Unfolding the Map
After an arduous journey over the Chiricahua Mountains, we pull into Dos Cabezas and Willcox with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM), and I ponder on the nature of odysseys. Click on the thumbnail at right to see where Dos Cabezas and Willcox are located.
"Onion Saddle Road, after I was committed to it, narrowed to a single rutted lane affording no place to turn around....The compass swung from point to point, and within any five minutes it had touched each of the three hundred sixty degrees...
"....Finally, at eight thousand feet, I came to what must have been the summit...but the descent was no less rocky or steep. And it went on and on.
"....I could only trust in the blue-highway maxim: 'I can't take any more' comes just before 'I don't give a damn.' Let the caring snap, let it break all to hell. Caring breaks before the man if he can only wait it out.
"Sure enough, the single lane became two, the dirt macadam, and Pinery Canyon led out to Arizona 186, crooked highway that dipped into arroyos rather than bridging them; but it was smooth beyond measure....As for Paradise, I never found it.
"The towns were Dos Cabezas, a clutch of houses under worn twin peaks like skulls, and Wilcox, clean and orderly."
Blue Highways: Part 4, Chapter 14
Dos Cabezas and Wilcox, Arizona
In high school or college, you may have had to read The Odyssey. This epic by Homer told the tale of Odysseus' journey from the Greek victory at Troy to his home on Ithaca. It takes him ten years. For three years, as he and his men sail, they experience adventure, peril, and last minute escapes. Odysseus and his men encounter the Lotus Eaters, who drug two of his men into forgetting who they are. His meeting with the Cyclops Polymephus, who Odysseus blinds with a stake, earns him the wrath of Polymephus' father Poseidon. Odysseus is thus cursed to ten years of wandering. He is given a bag of winds from Aeolus but his men open it thinking it's gold, and the escaping winds drive them back whence they came just as they were in sight of Ithaca. He loses all of his ships to cannibals, and then encounters the witch goddess Circe, who turns his men to swine and tells Odysseus she will return them to human form in exchange for his love. Escaping Circe after a year, they sail past the island of the Sirens, whose song will enchant men and cause their ships to crash on the rocks. Because the men stop up their ears, and Odysseus ties himself to the mast, the ship makes it past. Finally, as punishment for hunting the sacred cattle of the sun god, all of Odysseus' men drown in a shipwreck and Odysseus is thrown onto the nymph Calypso's island. When he finally escapes after seven more years, he returns home to find his faithful wife Penelope beset by suitors. In disguise, he wins a contest with bow and arrow, kills the suitors, and takes his rightful place at home.
I give you a blow by blow account, in synopsis, of the Odyssey because if you really think about it, we embark on an odyssey called life from the moment we draw first breath. In between the time we leave our original state of nothingness and get cast naked into the world to live our life's odyssey, until the end when once again, we go back to our original state, we undertake many side odysseys. These odysseys can involve physical travel, or they may involve journeys of emotion, spirituality, mentality, morality, or any other aspect of the human condition.
The point of an odyssey is not simply getting from the origin to the end. Rather, the odyssey is the trials in between and how we handle them. It involves the choices we make in dealing with difficult situations. Otherwise, it's just a trip. If LHM had simply traveled the United States and not had any type of difficulty or hardship, no situations where he had to question his decisions and make unsettling choices, then he really would not have had anything to write about. However, his trip is full of small odyssey's, one of which is his travel over the Chiricahua Mountains. As he goes up the mountain on a rocky, pitted road that seems suspended over the void, and which offers no relief going down, he questions himself, wishes he had stayed in bed, wonders whether he will hit a dead end, and finally decides not to care any more. Of course, that is when the road smoothens and he sees signs of humanity again. He never found Paradise as he has more journey to make, but he did test his own mettle and the hardiness of Ghost Dancing, and passed through.
I think that in any odyssey, one might reach the point where the end of the journey seems really far away. I have been in those situations both in physical travel and emotional journeys. I remember traveling with my wife and a friend to the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico a few years ago - a place not too far from the Chiricahuas - and we drove one day from our campsite over dirt roads to Mogollon. We had a little car, an Infiniti, and we were sure we were going to puncture the oil pan on the rocky dirt roads. My wife drove, and clutched the steering wheel with white knuckles. When we finally reached Mogollon, we had literally been through a wringer worrying about whether we had made the right turn or if we were going to be lost in the Gila.
My life has also been filled with emotional journeys. My dissertation was a journey that tested me, involved lots of obstacles, made me question myself and my abilities, asked me to take on difficult situations, face down potential debunkers, and ultimately gain my goal of a PhD. Similarly, my relationships, whether good or difficult, are often journeys where I've made choices both brave and cowardly, avoided or fell into traps and entanglements, fought pitched battles, made wrong turns, encountered perils, resisted or fell for temptations, endured long bouts of captivity (to anger, sadness, depression, despair) and experienced moments of joy and victory. After I've argued with a friend or loved one, it can feel like I have fought the Cyclops. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose. There are always Sirens and Circe's to tempt and capture me if I am not careful. My recent entanglement, which I spoke of generally in my last post, was a very difficult odyssey full of trials and temptations and ultimately, sadness and anger.
Add up all our odysseys, and they all combine into our life's journey. Some of us seem to brave the perils, skirt the difficulties, and reach home in one piece. Others of us bear many scars, emotional and physical, that are in themselves a road map of our lives' journeys. Some of us get captured and held in captivity to dysfunction, despair and sorrow, while some of us meet those trials head on and prove ourselves to be heroes and heroines. Regardless, as we journey on our odysseys, we encounter each other, walk along each other's paths, sometimes help each other and sometimes sabotage each other. Without these experiences, our lives would be just a trip, a smooth movement from point A to B. Ultimately, a smooth trip would make life boring and not allow us to learn about ourselves and our strengths and weaknesses. We need trials and tests to become ourselves to the fullest. When we recount our odysseys, at the end of the day or at the end of life, we can say that we've truly lived.
We may not find Paradise at the end of our journeys, but after a long and arduous path, a clutch of houses at a Dos Cabezas or a clean and orderly Willcox at the end of the road at least offer comfort and peace of mind, and a well-needed rest before our next odyssey.
If we are all making our own odysseys, it's easy to forget that there are those who are affected by our journeys, and making their own choices based on ours. Sometimes all ends well, sometimes not. I think of Penelope, waiting for ten years, not knowing if her husband was dead, but choosing to hold out against her suitors in the hope that he would return. (Too bad he was giving it up to nymphs and sorceresses, but she either doesn't know that or lets it go) Suzanne Vega, an amazing singer-songwriter, touches on the sometimes tragic aspects of mutual odysseys, when it is "not the man, but it's the marriage that was drowned." The woman she sings of in Widow's Walk continues her journey after her faithfulness has been betrayed, but she has learned from the pain and waits for a better day. Isn't that what we all hope for at the end of the journey?
If you want to know more about Dos Cabezas
Dos Cabezas is considered a ghost town. Willcox, which LHM misspells, is not. Here's what I have gathered for each of them.
Next up: Texas Canyon, Arizona