We made a leap, heading off nearly stiff-necked to find ourselves, as some diners proclaim, “served where quality counts.” Over steak dinners, this quaking closet monk is surprised by how much change can happen when I think nothing is moving. Just pass the salt, sugar, coffee, cream — thunder, please — in what they call the Brand Room surrounded by “Western art,” supposedly realistic styling of cowboys, Indians, and wildlife in dramatized poses. People from all over the world come to a few tiny rodeo towns like this to collect such canvases. Examine the pieces closely, though, and you perceive the false notes. The clothing, poses, landscapes distort. The artists react against the very masters they wish to emulate. Much of it is cranked out without looking acutely at the things being portrayed. Some may be driven by a worship of a past that never was quite that way; some, by a retreat from current events. Most viewers merely acknowledge symbol and go on as though sleepwalking, an act that continues misunderstanding. The rifle, saddle, spurs, and cougar evoke no real emotion: they are foreign to the touch and nose. But I desire to perceive this territory afresh — no matter how startling my findings deviate from convention. When I meet a bear or a buffalo, it won’t be like the dilated scoundrels in these paintings. My horse won’t rear behind me. He’ll simply center in his tracks — quiet, aware, efficient. He knows how it will be.
The Dedicated Laborious Quest begins with sustained exercise of a specific activity: a sport, an art, a science. Anything that requires years of individual exertion, even solitude, drawing upon many facets of the practitioner’s being — heart, mind, soul, and might.
Somehow, the novice begins dancing, if only in his head. Something simple, at first, until familiarity gains ground. Feet, legs, torso, arms, and hands eventually follow. A reel leads into a jig. Thought and emotions balance. Head and heart dialogue. With confidence comes freedom. More and more, the aspirant concentrates on partners or the group or motion itself, rather than his own next step or position. The music becomes more textured, until the hornpipe stands as the liveliest structure. So it’s been in this landscape. This is not just any desert, for there’s nothing generic about any detail encountered closely. With both people and places you come to know dearly, you find nuances and subtle contradictions will blur any sharp image. It’s easier to describe someone or something you meet briefly than what you know intimately. To say desert is dry and sunny misses the point, especially if you arrive in winter. At first, like so many others, we didn’t even consider this valley as desert, for it has no camel caravans or mounds of shifting sands with Great Pyramids on the horizon. One word or phrase can be misleading. Even the Evil Stepmother from folklore and fairy tales must have possessed some redeeming qualities. Could we be more specific than “evil”? Simply selfish? Or was she mean, jealous, domineering, afraid of whatever, from the wrong party? Suppose she was really a victim of some deep abuse? The portrait changes. Has anyone detailed how she dances? In the end, it’s either entertainment or worship, depending on the individual’s orientation. An authentic spiritual discipline teaches, through experience, we are not gods. Choose, then, good or evil, flowing or hoarding, living or dying.
Matching maps to the landscape, I look vainly for towns that do not exist or discover attractions placed on the wrong side of the road. Admit that everything is moving and transitory, even the mountains. Mariners, too, will speak of shifting sandbars as only one hazard of sailing on charts. Pay attention, then, but never toss your maps overboard. Are they all that different from Holy Scripture?
In a multitude of ways, people fear religion will lead them not just into wilderness but a desert. Demand, in fact, they leave everything behind. The description will vary by tradition. Entering the Void or emptiness, becoming selfless or egoless, abandoning the Little Self for the Big Self, achieving annihilation and sacrifice, attaining renunciation (Sannyasa), taking up your own Cross — these are a few of its names. Marriage adds its own complications.
Having come to the desert, we now know the fuller value of water. Something simple, essential. No one can live without it. The list of necessities is a short one; the possibilities of embellishment, endless.
There are rivers on every map you rely on. Sometimes when I walk out into the expanse, I encounter one. Sometimes, one deep enough to block my way. And then I turn to the page for a bridge.
Or, better yet, call out for my buddy, Kokopelli.
For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.