Unfolding the Map
As we blaze new frontiers with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM), in this post I reflect upon the idea of frontiers and how they are disappearing in a world growing smaller. Perhaps this blog is another manifestation of a frontier - a literary, geographical, reflective frontier. I'll let all of you Littourati out there be the judge of that. Click on the thumbnail of the map to learn where on the frontier the Navajo Bridge sits.
"Somewhere out there was the Colorado River perfectly hidden in the openness....
"The highway made an unexpected jog toward Navajo Bridge, a melding of silvery girders and rock cliffs. Suddenly, there it was, far below in the deep and scary canyon of sides so sheer they might have been cut with a stone saw...
"In 1776...a Spanish expedition led by missionaries...wandered dispiritedly along the Vermilion Cliffs as they tried to find in the maze of the Colorado a point to cross the river chasm. They looked for ten days and were forced to eat boiled cactus and two of their horses before finding a place to ford; even then, they had to chop out steps to get down and back up the four-hundred-foot perpendicular walls. My crossing, accomplished sitting down, took twenty seconds. What I saw as a remarkable sight, the Spaniards saw as a terror that nearly did them in."
Blue Highways: Part 5, Chapter 3
How amazing it is when one comes across a piece of grandeur that strikes one suddenly because it is unexpected! I wrote in an earlier post about this theme, and now is as good a time as ever to expand upon it. I've never been to this area where the Grand Canyon begins, but I've had just this sort of experience in New Mexico when, driving across what appears to be a limitless expanse of desert west of Taos, a thin dark line suddenly turned into the gaping Rio Grande Gorge with its majestic, soaring and terrifying bridge, all steel girders and archways, seeming yet so flimsy as it tremored ever so slightly in the wind and as cars drove over it. As I looked over the edge to the Rio Grande's waters flowing toward the Gulf of Mexico far below, I literally felt weak-kneed and had to back away from that abyss.
LHM doesn't stop to look over the side of the Navajo Bridge and writes that it took him all of 20 seconds to cross sitting down. How he contrasts it to what the conquistadores faced upon gazing at the 400 foot sheer cliffs of the Marble Canyon in that desolate area of Arizona is what's interesting to me.
I've often, in times of deeper thought about this subject, lamented that I was born in a time when the physical frontier seems to have receded. What do I mean by frontier? I think of frontiers as a kind of limit that is also an invitation. The frontiers of my experience are where I can find something new that excites me or causes wonder. In finding that limit, I can explore it, and push my frontiers to new limits somewhere just beyond my perceived horizon. Frontiers are not barriers. If one cannot go around, above, under or through an obstacle, then the obstacle stops one from exploring further. It is not an invitation, and if one sees a barrier then by necessity the frontier ends there. If one initially perceives a barrier, but after exploration finds a way past it, then the barrier represents what was once the limit of one's frontier but was just another obstacle to overcome.
I realize that frontiers are what we make of them, and that often the places that we think of as frontiers have most likely been explored before. Yet what makes a frontier, to me, are those places where we can at least think that we are the first or one of the few people to have forayed there. Those places seem now to be few and far between. Wherever we go, someone who has been there has put a sign up of their passing, hoping that it will mark their achievement for eternity. West of where I live is the Petroglyph National Monument, where natives of the area inscribed their signs and symbols on the ancient lava rocks to inform and warn others. Over some of those inscriptions have been carved newer ones - names of settlers in the 1700s and 1800s. Over those have been spraypainted graffiti. Multiple generations of "tagging," if you will, have made it abundantly clear that this area is frontier no more.
In contrast, I think of those conquistadores who, according to LHM, wandered about the "maze of the Colorado" looking for a place to cross. As they gazed out upon the canyon, in what must have been a mixture of awe at the harsh beauty and sheer terror at whether they would make it out alive, they were pushing a frontier. It looked like a barrier, but in overcoming their terror and carving steps down and up the sheer sides of the cliff, they turned it into an obstacle that they overcame, and pushed their frontiers farther.
Granted, the Hopi had been there before but for all intents and purposes, the conquistadores were exploring an area that nobody in their reality had ever seen before. It was so impenetrable that in the mid 1800s explorers were still trying to understand the geography and topography of the area and discovering places where few people had ever been.
What it must be like, for just a brief second before our petty human interests get in the way, to be an aborigine standing for the first time on the shores of Australia, or a Marco Polo gazing upon a new country that would one day be named China, or a Columbus landing at Hispaniola, or a Neil Armstrong setting humanity's foot for the first time on a different world! In those moments, I think, something in us pauses, just for a brief instant, to understand that there is wonder in what lies before us in the unknown and in that moment our horizons are pushed farther away and lead us to speculate and imagine all the promise and possibility before us. That brief pause for reflection therefore seeds new exploration and new frontiers.
Horizons are always being reached, and new frontiers conquered, not only in the physical realm but also in the sciences and philosophy and whatever else we can think of. Someday, we may find new frontiers to explore in our solar system and beyond. In reality, I push new frontiers every day personally, professionally and otherwise. I don't often think of those as frontiers - at least frontiers that I can physically feel and touch. So for now, I lament that as our world gets smaller, its physical frontiers are rapidly disappearing, and I treasure those moments when I can imagine that I am the first to see a beautiful landscape or a geographical wonder. In those times I can feel that I too am an explorer, standing somewhere between the awe and beauty of what's before me, the fear of what happens next, and the hopefulness of what my discovery might mean for my life.
When I was in high school, Journey was one of the hot bands. I had Journey's Frontiers album, and I remember this song, Rubicon, speaking to the hope, anger and possibilities of my youth. Needless to say, I blasted it a lot until I wore out my cassette tape. "Rubicon" refers to Julius Caesar crossing a river in Northern Italy to make war on Pompey. To me, it also refers to decisions where one takes a step over what was a barrier, and thereby pushes a frontier and writes a new future for oneself.
If you want to know more about the Navajo Bridge and its environs
Next up: Cedar Breaks, Utah