Ever The Horseman. Never The Tourist Be

By Dr. Lorin Swinehart

canyondechelly

 

It was a blazingly beautiful autumn day on the desert, and along with my three companions—ten, if you count four horses and three dogs—I was riding deep into northern Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly. There are days so flawless, burned so deeply into our consciousness, that few others ever compare to them. This was one of those days, a peak experience. We rode twenty miles into the canyon, at one point soaked to the skin by an afternoon thunderstorm. In the arid desert air, we were bone dry in moments, as a brilliant rainbow arched across the desert sky. Later in the day, we galloped hell for leather across the canyon floor to help an elderly Navaho man recapture his two runaway horses, a scene straight out of the western films that so captivated us when we were younger.

I remember a small herd of wild horses grazing at some distance as we rounded one bend, their leader, a flashing black stallion, rising up, snorting his warning, and driving his harem off into the distant world of red rock and cacti.

We had planned this excursion weeks ahead of time, made arrangements with the park rangers for the horses and two Navaho boys as guides. The guides were necessary, rangers insisted, because pools of quicksand lurked along the canyon floor. Our destination was the notorious Canyon del Muerto, the canyon of death, where the Navaho were defeated by Kit Carson, in service to the insatiable appetite of world gobbling European invaders, and later consigned to a reservation far to the east, away from their homeland between the Four Sacred Mountains, a sort of cultural genocide.

The boys brought along their two dogs, who immediately befriended my mixed breed border collie Tiger. The three dogs strayed off from time to time to capture and devour any unfortunate lizard who failed to skitter off fast enough to avoid their capricious but lethal grasp. Dogs will be dogs.

The thunderstorm, the rainbow, the black stallion, the runaway horses, the red rock Eden basking beneath the cerulean skies, the aches and Pains we experienced after so many hours in the saddle, the campfire kindled from cedar and pinion boughs at the end of day, as starry constellations wheeled overhead, are printed indelibly in my memory.

There was only one dissonant note on that glorious day, one that did not affect me personally but left its mark nevertheless. Around mid-morning, a park service van driven by a ranger passed us. Inside, gazing outward at the beauty surrounding them, was a group of perhaps a dozen tourists. They could have suffered some physical limitation that prevented them from experiencing the canyon as we four horsemen were, but it did not appear to be so. Instead, they looked a bit smug, self satisfied, lazy, content only to observe and to “tour”. At that moment, in my 24th year, I resolved that I would always, health permitting, be the horseman and never the tourist, who only tours. My resolve has never diminished. The persons in the van might as well have been back in their overheated living rooms slugging down beer and junk food and watching a TV show. There is little difference between living life second hand through a screen or through a window. A half life is no life at all.

Thomas Merton has much to say on this subject in his powerful essay “Conquistador, Tourist, Indian”. Merton decries those who only tour, who see what they expect to see, whatever a travel poster tells them to see, and no more, whether in the stranger they meet or in the stranger’s land.

Over the years, I have been blessed to have had other peak experiences like that in Canyon de Chelly. Later that very autumn, a friend and I trekked and, at one point, climbed hand over hand to the top of the nearly 9000 foot escarpment in the Chuska Mountains that overlooked the BIA boarding school where we served as teachers. We scaled those heights for no reason other than to watch cloud patterns drifting across the desert floor far below as the wind shrieked among the towering ponderosa pines and a Rocky Mountain white tailed squirrel cursed us soundly from his sylvan sanctuary. In 2014, my wife LaVon and I drove all the way from Ohio to the big woods of northern Minnesota in order to have a conversation with two wild wolf packs one bright moonlit night deep inside the Superior National Forest. On other occasions, I have witnessed the world illuminated only by starlight, found myself face to face with wild gators in the swamps of Florida, javelina in the Arizona desert, black bears in many of their homelands. These are holy experiences denied the faint hearted and the spiritually lazy.

As I pen these lines, I am distant in miles and years from Canyon de Chelly, sitting alongside a storm tossed beach in South Carolina, preparing our lunch on our charcoal grill. A nearby American flag tells me that Zephyrus, god of the west wind, is responsible for churning the ocean into a froth, causing the waves to beat against the sands, setting the palmetto trees to clattering and chattering among themselves, sending small white puffy clouds scudding across the azure face of the overhanging heavens. Out at sea, I watch a shrimp boat chugging northward, towing its nets behind it, surrounded by a flotilla of gulls, cormorants and pelicans, their wings beating the air in a frenzy, hoping to benefit from any castoffs or leftovers.

It is a cold, windy day. The bottom fell out of the thermometer last night, and the winds gust at over 40 miles per hour. There are those who would quail before such natural extravagances, insist that it is too cold, too windy or too something for anyone to be out at all. Those few whom I do see are trundling along all bundled up, made fat by layers of fleece and wool. My experiences have taught me to avoid those who use the word “too” whenever describing meteorological phenomena. They will encage you within their own prison of low expectations.

To experience, rather than to merely view or watch, requires that those who are physically able to do so rise above the weak and paltry business of tourism, flee from their ranger driven vans, their self imposed shoebox existences that only approximate life, don a day pack or leap onto a saddle and be off. Live a real life, not a shadow life. Turn off the false life offered electronically. You may emerge soaked to the skin, footsore or saddle sore, but you will experience real adventures, have real stories to tell. The glories of creation, await you. As the prophet Isaiah exults, “The mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing before you, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”

My long hours in the saddle on that bright desert day in 1966 provided me with a lifetime of golden memories, a plethora of stories to share with others. I wonder what the people in the van took away on that afternoon. Perhaps only that they witnessed red rock canyons from behind a window.

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