I spent the evening down on the valley floor by the Merced River and Tenaya Creek, past the lingering tourists snapping pictures in the last remaining hours of daylight.
I can’t say what I was looking for–maybe something extraordinary, since extraordinary was all that I had seen so far, and I had little indication that anything about that would change.
The sun faded from view, leaving the sky cast in a pink-purple glow.The air had cooled quickly, and I heard the sounds of the river somewhere through the trees.
I approached a small tunnel where footprints led through to the other end.It was actually more like a pile of rocks, and it formed what looked like a cave at first glance. Maybe it was my imagination running away with me, or some childlike adventurous impulse breaking free that I made no effort to resist.
I crawled through it like some lost boy in his bedroom fort, made from chairs and bedsheets. Only this was the genuine article, made from boulders and chunks of earth that had probably fallen many years ago.
I reached the other end and heard the sounds of the river growing louder. I could see it flowing in between the trees. I glanced up and noticed two birds flying playfully overhead. I followed them to the water, flowing gently northeast.I sat there on the bank, quietly upon the rocks and I listened.The ‘river’ was actually Tenaya Creek, which had broken off from the Merced River at Curry Village.
I sat there for a while and wrote about the creek whispering secrets, dispatches from the rest of the world with news on where we were all going from here. The river seemed to know it all.The river, swift and wise, the great shaper of mountainsides and treacherous canyons–shaping even the grandest and most mammoth caves in America.
The last rays of daylight had gone down as I left the valley and made my way out the west entrance of the park toward El Portal.I camped for the night at an RV park, perched on a cliff overlooking the Merced River.
This site was a cool alternative to camping in the park where campsites had been booked for months in advance. I slept in something that wasn’t quite a tent, but not quite a cabin either.It was a wide canvas tent the size of a small bedroom, equipped with a bed and nightstand and even a ceiling fan. I guess it could qualify as ‘glamping,’ though I hadn’t heard that word at the time. It didn’t have an AC or heating system, but I didn’t need one. In those first days of August, the air outside was perfect.
I enjoyed all the sounds of nature I would have enjoyed in a conventional tent, as well as most of the comforts of a cabin. And I fell asleep to the sound of the river rushing below and the many creatures of the night, unknown and unseen.
I stopped in one of the last towns to fill up on gas and get supplies–which consisted mainly of sandwich bread, two cans of tuna, some fruit and peanut butter–before starting into the mountains, into Sequoia National Park, where I’d sleep for two nights.
After getting to my campground and setting up my tent, I set out to see General Sherman, the largest tree in the world. I reached the trailhead and made my way into the grove, warm and stuffed with tourists wandering and laughing and taking pictures. I heard babies and toddlers crying and whining, and kids sprinting up and down the trail playing tag and accidentally photobombing the pictures of strangers. I continued and noticed the larger crowds gathering to snap a picture of something in the distance, still obstructed from my view, but something I knew could only be the General Sherman Tree.
It stood mightily at the center, surrounded by excited onlookers who looked like ants by comparison. It was crowded with admirers and yet it seemed strangely alone. A silent sage. A wise man who’d seen generations come and go, had witnessed all the great moments of human history from the very spot upon which it stood. I even pictured some legend of the silver screen, growing old though still appearing ageless, encountering a crowd of photographers or tourists taking their picture, but just taking it in stride like a professional. They’re no stranger to the attention, after all. They’ve seen it all before.
I understood and appreciated the truth that trees, like all other plants on earth, are living breathing organisms. And the more I looked at General Sherman, a tree more than 3,000 years old, the more I appreciated the relevance of these truths which concern all living things on the planet. The more I looked at it, the more I connected with it.
Still I felt like it was looking way past me, somewhere far beyond where I stood; and that despite its age and wisdom and experience far superior to my own, it too was still something of a lost soul searching and still unsatisfied with everything it had so far understood its purpose to be on this earth. It was the king of these mountains, but it was still subservient to a higher order it didn’t fully understand.
A soft rain fell, more like a mist than a rain. It probably only lasted a minute, but it seemed longer, as if the rain had slowed down time. In that moment the surrounding tourists vanished from sight and left the two of us alone, facing eachother.
The rays of the sun beamed in through the forest, shining down on us both, revealing the tree in all its eternal youth and ancient power, as the reclusive angel, having kept its vigil for centuries way up here in this shadowy grove, high up in the mountains.
We were pilgrims, old and young. Angel and man. Man and angel. Guardian angel, maybe. Brothers. In that moment, we were no longer separate from each other. We never had been. There I stood, once again remembering something I seemed to know long ago.
It was the first time in a long time that I’d felt this way about anything in nature. It wouldn’t be the last. Unbeknownst to me, an entire network existed, scattered far across the wilderness of America, and farther still, across the Atlantic Ocean and out to the far eastern reaches of Europe. It took the form of people I’d meet, and the many beautiful things I’d see along the way.
It was ocean and sky, woman and man, living and passed on. With them I felt connected in common cause: that each of us might reach the realization of love and respect for all living things. An understanding of our ongoing, unfailing connection to one another.
I remembered something from my early days in the church that made more sense to me now than it did before. As it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be. United in one breath, one beating heart.
The thought didn’t occur to me at the time, standing in the shadow of General Sherman and the mighty sequoia. It only does now, as I recall the story and wonder how it might sound to someone reading this. Truth be told, prior to this experience, I wasn’t much of an outdoors person. I liked to be outside as much as the next guy, but I’d never really camped before at all, and I’d never done much hiking beyond the typical neighborhood hikes in and around LA.
I’d never spent much time in the mountains, amongst the trees whispering at night. I’d never lay quiet, listening for melodies beside the creek in the early evening. I’d never breathed in the rush of the river beneath the new morning and the slow, rising sun.
I used to complain about political correctness, even though I’d never actually met anyone who shamed me or embarrassed me due to my incorrectness. I wonder then whether most of the people who complain about it are just insecure people?
The growing consensus seems to be that everybody everywhere takes everything so personal all the time, which may yet be true.
For starters, the complaint seems far more warranted, say, with respect to professional comedy where part of what makes a joke funny at all is it’s irreverence, its breach of political correctness. If a comedian were constantly wanting to avoid offending people, that comedian would likely lose inspiration and give up the whole thing.
Comedy thrives on irreverence. Even so, the best comedians still grasp the basic concept of knowing how to read a room.
When people look at their life and really think about the number of times they’ve been slapped on the wrist by a friend, family member or acquaintance for using the wrong word or making an insensitive remark, is that number actually few and far between, if at all?
The way I see it, political correctness is a fact of life and always has been, no different from any other form of etiquette that will change depending on where you are in the world. The only difference now is that it’s been given a name, and stigmatized in the one sphere of public life where it’s probably essential–politics.
I wonder then whether people who complain about having their head bitten off for breaching that etiquette, who yearn for some comprehensive, universally agreed upon rubric for what’s ok and what’s not, and who then further expect it to never change, ever again—at least while they’re alive—are simply operating in some other reality; as if anything like that ever existed at all within the long span of human history and the diversity of cultures that make up this planet, let alone the ones that make up this country.
They’ll mention how it used to be different years ago, how somethings were ok and others were not—as if the ideal sort of history of language and expression is a static one.
People once used words like ‘thee’ and ‘thou’, words like ‘colored’, just as men once wore stockings and wigs out in public. And yet if you spoke or dressed that way today, you’d look like a jackass. Why? Because things eventually fall out of fashion. And yes, it might be a phenomenon but if we can’t accept it, then we might want to find ourselves another planet.
The complaint ignores the fundamental truth that language changes because people change. It ignores the fact that larger, free-thinking societies are quite naturally heterogenous. The bigger they are, the more diverse they will likely become, with each community and sub-community developing their own customs and standards of decorum. Political correctness, then, at the very least seems to represent that basic truth in the matter of how we converse with one another, when each of us comes from a different background and our own sphere of personal experience.
I’ve noticed that people who travel a lot typically have no problem understanding this, because they’ve spent a good amount of time in communities other than their own. They learned to adapt, and often a part of them even enjoys navigating the complexities of different cultures.
They don’t get upset over the fact that they have to learn a new language, they embrace it as an opportunity. If something changes in the country or community they visit and they have to adapt yet again, they don’t dismiss the people as petty and refuse to budge any further.
They are often driven by an appetite for learning new things, and a wonder before all the intricacies of the world and its many points of view.
They don’t get hung up on the possibility of making a mistake here and there, because they’ve already accepted the high possibility that they will make one sooner or later.
However, that leads to another point of discussion.
Could those who are hip to the changing tides of fashion be more polite about it? Do they have to be such a dick about it? Is being woke, for example, nothing more than a matter of bragging rights, one that ultimately involves shaming all those who are out of the loop?
I’ve never encountered anyone like that, but if and when I do, I don’t think it will surprise me. I used to complain about political correctness because I’d automatically bought into the notion that these types of people were everywhere and running absolutely wild…even though I never met one.
I think it had to do with insecurity. My own fear of making a fool of myself led to a defense mechanism against the enemy I had never actually seen. If these woke people exist–and I do think there are a few out there–then I imagine they are likely motivated by the same fear. Fear of not being hip, fear of looking like an idiot, or just someone out of step with the times. An outsider.
I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with being ignorant. I think the real pity is either burrowing yourself in your ignorance, or over-compensating in the direction of righteousness or enlightenment, all for the sake of never being wrong and being some kind of insider.
Personally I think it’s more fun being a little bit of both, having one foot on the inside and another on the out.
It’s one reason I like to travel. I like knowing that I can adapt easily enough to changing surroundings, and I know doing that involves a flexibility of perspective, a willingness to listen and an actual openness to being wrong every once in a while.
It’s something I’d forgotten about myself, but I think it’s a good lesson for all of us to remember. It might make life a little more complicated now and then, but with the slightest tweak in perspective, if we can set aside our ego, it might also make life a whole lot more enriching.
I left California a few days before the lockdown. I reached Joseph City, AZ by nightfall and parked at a Love’s Truck Station on I-40 where some industrial plant loomed about a half-mile up the road with it’s lights glowing and smoke rising high in the dark of night.
By this time, I was already considering how best to avoid getting sick, since I still had a long drive ahead of me from Arizona to Fort Lauderdale. I’d never been much of a germaphobe, but now here I was wondering how many people I’d have to dodge suddenly in a place that likely saw travelers and truck drivers come and go every day from all corners of the country.
I’d never paid much speculation to these things before, and now I felt a sting of disappointment at how much current circumstances required me having to think twice about every place I might stop, and how many people I might encounter along the way, and whether I should wash my hands again after briefly touching that door handle which might have been grabbed by who knows how many others.
Yea, it sucked.
In Los Angeles, the biggest talking point concerning the virus was the sudden disappearance of toilet paper in all the grocery stores around town. When I left, businesses still hadn’t shut down but the reality was beginning to sink in, at least for me. Maybe it had something to do with the police helicopter that had been flying over my neighborhood everyday for the past week.
Anyway, the next morning I grabbed coffee at the Love’s station. It was delicious. I liked it so much I even bought a souvenir thermos. Of all the truck stops across America, Love’s has come to be my favorite. Maybe it’s the name. Maybe it’s the logo. Or maybe I just bought the thermos as a way to settle down and lighten up.
Sure enough, during each of the four nights I was on the road, I’d stay at a Love’s Truck Station. It provided a reassuring familiarity I’d long come to appreciate over the years on the road; and now as things seemed to be getting more serious everywhere, I appreciated that familiarity even more in everything from the country music and tacky t-shirts to the coffee machines and souvenir shot glasses.
To my added satisfaction, as I set out that next morning I saw another familiar face, a National Park that I’d been meaning to visit for a few years now and that I’d bypassed every time I drove down I-40, because I hadn’t had the time or it was too late at night, or some reason or another. It was Petrified Forest National Park.
Now that it was early in the morning and I wasn’t in any particular rush to get anywhere, and probably because I needed the distraction, I decided that now was as a good a time as any to finally see what it was all about.
National Parks have always served as an escape for Americans looking to reset and decompress, an escape from the mundane, or from the stress and congestion of city life. Yet in the coming weeks, they’d receive a new influx of visitors looking to escape the coronavirus. So many, in fact, that the parks themselves would become congested.
As I read now of park officials at Grand Canyon currently submitting requests to close down as they field up to 600 visitors in a single day, visitors with whom they undoubtedly come into close contact, I think back to just two weeks ago when I arrived at Petrified Forest.
I support that request by the way, though I’ll admit, I’m happy I got to visit beforehand when everything seemed totally normal, to the point that you’d never know anything was going on in the rest of the world.
I parked at the visitor center and watched a quick film about the park and it’s indigenous history.It felt good to do something normal like that.To go in and simply look at souvenirs, or get my park stamps and grab a map like I’d typically do.The rangers were in good spirits and so were the visitors; though again, just like at the Love’s Station, I was suddenly aware of how close I stood next to everybody and felt the same sting of disappointment at the fact.
Then I left the station and set out on the road and into the park, driving alongside the cliffs overlooking the Painted Desert, an endless vista of pink and red rock leading out to the horizon.The weather was great. The sky was still a bit overcast, but the sunlight peeking through the clouds felt wonderful on my face. I could have easily stayed out there all day.
Along the way I stopped at the Painted Desert Inn and thought about all the people of decades past who’d stayed there and stood out on that same balcony to take in the view of the Arizona badlands.
The landscape did remind me of the more famous Dakota Badlands some 1,000 miles to the northeast, which I’d visited nearly two years before.Still while the shades of the green, grey and brown were the dominant colors of that region, here everything was red and pink, and so I might’ve been more inclined to think of Mars, some vast frozen tundra out in space, were it not for that glorious morning breeze and life-giving sunlight.
I closed my eyes like I’d done a million times over the last few years in places like Yellowstone and the Everglades, in New Mexico and the Swiss Alps, along the river Danube or the Mississippi, and on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City.I closed my eyes and stood beneath the sun, allowing my mind to quiet with the surrounding landscape.
As difficult as things are getting lately, I’m grateful that I still have the ability to do this, where I can at least step outside my door and breathe in the air provided to us everyday.
With enough patience, I feel like I can get back to anyone of those places whenever I need.I thought a lot about this, that day at Petrified Forest, and considered the likelihood that I wouldn’t be able to visit again for a while in the days and weeks to come.I opened my eyes and looked out over the Painted Desert.Indeed there was nothing petrified about it.It was in fact teeming with life.
I’d get back there soon.In the meantime, it would still be here.Living and breathing under the same sun, beneath the same stars and moon.And when I consider that, even today, it doesn’t feel too far at all. Just like every other place I know and love.
Note from the Editor: Cal Corso. Actor, poet, frenetic wild child and the natural leader of this band of hooligans. Orphaned as a small boy and raised by his aunt. Moved to California in 2017 accompanied by Jude Moonlight where he fell in with an odd assortment of characters and has since been leapfrogging from the backseat of his car to the old movie theaters on the fringes of town, from the bars, cafes and pool halls in and around the city of angels up the golden coast to the cliffs of Big Sur.
Occasionally he makes trips to Spain, which he claims to be his mother country, though this has yet to be confirmed or denied.He began these trips somewhat recently. His first was with a girl he knew, way back when, to Madrid and later into Toledo, the historic capital of the old Spanish kingdom.
I’ll let him take the reigns from here, since I think he might be able to tell the story better than I.
Why thank you, Ren. Now let’s see…where was I?
Oh yes! Now I remember. I’d just come in from Madrid, on the train which leaves out of the Atocha station at the edge of town, or close to the edge of where I’d typically run around in Madrid, between Plaza Mayor and the Royal Palace to the west, the Paseo del Prado to the east, the Reina Sofia museum to the south and the Grand Via to the north. The Atocha train station sits at the southeast corner of this domain. It’s the heart of the city. El Centro. Easily walkable by day and night, anchored in its center by the Puerta del Sol.
Anyway, I only start in Madrid because that’s where I started way back when; and while it is the heart of Castilla and the La Mancha region, at least officially speaking, the true heart and soul of Spain, at least for this humble pilgrim lies in Toledo.
Why is it, for me, the heart and soul of Spain? Well for one thing, I’m one of those old-fashioned cowhands who thinks that to truly get to know a place, you have to dive into its history. As I mentioned, Toledo is known as the Imperial City and once served as the capital of the old Spanish Kingdom. It’s long history of steel-working and sword-making date back to the Roman Empire. In fact, today you can purchase some of the finest steel blades produced in all the world.
I might have even pictured myself as some valiant knight just once or twice, between every glimpse of medieval architecture as I walked the town’s narrow, labyrinthian alleyways. By the way, I’ve always been a good navigator, and I got lost almost every time I walked from one end of town to another. Not that I minded in the slightest, since each time I discovered something new. A cafe, castle, cathedral or chocolatier I hadn’t yet seen.
The real crux of the matter is this, most of what you see there has been around for many hundreds of years, and when you imagine the old kingdom rising to prominence from this city perched on a hill surrounded by the river, as a moat surrounds a fortress, you can’t help but get swept up in its beginnings and visualize those knights and soldiers walking beside civilians up and down the streets every day.
Now yes, my ancestors do come from this part of the world, it’s true; and you might have heard that I was orphaned as a young lad and so maybe there’s some part of me that’s always seeking to better understand where I come from. Maybe lineage is more important for me than it is for others, and with that comes a deeper appreciation for history. But I’ve never been one to remember dates or any one king or queen’s name.
In Toledo, I was far more caught up with simply being in a place that was, and still feels very much like the heart of Castilla, the heart of Spain. Maybe it was the surviving architecture, or maybe the people. Maybe yet, the prevailing sense of quiet whenever I looked out over the rooftops or turned down some secluded street corner that lent itself to something bigger, and older, than what I could see with my own pair of eyes. In any case, it wasn’t something that I intellectualized too deeply or even thought twice about. I just felt it. It hit me the moment I first set foot in town and in some ways, it’s stayed with me ever since.
Few places in Toledo left so great an impression on me as one particular point near the Alcazar, the main castle on the west end of town. As you pass through the main courtyard there, beyond the statue of Cervantes and down the stairwell descending toward the ravine, you’ll find a pathway leading to an overlook with a view of the bridge crossing the river.
I wrote a sketch not long ago when I was there.
from the city
an outpost, abandoned
dry, graffiti on the walls
I stand, try to frame
the sky at dusk
and the river…
the bridge of cobblestone
the whole world’s waiting
from the gaping canyons, high
to the European sundowns
as the mighty knights cry:
Welcome to Toledo, brother
in the shadow of the dawn
we are but ghosts, old
soldiers, still at night
you might hear
& your shoes are torn
you’ve got no sword,
you’re like a man
without a name
yet in your heart
your family mark,
know we’re with you all the way
“Carry on, dear son,” I hear
“I am ever at your side.”
so I take my shoes and ride in the night
‘Neath the stars
of the Spanish skies
I can relate to that old painter El Greco, the Greek who decided to set up shop in Toledo, where he lived and worked for the latter half of his life. Much of his work can be viewed throughout town, in various cathedrals and also at Museo del Greco, in the Jewish Quarter, on the opposite end from the Alcazar.
My own favorite El Greco painting is actually in New York City, but still it’s a view of Toledo, as the name indicates. I think it honors much of how I personally feel about the city. Toledo, a place so closely tied to the surrounding land, river and sky that all seem to be one singular force, some kind of phantasmal city where the ghosts of knights reside, keeping their vigil, still honoring an age-old devotion. Even in death.
There’s a monastery close to the El Greco museum. San Juan de los Reyes, it’s called. Saint John of the Monarchs. I pictured myself living there, as a monk. I figured if any city allows for a life of humble living, of quiet study and reflection, it’s Toledo. Not exactly a rambunctious town, but certainly one where you can take a pause, a moment of silence, and reflect on those who’ve come before. In this city, after all, it’s like they’re never really gone.