Travels through Sonoran Madness with a Surrealist: Take Aways from Mexico

The man was larger than life. Like Cochise. Like Chief Joseph. Like John Wayne: if he weren’t a racist bigot. He filled the space in the most intimidatingly gentle way imaginable. Love personified and so nobly heroic: the child could not help but lift him to a pedestal of ideals. They drove through time, winding through the silent sagebrush and between the sandy cliffs of Willow Crick. The entire way was punctuated by stories from other times; Ned Clark and Charlie Glass, the One-Room Schoolhouse, the Cliff-side Dwelling two young brothers made just to prove Old Ways were not yet lost. The child had heard these stories a million times, etched deep onto his character, his sinews, his consciousness, and hoped to hear them a million more: shared with anyone who cared to listen.

As a poet I am not primarily concerned with intellect. I’m not that smart. I want to make people laugh and cry.” 

Richard Shelton

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They would wander higher, chasing the visions of sheep herder-peace and Green River Crossings. A sister had died on these trails-turned-sandy-riverbeds, crushed beneath wagon wheels and accident. Crazy mixed blood Ned Clark stealing a string of ponies and heading to Wyoming because he hated the Barneys. The child was delighted in the wild adventure of his ancestry.

“The ugliest thing in America is greed, the lust for power and domination, the lunatic ideology of perpetual Growth – with a capital G. ‘Progress’ in our nation has for too long been confused with ‘Growth’; I see the two as different, almost incompatible, since progress means, or should mean, change for the better – toward social justice, a livable and open world, equal opportunity and affirmative action for all forms of life. And I mean all forms, not merely the human. The grizzly, the wolf, the rattlesnake, the condor, the coyote, the crocodile, whatever, each and every species has as much right to be here as we do.”  –  Ed Abbey, Postcards from Ed: Dispatches and Salvos from an American Iconoclast

 

 

They would wind higher, smelling the fading sagebrush give way to cedar, pine, and hearing the quaking of the noble white goddess of the high expanses. The child craved these times, envisioning wild and free people, never bound by man-made constraints, whether they be the Native brothers or the salty sheep herding share croppers. Social justice was born in those rides. Idealistic motivations were planted in those drives. Respect of Culture and Place in history was born on those drives. The shape of a man was molded in those stories.

“Wilderness. The word itself is music.” – Ed Abbey

 

 

At the top, in a secluded place, away from everything but Everything, his father and his Papa and he would eat their packed lunch and imagine. There they named a point, not a map naming, not a labeling that destroys magic, a secret christening, Ryan’s Point, and Ryan’s Point looked out over the spines of the Bookcliff titles of history, off the ledges created by their haphazard stacking, over the stain of Interstate 70 as it plugged along and over Green River and into Colorado. He looked out over Moab, over Shiprock, over the Nation and the Hogans, over the Mesas, over the Sacred Kachina Peaks, over the snake twist of Black Canyon and into the Ecological Superiority Complex that was Phoenix. Ryan’s Point was the perch from which to view the structure of his fragile time.

“Why can’t we simply borrow what is useful to us from Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, especially Zen, as we borrow from Christianity, science, American Indian traditions and world literature in general, including philosophy, and let the rest go hang? Borrow what we need but rely principally upon our own senses, common sense and daily living experience.” – Ed Abbey

 

 

 

Most of my life I have haunted these expanses. The western slope. The four corners. The geological marker, and mystery and spiritualism of the ancients, the crest defined between Roswell and Jerome and south through Bisbee and into Sonora. The spiritual Netherworld which lay along longitude:

109° 2′ 42.6804” W

Peaking into Arizona and Colorado, Utah and New Mexico and sculpting majesty into a place of clandestine and ruggedly timeless history. A motorcycling drifter searching for some kind of purpose. So many things had feinted, tempting his drifting passage, wasted his precious purity, filled his days with angst, but each time this is where I returned. This was the magic world, and it has defined me, and always, no matter how far I have drifted: this has been home.

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I read, and I studied, first at the University of Arizona. Arizona State University. This weird flop through Kansas somewhere in-between. I had of course read Ed Abbey, and I loved The Brave Cowboy because it reminding me of my Papa. Interesting how these roads that never seem like they will convene again, after diverging somewhere in our pasts, seem to define coincidence. And faith. But it was not until I met my wife, educated in the idealistic dream of her Vietnam Veteran, Marine Corespondent, Naturalist, Conservationist, Electrician, Detroit Disc Jockey father, that I really learned to appreciate and marvel at the works and philosophy of Ed Abbey.

And then, I went to Mexico with the Poet who very well, may have buried him.  The Desert does not Disclose Perfect Secrets.

I have played pool with Roger Clyne when he was a Refreshment. I have seen the Peacemakers leave a lyrical tribute to Sonoran Madness…. and Hope. I have dreamed of being a new voice, a modern Stephen Crane, a young transcendentalist in a Modern and Kaleidoscopic Desert World. I have envisioned ways to chase my ephemeral visions into the Chihuahuas into the Catalinas into the White Mountains. Through the Bookcliffs and into the High Unitas.

“Ken Lamberton’s Chasing Arizona is a collection of memorable essays about the state we love. As entertaining as he is curiously profound, Lamberton is Arizona’s 21st Century Thoreau, blessed with the depth, eye, and patience of Joseph Wood Krutch, and the delicious literary flair of the late Charles Bowden.”  – David Fitzsimmons

The Golden Line of my life, started to become visible.  Tracing right through the pains of divorce, the loss of a career, the stint in jail, the writing of Spirits of Jerome, and my dear madre, buying a copy of Chasing Arizona from a small shop, because she thought her tortured son would find pleasure in its pages.  I am a product of the surreal.  There are no coincidences.

And then I went to Mexico with the Understated, Beautiful and Courageous Poets that define the line between the Transcendent and the Surreal. And that line is the Sonoran Desert.

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Requiem for Sonora

Richard Shelton

1
a small child of a wind
stumbles toward me down the arroyo
lost and carrying no light
tearing its sleeves
on thorns of the palo verde
talking to itself
and to the dark shapes it touches
searching for what it has not lost
and will never find
searching
and lonelier
than even I can imagine

the moon sleeps
with her head on the buttocks of a young hill
and you lie before me
under moonlight as if under water
oh my desert
the coolness of your face

2
men are coming inland to you
soon they will make you the last resort
for tourists who have
nowhere else to go
what will become of the coyote
with eyes of topaz
moving silently to his undoing
the ocotillo
flagellant of the wind
the deer climbing with dignity
further into the mountains
the huge delicate saguaro

what will become of those who cannot learn
the terrible knowledge of cities

3
years ago I came to you as a stranger
and have never been worthy
to be called your lover or to speak your name
loveliest
most silent sanctuary
more fragile than forests
more beautiful than water

I am older and uglier
and full of the knowledge
that I do not belong to beauty
and beauty does not belong to me
I have learned to accept
whatever men choose to give me
or whatever they choose to withhold
but oh my desert
yours is the only death I cannot bear

For four days and five nights I basked in the glow that was the Poet who had bucked convention, told the University of Arizona English Department to fuck off, and hired Ed Abbey as a professor at UofA, one semester a year. This was in the 80s, before the Internet defined what your senses used to know. Before the world was something other than watching the sad fact that “nothing drives People crazy like People driving People Crazy.” He and his partner in crime, Ken Lamberton, author of Wilderness and Razorwire, Chasing Arizona, and other pennings of greatness, filled the days whisking me back to an academic time, where a day at desks and resting in sparce shade used to open my mind to never ending wonders. How I have missed learning!

“Surrealism is the chance juxtaposition of wildly unlike things, whose purpose is to be slightly abrasive to the mind”. – Richard Shelton

 

I listened to Richard, who called me a friend, and said I could call him “Dick”, and if I was really daring, could call him “Really, big Dick”. I of course was more than ready for the challenge. We were, after all, as an amazing community of Southwestern, Sonoran Writers, only there for Dick!

Dick told stories of meeting Frost, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, Octoavio Paz, J.A. Jance, and Terry Tempest Williams.

I wrote my first new Poem in Years:

On Concluding a Mexico Conclave in the Company of Sonoran Champions and Contemplating Frost

Ryan B. Clark

 

One might reflect on the meanderings of a life

Whether one’s own or another’s

Like a bodysnacher

Or a hitchhiker

A voyeur on a private galaxy

 

One might contemplate Frost’s diverging Roads

Tasting of that yellow wood

And the dust in a veil of film

Sanding across taste buds Licking

Cracked Lips

 

In a surrealist’s overlay like a transparency sheet

Placed over the lightbuld of the sun

The Sonoran Desert is that yellowing wood

Doused with ravaging shocks of vibrant color

The dilemma of jagged trails is no different

 

One might stand reminiscing upon shale leaves

Knowing the harshness of the journey

Will likely make this a once Chance moment a lifetime choice

The wind stirs dervishes spiraling to the sun

A hawk rides the harsh gift into glaring yellow blindness

 

The Sonoran Wanderer sees a Confluence of footprints

Tourists to the state hiking her foreign reaches

In wonder, visitors in an Alien World

And consider the other, the harsher, the Pointed

Feeling all too well that in Difficulty lies the greater claim

 

One might segway to Dickens like an Arizona Copper Chain

Instead of Iron or Flowers back to that one Choice

That one Chance Taken that made all the Difference

Exclaiming with a Whitman Yawp the Dawning

That all of the Painful Jagged Encounters of Trails became the Crucible

 

That gave this Clandestine moment Permanence

One might, in that Squinting bright moment, wiping the salt in trails across a brough

Heaving heated breath into joyously expanding lungs

Pulling golden cholla from hidden crags of skin and creases

Calling out in tremendous expulsion, ” In this I am Crazy and I am Alive!”

 

In the Company of Keatingesque Sweaty Toothed Madmen

Modern Emerson’s teaching Thoreau’s teaching Cranes

The Desert Breath of History, scraping razor wind like a Woodpecker on Metal

Yes – diverging trails – you have been Cursed for Decades

But in an Ephinous Moment… Celestial Hope is a Sonoran Cosmos

My mind was flooded in a deluge of New. So much overflowing the dams of my conscious restraints and fears to re-imagine, reaffirm, and never to go gently into anything… the night or the desert. To say fuck it, to embrace, to scream, to Yawp, to become a Savage. To glory as a Barbarian. To sojourn with Scorpions. And dare to ask the Native Guardians of the Land of Spirit to allow me a glimpse of their beauty. And revel in it.

“The one thing … that is truly ugly is the climate of hate and intimidation, created by a noisy few, which makes the decent majority reluctant to air in public their views on anything controversial. … Where all pretend to be thinking alike, it’s likely that no one is thinking at all.” – Ed Abbey

 

 

 

I realized I was with my people, and my people were a lens upon the Southwest, they were poetic mutes trying to interpret wonder into Brail. I realized that to be great, was indeed to be misunderstood, and in Mexico, I was inducted into a Pantheon of Sonoran greatness… by the Godfather himself. I was Crane. I was Whitman. I was an emergent Voice… out of the meeting of Emerson, Thoreau reborn as Shelton, Abbey, and Lamberton. My time in the Hogan of the Navajo with Kody. My time on First Mesa with the Hopi. My mind voyages with Skywalker.

“My loyalties will not be bound by national borders, or confined in time by one nation’s history, or limited in the spiritual dimension by one language and culture. I pledge my allegiance to the damned human race, and my everlasting love to the green hills of Earth, and my intimations of glory to the singing stars, to the very end of space and time.” – Ed Abbey, Confessions of a Barbarian

 

The vistas visible from Ryan’s Point are Magnificent.

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“The extreme clarity of the desert light is equaled by the extreme individuation of desert life forms. Love flowers best in openness and freedom.” – Ed Abbey, Desert Solitaire

And the convoluted meanderings of my life began to coalescence, to merge into a definable pattern, and lay out the amazingly fantastic road that is going to be my history.  I am the single heir of Chippewa legends, Horse Thief Illiterates, Secret Poet Mailmen, Saint David Pioneers, Scottish Poets, and Firemen.  I am a teacher.  I am a writer. And my work tells the twisted and haunted tales of Sonoran Hope.

I don’t know where these new travels will lead… but the Monkey Wrench gang that meets every Thursday night at the UofA Poetry Center might just be the secret to chasing that elusive Muse.

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Keep the Greasy Side Down My Friends.

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Ghost Writer

Arizona Enthusiast. Writer. Rider. Dreamer.

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