Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sunday Papers: David Byrne

"Let’s find it within ourselves to give up some convenience and become a little more human."

On the turntable:  Jefferson Airplane, "Ignition"

Friday, March 28, 2014

Return to Forever

There was no reason to think that the two women weren't ghosts.  This peak bore the name Nyotaisan, or body of the woman.  And now there were two, sitting across from us.  They'd appeared at the top of this, the final climb of the Shikoku Henro circuit, having stepped from behind the towering stones that give shape to this jagged peak. 

Japanese folklore is filled with tales of shape-shifters who appear deep in the mountains to prey on unsuspecting travellers, yet I've never heard of any that had taken the form of a Korean nun.  She, through the translation of her Japanese companion, told us that they'd been walking the pilgrimage for exactly a month today, hitching here and there.  It was a plausible story, made somewhat suspect by the clean clothing and shoes that looked new.  

My own road up here had taken 4 1/2 years.  True, Miki and I had already visited the temple that lay at the foot of this peak, a visit that (nearly) completed our pilgrimage in late 2009.  Yet on the way up the mountain, we found a odd, hand-written sign that seemed to imply that the path had been off limits.  This led to a final dash along the valley route, hoping to make it in time to get our final stamp.  Once we reached the temple, we had met a few other pilgrims we knew, who told us that they had come over the mountain.  One of these raved about how hard it had been, eyes wild in a post-adrenal state.  Miki and I felt cheated somewhat.     

I revisited that feeling over the years, but it took until today to actually visit the mountain itself.  I was hired to guide a group over this peak in a few weeks, and something about the old man's raving had scared me.  I needed to do the hike first to confirm that it was safe.

I asked Wes along, wanting another's opinion.  We drove down from Kansai, detouring briefly to Temple 1, so as to set up a later joke that we'd "gone from temple 1 to 88 in a single day."  While there,  the nun I'd met on my actual pilgrimage in 2009 claimed she remembered me, and gave both of Wes and I sandalwood rosary beads to bestow luck on us.  Thus charmed, we returned a quick prayer or two toward the Taishi, then drove off.

A taxi had dropped us at the base of the hike, and what followed was a classic Japanese hike, past farm houses, or the remnants of same, up along quick-moving streams punctuated with the occasional waterfall.  The path remained a steady incline, then about two-thirds of the way along, we were thrust suddenly back to the valley floor, and faced with a final 400 meter ascent over a mere two km.  Very hard work indeed.   The final 100 meters did involve a little rock scrambling, but most could be done with using your hands, and was hardly the object of the raving old man's terror.  

The two women descended first, then we followed, detouring first to the decaying Oku-no-in up a spur trail, then down what amounted to a very long staircase, arriving finally at the temple.  There was a young Czech pilgrim before the Taishi-dō, an obvious walker, judging from his filthy clothing and cracked, sunburned skin.  I tried to chat with him a little,  but he seemed a bit out of it, answering one of my first questions with, "What day is it?"  We also found the Korean nun and her friend, standing with a small group of pilgrims who'd obviously already knew one another from the road.   They were behaving much like I had when I reached here years ago, just sitting and staring at the temple hall, unable to believe it was over, unable to leave. 

I wanted to talk with each of them, but I didn't want to intrude on this private moment.  And my own desire to want to share this with them, to show that I too knew what this felt like, revealed my own desire to return to the pilgrimage.  "Henro-byō," it's called, pilgrim's sickness.  And I suppose that's what prompts me back out on those long hot hard highways time after time, a sort of mad attempt to quiet the painful withdrawal symptoms of the soul.   

On the turntable:  Camper Van Beethovan, "New Roman Times"
On the nighttable:  Jeremy Mercer, "Time was Soft There"

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Kuragari (Ise Hon-kaido I)

I stepped out of the subway station, and look slightly up the hill toward the castle.  The grounds were a Pollock splatter of pink buds, but I didn't detour to investigate whether they were plum or cherry.  Probably the former, as the sakura weren't due for a another few days still.

I grabbed a cheap 380 yen bento, and walked over to Tamatsukuri Inari Shrine, sitting on the steps since benches weren't provided.  This area was once home to the craftsmen who had carved the magatama jewels that were so sacred to the ancient Japanese.  Today, it was a quiet neighborhood, that still held the same slightly working class vibe, personified I suppose by the man who'd made my lunch.  

More importantly, this shrine was the Osaka terminus of the Ise Kaidō.  Just what I needed, yet another road to walk.  I was already in the process of walking a couple of others.  But this particular old path received priority status as it was considered most auspicious to undertake the Ise pilgrimage in a year following the shrine's renewal, a fact I learned from a recent post on my friend John's Green Shinto blog.  I had already planned to walk the Ise-ji section of the Kumano Kodō later this autumn, but now I felt compelled to undertake this parallel, 170 km road as well.  Good thing I bought new shoes last weekend.

I moved downhill, beneath a massive kusunoki standing in the middle of the road, then rejoined grand Nagahori-dori.  Signage was good here, and it led me seamlessly onto the smaller parallel streets that followed what in these early stages was referred to not yet as the Ise-Kaidō, but rather the Kuragari Kaidō, and old road that led from the capital Nara to an ancient part of modern Osaka called Kōraibashi.  The name was reminiscent somewhat of the word "Korea," proving an interesting linguistic parallel since it means Goryeo bridge, a reminder of the strong contacts between Nara and Korea at the time, and may even be where boats from the continent were moored.   

I was curious when the signage would end, and it didn't take long.  I was moving hesitantly into Higashi Osaka proper, along the busy Rte 15, or occasionally beneath the large factories lining the roads that flanked it.  Very run down and rough looking.  A couple of workmen in their 50s gave me a good glare as I passed.  The lack of signs made sense if you consider that it's difficult to care about history when it's hard enough just to focus on the day-to-day present.  

I had been long intrigued with this area, in particular with the section once called Kawachi, since it and its people had been the setting for Imamura Shōhei's first film called Stolen Desire.  The locations of the film reveal a small rural town surrounded by vast farmland.  Today it was all new, suburban, the absolute worst of Japanese development, right down to the rugby stadium in the middle of town, a testament to the rough and tumble people here.  Any time I passed a person of the film's vintage, I wondered if they might have been within Imamura's frame, as so many residents had been extras.  More important was the changes they must have seen during this last half century.   As I walked along, pondering this, Mt. Ikoma rose like a wall ahead of me.  

Before long I reached her feet.  I paid respects to Hiraoka shrine, as picnickers enjoyed the plum groves nearby.  I stepped back onto the concrete path of Route 308, which wound narrow and steep up the mountain's flank.  It wasn't a long ascent, but it was a tough one, forcing me to stop a few times.  I passed a couple of walkers coming the other way, each of whom nodded but didn't say anything as I came past.  Were they trying to emulate the holy men of old, taking some sort of vow of silence on the climb?  

I finally made it to the small hamlet up top, the tea house closed on this Monday.  I moved beyond it, to admire the view of the Nara basin beneath the seasonal haze.  Then quickly down the other side, past the fields and the Basho stone, the stone statues and the small temple halls. When my feet leveled out again, I was at a train station, tired, hungry, and foot-sore.  But the shoes had performed marvelously.  


On the turntable:  The Clash, "The Story of the Clash"
On the nighttable:  Rob Scheltheis, "Bone Games"

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sunday Papers: Steven Wright

"Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time."

On the turntable:  Dr. John,  "Gris Gris"

Friday, March 21, 2014

Where the Circle Truly Ends

Almost a year ago,  I was contacted by some people in Canada who, knowing that I had walked and often wrote about the Shikoku pilgrimage, had asked if I'd lead them around the island in April.  I've often joked that since I've yet to finish my own pilgrimage with a traditional return to Koya-san, I must still be on it.  Yet I didn't want that return to be in the context of 'work,' so told Miki that we'd have to go back to pay our respects sometime before.

Monday brought us our chance.  Sora was with us, of course, as we drove south beneath clear blue skies which framed that stunning array of peaks carved out by the Kinokawa.  Many millennia later, these peaks served as the playground for both the gods and those who chased them.  We weaved between two seemly lesser and insignificant mountains, following a tributary of the mighty River Ki, the road ofttimes not more than an ungraded track that tilted us menacingly toward racing waters birthed as snowmelt.      

An early start got us to Koya-san just before lunchtime, and after quickly tracking down the friends who'd come down the day before, we all moved toward Ichinobashi, and the silent world of shadow and moss beyond.  At the second bridge we followed the stream onto what is known as the Nyōnindō Trail.  This particular portion was known as the Sanzan route, so named since it took us along a ridgeline that intersected three peaks of about 1000 meters each.  In following the entire route, you'd eventually go over eight peaks in all, which are held to be the eight petals of the lotus flower that cradles the temples of Koya at its heart.  

But three were enough for today.  The pleasant springtime weather guaranteed sweat on each of the 200-meter ascents toward the individual peaks, then the coolness of mid-March brought on a chill on the way back down.  It was a fair bit of work moving up and down these mounts with my daughter in the child carrier strapped to my back.  Her body weight, combined with that of various things in the pockets of the pack, brought the total close to 25 kilograms, about what I had carried while on the Shikoku pilgrimage four and a half years before.  As I reached the third and final peak, Tenjiku-san, I was glad that the waning light gave us the excuse to put off the remainder of the hike.      

The next morning brought rain and chill, but the flames in the goma ceremony well took care of the latter.  My daughter was taken with the booming thuds of the large drum to our left, but my eyes never left the flames, the flickers spiky and sharp, and often forming the exact shape of Fudo-myo's fiery form.  I sat in amazed witness at his birth, forged once again into existence in the same esoteric ceremonies that have been repeated for more than twelve centuries. 

The rest of the afternoon was grounded in the equally important spiritual practice of trying to keep a two-year old dry and entertained.  This might assume the form of hot tea and noodles, taken in an old cafe whose beams were recycled timber from old temples, joints and notches visible without.  It could also assume the form of walking between temples in the mist, under an umbrella that offered truncated glimpses of the bigger world, a fairly good metaphor for our take on reality at large.  

We walked the wet grounds around Kongobu-ji, then stepped inside to get our nōkyo-chō stamped.  This building serves as the official headquarters of the Shingon sect, and as such it was a young bureaucrat who manipulated the brush, his suit and haircut identical to the others at the desks behind him.  Having now visited the brain center of Koya, all that was left was to visit its heart at Oku-no-in the following day. 

On the way out, we met a young guy who was obviously a walking pilgrim, looking tanned and gaunt and carrying a big pack.  We talked with him as we all walked through the rain.  He was a college student and had chosen to do the pilgrimage in winter since that's when he had the time.  I couldn't imagine going over some of those high passes in waist-deep snow.  We congratulated him as he moved off down the road, and it was only later that I wished I'd given him settai, maybe some cash with which to buy a hot drink on such a lousy day.    
As Miki and Sora went back to our lodgings to rest, I went down to Ekō-in, where we'd stayed the previous night.  (I have nothing but good things to say about this temple and its staff, and will use it as my base for further explorations.)  We wanted to try a temple in a different part of town for our second night, and in our misfortune, we chose Fumon-in.  It proved to be everything we despised while on the pilgrimage, of temples as businesses, and priests as salarymen.  Granted, the temple caretaker was a nice and pleasant man, but the priest was another story.  I was shocked when, as I stepped into the main temple hall to pray, he gruffly asked, "What do you want?"  The monks were little better, rebuffing anything we asked.  Fumon-in is the perfect example of an assembly line temple accommodation geared toward the bus tour market.  Had I seen either the campaign poster or the calendar for the LDP prior to checking in, I'd have taken my mammon elsewhere.

Yet I didn't know this yet, as I sat at Ekō-in for Ajikan mediation. It was quite similar to the practice of zazen, except the eyes are helded on a circular picture of the sanskrit character for "A," which sits atop a lotus.  The seasoned meditator apparently can visualize the embodiment of Dainichi Nyorai.  I only saw the face of a demented cow.

The third and final day rewarded us once again with good weather.  We took the bus up to Nyonindō, and prayed to the statue of En-no-gyoja there for a safe hike.  We entered the forest behind the hall, taking care not to slip on the wet leaves and pine branches.  The trail was narrow as it ran up and down the rivulet valleys that striated the highland that hold Koya town.  It wasn't long before we entered town proper again, stepping around a torii that had been brought down by the harshness of winter.  After a number of suburban zigzags we found the trail that had led us off Tenjikusan two days before.  Atop once again, we prayed to the seated deity in its little hut, then descended into the lotus.  

Tiled roofs and soft light.  Oku-no-in.  We crossed a quick moving stream, then climbed the set of steps that led us directly to where Taishi sits in eternal mediation.  A monk was offering incense and chanting.  We stood here for a moment, quietly, almost surprised at where we were.  Then we too lit our candles, coaxed our daughter to place incense into the bed of fallen ash that was oh so many prayers.  Miki suggested we chant the Heart Sutra, but neither of us had thought to bring a sutra book.  I started to look for a copy of the verse on my smart phone, before quickly realizing how pathetic that was.  So we chanted from memory the best we could, fudging it in some spots.   But at least it was from the heart.

As if on cue, a large group of bus pilgrims came up, pushing and bustling, and I smiled at the irony. We escaped into the darkness of the Hondo.  The booming voice of a priest chanting filled the hall.  Sora was funny here, not wanting to leave our side.  Once back out amongst the statues and trees, she ran happily up the tiled walk, dumping water on the feet of the Jizos.  Then we three stepped up to get our final nōkyo.  With one gentle but commanding brushstroke, our pilgrimage came to an end.  

On the turntable:  Elton John, "Greatest Hits"
On the nighttable:  D.T. Suzuki, "Manual of Zen Buddhism"


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

St. James's Gait

In the past, I've posted excerpts from my unedited 2005 Ireland journals in order to mark St. Patrick's Day.   Part One can be found here

  ...I eventually wound up at the Guinness brewery, having followed its scent for the previous few blocks.  It presented first as the smell of popcorn, then a block later shifted to that slightly sour smell I now find familiar.  For a brief moment, as I passed a fruit stand, all was sweet goodness.  

I turned up at the wrong gate, but an incredibly kind man set me straight.  His double around the back had the complete opposite demeanor, a slightly crooked and wretched-looking man standing beside a smaller version of a clydesdale.  I slipped past him to find an attractive Italian girl just inside.   Noticing the discounts given for student IDs, I slipped her my Japanese gaijin card, the only romanized characters being those for my name.  She noted that I could be showing her just about anything.  I replied that she'd just have to trust me, a hint of flirt in my voice.  She smiled and bid me pass. 

 I spent an hour or so working my way up through the multi-leveled displays.  It was an extremely industrial set-up, of huge girders, open spaces, and exposed elevators.  I felt like Charlie in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.  As a reminder of how indelibly linked the name Guinness is to stout in my own mind, I had honestly never realized until visiting here that it was the same people involved in the record keeping.   A true beer man, I am.

I finished with the brewing process stage, loving the smells and the immense wooden casks.  I was amazed that Guinness used oil tankers to ship its similarly-colored product.  There was certain level of hipness found in the multi-media "Craic" display, as well as in the video layout of old commercials.  On the 5th floor, we could post messages.  I wrote, ”クラックはどこ?”   

But the treasure lay at the top, in the form of a complimentary pint, served in a circular glass bar with a near 360 degree view of the city.  On the glass were written quotes by Joyce, facing the landmarks they described.  I was thrilled to have my first stout in Ireland, in all its creamy glory.  I nursed it while enjoying the view, then chatted with a guy from Chiba who I'd met downstairs.  

I set down Sráid Watling, which figures in Joyce, then turned the corner to find a house from "The Dead," facing the hideous James Joyce Bridge, obviously inspired by dental floss and ice cubes.  The Liffey itself was similarly uninspiring, but I followed it awhile before cutting directly across the city to an open shopping street of dull generic brand shops.  The streets running perpendicular had lively markets and various signs of immigrant life.  I began to notice more and more Chinese faces, no doubt preparing for  Lunar New Year the following day.  On one corner, a woman sold pears from a pram.  

The further east I walked, the more the local shops appeared.  I took a short break in order to share a coffee with Joyce, then set off for dinner and live music at O'Shea's, not far from my tourist ghetto bed.  The pub was busy, most disinterested in the football match showing on all the TV screens.  I alternated between writing, watching the game, and looking out the window.  Young beautiful women strode quickly home.  Many small groups of Chinese came from a single direction.  A guy dragged his bus pass along an iron fence.   Live music came on at 9:30, two guys playing trad tunes and really tearing it up.  Growing sleepy, I order a pint of Coca-Cola for 5, twice as much as my beer.  

 At my room once again, I talked awhile with my three Polish roommates, who had no trouble finding work in these days of the Celtic Tiger.  They all seemed quite intent on leaving their home country for good.  They had little money and had actually brought food over from Poland when they came.  I envied the fact that they could work in any EU country.  They thought my quest for family was brave, but it was they, giving up all that was familiar, who were the brave ones.  I taught them some Japanese numbers and basic phrases, then we all crashed out.  

On the turntable:  The Wolfgang Press, "The Burden of Mules" 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Raising Eire

In the past, I've posted excerpts from my Ireland journals in order to mark St. Patrick's Day.   Those previous two entries can be found here:  Day 2  &  Day 3.  The following post details my first day in country. 

At the gate for Air Lingus, I nearly laughed when I saw the open bar in one corner, despite ours being a 6:30 take-off.  At the exact moment they made the final boarding call, the gate over the bar slammed shut.  

The flight from Glasgow was short, around 40 minutes, and on my first view of the Irish coast I nearly wept.  I was amazed at the bright shade of green of the earth, and thought how the island deserves its reputation for being that color.  Then I realized that I was looking at a golf course. 

We touched down, and at the far end of the runway, I noticed a rainbow.  The flight attendants made their final announcements in both English and Gaelic.  It was one of those airports where you walk directly up to the plane, and the moment my feet hit the tarmac, I couldn't stop smiling.  The smile returned when my passport was stamped.  

I took the bus into town through a misty rain, which bled the scenery into a bland vision not unlike that found in most English suburbs, of long identical flats, and identical young mums in identical coats pushing identical prams.

Off the bus in Dublin proper, I set off toward Trinity College.   I found the Liffey, and beside it stood a man in African dress being interviewed by a variety of news cameras, probably about the iron statues of Ethiopean men behind him.   I followed the river a little while, cut over to Oscar Wilde's house, turned a corner, and entered the Trinity Gate.  I liked the idea of a walled island of knowledge purposely cut off from the rest of the world.  As I crossed the campus, that line of Van Morrison's, 'that smell of perfume comes drifting through' entered my ears the exact moment the scent of the sea entered my nose.  Beside the rugby field, the university's theatre building looked like it had been uprooted from Southeast Asia.  On the library steps was an orb built of steel bars, in the process of being pulled apart.  I took it for a metaphor for the earth, mechanized and on the brink of destruction. 

 Not far away was the Book of Kells.  The displays leading to the book itself dealt with the history of print in Ireland. At first glance, the Book itself wasn't much.  But something made me lean in for a closer look, and it was then I noticed the color and intricacy of the letters.  It looked to me like body art, perhaps because I'd spent months trying to find the right Celtic symbol for a tattoo I never got.

Upstairs, the Long Room further blew me away.  Two levels of books extended the length of the room on both sides, every shelf packed with dusty old volumes which must number in the tens of thousands.  It reminded me of the storeroom of relics at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  I linger long here (due to the name perhaps?), amidst the soft light and rolling ladders, pondering if any one person has ever read, let along owned, so many books.  I could picture Joyce or Shaw in here, planting seeds. 

As the bells tolled noon,  I stepped back out into a drizzly rain, so I ducked into the chapel, which was closed, though a small antechamber offered a dry place to sit.  I tucked into my paperback copy of "Dubliners," having long wanted to read it here. ( I was thankful for the short length of the stories, allowing me to sit for brief periods at various locales throughout the city.)  I read a few stories while an organist practiced on the other side of the wall.  

I began to grow hungry, so joined the outflow of students passing through the school's main arch.   Turning right, I entered the maze of narrow cobblestone streets of Temple Bar.  The area looked rightly old, but I knew that a good many bars were new and somewhat trendy.  I found the Porterhouse pub (circa 1989 --Jeez!) and escaped the rain with a Strove Tuesday special of Brie Pancake and Chips and a pint.  After lunch, I wound through the old Viking settlements (where no real trace remains) and down toward St. Patrick's Cathedral.  In Dublin, it seems that the churches require admission, so not wanting to feed the beast, I opted out. I sat in the park to read, after passing the wall that highlights the names of Dublin's famous writers.  A wild, punk-looking guys in his 40s, with long dreads, Docs, fatigues, and multiple piercings repeatedly took laps around the fountain, hands tucked deep into his pockets.

I wandered the smaller streets awhile, trying to turn my brain on to increase awareness.  I saw the same bicycle courier twice.  Gangs of schoolgirls in uniform, with their long, swirling pleated skirts; the boys in suits of blue and identical haircuts.  Double-decker buses in yellow.  Three guys on a corner acting shady, probably scoring.  Two others on the walls of the fort, using.  (As I approached, one guy had a suspicious look on, one hand in his pocket.  I took my own hands out of my pockets and opened them.  He visibly relaxed.)  Lot's of familiar features in the faces of those who passed, of Irish friends and family, and of course my own late son Ken.    

More tomorrow...

On the turntable:  Johnny Winter, "Second Winter"

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sunday Papers: Thomas Jefferson

"If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around them will deprive the people of all property until their children wake up homeless on the continent their Fathers conquered."

On the turntable:  Jorma Kaukonan, "Quah"
On the nighttable: Ezra Pound,  "Ezra Pound and Japan"

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Seasonal Dysfunction

Another from the archives:

April 30, 1995

Seasonal confusion in mountains.  The trees are an incredible array of colors now, a collage even more intense than that of last autumn.  It's as if time hit mid-winter, freaked out, then reversed seasons.  How odd it would be to begin the year with autumn.  Near Biwa, the trees are like orange and yellow freckles on a tanned girl's skin.  Amongst them, the ground is littered with leaves, not the obligatory pink and white of sakura petals, but actual leaves.  Higher up, new maples block the sky with tiny outstretched hands, casting a grainy hue over the ancient buildings, the bridges, the creek.  Like looking at the world of a mis-colored photograph a century old...

On the turntable:  Pearl Jam, "Unplugged and Undrugged"

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Sunday Papers: Matt Taibbi

"Organized greed always defeats disorganized democracy."

 On the turntable:  John Coltrane, "Crescent"


Saturday, March 08, 2014


I recently came across my first journal entry written in Japan, penned on a train as I rode north toward the city that would be my home for the next 12 years...

Sept 10, 1994 

Train through the countryside toward Yonago.  Rice paddies give way to mountains.  Running along rivers, blue herons everywhere.  Villages nestled between hills.  Scarecrows with straw hats bent over rice.  A baseball game in a small city.  A VW beetle welded to a ramp appears ready to hurdle the stream.  A woman bends to pick rice while her husband sits on a tractor nearby scratching his forearm.  A trainload of sleeping Japanese pulls alongside.  Piles of rice dry in the sun.  Trees hide a small shinto shrine.  Fishermen wade in streams, casting a line from a rod over four times their height.

On the turntable:  The Rolling Stone, "Stripped"


Monday, March 03, 2014


This piece was written in late 2011, not long after the trip itself.  I'd been holding off on putting it on the blog since it is intended to appear within a longer body of work.  But the time just feels right... 

The rooster and the owl were having a jam session. In their best syncopated call and response, they were playing a piece that recalled the epic battle between light and dark. Where the rooster summoned the sun, the owl was calling up death, at least according to the Navajo. The owl seemed to be winning for the moment, as the sun had yet to crest the Jicarilla range not far to the east. The owl called again. "I am become Death. I am the destroyer of worlds."

I recalled Robert Oppenheimer's famous words as I swung on the porch swing, awaiting the dawn. As I swung, I cradled my newborn daughter who was tucked into my fleece jacket as protection against the cold. She and my wife would stay here through the morning, while I drove southeast to Trinity Test Site. The radiation still present there wasn't recommended for an infant or for a nursing mother. As for myself, I hoped that I would receive a smaller dose than that now emanating from the first rays of a sun finally coaxed by the rooster into the eastern sky.

The road rises out of the valley of the Rio Grande that waters the Bosque del Apache not far to the south. The land flattens out eventually, with a few low hills standing as sentinels to the turnoff toward the Trinity Test Site. The true gate is at the Stallion Army Air Force Base, where my ID is checked, and I am handed information about today's event from two people who look like volunteers, definitely non-military. The road then heads south, through a landscape flat and featureless. Now and then an animal crossing sign looms up, bearing the silhouettes of elk, loping with head down, or the pronghorn, forelegs raised and curled, ready to spring into my path.

Besides the signs, the monotony of landscape here is at first broken only by the stands of spiky agave that rise above the dirt and rock. Then comes a nub of a man-made structure which mimics the low, squat shapes of the volcanoes to the east. Other buildings of unusual shape and unidentifiable purpose stand far away from the main roads. It is so vast and open here, the presence of any vehicle would be noticed for miles. The dust alone acts as a low-cost distant early warning system. I remember a friend who once herded sheep on the Navajo reservation over in Arizona telling me that he'd see the dust trail long before he saw the actual vehicle. He'd then go into the house and put on the kettle for the guests who would arrive twenty minutes later.

Today, however, we are all expected. The test site is only open on this, the first Saturday of October, as well as on the first Saturday of April. As I make the final turn off to the site, I can see the light reflecting off the windshields of a few hundred vehicles down in the parking area.   I wonder how early they got here, as it is still less than a half hour after the main gate opened. I opt for irony for my own final approach, letting Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner" fan out loudly into the desert.

I find a place for my car, then walk through a gate that funnels us down a chain link fence to the site itself, broad and circular with a single obelisk at the center. I'm not sure if there is any irony intended to the fact that this whole fenced in area is shaped like a mushroom. There must be a thousand people here, with more arriving by the carload. The majority are the tourist type, of shapes and sizes I rarely see in more health and fashion conscious Santa Fe. It is definitely a shorts and T-shirt kind of crowd, and many wear slogans that must be inside jokes for scientists. I can understand Trinity's draw for physicists. There are also science fans of a lesser sort here, and I overhear a fair amount of conversations about UFOs.

But I don't notice any of this until later. As I enter the test site proper, my attention is held only by the obelisk standing at the center. It is a short tower of black volcanic stone held together by concrete, and I smile at the irony of Vulcan being the Roman god of fire. I move along to the fence line, hung with signs and photos taken at random points of the blast. The time lapse photographs show the changing shape of the fire that for a few moments turned the pre-dawn darkness as light as midday. Oppenheimer's words return to me suddenly.

Turning back to the center, I notice that many people are hunched over and looking at the desert floor. Trinitite. Existing only here at Trinity, it is a glass-like substance composed of sand that had fused together during the blast. I hurry over to one man who turns a piece over in his hand. Then I laugh. I had long looked forward to seeing this, the newest of our planet's gems, but due to my being color blind, it looked nothing like I'd read. In fact, I'd been walking over pieces since I'd arrived, yet had seen only the dull gray of the usual sort found in the desert. My attention--all of our attention--was then suddenly pulled upward, by a sonic boom, then a jet streaking across the sky, barrel rolling as it passed.

I board the shuttle bus to McDonald Ranch, where scientists who'd worked on the Trinity Blast had been housed. I can imagine the silence that had surrounded them, at the open space filled only with their anxieties over whether or not the test bomb, dubbed "Jumbo," would work at all.  Some of their graffiti still remains on the walls and doors, the usual witticisms of a group of bright young people left in close quarters with little to occupy them but their work; of strangers thrown together in an extreme location and situation. I can imagine the permutations that their conversation took, as they drank beers and watched the desert at the end of a long day.

A similar scene had played out on a smaller scale last night at my B&B back in San Antonio, NM. There were two other couples there, and our talk took on new life out on the patio after dark, where the air's chill nearly matched that of the ice in the drinks. The other two men were ex-Air Force, both of the Vietnam generation, but with very different characters. One had been a pilot, stationed in Thailand, from where he'd taken off on his missions. He was a nice fellow, with the confident air of an officer. The other man had been an enlisted man, who'd never left the continental US.  He had a warmer, more gentle demeanor, and after the other man went off to bed, I heard more of his story. His job had been to guard the missile silos up in North Dakota, much of his time spent passing long nights in the brutal cold of the winters up there. There wasn't much to do but his job, and remember that this was a time when people didn't question, or even seem to think much about, the orders they'd been given.  Eventually, the health problems began, evolving into a more and more serious nature until the cancers began to develop. In the midst of all this his son had been born, a normal enough kid, but with a few health disorders of his own. As the man talked, he paused often for his tears, waiting out the catch in his voice. The military hadn't offered much, not even answers to what might be wrong. So he began to read, researching every single aspect of what had been birthed here on that July day in 1945. It was incredible the amount he'd read.  But he'd never been to Los Alamos, and this visit to the Trinity Site was a first.  It was a pilgrimage for him, a step toward the birthplace of the thing that threatens to destroy mankind's existence, yet at the same time defines his own.

His story began to trail off, blown by the soft stirring in the desert night.  He was off somewhere else, away from his wife, away from me.  Honoring his silence, I moved off toward bed.

As I now walk amongst the sites of Trinity, he is still with me, entwined now with my own experience here.  I'm happy when I later see him making his way in, and return the smile that radiates beneath the shade of his cap.  We quickly exchange addresses, then I leave him to face what is his alone. 

The final thing I do before leaving is to take a lap around the parking lot, looking at the tables and the food stands. One of them is manned by two scientists, who answer questions more technical than historic. One of the scientists has a question for us. "Of all the things here, what is the most radioactive?" The answer of course being, "We are." Being close to White Sands, the Park Rangers have a table selling books and things educational. This is in sharp contrast to another souvenir stand standing beside it, expressing the height of poor taste. In neat rows are T-shirts and coffee mugs, adorned with pithy sayings which flank that familiar pillar of fire imprinted upon our common memory. I'd seen similar items up in Los Alamos and had been similarly offended. I can assure you that nowhere in Japan is there a coffee mug or T-shirt emblazoned with a picture the USS Arizona ablaze.

My car is the sole Subaru out in the parking lot. I walk toward it, past all the trucks and Texas plates and Christian bumper stickers. The crowd here today is definitively pro-nuke. And as I climb into my car, I turn and look in the direction of Three Rivers, out beyond the mountains to the east. I wonder how many of those at Trinity today are familiar with the thousands of petroglyphs there, reminders of a time when man looked to the sky with wonder rather than fear.

On the turntable:  Yonder Mountain String Band, "Mountain tracks, Vol. 1"
On the nighttable: Legs McNeil, "Please Kill Me"

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Sunday Papers: Mark Walsh

"Speaking is just a out-breath with stuff in the way."

On the turntable:  Tortoise, "Standards"

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Recollections of Shikoku

The villages in the area had buried their dead under the pines by the beach, facing the water, as if connecting the eternal flow of the sea with that of death.  Then the rails lines had been built, severing that link, a manifestation of man's delusion that he can control space and time.

On the turntable:  Garcia and Grisman, "Squaw Valley, August 25, 1991"