Select Page
A Transcendent Experience at Arches National Park

A Transcendent Experience at Arches National Park

July 3, 2016
Laughter in the Canyon

The canyons and the mountains bend the rain. We scramble into a shallow cave, just enough to keep dry. Water travels through the washes, bringing the place to life. And just as quickly as it comes, it goes, some final mists cascading off of the tops of rocks; sporadic, bright little flakes of water falling all around.

As if I could handle any more beauty.

But some force seems to think I can. So the spectacles keep happening. I throw my head back and laugh. The cracks, ridges and grooves in the red rock breathe with water, and the cliff faces in the distance swirl and dance with the same breath. I lay my hand on the stone inside the cave. It’s trembling as much as I am. I am still laughing. I curl up into a ball and laugh. Mother Earth is laughing with me, I can tell. Everything is freshly illuminated, glinting miraculously.

A fountain of colors mushrooms up inside of me. Every burst of laughter that comes forth ends in a soft, relaxed, elated sigh. With each sigh I think I am finished laughing but they serve merely as brief pauses, places to catch my breath so I can begin again. I have a vision of a garden filled with all my sisters, winged and not, laughing and sighing in a beautiful chorus, because there is nothing else to do but laugh with creation. I know this garden is a place I have been before and this canyon is a reminder.

To my supreme amazement, the clouds begin forming arches, roughly to the North. Like an ephemeral cathedral ceiling in the sky, the clouds resemble an enormous passageway, and I have no doubt it is being used as such, and this desert is some kind of landing pad for invisible beings from other worlds. Then a rainbow forms, stretching up to reach the arch ceiling. I am rendered breathless.

Photo by Kurt Larson

The sun is setting. The clouds hanging on the horizon reflect an enchanting variety of pinks.

As still as the desert may appear at first glance, it is anything but. I keep seeing little flutters out of the corner of my eye, and I look to see if it’s a bird’s wing, but they are simply swirls, near-invisible tornadoes rising up, energetic gyrations excited to expand upward, and the flutters I see are ecstatic moving points on each tornado. I giggle with delight at the way the desert dances.

We are walking towards a cluster of rock formations, hundreds of feet high. From a distance, this grouping of rocks looks like it forms a perfect circle, an ancient council of red stone elders, bowing their heads in deliberation. As we grow closer, the rocks refract into a new pattern, become less circular, scatter. We pick one nearby that has a shallow slope and scramble up the side. I find a nook to lie in. Wearing his sweater, hood up, I sink, allow myself to become heavy in the crevice.

The sky has arranged itself to create the appearance of an enormous, magnificent dome. An infinite, perfect, deep black directly overhead, both foreboding and welcoming, fades into a calmer indigo the closer it descends toward the horizon. The stars begin baring their friendly faces. Some of them hang so low I swear some of them have dropped down to dance atop the rocks. There is a distinct geometry among them, flowering and multiplying as more appear. Occasionally a plane blinking red and blue cuts across the deepening sky, sending ripples through the matrix, but the pattern quickly repairs itself, regaining stability.

My rollicking belly laughs have simmered down to a frothy inner laughter, silent, but still overflowing. The quietude is sterling, all-encompassing, infinite like the domed sky above.

My Solo Journey to View the Total Solar Eclipse of August 2017

My Solo Journey to View the Total Solar Eclipse of August 2017

I sat in the grass, surrounded by thousands of people, eyes all pointed towards the sky. Despite the crowd, the air was reverently calm. Music wafted faintly from across the lake, but was winding down in preparation for the event.

It was an August morning in central Oregon, and I was attending a music festival where people came from all over the world to witness a two-minute long miracle: a total solar eclipse. I had driven 2,000 miles from my hometown in Texas, participating in one of the largest human migrations I’ve seen in my lifetime, and I had done it alone. After the festival I planned to drive up and down the coast to see the sites, do some camping and hiking, and volunteer at a handful of organic farms. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would end up staying on the road for three months. I had some art supplies, a notebook for journaling, a stack of maps, foam pads laid out in the back of my station wagon to sleep on, and a suitcase full of clothes that would prove to not be warm enough in the coming autumn months. I didn’t have a strict plan–I would let my wellspring of excitement guide me.

The moon was closing in on the upper-right corner of the sun, covering a small sliver of it, even though the sun still shone with its powerful luminosity. I wore my safe-for-sun-gazing glasses they handed out at the entrance–it would have been almost impossible to tell there was a partial eclipse without looking through the lenses. But as the minutes passed, the sky gradually grew darker and the air a bit chillier. Everyone was captivated. They didn’t want to miss a second of it. Some sat quietly, some danced in celebration, others had their camera gear set up. Families huddled together, children squealing in delight and wonder; couples held each other, enjoying a rare and intimate moment.

I already missed my boyfriend, but seeing all of the couples together made my heart ache for him even more. He was still in Texas, staying home to fulfill certain obligations. We shared many tearful exchanges before I left. Understandably, he was worried about my safety, worried that I’d never come back, struggling with his trust in me. The truth was that this journey was many years in the making. I dreamt of visiting the Pacific Northwest since high school, and now, as a twenty-six year old woman, everything was aligning to provide me with the opportunity to go. Some might say it was selfish to leave him behind. But I chose to put my foot down and fulfill this vision, and the ultimate conclusion we arrived at was that if we could survive this, we could survive anything. So he helped pack my car and sent me off. Our faith was sturdier than our fear the morning that I left.

During my first few days on the road, there were times that fear shook me. There were times I cried myself to sleep, yearning for him. But I found ways to fortify myself so that I could focus on the task at hand. There was always a task–a map to read, a campground to find, food to cook or water to boil on my propane-powered burner. There was the drive itself, the hours upon hours of mind-numbing highway.

I was excited to reach my final destination, but I also let myself meander a little. I stopped in Utah to explore the desert, and I took a detour into Wyoming to explore the mountains. In Wyoming, I did some light hiking in Grand Teton National Park, where I ran into a mama bear and her two cubs, lumbering towards me on the trail. It’s interesting how my small anxieties, those nagging little concerns, fell away completely in the face of a true fight-or-flight situation. I remembered not to run, though, or make any sudden movements. Instead I backed away slowly, making noise so that my presence was known. The bears eventually scaled the mountain, freeing up the pathway so that I could pass. It was only in hindsight that I realized how fluffy and adorable the cubs were. I almost had to laugh, to shake off the terror that gripped my heart only moments before.

With the emotional roller coaster I was experiencing, I made sure to write at the end of every day, to unload my thoughts into my trusty composition notebook.

During the eclipse, I had my notebook unfolded on my lap. While some people recorded the moment in images, in photos and videos, I let every sensation, every vibration from the environment flow through my pen so that it could be recorded on paper. I was breathless and shaking with excitement as the eclipse approached totality and the bright morning skies turned to dusk. My handwriting was barely legible as I struggled to steady my hand, but I continued to write about the things going on around me. I couldn’t explain it, but I felt an immense power in my words.

The energy picked up, and people were now hollering and howling. Some people sang songs of deep praise. We were all united under this spectacular event. The sun was now completely obscured by the moon. The two celestial bodies aligned perfectly overhead, appearing to be exactly the same size. I hadn’t anticipated for it to be this magical, this awe-inspiring. I stopped writing, just for a moment, to tilt my head back, take a deep breath, and soak it all in.

There were many more paths to be traversed, more deserts and mountains to be discovered, more wild animals to encounter. I continued to explore, holding the surreal vision of the eclipse safely in my memory. In mid-November, I returned home with more miles on the odometer and much less ink in my pen. My sense of duty to write was re-invigorated on my journey, and I vowed never to let my abilities as a writer go to waste. I was so excited to share my stories. I was even more excited to see my boyfriend–we could finally hold each other again.

We started talking about our trip to South America, where another total solar eclipse will occur in three years. It will be an honor and a blessing to be able to travel with my best friend and partner, but I’ll always cherish the adventures I had on my own.

 

 

Eclipse photo by Takeshi Kuboki

Capitalizing on a Moment & the Creation/Destruction Dynamic

Capitalizing on a Moment & the Creation/Destruction Dynamic

The creation/destruction dynamic has existed as long as humankind. In my personal life I’ve experienced it as the desire to create art vs. the desire to withhold expression out of spite for creation. To not put in the effort to paint, to turn that emotion into a poem, to gather myself enough to channel and direct the chaos within. To take it a step further I’ve burned words and images, cut some of my paintings into pieces. This offense has been more rare — censoring past expression as opposed to withholding it somehow seems to be a different level of unholy. Sitting in the pains of un-expression takes effort, but it is more passive than anything, while active destruction takes … well, action.

But I’m realizing more and more how passivity can be a transgression.

I’ve noticed another way that this dynamic takes shape, and that is: Destruction of the present moment in order to Create future capital. Sure, this occurs in every situation where someone makes present sacrifices to ensure some safety in the future. And in a culture of social media, there have been more than a few moments that have been interrupted, or dare I say, ruined, by an overzealous shutterbug who just needed to get it on their Snap or Instagram story.

I see this come to a head most prominently in the travel sector, where people just want to show their friends at home how good of a time they’re having, and there are often new and unique ways of taking advantage–whether it involves cultural appropriation or animal exploitation. When I was a teenager, I wrongly participated in some of these things, like supporting a “photo booth” that used real captive wildlife for you to hold. It is important, if any of us have any kind of platform at all, to at least spend a little bit of time speaking out against these things, because some people, like 16-year-old-me, might not think twice about it otherwise.

Hanging coffins in Sagada, Philippines. I felt pretty uncomfortable about people taking joyful selfies in what is essentially a cemetery, but because it has become a tourist destination, somehow it has become normalized and “ok”.

As one’s platform grows, I can imagine it becomes more difficult (I don’t know from experience… yet, hehe), especially if one’s discernment is not already strong and practiced. Many of us witnessed Logan Paul’s unfortunate story unfold over the new year. That is an extreme example, but a similar dynamic is common between travelers and local culture–sometimes we believe we’re entitled to take their photo without permission. Sometimes we want to pose with a snake that’s kept in a basket all day, because it’s only $1 donation. If we’re a travel blogger, or vlogger, or whatever, some of these things can be tempting–after all, it’s in service of our audience, right?

We have to weigh what we are creating against what we are destroying.

And the most extreme ratio I’ve ever seen is the destruction of a present chance to connect, to feel joy, to embody empathy–at the expense of having some future internet content that might get the wrong message across.

Everything happening now is fodder for a future tale, and so I understand the storyteller’s mindset. Sometimes it’s a coping mechanism… to describe our lives in words can help us dissociate, as if we were describing someone else’s life, looking down on ourselves from above. It takes effort; meditation, breath; to feel the moment fully without attaching descriptors to what is happening. Especially if we’re in grind mode and there is earning potential for the stories we have to tell.

 

But, here’s a secret: the stories will still come if we let ourselves be silent.

 

And they will have more depth and be more interesting because we let ourselves feel what we were really feeling in the moment, instead of grasping at radio static in our heads because we think it’s some kind of gospel.

Photography is a little bit different, and I understand the anxiety. It can be frustrating and downright heartbreaking to miss a unique and long-awaited moment: the animal finally appearing, or the light pouring over in just the perfect way. Hopefully if, as a photographer, this has ever happened to you, you can use the feeling of this moment to inspire future work, even if you didn’t capture the “exact” moment you wanted. No matter how good of a camera or lens you have, your eyes are the ultimate equipment; your emotions, the ultimate technology. Instead of fussing over something you did not capture, connect with whatever it was you just witnessed. Absorb it, recognize its rarity, and let it drive you.

Passivity can be a transgression. And, although it seems backwards, taking your phone out to snap a million photos before even allowing yourself a second to breathe is the more passive option than to stop. Observe. And ask: how does being here make me feel? What kind of fire does this scenery ignite in my soul?

And sometimes it doesn’t feel that way. But at least do yourself the service of self-inquiring. Once you’ve found something–whether it is a flame, a void, a leaden thud in your stomach, or the expansive vapors of awe, take your photo.