AE Reiff


A Spiritual Tour of The Grand Canyon

We stopped for night. An hour to dark. No tents. Leo had a wrinkle, “see the night sky of your dreams.” We blew up their pads, threw down the dudes, got out stools, made fire on transported logs. Presto. Sandwiches.

In this business you get along with authorities. No fire on the trail. No camping outside a campground. You don’t dump dudes on the ground at dark. I doubt he had a license for anything. From that late start we weren’t half down, out from back rock only in feet. I right then didn’t need an omen. A golf ball hit high up, ricocheted down. Which told me something. Some fool is teeing off.

Nobody even saw it. Time speeds up and slows down when you leave the rim. Dudes gathered at the fire. Leo threw an icebreaker. I almost said id breaker. He asked if they thought anything had changed. In two hours! Rebots looked at his hands, turned pale and sat down. Said he had, I’m quoting, “stars on the mount of Mercury but they were gone.” TidB at that moment grew black wires out his nose. Kidding! The book guy, Paul Polymer, apropos of nothing, twitching and tapping, said he hated books. I’m thinking he’s on medication. Said he’s going to leave a donation at the Shrine of Printing.

Laura Dobson, nicknamed “Happy,” the linguistics prof, told her wilderness credo, that “all that is spiritual mimics the divine.” Then she looked at Rebots and cried, “shrive me, shrive me, spirit man.” Spirits and its and its.

Leo had them sit on rocks and stools by the fire. He was going to give the lesson.

“Of course the Redman projected his reality on the modern pseudo-sphere. Because we are alive we make it alive. Animism is no more than our good wish to the stone. Live, we say, like us. But the stone won’t say that to us. If it did talk we wouldn’t like what it said. Matter has contempt for spirit, even while spirit coaxes the least imagined life from it. That’s our paradox. We're both.”

This was the old Indian of the heart routine. Nobody comes out west without his Indian. Maybe the mule buster will sign autographs?

The buster had hair like night, skin like toast, a red kerchief around his throat. His mule had an omega brand upside down on the rump. Said his name was Chee Dom Bombay.

Leo kept going. “Consider what we see as a surface open and obvious. Moralists call what is underneath evil, a dark evil with a red face or a red evil with a black face. Red, white and black were the three colors of earth that the dualism of matter frightened into submission. Naturalists decided that by apprehending the under bird, the inner rock. In the words of the poet, ‘what has no arms, no legs, no skin, no teeth?’”

I wanted to raise my hand, but a fried egg has skin and a bucket of grits has symbolic teeth. But oh the urge to pee! But I didn’t say that.

“The days of participation mystique are over. We no longer think to join with nature. Nature joins with us. We open a dialogue with the natural world. Communicate the in and the out. Self fulfillment in us is realization for the grass. We open a road, at first a toll road, between nature and man. Sorry, human beings. We must be silent to hear forces sweeping grasslands, spirit fires. We must learn to smell again, renew the nose within. When we talk we cannot hear. So be silent my friends and feel the inner canyon.”

Tell the sun to stand still! The sun was gone. Masses of shoulders and heads looked down. The rock giants were not hoping for pigmy talk. I listened to the heart- steady pressure of blood in my ears. The canyon was still. The rocks come apart. Tree roots of weather splits. I made a bet. Three minutes and they pray for a phone, five and they start a rockslide.

The fire cracked. A shifting of positions. Switchboards lit up.

Sandwiches and feet. If I see spirit fires starting I’m gonna squirt. Were they holding breath? Then Partridge started in neat.

“The charm of Taliesin is the great concrete roof overhead, the kiva atmosphere. Like a meeting of elders. I remember Dr. Wright built all his doorways low because he was short, as if you needed to believe in him before you entered his temple or otherwise the whole thing would crash in on your head. Not that Frank Lloyd Wright thought himself a god, but it’s no place to be claustrophobic. Wasn’t he modeling this Grand Canyon and its thighs, extending and sealing them over with beams of reinforced cement, leaving two or three doors at the heads of the trails. A solid dome. We could be down here spelunking with lanterns and breathing humid air.”

The inner canyon swallowed. Leo waved his arm at me. “Come on over to the fire Rheb so we can get to know you.” I waved back but got off the hook when Happy Dobson took the ball.

“Blake thought a lot the same, not about the Canyon but about the eternal man that he said was flesh bound because he manufactured an idea of himself like girders and beams, a metaphysical stone imprisoned with a really low roof of cruelty. So it was into a canyon they fell. That’s a lot like covering over this place or paving in the sky or prairie. Maybe Wright’s house is for trogs whose heads creak and shift with every foundation! Then the beautiful god of Shelley with his clear limbs and skin would be no more. The piety of sky would be a misshapen darkness.”

Down and down she goes and where she stops nobody knows. What was in those sandwiches? I will absolutely get right over to that fire and happy up. Nobody seemed to notice she was talking funny.

I call it first night dudisms. They calm down later usually. But it’s like they have to one up. Then the bookman TidB went off.

“I know what you mean. This place is spooky, but red kachinas and fallen skies aren’t the danger. The danger is from rocks and cliffs and pits and snakes. Any time you get off paved roads people spend days waiting to get rescued even in the helicopter age. Sure they get saved. But it maxes out their plastic. Their wallets are as dry as their throats. You think they ever come back here? What’s the saying, “once dreaded biers the pyre?” They exit fast, jump the fence and hide in buildings and parks the rest of their life. Maybe they come out mow a lawn, or clip a hedge, but they’re back in fast, head for shadows of curtains in rooms. You know what they’d say to the rest of us don’t you? Go back! Go back!”

“Yo, Tidbetter,” Leo called.

Too much silence must not be a good think, to say it the way Happy talked. For me the stars are sparking in oval V’s and Semitic alphabets that spell the word nobody can pronounce. Course you never get it, but on good nights you try to wrap the thing. I’d more like a restoration than a demolition, see constellations in dreams that don’t exist, The highest and the lowest and the in between.

Partridge, who had started it all looked pretty comfortable now, stretched his feet toward the fire. But the soles of his boots were smoking. Then he started to smile.

“I’ve just returned from a conference on inner fears. A lot of it seems to come from our guilt at having ignored the beauty of the world. Everywhere we go we carry our associations, habits of being long ago passed down, the whole gold cart of our culture. It’s like a comet’s tail invisible to the eye, but not to the conscience.

“The original pot is our idea, but we pass through a world of broken shards, fragments we piece together. But what does it all amount to but dust. Those little spider webs on the ground near the trail? They’re supposed to catch bugs but they catch a lot more dust. And of course the bugs turn to dust. Satellite dishes are like spider webs. Their programs are dust. Our problem is what to do about all the dust, or to bring it back to conscience, what to do with all the fear and the guilt. Is dust worthy of contrition on our part. As Leo was saying, we’re matter and spirit. Matter is dust. What is spirit, the sun? And as Mr.TidB suggests, the sun can bake your blood in a Petri dish. There must be an earth to spirit though because greed boils down to dust and pride dries up to dust, that dust settled by squirrels, shadowed by ravens. We shadow the entrance into the spirit like a dark entrance to those caves where once dwelt the art of that age.”

He was on a monologue.

“And one of us is holding still till we get a grip. The canyon gets deeper, the shards get smaller. Axes, pots and pahoes are all that’s left. In payment for it we have the artifice of our lives, like the master Dedalus, and with him a dream ticket to the earth navel.”

This is one doozie of a dude. Who ever heard anything like it? But he warmed up even from there.

“So are we to apologize to the dust for our being? Are we to say that earth is sacred, life is holy, leaves are holy? Are you holy?”

Holy moly, holy moly.

“Can you join us in our worship, we who worry about the destruction of species, for the dust that leaves no trace? It is the universal cry. The rocks, stones and trees cry out for dust much like martyrs, much like logs cry out for trucks.”

Oh yes, the call of the log, I have heard it often.

“So how shall we deal with the contradiction of ourselves? Shall we go to an act of contrition or to timber sales. Shall we deny it, things getting better. Sacred or profane the flesh, the forest, or neither. The oak, pine, lake, spring worlds? The natural man needs a metaphysic, a way out of this or that, that or this dust.”

He’s not just a doozie. He’s a whoozie doozie.

“So the great poets and thinkers call for exploration of spiritual worlds of both matter and spirit. As the great author of Tuttle Inland says, log truck drivers rise earlier than the students of zen. Log drivers have a life, a vocation, but zen tourists merely fun. They sit zen at 5 am. Then they don’t sit. Garbage truck drivers sit all day.”

I think I got it. Garbage truckers sit to work. Zen tourists work to sit. Work means worship. Eat dust, think dust, love dust.

“Leo and I are one in this. Not that the two are one, but the two in one, dust and spirit, matter and energy. To resolve the conflict, the animate stone, the wind in the rock, that is your work upon yourself while the log truck is driving to resolve the contradictions.”

After you gas them with words, when the gophers come out you slit their throat. What’s in it for him to talk that way? I wondered if they noticed how he broke down at the end.

It looked like they had all fainted. I thought I was gonna have to give first aid. The only one who looked untouched was the husband of Ms. Happy Dobbs who had a wide grin on his face and threw still more wood on the fire.

“Well you know Professor I’ve a theory about all of that. I call it the technological suspension of the mythical. We’re going to invent these new ways and use them, just cause we can. Might makes right. Mill said so. His father beat him so he learned Latin. He beat him again and he learned Greek. Beat your dog. I call it utility Shakespeare. A little humanity at college. Yes. Might. Right. And sight. When did we ever invent anything we didn’t use? Spare body parts are close at hand. I don’t mean you sweetheart,” he said, turning to his wife. “Just manufacture fetal tissue.”

The five graduate students who had mounted different parts of the same rock hung off into space in several directions. The were boys of their time, hair both struck straight up and out, sort of like a perm of Imo Jima flag raising.

Lipsy teased them: “Yawl look like Imo Jima! How can ya ride a mule all day and get off to ride that rock all night. I know I’m not made of stone.”

She wiggled and spat in the fire from the chaw in her mouth, “this here’ll settle that dust. Now Leo, didn’t cha promise to tell us about the wild west and such?”

“Well which stories do you want to hear? Indian stories, settler stories, nature stories…”

“Tell us that one you did in Sedona, you know, Ai-oo, that coyote thing.”

There’s nothing like dudes kicked back. Blurb over center takes snap, fades back. Disappears.

The mules had no fire. They were tended by the buster, just far enough off to prevent most of the smell. Caught between the odor and the gas, I’m seeking the middle ground. It sounded like the buster was teaching the mules German. Pigish saucers of umlaut floated over the fire just as it looked like Leo and Rebots were getting ready to pop the really biggo question, something like, “is the Boombay Indian primitive the thought stream none can enter?” Hippie Polymer was playin’ Crosby, Stills and Diddley, tapping his foot in a sway. He had given out a hot list at the trailhead:

Trotsky’s Life of Lenin. First English. Signed by Solzhenitsyn in Cyrillic. Mint. 2500.

Picasso’s 1946 diary. One page, matted with foam core, framed. 3000.

Abbey’s typed ms. of an unfinished work, Sourdough Wilderness, c. 1954, make offer.

Leo was ready to rip. I couldn’t see any reason to move. Wasn’t that what got me pickled in the first place?

“All right folks settle down. In the southwest and all over Indian country people have lots of song about coyote. This one is a combination of several traditions. The songs are supposed to have simple meanings like morality plays where the human is translated in animal terms. I’ve taken to acting parts of it, so just hold still during the impersonations.”

“One of the oldest tales of the White Mountain Apache is of a contest among the animals in high country at the beginning of October when it begins to get cold, to see who gets the title of best song of the year. This year the finals were between coyote and elk. All the other contestants were in the audience. They gathered round the sacred Rock to see who would sing the best.”

“Iisaw, the Hopi name of coyote, got first call.”

Now Leo got down on his hands and knees, put his “paws” on the table surface of a rock beside him and tilted his head back like he was going to howl. He had put on a costume too, a skin with a head like somebody’s lost rug. His mouth was open. Saliva dripped off his tongue. Words blended into cries and moans. Like a coyote speaking English and a rooster starting to crow all at the same time.

Then he spun around a couple of times. Everybody’s in a daze. The fire is throwing shadows off faces. One minute it’s like he disappeared, then the next he’s back in a new costume. Branches come out his collar and go up over his head. It sounded like there were yips and caterwauls. He’s stuck his neck way out now, shakes his head back and forth. The dudes have their mouths open too. He stretches his arms out with his head and lets out a long whistling cry.

So that’s the way it was.

Leo blasted them into space.



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