Saturday, January 07, 2006

Death Valley and Maui

Death Valley and Maui

Winter break for teachers is a culture shock. After months of intensive exposure, in an institutional setting, to generations to which you have not belonged in many years, you’re suddenly free, maybe too free. I was able, this winter break, to escape my freedom twice, first via a camping trip with my 12 year old son, Connor, to Death Valley, and then a family trip to Maui.

The value of going to Death Valley is that, from the moment you slide into Antelop Valley, you have nothing. The value of nothing cannot be overstated. Without nothing, there would not be something, and there would be no way to survive the something. The word “vacation”, after all, refers to “vacancy.”

Not that Antelop Valley has nothing. It has the substantial cities of Lancaster and Palmdale, and the crossroads town of Mojave, where the 14 meets itself, and Edwards Air Force Base, where the space shuttle lands, but it’s big and wide and for the traveller has no newspaper to pick up in the driveway, no routine to automatically follow for 8 hours. I define “nothing” as the absence of familiarity and required response.

We and our traveling companions, the Robinsons, made our usual stop at the Mojave McDonalds, at about 5:00a.m., and savored the nothing over rank coffee and heated pre-packaged breakfast items. Once it snowed while we sat in there, but not this time. Then off we went in a notheasterly jag through the desert, past sparse sandy fields of Joshua tress and rocks, and the sunrise. I had planned to play Julian Bream doing Elizabethan lute as the sun came up, and might have since Connor was asleep (he hates such “gay” music, preferring rap; I often enjoy that genre, but not at dawn in the desert), but I found that the portable CD player near my seat would not play, giving me, in fact, nothing, so I listened to that and it grew on me.

After about an hour of bliss and meditation (the pose of a van driver, seated in a high upright chair, feet on floor, hands lightly closed at chest level, may serve in a pinch as a lotus position) we approached the peerless town of Trona, a miasma of chemical residue and stench, its pipes, tanks and chimneys rising up like some Tolkeinesque orc fortress in the otherwise stark and beautiful desert. You smell Trona about fifteen minutes before you see it, through the low canyon approach of Trona Road, where runs the old pipe that brought brine to the early borax and soda ash miners. It’s a sulfphurous air, a hint of man’s depredations here. Rounding the corner you see it, the town named after its product (“trona” means “Hydrated Sodium Bi-Carbonate”)- not a town really, but a string of processing plants ringing the dry lake bed, with desolate shelters for humans over the highway from the plants. Many of the shelters are deserted, their windows boarded up. The first gas station in town is also a relic. Only white smoke billowing from the high stacks indicates human habitation. Further into town are several churches and homes more neatly kept, and a real gas station.

Then comes Trona High School, an attractive campus serving teenagers from many miles around. What would it be like to teach here, I wonder? What are the kids like? Are they all white, Hispanic? Any Jews? Do they want to leave? Are they suicidal? Do they get drunk and stoned out in the desert? Are there intellectuals reading Kem Nunn or Hermann Hesse? Do they dream of San Francisco, or Hollywood? Will they carry their birthplace with them througout their lives as a badge of primal ordeal? Or do they cherish it, its mean, self-loving quality? I will never know, my experience limited to stopping for gas and savoring the steamy desert fart for 15 minutes.

Escape from Trona then ensues. Off now to the north-east, over rolling hills and narrow canyons and suddenly we lurch over a summit and face the increadibly empty Panamint Valley, the last valley before Death Valley. Panamint is emptier than Death because there is no camping. Other than a few two-lane highways, there is nothing but the vast sides of this huge space. You can almost hear yourself resonate, your soul’s vibrations echoing off the mountain walls. And, inexplicably, it’s not unpleasant when the occasional fighter jet roars over you, on maneuvers from Edwards or Nellis, because they are occasional, and novel, and seeming to carry their own meaning of teenage dreams of power and dominance, divorced from adult politics of the same. Then over Immigrant Pass, a test of your car’s cooling system, and thus a source of anxiety and a break from beauty appreciation.

Then over the top and there is Death Valley, an emptiness so big it is not marred by the several commercial centers it tolerates. The first of these , Stovepipe Wells, is a pleasant enough stop, featuring a gas station, a usefull general store, hotel, restaurant, parking lot full of RV’s and trailors. Then on we go, taking a left at the Sand Dunes, driving over the valley floor highway for about 45 minutes to Mesquite Springs camp grounds, located at the lowest point, the dry river bed, where the north and south bahadas meet. At this point the vacation, the nothing, is interrupted by the pressing need to set up camp, which involves significant physical attention to sticks and canvass and folding tables and chairs and boxes of stuff and kids who don't help because they race off in all directions, free at last.

In the midst of these opening moments came the central theme of my Death Valley story, an animal. Every year in Death Valley there is a different animal theme. We have had kangaroo rats, delightful hopping rodents who scamper across your feet as you sit around the campfire, or roadrunners who look at you politely for a bit of meat, or tarantulas who walk acceptingly across your arm. This year it was a young coyote, almost a pup. While I labored at the tent, he sauntered by like someone’s tired old dog, sitting heavily, for a pup, on the paved road about 20 feet from me, looking at me with world-weary eyes. He broadcast a clear signal into my head, clearer than spoken language: “I know you love me, what I represent. Look at me, look how I sit here before you, unprotected, unafraid, full of wisdom. Am I not the most special thing you have seen in a long time? Do you not love me? Will you not express this love by offering me food throughout your stay?”

My first thought was that the coyote would be a useful lure for Connor, pulling him into my sphere of work. Connor was indeed interested, but it was Kendall, sire of the Robinson clan, our travelling companions, who broke the spell the creature had over me. Kendall has a philosophical bent but is not quite the hippy sap that I am.

“Throw pebbles near it,” he said suspiciously, “It has to know we’re not feeding it.” No way would I do that, however. What’s so bad about wanting to be fed? Especially if you’re a Boddisatvah, a messenger from another dimension.

Soon, the tent was ready and Connor crawled in to test it out. He fell asleep, and I walked up the dry river bed. Outside the tent door was a trash bag, anchored with a rock, containg the remains of our lunch, mostly paper and crumbs. Connor awoke to a scratching sound outside the tent door, and I returned to find that the coyote had shredded the bag and devoured its edible contents. Kendall had seen the tail end of this process and tossed pebbles near the coyote, per his philosophy. Connor was sobered at the thought that the creature’s jaws and paws were two feet from his sleeping head during its foray. In the foothills of the San Fernando Valley we know coyotes from their murder of two of our cats and our two beloved chickens, Velk and Sparky, and for the newspaper accounts of toddlers mistaken for small animals whose necks are broken before the coyote realizes its mistake. But we don’t know coyotes as pscychic mauraders, the trickster gods of Native Americans. Later that day the ranger came to tell us of a young coyote that was harassing the entire campground. A lady had put her food on top of her car to temporarily keep it from the coyote while she walked to the toilet. When she got back the coyote was on top of her car, its head in the boxes. The ranger advised us to throw pebbles near the coyote, to tell it gently that we were having none of it. Kendall looked triumphantly at us.

As it happened, we saw no more of the coyote that day or the following day. But on the second night, we were contacted. Around the campfire, one of our party told stories he had heard about a single coyote’s ability to “throw its voice,” to sound like more than one coyote. We discussed the weird shrieking and yelling circles of coyotes that we hear throughout the year at home, and speculated on their purose. That night, around 3:00am, it started: a coyote song fest the likes of which I had never heard. They were close, this indederminate group, very close to the campsite, a clearly deliberate choice in the vast uninhabited valley. The song was composed, had special features. It seemed angry, resentfull, full of guile and fury, but artistic in that it had no obvious element of strategic purpose. It was a song for us, with our pebbles and our gear and our sacks of food and two-legged attitude. A song composed just for us, by crazy animals in the desert. A gift of the nothing.

Two weeks later, as vacation getaway number two loomed, I had lost some of my lust for nothing, and spent time finding things to fill the trip’s nothing, like a stack of magazines to read on the flight to Maui. One of these, the “Special Edition Scientific American, Frontiers of Physics,” gave me food for thought to supplement the snack box offered by ATA, and I quote: “The electron, the up and the down quarks, the gluon, the photon and the Higgs boson suffice to describe all the esoteric phenomena studied by particle physicists. This is not speculation akin to the ancient Greeks’ four elements of earth, air, water and fire. Rather it is a conclusion embodied in the most sophisticated mathematical theory of nature in history, the Standard Model of particle physics.”

Give me a break! As much as I love and am awed by human science, it does have a streak of arrogance and conceit that is hard to bear. I find particularly galling the contention, found in the article quoted above, that we are closer to understanding the fundamental workings of the universe than we used to be. Granted the theory of the four elements was a crock, made up, not by scientists of the day, but the same brand of snake oil salesmen endemic to our society, but what a cheap shot to hold up only the ancient claptrap in comparison to modern science, instead of the clever stuff. Question: how is speculating about up and down quarks closer to understanding the fundamental workings of the universe than figuring out, as the Polynesians did a thousand years ago, how to find Hawaii via tiny canoes over thousands of miles of uncharted ocean? Answer: they both reveal the same amount of fundamental knowledge about the universe, namely, none. “Seeing” an island hundreds of miles away by gazing in the water, or “seeing” sub-atomic particles by smashing bigger particles into each other: it’s surface reality either way. Humans are limited to mechanics, lets face it. We’re in a box and we can’t see out. My guess is that no one alive today knows if we will ever see outside this box, and that if the day comes when we do see outside it, we’ll have changed to accommodate what there is to see, to the point that we’re not “human” any more. At that point, it won’t be science or religion, or anything we have a name for. Maybe it won’t have a name.

At any rate, such were my thoughts on the flight to Maui. Speaking of Maui, it’s the most interesting of the islands, I think, because it spans old and new. It’s composed of two adjacent volcanoes, one old and extinct, the other with a foot in the hot spot (its last eruption was in 1790). My view of travel essays is that they should not bore the reader with recitations of all the cool places you saw. No one cares. Rather a travel essay should focus on the ideas you had that, presumably, you wouldn’t have had if you hadn’t gone to this place. So here’s what I discovered on our trip to Maui: you can get great information from mundane or otherwise awful sources. Case in point: when I mentioned to a travel agent in the hotel that we were driving the road to Hanna that day, she gave me a CD which you were supposed to listen to as you drove along. Upon entering the rain forest, we turned on the CD and I was appalled to hear a cheery woman’s voice, chuckling at innapropriate moments, sounding very much like a pitch for Downy Softness. In my younger days I would have turned off the CD immediately, maybe even broken it into pieces and thrown it ceremoniously in the trash. But age has rendered me patient, and we let the thing drone on. In so doing we learned the following:

1. The sacred hula was danced exclusively by men. Female hula dancing was a western invention.
2. Pele, being a female deity, was not allowed to start a fire; she could tend a fire, but only men could start one.

Good stuff, huh? There was lots more of similar quality. But then you would have to endure something like this: “If you get out of your car in Pa’ai, you might be approached by some, chuckle…chuckle, unsavory characters selling, chuckle…chuckle,
‘Maui Wowie.’ My advice, chuckle…chuckle, just keep on...chuckle... walking, chuckle!” To recap the lesson from Maui: You will get valuable information from anything you listen to.
Bon voyage!