A Bigger Cathedral

These past few days I’ve found myself surprised at every turn – surprised both by what I encounter and by the fact that I’m still being surprised. I know that life is “full of surprises” or whatever, but I find myself wondering if I’ve been going too fast to be surprised, or maybe looking in the wrong places for them. Maybe looking for surprises at all is no way to find them.

There’s something about the openness of New Mexico’s lands that is very freeing. It’s vast, the landmarks are fewer, farther between, more recognizable, more distinctive – each massive pillar of rock that juts up on the other side of the horizon, holding up the sky, has seen so much, has so much to say about so many things. It makes me feel little and insignificant, which in the grand scope of the universe, and even the not-so-grand scale of the earth, I am – a fact that I can hide from when I’m in a city, however old or new it is. More on that later.Coming into Tucumcari, New Mexico, we realized that we would be in town for a Route 66 meet-up that included an awful lot of influential authors on the subject, so, since we’d been running ahead of schedule, we elected to hang out for an extra day or two to see who we could meet. I was floored by the willingness of the people we met to share their experience – not just about the Route or even traveling in general, but about all manner of subjects – writing and publishing, music, social observations, stories, country wisdom. Everybody. It wasn’t an irritating kind of “I really want to talk to somebody!” kind of thing, either, but genuine, authentic, meaningful interaction. I hadn’t expected to encounter that kind of community on the road, but there it was. Surprise number one, over and over again.

Tucumcari was also our easiest location to shoot so far, which left us with enough time to shoot Santa Rosa before we’d planned. Through friends, one of our postcards, and a little bit of work, we found the Blue Hole, which, if you’re going for brevity, is a water hole. In actuality, it’s a natural 60-foot-wide circular gap in the desert rock that goes down 82 feet and is filled with clear, frigid freshwater. The natural rock formation above its mouth makes for a perfect 20-foot-tall diving board. Obviously we stopped to check it out, then found ourselves drawn into the water. The head-first plunge into the deep blue was more than refreshing, more than exhilarating – it was like diving out of this ordinary life and into a larger place where only the things that mattered, mattered. Opening my eyes within the water’s calm, seeing the shelf of rock where I could climb out ringing the seemingly endless abyss below, feeling the cold all around me, seeing sunlight sparkling on the ripples I’d made, craving oxygen yet never wanting to surface – the word that comes to mind is “sublime”.

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It’s an overused and underappreciated adjective, but when you look at its structure, its true character is revealed. It’s from the same place we get “subliminal” (which we associate with covert brainwashing but, again, means so much more) – “liminal” refers to a threshold between the earthly and the spiritual, and “sub” means “beneath” – something sublime is something that moves us on the primal/spiritual plane. I’ve heard someone (possibly an early American horror writer) describe it as a kind of holy awe tinged with terror at the knowledge of something so immense. That’s what I felt, unexpectedly, when we pulled off the highway and dove into the Blue Hole. Surprise number two, exhausting me for the rest of the day.

Saturday we hit Albuquerque, which I loved. It’s a youthful, free-spirited artsy town that reminded me of what Burlington might look like if it ever grew up. It makes no effort to hide the fact that it is the product and glory of hard work by good human beings, rich in its own heritage and, justly, proud of its rise out of the desert. We stopped at a farmers’ market downtown and sat in the shade, sipping berry-and-herb lemonade, watching and wondering at all the different kinds of people the market attracted.

Driving through the older part of town I recognized a sign for Stranger Factory, a little art gallery / boutique that I’d seen ads for in my travels through the weird. It was the kind of “I see a thing and I’m trying to put into words what it is and we should probably pull over right now because we really need to go to there” experience that doesn’t happen to me nearly enough, either through non-observation, over-planning or under-planning – or maybe some combination of them all. I love running across twisted creativity, and I was not disappointed here. More surprises – and those would have been more than enough to get me through a few days, but the day wasn’t finished with me.

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Let me stop here and say, in case you don’t know me, that I am a nerd. Natalie is, too, although to a lesser degree. As such, this blog may, in the very near future, briefly shy away from the philosophical and the literary for a few paragraphs. Okay, story continues.

Stopping for pizza, Natalie and I found ourselves next to the Avengers. Using our incredible powers of deduction we surmised that there was a comic convention nearby (providing an explanation for the little boy at the farmers’ market wearing a Boba Fett jetpack) and asked them for directions. We didn’t stop to talk about whether or not we would go, and two blocks later found ourselves at the Albuquerque Comic Expo, the first comic con either of us had encountered in real life. I’ll just go ahead and admit that it was pretty awesome to walk in the door and see a wearable model of Ripley’s power lifter suit from Aliens.

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We wandered around the booths for a while, then split up in hopes of seeing what we each wanted to see and then getting back on the road in a timely fashion. Then we independently discovered that Adam Baldwin (Firefly’s Jayne) was signing autographs and rushed to find each other and something suitable for him to sign for us. We also helped calm each other down. That was a fantastic and breathtaking surprise.

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The road called us back, though, and that evening we stopped in Gallup to see some local friends from college, Rosey and Kurt. We watched an Indian dance ritual (touristy as it was), experienced local red and green chilis, and were surprised at our booth by a Navajo woman, Rihanna, who kept us company for a few hours, entertaining us with tales of her life and questions about our own.

Then she told us a skinwalker story – elliptical, but still thrilling to hear. It made me realize just how rich the tradition of storytelling is, and how important – you can have all the great content in the world, but if you can’t tell the story well, you’ve got nothing. Both Rihanna’s story and her style gave me a lot to think about as I endeavor to become a better writer, and the factual fantasticism amazed me. Later, Rosey told me that shamanism and magic were very much a part of everyday life in this part of the world for Indians and white folks alike. The world out here is spread more thinly over the dusty ground, and there’s less for the spirits to hide behind. We come face to face with them wherever we turn – surprised yet again.

Sunday I drove to Durango, Colorado, alone, to see a friend. Most of the road took me through the expansive desert, past towers of stone that might have been huge ships sailing a tan striped ocean (hence, I’m sure, the town named “Shiprock”). It was beautiful desolation, no water save for a few scattered oases (never what I envision), miles of wind buffeting my borrowed van. The Colorado border brought me into some low hills, interrupted by sharp ravines and occasional llamas. Sometimes the road turned the right way and revealed the feet of the Rockies, climbing high into the blue above but still so far away. I wasn’t sure whether, when I arrived at my destination, I would find the mountains around me or not.

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Then I turned a corner and I was already in there, among the mountains, high up between the pine trees and closer to the sky than I’ve been in years. If the city is a church in praise of the creations of Creation, and the desert a revelation of Creation itself, then the high and mighty mountains are a hymn of Creation to the Creator Himself, a cathedral big enough to express that the sum of this Earth’s praise cannot come close to His worth. In their midst, I find myself humbled, surprised, delighted by Creation and my Creator – and blissfully surprised at my surprise.

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