Thursday, September 24, 2009

For better or worse, our choices

Teeth matter.

I know that. Really, I do. It’s just that, well, when financial means are finite and medical costs so high, there are limits to the possible. This isn’t rocket science, it’s basic common sense. It applies to every facet of our lives and colors the way we see the world. Our world, our tiny fraction of the greater whole. Unless, of course, you’re independently wealthy. I don’t know much about wealth other than what I’ve seen—and I’ve worked in the homes of several millionaires and at least one billionaire—but from what I can gather it works for some and for others it’s merely a catalyst for more misery. Some people would be miserable no matter how much money they had in the bank. I guess wealth is like having four-wheel-drive on bad roads: it’ll take you farther, but it can also get you stuck deeper and farther from home.

During my last visit to the dentist, my tires were spinning so fast there was a faint odor of burning rubber when he peered into my open maw, poked around with a sharp sickle-shaped tool, hemmed and hawed and, looking grimfaced and professional, rattled off a string of technical terms such as “upper right b-3 anterior bicuspidific mandibular lingual” and “lower distal amalgam debridement alloplastic gingiva” and “occlusal periapical hoomey-floomy,” only a little of which I understood. When the assistant printed out a long detailed list of dental infidelities, misalignments, cracks, fault lines and erosional defacements and how much it would cost to repair the same, I translated his speech into something like: “I can now buy that new BMW I’ve had my eye on.”

Now, I’m not faulting the dentist. His costs are high, too, and he does excellent work using the latest technologies and techniques. Everything costs more these days, from milk to clothing to fuel. My homeowners insurance jumped 30 percent this summer. But nothing prepared me for the shock when I read his estimate. It was, to put it mildly, exorbitant.

Much of this is my fault. I should have had my teeth crowned, capped, wined, dined and pampered when I had insurance back in Denver. Instead, I opted to save every penny we made for the day we took the big jump and sailed clear of Colorado into homelessness and joblessness. Now I’m one of millions of Americans without health or dental insurance, and find myself avoiding medical facilities like the plague. Fortunately I’m fairly healthy and the one medication I take is inexpensive. If it weren't, I wouldn’t take it.

My teeth are another matter. If they were horses, they’d be culled from the herd and boiled into Elmer’s glue.

Friends and relatives ask me why I don’t have medical insurance. I could lie and say I can’t afford it, but I prefer honesty. I could easily afford it if I went without books, camera equipment or, depending on the plan’s deductible, groceries and beer. In short, I could work for the insurance company, funneling to them my hard-earned paychecks while retaining a pittance for the electrical bill.

Believe me, it’s crossed my mind. And does so more frequently as age weakens my infrastructure, dims my eyes and veils my hearing. Compounding this equation is the fact that I’ve crossed a dreaded threshold in age and see myself on the far side of the middle mark and, frankly, fending off the advances of AARP has wearied me. I do not wish to be part of their organization but, like Wal-Mart, that determined group of gray-haired geezers doesn’t take no for an answer. Too, friends and relatives have dropped by the wayside, which ultimately reminds me of my own mortality. And that, in turn, reminds me of limitations.

To live is to endure limits. While most are incontrovertible, others are self-imposed. Deciding between the two might be our life’s most important task, but if we are to overcome them we must willingly take chances and choose how we will live.

For most of my life I’ve erred on the side of caution. But lately I’ve been branching out into the unknown, and rethinking my writing and especially my photography. Some might call it a midlife crisis, and perhaps it is; we are often blind to our most obvious faults. I see it another way: I’ve always had second or third (or fifth) best in terms of equipment, but as my life shortens I’m determined to have, for once, the best. It’s extravagantly expensive, it’s outlandishly good, and it costs about the same as what the dentist wanted.

Teeth, or art? It was hardly a fair fight.

And yet I resisted. Part of me hated to go into debt, so I made myself promises that someday, perhaps next year or the next, I would complete my dream outfit with an ultrawide lens. I’d used one in New Mexico and found it essential for landscapes, but with winter coming I hesitated.

And found, on a trip to points west, the remains of a prairie town, and an old junkyard riddled with rusting hulks of a bygone era and gap-toothed buildings festooned with climbing ivy and the sempiternal sky laced with cirrus, and I found to my dismay that my widest lens wasn’t wide enough. For a moment I stood wedged between two vehicles trying to make my camera do the impossible, and then I packed away my equipment and drove home. The first thing I did after kissing my wife was to order the lens.

Teeth are important. So is health. And so is art, artistic vision and making every remaining minute count. To decide between them would require a Solomonic wisdom I patently do not possess. So, in my own imperfect way, I make my choices and live with them. After all, my teeth can wait a little longer. My art can’t.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Byron Renner realizes he's standing on sacred ground

Renner and Lane are shown the site of their family cemetery by the landowner, Phil Bigham

Byron Renner at the site of the Lane Cemetery

Ron Lane (L) and Byron Renner

A toast of peaches

Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;

Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes

Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.

– William Shakespeare

The landowner got out of the truck and unhooked a battery almost hidden behind a clump of tall grass and got back in and drove a hundred yards to a spot that looked like every other spot and parked and got out again and slid the electric fence insulator down its metal post to the ground. For a moment he looked around, first at the fence and then toward a stand of trees the color of which was something between green and gold, though golden highlights were certainly visible, mostly in the thin elongated leaves of locusts and in the burnished reds and umbers and yellows of the prairie grasses. In the sky above the trees floated several separate kettles of vultures, each circling higher and higher before splitting off in a trickle to sail northward, a curious direction for fall migration and, perhaps, a sign of unusual things to come. Once the landowner had his directions fixed, he got in the truck and drove over the fence and we bounced through the pasture toward the unseen river. Sumacs and other woody forbs raked the undercarriage like long sharp fingernails.

There are certain things one expects to be inviolable and immutable. The air we breathe, for one. Clean water. A night sky washed with stars. The importance of honesty. Love in all its permutations. But perhaps the most sacrosanct of the acts by which we are defined is the remembrance of our dead, and the rituals we impose on the living.

Feet to the west, head toward the east and the rising sun, symbolism some say harkens back two millennia but actually dates even further to the sun-worshipping Egyptians and beyond to prehistoric man who placed his ancestors in fetal positions, head northward, face to the dawn. Atop these mounds cenotaphs or obelisks, temples or monuments, mausoleums or headstones, standing stones or even crude wooden crosses hammered into ground that was once ordinary but, by dint of its sudden assignment, now infused with holiness. And so we bury our dead, mark their final resting place, and make our pilgrimages.

Inviolacy, however, is never guaranteed.

For the passengers in the truck which even now maneuvered through a narrow gateway to drop into a lower pasture, that much was understood, though some yet struggled with the concept and the others, while not accepting its legitimacy, were at least objective in a manner that refused to assign blame. Implicit in this was a sullen acquiescence that some things cannot be undone. Charity had no part in it.

For Byron Renner and Ron Lane, newfound cousins embarked on a journey of discovery into their conjoined past, this was a pilgrimage to an ancestral gravesite and a deeper delving into family history. Renner’s path led back to Washington, D.C., while Lane’s was shorter, just across the border into lower Missouri. Through old maps, diaries and historical records, they had traced the Lane homestead to an area just east of Blue Rapids where the highlands begin a slow slide into the Big Blue watershed. And somewhere within a small patch of prairie the family cemetery once stood. Their mission was to locate it, if possible.

Perhaps the dead direct the steps of the living. For if in their exploratory questioning Renner and Lane were directed from one historical society to another, from museum curator to librarian until at last they were passed on to my wife who volunteered to take them afield, surely a more serendipitous progression would be impossible to imagine or even to construct. Their research through old microfiche tapes in Frankfort netted a minor treasure trove, a newspaper column written in 1931 by a man named Grant Ewing. Ewing wrote that his father’s orchard, planted in the spring of 1870, died from a drought and no peaches could be had anywhere in the county. A neighbor on his way to St. Joe in a covered wagon was asked to buy a few peaches to restart the orchard. The man was unable to find fresh peaches but a thorough search of alleys, streets and backyards garnered a quart of peach pits. These he shared with Ewing’s father and an old Illinois neighbor, W. H. Sabin. The first peaches were harvested in the fall of 1876. “Like heaven to us,” Ewing wrote.

Sabin was Lori’s great-great-grandfather. The peach hunter was none other than John Lane.

The truck came to a halt at the edge of the woods. We climbed out and slipped into the coolness of the shadows, wary of poison ivy and the vast webs of orb spiders, and followed the landowner another hundred yards to the edge of a clearing where fields of milo stretched away in the sun. He stopped and pointed to a small depression. Renner didn’t notice and walked on to peer past the opening and turned to see everybody watching him. Lane seemed solemn and lost in thought.

“What?” Renner asked. And then: “Is this it?”

The landowner nodded.

Renner froze in place. He glanced at the ground in a sweeping arc, his expression melting from shock to dawning realization, eyes troubled and clouded even as a small smile turned his lips. It was here that a farmer had toppled the headstones and plowed over the cemetery. A lock of hair drifted across his face. He pushed it back, thin silvered strands mindful of the slight breeze.

“Hello, grandpa,” he said.


The next day we met at Alcove Spring, the famous Oregon-California Trail site near Independence Crossing. Renner and Lane were leaving for home, but first we had brought lunch to share, which we spread on a large flat-topped boulder. Every journey, no matter how short, should begin on a full stomach.

When we were through eating, Lori reached into the wicker basket and brought out a jar of canned peaches. Doling out liberal helpings into four glass ramekins, she handed one to each of us.

“Peaches joined our families,” she said. “I propose a toast to our ancestors.”

“I’m sure these peaches came from the family orchard,” Lane said.

We ate in silence. The peaches tasted fresh and slightly sweet, and cool, too, a fitting toast to the living, a belated salute to the dead who may be gone, and lost, but not forgotten, no, never, never forgotten.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


Neither here nor there

This land is old.

Of course, you say. Of course this land is old. Cabezon Peak, which you can’t see from your location at the foot of the bluff but which lies just to the northwest, is three million years old, formed during the Jemez volcanic period dating back 75 million years. What you can see is the spectacular eroded anticline and syncline pair scrambling the eroded hills near the small village of San Ysidro, where you ate that green chile hamburger before disappearing into the Ojito Wilderness. You’re standing at the junction of four significant physiological features, including the Colorado Plateau to the west, the Sierra Nacimiento uplift to the north, the Rio Grande rift to the east and, cutting across all of the above, the Jemez volcanic lineament. Of course it’s old. What were you thinking?

Actually, I was thinking of painted rocks and settlement. People, if you will. Geology.

And the two are—connected?

I think so. Consider Zia Pueblo, which we passed getting here, or the other pueblos of the area, Jemez and Santa Ana, Sandia and San Felipe. Can you imagine their adobe walls anywhere else in the world? There’s a sense of place that binds them to this region, a sense going back millennia, to the hunter-gatherers who etched stylized depictions of men, birds and horned creatures in the basaltic outcrops throughout the state of New Mexico. Their gods inhabit the skies and canyons; they consider the land sacred. Such a concept would be utterly foreign to the inhabitants of Kansas.

Conflicting somewhat with the prevailing Judeo-Christian belief system, I suppose. Land is a tool, something to be used, a means to an end. But hardly hallowed. And the gods, well, we can’t have that, now, can we?

Exactly. Having such a heritage, such an interdependence, with the land must be powerful. My people—Anglo-Saxons—can scarcely conceive of such a thing. After all, we’re little more than nomads.

Conquerors, some would say.

Or thieves. Depends on which side of the “conquering” you’re on.

The land where you live is just as old. It lay under the Permian Sea a respectable 300 million years in the past. The low hills above your home were carved by glaciers over a half-million years ago. Yet you don’t say your adopted homeground is old. What’s the difference?

Appearance? In northeastern Kansas everything is covered under a thin layer of vegetation stretched like a green hide over the underlying stones. Here, everything is raw and exposed, sun-bleached. The geologic forces that twisted, tugged, separated and dynamited this area are not just visible, they dominate. Likewise, it goes back to settlement. I was reading about how the first Spanish estancias were founded along the Rio Grande Valley around 1630. Albuquerque itself—originally known as Alcaldia de la Villa de Alburquerque—was settled in 1706. And the San Felipe de Neri Church in Old Town was built the same year, and still holds weekly services. That kind of connection simply doesn’t exist where I now live.

Your county’s 150th anniversary pales in comparison, eh?


And yet there are Swedes, Germans, Czechs and others who settled your region in the mid-1800s and whose families still adhere to the land. Entire generations that know only the rolling swells of the Flint Hills. Isn’t that, in many ways, similar to the Spanish settlers of ancient Alburquerque?

I suppose so. For them, at least.

But you’re not one of them.


Who, then, is the nomad? Freud would take great delight in this dialog.

Maybe I need a shrink. But I like to think it’s something else. Displacement, perhaps. Homesickness. The inevitable letdown of coming home to work, bills, stress.

Which you wouldn’t have there?

Of course I would.

I suspect this is really about sense of place. Connection. Belonging, if you will.

Belonging. I like the term. But it goes much deeper than that. It’s not just place but the intimation, realization and recognition of who we are, which can only be established by an understanding of how place defines us. We are molded as much by place as we are by upbringing; the two are inseparable. Belonging is only part of it. Inhabiting must be the other half.

And when they’re separated—what then?

Feelings of loss. Confusion. Even regret, though regret is more about revisionism. As humans, we’re capable of distancing ourselves from a former sense of place—the past, if you will, or our childhood homeland—until it comes back to haunt us. Depending on our relationship to that place or time, the resulting reverberations are either insignificant or pivotal.

Perhaps you need to expand your boundaries.

What do you mean?

In The Practice of the Wild, Gary Snyder wrote, “Home, of course, is as large as you make it.”

Ah. So I could, in effect, incorporate the greater Southwest into the grasslands of Kansas to form one true homeground? It sounds too simple.

Sometimes we needlessly complicate our lives.

Very well, then. I feel better already.

And the rock?

It feels—old.

I knew you’d say that.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Return to Abo Pass

Well, I’m back.

And back to a changed world. In the space of a week the skies cleared of swallows and swifts, and turned a deeper blue, too, almost as vivid as that of New Mexico but not quite. The shade beneath the maples grew cooler. Mornings are crisp. Our field of corn doubled in height, creating a green wall hemming us in on the south. The long, crepe-like leaves, composed equally of brooding shadow and incandescent light, shiver and shimmer with the slightest whisper of air, and endlessly change with the angle of the sun. I like the effect.

But I have not been back long enough to acclimate myself to the rolling hills of northeast Kansas. Instead, I inhabit a middle ground somewhere between high rocky desert and tallgrass prairie, a stranger to both, lost almost and uncertain of the road home. It will pass, I know, or suspect, or hope, but until then I feel displaced.

Perhaps the shift in terrain was too sudden, too severe, for my senses to handle. One moment I was hiking through shadowed hoodoos pebbling a land that resembled nothing more than melting ice cream, and the next driving through lush fields of corn and milo. Dry air turned wet and humid. Even the language and culture altered, a change involving more than mere mileage but a very lifetime; San Ysidro to Blue Rapids, Abó to Waterville, the blue Rio Grande to the muddy Big Blue.

When I sit still or close my eyes, I’m back in the Ojito Wilderness, or with my parents and brothers in Albuquerque, or staring mute and dumbfounded at a painting by Peter Hurd. But mostly I find myself at the base of a bluff in an unnamed canyon just beyond Abó Pass, and the sun is hot and the air dusty and the Manzanos a darker blue on the northern horizon, and above me, I know, are a pair of feathered serpents etched into the varnish of a tall basalt outcrop.

It was, for my brother, Reece, and I, one more stab into the heart of the plateau country. We got a late start but a start nevertheless and drove south to exit from the ribbon of I-25 onto a two-lane that bore straight as a ruler toward a low wooded ridge 20 or more miles to the east. What should have been a scenic expanse of geological flux, the upthrust of the Manzano Mountains bleeding into the treeless plains gradually descending into the verdant channel of the Rio Grande Valley, was instead a motley procession of scattered junkyards and cobbled-together mobile homes, each competing for the largest collection of abandoned RVs, engineless vehicles, mounds of tires, rusty appliances and other variegated layers of trash. More than a few were indeed surrounded by barricades of cars and buses, hideous compounds walling away the world at large. Each succeeding shantytown was more extravagant than the last, each decorated with its own stable of newer trucks shining brightly in the sun.

It was a relief to leave them behind and climb into the hills. At an intersection marked by a single unnamed mailbox we turned onto a narrow dirt road and bumped into a wide canyon. Though it had been a year since our last visit, the scenery possessed a familiarity that felt like a homecoming; the latticed corral and gateway hung with an antlerless skull, the wide sweep through fields of cholla, and finally the canyon proper, where the basaltic bluffs closed around us like mantling arms. We parked where a two-track disappeared into tall grass, and slipped into our belts and packs. The question looming large in my mind was how my hip would behave on vertical climbs, for it had been bothering me for months. As it turned out, not too good, but I managed. As if choices were rampant.

Panning the distant ridgeline with my binoculars, I located a petroglyph panel my brother had spoken of. We followed the two-track through the head-high grass to the base of the bluff, where junipers and pinyons stitched the rocky slopes. Up and at an angle to minimize the impact on my hip, we soon stood before a large inscribed panel. Not a breath of air moved, nor birdsong nor any other sound but our labored breathing and the creak of pack harness. Soon followed by the crisp snapping of camera shutters. Besides the usual animalistic carvings, spirals, snakes and faces, there were several groupings of finely-fashioned feet. I counted the toes: an even ten.

More petroglyphs could be seen on the opposite ridge, just down from the feathered serpents. We wended around the base of the bluff to escape the grass and once more scaled the hillside, a little more winded this time, a bit slower. Heat was building with the thunderheads to the north and east. The sky was the deepest shade of turquoise.

Another intricate masterpiece: a small face peering from a star. A spiral rattlesnake. And more as we clambered over the ridge back to the serpents, smaller glyphs tucked into secret crevices or scribbled atop fallen boulders facing the heavens. Our eyes restlessly scanned for markings and snakes, but the only signs of life were the occasional rock wren and small spiny lizards.

My hip didn’t hurt so much as throw me off balance, and sometimes threatened to collapse my right leg entirely. Descending the upper cliff was tricky but not as bad as the descent through loose scree. Near the bottom of the cliff I twisted wrong and pain lanced through my hip. For a moment I teetered unbalanced and then threw myself onto the hillside and, as luck would have it, a scraggly bush. Within seconds two rivulets of blood snaked down my left arm. I shook the blood off until it sprinkled the black stones at the base of the feathered serpents. Looking at the bright wet splashes, I glanced down canyon at the dark bulk of the Manzanos and a towering thunderhead clawing at the azure sky, and wondered how I could ever leave, and wondered, too, why this place resonated so strongly within me. The silence was staggering. Reece turned to descend and I remained a moment longer, blood dripping on the rocks, inhale, exhale, touch the stone, turn to stone, a part of me forever and forever beyond Abó Pass.