Andersen: Discoveries in an open air museum |

Andersen: Discoveries in an open air museum

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

I’m sitting naked, Buddha-like, in a shallow cave, deep in a desert wilderness. A canyon wren splits the silence with its welcome song. A warm breeze flutters leaves on the cottonwoods.

All is peace and stillness until Graeme shambles up from the shaded perch where he’s been reading near a deep pool of water reflecting the golden rays of afternoon sun.

“I had to move because of red ants,” announces the aged Scot, my longtime hiking and biking bro. “One bit me on the back, and it still hurts.”

“Graeme,” I calmly reply. “I’m in a nirvana moment here trying to transcend the Trump disaster and the global rise of ethno-nationalism … and you complain of ant bites?”

The canyon wren repeats its ageless warble, which penetrates to my inner ear while simultaneously radiating out into the stratosphere. I muse on what Lorenz theorized about the wings of a butterfly causing a tornado in Texas.

Graeme and I are half way through an eight-day desert sojourn penetrating one of the grandest, most beautiful, open-air natural history museums in the world. The route we’ve been hiking meanders 50 miles through a crack in a high sandstone plateau rife with Indian ruins and rock art.

Our thoughts have been cut adrift from news media and screen time. Left to their own devices, our wandering minds have meandered in sympathy with our feet through labyrinthine twists and turns.

From our camp in a narrows beneath an overhang of rock that shades us from the hot sun, we look across the canyon at a towering wall of sandstone representing millions of years of geologic evolution.

In stark contrast comes the thundering crescendo of a commercial jet arcing across the deep blue and leaving a crystalline wake that drifts with prevailing air currents. The sky has become hazy from dozens of jet contrails that lace together like the weaves of a basket.

The sandstone wall catching the evening sun signifies eons in which man is not even a footnote. Graeme and I posit that one day the Anthropocene epoch will be but a thin, radioactive layer of compressed plastic and steel in a future sandstone wall containing all the great ideas, the hopes and dreams, the blood, sweat and tears of humanity.

We have met others in the canyon who also are there to ponder. Such a rare place attracts philosophers, naturalists, writers, composers, photographers, archaeologists, spiritualists, recreationalists, escapists and adventures. All see it on foot the way the earliest inhabitants saw it, albeit with an overlay of technology, from Gore-Tex to GPS.

For those earlier residents, their clock was not digital; it was the sun. Diurnal rhythms were formed by day and night. Shadows were the hour hand. The moon tracked the months. Seasons tracked the years.

We who come here today hike the canyon to appreciate those same ancient rhythms, to find the unknown, to ponder timeless mysteries. We witness, as if for the first time, the geometry of the stars, which gave early man order and consistency amid the maelstrom of life.

As formative beings our emotions mirrored the weather with calm, peace and tranquility or stormy, tempestuous passion. Language was born in mimicry of animal sounds, from the basso profondo of the croaking frog and guttural raven to the mellifluous alto of the robin and the soprano trill of a warbler.

With a little imagination one finds that we are not so far removed from the ancients. The human imagination is still fired by mystery from the natural world, like a spirit figure pictograph or the plaintive cry we heard one night and could not decide whether it was bird or mammal.

The rumble of a jet brings us back to the present and we leap forward a thousand years in the moment of a heartbeat. Walking 50 miles of canyon and sleeping in its folds, each mile asks not what we learned, but what we pondered.

From my naked Buddha perch I feel a warm breeze rising up the canyon and I hear it sigh in the cottonwoods. The questions and answers of the ages are written on the canyon walls.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at