provides a feast for those who know where to look. Chiles are everywhere—hanging outside groceries, celebrating “Christmas” (red and green chile on the same plate) in September, surprising tastebuds in everything from chocolate and pizza to traditional salsas.

7. The limitless skies offer plenty of breathing space—and the dry, clean air makes breathing worthwhile.

8. There is time for the solace of solitude, to sit on a garden bench in the late afternoon or to perch on the trunk of a fallen tree, the perfect picnic spot along the river.

9. Tenacity is paramount. The world is changing yet again. The plazas and markets remain centers of commerce, and the tourist centers herald the clash of cultures as well as the battle between the technological world and Mother Earth. In this autumn, there is a feeling of change and the uncertainty of what the future will reveal, but the desert often is a harsh place to live, and the people who have survived environmental, political, and social upheavals for thousands of years undoubtedly will find a way to persevere. They, like the trees that take hold in the most precarious places, survive in beauty.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Riding the Rails through Hocking Valley

Family legend has it that my grandfather and his brother hopped a freight train to travel from Illinois to Indiana in search of work. More than eight decades later, my brother and I more casually and safely boarded the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway in eastern Ohio in search of history. Our ride was shorter and much more pleasant.

Over the years I've enjoyed another historic train ride (in Winnipeg) and hope to take one more this year (in Santa Fe). I've traveled with Amtrak from Toledo to New York and, heading the opposite direction, to Seattle (although on that ride I was stuck outside Minot, ND, during a freak May snowstorm). I've lounged in sleeper cars and dined in the club car or a more formal dining car. I used to spend as many afternoons as my job and budget would allow riding VIA from Windsor to Toronto, where I'd indulge in theatre or hockey. Trains in my past got me where I wanted to go. Trains in my future are far more likely to be a sentimental journey.

So, on a summer Sunday, the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway became a great excuse for a family-friendly great escape along rivers and fields. We stood in the open car to feel the breeze and get closer to nature (my niece pointed out a deer darting into a cornfield). We smugly waved to cars waiting for the train to pass. We watched much of Ohio's history, from farm to brickyard, rush by us. During a stop at the local college's recreated pioneer settlement, we visited homesteads and--my favorite--the school, complete with oil lamps and slates. Then it was a short journey back to the Nelsonville station.

Although a live historic commentary lets passengers know what we're seeing (such as the lone chimney and kiln from a once-thriving brick industry), even more informative is a conversation with the conductor, a train enthusiast who knows just about every other train route worth taking in the eastern US.

Train travel, like most transportation today, isn't as glamorous or accessible as it was in its heyday. I miss the ambiance of the great old train stations, including my favorites Chicago (home to a climactic scene in The Untouchables) and Toronto (where Due South's Benton Fraser fatefully encountered the dangerous Victoria). They've lost much of their historic flavor to modernization. Still, special journeys like those offered by the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway keep the trains running for enthusiasts who want to get away, if only for an afternoon.

Life is Looking Up...and Around

On a recent visit to Florida's Treasure Coast, I refused to bring any work with me and let my gaze wander away from Facebook, email, and drafts of good ideas awaiting editing. Perhaps I've reduced the natural beauty of Florida to clichés of birds, clouds, and surf, but I photographed what caught my eye on walks around Vero Beach or Sebastian Inlet. The silences surprised me most--long stretches of time broken only by the stutter-crash of that mythic big seventh wave or a hawk launching itself from dry palm fronds and crying a greeting as it ascended. And then there was a chance meeting with my first land crab, who was casually crossing a gravel road until I insisted on a photo op. The crab immediately straightened to its full height to glare at me in fighting stance, a pose for which I thanked it. Two days removed from everyday stress and I'm philosophizing that not every cloud may have a silver lining, but occasionally there's that one golden epiphany that makes everything seem all right.