Jay Meehan: Searching for spirits in Southern Utah
“We must not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time.”
~ T. S. Eliot
The nomadic tribe partaking in the southern Utah and Navajo Rez excursion that launches in a day or two will have a somewhat different makeup than those that have gone before.
First off, brother McGee and sister Mary Beth are coming from Kauai. There are even rumors floating about that Smokey, my longtime road manager, may insert himself at some point. That combination will boost the entertainment factor exponentially.
Then there will be the accumulated ghosts of literary, cinematic, fine art, and grave-robbing county commissioners that lay in wait along such landscapes. Ambushes from apparitions the likes of Ed Abbey, Tony Hillerman, Zane Grey, John Ford, Everett Ruess, Maynard Dixon, and Calvin Black will no doubt come into play. The game will be afoot.
Memories from explorations past have been doing their best to get a seat at the planning table. One vehicular trek from 25 years back in particular has been clearing its throat repeatedly. That two-week loop exploring Redrock and Rez firmly affixed itself across my medial temporal lobe and resurfaces whenever such conversations arise.
Back then it was a solo jaunt where I camped and cooked from the back of a pickup while configuring the following day’s itinerary utilizing maps, Scotch whisky, and campfires. This time, we’ve pretty much got each move mapped out prior to shipping out.
The baggage of this approach is, of course, less opportunity for spontaneous improvisation. However, entering such methodology with the long understanding that everything is a tradeoff, the upsides to overall micromanagement are also evident. Consensus issues will obviously be greatly reduced, for one.
And, anyway, so as to get the most from the fortnight-in-question, countless hours have already been spent poring over what I like to call my “Leaphorn map.” Author Tony Hillerman’s fictional Lt. Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police had above his desk an enlarged rendition of the AAA “Indian Country” map long put out by the Southern California Auto Club.
Where Leaphorn utilized various-colored “push pins” as an aid to pattern recognition, multi-colored highlighters perform similar functions as far as trip planning goes. A side effect of the latter approach is that, over time, the map begins to resemble the Jackson Pollock abstract drip painting “No. 5.” So it goes.
Of course, one has to also keep in mind the quantum mechanical effect of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle so as not to take too seriously any route planning of this nature. The mere act of observation exerts a force upon the series of waypoints being considered to the point where their assumed locations are always in question.
And so, the trailhead to past expeditions, the one to which the poet Eliot referred in the introductory quote, looms. Not “again,” however. As he also mentioned, although the trail has been observed previous, Heisenberg-wise, it is no longer “that” trail. And the observer, having been there and done that, is no longer that guy.
So, to demonstrate what may well be an excess of courage under fire, the trip gets kicked off with a weekend in Moab. Hopefully, we can stick Abbey’s ghost with a decently sized bar tab while in town.
Somewhere near Monticello will be evidence that former San Juan County commissioner Cal Black’s pillaging backhoe devoured him in his final moments. Atonement by “yellow iron,” has a certain poetic justice to it.
It’s even money that Mesa Verde will produce the shimmering aura of Everett Ruess — more than likely in the vicinity of Square Tower Ruin where he once sketched-out what would become one of his more famous linoleum “wood cuts.” Tony Hillerman would be lurking a bit south around “Tsé Bitʼaʼí”, or Ship Rock, as we “belagona” refer to it.
Monument Valley should feature John Ford and John Wayne somewhere near “The Mittens” or “Bud Head Butte.” Hard telling where in 1905 Canyon de Chelly Maynard Dixon painted the three Navajo women on the cusp of bathing. Pretty sure he never forgot. Zane Gray should be hunkered down near Black Mesa, at the foot of which he once set a hard tale of living, loving, and dying.
If their spirits still roam those haunted mesas, our tribe shall find them.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social and political scenes for more than 40 years.
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