books by Jack McDaniel

Quiet Places

Tuesday, May 27, 1997 :: Life

Quiet Places

Good fortune smiles on the appreciative traveler in the Rocky Mountains and southwestern states. Beautiful vistas and brilliant sunshine fill postcard-like days most of the year. There are places where nature's orchestra is playing all out, across all senses, and, too, there are quiet places where she is playing a simple yet effective string guitar. Occasionally, a mountain snowstorm will offer a brief respite from these splendors, but it lasts only a few short hours on average and the landscape's transformations are, at the very least, as beautiful and inspiring. And in the warmer months a cold wind will blow rain clouds across the desert floor only to disappear in the rearview mirror after a few prolonged moments. Any road taken will offer varying degrees and states of weather within the same hour. The same is true for beauty where the back roads offer the most rewards. Though as far as interstate travel is concerned, this part of the country sits atop the list for beauty.

It has been a year of change and these days it would be easy for me to remain at home and play hooky from my normal schedule and duties. At home is my newborn daughter, Madison, another of Nature's wonders. She is less than three weeks old as I write this and a complete master of our daily routine. Human newborn enter this world helpless, however within hours they have all mastered the art of parental control. They are, I have found, in no way subtle about this. Within hours our daughter has trained us to the different levels of her cries. There is the fitful start and stop noise that says I want to be held. Or the interested and honest cry that demands her soiled diapers be changed. And, of course, there is the all out wail that says I'm hungry, damnit! Where's that nipple?

In quiet times, when mother and daughter are catching the briefest bit of sleep, I am reminded by some new-found inner voice that someday Madison will grow--demanding food and clothes, soccer boots and other things, real and imaginary--that children deem necessary for existence. Someday, too, she may want to go to college. These things are feeding this new found voice that says with some trepidation these things require money; you better go make some.

There are only two ways worth traveling to Arizona from Evergreen, Colorado. The first is across the state into Utah via interstate 70, and then down through Moab, eventually reaching Flagstaff. The other way, and the one I prefer, is to take route 285 down through the state and head over Wolf Creek Pass to Durango and then into New Mexico.

In the winter the cold and ice invade the car and my psyche as I unconsciously impose a death grip upon the steering wheel while navigating Wolf Creek pass. In the summer, though the air conditioner protests for all it's worth, the desert's overwhelming heat fights its way through the smallest gaps between the windows, door jams and other unseen areas. Somehow these slight seasonal discomforts only heighten my awareness of the surrounding beauty.

Each time I travel this region there are noticeable changes in the topography, even in just a matter of days. Some springs there is an abundance of snow at the higher elevations, which means before summer the river banks will be a little greener, the rivers fuller and faster. By summer things will be turning mostly brown, except after a brief thunderstorm. Those late afternoon showers paint the landscape in momentary-green, nature throwing a party for its drunken carbon based forms. Which is a reminder that life does exist in these desolate places only, unlike me, it is smart enough to hide from the relentless sun.

About two hours outside Evergreen is the San Luis Valley. In this alpine valley there are few homes, spread out across a grand vista. These homes and their yellow windows and smoking chimneys remind me that there are a few different souls that prefer the quiet solitude of empty spaces. Centuries of Malthusian growth have spread the superiority dogmata of man to all corners of the globe leaving fewer and fewer quiet places. Ever resilient nature is becoming very unnatural as our need to conquer and control all things is quickly changing the makeup of the planet. Places like this alpine valley are on the endangered list. Like ants marching toward a summer picnic we march in militaristic fashion toward the quiet, empty places. The ants haul off as much of the crumbs as they can but they never really enjoy the picnic. And we take as much away from nature as we can, but, like the ants, we miss the big picture.

In time even the most inhospitable of these quiet places will be filled with vacation condos, golf courses and ski resorts. And once we have filled these places what next? Are the mountain lion, bear and moose to be forced onto reservations, or shall they too require a room in the Natural History Museum?

It is in these quiet places, these seemingly empty spaces, that an eagle sits atop a jagged rock formation in quiet solitude. The wind whips around the rocks and occasionally ruffles his feathers as he watches the riverbed that winds below him. It is his world he watches. The river that runs between low flat lands and down through canyons, a grove of aspens that covers miles and whispers to the wind as one; these are the eagle's as he is theirs. What will they do when we've claimed all of the rivers for vacation rafting trips? Where will the eagle hunt for field mice when we've built a golf course on the valley floor? These quiet places are home to many secret lives that may be hidden from our sight but not our comprehension. These quiet places are not dead places. They are the inner clockworks of nature, each link and sprocket doing its part to move the hands of the clock through the seasons. Long before Western man paved his way through the wilderness the Ute Indians lived here as one of the sprockets in Nature's clockwork. They did not rearrange the landscape or erect ten story high rises. They saw the riverbed through the eagle's eye, and they listened to the stories the aspen grove whispered.

What we do to nature we also do to ourselves. We are becoming less active and fatter. We pollute our bodies with unnatural chemicals and substances. We spend more time with the television than we do with ourselves. We are slowly destroying the quiet places within our souls, no longer inviting them into our lives as a time to reflect and come into touch with those things at the center of our beings. No longer are we allowing those honest and furtive moments of self appraisal to determine our future.

In this modern world driving home from work used to be quiet time, a time to assess the day from a quiet valley and come into contact with what is real and meaningful and to find direction. But these days we are on the cell-phone the moment we turn the ignition and begin to pull out of the parking lot, making certain the babysitter has been arranged for the evening, or that last second changes have been made for the next day's presentation. As we pull into the driveway of our homes we stop to talk to our broker whom we've been trying to reach for hours. Fax me that info at home, we say. I'll look at it later. And never during our stressful and hurried days do we take the time to look at where we are in the universe, or where the universe is with us. Email, voice mail, mindless TV sitcoms and mostly meaningless conversations while we drive have served to fill our empty and quiet spaces. We are no longer comfortable with ourselves so we fill our lives with things of great importance but little impact, just as we eat foods that fill us with meaningless calories.

I do not want these things for my daughter. I want her to be comfortable in the quiet places of her soul. I want her to see them for what they are and learn to use them. Great things are spawned in quiet places for those brave enough to spend time there. Furtive thoughts skate beneath our consciousness, only peaking their heads up during quiet times.

We are blessed (or cursed, some might say) with the ability to create. Creativity does not happen because we turn our computers on. And providence does not invite it home. It takes work to create something, anything. It requires that we look beyond our little worlds and bring something new to them, risking what others might think or feel about us. It requires that we venture into the quiet places and observe all that is there, above and below the surface. Without these quiet places our souls will end up as lost as the eagle whose hunting ground has become a parking lot. Our place in the universe will diminish and we will be no more than a project that has turned on itself, never participating in the bigger picture.

It is March and I am driving to Arizona. I will drive through the San Luis Valley tonight, stopping in Pagosa Springs for the evening. In the morning I will drive an hour to Durango for my first appointment. As I reach the valley I learn that this is my lucky night. The comet Hale-Bopp is quietly screaming across the night sky, not to return for another four thousand years. There is a lunar eclipse and Mars proudly shines its red and orange light just above the darkened moon. If humankind is still around in four millennia will he be able to witness this beautiful spectacle with his naked eye? Or will he have filled in all of the quiet places of the earth and created so much noise as to make the dim sparks of light that form the comet's tail unseen?

What I want for my daughter (for all daughters and sons) is for her to be able to live for a time in a quiet valley in a home with yellow windows. I want her to feel comfortable there, and productive. I want her to some day travel through these same mountains and valleys and listen to the stories that the Aspens are whispering. Most of all, I want her to sit in a quiet place under a brilliant blue sky and watch the ants and other insects conducting the business of their lives while she questions her place in the universe.

Tags for this article
quiet places, heritage, natural wonders


Copyright © Jack McDaniel