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« Blue Highways: Portola, California | Main | Blue Highways: Hallelujah Junction, California »

Blue Highways: Beckwourth Pass, California

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapWilliam Least Heat-Moon drives through a low gap in the Sierras, and we go with him.  He's in a foul mood because he's not sure that he's getting anywhere on his spiritual quest.  But life is a journey of intersecting circles, up and down, round and round.  Even though we seem to come back to the same places, it's what we learn and gain in between that's important.  Click on the map thumbnail at right to locate Beckwourth Pass, and let's think about the circularity life.

Book Quote

"At Beckwourth Pass, only a mile high and the lowest route over the Sierra Nevadas, I hardly knew I'd crossed anything.  But the mountains rose again on the other side, and the day became a dim, sodden thing, damp without rain.  Dismal.  The weather saturated me, and it may have provoked a dark fit of musing I fell into.

"...I did have a vague sense of mentally moving away from some things and toward others.  But in the Sierra gloom, even that notion seemed an illusion....I was on a Ferris sheel, moving along, seeing far horizons, coming close to earth, rising again, moving, moving, but all the time turning in the same orbit.  Black Elk says, 'Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle.'  A hope."

Blue Highways: Part 5, Chapter 11


Beckwourth Pass, California, the lowest pass over the Sierra Nevada at 5,221 feet. Photo at the Sierra College website. Click on photo to go to host site.

Beckwourth Pass, California

I find it interesting that LHM crosses a mountain pass in the Sierra Nevada and doesn't recognize it. However, he is pretty sure that he is moving somewhere, even if he is moving in an up and down circular motion.  We've all been there.

As I write this post, I'm feeling that if I were to describe my life as a Ferris wheel, like LHM does in his quote above, I would be on the ascent.  A couple of years ago, I was at the bottom, and not too sure when I would be able to get out of the doom and gloom that I had put myself into.  My personal life was not good, complicated by too many things.  My professional life seemed moribund.  My self-esteem was horrible.  If I'd had the ability, back then, to step out of the cycle and look, I would have known that everything operates in circularity.  People and their situations rise and fall.

I've written before about my belief in the circularity of life.  It's all around us.  Unfortunately, when one is along for the ride, one doesn't get many opportunities to take a step back and examine where he or she is.  The past seems to hold no lessons for us.  The future looks too frightening to contemplate.  However, our universe is made up circles, discs, and globes.  Everything rotates and spins around a center.

The nature of circles has always fascinated me, because they are very symbolic in how we understand our situations.  If we modify LHM's analogy of the Ferris wheel and put it on its side, we would have a flat, spinning disc.  Now think of times when you've observed or experienced spinning - for those of you my age, a vinyl LP perhaps.  Or, if you ever played on the playground as a kid and got on one of those playground carousels.

If one is at the edge of the rotating disc, the speed at which one moves around the rotation seems great.  Life flies by at a high velocity.  You have to travel a greater distance to reach someplace.  If this describes you, then you may feel like it is all you can do to keep up.  You are constantly buffeted by the wind and everything that is getting thrown at you.  Under such speed, given the rotation, you may feel like you are holding on for dear life and that you could be thrown off at any moment.  Things move in such a way that you cannot know what's coming next, and everything that does come hits you with a smack.  It's hard to keep oriented, and easy to be dizzy.  I've felt that way many times.

Yet if you look toward the center, the more you move in from the edge of the disc, things seems to slow.  Your velocity slows as you move toward the center.  The distance to reach your goal is smaller.  You feel less buffeted, and you can observe more.  There's less disorientation.

If you are lucky enough to arrive at the very center of the disc, then you've reached a stationary center.  You can look out toward the edge and see those poor souls just trying to hold on.  You can see people at various spots on the disc, and the closer toward the center, the more in control of themselves and their lives they seem to be.

LHM seems to describe this very phenomenon.  Unfortunately, life is much more complicated.  We occupy not one but many discs at the same time, and we are at various places on them all at once.  That is why we may have stability in our personal lives, but things at work are spinning out of control.  Or a relationship can be going crazy, but we find stability within our friendships our our families.

But I believe that there is a stationary center for everything that can be reached if we try.  I think that moving toward the center and getting clarity on one aspect of our lives can help move us toward clarity on all the rest.  I've been learning how to reach it for myself, and feel like now, I have moved inward from the edge of the disc to a inner region where things feel like they are more under control.  I may be on the ascent, but it is a controlled ascent.  And if I'm moving more slowly, then when I start a descent (and I know sometime I will) I will be more aware and more in control, and the effect of the descent will be less traumatic.

Ultimately, I believe that we can align the spinning wheels of our lives so that the centers come together.  Again, if you are my age, think of the old spirograph toy, where no matter how many loops you draw, everything still crosses the center of the circle.  If I can gain access to the center of all the circles of my life, then hopefully I will be more observant and more aware of what has happened and what will happen.  I'll be able to appreciate my journeys.  I'll be able to come back to those places I like, and be better able to avoid those that harm me.  And if I reach that center, then when I'm living in the present and I happen to cross a mountain pass like Beckwourth Pass, I will know it.

Musical Interlude

The idea of the circularity of life is a common theme throughout human history and culture.  This simple Harry Chapin song, Circle, caught me the first time I heard it, and I can't hear it even now without it staying in my head for a long time.  I thought it fit with William Least Heat-Moon's feeling of beeing on a Ferris wheel, and his quote from Black Elk.

If you want to know more about Beckwourth Pass

The Beckwourth Trail
California Office of Historic Preservation: Beckwourth Pass
Sierra College Press: Beckwourth Trail Beckwourth Pass
Wikipedia: Beckwourth Pass

Next up: Portola, California

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