Notes on Utah: Isolation on an Alien World

The alien landscape of southern Utah is unlike anything I had seen before.

If the familiar sky wasn’t overhead, the arches and canyons rising out of the red sand would be otherworldly.

Closing my eyes in the shadows, I listened and heard a silence unlike anything I had ever experienced.

The stark emptiness of my perception made me uncomfortable.

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Alone in forests and mountains, I had experienced silence before. But not like this. In those moments I was surrounded by something, and even through silence, I could hear that something.

Nothing surrounded me here– just a cold, alien, landscape. 

Within my body, I felt the isolation this land had formed in as I continued along the path.

I was alone here.

Climbing up a final stone slab, I was greeted by an arch giving me a window into the blue sky above. Through its window I saw a lone plane climbing into the sky.

A distant reminder of where I came from.

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Still, all I could hear was silence.

There are not many times in my life I had felt so alone, and in this moment, even with the plane in sight, I felt it more than ever.

But despite the isolation, I suddenly felt at peace.

The red of arches of this landscape were formed by ancient water and wind eroding the rock.

We are formed by the burden of the day-to-day wearing on us, the constant feeling of never being left to oneself, always having to conform to external forces.

In this moment I was truly by myself, and I resented my initial feeling of being made uncomfortable by the silence.

We need to be alone at times, but it always seems out of reach

I had it here, I just didn’t recognize it when I first heard it.

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Notes on Utah: Reflection on Water

 

Most people I met in Utah hated the Salt Lake.

It smells bad, it’s filled with brine shrimp, and it’s ugly.

A few months after arriving in Utah,  I got the chance to see the lake myself.

I pulled over to the side of the road and looked at the expanse.

The surface seemed like it had a reflective film placed over it. The mountains, deep blue sky, and wispy clouds were mirrored on the surface of the Lake.

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Approaching the shore I looked down and saw myself in the water. It’s not ugly, I thought— It’s just a reflection. 

The landscape nestled and cradled the Lake, and the Lake reciprocated the beauty.

But consider the Lake itself.

With no mountains and a colorless sky above, the Lake would be empty, devoid of life.

I drove further up the road until I got to a place with no landscape. From here, the lake was nothing.

Not Ugly.

It was just nothing. 

Months later I was walking through the Temple Square and stopped in my tracks. There was a pool with perfectly translucent water. On the surface you could see the sky and buildings above.

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I was reminded of my experience at the Salt Lake.

The shallow pool that held the water was nothing but black stone.  The water captured the fleeting picture of the city and held its beauty, just as the city held it.

But by itself the pool was nothing. 

No matter what surrounds it, the water holds it in. The beautiful, the ugly, and the nothing.

I am not too different than this. My surroundings, the landscape around me, who is around me, is all captured and reflected by myself.

I also know that I change, just as the seasons change the landscape.

The reflection shifts, only holding onto what cradles it.

Maybe my sentiment is what is hinted at by Emerson:

“To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again. The heavens change every moment, and reflect their glory or gloom on the plains beneath.

              -Emerson “Nature”

 

 

Notes on Utah: Stillness and Waiting

“Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson “Language”

At the beginning of Summer, the Uinta mountains are still capped in snow.

Winding forested roads brought me closer to the summit. I walked along the rocky bank of a river that seems to flow into the sky.

Soon I came to small waterfall that raged against the surrounding nature, bringing trees and rocks downstream.

As the snow of winter continued to melt, the water moved more quickly and violently— taking whatever stood in it’s way with it.

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The movement brought color and allowed nature to flourish.

Everything here contained so much life.

After ascending the summit, a valley with an expansive lake waited.

The lake was frozen, pocked with small holes that had thawed, giving a glimpse of the lake bed.

The stillness just waited.

Rounding the shore of the lake, there was a small bench. Sitting there I became complicit in the stillness.

Everything here was lifeless, just waiting.

Waiting for what? 

A curved tree is beginning to uproot from a small mound of soil rising from the lake.

Teetering precariously, just waiting.

Waiting for what?

No birds are singing, no one is around. The land is waiting.

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In a few months the ice will thaw and movement will return.

The trees and water of the lake are waiting, they are poised to accept the return.

The river will dry up as the winter thaws. The stillness will go there and wait.

Nature is a reflection of our mind. We understand nature because it represents our own structures of meaning.

We see a flower bloom and wilt. We see the sun rise and set. We see stillness leave and return.

We can comprehend this because we know about beginnings and ends from our own sense of mortality.

The river and the lake will soon change places.

The stillness of life is always punctuated by an outflow of movement.

Until those moments occur we wait.

Notes on Utah: Sunsets and Home

Sometimes it’s hard to feel at ease when your surroundings are so different.

You feel like an alien on another planet.

But you adjust over time in small ways.

First, you may find a street or a park that reminds you of one back home. With that basis in place, you slowly settle in.

Everything down to the air felt different when I first arrived in Salt Lake City. At first I felt uneasy, and the altitude did not help.

Over time I was able to adjust.

The one thing that helped me feel at ease most was a sunset.

Before I moved to Salt Lake, I saw a sunset that washed the land below in a golden hue. Above the sun, the sky was a deep vibrant blue that you only see in nature.

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One day in the foothills of the Wasatch range, I turned to see a similar sunset.

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The sunset was a banner reminding me that wherever I was, I will always be under the same sky.

This thought comforted me, and I remember that moment as the first time I felt at peace since I had arrived in the Valley.

Life takes you on strange rides, it feels good to know that there will always be something familiar— but at the same time it’s important to let go, and jump into the unknown, great things will happen. 

 

Journey to the Country

I found out about Townes Van Zandt long after I was into the blues.

But maybe that’s a good thing.

Earlier into my listening days, I may have written him off just because he was described as country music.

We all get older, and we hopefully realize that everything we were so sure about was absolutely wrong.

Due to a country music craze in college, I was exposed to modern country radio hits constantly. For years, I would be that guy that would say ‘I like a lot of music, except country.’

Townes van Zandt’s music came to me after I had been primed by two artists: Scrapper Blackwell and Alvin Youngblood Hart.

Blackwell’s song Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out really stood out to me. For some reason it reminded me of the song You’ve Got a Friend in Me from Toy Story.

This association made me begin to wake up to the possibility that country music was approachable for me.

Alvin Youngblood Hart is a contemporary artist who I discovered by chance while roving on YouTube. When I dug into his music, my favorite tracks were his country inspired tunes.

His song Tallacatcha really stood out to me:

These two artists primed me for Townes van Zandt’s music coming to me in exactly the right place and time.

I was ready for an artist like him and I was holed-up reading about music in a rainy hotel in Salzburg.

Although it was not the first time I had seen Van Zandt’s name, this time I stopped and listened.

Waitin’ Around to Die was the first song I came across:

What Townes taught me, is that I can feel the expression of his art, even though it’s clothed in a country approach. The music permeated the hard shell I had put up against country music touching me.

Thank god it did.

When something we resent becomes something we love, it shows how many little ideals we baselessly hold onto. 

It also shows us the process of letting go. 

I love how we learn lessons through a seemingly disconnected series of events lining up perfectly.

When we see the result, we cannot imagine life having worked any differently.

Everything is easier to see in retrospect though—

—and the journey always continues.

How did I find the blues?

I love country blues music.

I’m not talking about electric guitars and shuffle rhythms.

I’m talking about the real old blues.

The country-blues were regional African-American folk musics. These sounds laid the foundation for music today, and continues to be present, even if it’s just an esoteric ghost of a memory.

I found this music during a long journey, meandering through genres and artists, not knowing what I was looking for until I found it.

My journey started with the Grateful Dead. I always liked the acoustic songs like Brokedown Palace, Ripple, and Black Peter. This was Clue #1 to what I was looking for.

Clue #2 was when I started listening to Neil Young and Leonard Cohen. I was really drawn to their earlier music— their unconventional voices and acoustic guitar accompaniment struck me.

Young’s and Cohen’s music seemed so immediate and self-sufficient. I felt that these singers were drawing on something rich.

A source I could feel but not understand. 

Clue #3 hit me like a train— it was like lenses suddenly snapping into focus. The path on my journey was illuminated.

This moment occurred when I stumbled on a video of the blues singer Lightning Hopkins playing Baby, Please Don’t Go.

Afterwards I thought to myself: This is how the guitar is supposed to sound.

My new mission was to capture and fill my head with that sound.

Have I been able to capture it? No, because that’s the journey. Discovering the blues was just the clearest step on the journey thus far.

What I did manage to capture was the realization that I’m drawn to the image and sounds of the lone singer-songwriter bearing themselves to the world. 

In order to express themselves in a way that touches us, they have to tap into that rich channel.

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I feel like when I play guitar for people, or hear the music of one of these singer-songwriters, I get to tap into that richness and get to experience it again.

If only for those moments.

My journey has led me to many interesting stations, and I am excited to share them with you.

If you haven’t heard the old country blues music, listen to it.

It will give you the foundation to understand where all the music we love came from and also hopefully make you feel like I did when I first heard it.