Time is linear; memories are not.
Photographs can be, when viewed in the sequence they were taken. But that, too, is not assured. The eye, like the mind, roams wild as the pronghorns west of Sharon Springs, and as light-footed. When I open the folder on my computer where I store digital photos, I’m offered a choice of dates. If I click on the first day of our trip, a Friday, I see one image, that of Chod Hedinger walking along the shoulder of I-70 west of Junction City to retrieve a lid blown off a plastic tub. But when I click on the second day, several dozen images are available, and my eye grazes those with the most color, contrast and resonance. The regulated flow of time becomes like a braided creek. Which is the main channel? It doesn’t matter. Each rivulet is a part and a whole. So, too, our memories and our stories.
But every tale does have a beginning, or several beginnings, and if I had to choose one this would be it: We headed west, me looking for familiar territory and a canyon haunted with more questions than answers, Chod for photographs, new birds and new country, and Jim Mayhew for all the above and more. Jim, the incidental shaman. Shaman says, This rock fell from the sky. It’s a message from the gods. This is what we must do. Jim holds up an ordinary stone like the millions of others that have fallen from the cliffs, and flips it over. The cynic, half-listening while stuffing his tent into its carry sack, takes one look and freezes. Everything he knows or thought he knows suddenly moot.
There—I’ve already lost my place. This might be more difficult than I thought.
When does the beginning begin? When a plan is first conceived or proposed, or when action transforms an idea into reality? I can’t be certain; there’s that stone to consider. For months we three had a plan, an itinerary, shifting, fluid, as meticulous and uncertain as words on paper can be, and as inconsequential. And until the last moment, when I locked the door and stepped into a warm morning, the trip didn’t seem real. It was as if I’d been playing a sort of make-believe, or wishful thinking, and beneath the barely-realized imagery was the idea that I wasn’t really going at all, not because of the lateness of the timing or that I’d agreed to take my first vacation in three years without Lori along, but because I wasn’t worthy of going. That the horizons of my new life were encompassed with work and more work, that work was all that was allowed to me. And then I rubbed Sheba for the last time, shut the door and drove away.
That, too, was a beginning. Maybe the real one, or a side channel, it’s hard to tell from my perspective at the conclusion. Or the beginning. Shaman says…At any rate, it’s what the eye settles upon.
The mid-morning sun slanted through the clouds and burned the transmission poles outside Waterville into a long, graceful curve of bone-white crosses, and between them the grain elevator stark against a dark cloud mass to the west. Lori’s car in the parking lot at Travalong drove home the point of my departure in a way nothing else possibly could. And then I was past, nosing the truck into the autumnal flight pattern of migratory birds, and everything that was to be was before me, and everything I loved behind.
In Manhattan I transferred my packs to Chod’s truck. While en route to Abilene to pick up Jim I thought of the relief that accompanies the end of packing, when the last zipper is tugged shut and the luggage is hauled out to the car. A second stage in the journey has begun. Lists can be checked and rechecked but there’s no turning back, and anything missing will have to be dealt with later or done without. Where we were headed, the ancestral grounds of the Anasazi, it would be without.
But that was just a prelude. The start of our journey actually began when we three came together. Jim loaded his things into the truck, space suddenly becoming more constricted. Chod drove, with me in the copilot seat and Jim in back. I had a pen and notebook handy, and my camera. Chod explained that whenever we stopped for gas the copilot would move to the driver’s seat, and the driver to the back. That would put me driving into Cottonwood Canyon, which was good because I was the only one who’d been there and maps of that region were all but useless. Actually, they were useless, for not even the DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer showed the canyon. We were falling off the face of the known earth. But that was tomorrow.
Today was Kansas. The route of I-70 was so level I reluctantly admitted that parts of the state really were “flat, boring and ugly.” In Oakley we stopped to stretch our legs, buy water and snacks, and check that everything in back was tightened down. Clouds darkened the northwest. We left the interstate and fled before the storm.
That, too, was a beginning. There is one other that comes to mind, many miles back, the sun just clearing the trees.
Lori said, “It’s always harder on the person left behind.” After a moment she added, “I’ve always been the one who left. This is going to be hard.”
“You’ll be fine,” I said.
She was in my arms and so warm, and then she was gone. I sat on the floor with Sheba curled against me and rubbed her into a furry state of bliss. Then I kissed her on her nose, went out and locked the door behind me.
(Continued next week)