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July 2008

The Desert

All of the great journey stories include some sort of travel in the underworld.  For any driving trip to California this means the time spent in the desert.  What jumps to mind are the vivid images from American literature, particularly the Joads carrying the dead body of Grandma or Cormac McCarthy's The Kid fighting for his life.

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The journey across the desert may be safer, but one is fully aware that it is a thin line separating one's self from the safety of the twenty-first century and the danger if anything goes wrong.

So, even in 2008 that meant stopping to gas up and fill the ice chest before heading across the Mojave.

The desolate landscape is fascinating.  We were fortunate to drive through on a cloudy, overcast day.  The temperature never rose above the mid-nineties (Mark Christian: "You know what they normally call that?  Winter.").  It was raining to the south; one car had pulled over, the occupants were sitting in lawn chairs watching the storm in the distance.

There are few exits and no services for hours on end. No matter how fascinating the landscape might be, it wears you out.  When you finally see Ludlow, the little bump in the road, you have to stop and get out.

But, then, so does everyone else.  The parking lot is crazy.  The Dairy Queen is too small.  A few hundred people jam into the same space and all of them are tired and many grumpy.  There is a heavy spirit in this place.

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Barstow, further on, did not improve things.  The highways confused me.  The town is not well laid out.  The heavy spirit was still present.  We were hungry.  We had to turn around.  I got grumpy.  He already was.  We argued.

Yet the mood lifted as we left that place.  Hearing from Californians, it seems that Barstow has that affect on people.

The desert doesn't end there; it keeps going for a while afterwards -- less fascinating and more ugly.  But the spirit isn't quite as burdened.

A Trip Took Me

My HNO column this week is an essay about my recent journey.  Unlike my blog posts, which are slowly narrating the details, the essay is an overall look at the journey and a reflection upon its meaning.  You can find the essay here.

An excerpt:

Truth is, a trip like this renews your love for this country. And it’s not just the grand landscapes that remind you how beautiful it is. Your love is renewed by the glorious human creations. Observing the Golden Gate Bridge through the fog on the Marin Highlands, one realizes that it is among the most beautiful things human beings have ever built. The wind farms on the Tehachapi Range in central California catch the evening light and whimsically look like a mountain covered with pinwheels. And every time I stand at the Hoover Dam I am flabbergasted by how such a thing can be built and am made dizzy just looking at it.

Our New Favourite Town

We realized our mistake as we neared Flagstaff.

A few weeks before we had been making plans for our vacation -- figuring out where we wanted to go and could go, making reservations, contacting friends and family along our route, etc.  We early on decided to stay the second night near the Grand Canyon.  When I first checked, all the rooms actually in the park that were less than $250 were already booked.  I began looking in the town of Tusayan, just outside the park.  My idea was we could stay as late as we wanted at the canyon and then catch the views early in the morning right before heading out on the long drive to Turlock.

I was using various websites to hunt and sent Michael some options of various hotels.  He looked as well and sent one that we both agreed looked really fun, so we booked it. 

Only as we were approaching Flagstaff and entering the hotel's address in Michael's GPS did we realize that we had booked a hotel in Williams, AZ, which is one hour south of the Canyon.  This meant we would not be able to have the morning at the canyon which we were hoping for. 

Frustrated at ourselves for this mistake, Michael spent the next hour hunting down other hotels and looking for a room, but nothing was available except a $450 suite at El Tovar in the Park.  Needless to say, we didn't take it and resigned ourselves to staying an hour away and not getting our morning at the Canyon.

So we called the hotel and told them we'd be coming in late and decided to stay and have dinner at the Canyon, which we ended up doing at El Tovar.  It was the best dining experience of the trip (I plan on posting a list of our favourite meals!).

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It was dark when we left the Park, Michael driving Highway 64 south.  As he drove, I was intently watching the side of the road, ready to warn him if a deer or elk should leap out. 

Two small lights appeared on the side of the road.  The reflection of light in the eyes of an animal, I surmised.  In a flash our lights barely silhouetted an image, haunting and beautiful.  A buck, standing just at the tree line.  His large rack faintly visible.

We arrived in downtown Williams as a little bit of night life was still playing.  As we entered the Grand Canyon Hotel, the owner/manager, Amie, exclaimed, "They made it!"

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The Grand Canyon is the oldest hotel in Arizona.  It is recently remodelled, but with all the charm and warmth of an old hotel.  The floors are old plank boards.  Not all the rooms have a private bath (ours thankfully did).  There are no tvs in the rooms.  Downstairs in the public spaces guests hang out together talking, using the computer, eating meals.  I never saw anyone turn on the one tv in the place.

We loved the hotel and thanked serendipity for our mistake.

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In the lounge the next morning were a handful of French tourists.  We exchanged pleasantries.  I was warming up water for tea and looking around the place when I heard a commotion.  The French were trying to get my attention becaues the tea was boiling over.  Later they lamented the rain that was falling, because they had reservations for a helicopter ride over the Canyon.

I carried my tea outside in what was then a sprinkle and walked up and down the street looking in shop windows.  One quickly realizes that this is a great little town make the most of its location on Rte. 66 and near the Canyon; a train goes from here to the Park.  The paper's headline made me laugh though, and I took a picture.

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We chatted with Amie and her daughter who helps run the place.  Michael asked for the best breakfast, and Amie recommended the Pine Country Restaurant across the street, which I had already spotted.  The crowds (including a group of bikers) entering when I was out walking was sign of a good place.

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We were not disappointed.

We marveled at the selection of homemade pies in the restaurant, but didn't figure that was the best way to start the day off.  So we decided to return to Williams for dinner on our way home.

Which we did.

That day we had driven from Vegas where the temperatures topped out at 115.  Here in Williams, as another rain storm was moving in, it was 59.

We returned on a Friday night and the town was hopping.  It was clear that not only were there tourists, but the locals in the region clearly come into town on Friday for a good time.  There were many cowboys and families.  All the restaurants were full with lines waiting.  Most of the shops were still open, after sunset, and carrying on a brisk business.  There was even a street show in progress, complete with marching band!  And there didn't seem to be anything special other than it being Friday.

Well, we headed on into the Pine Country after finding a parking place in the crowd.  We enjoyed our dinner; Michael really liking his fried chicken.  But we had come for the pie.

Michael got peanut butter, I got peanut butter, chocolate, and banana pie. 

Simply put, it was the best pie either of us have ever had in our lives.  Sunday at church I used a little hyperbole and said that I had found the surest evidence for the existence of God.

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The Canyon

As we drove along US 89 and state highway 64 approaching Grand Canyon National Park, I vividly recalled making the same drive twenty years ago.  That time I was sitting in the rear of our full-sized conversion van, straining to catch my first glimpse of this world wonder.  The reason I recalled the past so vividly was because I was doing the same thing, except that this time I was in a 2006 Toyota Corolla and I was behind the wheel. 

Michael, in the passenger seat, was straining to catch his first glimpse.  And then when we caught that first sight of the canyon of the Little Colorado River, we were ecstatic, in a moment of rapture.  We were like children, filled with excitement and adventure.

In fact, our entire visit to the Canyon was like that -- hours of wonder, like kids.

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We parked first at Desert View and approached the rim.  I kept repeating, "Oh my God, Oh my God."  It is simply overwhelming in grandeur, majesty, and beauty, even if you have seen it before.

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We followed this trail on a simple, easy hike down slightly from the rim.  I was dressed in my hiking hat, carrying my binoculars.  I learned quickly how much Michael fears heights, as he was very anxious whenver I neared an edge. 

We sat for awhile just taking in our surroundings.

Then we returned to the rim and visited the tower.

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We then drove the road through the National Park down to the area of the visitor's center and many of the most popular points from which to view the canyon.  The visitor's center is new and part of what will be a major new rail hub that will bring the bulk of visitors into the park.  The center is nice, but a looks a little too fake, like the landscaping and design at the zoo.

But you can't beat the natural views.

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Note: there are many more pictures of the canyon in the photo album to the left.

We walked along the rim for a few hours, occasionally stopping to sit and marvel.  Occasionally getting nervous watching other folk play close to the edge.

We were fascinated by the number of Europeans at the Park.  We probably heard more German than English.

My favourite moment, maybe of the entire trip, was as the day came to a close and the crowds were thinning and this multi-cultural group of people seemed to all sit and watch the canyon and the setting sun.  Rain was falling on the north rim.  Some groups were picnicking.  It was so peaceful, so beautiful.

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The Vigil

The vigil went well tonight.  There were around one hundred folk there from an array of faith traditions.  It was nice to see at least four baptists who are heterosexual present to stand in solidarity with those of us threatened in the LGBT and allied community.

Mark and Jonalu, the local Unitarian pastors, put together an amazing service of prayers, readings, reflections, and songs.  It was structured "What Happened Then?," "What Happens Now?," "What Happens Next?" 

The first section talked about the facts and then how the episode affects us.  The second reflected on the fears and thoughts we might have at first, but how to get past them.  Thoughts like, should they have put up the gay affirming sign, should they have been so public with their decision, should there be greater security at church, etc.  The final section spoke about hope and meaning.

We sang "We Are a Gentle, Angry People."  That's one of the hymns which was new to me three years ago, but which has become a favorite.  We sang three verses at the beginning and three near the end.  During this second moment, I became emotional, really belting out the refrain, "We are singing for our lives."

This episode is a reminder that THE most important and powerful thing we do each week is the simple act of gathering together in worship.  It is that one thing alone which is our greatest witness to the reign of God.  And even in doing that one simple thing we are risking our lives.

A Pastoral Prayer

Pastoral Prayer

Vigil in Solidarity with Tennessee Valley UU

July 30, 2008


Sisters and brothers who gather to bear witness to peace and hope, let us join with one another in a time of prayer as I offer these words.


We begin with a lament.

Out of the depths we cry, O God, may something, someone hear our voice!


Your foes have roared within the holy place, they have desecrated the dwelling place of your name.

The blood of your servants has been poured out like water.

Goodness is repaid with evil.

Hope with despair.

Compassion with hatred.

Peace with violence.


When they were sick or in need we grieved as for a friend or sibling. 

Yet our opponents rejoiced over us.

They hate us without cause.

They do not speak peace, but conceive deceitful words against those who are gentle in the land.

They open wide their mouths against us.


The dark places of the land are full of the haunts of violence.


Yet, our souls watch for the morning.

May it come with steadfast love and great power to redeem the land.

Restore our fortunes.


For we must also give thanks.

We are thankful for the courage, strength, and faith of our sisters and brothers of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian-Universalist Church and Westside Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship.

They have born witness that this world may be restored.

Their actions argue for hope and meaning in this world.


The irony is that this people of peace and compassion were viewed as dangerous, a threat to our nation, worse than terrorists.

The irony is that these sisters and brothers risked their lives on behalf of others.  I suspect they would have done the same for their attacker.

As Mennonite theologian Craig Hovey wrote, “Martyrs do not die because they fight for what is right, but precisely because they refuse to fight for what is true.”


In this moment of pain and lamentation, may the truth be revealed to all those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

And that truth is that hope, power, and meaning reside with those who are filled with compassion, mercy, and peace.


 May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.


Vigil for Solidarity

Tonight the local welcoming and affirming religious community will gather for a prayer vigil in solidarity with the Unitarian Church in Knoxville which was attacked on Sunday. The service here in OKC will be held at the First Unitarian Church at 600 NW 13th St. at 7:30 p.m. This will be an occassion to draw attention, once again, to the reality that an environment of hate breeds violence.

This comes on the heels of a hate crime in Tulsa, the vile comic book put out by Brent Rinehart, and the knowledge that Rep. Kern violates gun laws.

Vacation Reading

The last few years I've gotten a lot of reading in while on vacation.  One of my pleasures is going to the bookstore ahead of the visit in order to pick out what I'm going to take. This time I took a handful of books along, but didn't get as much reading in.  Most of my reading was done in the passenger seat of the car.  Sometimes on vacation, like at the beach on Long Boat Key two years ago, since I'm reading for long periods of quiet time I can really get into a dense or difficult book, but that simply was not possible this vacation.   

So, what went with me?

The new Salman Rushdie, The Enchantress of Florence, which I'm about half-way through and enjoying.  I'll write more about it when I'm finished with it.  Only on the final day of the trip did I remember that three years ago I read Rushdie's last novel while in New Mexico and blogged about it in a piece entitled "Reading Salman Rushdie in New Mexico" which I was particularly proud of at the time and singled out as one of my favourite posts in my second anniversary review. 

Hallie Green had given me two books of the poetry of Hafiz, a particular favourite of mine.  I took along I Heard God Laughing and thought I might read some aloud while Michael drove.  I only read a few pages of this (and probably at least one poem outloud).  I did it while driving in the Arizona desert, which seemed fitting for a Persian poet.  Here's a sample (Typepad now double spaces everything when you hit return, ruining the posting of poetry):

We Should Talk About This Problem

There is a Beautiful Creature

Living in a hole you have dug.

So at night

I set fruit and grains

And little pots of wine and milk

Beside your soft earthen mounds,

And I often sing.

But still, my dear,

You do not come out.

I have fallen in love with Someone

Who hides inside you.

We should talk about this problem --


I will never leave you alone.

Next, I took along two books by John Steinbeck.  I had gone to the bookstore hoping to find some novel that captivated with the landscape of the American West.  Earlier this year I read Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop and had marvelled at is descriptions of New Mexico.  But nothing caught my eye, so I decided upon Steinbeck and the California landscape (I have already read East of Eden).  So, I grabbed the very early The Pastures of Heaven and the very late Travels with Charley in Search of America.

I only read the latter while in the car and mostly read the former while in California.  I didn't finish Pastures, but will soon and will blog about it then.  I did conclude Travels and have more to say about it on its own.

The final book was loaned to me by Danny Hites particularly for this trip -- Landscape and Memory by Simon Schama.  I must confess I didn't get far into it.  It was not well-suited for my reading conditions.  Danny himself had said it needed to be read outside in the landscape, and I really didn't have occasion for that.  I will work on this book soon.  I was intrigued by its thesis that even natural landscapes are shaped by our human culture. He had some interesting things to say about Yosemite, which I will include in posts about that park when I get there.

So, I guess this particular post didn't say much other than "stay tuned."  But it's one piece of a larger puzzle.

Arizona Landscapes

Michael really wanted to see the meteor crater, so we stopped there.  The night before, as I was a little sleepless because of excitement, I was remembering my visit there twenty years ago and was looking forward to seeing it again.

As you drive west from Albuquerque the changing landscape constantly surprises.  There are the lava flows, for one.  Then around Gallup there are these mountains to the north that jut out creating ridges with valleys in between.  They look like a row of battleships.

There is a sudden change in landscape right near the Arizona - New Mexico border as you emerge from the mountains into a scrubby desert that eventually becomes a bleak, sandy desert.  This is where the meteor crater resides.

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Partly a tourist attracation in the old tradition of those gimmicky places along Route 66 and part impressive natural wonder and geological site, the crater is worth a visit.  Twenty years ago I wanted to see it after its starring role in the film "Starman."  There is now a good museum serving as an introduction which not only interprets the site but meteors and craters around the globe and on other planets.  I enjoyed the museum and would have taken more time in it, had we not been aiming for the Grand Canyon.

The whole day I was rushing.  When my family took this trip we stopped along the way at the Petrified Forest National Park and the Meteor Crater and ended up being at the Grand Canyon for what was probably an hour or so but in my memory feels more like 15 minutes. I tell it this way.  We parked in the parking lot, walked to the rim, Dad said, "There it is, the Grand Canyon.  Now back in the car."  Of course it wasn't really like that, but felt like that.  On that particular trip we had to drive on from the canyon to Prescott, Arizona where we visited my close friend Rob Akers and his family.

So, I wanted more time at the Canyon this trip.  For years I've been trying to get friends to go hiking and camping there and may one day succeed.  But, once again, I was only going to get a limited amount of time.

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Michael was enthralled by the crater.  We also enjoyed watching the many dirt devils forming in the desert around us.  He wanted to take the hiking tour, but I kept pressing on to the Canyon.

The Arizona landscape continues to surprise as you turn back onto I-40 after visiting the crater.  From the middle of a sun-blasted, sandy desert, within 30 minutes one is in a mountain pine forest which surrounds Flagstaff.  Michael was shocked, not expecting this particular landscape in Arizona.  As we left Flagstaff headed north, it rained on us, as it did repeatedly on the trip.  We were blessed with many overcast, cool days (which is why our tans do not give evidence of the vacation). 

The drive from Flagstaff to the Canyon was long.  I remembered it being long, but had hoped my memory was wrong.  It is not.  Of course part of the problem was my sense of hurry and part is just the anticipation of approaching this grand wonder.  Along the way there are signs pointing to other interesting sites.  One wonders if one will ever see them or if every time one is in this region one will simply hurry along to the Canyon.