Sunday, November 9, 2014

Red Rock Ride

Aptly named for the terra cotta hoodoos, cliffs, ridges and other rock formations, the Red Rock Ride (RRR) is a six-day trail ride that traverses large swaths of southern Utah and Northern Arizona.  On the trail, we meandered through the canyons of Zion, Bryce, Paria and Casto.  We moved through parts of the Dixie National Forest and ended the trek at the Grand Canyon by entering at its north rim. This trip is clearly the highlight of my riding life.  I seized this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ride through these remote and historic canyons like so many pioneers, cowboys, and outlaws, more than two centuries ago.  The ride was a gift and a blessing that I can thankfully recall when life becomes bland and mundane.

It has been difficult to write about this trip because it was so grand.  Three years ago, I was lured to the West by whispers from Canyon de Chelly (CDC).  It’s hard to explain the draw I felt to this region, but I heard, responded, and then satisfied an intense desire to ride there.  The need to ride on the canyon floor and regard the canyon from below, in my smallest self, as the Diné (Navajo) had once done before the Long Walk became paramount. 

In preparation, I took riding lessons and read a prolific number of historical accounts of the area.  It was important to ride with a Diné guide who could provide valuable insight to what I was seeing.  Shortly after our arrival on the floor, the clarity of the canyon coupled with the serene sounds of nature culled my sensibilities into an emotional release that was cathartic. As I sensed the presence of the innocents who were lost during the genocide of 1864, I was stilled by the words of my guide, Victoria, who said, as I stood weeping in front of the White House Ruins, “At least we got the canyon back.”  In that moment, I was able to release myself from mourning to look at the positive legacy of the Dinétah. 

So, I digressed into a post about the CDC to say that once I entered that canyon, I knew that one day I would continue my journey and visit other canyons in the region.  The prospect of visiting Bryce and Paria were enough for me to sign up nearly 10 months in advance. 

The RRR is the grand tour of trail rides.  Each day I was exposed to a unique tableau of terrain, sky and weather.  Two hundred years ago, presence in these canyons would have questioned daily survival.  Every turn revealed a room greater than the last.  It is possible to be simultaneously austere and ostentatious, as these canyons exhibit.  As we trekked, at times, it felt like the canyon was endlessly replicating itself, like the house in Stephen King’s novel, Rose Red.  In a way it does, through erosion and time.  Throughout the day, it was amazing to see the colors transition from subdued terra cotta hues to vibrant shades of vermillion with the changing angle of the sun.  The dry air, high altitude, and the dazzling sun can lull you into dehydration and altitude sickness.  I wonder if the early pioneers witnessed beauty or felt despair.

I find the high desert mesmeric, intoxicating, and deliciously dangerous.  There’s something awesome staring down from high at hoodoos, and sand bridges while simultaneously defying a fear of heights. It’s risky riding so high on animals that can spook at seemingly inaudible sounds or a flapping jacket.  More perceptive than when practicing yoga, riding horses has taught me how to truly be present in the moment.  My horse, Dandy was an amazing little roan quarter who had recently emigrated from Mexico.  Even though he was a workhorse in his former self, he was gutsy, reliable, friendly, and safe.  We bonded almost instantly (after he attempted to roll in the warm sand, seconds after the trail boss warned of such frolics).  We developed a mutual trust; mastering the give and take required for a successful pairing.  He carried me through those treacherous parts like a pure professional—he is a thinker and a problem solver, which I appreciated when the height became too dizzying.

The wranglers of this outfit are outstanding and deserve heart-felt thanks from all who ride with them.  They are attentive, alert and were willing to help you in any way needed on the trail.  They also made an effort to get to know each of us individually, while sharing parts of their lives.  I was very impressed with the level of care and professionalism they expressed to our group of forty riders.  The owners of the RRR, the Mangums, the Houstons, and their families understand the meaning of hospitality, and succeeded in making everyone feel welcome and appreciated.  Their positivity opened a space where we could all interact, discuss the day’s ride, and in some cases, begin to create lasting friendships.   The stories shared by Keela Mangum about her ancestors, the Mormon pioneers who first traversed the Paria Box and slot trails were remarkable, and added a nuanced and deeply personal perspective to our rides.

The Grand Canyon was one of the most astonishing canyons that we visited.  Massive, intimidating, and a dozen other adjectives could not describe the immeasurable beauty one witnesses here.  I followed the rim tour with our wrangler, Hank, and three others instead of the straight-legged switchback tour with the rest of the group.  I enjoyed the vantage point of this trail on mules, as it was low stress, and offered spectacular views from 8,500 feet. We traveled through the forest along the Ken Patrick Trail, ending at Uncle Jim’s Point.  Here, and on the drive into the park, we witnessed the remnants of the devastation resulting from the Park Service’s prescribed burn in 2000, which destroyed over 14,000 acres when it blew out of hand.  As you’ll see from the photos this experience will not likely be forgotten.

What’s more to say?  The ride was an amazing experience.  Although I didn’t experience the same emotional connection to these canyons, as I did in Canyon de Chelly; it was neither a requirement, nor an expectation.  I was pleased to see the natural wonders and beauty of the American Southwest manifested in the hoodoos and ridges of the canyon badlands.  

Why Travel is Necessary

I was finishing up a post on the Red Rock Ride, and this post/rant injected itself.   

My travels in the American Southwest have introduced me to people of different faiths, ethnicities, races, and cultures who have a story to tell, and are willing to tell it, if you talk to them.  The beauty in these encounters, for me, has been the raw truth of their experience.  It becomes clear when you talk to people who have not forgotten, that history isn’t written by the vanquished, but by the victors.  Sadly, relevant native voices were absent from my Red Rock Ride tour, but I did hear, ever so briefly, the familiar reference of the aggressive Indian who could not receive change.  I would have like to have heard the Paiute perspective on westward expansion by the pioneers, and their own experiences in the canyons that we visited.  Utah, named for the Ute Indians roughly means in several native languages people of the mountain or people who live up high.  Ironically, the victors backhandedly revere their “brute” neighbors by naming cities, towns and even whole states after them.  Funny that.

I recently read an article by Binyavanga Wainaina called, “How to Write About Africa.”  This piece should serve as a benchmark for how we speak and write about other racial and ethnic groups, such as the American Indian, African-Americans, and even whole countries.  You may have noticed that there is a definite institutionalized racism when reading about the American Indian.  I have written before how certain Indian tribal names invoke fear and distrust, even today.  Luckily, education on and off the reservation has helped produce, among others, historians, writers and artists who are using their talents to create a tapestry of a new history that is palatable to the victors, and regarded by their peers.  

What I find amazing is that the way we think of, speak and write about people who are different from ourselves in the media, in literature and in everyday conversation hasn’t changed much in 200 years.  Throwing off outmoded terms to describe people is not political correctness, but a measure of enlightenment, intelligence, and respect.  Recently, I heard someone refer to an East Asian person as “Oriental.”  I was flummoxed because this person is probably 40 years old, and lives in a major metropolitan area! When I suggested that the term oriental more appropriately refers to objects that relate to or come from the Orient, and to call a person Oriental is offensive, I was met with the political correctness argument, and/or, that his intent was not to offend.  Sigh.  It costs nothing to open your eyes and see the world around you.  Read.  Turn the channel away from those conservative pundits, and talk to people outside of your community.  Watch a foreign film.  (I know you don’t like the sub-titles).  But, most importantly, travel!  Learn about different cultures.  Travel doesn’t require taking a second mortgage on your home, or crossing oceans.  These cultures exist in your own country, sometimes just across town.   Join an international Meetup group if you cannot afford to travel.  Talk to people, no matter who they are.

In the wake of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri and the countless other senseless killings of young African-American males in past months, to the Ebola crisis in West Africa, to the unrest in the Middle East and around the world we should all reflect:  through what prism do we view these conflicts?  How well-informed are we? Are we just grabbing sound bites that reinforce our own prejudices and notions?  Where do we seek information?  Hear another perspective.  Start a helpful dialogue.

I have been fortunate to meet so many people from all walks of life, out in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.  I think it is a little easier because I am open to it, being on vacation and all, but I have witnessed others on vacation with no interest in interacting with the native peoples selling their wares on the Pueblo, or even with the locals in the area. Maybe it is because I desire and seek a certain level of truth that you cannot always read about, but must experience through interaction and a reasonable exchange of ideas.  I am not special in this regard.  For me, travel is more about meeting the locals, than it is about seeing a city’s monuments.   In this space, I have tried to share some of my encounters, but they are often difficult to reduce to words.  Upasatti (whom we met in Silver City Vibe) said it well, "There is no how . . . you just be."

I find it uncomfortable sometimes to speak to others who believe that being respectful, thoughtful, and enlightened exacts too large of a price for them, so instead they reduce these virtues to platitudes, rather than goals to strive for.  From time to time, we all harbor prejudices and jump to conclusions because we are ill-informed, but a sentient person recognizes her weakness and moves closer to truth, rather than away from it. 

So, travel.