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Crossing Boundaries, Part Two by Steven L. Peck

by Patricia | 5.25.11

Steve, friend, and redrock country

To read Part One, click here.

H. is unwilling to give up and is looking more closely at the little hole we might be able to climb in. I back up and find a passage behind a fallen slab about the size of a pancaked SUV leaning against the wall of rock. I tell H. and he looks and we decide it is worth a try. He goes first (again, being the less timid) and wiggles his way through on his belly. He yells that it ends at a drop off about seven feet high. I hear grunting, huffing and puffing . . . ”If I can just twist around . . . I can go feet first . . .” More grunting then an exclamation, “I’ve done it!” I then belly through the birth canal and emerge scratched up but smiling. We continue. The canyon is very narrow now. We cannot face forward in some places without each shoulder touching the wall. Two more places require us to chimney to get down similar seven-foot drops, but they are coming more often and getting trickier to negotiate.

Down one, H. says, “I’m going to go see what’s ahead.” I wait above our most significant drop yet. He’s very quiet and I worry a little at the silence. Then his voice returns, “We’re stopped. Do want to come see? Or just believe me and I’ll come up. There is a big drop ahead.” I want to see. Not that I doubt him, but I want to stare the beast that defeats us in the eye. It’s a matter of desert pride. I climb and chimney down. He points down canyon and I pass him in a wide space and stare down at about a fifty-foot drop. “If someone put a gun to our heads, I think we could get down,” I say. He says, “I think so too.” But neither of us is really suggesting that we go on. It’s just an observation. We could not get back up it, likely. We also note that our eighteen-year-old-kid-and-spouse-free selves would have continued on.

How strange that as we reach this boundary, this stopping place, I am forced to confront temporal boundaries that seem to intersect with these physical boundaries. The barrier before us is not just a physical boundary, but one created by who we have become since our youth. The cliff marks a combination of transitions in our life—like growing older, gaining ‘grown up’ responsibilities, and becoming a new self marked by temporally conditioned boundary markers such as marriage and having children—and the geological history of the canyon. It is not either one alone that stops us from going on down the canyon, but the united coming together and mingling of our history and the history of the canyon.

The way back is much harder than we thought. Getting up some of the things we got down are much more difficult than anticipated. The seven-foot climb up to the hole turns particularly difficult. H. puts up a knee, slaps his thigh and says, “Step on my leg, then when you get up you can pull me up.” I don’t. I’m pretty sure my kind of weight would separate his knee like the joint of boiled chicken being boned for soup. Well, I’m stretching. More likely it would just leave him with numerous knee operations and a lifelong limp. Or maybe, he’d be fine. But I refuse. I grab some handholds and with major grunting, pulling, and some fine rockwork for a lumbering middle-aged man, I get up to the hole. I try and pull him up. It’s hopeless, so he does the same as me. Our stopping rules proved wise. There is no way we would have made it up the fifty-footer if we had gotten pinched off between drops—seven feet almost leaves us stuck. Embarrassing but true.

Finally, after some hard scramble, with constant back and forth mutterings between us of, “I don’t remember this? Do you remember this?” we wend our way back up the slot. We finally reach a nice rock shelf and stop for sandwiches. It’s been about two hours since we entered the rift.

As we eat, I’m struck with a sense of insignificance. The boulder we climbed over might have been stuck there since Europeans arrived. Or it could have been lodged there yesterday. I cannot tell. Next to us is an old twisted pinion. Its branches yet full of living green and flourishing exuberance—as wide in trunk girth as any I’ve ever seen. We speculate, it might be two hundred years old. Maybe six hundred. I wonder how time passes for a thing that was likely old when I was born.

And the canyon itself. There is a presence here. I cannot describe it. I’ve tried to write it, but it won’t come so I yield. Not a sense of watchfulness, because I don’t matter here. I feel small. Nothing. I sense I am but a fleeting thing, like a fly on the hand, which lands then disappears. Around me are old, old ancient things. They seem present and godlike. It does not surprise me that once people fell to their knees before it. But now I just feel like a minor thread in a grander tale.  This seems like a sacred place suddenly. An old holiness. I think about Çatalhöyük, a large Neolithic ritual center in the Anatolia region of Turkey occupied from 7500-5700 BC. Found in the ruins of these structures were platforms and panels decorated with etched bulls and bull-horned pedestals. Presumably rituals took place there. Animal or human blood was found on some of the altars. Why this comes to mind, perhaps, is that the entrance into the sacred space required a formal transition from outside to the inside. Archeologists Lewis-Williams and Pearce describe entrance into this ritual center like this:

Access between rooms was afforded not by full-length doors but by small porthole-like openings through which people were obligated to crawl . . . Entry into a complex of rooms thus entailed, first, descent into a dimly lit area; secondly, having descended, people had to crawl or bend low in order to move from one walled space to another and thus deeper into the structure.¹

In other words people had to transition from the secular, ordinary world of day-to-day, to the world of ritual. Sacred spaces had to be entered formally. This holds for later civilizations as well. Ancient Israel. Egypt. Most ancient ritual centers unearthed by archeologists all over the world, even those which predate civilization and domestic crops, like Göbekli Tepe from the 12 Century B.C., seem to provide openings and borders that allowed a prescribed transition into sacred space. Is that what we did here? By crawling and bowing through this slot canyon have we transitioned from secular to sacred time? Something feels right about that. There is a sense of sacracy here. We have entered a portal of sorts that combines consciousness and place.

After a time, we make it out and find a jeep trail. That sense of the sacred seems to dissipate. We are back in secular time. The path joins a well marked dirt road which we follow. We reach the top of a slickrock knoll and sit for more apples. As we sit there, a shiny yellow jeep drives past. A shirtless man in a cowboy hat, his head out the diver’s side window as he negotiates the rock, sees us. We wave, two characters grinning like hobbits on a stroll. Silly looking, if the pictures we took from that knoll with the La Sals in the background, target our aspect in any way aright. He does not wave back but gives a slight reluctant nod as if we spoil his manly pursuits. He roars past and we hear his engine a long time after. Finally, the sound of the wind returns and we rise and start our walk back to the main road.

We have aged. Our joints are complaining and we both comment that we will likely be sore in the morning. How did we reach middle age? It was only yesterday we were eighteen. Heck, in my head I’m still eighteen. It’s only the rest of me that protests its age. Unexpectedly, I remember a poem from Tennyson that brings out a smile and causes me to straighten my back a bit and step forward with a little more verve. I end with those lines remembered in part then, but here repeated:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.²

Transitions will continue. Both of life and landscape. And I smile and am lifted that I can continue to participate in crossing life’s ecotones.

Notes

[1] Lewis-Williams, David and David Pearce. 2005. Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos and the Realm of the Gods. Thames & Hudson. New York. p. 105.

[2] Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson, from http://www.eecs.harvard.edu/~keith/poems/Ulysses.html, Accessed May 14, 2011.

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Steve Peck is an ecologist at Brigham Young University. Creative works include a novel: The Gift of the King’s Jeweler (2003 Covenant Communications); a self-published novella A Short Stay in Hell (reviewed here and here), a short science fiction story: The Flaw in the Lord Harrington Scenario, published in HMS Beagle (online journal by Elsevier); poetry in Dialogue, Bellowing Ark, BYU Studies, Irreantum, Red Rock Review, Glyphs III, Tales of the Talisman (in press), and a chapbook of poetry published by the American Tolkien Society called Flyfishing in Middle Earth.  His new novel, Scholar of Moab, is due out this fall from Torrey House Press.  Steve blogs at bycommonconsent.com and has a faith/science blog called The Mormon Organon.  “Crossing Boundaries” was first published on By Common Consent as “127 Minutes.”  For more of Steve’s writing published on WIZ, go here, here, here, here, and here.

2 Responses to Crossing Boundaries, Part Two by Steven L. Peck

  1. Lora

    Fantastic way to capture the feelings of passing between boundaries. That was my favorite part, and you did it well. The rest amazed me. You climbed better than I could have. I wouldn’t have even made that particular journey. There are limits that haven’t found you and I hope you feel better now, lol.

  2. Angel or Gabriel

    I read these two texts without even stop to breath, and I’ve been thinking about them the whole day. I was walking around this chaotic and rainy city and I couldn’t keep thinking about you two out there in the desert and that stuff about the boundaries. If I was waiting for the traffic lights to let me cross the street, I whispered… boundary. If I was waiting for the automatic-glassy-clumsy doors of the supermarket to get open, I whispered… boundary. If I was going up the slope taking to my home and I was feeling a pain in my back… boundary. Nice job, really nice job.

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