Thursday, July 26, 2007

Sundown on Canyon Road

The people driving down the road must have thought me daft. A man afoot miles from nowhere, in no apparent hurry or trouble, casually waving them off while the sun westered, shadows lengthening and the drone of cicadas throbbed in the sultry air. Don’t stop, I silently pleaded, I’m trying to get away from you. I’m trying to get away from me. They passed in a plume of dust and so disappeared around a bend with the sound of the car slowly receding, and the dust generated by their wake boiled up to catch the pendant sun so that it seemed the narrow walls of the valley filled with shimmering golden light. I stood there unmoving while around me dust settled like falling embers. The music of woods returned, cicadasong, birdcall, the rattle of grasshopper wings. Beneath it dwelled the silence of those empty spaces, the gathering shadows beneath the trees, the beating of my heart, the soft exhalation of breath, the questions I would not answer.

I moved onto the road and went on, the distant river at my back. Each step a slight but manifest gain in elevation, the highlands hidden behind a gentle curve, and another, and another, but eventually the road I knew would straighten and ride a long slash of sunlight to the upper reaches of the valley and spill out across the vast open lands beyond. But I was not there yet, though such was my destination.

Coming here had been an act unbidden and yet inescapable. Lori had left for work to pull a double night shift and the evening stretched long and lonesome, an unimaginable chasm. The abrupt disconnect I felt was ridiculous in proportion to the ordinariness of the act. There were dozens of things I could do to keep myself busy and yet without her presence the house closed in around me, almost sinister in intent, and a sensation of being trapped crept in until I could scarcely breathe. Not even Sheba could alleviate the panic. I fled into the evening carrying only a water bottle, binoculars and camera bag, hesitating at the last minute to slip a small .380 in the front pocket.

The truck left the river valley and topped out with a view to the horizons, the tallgrass prairie splashed with dark clumps of cedars and the greener ribbon of woodland bristling along the watercourses. It should have been enough to lift my mood but wasn’t. Light clouds rising in the west and the sun low and sinking lower and me following it down into the valley on a road I would soon backtrack on foot. Again, it was not my intention. When I reached the juncture where Sunflower and East River Road join I pulled onto a grassy shoulder and killed the ignition. The engine ticked itself into silence even as the cicadas rose to a shrill din. For a long time I sat there pondering whether to go on to Alcove Spring or to simply return to town in defeat. And then, without thinking, I was out of the truck and slinging the camera bag over my shoulder. The door slammed with a resounding finality that was immensely satisfying. Before I could question my motives I strode off with my shadow stretching far ahead.

“The solution comes through walking” goes the Roman adage but I wasn’t looking for solutions. I was looking for something else, something first recognizable as a flight from my own skin and the loneliness plaguing me but then which circled around and became the search for a solution. So much for critical thinking. I put it aside and marched on, gaining as much distance between myself and the truck in the shortest measure of time.

Once the truck was out of sight I slowed down and began to notice my surroundings. Near its mouth the canyon opens up into narrow meadows flanked by towering bur oaks. Soon it constricts and the trees shrink in size until the rocky crests of the hills are visible. Locals call it the Canyon Road, so named for its narrowness and its steep descent. A deep ravine snakes from side to side, carved out by the indomitable force of water. In two places concrete culverts had been set to bridge the flow but floodwaters frequently overwhelmed them, littering the roadway with fist-sized stones brought down from above. No one in their right mind would drive the road after a heavy rain. Now it was dozing in summer’s heat and humidity, dry enough but riotous with sunflowers, hoary cress, snow-on-the-mountain, yarrow and other wildflowers, and electric with dragonflies.

I unlimbered my camera when a turquoise-bodied widow skimmer perched atop a dried mullen stalk. The lens is fairly new and I hadn’t had time to put it through the paces, but it zoomed in until the dragonfly covered most of the viewfinder. Using a small f-stop to blur the background, I snapped the shutter. The result was unlike anything I was able to accomplish before. What I saw was a microcosm of the valley, no more than a speck, a mote, a particle only, and at a perspective unlike anything the human eye could manufacture. I’d always been a wide-angle fanatic in photography, and maybe it had leached into my own life in an unhealthy way. Too much big picture and not enough basics.

Even as the sun raced its course, and me in pursuit, intent on grass seed heads blazing like torches, galaxies of gnats backlit into diamonds, weathered boards sprayed with a living graffiti of moss, an orange butterfly stark against purple blossoms, a single delicate leaf slipknotted to a broken thorny stem, the rising hum of insects, shadows flooding the valley, light weltering, light dimming, inhaling, exhaling, seeing and moving on.

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