Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?
Glacier Park, the crown of American landscape, sits high on top of the Rocky Mountains in Montana. Sitting at the end of the Going-to-the-Sun highway, in my imagination, I try to see these layers of sedimentary rock compressed under a vast ocean, as they were for millions of years. I can’t do it. My mind won’t bend that far. I was 6600 feet up. This is the dimension of the formation of planets, of stars bursting and galaxies winding into being. On this scale, I am beyond microscopic. In this dimension, I am just an idea.
Early one morning, in the shuttle on the way to the top, I sat next to Philip, an extra-ordinarily bright ten-year old. He was outgoing, confident and friendly. He explained to me that he was traveling the world with his parents. They had flown from Australia to San Francisco and bought a 36-foot RV. In the last year and a half, they had circled the United States and Alaska. The last six months of their trip across Canada was taking them back to their starting point. He was sure that he had learned more than he would have in two years of school. I guess it depends on what you want to know.
The fires were reaching down into the states as Alice and I drove south, east of Pocatello. The entrance to Yellowstone was crowded. I decided to move on south to catch the total eclipse from Craters of the Moon state park in Idaho.
I talked to my sons on their birthday. They are currently in the center of the storm, when it comes to operating on the world. Eric is a lawyer, working as a consultant to real estate firms in San Jose. He wants to be general counsel for a tech company. His girlfriend just moved in with him. Alex is a mortgage banker in San Francisco. He was living with his fiancé, who worked as the Art Director for GoPro. On the 15th of August, the boys turned 31 years old. My advice to them had been just work their ass off until they were 35, then put their heads up and look around to see what their options were. Making big decisions in one’s Twenties almost always leads to revision. This was not my grandfather’s world. My grandads worked one job each for fifty years. In my time, I have made a living as a teacher, a counselor, a salesman, a business manager, a marketing consultant, a photographer and a writer. It is gradually becoming accepted in our culture that, unlike in medieval times, one is not what one does for a living. This opens up a bigger way of seeing things.
Craters of the Moon state park is in the middle of Idaho, near Arco, the first community ever to be powered by a nuclear reactor, beginning on July 17, 1955. I slipped into one of the last spaces in the park, $37.50 a night for five nights. Directly under the path of the eclipse. No power or cell service. Just Nature and me, waiting for the ethereal, angelic light that would linger over the valley as the sun disappeared behind the moon in the middle of the day.
I hiked all over the park, looking for the best spot to capture what I was sure would be an eerie, once-in-a-lifetime light. I went too far climbing up amongst the ancient cylinder cones. Too many miles. The morning after, I could barely get out of bed. Age (I was 68 then) had tapped me on the shoulder earlier that summer, by the river. I had intended to cross a stream, bridged by a fallen tree trunk, to get a shot of a waterfall. It is the kind of maneuver we used to make all the time as kids. Start forward hard, letting motion carry you to catch a branch on the other side. Once upon a time, I would not have thought twice. Unlike the me of old, I was hesitant and thought about it for a while. I made the step ok, but I failed in the quality of intention to get to the other side. I had no momentum. I pulled up short. I felt utterly useless for a split-second and then fell into the river. For the first time, it flashed across my mind that I was getting old and that I would, one day, be too frail to do much of anything..
By 11:30 am., I had my 600mm lens set up on a tripod, so I could swing it up at the totality and not have to use a filter. A passing ranger had given me a pair of ‘eclipse glasses’, so I could prepare for the moment. The gloriously weird light I was expecting did not fall over the valley. It just got dark. And cold. I abandoned the wide-angle lens and swung the big telephoto up just in time. Too soon or too late and sunlight would burn out the image. It was a moment. That’s all we photographers want.
After the eclipse, a ranger at the park suggested a free spot to camp, across from the Bridger-Teton National Forest . So I turned north-east to Wyoming. I found the bumpy, gravel road across from the park that led up to some camping spots, hidden from the highway. No facilities. But I could see the Tetons … and it was free. Once again, propane to the fridge would be handy. I wandered down to the Cunningham Cabin, once home to western pioneers whose fondness for wide open spaces became almost a religion.
Driving back and forth to the park, the front end of my RV began to wobble on the windy gravel road. Turning too quickly or touching the brakes too hard produced a frightening chattering of the whole front end. Visions of nights in a hotel and a bill for thousands of dollars danced in front of me. Was it the steering? Maybe it’s the rotors. Wishful thinking. In Fillmore, Utah, I did stop by the Jiffy Lube and renewed Alice’s juices: new fuel and oil filters, replaced oil, steering and differential fluids, filled tires, cleaned windows and vacuumed the cab. $268. Worth it … after a year and 17,000 miles. They said they couldn’t see a problem with the brakes, but to be sure, they would have to take everything apart. There was no money for that.
Meanwhile, I heard more horror stories about Yellowstone traffic … major road construction. Labor Day weekend did not seem like a good time to visit. Besides, on the road, problems have to be addressed. At home, in the city, it is easy to arrange the habits of a day so that we bypass issues that may be lurking in the background. Often for years and years. You can’t do that on the road. Something noticed, and not addressed, will undoubtedly bite you in the ass, sooner rather than later. I did not turn east into Yellowstone. Instead I went south, to Moab, Utah.
On the first day of September, I pulled into Goose Island campground, next to the Arches National Park. I signed up for three nights at $7.50 a night – 50% discount because I have a senior pass. The ocean did its thing up here as well, coming and going over this area more than two dozen times … leaving a landscape blanketed in iron oxide. For weeks now, although Alice and I were 6000 feet up, we had been driving along an ancient ocean floor. As it retreated, that ocean had left some fascinating rock formations behind. That’s where I wanted to find some pictures.
First, I had to face facts and fix the front end. The one thing I didn’t ask Jiffy Lube to do was rotate the tires, even though I did notice they were wearing unevenly in the front. So that was the first step. The manager of the tire shop in downtown Moab clearly knew that would solve the problem. $36. Too simple for me. Again, that kind smile.
That evening, watching the soft, dark red glow shimmer off the rusty cliffs along the river, something that was not happening occurred to me. It’s not a common experience – to experience something that’s missing. You have to come across an empty space in your mind and somehow recognize the shape … what was it that was there?
What I was missing was pretending. Changing schools so often as a kid, I developed the technique of copying others, often without understanding why they were doing what they were doing. In my early adult years, I became an expert at looking like I knew what I was doing. I was a high school philosophy teacher at age 21. Can’t get any more pretentious than that.
I knew the power of ‘acting as if’ I were already the person I wanted to be. But there is a learning curve, during which we would rather not have people pointing out our failures. Lately, when I looked inside, I was missing the tension that accompanies the waiting to be discovered as a fake. It was no secret these days. I obviously did not know what I was doing much of the time. No need to hide it now. There was a calm, quiet freedom in that. Part of me, from deeper down, was leaping into that space.