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Desert Wanderer

Written by  March 31, 2005

Today I left the mundane world behind me, if only for a time. I rode my motorcycle out early when the chill still held to the lowlands, although the blue skies promised sun and desert warmth.

I pointed my machine, a “knock off’ of a 69 Triumph Bonneville, toward Tombstone, Arizona, a place I had frequented since my youth, and still held a semi-morbid fascination with. The cool air clung to the ground, but the smell of mesquite, palo verde and countless other herbal aromas belied the rain that had fallen the night before.

The road was empty at that hour, and I was alone with my thoughts for the first time in days. That always happens on a motorcycle trip, and is the reason I so love motorcycling. It’s not something you can get in a car. The passing images are just more television, odorless, sensationless frames of life, passing you by. I sped across the San Pedro River, the bridge across, on which, I had once exchanged shots with some deranged losers in an old Ford truck. Probably meth-heads, as the violence was random, and methamphetamine had penetrated here years ago.

My goal that morning was not so much Tombstone, although I did have minor business there, but the Benedictine monastery which lay to the north, and eventually the Dragoon Mountains farther on. The real goal was always more subtle on these rides, liberation from the oppressive thought patterns that life in a modern world can generate.

It was invariably and effortlessly realized. The vertical twin British designed 650 cc engine thumped out its mantra, its one note song, and I drifted into the “Ethereal,” the spiritual substance that connects all things, the living and the dead, the animate and inanimate. There is always an enhanced perception in that state. One that allows unification of ideas and concepts that otherwise seems diametrically opposed. Good and evil fuse without trauma. Yin and yang cycle until they blur into one. The lyrics of Jim Morrison’s “Break on Through to the Other Side” slide into my consciousness. “Night divides the day, day divides the night, try to run, try to hide, break on through to the other side” echoes meaning in my soul.

Poetry occurs naturally on these rides, in a mind that at other times cannot grasp or produce poetry. “As the sun’s warmth overtook me, I could see into God’s eye, with the earth firm below me, I rose to live in the sky” enters, amuses, and then leaves me without commission to memory. There is no anxiety to bind or blind me, no fear to shackle me. I’m one again with the surrounding world.

Once in Tombstone, I stop for a minute to purchase a single use camera, great for recording the images of the trip, and cheap and easy to find. The Circle K clerk says “Weren’t you in her yesterday buying a camera too,” as if she suspects she is experiencing Deja-Vu? I say “Yes” and drift out without further comment. I need to go next door to the antique shop and replace the old clay gambling chips I purchased the day before, only to lose them later on the road. They hold an odd fascination for me. A piece of history, and I wonder what hands had held them in the past, when Tombstone hosted countless gambling houses.

Once done, I step outside into the bright warmth of the new day. I can see the Dragoons from here, but don’t know how I’m going to get there. That’s how I like to travel on a motorcycle, everything is impromptu. In a car, you move in a bubble, preserving the environment you just left as much as possible. There’s air conditioning, heat, stereo, even television. The destination is the goal, and the suspended animation is to ease the boredom of the trip. On a motorcycle, the journey is the goal, and the destination is never physical. I don’t carry a map on these trips. I navigate by terrain association, which I’ve committed to memory. And I look for new routes to places I’ve already been, knowing these will lead to new discoveries in old places, and new perspectives on reality. It all puts me in mind of “The Doors” already referred to in song. Jim Morrison chose the name in honor of the author who wrote “The Doors of Perception.” “I want to be a door,” he had said. And he was...it led out and down, perhaps because he chose drugs and other excesses to do so.

I start north. Watching for turnoffs to the right, which might take me west to the Dragoons. I already know there are no paved roads to do so, but my machine is light and nimble. “Agile as an Indian,” as a friend once told me, quoting her grandmother, and I can get across terrain that larger bikes can’t. I don’t think she thought I ever listened, but I always do, I just don’t hear things quite the same way as most people do. Sometimes I play them over and over again in my head until I’m satisfied there is no misunderstanding. I tweak things for every drop of understanding, only letting them go when I’m unable to resolve them or finally feel the slight unease that comes from subconscious mental activity telling me I may have missed something, slip away. The result is, I often don’t react until days later, and then I laugh or say “Uh, huh,” but I’m often alone and submersed in thought at the time.

Solomon said “He who increaseth knowledge, also increaseth sorrow” and I often think I think too much, but I’m unable to stop, unless I shut it down with drugs or alcohol, neither of which is an acceptable solution. So, the blessing becomes a curse, and good becomes evil and yin becomes yang and so on, ad infinitum. The only real release is these trips, when everything fuses into unifying principle.

I notice a “Shaolin Training School” on the right as I tool north. The desert attracts such people. The peeling sign offers “Yoga and Martial Arts” and advocates “Teach Love not Hate”-admirable. I think back on my own training and decide I don’t need to pursue that road anymore than I have. The Zen arts are over-rated I think. Overdone by Hollywood until spiritual and physical mastery seem one and the same, rather than one leading to the other, and not coincident, which is the real case. Zen is always shown as the result of physical deprivation, both painful and boring. Zen is no more than learning to be still long enough for reality to enter without altered perception. It is the natural effect of riding a motorcycle, which is why people spend so much money on something of no utilitarian value. They feel the release, but rarely understand it. They wonder why they feel slightly disappointed on arrival at their destination, and can’t wait to be on the road again.

Suddenly a 75 foot Celtic cross looms ahead of me on the left. It’s the monastery. I glide in hoping the engine doesn’t offend any of the quiet, peace loving brothers or sisters. They seem unaffected, and I get off to stretch and survey the surroundings.

Quite impressive! Pueblo style structures are all about. I take some photos and exchange a few words with a sister. No real conversation ensues and it seems we both know none is necessary. We are both here for the same reason and that is apparent to us both. Words are of little value here. I think of becoming a monk and immediately realize it’s just more deprivation in order to experience Zen, and drop the idea almost as soon as it occurred. I want to get back on the motorcycle. I go into the gift shop and pick out gifts for family and friends who are on my mind. I rarely buy anything for myself on these journeys. Self isn’t much of a consideration in this sate.

I venture over to a “meditation pond” and am completely unsurprised to find Japanese stone lanterns, koi, and a bridge. More Zen, even in this Christian place. Meditation is impossible due to the cliché artifacts of religions that are wholly immaterial. The visitor's banter and chat are imposing as well. I saunter back to the bike, slightly disappointed by my dissatisfaction. Supposedly, Zen and Buddhism in general have no deity. I firmly believe that is entirely false. Not because conventional Buddhists have taken Buddha as a deity, but because the deity in Buddhism is so expansive and large, that most can not see the forest for the trees. The principles of Christianity and Buddhism are inseparable as witnessed by this very place.

I’m back on the bike and at the entrance when I notice a dirt road leading west. There’s a gated entrance which is key coded, but it’s open as workman are repairing it. I ask if I can enter and they allow me. The sign reads “Dragoon Ranch.” Sounds good to me.

Inside I drive for miles without seeing a structure or house of any kind. Eventually I reach another gate, and it is key coded as well. I try a few combinations but they fail, and it locks up. I’m stuck. Then I notice a cattle gate to my left. It leads to a service road of questionable passability, but I take it anyway. Soon I’m worried I made a mistake. The road is badly rutted from recent rains, and it crosses deep sand washes several times. Again, “Agile as an Indian,” and I’m glad I have a small bike. I power through it all without incident. Soon I begin to see haciendas in the distance and get back on better roads. I recognize this as one of the great western ranches left over from the Spanish land deed era. It seems to have been subdivided into modern haciendas, but they are all impressive, in the 100-400 acre range and they are numerous. I follow the road until I finally reach the Dragoons and the original horse ranch. True to my suspicion, I see Spanish Mustanos (mustangs, Spanish meaning untamed) near the house!

I think back on Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” which he claimed had little to do with either. In fact it did, and how so! He accurately described the foundations of both, a feat which has evaded other authors. Like Einstein, always asking the simplest question. I’ve always identified with him, and either subconsciously or coincidentally followed a similar path. Korea, the Army, philosophy, theology, physics, motorcycles, Thoreau and even the severe emotional trauma that comes from seeking truth exhaustively. And when finally glimpsing the “Eternal Fire” of understanding, and foolishly staring straight into it, was similarly affected. I don’t know if that is a permanent state. I don’t know what comes after and neither does he. As Moses was told not to look at the burning bush, as “No one has seen the face of God and lived,” so are there things, I suspect, that men are not meant to comprehend. Once out of the hospital, and the “Fugue” state he suffered, he could only refer to his former self as “Phaedrus,” Greek for wolf. And even then, he tried to suppress any memory of that person, who so hungered for pure knowledge, that he would risk his very existence to obtain it.

I’ve often wondered what we might have discussed had we ever met. I think it would not have been a good thing to do so. I fear we might have formed a sort of critical mass, destroying us both.

I do wonder that when “Phaedrus” put forth his thesis on “Quality” as the unifying principle bridging “Classical” or scientific, and “Romantic” or artistic, knowledge, terms he coined, to the “Church of Reason” i.e. the university, yet left it undefined, he didn’t defend that position by stating that division by zero was likewise left undefined in conventional mathematics, which is the unifying principle of western thought. See what I mean? Critical mass! He ultimately let “Phaedrus” die, and Moses remained Moses. My “Wolf” is dead, too. And the purpose of this trip at least is fulfilled, as was his, in his last ride.

And so the “Chautaucua” (rambling story of the early American traveling preachers), is finished, the message being not to look at the face of God, and not to feel cheated for not having done so. You simply can not track your soul back to its creator. It returns on it’s own in due time. In his time.

By James Ottney