WE WERE ROLLING ALONG JUST FINE TILL WE HIT THAT PLAINTIVE CHORD CHANGE, from F-sharp to G-sharp minor that promises release, but always fails to deliver. Gram Parsons’s reverie of brass buttons and green silks is unsteady in the light of day, It was a dream much too real, to be leaned against too long. That was the moment when that seam of misery, fevered with tragedy in Florida and lullaby-ed away by a pharmaceutical Morpheus in a motel in Joshua Tree, rippled out one more aftershock and brought us to a halt. The lights went out, the engine ran down, the alternator firing to a long gone beat.
So what do you do when you’re in remote northern Arizona, on Navajo land, with a goddamned bust-up european car? An Idi Amin special no less, the dictator-mobile of any self-respecting African warlord, the boxiest of old Mercedes. Oh how we had smugly piloted this boat of a vehicle from LA, little afraid of the petrified forest and the lava flows that strafe across Interstate 40. Tumbleweeds of rubber on the road edge, sloughed off truck tires didn’t stem our flow east. Nor did the terrors of Steinbeck’s Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath as their jalopy creaked past Needles, every wheeze and splutter heard with panic, breach us. Our lips were blue, but only from the phosphorous e-numbers of endless 7-11 Big Gulps—that whole European schtick only lasts so long after all. Yep, we felt pretty secure, until those unpaved roads, and the one-two combination of country melancholy and ethnic cleansing (we weren’t far from the Canyon de Chelly, the site of Kit Carson’s 1863 annihilation of the Navajo) stopped us in our tracks. This is the proper wilderness, no doubt. A fetishized idyll of pure nature where we go to be reborn and uncritically stake our ownership this is not. No, this wilderness is self-inflicted and terrifying, where modernity shatters under the weight of the past and the unexamined condition of the present. It reeks.
The Canyon de Chelly was incorporated into the National Parks System in 1931, with the ownership of the land held by the Navajo nation. Put another way, there is no IMAX theatre sponsored by National Geographic as there is at the Grand Canyon. Instead, you have to look for yourself. This is analog not digital. Dust eddies across the road. It cracks and splutters, imperfect and human, but then that’s the point. The name ‘Chelly’ has its roots in a Navajo word (‘Tseyi’) adopted by the Spanish that originally meant ‘canyon’. And while saying ‘PDF format’ renders you pointlessly repetitive, the name ‘canyon of the canyon’ does not just signify cultural mistranslation, but works to hallow the kind of introverted, hermetic quality of the place. Language functions here like a parenthesis. It marks contingency, it softens assertion. This recursive nomenclature, dissolving into itself, does not define a static boundary behind which one might safely snap a picture and buy the postcard, but lays out, instead, the syntax of a permeable border between us and the wilderness. Our white Merc, inventively named Bianca, is being towed away, a long way away, to a distant land where they possess ‘European’ tools, surely some euphemism for infected blankets and the other comforts of colonization—though it’s us who’ll be paying the price this time. But we are left here on foot, bracketed by the wilderness, the past speaking to us in a language we cannot yet understand.
We scramble down past scrub oak and the thick Carrizo grass used by the Navajo for thatching, nets and arrow shafts, to the ruins of the alternate White House built long ago by the Anasazi. They abut a canyon wall whose pale grain appears to drip down its surface like paint, and from distance the structures seem two dimensional, dwarfed by the rock face like a child’s wooden toy village. But up close this pueblo bites. And suddenly we are the ones immersed in its depth, our voyeur’s cheque bounced, as the wilderness we construct sets about deconstructing us. For there’s always a transaction with the wild, and woe betide the fool who thinks he’s the one buying.
To think we can own nature, or act as its graceful steward, is a legacy of millennia of rationalisations since the invention of agriculture. Wilderness is man’s penury in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, in whose vale of tears we tarry and plough till we can sow ourselves back into eden, nature merely an instrument to our salvation. Come the reformation and that pilgrim’s greedy reckoning of time’s currency, we privatized our means of access, wandering beyond the priest’s purview. And by the time of renaissance man extraordinaire Francis Bacon, nature had become just a machine to decipher with science, to seduce out of her secrets so that we might build a new Atlantis. This anthropocentric view of the wilderness provoked the biocentric response. From the sublime earthiness of Rousseau’s savage to the romantic cleavings of Coleridge we stepped behind the curtain of civilisation to discover it’s more terrifyingly fun, and more viscerally real, to merge with the wild side. Yearning instead to be a part of nature, not apart from it. For by drawing that boundary to stand behind we not only simplify the wilderness beyond, but we occlude the wilderness within, that dark insatiable force that crosses our border, machining us into who we are. Percolating through our DNA, quivering at our synapses, wilderness is hard wired into our being.
We stammer back into the ribbon of Fremont cottonwoods that snake along the canyon floor, flanking the river that made this area attractive to the first pueblans. It turns out later, though, that these trees were planted by the Park Service in the 1940s to prevent erosion. To speculate on this landscape is to go awry. Perhaps we need a new tack, wilderness to be conceived of as a river that flows across time, such that any snapshot, with its delineation of a frame, must inevitably overlook its true nature: it is preserved only by the changing of its waters. Thoreau recognized this in Walden: “Time is but a stream I go a-fishing in…its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper…”. But to get to that river we have to make that shift from space to time. Bend the continuum. Change our mode of engagement. And once we have, the wilderness need not be travelled to, but listened in on. Though its rhythm has no regular beat, mind you. We stumble upon its staccato, but where do we land?
In our case, at the beginning, the very beginning of time, our eyes craning against the sun to where an indigenous creator of the universe is monumentalized in a jagged column of sandstone, Spider Rock, that extends some 750 feet from the canyon floor. Anasazi oral tradition has passed down the tale of the spider grandmother’s cosmogonic tapestry, her warp and weft of time that span stars into sky and warmth into earth. Spider Rock, now fissured in two by an earthquake but still peering above the canyon rim, was her home. And it was from here, the story goes, that she descended to pass on the skills of weaving to humans, whence we knitted ourselves into the future.
Today, though, this craggy web offers no shade as the torrent of wilderness rushes through our minds. For if wilderness is a river, it’s not a gentle stream in which we recline. Nor is it a colonic for the soul from which we emerge anew, sane, physically and psychically unbunged. It’s more paradoxical. It burns, you see, and it wrinkles, and desiccates, and it ages us before our time. It drives us mad and so we have to leave, because that is our ‘deeper’ truth. We leave to come back because we can leave once more. To abandon things, to choose without ceasing, this is a characteristic Henri Bergson once observed about man. But like the riotous gang of French Harley Davidson riders we see coming down into the canyon, with neckerchiefs befouled, but sense of wonder pristine, we gotta keep opening that border between nature and culture, embracing the ferment. We reek too.
The Merc is back on the road, having been repaired in Flagstaff where the clocks have no hands. We are reset, we return to the city with the wilderness seemingly behind us. But when we fire up Gram once more, well, you know what happens next. We brought it with us, it brings us low, ’cause that’s the bag I’m in.’