Our driving trip the first week of 2015, like our last to Havasu City, took my wife and me into the Southwest, this time as far as Sante Fe, New Mexico. Our itinerary paralleled old Route 66, the romanticized predecessor of the Interstate Highway System, surviving stretches of which feature commercial clusters which promise and often deliver nostalgic glimpses of early automotive America. This trip was different from our Havasu getaway in another respect: We did not get away from the world, but were immersed in it by the car radio and our mobile devices as word of the French massacres at Charlie Hebdo and the kosher deli invaded our space and seemed to stain even the open deserts.
Our first stop, Williams, Arizona, where we stayed at the Railway Hotel and took the delightful old narrow gauge train to the Grand Canyon, occurred before the awful news, so we could relax and enjoy the Americana. The train was built when there were no drivable roads leading to the canyon and was taken by many notables in the 1920’s, including movie stars and presidents. It chuggs along for two hours each way, past beautiful snowy terrain.
At the canyon, after some minutes staring into the seeming endless depths, it seemed to me that, thanks to the Colorado River, one can look into private parts of the earth. The guide explained that it is a common misperception that the river cut into a motionless plain; in fact the plain rose as part of the Colorado Plateau, the river just keeping level. The result in any case is an assault on the earth’s integrity, allowing the viewer to look where we normally can’t look. I wondered if the earth was in pain from this violation. Or was it a sexual penetration? Is the earth ravished here, in the throes of rapture from the river’s thrust? When such thoughts come over me I take a cautionary moment to think of the scorn a geologist might have for them. The earth alive? Native Americans were allowed to think that, but we are not, as the dogma of our state religion, Science, has it that matter is a random chaos of unconscious reaction. Our permitted mystical focus, which we call “God,” is not matter, but spirit, guiding us in our manipulation of matter. Our drive to colonize the extra-terrestrial universe is a crusade to force all matter to conform to our will. Such, anyway, were my thoughts at the Grand Canyon.
The next day we toured Meteor Crater, Az., a wonderful gigantic dent in the earth, surrounded to the horizon by the Colorado Plateau, dated to a meteor collision about 50,000 years ago. The crater and visitor center are privately owned by the descendants of a man who staked a mining claim here and dug several hundred feet below the crater floor in the mistaken belief that a mass of extraterrestrial iron that he could sell to the railroads was buried there. In fact the nickel-iron mass had disintegrated on impact into myriad small particles which lay everywhere around the site. The largest intact piece of the meteor, about two feet long, is in the visitor center. I touched it eagerly, wondering what far away mind, what “other”, I might be in contact with, again, obviously, deviating from the state religion, where iron and nickel atoms are “materials,” in effect dead things.
On the tour of the rim I had forgotten my water bottle and the guide suggested I eat snow. I did and it was delicious, and I wondered if any of the dispersed iron atoms were in the snow. Could it be that I would metabolize pieces from “outer-space,” that they would become part of me? Looking down into the crater I again had the thought that something sexual had occurred. Was the earth fucked here? If so, perhaps there was a resonance in the ground beneath my feet, detectable even in the snow I was eating. And I thought, not for the first time, that it’s a good thing our state religion does not have an Inquisition (at least not a formal one).
At about this time the news of the Charlie Hebdo attack broke, followed soon after by news of the kosher deli attack, and our trip from then on was not, strictly speaking, a vacation, in the etymological sense of a vacated mind, though we found some escape our first night in Santa Fe. We arrived late. It was cold and dark; most stores and restaurants around the historic city center were closed. Luckily we found that the Hotel La Fonda’s restaurant was not only open but featured a lively country band and a group of people who had been dancing there for 35 years (per our waitress, who seated us close to the band). Several of the dancing couples were quite expert, one in particular whose precision moves looked professional, so, although we love dancing, we felt a certain hesitation to join in. The first martini took care of that (we learned the next day that, at 7,000 feet, the effects of alcohol in Santa Fe are notably enhanced), and we danced through a number of songs (the regulars were quite tolerant of our lurching about, for which we were grateful).
The next day we took a walking tour of the city, our initial mood somewhat dour, both because of the aftereffects of our revelries the night before and the deepening horror on the news. But that news proved to be an engaging backdrop to the tour. Santa Fe is one of those cities where history informs everything. It embodies the living memory of Native Americans, the Spanish Conquest, the Catholic Church, the Mexican period, the early American period, and something else we did not know about. The guide took us into a sprawling 19th Century hacienda, through room after room added over the years, and in the furthest room was the former office of Robert Oppenheimer, where he met, towards the end of World War II, with other people with familiar names, like Edward Teller, as these men, engaged in the Manhattan Project, oversaw the invention of the atom bomb in the nearby desert. Touching the preserved objects on Oppenheimer’s desk, I thought of the atom, and again my heresy was aroused, probably more so in the context of events unfolding in France. What is an atom? It comes from the Greek, meaning, “that which cannot be cut,” but of course we have cut it. What does that mean, to “cut” an atom? We have split it into “sub-atomic” particles, an oxymoron in the etymological sense, although, as if attempting to make semantic amends, science journals often assert that within the atom we've found new “basic building blocks” which cannot be cut, like quarks, or whatever particle we have not cut yet.
We’ve found that when we cut an atom, a burst of something we call “energy” emerges. This energy can be used to do things, like heat cities or incinerate hundreds of thousands of people. The latter is what Oppenheimer et al had in mind.
But what is an atom? To find out, we hurl them at great speeds at each other, causing collisions that rip apart their structure so that tiny components spill out. In my blasphemy, I consider that a strange way to find out what an atom is. What if you were an advanced being from another galaxy and you wondered what people were? You note that they move excitedly over the planet, changing everything, often rubbing against each other, activity that apparently produces more of them. To further your understanding of people-particles, you deem it necessary to hurl them against each other, ripping apart their structure so that their components spill out. That does not seem a likely scenario, as an advanced being would probably figure that nothing much would be learned about people that way. I guess what I’m saying is, we’re not advanced.
After the first atom bomb was detonated in New Mexico in 1945, Oppenheimer is said to have quoted the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” That occurred to me as we walked out into the cold sun in the courtyard. What underlying phenomenon is happening in France, and almost everywhere in the world? Are we becoming Death? Does our state religion of dead matter mask a religion of murder and suicide?
Fortunately we had a few more kicks on Route 66 to revive the sense of carefree getaway, like a stop in Winslow, Arizona, where we sought coffee and parked at random on a corner memorializing the Eagle’s song, “Take it Easy.” The corner store featured a plaster statue of a young dude flashing a smile and waving across the street at a permanently parked flatbed Ford, a plaster girl at the wheel. Above the statue was a sign reading “Route 66." While Susan checked the stores, I wandered down from the Ford, finding a gap between buildings featuring a lonely hut, big enough for one person to stand in, with a wooden sign reading, "World's Smallest Church! Come in and Pray!" I went in and closed my eyes, hearing only the cars on Route 66, and I saw everything that had attached to my ego since I was one year old suddently stripped away, as by a tornado or an atom bomb, and from everyone around me and the culture of the whole world, a vast layer was stripped away, and we were all souls, basic building blocks of consciousness. I jumped out after a few seconds, wondering what spirits I had disturbed here. I looked over to the plaster girl in the flatbed Ford for an answer, but she gave none.
Through the long and rainy deserts on the final stretch from Phoenix to L.A., we heard that the male French terrorists (one female escaped) had been killed. I spent the hours navigating the deserts and L.A.’s freeways wondering if there was any logic to feeling good that these men were dead. I think everyone would agree that those deaths do not represent the end of something, but a mere beginning in our religious quest to become death, destroyer of worlds.
We give thanks to the Southwest, and Route 66, and the earth as it expresses itself here, for providing a backdrop to our thoughts and mysterious lives.