Slow Drought, Rapid Ascent

One thousand, four hundred miles in two days, from the rolling wooded hills of Ohio, through the dry tabletop flatland of Kansas, deep into the rapid ascent of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Matt has been a heroic driver. And because of the exhaustion of such an expedition, we have decided to spend an extra day in the idyllic beauty of Aspen, enjoying the sight of high green and red mountaintops, fluttering aspen leaves, and glittering hummingbirds feeding outside the window.

The much-needed rain began to descend as we departed Cincinnati Saturday morning, and we were met with a sudden downpour and pools of water on the poorly constructed Ohio highways. Traffic slowed immediately to a crawl as we appeared to be going through a car wash machine without soap. Soon, however, we left the shadow of the rain clouds and entered drier land. Meanwhile a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Reverend Al Sharpton, over the existence of God and the need or lack for religion, played out on the speakers. At many times they seemed to be having parallel but separate arguments, Hitchens focusing on the evils of religious interpretations, and Sharpton pushing the issue of the existence of God without religious trappings, a point which Hitchens seemed to generally avoid. From there we turned our attention to a lecture given by Chris Hedges, not to be in any way confused with Hitchens, who spoke of religious fundamentalism, the Christian Right in America, the economic despair that drives people to such extremist faith, and the “epistemology of television” which suppresses critical thinking. With his words reverberating in the car we passed large crucifixes in the cornfields, anti-abortion posters, and billboards with images of a pale white, effeminate Jesus blessing the drivers of I-70.

While passing through Indiana we listened to a rousing talk by Helen Caldecott given in 1982 on the threats of nuclear war; she drew an analogy between the state of our planet and the plight of a terminally ill cancer patient. The horrific images she painted of nuclear war, and the insanity that the governments who build these weapons have not thought of the ultimate consequences of their use, reminds me of the same delusional denial the world’s leaders take in regard to climate change and the ecological crisis. We stopped briefly at a gas station where I saw a woman dressed as a clown filling up her car—a perfect image to capture the direction in which this country is going. Not long after, we passed for the second time on this trip a concrete cross at least ten stories high, towering over the yellow straw of drought-ridden, eroded agricultural fields on the edge of desertification.

Matt and I returned to Lake Quivira near Kansas City for the night, the place we stayed ten days before on our outward journey. Early the next morning, we left the comforts of a familiar place to embark on the longest stretch of the entire trip: 782 miles from the eastern edge of Kansas up into the Rockies to Aspen, Colorado. Although we crossed just two states, unlike the day before when we had traversed five, the day totaled thirteen hours of driving.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

The long expanse of Kansas proved to be flatter than a pancake, with the largest fields of wheat and corn I have ever seen. It felt like an alien landscape, with a mile of corn suddenly giving way to gray dirt and clumps of yellow grass as suddenly as if a wall had been built to separate the two. The highest objects in sight for hours were the plastic signs advertising fast food joints and gas stations. Occasionally a stream would meander over the land, and an oasis of green followed the track of the water. When there was variation in the topography the road would occasionally dip into a cut in the soil, revealing red and white striations of earth layered like a cake beneath dry grass icing. Our own oasis was provided by a set of tapes recorded in 1992 of Robert McDermott, who gave a lecture series on spiritual masters while he was president of the California Institute of Integral Studies. We heard the first three of those lectures, on Martin Buber, C.G. Jung, and Simone Weil.

After leaving behind us the Oz Winery, a massive wind farm of white turbines, and the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, we entered the tiny town of Hays and knew we needed to stop for lunch. It was 106°. As Matt put it, it felt like a breeze blowing straight out of Hell. It was not hard to believe the large billboard we had seen earlier that stated “Hell Is Real.” Hell is the havoc we have wrecked on the climate that is producing this massive drought and soaring temperatures. The small oil wells we had seen along the roadside, pumping oil up out of the barren fields, seemed like some kind of a mockery of the weather.

As we entered Hays I could not help but wonder what life was like in this small town. What is the primary form of income? What makes people happy? What do they dream about? To our delight we found a local brewery called Gella’s Liquid Bread, and were able to sample their award-winning oatmeal stout and American wheat ale with our afternoon meal. Here certainly was one expression of creativity in the town of Hays.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Hours after lunch was digested we crossed the chalky Colorado border. Feral sunflowers grew by the sides of the highway. Black calves followed their mothers through fields. Train tracks led to nowhere. Small houses from a bygone era stood alone, each with their own forgotten history. Who had once settled this piece of land in the name of freedom, so many decades ago? Still the land was flat.

Then, in the far western distance, clouds began to gather. A deep azure shadow blurred the once clear edge of the horizon. Rays of sunlight cut through the clouds to illuminate the land. Planes trafficked the air, criss-crossing the skies. Denver. A city, trees, hills, mountains, then thunderheads, each layered against the next. In a matter of minutes the plains were a mere memory.

I can barely begin to describe the feeling of ascending into the Rocky Mountains after hours upon hours and miles upon miles of flat grassland. It is like drinking in the sweetest draughts of color and texture, light and shadow, like paintings unfolding beneath the artist’s wrist of the Divine. The rapid incline was accompanied by flourishing conifers and carved red boulders. The foothills grow into mountains like seedlings into trees, children into adults. These ancient mountains are decaying; after millennia of shooting skyward with the pressure of tectonic upheaval, they now are slowly crumbling, their peaks rounding and smoothing under the centuries of rain and snowfall. Yet still they are great majesties.

It began to rain. Sunlight seared through the falling water creating a world of white and platinum, the road and trees cast silver in the shifting light. A tumbling river tore through the rock on the left of the road, sparkling in the sun’s rays. Then, without warning, we left the shadow of the rainstorm and entered a dry realm higher still. Red barns and soft meadows, indigo lakes and laughing streams. We crested over a pass between the mountains, then descended into a wide grassy plain, the High Plains filled with horses and foals, likely an ancient lakebed drained long ago. I saw a highland cow, a red, long haired, horned creature I had only ever seen in the Scottish Highlands. Yet here one was in the Rockies. We were taking an alternate route, along highway 285, because there was a sink hole in the usual road to Aspen on 24. Though it was 25 miles longer, we would never have encountered the High Plains if we had gone the normal route.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

After the plains we passed the town of Buena Vista, and saw several signs protesting a Colorado Springs plan to dam this valley for a reservoir. It was hard to imagine these canyons and valleys sunk below placid waves, a lake that would most likely surrender to silt build-up in less than a century. Our route turned on to 82, and we circled a still, blue lake, reflecting the high peaks in exact mirror image. The road climbed ever higher, making sharp turns on the mountain’s face, leaving the bottoms of my feet with that hollow tickle that accompanies a slight fear of heights. The evening sun rises and sets constantly in the mountains as new views open beyond each passing peak. Yet at last it set for good, and our road became ever dimmer.

Finally, no more mountains obstructed our view and we rose above the world at Independence Pass. We stepped into the crystal air at 12,095 feet. Immediately we were short of breath as we walked about a glass pool reflecting the dusk sky, the tundra foliage bedecked in miniscule wildflowers. The descent into Aspen grew ever darker, and the road twisted and turned beneath overhanging rocks and aspen branches. Moths flew continuously into our headlights. Then, out of nowhere, a pale brown bunny leapt into our path, so close to the car there was literally no way to avoid it. We hit it instantly and I prayed it had died quickly. I cried all the way into Aspen. There was literally nothing we could have done, yet I could find no way to justify it. I have seen many things on this trip that humanity cannot justify, and this one act I felt so personally.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Rarely have I felt the kind of exhaustion we both felt upon arrival in Matt’s aunt’s beautiful home, decorated with exquisite relics from her world travels. We ate peaches and cherries, a sweet relief from American road trip food. I long to go on the kinds of adventures that I see captured as memories in every part of this house. But for now, my only adventure will be into the dreamworld of sleep.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

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The Lone Bald Eagle

My friends who Matt and I stayed with in Whately, Massachusetts are wildlife rehabilitators, which means that whenever someone in their area finds a wounded creature or abandoned baby animal it is brought to them for care and feeding until the animal is able to be released into the wild to survive on its own. While our friends care for hundreds of baby rabbits, squirrels, mice, and songbirds over the course of the season, we were able to distantly interact with just a few, but it was a special experience indeed. Matt and I were each able to feed a cherry to two orphaned baby squirrels, who are at this age about the size of chipmunks and only have skinny tufts on their tails, unlike the full-grown fluffy adornment that they will some day grow into. We would not be able to handle any animals that had been in rehabilitative care, but since the squirrels were just arriving we could have some contact with these delightful little beings, and they were comforted in their transition by our care.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

From a distance we were also able to see a wounded kingfisher, likely hit by a car, who adored eating minnows caught for her from the stream; one of two fledgling starlings in their care; a baby meadow jumping mouse; and a beautiful baby hawk whose soft down was being exchanged for adult feathers. Although we had the shortest glimpse of the hawk, who was not to become accustomed to human contact, it was like looking at a miniature version of majesty, a young prince who, if he survives, will one day hunt the skies.

My dear friends who do this work, a mother and her daughter, are like real life Snow Whites who truly work magic to heal these creatures. When we arrived the day before, the mother, who I have known since I was four years old, was wearing a full length white summer dress and crooning to one of the birds in her care. A perfect Snow White indeed.

After fresh corn fritters and fruit smoothies, coconut balls and a swift chiropractic treatment, Matt and I knew we would have to depart this haven of nurturance and love to continue our journey, despite having to pass up a dip in the nearby Fairy Pond. Every visit leaves more to be desired, and a laying out of new plans for future visits we hope some day to make. Our route to Matt’s older brother’s home in New Jersey led us through Connecticut and New York State, passing within sight of Manhattan before turning into Livingston, New Jersey. For the entirety of the 193 mile trip I felt myself caught up in a daze, unable to focus too much on the road, but rather looking more at the mottled clouds of the sky and the thick green foliage of a New England summer. The dynamic clouds suddenly broke open and a downpour of rain splashed over the road in pink and blue reflections. Then, just as suddenly as it began, the rain dried up and retreated, leaving no trace of the brief deluge.

Traffic condensed more and more thickly as we neared New York City and the leafy branches overhanging the road gave way to the urban tangle of steel, wires, crumbling brick stamped with curling painted letters from 1930s advertisements for Coca Cola and soda crackers. Perhaps because it is so hideous, it is easy to romanticize the graffiti, the stains, the gray rivers choked with steel bridges, giving rise to a vision like Rent, with youth and creativity bursting forth from the pressure cooker of poverty, hunger, disease, crowds, and pure strains of human emotion and love. Above it all, the pastel clouds were rent with blades of sunlight piercing to earth, looking like prayer posters of God speaking to the decrepit masses below. As Matt said, maybe it’s the Divine apologizing for the Industrial Revolution.

Matt and I spent the night with Matt’s brother, his wife, and two young children in a nearby New Jersey suburb, the kind of suburb with rolling lawns, a pool in every backyard, and belts of trees between the streets to help dampen the sound of city traffic from the surrounding highways. We were a fifteen minute drive from the heart of Manhattan. Our overnight stay was brief though, because we had to make the 635 mile journey back to Cincinnati, and we were on the road by 9:00 am. While there has still been warm summer weather, the unbearable temperatures we experienced last week seem to be receding, and we have been enjoying days in the low 80° range.

Our route from New Jersey to Cincinnati crossed the great width of Pennsylvania, which had similar topography to upstate New York: wooded mountains spaced widely apart which afforded expansive views before descending into new farmland valleys. This terrain and that of the prior day reminded me of a trip I took four years ago, when I biked with a friend from Mount Holyoke College to Philadelphia over eight days. On that journey we biked from Massachusetts through Connecticut, crossed the Hudson River at Poughkeepsie, ran along the edge of the Delaware Water Gap, and finally arrived in Philadelphia, where my second-hand bike, incidentally, was stolen. Meanwhile, back on this road trip, I recognized signs for different landmarks that I had seen at a much slower pace four years ago.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Matt’s and my discussion came to the difference between environment and ecology, and our need to understand our embeddedness in the environment, as a part of an ecosystem, to be able to make the psychological leap required to address the current ecological crisis. I began reading Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth the other night, which presents the statistics of the effects of global warming currently taking place. This is no longer a discussion of what might happen, but what is happening. The new question is, how will we cope with the changes? How can we prevent them from being even worse than they are? These are the questions that are essential, that I feel the need to devote my life to understanding.

We listened to several lectures by Timothy Morton on just this topic, in which he addresses the question of what nature is. It is not something that is “out there” but rather something we are, and something of which we are a part. Where do we see nature? If nature is not the forests, streams, and mountains that we pass by the roadside, is it also the road itself, and us and the cars upon it? Morton addresses the issue that global warming is so difficult to face because it is so huge, yet still able to be quantified. It is a problem the size of the Earth, but not bigger. We are trapped inside it. We are inside a womb that we have poisoned, and we cannot blame anyone besides ourselves for its toxicity. It is humiliating. And as Morton points out, the word “humiliating” comes from the word “humus,” meaning soil. To be humiliated is to come closer to the Earth. In our humiliation we must come closer to the Earth to learn how to be born out of our womb and into a cleaner world of our own making. But we must go through the birth canal first.

As we were hearing Morton’s words and I was having these thoughts, a bird passed overhead that I have never seen in this country: a bald eagle. While I have seen dozens of eagles in British Columbia I had never before seen one in the country that claims it as its national bird, as its symbol. What does it mean that we can barely keep our own symbol alive in supposedly the most powerful country in the world? What does it mean that I just saw one overhead? Perhaps, both literally and figuratively, to survive the constriction of the ecological crisis we have to become wildlife rehabilitators, just like my friends in New England.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

In the late afternoon we passed into the stethoscope of West Virginia, a narrow section wedged between Pennsylvania and Ohio. The valleys and rivers became steeper and more plunging, and traffic slowed as we crossed a green metal bridge over the Ohio River. Not long after this crossing we saw smoke rising out of the woods to the left of the road, possibly a forest fire due to the nationwide droughts this summer. A couple hours later, as we were honing in on Cincinnati, the fiery orb of the sun could be seen setting, a vermillion star blazing through a rose and tangerine sky.

To Travel to the Green Lake

Our minds felt as thick and hazy as the air of Ohio as we departed Cincinnati in the mid-day 104° heat. Our musical accompaniment thrummed out the rhythms of the road, syncopating to the rhythms of our thoughts and musings: Sweet Honey in the Rock, Jimmy Cliff, Rockapella, Benny Goodman, Johnny A. The journey from Cincinnati to West Bloomfield, Michigan, though by far the shortest of our adventure so far––totaling 282 miles––never really picked up the speedy ease of our previous drives. The roads had more lanes, more congestion, and weaving trucks. The landscape never opened out into expanses of nature as it had on other days, but stayed more stubbornly embroiled in suburb, city, and monocrop farm.

About halfway there, while massive military planes flew overhead to their local air force bases, we suddenly realized the gas tank was nearly spent! It was the first time we had not filled up before departing our starting location. As we awaited a gas station to announce itself on the roadside signs, I fell back to thinking about the greatest difficulty I have with undertaking this particular road trip: burning the gallons upon gallons of gas it takes to drive over 6,000 miles across the country and back. Yes it is expensive, but in the long run such a trip is far more expensive when counted not solely in monetary terms. The cost to the environment, from extraction and refinement, to the releasing of CO2 from our exhaust pipe, to the cost in human lives from war and corrupt politics, spreads a dark stain across our more simple desire to view the country from the ground level while visiting friends and family. How do I justify being able to take this road trip? The costs are no better had I flown; the use of petroleum is just more hidden when one is not filling up the tank oneself at least once a day. The correlation between the burning oil and the burning weather we drove through could not seem more apparent.

I love to travel. It is a major part of who I am, no matter where it is I am exploring. Meeting new people, having deep conversations in different accents, sampling new food, smelling new lands, hearing new cities, delving further into familiar haunts of years past. A different side of myself is able to come out in such situations. But it seems that traveling as it has been thus far in my lifetime may be rapidly becoming an activity of a bygone era. Flights and long car trips will become less feasible, or at least less justifiable to people like myself who are beginning to consider the greater costs of such privilege. Will it ever be possible to reconcile my passionate love of travel with my deep love for the Earth? It is an issue with which I struggle greatly. Yet I think with such joy on my own past adventures, and long for so many more as I hear the stories of those who have gone further than I.

After what felt like a longer drive than usual (although much shorter in reality), we pulled into the familiar driveway of my aunt and uncle’s home on Green Lake in Michigan, just outside Detroit. The shape of the house, the lawn, the trees, the dock, all had a familiar resonance that pulled forward archives of summers spent here. My cousin, who is becoming increasingly similar to my uncle in looks and mannerisms as he gets older, greeted us with a smile at the door. It was like coming back to a distant home away from home.

The weather, still oppressively hot despite the descending sun, sent us into the teal waters of Green Lake. My childhood fear of the lake weeds growing in the deepening waters off the shore led us to take the paddle boat––the same one I had played on as a little girl––out onto the deeper waters surrounding the diving board raft. Cannonballs off the raft into the sixty-foot deep waters quickly erased the weary of the road and the heat of the day. We paddled around for about an hour, resting on the step that protrudes off the raft just below the water’s surface, the three of us discussing the last few years of our lives, biodynamic farming, California vineyards, Rudolf Steiner, hitchhiking, crossing international borders, and many other topics. I enjoy seeing how similar threads of interest run between all my cousins, but also how we each weave those threads into our own tapestry.

The following day, the seventh of the trip, we spent relaxing at Green Lake, my cousin and I going for a wind-deprived sail in the neighbor’s little Sunfish boat, while Matt kept pace with us in a bright red kayak. Upon our return I convinced myself that if I could not get over my fear of lake weeds and swim to the raft at this point in my life I would never be able to and would wallow in shame until the next opportunity. So while no one watched I took a deep breath and left the safe sandy shallows and began to swim out over the dark green weeds. I jumped more than once as one or two tickled my stomach, and my imagination exploded with images of snapping turtles, eels, giant catfish, and demonic leeches all with a particular hunger to eat free-range Becca. But before long I reached the deep open water where I was safe (theoretically), and I floated along peacefully on my back until I persuaded myself to make the return journey. Eventually, of course, I did and arrived thoroughly out of breath (from outpacing the monsters) but also proud of myself for taking on my childhood fear.

Photo by Paul Tarnas

Photo by Paul Tarnas

As dusk came on more Tarnases came over to visit and Matt was able to meet another uncle and aunt, plus my grandfather. We all talked until the sun sank below the horizon and the candles, mosquitoes, and fireflies came out. Green Lake puts on their Independence Day firework show the weekend after July 4th, so we were treated to a second showing this year. As the colored rockets exploded in the night sky, I sat with my grandfather who was thrilled with the spectacle. I appreciated having the time to speak with him; he is almost 89, and is a gem mine of stories, of which I was able to hear several, sometimes interwoven with each other in a creative narrative. It was wonderful to hear him say he is happy.

Today we leave early for Bennington, Vermont to see more of the Tarnas family, and also to achieve the main objective of this road trip: to retrieve my belongings that I have not seen since my college graduation.

Humid Heartland

Our arrival at Lake Quivira, Kansas coincided with a rose vermillion sunset over the rippling waters of the lake, visible through the lush, leafy, summer trees. July 4th was the first morning we were able to sleep in, which was such a gift after spending 1,846 miles on the road. Feeling highly privileged, we stepped out of the air conditioned house and drove a little black golf cart into a cloud of steamy heat, swelling with the buzzing of cicadas. We drove down to the lakeshore and dove straight into the water, our bodies probably steaming like a hot cooking pan run under a cool stream from the kitchen faucet. I was soaking in utter contentment.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Earlier in the day we had been given a driving tour of Kansas City, passing along hot, empty streets between towering brick buildings. The city reminded me somewhat of Newcastle, England, with the red buildings and arching bridges. The gold-leaf roof of a church shone out from the city center, and the shimmering metallic arches of the performing arts center echoed the design of the Sydney Opera House in Australia. While hearing stories of sunken steamboats found buried in fields, and limestone caves miles deep used for storing frozen produce, we drove past the famous Plaza shopping center, and saw the Hallmark headquarters where my aunt had held a twenty-one year career as an artist and letterer.

Our Independence Day dinner was classic American fare: corn on the cob, cole slaw, fried chicken––which, yes I will admit was a first for me––and my personal favorite of home-grown basil, local cherry tomatoes, skewered with a toothpick to mozzarella bathing in an olive oil and balsamic sauce. The discussion over dinner, primarily with a self-declared “hardcore” conservative, was about as lively as one could get while remaining friendly. Matt thrives on such discussion, and the table was like a verbal match of ping pong with multiple players participating at once. The starting topic was Obama’s healthcare program which was just upheld in the Supreme Court, that led each of us to parse out the details of what was good and what needed to be changed, and that the Republican solution to just repeal it was not enough: another alternative needs to be offered for that to be realistic.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

The conversation ranged over many of the most controversial bi-partisan topics, from education and taxes, to evolution. Matt and I had to make it clear we are not what would be considered “mainstream liberals,” and both sides of the conversation learned not to assume the other was a caricature embodying the full ideals of the mainstream left or right parties. When the discussion turned toward evolution we began to narrow in further and further, starting with Matt speaking of how creationism cannot be taught as a scientific alternative to evolution, because they are coming from entirely different fields. However, as we gave examples of evolution we discovered our conservative conversationalist did in fact believe in both adaptation and genetic mutation, but not evolution, which he had separated out. His argument was similar with global warming: he said he believed in climate change but not global warming. Ultimately though, as we were feeling inclined to wrap up the discussion out of consideration for our hosts, we came to a similar agreement on evolution, as recognizing the physical evidence for evolution while also recognizing the Divine influence present in the universe’s unfolding as well.

By this time dusk was falling and we turned our attention to other things, namely making our way down to the lake to embark upon the pontoon boat to view the fireworks, the closest display of them I have ever seen. As the last smoke faded from the sparkling, colorful flames, we turned around to see the full moon rising and reflecting its golden orb into the black waters of the lake.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Early this morning, the fifth day of the trip but the fourth of driving, we set out from the house at 8:15 am and began our day’s travels through five states: Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. The landscape remained a rich green the whole route, alternating between hills and trees, and skillet-flat fields of corn, potatoes, and soy. We rode over wide rivers, including the famous waters of the Mississippi when we passed by St. Louis. Early memories of reading Huck Finn flashed through my mind as we hovered for several seconds above the legendary waterway.

Rupert Sheldrake joined into our conversation, which had been rather lively since the discussion the night before, and the subject of morphic fields intermingled with the corn fields passing left and right. We were listening to a tape from 1982 when Sheldrake gave a talk at Esalen as part of one of Stan Grof’s workshops entitled “A New Science of Life.” If an animal participating in its species’ genetic field undergoes a genetic mutation it may be less like its species but still part of the field. However, if enough mutations occur then the animal may actually change

Photo by Becca Tarnas

morphogenetic fields entirely, becoming a new species and cultivating its own field that will grow with more generations of participation. The ideas fit perfectly into our previous night’s dialogue. My primary question for Sheldrake would be, what accounts for creativity? I believe I understand how species develop based on past generations through the morphic field, but what can bridge between fields? Might that be where the Divine comes in, perhaps to participate with the creativity of the evolving individuals?

By early evening we were pulling up to our destination near Cincinnati, Ohio to be greeted by many members of Matt’s family, including his mother and grandfather. The 105° heat of the day was at last wearing away, but the humidity remained thick in the air with the mosquitoes and fireflies, the latter of whom flashed in the dusk sky like fairies signaling one to a secret woodland feast. We had our own feast inside, followed by an evening dip in the pool and a series of home videos of Matt as a baby and a toddler from his childhood home in Florida.

In the morning we leave for Michigan, for a stay on Green Lake from which many of my own childhood memories abound.