Unfolding the Map
Texas Canyon in Arizona gives us a chance to look at our sense of wonder and what it means. We also get a musical interlude that I picked because it once made me wonder and enchanted me. To see where Texas Canyon lines up on our William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) Blue Highways trip map, click the thumbnail at right.
"The highway rose slowly for miles then dropped into wacky Texas Canyon, an abrupt and peculiar piling of boulders, which looked as if hoisted into strange angles and points of balance. Nature in a zany mood had stacked up the rounded rocks in whimsical and impossible ways, trying out new principles of design, experimenting with old laws of gravity, putting theorems of the physicists to the test. But beyond Texas Canyon, the terrain was once more logical and mundane right angles, everything flat or straight up."
Blue Highways: Part 4, Chapter 14
Texas Canyon, Arizona
Occasionally I find something that is so odd, so extremely out of place, that it makes me pause in wonder.
The Mystery Spots, those places where gravity supposedly doesn't work correctly, are not it. If you haven't been to a Mystery Spot, you might want to pull off the road if you happen across one. I know of two. There is one in Santa Cruz, California and another in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. When my wife and I were driving through "da UP," as they call it in Wisconsin, we pulled off when we saw one. It becomes clear that the "mystery" is strangely angled floors, walls, trees and other landmarks that trick your brain. Rather than wonder at the supposed mystery, I wondered that some enterprising and entrepreneurial people thought of such an attraction, and that people such as myself pay money to see it. That's not a natural wonder, it's a wonder of marketing.
However, once in a while Nature pulls a complete Mystery Spot on the unwary traveler right out of the blue. One might be traveling and see a boulder perched on the end of a needle-like upthrust of rock, and wonder just how that boulder got there and why on earth doesn't it just rolll off! Or one might pass by rocks in the strangest shapes, or come across a stone arch bridging two large rock outcroppings, perfectly framing a setting sun just as one drives up.
Sometimes, these wonders take on humorous, sexual or even scatological overtones. One can often see rocks that look like male genitalia from certain observational viewpoints. Occasionally, rock formations can take on the form of female genitalia. When driving with our friend Ann back from a camping trip in the Gila Wilderness, we went past a hill with a strange configuration. Almost at the same time, the thought came into all of our heads - "look, it's Asshole Mountain!" The cracks and crevices in the side of this particular hill all converged together and from the angle we saw it, truly looked like a human nether orifice. I don't think that seeing such things in nature is the sign of a deviant - we are earthy and sexual beings that respond to certain stimuli and sometimes I think it is much harder to ignore the imagery than it is just to admit it's there, have a laugh and move on.
The places that draw this type of amazement out of me tend to be the ones that appear when I least expect it or have no idea what to expect. I was in awe of the Grand Canyon when I visited, but given all the information on the Grand Canyon that I knew before ever going there, and all the images that I've seen of it, I expected it to be what it was. And it was truly amazing. But all the pre-hype robbed me, in a way, of the wonder that I could have felt had I not known. I am envious of the people who came to the rim of the canyon and had no idea that something that enormous, that spectacular, existed.
So for me, my travel wonders have been in the out-of-the-way places of which I had little prior knowledge. Big Bend National Park, Canyon de Chelly, New River Gorge, Sleeping Bear Dunes, Yosemite (before I went, I really did not know much about it!), the west coast of Canada, Alaska. Even human made travel wonders qualify. Chaco Canyon. The temple Wat Pho in the midst of Bangkok with its giant reclining gold Buddha, the ruins of ancient Rome, Newgrange in Ireland. On a depressing note, but also a wonder if only in testament to the worst of human nature and cruelty: Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen.
This works for literature as well. I have read a lot of literature. How amazing it is when you read a piece of literature that affects you, turns you on your head, makes you amazed and gives you a similar sense of wonder. What treat to be able to read something for the first time and feel the same rush that you might when you happen across a beautiful vista, or a natural wonder. Lately, a number of novels have served as inspiration for popular movies. A case in point are the very popular novels written by the Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson. I saw all three movies - The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - and have never read the books. Now that I have seen the movies, I have a sense that the books will not have the same effect on me as they have had on other people who read the novels first. I will probably read them, but I have probably ruined the opportunity to really experience them as the novelist intended.
This puts me in a quandary for a trip I'm planning to make. My wife and I are spending just over two weeks in Turkey in May. Turkey is of special interest to me because it lies at the crossroads of civilization. The oldest human settlement that resembles a municipality may have been in Turkey. Numerous empires sprung up there, and other empires were marched across it and disappeared. Currently, the West's relations with the East, particularly with Muslim countries, are tempered by and may be aided by friendly relations with Turkey. Turkey's role in the current Libyan conflict is a case in point. So do I read to add to my knowledge in preparation for the trip? Or do I go as an open book? I don't want to go to Turkey without some background, but I also don't want to ruin my wonderment at seeing Hagia Sophia, or the ruins of Ephesus, or seeing Sufi whirling dervishes.
I envy LHM's experience at coming across something like Texas Canyon, which for a moment startles, amazes, and causes one to think about how the universe, nature and all that we don't understand creates such fantastic things that defy explanation. I know I will have more of those moments, and look forward to them. I just have to strike the right balance between how much I learn, and how much I am willing to let the universe teach and touch me.
I'm not sure why I'm picking Dan Fogelberg's Nether Lands for the musical interlude. First of all, the song is not about the country in Europe. In fact, it is a song about acceptance or denial of life. His message, as Fogelberg put it, is about the:
"...two forks of existence, acceptance or denial. It comes down, that's the only choice we have when you think about it. Any other choice we have is contingent on the basic: either accept the life you're given or deny it and commit suicide. It's either one. You've got to make that decision every day."
Dan Fogelberg, as quoted on Rock Around the World, a website devoted to rock and roll radio shows and interviews from the 1970s
I think that when I heard this song for the first time, I was entranced - I was literally in wonder listening to this song. I had heard some of Fogelberg's earlier work, and some of his later work, and I'd never heard anything like this from anyone. When I thought of this song, and found this version on YouTube (there are two others), I thought its pictures of the ordinary world in its beauty along with the song's beautiful orchestration and Fogelberg's poetry fit this post also. I hope you get the same sense of wonder listening to it that I did.
If you want to know more about Texas Canyon
Next up: Tucson, Arizona