Monday, September 20, 2010

Hite Rising

Long after sunset on a Thursday night in early November we begin a westward pilgrimage to Abbey country. For three days my housemate Pat and I leave Fort Collins, Colorado to immerse ourselves in Ed’s old stomping grounds. Most time will pass in silence as the force of stratified sandstone reflecting sun arrests our thoughts, gives us the impression we are floating just above the surface of Neptune.

A washed moon in a bath of blue looks down on us after a night under the stars surrounded by Utah's flora, the Juniper and prickly pear. Coffee perks on the wisperlite as we pack up tents and sleeping pads on a sandy BLM road next to a “no camping” sign just north of Moab, UT.  A short trip southwest along the Colorado River with fluorescent tamarisk whipping by the open car windows, we pull up the gravel road to the Poison Spider trailhead. We fill water bottles and begin a day pedaling up red sandstone. The first week of November is the ideal time to visit Moab. Not too cold not too hot and the sky remains clear through the night. 

Pat and I normally ride in Fort Collins in jeans and sweatshirts, we are not what you’d call “shinys.” Not geared-out. Not knowing what to expect from this trail and with no body armor we are here for the serene not the extreme, not to “push ourselves” not to “feel the burn.” The day is invigorating and we pump up the loose sandy trail for miles, without company, feeling our hearts beat and listening to our breath. We see slivers of the muddy waters of the Colorado River its width shrinking as we ascend. This is why we came. 

We stop for rest and water near a gnarled but upright juniper, deep soft shaded sand helping us cool. We half expect to hear a Ute chanting from beneath the shadows of the frayed wood. An imagined vibration holds us in stillness. As we crest the trail and look out over the lumpy orange slit canyons a buzzing sound breaks the silence. 

Our first encounter with motorized vehicles. 

Three dirt bikes and two four wheelers, gentlemen out for a jolly good time in the hills. We breath their smoke do the civil hand waves and pedal on. Periodically more dirt bikes buzz past as we try loosing ourselves off the trail. These initial reminders of industrialized leisure didn’t get to me right away. I was happy to let them by so I could return to silent meditation floating on air encased in rubber and metal but when we approached "little" arch I lost it inside. By this point the trail was blackened by rubber left by heavy vehicles that daily careen around the Moab badlands. The slickrock terrain, the rounded red mounds peppered with shadow, dryed pinyon and juniper, sage, yellow-green shocks of rabbit-brush and cactus blossoms are diminished by these black lines. The tracks smell of vulcanization agent - sulfur’s diabolical association. Ol’ Mr. Goodyear is poking his finger up my nose in the middle of the serene desert atmosphere. This distraction is made more real as a caravan of hummers glimmering metallic neon, GOP red, Wal-mart blue, and taco bell purple paint jobs cresting the slickrock hill south of little arch grinding their rubber into the grit. Hulking and cumbersome they begin their descent as we begin our nimble human-powered ascent. From the back seat a pale passenger glances at us over her sunglasses as she gulps bottled water listening to generic 80’s rock. I feel the anger of Abbey rising in my forearms. They swell and my knuckles whiten as I fantasize about playing chicken with these machines. The hummers transform into large predators crushing frail sagebrush under their opulent undersides. I envision jumping from my bicycle onto the hood of the lead vehicle, ripping it off and tearing out the oil lines. I see myself shapeshifiting into a momma bear full of protective power roaring and spraying the passengers with that black liquid until they wilt like the seagulls in the Gulf of Mexico. I return to my eyes from fantasy-land and my heart is pounding as I swerve to the right to miss the leader by 30 feet. I am filled with enough residual adrenaline to power up a portion of the trail I would otherwise have to walk. I stop at the top winded and waiting for Pat to pass the motorcade. We look back at them and shake our heads. Despite the seething feelings it is less than 30 minutes now before we get to the pinnacle of the trail - the overlook of the Colorado River and Moab at the turnoff to the portal trail. 

Slowly descending the angular crags of fractured sandstone blocks, my heart is refilled with happiness as we round a bend to the flaming glory of the Colorado River. The portal trail is inaccessible to four-wheeled vehicles. The cottonwoods ablaze with color as the 4 o’clock sun irradiates their leaves reflecting only the yellow part of the rainbow, chlorophyll gone it is the carotenoids and flavanoids filling these leaves with a golden hue. The splendor of the river in autumn should be added as a verse of “America the Beautiful” - this scene should be on currency. 

In Desert Solitaire Abbey suggests that the national parks be made accessible only by government issued bicycles. After traveling to Zion national park and seeing the bus system run people up the canyon I have witnessed firsthand how limiting motorized vehicle access to natural spaces does indeed amplify a visitor’s experience. And today I see the opposite is true. My experience on this first day of the pilgrimage brings me closer to the preservationist in Abbey. Though the spirit calling us from the dried desert wood may have brought us here, one word alone written over and over in the collected works of Edward Abbey inspired this particular pilgrimage  - “Hite…” 

Herein lies the value of naming things be they magpie, prickly pear, tourmaline, or Cincinnati. I am Kristopher, son of Ronald who was given his genetic constitution and his last name, Hite, from his father - Ross or Roswell Neil Hite born around 1900 in Bucyrus Ohio. Little  is known about this man as he disappeared in the early 1930's. 

I am convinced, both by studying genetics and observing simultaneous generations of single families that we share, not just physical but BEHAVIORAL traits with our ancestors. We are each a stochastic mixture of the information housed in each of our four grandparents, eight great grandparents, and 16 great greats and so on back through the eons.  For me these observations have not been possible as I never met my grandfather.  This circumstance has rendered me unusually curious about any hint of a genealogical connection and Edward Abbey provided me with a burst of energy.

It turns out that my family name i.e. my genes have been dancing around this country since 1709 the first one to come over was Jost Hite. A German who brought his large family to the Shenandoah valley in present day Virginia. There are many stories of Hite’s in the west throughout American history. Alongside Jesse James rode Sherwood Hite an ally of Jesse and part of the gang. In fact, the night before the whole James gang got shot up they were all staying at Wood’s mother’s house. But the most eerie Hite I’ve encountered in American history is a civil war veteran outlaw prospector named Cass Hite. Edward Abbey at least 2 dozen times in the Monkey Wrench Gang and Desert Solitaire mentions a town called Hite, Utah named for Cass. 

Hite, Utah - now submerged 255 feet beneath Lake Powell is described in an especially foreboding passage of the Monkey Wrench Gang. As Abbey introduces Seldom Seen Smith in chapter 4 he describes the old abandoned gas pumps in Hite being lit by green moonbeams under the black ripples of Lake Powell. Here Abbey enunciates through the voice of Seldom Seen that “Hite will rise again.”

Sharing my last name with a metaphor for uprising struck a personal resonance still panging around my head. But, anyone with a connection to the west as a cultural entity should also feel this reverberation. A ghost was staring at me through the black lines of Abbey’s text. You must understand here that my definition of the word “ghost” is probably different than the one you were thinking of. My definition of “Ghost” parallel’s the epicurean notion of what a spirit is. “Spirit” coming from the Latin word for “breath.” I think of a ghost as the impressions that a living person leaves on the people that are still alive once that person has passed. Edward Abbey has passed and Cass Hite has long passed but their words are still moving through civilization. The words Abbey chose to put down in his books the Monkey Wrench Gang and Desert Solitaire are still pushing, still pushing through time and ink on pages, on me, pushing me forward from Moab through Blanding and Monticello West through Navajo lands on route 95 up to the south shore of Lake Powell. 

Below the boat ramp on the mud flats Pat and I stand in the sun looking out at bouy #295 marking the latitude and longitude of Hite, UT. Standing here in plaid boxer shorts swimming in the icy November water marks the very value of placing names on things, places, ideas, and people. Standing 200 feet below what was until recently Hite marina we see the white waterline now dried on the sandstone revealing the impact seven years of drought has had on Lake Powell. Cement anchors the size of cubicles once used to tether the fueling station and floating restaurant now sit high and dry their massive chain links like sculptures attached to nothing. We bear witness indeed to Hite rising, mother healing herself. 

There is a whole chapter in Desert Solitaire Abbey contemplates the value of naming things. Here he goes back and forth with his travel companion Waterman on the matter as they raft down the Colorado River through Utah. He ultimately concludes in a value for naming things. “We grasp knowledge through naming things” Indeed, one of the most powerful ways to transfer energy through literature is by naming things, calling out names and drawing people to places by descriptions. That is the draw of Ed’s writing. His ability to transport a person from a drab room in a Chicago suburb to floating inches above a prickly pear at the outskirts of Moab or a pinyon pine under a petrified sand arch. Abbey grabs us by the collar inside our stuffy little boxes and places us smack in the middle of the land with mere words. 

I am living the value of naming things, naming places, the reasons are apparent looking out over the lake visiting the National Park ranger who tells me what little he knows about the history of Hite . I was not always of this inclination. I remember standing alongside the road in Ithaca, New York when I was 21. I stood in front of a majestic maple tree in autumn and let the power of that earthly being fill me up. In the middle of this pure moment I was distracted by human activity. I saw a little laminated placard put there by the workers of the Cornell plantations it said Acer shirasawanum named for the maple genus and Shirasa, Japan an indigenous home. As I looked at this piece of meta-information nailed to the tree my first thought was disgust, but looking around I noticed in this arboretum all plants were labeled with their genus and species. Enriched by civilization through the naming process these physical forms take on an enhanced appearance in the mind’s eye. Without the name, the label, it would be just another tree in my malleable memory banks, but because of that label I can go back there anytime and grasp what I had seen. And without the label – Hite – I may not have been moved to make this pilgrimage would not be listening to wind flit off seagulls' wings as they dive into a shallow desert reservoir five hundred miles from home. 

Try to name the sky.

In his books Abbey briefly expounds on his faith, or lack thereof. In Desert Solitaire he longs for a time when people will no longer be debating the existence of God. Where conscious evolution will deliver us to a time past god. A heightened respect of the natural, not a world of A-theism but POST-theism. In these pages I have moved from the ground through the heart and will now move upwards towards the sky. On Sunday night November 8th, 2009 Pat and I were driving in the dark wanting to camp legitimately at the four corners. We planned to wake and make a small homage to the arbitrary cross made by the politically derived intersection. Unfortunately, the gates to the camp grounds had closed at 5PM. Driving three miles past the San Juan River we noticed on the map – Indian route 232. Coming to the turn-off we see it is blocked by a few strands of barbed wire lassoed to a loose fencepost. With no one around we see no reason not to proceed. Up a loose road we travel three miles away from the trucks, their headlights gliding along the blackened flatlands. We set up our small yellow tent quickly and lay out wide awake for hours letting the Milky Way lift us off the ground. I set up my tripod and try to capture a few corners of the vastness above us. Orion jumps out off the eastern horizon and the Pleiades cluster in the center while the arms of the Milky Way wrap around us and our mother. I wonder if the stars will be offended if I take their picture? The arrogance we feel to assume any one of our cultures is more or less important than these indifferent creatures. The stars blast their energy down on us without will or concern for when we eat meat or pray to the east. Punctate balls of energy stars are simultaneously post and pre-theistic. Viewed from the ancestral lands of the Navajo people the sky in its purity and immensity humbles us. Breathing in the sage, nestled amongst the bumps of the desert prairie we lay face up and silent.     ~

This piece of non-fiction was composed in the fall of 2009 after a road trip to the four corners. I originally wrote this for matter journal #13 but was extremely past deadline in my submission. Though some of my photos made it into the journal this bit didn't make the cut. Rather than let it languish on my hard drive I thought with the fall upon us  in the northern hemisphere I'd slap it up here on Tom Paine's Ghost. I hope you like it. And if you don't let me know what you think and how I could improve my writing. Integrating constructive criticism is the best way I can envision any improvement! 

1 comment:

Dave said...

Nice piece. You draw out the spiritual aspects of nature without being too maudlin about it.

My memorable tree - similar to yours, is Acer Palmatum.