Ascension

Elizabeth Morelli

(USA)

We need sometimes to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what.”—George Santayana

October 1998 – My feet trip on hardened ruts in the earth of the Albuquerque field, and I worry about the cameras dangling from my neck if I should fall forward. My only visual memories will be dashes of torches at this hour. I grab a friend’s hoodie sleeve to direct her left and our other two companions huddle with us. Like several thousand others who are also on the long journey from our parked cars to the open fields to watch the mass ascension of hot air balloons at pre-dawn, the crowd’s chatter adds life to the darkness, but also interrupts the privacy of human space, exchanging excitement for the contemplation that I need. I’ve been here once before, so caught up in the movement that I lost the definition of what I saw: five hundred colourful hot air balloons will fill the air space above our heads soon, with sunlight playing off the Sandia Mountains, turning orange to copper to gold at first and once the blue sky pops, the balloons will become dots of primary colours against both backdrops.

When apertures of light finally break through the overcast dark, my friends use words like “magical” and “once in a lifetime” as I did a year earlier. Then they exhale loudly. Shush, I think so I can hear the whooshing as the flames are lit inside the envelopes, one balloon after the other. Favorite sound ever. We are experiencing “The Albuquerque Square”—the perfect conditions of atmospheric temperatures for these events held in early October on a New Mexico mesa. Magic is in the practical: the exact syncing of all the conditions. That’s the beauty.

 But I understand their reaction. We are East Coasters who don’t often experience open skies. If I want to see the moon, I must stand on the side stairs of my house and peer through the top of an oak tree to get a glimpse, and that doesn’t work when the tree is in full bloom. We grew up at ground level, allowing nature to mesmerize us on the horizontal plane. In this open field where hot air balloons are birthed, we are beginning to understand the vertical experience, the significance of open space.

We told ourselves this trip wasn’t really about balloons. Convinced that we had to fly into Albuquerque, the closest airport, to make our way to Ghost Ranch, in northwest New Mexico, where we would be on a self-declared retreat picking up trash on the conference centre’s desert trails. If the date coincided—and we made sure it did—the balloons would be an interesting sideline. We remind ourselves that when we walk on different soil, there is payback, but we question the merging of work/fun, and if it’s allowable to blur the lines at times. Vacations are about escape, but this is a trip with a dual purpose, sightseeing and community service. This morning is all about balloons, the anecdote of our travels.

As more light, and the distinct odor of roasted green chilies, permeates the field, I make excuses and back away, letting my friends take on the balloons in a way that they will remember. “Keep looking up,” I indicate with my index finger and head off into the golds of desert dawn trying hard to read a camera’s aperture settings. Yes, the cameras are somewhat of an excuse. I want to redefine the balloon experience this time, elevate it above a simple memory, but keep it secondary to our trip’s main “purpose.” 

***** 

My immediate family was always in perpetual motion. My parents met on a Boston-bound train, my mother returning to her stint as a nurse at the Chelsea Naval base, my father moving freely around the country as a contracted engineer for the U.S. Air Force. The adrenaline that fueled their travel stoked their early relationship. They were different individuals who may have defined the pull, the need to travel, as a sustainable common thread cementing a relationship that would crumble quickly leaving two daughters with their motion toys. I remember elaborate tops. Child anger could be channelled into furious spinning contests: the humming pump top versus the whistling top.

I was almost six when they split and for a while I would fly the route between Albany, New York (mother/grandmother) and Boston, Massachusetts (father), unaccompanied, in my pink balloon dress with matching purse. Placed in a front seat with another lone child, the flight attendant would often pin pilot wings on us near the end of the journey. I loved the air trips, the motion of the propellers, the clicking of the flight attendants’ heels, the pilot tipping his hat to us, and the parentless feel. Not being here nor there appealed to my sense of what ought to be, not what was.

What was: a two hundred and fifty square feet apartment meant for one tucked at the end of my grandmother’s house in Schenectady, New York, smaller than my entire bedroom in our New Hampshire home from which we had just moved. My sister and I shared a bunk bed at my grandmother’s home in what was a one-time closet with a linoleum floor. Nothing else fit in the room, and because the bunk ladder couldn’t be used, I had to climb up to the back of the bed. My mother added pink storytime wallpaper and a drop ceiling to the room to cover up the peeling paint, but the ceiling was so low that I would spend my nights kicking up the tiles to allow for more space. “Why do you do that?” she asked. I had to for sanity reasons, not easily explained at six. Once bedtime reading became a hobby, the room became dysfunctional with my younger sister in the bunk below, and the fact that no one could figure out a way to place a lamp near the top bunk. My books remained in the living room in a corner.

And that was a trade-off, I think. Books replaced wanderings in the New Hampshire meadows of my earlier life when my parents were together. I could take a lawn chair outside here and read in this city-plotted backyard, not do much else. My father sent a dribble of books to spur me on towards movement starting with Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and followed the next year by Sheila Burnford’s The Incredible Journey. For Valentine Day’s my mother produced Louisa Alcott’s Under the Lilacs. Even at seven, I could see the divergence in their messages, and I stumbled with Alcott, because the children learned contentment in the boundaries of their yard. In New Hampshire, my mother sent me outside with a container of Bosco and a sandwich to scout our vast meadows and fields. “I’ll send the dog out to bring you back for dinner,” she would say. My scouting in New York included finding Warner’s The Boxcar Children in the school library that spring and allowing the orphaned children living in the train’s boxcar to mesmerize, while I yearned for a common status, including my life reduced to silhouette drawings.

We lived two miles from a train track in New York, and fifteen miles from the airport. Memorizing those distances gave me expectations for change, at least in my head. We no longer owned a car— my mother’s engagement ring only paid for about six months of repairs—so public buses, bicycling and walking accounted for all travel. I walked the mile downtown by myself often, and, because of my first-grade status, sometimes purchased the wrong items, once amusing my mother by buying a birthday instead of a Mother’s Day card. The birthday card had prettier flowers, the message secondary. Six-year-old judgment prevailed.

The year my father sent me a white Samsonite suitcase, my mother purchased an old car. I had just turned twelve and thought the coming together of their ideologies once again gave me a clear message that travel was no longer out of economic reach. Or on another level, to connect with my parents at all, I had to view travel as the ultimate life goal. And just maybe, it wasn’t as much about travel as a connection to each of them. On Sundays, my reinvigorated -with-used-car mother would drive us to Albany airport where we would sit in the car at the end of a runway and watch the planes take off and land. Sometimes we ventured inside the airport, to the gates, to the observation deck where we’d be blown by the propellers and observe the travellers. Unintentionally, she dangled that carrot just out of reach, but I decided that my backyard sitting was becoming my past, and I needed to begin hoarding money for my own plane fare.

My father typed us letters twice a month with our dollar allowance (eventually five, then ten dollars) tucked into the white business envelopes. He typed three paragraphs in each letter: the first concerning the weather, the third about his cocker spaniel of the moment, while the second was always a glimpse at his recent travels or excerpts from his old travel journals: 6 December, (mid-1930s): “The channel has the reputation of being rough, but we made a quick trip to Ostend in about three hours. As soon as I got my passport/visa and (made it) through customs I caught a train to Bruges and arrived there at 9 p.m. I then asked a cop for a cheap hotel. I stressed the cheap and he misread my intentions. After a while I got my French straightened out so that I found a place. It is better at $.60 than I had in London for $1.50—St. Hubert. It was surprising to see the women washing the sidewalks in front of the stores after 9 p.m. Like Bruges very much.” Occasionally my mother would read the letters and state indignantly, “He wrote THAT to a child.” I saw only the highlights: the train, the boat, the hotel, and the woman washing sidewalks. That was an adventure, even though he grumbled through it.

He drove me to Montreal, Canada during my thirteenth summer, and I stumbled with my basic French just as he had done years earlier. I ate fish because it was the only main entrée I knew how to pronounce. That same summer, my mother found a way to fly us to Florida to sit on a beach, and we learned that the sun could create boils on the back but equalizes the pain with its scenic water risings and settings.

As I grew out of childhood, I understood their message. Movement in a different direction allows growth, and discovery that leads to experiences and episodes that disconnect one from everyday life. Travel produces a fragmented, momentary lifestyle change, like a journal entry, observations without conclusions. My mother’s letters and postcards in later years were upbeat and specific with her goal to entertain the reader (July 1984): “Hope to spot an iceberg and moose or caribou! Came over from Sydney, Nova Scotia on a 19-hour ferry trip—tiny staterooms—260 miles of ocean travel.”

Their travel records include tracking daily information, the details of the journey, and commenting sporadically. Somewhat like my pushing destination pins into my current world map, this accounting loses the lyrical and purpose behind the trips, but the simple escapism was enough for them. One of the most weeded sections of the public library today is the Dewey Decimal 920s containing the old travel journals of that Lost Generation, most in notebook form and given to the library in hopes that others would share in their individual journeys. The problem: the journeys were personal reckonings, peppered with time, dates and sightseeing— seeing without feeling. The few journals that made the cut into the 21st-century public library connected with the political side of history with firsthand observations.

Both my parents heard Adolf Hitler speak in Germany, but my sixteen-year-old mother who was in a mass audience, refused to talk about it. My father summed up his contact during a visit to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany in one of his journals. “We went to the Fascist Meeting. There were four in the group and three of them spoke…The small one was afflicted with some nervous trouble and his hands and arms shook out of control. They said this was shell shock from the war. (The small one was Hitler although I never heard of him and did not recognize this for several years.)” They left the meeting because German was spoken too rapidly to understand. When I found the journal entry, I felt cheated. “Show me, Dad and Mom, what this encounter did to you in later years. Explain to me how Hitler delivered that speech. Tell me what you were feeling that night and years later when you realized you rubbed your arms with him. Stop the use of the verbs “saw” and “went” in your journals Stop being the Gulliver of your travels; use self-reflection. I need to understand both of you.” When I tired of keeping a diary at eight, I filled an entire ream of pages with “Had fun” just to keep up the pretence of writing every day.

But there’s the possibility of more, of that connection to my father/mother in travel that will serve as a life connection. If I can begin to see him/her through traveller’s eyes of their writings, I can begin to understand myself and my push to evolve this need to travel into something significant. If he (she) had been more explicit, his daughters might have indication today as to his political leanings, his moral stance, and his character. His (and her) sense of immersion in travel, in life, appeared to be through observation only. He/she was with Hitler in a small room (large audience), yet he/she wasn’t.

*****

(September 1989) – They want me to remove my contact lenses in the dusty border crossing office on the East/West Berlin, Germany border. I have no idea why but take one out at a time and hold each one out on the tip of my index fingers for the guard’s inspection. He moves his hands to indicate I can reinsert, so I stick one on my tongue, having no other liquid source. His hand motion becomes rapid, and he begins shaking his finger at me. “Does anyone speak English here?” I ask succumbing to the ugliest of American questions.

My son, Keith, about to begin his fifth year of high school German, throws out a question or two to the guard, then turns to me. “He’s afraid you’re going to swallow them.”

I want to smile, yearn to be sarcastic, but instead wave my hands to indicate “No, no.” What contraband could be hidden on a hard contact lens? I show him how I place the lens back in each eye—a chore without a mirror. The guard grunts.

Keith attempts to explain my situation once more. A thud of a metal stamp comes down on one of the passports, and we are sent into the Sunday morning rain on the Communist side of the wall. From the graffiti-covered Berlin wall of the West, we walk into a Soviet mega apartment complex bordering the wall, white, antiseptic appearing. The wall is whitewashed without a single mark on the Communist side. Someone has recently raked through the level dirt of the centre court: no grass, no trees. On the very top of the high-rise apartment buildings speakers blare what is Soviet music—flat, no crescendo or decrescendo, certainly no hint of melody. We are alone.

“Keep your passport close, Keith,” I say thinking Orwell 1984 or worse.

Mapless—I have no idea why—we manoeuvre eventually to a main street and a partially destroyed military museum where we pay a steep admission cost to view World War remnants and reminders. Once outside again, we watch a small military contingent goose-stepping down the street. This is what my son, Keith, remembers of that day and will impart when explaining Communism to his children. “It was surreal and having grown up hearing awful things about life behind the “iron curtain” and reading Tom Clancy novels, I was scared. Armed guards and machine guns at the border; everything seemed bleak, and it was a stark contrast to life in West Berlin which was full of energy and life. That and an expensive watered-down Pepsi which was bought because we had to spend the money we had converted.”

Yes, we find a small refreshment stand, and Keith buys a “Pepsi” and labels it bad after a sip or two. I agree. Across the street is a hotel with an attached gift shop. If a Westerner is granted the right to enter East Berlin, he must spend 25 Deutsche marks ($12.50) before returning, or the money will be charged to him at the border crossing.

The shop has wooden Christmas tree ornaments, hand-carved with a small deer in the centre. I even find a Christmas crèche ornament in this non-Christian country, delicately depicted with the tiniest of instruments. Expensive, but serious souvenirs.

“It doesn’t seem fair to make us spend money,” Keith grumbles.

“It’s okay. I guess it strengthens their economy,” I state. “The least we can do for them.”

I think that it’s forced consumerism, a nod to capitalism, but I won’t mention that view at this point to my seventeen-year-old just now.

Six weeks later the wall crumbles.

*****

“I know that I travel in large part in search of hardship…. I like the stress on a holiday that’s “moral” since we fall into ethical habits as easily as into our beds at night.”-Pico Iyer 

Pico Iyer is not my parent. If he were, we could have serious philosophical conversations on travel, and I would follow his firsthand lead. In contrast, my mother’s favourite “hardship” moment was on some Montana wilderness road when a Grizzly appeared in front of her. He reared up, she indicated, and thrust” those yellowed claws” in my direction “again and again.” What she failed to include in this retelling was that she was in the front seat of a huge tour bus when the bear approached. Travel for her was a form of adventure, an escape, a kick-in-the-arse to daily routine, but always with that element of safety. Postcards were her journals, and they compiled her “unique” sightings and summaries: As Pico Iyer reminisces, “You surrender to a place, and it begins to give itself over to you.” In my mother’s case, if the safety net was cast, she accepted the new environment.

My father became involved in a rebuild Europe movement in the late 1950s. He wanted us to send our better-used clothes to Austria and had in mind one plaid coat that he had sent us years earlier. We had passed it from one to the other knowing it was expensive but hating the structured shoulders, the bright red-green plaid on black, and even the collar. “I’m too old for velvet,” I remember declaring at ten. “But the coat fits,” my mother would say, “so wear it.” My grandmother made most of our clothes, so owning a Boston Department store coat was a nice plus, even if it was a garment I wouldn’t choose. His letter showed up, and the only decent outfit we had to send was that coat, so my mother packed it up along with some knitted scarves. Because he constantly sent us his slides from Austria—high mountains and girls dancing in bright coloured skirts, I assumed the coat would find a good home. It was sent; he never asked again, and we got new winter coats that year.

I have a Facebook friend who is working in a Macedonian Refugee Relief Center (April 2016.). She centres her life around the “travel with purpose” theme. On her Facebook timeline, she inserts daily photos of the refugees lining up for food, significant people who run the Center, and photos of herself handing out supplies. I cringe at the overload, but I am also impressed. She found out that if an individual is backed by a humanitarian organization, they may bring three extra suitcases with them to most foreign destinations without the airline surcharge. Before she left Virginia, she posted her photo of her three Goodwill suitcases lined up full of everything from pre-school underwear to sunglasses. This is a National Public Radio PR trip that she funded herself. This would be my life if I had the funds.

What stands out to me in all her postings of the relief centre in Skopje, Macedonia is that on her off-morning, she drove her car into Albania, only fifteen minutes away, to get a passport stamp (“# sillyamericantourists”). She also tried to buy her children Serbian tee shirts (there’s no such thing.) Yeah, I get her focus, but I don’t know if I’d post the trip’s sidelines after thanking all the donors for their supplies.

A thin line exists between responsible and irresponsible humanitarian travel. “Volunteerism versus Voluntourism.” The Onion mocks voluntourism in its article “Instagramming Africa: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism” by quoting twenty-two-year-old Angela Fisher, “I don’t think my (Facebook) profile photo will ever be the same, not after the experience of taking such incredible pictures with my arm around those small African children’s shoulders.”

It is difficult to know if the so-called urge to do the right thing in developing countries is really the right thing, or should one go back to the hands-off observant parents who would never mingle beyond their boundary lines?

I always feel that the people I meet during travel, particularly in developing areas, need to see less of me and more of what I bring. On a tour of Guatemala in 2014, I did my usual fill – a – huge – plastic – bag – with – school – supplies – and – deliver – it. Only I was in a small mountain village, Chichicastenango, and I had just endured two hours with a young man, a guide, I had hired (local authorities’ suggestion) dragging me to his family sidewalk vendor stands. After paying him off with cash and cookies, the time left was limited, so I grabbed my bag from the old monastery I was staying in and started out alone, striding quickly along the semi-paved roads. It was market day, and a parade had begun at about the same moment I saw two 12-year-old girls in colourful scarves selling wooden jewellery.

“Ola,” I called, “Por la escuela?” I opened the bag.

The first girl whistled. In the next minute, my bag of fifty Dollar Store items was grabbed by ten people, mostly older women. The scene became a nightmare: Spiderman pencils spilled all over the stone streets, neon-coloured rubber balls bounced into merchant areas, barrettes grabbed and placed in mouths, notebooks tucked under arms and then dropped, lollipops gathered in huge bouquets. One mixed-breed dog grabbed a large pink eraser and carried it away in its jowls as if a beloved bone.

“Mas” someone yelled. “Por MI escuela!” someone rationalized.

I backed away but couldn’t make headway due to the crowds, and not before witnessing a couple of magic markers taking flight.

Distribution of supplies needs organization. On a trip through Peru in 2015, the tour leader asked us to bring designated supplies, and we would deliver them as a group to a primary school. We travelled in early March, not aware the schools were still on “summer” break, so we missed that chance of delivery. In Aguas Calientes, Peru we visited to a neighbourhood daycare, and I was led into a three-year-old class (the same age as my grandson then) to watch the intermingling of parents who wanted to stay (unlike the U.S.) and the children. The kids had limited supplies, most attempting to attach red plastic bricks to each other with fingers too tiny for the task. Some of the bricks broke in the process. “They need the Duplo Legos,” I stated to no one and then to the director of the school. “Can we send you a couple of boxes?” “Not easily” was the translated response. We can buy the Legos, my travel friend, Mike, and I both agreed on that solution. The problem was that if they were sent, the school would have to pay customs charges at their end. “Maybe we could go to Washington D.C. and get some sort of pay-up-front from the Peruvian Embassy,” I said to Mike. He nodded, “But is it too complicated?” The director said the only way the donation worked was to ask someone visiting their village to hand-carry the Legos. Once home we donated instead to the Parque Kennedy (Lima) foster cats, because it was easy with PayPal, and we had spent a great afternoon in the cat park. We are still searching for someone who will be visiting Aguas Calientes soon and will utilize the new “three suitcases” humanitarian rule. Of course, Duplo Legos aren’t light. “The Giving Brick” (U.S.) and” Legos for Africa” organizations now expedite the movement of Legos to worldwide communities, and a few Legos substitutes available in South America are decent.

It’s complicated to move that distance beyond observation, to let go of the camera and cell phone and just mingle in present tense. Complicating this agenda has been my work schedule. For many years, my annual leave was limited to just two to three weeks—and dollars were short. Volunteerism trips, those journeys strictly for humanitarian reasons, were not cheap. Six months after Hurricane Katrina (2005), I found myself in New Orleans ready to work for Habitat for Humanity, but the only housing available was at an elevated French Quarter hotel in a higher price range. Due to rain, I was assigned to work in the Restore in the ninth ward which meant a 4.5 walk through streets of houses that were flooded five months earlier. Now the houses bore thick black paint to show waterlines and dark numbers to indicate survivors— or those that didn’t. During my stint in the Restore, I learned how to install a toilet and watched the eyes and faces of the few rebuilders who forged ahead in repairs enough to decide on reused coloured tile for their kitchen backsplash. It was a different kind of journey, one I don’t regret except for the prevailing sense that everything done for the flood victims was temporary, that New Orleans was gone, and only a shell remained ready to be washed away in the next season’s hurricane. Rather than moving ahead, the remaining residents were marking time. Question to my parents: what did your travel experience do to you in later years? It made me not want to return to New Orleans, because even though the city leapt back into existence, I remembered the watermarks. But curiosity trumps the time factor, and I revisited New Orleans with a friend in September 2015 to mark the tenth-year anniversary of Katrina. The city was vibrant, draped in parades, jazz, and expectations. Our only solemn moments came in the Presbytere Museum where the Katrina exhibit spotlighted sections of houses with the very marks I remembered, now historical fodder.

*****

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”-Neale Donald Walsch

My grandchildren, who tend to move cautiously through life, who mark themselves by

their acronym-friendly disorders, allow me the experience of packing up and exploring with them each summer. Riley, now sixteen, and I have shared eleven trips together bringing us as far west as California to visit her birth city and to the Bahamas last summer to use her passport. Her sister, MacKenzie, and brother, Hunter, tally a summer trip count of five and four. They like travelling together, so we have encountered wax at a Crayola Crayon attraction, potato chip making at a Pennsylvania factory and rope courses at Massanutten, Virginia. My purpose with each of them may not make it to my parents’ level of clinical observation. I am trying to incorporate adaptation in their lives and to teach all four that the world “out there” is not fearful, only challenging, and they need to embrace it to understand what it offers.

A current conversation Mackenzie, Hunter and I had regarding our upcoming summer is very typical of where our travel talks end up—in this case on Facebook.

The idea is to take the ten- and eight-year-old together on a summer trip.

Me: “So where should we go?”

MacKenzie: “I want to fly somewhere.”

Hunter: “Planes crash.”

MacKenzie: “An island, I think.”

Hunter: “Tsunamis, earthquakes.”

Me: “An island, like…?”

MacKenzie: “The Dominican Republic”

Me: “You pulled that out of the air?”

MacKenzie: “Someone in my class went there.”

Hunter: “Drowning, Flooding.” 

 

In the past month, MacKenzie has convinced Hunter to try train travel. He accepts that idea since Wi-Fi will be available. She thinks New Orleans; I favour Baltimore. This is an argument I will probably win because I hold the flood knowledge of New Orleans. I say the “f” word, and we travel to Baltimore.

It may be travel acceptance, then wonder, leading to base-level observation that I’m trying for with the kids. That’s what my parents strived for, but once achieved I plan to move the kids beyond these limits. We keep scrapbooks and journals each summer, picking up scraps of memory. I use my favourite souvenir as an example: a small white name tag with a red ribbon and “Luis” spelled out across the front. I found this tag in Puerto Rico one year when I was on a mission to only take home street souvenirs. It has served me well.

When I first started these summer trips with Riley, I tried to figure out a way to incorporate the human end of the deal with a then five-year-old who wanted theme parks. Because I deliver Meals on Wheels locally, we could do small jobs in a vacation city Feedmore kitchen, but was it fair to place my definition of travel into her experience? At five, the answer was “No.” Instead, each time I travel with the kids, we visit a discount store, buy a couple of cases of food, and deliver to a Food Bank in the closest Feedmore city. I stress the message repeatedly to my young travel companions during the pick-up and delivery—that we are borrowing this city for our enjoyment; we need to return the favour. They all get it, even Kameron, the four-year-old, who will begin his travel this year with a trip to the North Carolina Zoo.

My deliver-a-bag-of-supplies has not fully evolved, and I still do this in developing countries, though not so much on street corners anymore. In Tangier, Morocco, I gave my bag to a carpet merchant in the Kasbah who spent time sitting outside his shop and pondering his neighbours. He seemed like the correct choice. In Athens, Greece, after sharing a couple of glasses of ouzo, I presented the bag to a t-shirt merchant who had a shop in the Monastiraki district but insisted he knew all the locals. That wasn’t the wisest of choices.

It’s about balance, this travel bug. It’s about making mistakes and chalking them up to experience; it’s about having everything carefully planned but allowing a gap for spontaneity; it’s about handing over a small token of self in a plastic bag and taking back the connection. It’s allowing the sightseeing anecdote to sometimes prevail over the community service aspect, depending on the situation, and not feeling guilty. Mom and Dad, it’s moving the scrutinizing traveller to a visceral level, replacing soft travel with hard-ish. I love my scrapes and bumps.

*****

We make our way up the Chimney Rock trail in the red rock canyon of Ghost Ranch, one of us with a pick, two with blue plastic bags, one with a shovel. Yesterday we devoured New Mexico hot air balloons until they settled back on the mesa to become little more than wicker baskets once again. Today we are traversing orange and reds, dust, and pebbles of the arroyo, to leave a bit of ourselves here, directly under a Georgia O’Keefe house. We wear rugged hiking shoes—one in boots—bandanas, workman’s gloves, and sunscreen, and we are ready for all the droppings one finds on a mile-and-a-half trail that stretches upward to a high Ghost Ranch rock formation. Someone starts a Disney Snow White song “Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it’s off to Work We Go” and we all march up the canyon.

There are misplaced pebbles in the middle of the path, one tissue, and a single empty water bottle. As we move higher, we find a blue bottle top. Higher even, and someone locates a pencil stub and an undefined plastic wrapper. Donkey and horse feces have nicely been repositioned at the side of the trail. Our gazes turn upwards where skies touch horizons, and where the green grass of the lawn below merges with the rocky outgrowth.

“Okay,” someone says. “Why are we doing this? It’s clean.”

“Maybe it’s the wrong trail,” another pipes up.

“No,” the third one says pulling off her bandana, “There are three trails, and this one is the only one behind the museum.”

They look at me. I booked the trip, made all the arrangements, including a promised dirty trail pick-up. “Does this diminish the trip at all?” I ask thinking fast, but reinterpreting the community service paired with the sightseeing concept, as they ponder the question. “I mean—we tried.”

The group huddles now at the top vista. “It does make it different. It’s less about helping.”

“Roll of the proverbial dice,” one adds as she starts back down the trail.

Exactly.

Elizabeth Morelli

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Raised in New England and New York, I am a public service librarian, archives' worker and writer/reviewer now living in Virginia when not traveling. Years of photography instruction as well as graduate writing courses have prepared me for digesting the world.

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