Lessons Learned / Mike Turpin
Watch for falling rock
Published 1:06 am, Thursday, April 15, 2010
When I was 8 years old, my grandfather moved from Southern California to Sedona, Ariz. My dad did not immediately understand his father's decision to exile himself from civilization and his immediate family. The move was cause for consternation and subtle tension. Not only would the distance create a mind-numbing 500-mile chasm of desert between father and son, but my grandfather had also broken one of his primary covenants of family -- to live nearby lest a job or life conspire to separate you.
Yet, my grandfather had wanted a new start. Having lost his wife too soon to breast cancer and having remarried to a woman that neither son accepted as their true mother, he longed to be reborn and found his spiritual center among the great red rock mesas and cliffs of the West. He did not view this retreat from humanity as a resignation from life or family but in fact, a beginning born out of self preservation. My grandfather's renaissance took root over the next 15 years as he transformed into quirky artist, high desert outdoorsman and amateur Native American historian.
His letters were rich narratives describing the desert as a vast and ever changing ocean of life. He came to understand the hidden power and the healing presence of the natural wonders of the world. He was reborn at the sight of the Grand Canyon and cured of his gray flannel color blindness after gazing across the Painted Desert. He marveled at the swirling, polished ravines of Canyon De Chelly. He often wrote to us of the ancients that had lived in these sacred places -- the Navajo and Hopi who had walked as one with the land prospering in cliff dwellings under great overhangs of red rock and limestone.
We would travel by car or train to visit him in his mobile home that rested on a carpet of rock, red soil and cactus under a great blue house of sky. He would faithfully drive his car up the serpentine roads of Oak Creek canyon to pick us up on the 6 a.m. overnight train that arrived from Los Angeles. We would then slowly retrace the canyon's nauseating switchbacks down to the sleepy pueblo that rested like a homestead in some John Ford movie.
During our visits, he would take us hiking and point out the more hidden aspects of the desert and the natural world that seemed so foreign to suburban children. At night, he would tell stories of the West and always regale us with the timeless classic of an Indian brave named Falling Rock who had disappeared trying to warn his people against the gathering threat of soldiers and the encroaching tide of pioneers. The story always concluded with Rising Star, the Navajo chief and father of Falling Rock, consenting to the Army to peacefully lead his people to a life on the reservation in exchange for help finding his lost beloved son. "That is why you will always see signs that say, `Watch for Falling Rock,' he would conclude -- allowing the weight of the night and the unsolved mystery of a boy swallowed up by history to settle on our narrow shoulders.
Over the years, the train deposited fewer boys on that summer green platform. Finally, there came a day when no boy wanted to spend a "boring" week in the hot desert with an old man and a dog. When he died, it seemed like some ancient tie had been severed.
As the years carved lines onto our faces, my three brothers and I went the way of men and built our own lives, allowing obligations and temporal commitments to eclipse the sage-scented memories of four squinting, crew-cut boys standing next to a man with a hiking stick and a white and brown dog.
My brothers and I intuitively understand that we are bonded by a thousand invisible sinews forged during those summers of diving into an ice cold canyon creek, dodging cholla and cactus across a blazing hot broken field of rocks looking for arrowheads or sitting silent bathed in the glow of a twilight fire. Those strands stretch across a thousand miles of ribboned interstate and time. We remain mirrors of one another but we are each painted with a slightly different mix of colors from a palette of sunshine yellow '60s, brown and orange shag '70s, chrome and silver profligate '80s and self-interested black and blue '90s.
We are a genetic collision of German resoluteness, Irish mischievousness, English hooliganism and French elan. We were pounded in the same blacksmith's forge, alloys created out of a firebrand conservative and a new age free spirit. Over time, the boys that looked out that VW bus for Falling Rock and marveled at the mysteries of great lightening storms and ancient tribes lost their sense of wonder. As Kurt Vonnegut once lamented, "We do, diddly do, what we must, middly must, until we bust, bodily bust." We now only see one another when life crushes one of us with an unforeseen landslide. We gather at odd, unpredictable times, rarely achieving a quorum for a dinner or lunch -- separated by miles and our own dreams. To find ourselves together unobscured by the shadow of a funeral, crisis or life milestone is a rare and fragrant moment as fleeting as a night blooming cirrus.
Observing the silent march of our independent lives, I was determined to bring us together for the simple purpose of celebrating our connection to one another. The storms of the previous two years had not left us untouched and had carved even deeper ridges of uncertainty across our faces. Fear is a funny thing. It seems when you need people the most, you often choose to isolate yourself -- choosing to follow your own best thinking which often excludes those that know you best. While your partner or spouse may be there for you. No one knows you like your brother.
I became obsessed with getting my brothers together. What better place for us to gather than among the red rocks of Sedona? Perhaps this special place that was so symbolic of our childhood and spiritual rebirth could reconnect us to the powerful mythology of our past. It had been more than 30 years since we had communed in that sleepy community of hippies, artists and restless souls in search of some great intangible.
I sent out an earnest invitation to each brother reminding each that hospital beds and church pews were not appropriate locales for reunions. I challenged everyone to retrace one last time those same ribbons of highway to the red rock sanctuary of our grandfather. I was nervous that the memories of those few summers had been swept by life's flash floods leaving only rock strewn gulches of empty space in their wake. Everyone accepted.
As a long gray line of boys arrived, I was grateful to see us fall comfortably into old stories, gently dredging the sediment of our past and current lives. Our birth order remained forever established but had clearly molded from a line to a circle. With the addition of our own children and partners, the group had swelled to 13. Those outside the inner sanctum of boys could only watch in amusement as our sarcasm, hyperbole and humor rekindled a thousand stories. To his chagrin, my father was unable to attend to defend himself from the relentless barrage of warm-hearted lampoons.
Our time together dissolved too quickly under warm, wind swept days and cool mountain evenings. On the last night, a sunset burned orange and red and illuminated the red rocks and limestone to the east.
We paused and said nothing as if we all understood how brief our time together would be. We were 10 years old again -- laughing and recklessly hurtling through life like dust devils whipped up by a sudden burst of canyon wind. The energy from 40 summers past returned to radiate from somewhere among those great iron, lime and sandstone monuments.
On my final day, I looked back one last time across the great canyon lands. I was warmed by this new memory and our by own shadows that would leave, forever to dance among the mysterious Kachina who dart unseen across this mythic landscape.
I turned on to stretch of canyon highway that would lift me over a mountain pass and down into Phoenix. As we climbed between two monoliths called Cathedral and Bell Rock, I noticed a sign, "Watch for Falling Rock." At that same moment, perhaps on a dusty blood red road, the silhouette of an old man and dog can almost be seen disappearing into the adjacent national forest. He comes here every day to walk his dog at twilight -- and on this night, he is pleased because his grandsons have returned one last time to honor him -- by never forgetting.