It was mid-afternoon when we arrived at the almost deserted campground in the middle of nowhere. The Mountain View RV Campground was mostly empty and we got a choice spot to hook up our camper. We took the dogs out behind the campground and walked on the dirt road beside the railroad track, taking in the infinite space in all directions. Melo and Pix were too busy exploring the strange new scents to notice the small cottontail scurry into a hole under some thorny bushes. The air was void of all sounds as the late January sun shone upon us, warming our souls. It felt like a good place to spend our first night in Arizona.
Over the past month or so, we found ourselves slowing. The emptier the land became, the less we wanted to shove our way through it. The need to escape the people, the commotion, and the traffic no longer drove us. Instead of wanting to go, we just wanted to be, to stop and hold onto the new found stillness and space that had entered our lives in Texas and, more recently, New Mexico.
After leaving Melo and Pix in the camper with Kat, I took a walk to an old deserted fuel station that could have been ten or thirty years old. We’d see many more during our travels, abandoned and left to disintegrate in the sun and wind. Maybe the underground tanks rusted out and just got too expensive to dig up and replace. Or maybe the newer, more efficient cars were able to travel further, and what once was someone’s dream of prosperity just got passed by. Even so, as soon as we entered Arizona, everything felt eternal, as if the mountains and rocks could never be chipped away no matter how hard the wind blows and a million years from now there would just be more mountains and rocks all the way to the centre of the earth.
Our sense of the eternal did need to be put on hold a bit the next day though as we neared Tucson and the empty desert and rocks gave way to miles of criss-crossing black pavement, stucco and brick buildings, interminably long traffic lights, and a million pushing, shoving cars, trucks and snowbird powered RVs, probably grateful to have escaped the harshest northern winter in recent memory.
We would have avoided the city completely, but we wanted to meet with some old friends who lived in Tucson. Not wanting to stay directly in heart of the city, Kat found us a place to boondock for free at a place called Synder Hill, just outside of Tucson. But, as my father used to say, nothing in life is really free and, “even when you die, you need to pay with your life.” The makeshift campground was crowded — I counted over fifty RVs clustered about — and, we were sure, that night would bring the clatter of dozens of generators and probably more than a few revellers glad to be away from the rules and regulations of state run parks.
On impulse, we hiked up the rugged hill that looked like it had been part of an old mining operation and when we looked down the other side of the hill, we spotted only two other campers, well spaced out from each other. Although it took a bit of weaving our way between RVs of all sizes, makes and ages, and then bouncing through a deep pair of twisting and dipping ruts, we eventually made it to an empty patch of desert between mesquite bushes, tall saguaro and stubby barrel cacti, and scraggly looking chollas. The campsite was secluded but the noise from the highway was a bit loud. No louder though than some of the ludicrously overpriced and crowded RV parks we’ve stayed at and definitely certainly no louder than a Walmart parking lot.
It was dark when we made camp so it wasn’t until sunrise when I saw the desert floor shining like diamonds from the shards of thousands of smashed beer bottles. I know many people have a lot of respect for the natural world. But I also know many more don’t care and will pollute and destroy where they tread. Usually, no matter where we travel and camp, we’re not far from someone’s trash and, all too often, poorly hidden behind a sparse shrub or lone boulder, blossoms of soiled toilet paper sprouting out of someone’s poop. Unlike state or national parks, free boondocking sites don’t always offer outhouses, litter barrels, potable water, and camp-hosts or park rangers to ensure the earth isn’t treated like a landfill, or worse, a toilet. We’re trying to be hopeful though that as we head deeper into the back country, the land will be cleaner and purer than a heavily used boondocking site just outside a major city.
On our way out of the Snyder Hill campground, we almost got stuck in a huge muddy pool of water from a recent rain, but I managed to back us out, again grateful we have a 4X4.
Over the next few days, we visited with our friends, some in Tucson, and some a couple of hours drive deeper into the heart of Arizona to a remote area near Pearce. We hadn’t seen them for thirty years and since then, we’ve all become whiter, wider, and I hope, wiser. It made me realize just how much of one’s life force thirty years can use up. But, like the desert and surrounding mountains that humble and dwarf even the tallest buildings, there’s still something eternal within us all and, as we move away from our years of activity, of raising families, building careers, and accumulating enough security to take us to our graves, I hope we can all find the solitude and space to seek out that which does not rust or decay.
Nothing reminded me more of what is most essential to life than the Arizona sun. It wasn’t until we arrived in Arizona, and spent many of our first two weeks walking, hiking, and just sitting on the rocks gazing indirectly at our brightest star that I realized just how disconnected we had become from it.
It’s easy to forget about the sun when you’re living your life indoors, whether in the cab of a pick-up, inside a truck camper or, not so long ago, behind the walls of an office. Sure, we all knew the sun was out there in the sky, maybe hidden behind the clouds if the day was rainy, and behind the earth when it was night. But it wasn’t until we started living with the sun from morning to night that we realized just how central this giver of light is to us all.
Even though it be night,
the sun still shines.
We noticed it in the small things, how we’d position our camper to give our solar panels maximum exposure to the sun to keep our batteries charged, or how Melo and Pixel would seek out the spots of sunshine coming in through our windows and skylight. During our almost daily hikes, we’d think about where the sun would be two hours into our hike, and whether we’d need to wear our hats to protect our eyes.
By the first or second week of February, this gentle companion to our thoughts would come to completely dominate our lives, with every plan centred around how hot the sun was going to be that day. While camping at the glorified parking lot at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument just north of Mexico, our walks with Melo and Pix would be relegated to the early mornings or early evenings, where the cool of the desert night would temper the sun’s fire. On the drive in, we’d get occasional snippets of weather warnings from back home about yet another winter snow storm. Meanwhile our truck’s outside temperature would read 30° C (86° F).
For now though, I’m writing this on what will probably be our last day at the Molino Basin National Forestry campground. I’m outside and the late afternoon sun is gentle and soft, warming me as I type. The campground is very simple, with no amenities other than a place to park, a concrete picnic table, and some basic but clean outhouses scattered about. Richard, the campground host, is particularly proud of the cleanliness of his outhouses and asks us if we notice how clean they are every time we cross paths.
There are none of the amenities that attract most RVers: no potable water, no electricity, and no dump station. And that’s why we love it. It deters the seekers of comfort. I want to stay here forever, and experience all the minute changes in the desert. But we are forced to return to Tucson every three or four days to dump our tanks and replenish our water. For now though, we are here simply enjoying the light, the air, the beautiful but stark mountains surrounding us, and the sense of space that eluded us in the densely forested mountains of BC.
As above, so below.
As without, so within.
A very old saying
As I glance at the afternoon sun slowly making it’s way over the western ridge, I am struck by the thought of how the sun is a daily reminder of the spark of life that resides within us all. Within our souls we carry our own bright and shining suns, each one animating us, connecting us to the source of all things. I think to myself that maybe the only difference between word “Sol”, the ancient name for the sun, and “soul”, is that the former is missing the “you” (u).
When we are young, our inner sun shines brightly and we are strong and filled with the dance of life. As we become older, many of us believe that the inner flame diminishes — our wick is used up — and after it is extinguished, we die.
But what if the flame is eternal and never goes out? What if the light from our souls only becomes obscured and hidden, like the sun on a dark and cloudy day, or like the flame within a soot-blackened lantern? And during those times when our hearts are filled with darkness and gloom, perhaps the darkness we are sensing is simply our reaction to being separated from the source of our inner light by the layers of curtains and smoke we ourselves raise up as shields to protect us from realizing who we truly are.
The realization hits me that it need not be so. During certain moments in our lives, we all experience moments of great lucidity, where our sense of wonder is rekindled, and we are filled with compassion, joy, and love. During these moments, even if they are rare and brief, we again feel our inner radiance shining through us, tearing aside the veils and illuminating us and the world around us.
My life closed twice before its close,
it yet remains to see,
If immortality unveils,
a third event for me.
So huge, so hopeless to conceive,
as these which twice befell,
Parting’s all we know of heaven,
and all we need of hell.
We all have our own triggers for these inner bursts of light. Some of us experience them when we perform charitable works and help those in need. Others feel it when they paint or draw or build or dance. The act of creating is really nothing more than switching on our inner flashlights, shining beams of light at the external world, and capturing whatever reflects back at us.
I experience this inner light whenever I play music. When I play my accordion and sing my songs, I feel the light shining through me, projecting through my notes and my words, and casting shapes and shadows onto the world around me. When I able to completely surrender to my playing, I feel like I’m connecting to something universal, the magical and wondrous current that flows through all beings and all things, and I am filled with a profound joy.
Sadly, my ability to establish this connection has been diminished. As I talked about in an earlier post, my recently re-tuned accordion now sounds shrill and hostile to my ears, and the sweet burnished baritone voice that accompanied me has been replaced by a strident soprano. For many weeks, I put off playing it. But the urge to play became too powerful, and when the soul demands expression, a way always opens up.
And sometimes an angel comes along to help.
On one of our days at Molino Basin, the desire to play was so great I could no longer resist it. Although I dreaded what I would hear, I felt compelled to take out my accordion, face Arizona’s beautiful winter sun, and play what my heart told me to play.
The wind was blowing as it often does in the desert, and I figured that maybe it would temper the harder notes. I began to play a soft melody that had come to me while camping in an old apple orchard back in Nova Scotia. I closed my eyes to turn my vision inwards. At first, the notes sounded piercing and sharp, but I took some pressure off the bellows and kept playing, struggling to let myself open up to the music I hoped was still within me. I kept playing, and in the periphery of my consciousness, I felt some of the familiar but elusive currents begin to congeal and flow.
During one moment I open my eyes and was surprised to see a tall and slender young woman standing before me at the entrance to our campsite. Were did she come from? I thought. She was smiling at me. She was wearing white-rimmed sunglasses and had long hair the colour of polished wood when the sun shines on it. I immediately stopped my playing, wondering if I was creating a disturbance. She said she was enjoying my music and asked if she could play with me. Although I’ve rarely played with another musician before, I thought it would be rude to decline so I said yes and a few minutes later she returned from her own campsite with her guitar and banjo.
Over the next hour or two we traded songs. Like me, she preferred playing in the minor key, perhaps because, also like me, she leaned towards the darker, sadder side of music. I was humbled by her musical knowledge and skill. Her song repertoire was enormous. She began with a Leonard Cohen tune and followed it with one by Tom Waits, two of my favourite artists. And when she played and sang her own compositions with a naturally strong and clear voice, I thought they were beautiful, humbling me with their purity and authenticity. I tried to accompany her on a few of her songs, but I wasn’t used to playing in her keys. Also, when accordionists play with guitars, they rarely use the bass buttons and usually accompany with only the treble notes and chords. I wasn’t used to playing with another musician and only with one hand, but I fumbled along, hoping to bring another layer of magic to her songs.
Kat, who had been listening from inside the camper, came out to sit and listen. Part of me thought that maybe watching me interact musically with a pretty young woman would disturb her. But she let the music take her and there were no disturbances in the ripples. It was as if she too sensed that something special was about to occur.
When I began to play one of my own songs, the door began to open. Something was happening that I can barely explain. Within moments, I sensed my music had returned. Like an actor in one of those cliched Hollywood films where an artist loses his muse and then a stranger comes along at the last moment and gives it back, I realized that the music had been within me all along, and that I had been wrong to blame the re-tuning of my accordion for my inability to express it. It didn’t matter what my accordion sounded like. When a true musicians feels the music, he or she can express it with anything, even clapping hands or sticks and rocks bashed together in a rhythm. When the woman accompanied me on my songs, we wove a musical tapestry and experienced moments of transcendence so sublime they would have humbled the most fervent hand-waving born-again Christians at a Sunday revival meeting.
During one moment, while singing about how we’ll all rise up in the end, when the mountains all crumble into sand, and the trees lay on down and the eagle hits the ground, and the valley goes soaring to the wind, I glanced up and looked at her face and I saw ecstasy, a genuine spiritual ecstasy. She was grinning. And she was shining. And so was I.
I learned that her name was Fay, or perhaps Fae, like the Fae in “faeries”. Like a faerie, she touched me with a spark that acted like a catalyst in my soul. And, for a few moments, the light was shining through us and we were shining like golden suns.
The next day Fay and her partner, a young bearded guy who was a good musician on his own, headed to Tucson to do some busking. During the time Fay and I played together, he preferred to wander the hills around us with a metal detector, hunting for his own hidden treasures. After they left for Tucson, I again pulled out my accordion and played and sang for most of the afternoon. It felt good. I felt cleansed, as if something within me had become unplugged, and now the music was again able to flow through me. And for some reason, my accordion didn’t sound quite as bad anymore.
We all carry a glowing lantern in our hearts, but most of us are either too full of excuses or too afraid to let others see our light. I think this is what Jesus meant when he talked about keeping our lanterns hidden under our beds. Whether by loving or giving or healing, by creating, or building, by playing music or sculpting clay, by writing or drawing or telling a joke to the the sales clerk in the grocery aisle, or dancing all alone like no one’s watching on an empty dance floor in a crowded nightclub (a story for another day…), if we put all our love and our light and our life into whatever we do, we will be fulfilled, and we will realize our true and only reason for being.
And if ever we forget, all we need do is look up at the sky at that glorious ball of gold rising above our heads as a daily reminder.
There’s a light on, over my head, my Lord,
There’s a light on, over my head — let it shine!
Let it shine, let it shine,
Although it may not be the only one.
Let me shine, shine, shine,
Although I may not be the only one.
For a more detailed (and probably more interesting) description of our journey through Arizona so far, here’s Kat’s blog link: