Hors catègorie, beyond classification

October 28, 2010

According to “Portland Bicycle Plan for 2030,” the city’s cyclists can be divided into four types based on their relationship to bicycle transportation: 1) Not interested in bicycling, 33%; 2) strong and fearless, 1 or 2%; 3) enthused and confident, about 10%; and 4) interested but concerned, about 50%. Without a doubt, I am one of the two percenters who “will ride anywhere, regardless of the bicycle facility or lack thereof. They are comfortable on busy roads without bicycle lanes and may—in many circumstances—prefer to have no bicycle facilities at all” (p. 11).

As I cycle around town and sit in coffee shops observing Portland’s cyclists, I think of a second way to classify the riders on our city streets, this one based on their use of bicycles as statements about life style.

1)   Pragmatics: regular commuters, students, low or no income adults, and bicycle workers, like messengers, who use bicycles to carry out their business. A high percentage of these cyclists use old bikes, cheap bikes, or a new type of machine designed to function well in the welter of urban traffic. A few now use specially designed cargo bikes to carry large or heavy loads through city streets.

2)   Sophisticates: cyclists who use their two-wheeled mounts for a wide range of activities, including going to the office or campus, or to rendezvous with friends at the neighborhood coffee shop or brewpub. Many of these two-wheelers dress up with skirts or tailored slacks, and they handle their bicycles with a certain cultivated air. A French counterpart would be the Parisian cyclists referred to in the New York Times as “bobos, or ‘bourgeous bohèmes,’ the trendy urban middle-class” who are the primary users of the bicycles provided for Paris’ bicycle rental system.   

3)   Ideologues: cyclists committed to environmental goals and others who are strong believers in an urban life style. Because bicycles as a transportation mode are compatible with these values, they have become the vehicle of choice. Some cyclists in this classification tend toward the counter-cultural in their attitudes and habit. They sometimes sponsor critical mass events, bike-naked rides, and other attention-getting activities. Some of these cyclists design and build high-rise machines. In my city, a few of these cycle-centric people are proponents of the  “keep Portland weird” mindset.

4)   Recreationalists: a miscellany of athletes, tourists, and occasional bicyclers. The aggressive athletes compete in organized events, maintain serious training programs, and engage in rigorous club programs. Tourists take trips, some carrying all of their gear and camping at night and others traveling with minimal supplies and staying in public accommodations. Still others take quiet rides around the neighborhood or on designated bicycle trails. Some recreational cyclists have taken up the sport in order to improve health and well-being.

The categories listed above overlap and many cyclists show characteristics from more than one of the above groups. My hunch is that most cyclists can identify most closely with one of these descriptions.

Some of us, however, don’t quite fit this coffee-shop typology. I, for one, am more a pragmatic than a sophisticate, more an ideologue than a recreationalist. Yet all four of these life-style modes are present in my cycling activity, which, I think, is true for most of the two percenters reported in the Portland survey.

Like the most celebrated mountain grades in the Tour de France, the people who love bicycles are hors catègorie, beyond classification.

Note: Image derived from 100 Years of Bicycle Posters, by Jack Rennert (Harper & Row Publishers, 1973).

The COCU Liturgy of 1968: A Model for Christian Celebration

October 25, 2010

What would worship be like in a new church that embraces the broad Protestant middle of American culture? This question was one of the first to be addressed by member churches of the Consultation on Church Union in the 1960s. The rising influence of evangelical Christianity had not yet registered, nor had the seeker-service gatherings of churches like Willow Creek and Saddleback come into view.

The pressure points were clear enough: should worship be liturgical or free, determined by national or denomination-wide principles or by local pastors and congregations, sacramental or pulpit-based, led by clergy or by lay persons, classical in style or popular.

A broad generalization concerning the first COCU churches is that in the 1960s the Episcopal Church would have affirmed, with only a little equivocation, the first of these antitheses, while Disciples and former Congregationalists within the United Church of Christ would have affirmed the other side. Presbyterians and Methodists would have hovered somewhere between the two.

In order to move toward agreement about worship, the Consultation commissioned a scholarly paper that would move towards defining the church’s liturgy. (For a review essay of that paper, shepherd-towards.pdf.)

A second step was to establish a commission on worship, with representatives from the COCU churches and from other churches, Protestant and Catholic, that would have an interest in the project. The result was published in 1968: “An Order of Worship for The Proclamation of the Word of God and The Celebration of the Lord’s Supper With Commentary.”

The small-format booklet included the full text of the liturgy, with its prayers and variable parts, and sixty pages of notes and commentary. It was one of the first important liturgies to adopt contemporary English forms for the language of prayer. It sought to present a liturgy that was “more fixed and traditional than those used by congregations accustomed to a more freely structured and ex tempore manner of common worship” and “a greater openness and freedom for churches in which liturgical worship has been more inflexible.”

In general, the liturgical churches found the liturgy to be similar in style to those prescribed in the service books, while other churches experienced the liturgy as being more formal and fixed than they were able to accept for normal use.

In anticipation of the 2010 Turner Lectures, sponsored each year in Yakima, Washington, by the Northwest Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the 1968 COCU Liturgy was adapted for use as the closing celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The liturgy itself was spread over five pages of the sixteen-page document given to worshipers at the closing event. Disciples pastor Doug Dornhecker took the lead in adapting the liturgy and I took the lead in developing the commentary.

Most congregants at the lectureship come from churches that would have been called  “non-liturgical” forty years ago. Therefore it was little surprise that one response to the evening’s celebration was that it was too liturgical for their taste. Another response, however, was appreciation for the spirituality of the service and for the thoughtful way that it expressed some of the ideas concerning the eucharist that often have been points of dissention between churches.

Because this liturgy continues to have much to teach Christians in the English-speaking world, I have revised the Yakima document slightly, removing the parts that were specific to that occasion. The document includes a brief statement about the history of the Consultation on Church Union, the text of the liturgy adapted for continuing use, and commentary and notes. To read this document, click The COCU Liturgy of 1968.

New issues have arisen in the half-century since COCU was launched and the forty years since “An Order of Worship” was published. Even so, this liturgy and commentary continue have much to teach contemporary pastors and congregations as they come before God in praise and thanksgiving.

Bicycling in Arizona’s Sky Islands

October 21, 2010

The southeastern corner of Arizona is a broad, elevated plateau punctuated by small mountain ranges. They have been likened to islands in an archipelago, separated by desert and grassland rather than by water. In the early 1960s, Weldon Heald gave this 70,000 square mile territory a name: the Sky Islands.

In 1937, Aldo Leopold wrote this description of the region: “These oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near being the cream of creation.” More than half of the bird species of North America travel through this isolated section of the United States.

When I bicycled through, with PacTour’s Desert Camp 2009, however, all that I perceived was bone-dry land, with a little cactus and many blackened shrubs, alternating with resplendent fields of thinly spaced native grass, two feet high, waving gently in the desert breeze. After the week-long ride, I read more deeply into the history and geography of this region and wrote a travel narrative: Sky Island Soliloquy: Body Dissolving, Spirit Strong as Always.” It tells about a week of challenging and satisfying cycling with the premier travel company operated by Lon Haldeman and Susan Notorangelo.

This week of their annual Desert Camp is called “The Chiricahua Challenge” because it includes cycling to the high point in the Chiricahua National Monument, 6,870 feet in elevation. As the oldest rider in the group, the week provided me the opportunity of learning a new skill: how to come in last and feel good about it. After the trip was over, I learned that chiricahua means wild turkey. Instead of  the romantic title “Sky Island Soliloquy,” my travel narrative might better have been entitled “An Old Buzzard in the Land of Wild Turkeys.” To read the full story, including “the truth” I learned, click here.

An American Church That Might Have Been

October 18, 2010

On Sunday December 4, 1960, a sermon preached in San Francisco seized the imagination of people across the United States and much of the English-speaking world. Two of the highest profile Christian leaders in the nation—Eugene Carson Blake, Stated Clerk of the United Presbyterian Church, and James A. Pike, widely-known Episcopal bishop—conducted worship at Grace Episcopal Cathedral high atop Nob Hill. As bishop of the Diocese of San Francisco, Pike  was host pastor, and Blake was guest preacher.

Among the worshipers who crowded into this very large church that Sunday were delegates to the triennial assembly of the National Council of Churches, which was about to begin in that city. It is hard to imagine any gathering at that time that would have brought together such an impressive array of the nation’s Christian leaders.

Blake’s sermon was the catalytic agent for a long period of significant ecumenical development. He declared that the time had come for churches to take decisive steps to move out of their divided way of life and become one church that could more fully manifest the gospel and serve the needs of the people of their land.

His specific proposal was that his Presbyterian Church and Pike’s Episcopal Church invite the Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ to join them in creating a new church that would be recognized globally as fully Catholic and fully Reformed. Already, these churches were sufficiently agreed, Blake declared, in faith, worship, and other central issues that they could achieve this long-sought but often-frustrated goal.

Representatives of these churches soon established a process called the Consultation on Church Union (often referred to by its acronym COCU) and extended an invitation for others to join them. At the high point, nine American denominations were full participants in COCU and several others were active observers. This union movement continued to function until 2002 when it was reconstituted as CUIC—Churches Uniting in Christ.

By the end of its first decade, the COCU churches realized that the goals so clearly stated at its origin were more challenging than had been realized in the early years. The creation of a new kind of church at the center of American life was not realized at a time when such achievements seemed both possible and desirable. Half a century after that Sunday in Grace Cathedral, the kind of union then hoped for seems even less attainable.

COCU deserves remembering for three reasons: 1) It represented the culmination of a period of time, starting in the crisis between the two world wars, when many people believed that civilization was threatened and that a united church might have been the only power capable of saving the civilized world of the time.

2) It was the American version of a process that had been widely successful in countries around the world, especially in South India, to overcome the historic divisions in the church that had prevented Christians from worshiping freely in one another’s churches.

3) It responded creatively to previously ignored challenges in American life, such as racism, and in this regard became what may have been the most prophetic of all unity movements in the twentieth century.

I was a doctoral student at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley on that important Sunday. Although I was not in the cathedral congregation to hear the sermon and response, I immediately was captured by the vision. My career as seminary professor began a few months later and during most of my years as scholar and church leader, I represented my church on COCU’s commission on worship.

From time to time, I intend to post columns about the Consultation on Church Union in the hope that they can keep alive the memory of a movement that had a profound influence on churches in North America and around the world. The first of these, an anniversary edition of “An Order of Worship,” will be posted next week. The subtitle of this posting is “The COCU Liturgy of 1968: A Model for Christian Celebration.”

Note: The image below pictures the 1989 Disciples COCU delegation. KeithWatkinsHistorian is third from left in front row.

Cycling into one’s later years

October 14, 2010

Desert View Watchtower; September 26, 2010: Mary Coulter’s beautiful watchtower on the eastern end of Grand Canyon’s South Rim was completed in 1932, which makes it one year younger than I am. It seems fitting, therefore, that this was the very spot where one of my companions on PACTour’s Grand Canyon expedition, a psychiatrist by profession, encouraged me to report on what a cyclist my age was experiencing on this high-altitude, high-mileage bicycle journey.

The conversation was prompted by the fact that I was the last rider to reach this first rest stop. The reason was clear: my legs said “go” but my lungs told me “slow down, slow down!” So that’s what I did. Even though this was our fifth day with elevations above 7,000 feet, I had not yet adjusted. Before the trip, my physician had explained that heart, lungs, and vascular system slow down with age, and his counsel had been “Don’t push as hard.” Later that day, after we had dropped to a much lower elevation, my lungs seemed to catch up with my legs, and while I still was one of the slower cyclists, I felt good again.

Later in the day, I jotted down seven observations about growing old as a cyclist.

1. The cycling habits of a lifetime continue to work, but adjustments have to be made to accommodate the changes that take place in one’s body.

2. Physical diminishment takes many forms, each of which will impact performance in its own way, and the smart cyclist figures out effective ways to respond.

3. As sheer strength diminishes, technique and pacing become increasingly important.

4. While older people can still perform at a high level, they have to accept the fact that they can’t go as fast or do as much as younger people (including themselves when they were younger).

5. Cycling with high-performing groups is advantageous and disadvantageous. It is important to choose one’s cycling companions with considerable thoughtfulness and to exercise a high degree of common sense in deciding how long to keep up.

6. A comfortable ride increases the performance capabilities of older cyclists. Another way to make this point is that the ability to complete a 100-mile day in a reasonable period of time depends upon being able to keep going all day at a good speed, and to do this comfort on the bike may be more important than light weight and stiff performance capabilities.

7. The time will probably come when the aging cyclist will no longer be able to go on long trips. Some of us may reach a stage in life when we have to quit cycling all together. For me, that time seems still to be a few years down the pike, but its virtual inevitability has to be kept in mind.

Lon Haldeman described the Grand Canyon Tour as a relaxed ride, and compared with some of the PACTour events it is. But it has pushed me to my limits. Wisdom tells me that I should either train a lot more or choose somewhat easier events. The habits of my lifetime are such that more intense training is unlikely to happen. Ergo….

Susan Notorangelo said that one of our goals is to have fun. And I did: the comradeship with other cyclists was delightful. The routes, which improve each time this tour is taken, took me places I would not cycle over on my own.  The willingness of the support crew to provide a little motor assist when I needed help made it possible for me (and several others) to do the succession of long days. Because of the group disciplines, I had less freedom to meander and dawdle than when I travel on my own, but the compensating factor is that I covered more ground and saw more mountains.

Putting it all together, the Grand Canyon Tour was one of the most satisfying cycling events of a lifetime. And if I should decide that it will be my last trip at this level of intensity, it provides a memory that will enrich my armchair reveries.

Thank you, everyone, who made this tour so wonderful.

A Zuni vision that can help the rest of us

October 11, 2010

The religions of the world all consist of stories that reveal deep meanings, ideas about the natural world and how to live, and ceremonies that connect us to the Holy and to one another. Despite profound differences in ideas and practices, the underlying patterns of religions are similar. Truth comes in two forms: practical-factual and spiritual-imaginative. Religion and an economic-political way of life are intertwined.

Since it is hard to see this structural pattern in one’s own religion, we can gain perspective by looking at religions other than our own. My occasional reading about the Zuni people, as I prepared for a bicycle tour through their ancestral land, has helped me understand my own Christian faith better than I had before. The following notes, based on A Zuni Atlas by T. J. Ferguson and E. Richard Hart, are examples. They illustrate that symbolic and scientific-historical meanings can co-exist in constructive ways. They also show that religious understandings can help people learn to live harmoniously in the natural world.

“The essentially symbolic nature of the origin and migration accounts is recognized by many Zuni elders who know and explain the origin talks. After providing a list of the places referenced in his origin account, one Zuni religious leader commented, ‘These are the places that are mentioned and places that are discussed as a trail, but it is a religious idea, or religious trail that is recited in the prayer and not an actual path of people walking on the trail.’ Another religious leader in a similar circumstance remarked, ‘The trail or the road is one of…symbolic nature. The place names along the symbolic trail are the ones we have been talking about, the actual road is not the same as the symbolic road.’” (21)

The Zuni story is that they struggled through a succession of wombs in the underworld, finally emerging from the fourth womb deep within a canyon along the Colorado River. They still had to wander to find their home, stopping along the way, building villages, and staying for a while. They were “in search of the middle place, the center of the world, the mid-most spot among all of the great oceans and lands, the spot in the middle of all the heavens of the universe, a spot destined to be their home.” During their journey, the Zunis split into groups that went in different directions, founding several communities. Near the end of the journey, a water spider identified the middle place for them. He “spread his legs out until he reached the four oceans in the east, west, south, and north, and also touched the zenith and the nadir. When he had thus spread out to find the six cardinal directions, his heart was over the long-sought middle place, and it was here that the Zunis settled for the final time. The Zunis had finally ended their quest for the middle place, but all of the spots they visited during the long journey remain sacred to the people.” (23)

Zunis were adept at floodwater irrigation. Their practice was to keep a two-year supply of food on hand in case of drought or insect infestation. They stored corn is rodent proof storage rooms and they dried fruit to keep after the season was over. “It was the diversified agriculture of the Zunis more than anything else, that allowed them to develop a sedentary society with a rich culture. Within this culture water was sacred, and agricultural lands were zealously guarded, from the most distant flood-water fields to the waffle gardens along the Zuni River.” (39)

Hunting was always a sacred activity, with prayers, offerings, and ceremonies to accompany each task…In practice, the Zunis traditionally conserved the wildlife in their territory, harvesting only what was necessary for their survival and religious well-being.” (43)

“The Zunis respected and cared for the plants, treating them as living beings and even speaking to them, and praying and making offerings for them. At every level of their collective consciousness the Zuni people were aware of their interaction with the land around them. By gathering plants from every corner of the region that they occupied, the Zuni people were able to fill their larders and storage bins with an abundant array of foods, medicines, ceremonial materials, basketry materials, and toiletries. In the hundreds of years during which the Zunis occupied their traditional territory before 1880, there is no evidence that their gathering practices in any way depleted any of their resources. The Zunis had developed a way of life that would sustain them indefinitely in their territory, using the resources from every biotic community within that territory in ways that sustained the resources as well. ”

We can’t all become Zunis, but they have much to teach the rest of us about the way that a religious way of life can make everything better.

Notes based on A Zuni Atlas, by T. J. Ferguson and E. Richard Hart (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985).

Bicycling the white line

October 7, 2010

Even the most glorious scenery—the Painted Desert, the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and the Colorado Plateau carpeted with desert flowers—is enhanced or diminished by the roads on which cyclists must travel. When the highway is well engineered, wide with reliable shoulders, and smooth, cyclists can focus on the vistas all around, but when the roadway is compromised at any of these points, it scarcely matters how glorious the scenery. All attention has to be given to the road itself.

Freeway and frontage road: The arterial spine for PACTour’s Grand Canyon trip is I-40, the aging freeway that links Albuquerque and Flagstaff. It was built alongside of or on top an already existing U.S. highway, the much-heralded Route 66. Except in urban areas, long stretches of the interstate system are open to cyclists. Unless signs at on-ramps explicitly prohibit them, bicycles may enter the freeway, staying, of course, on the shoulders.

Some of the worst cycling roads of this trip were on freeway shoulders, with a stretch west of Holbrook, Arizona, especially bad: old, crumbling, litter ridden, and diagonal rumble strips every few yards extending across the entire surface. Worst of all, these old sections of freeway cause steel belted truck tires to explode, carpeting the shoulder with tiny, hair-like slivers of wire that work their way into tires until they penetrate tubes, causing flats. In addition to two flats, one rider also discovered and extracted six other wires that would have brought him down later in the ride.

One of the best stretches of road was also on I-40, somewhere east of Grants, New Mexico: newly rebuilt, smooth, so free of litter that it seemed that it had been swept, and it ran down-hill with a tail wind!

Cyclists choose the frontage road, which on this trip consisted, for the most part, of snippets of old Route 66. Mostly two-lane, these roadways survive because the old highway wandered a little rather than taking the straightest way possible. Most of the time, these little loops of older blacktop are pleasant roadways, taking cyclists through the old villages and towns, and through some of the most interesting and intimate scenic attractions.

Long loops off to the side: In order to experience a wider range of terrain and human settlement, the Grand Canyon Tour took the long way on several occasions, swinging on long loops far removed from the freeway. Usually these roads were state highways, built to a wide range of standards. For many of these miles, there were no shoulders, and cyclists used the traffic lane, claiming as much of the space as seemed necessary to have a dependable surface on which to ride. When they existed, the shoulders tended to be in poor repair, litter-laden, and more dangerous than the roadway itself.

On this itinerary, many of the roads consisted of coarse chip and seal surfaces, which whether new or old created a constant road rumble that had to be absorbed by a cyclist’s hands, feet, and rump. The smoothest place to ride was the white line at the edge because the paint itself smoothed out the road surface a little.

The worst road of all: Other than the bone-shaking stretch of highway under construction, the worst highways of this year’s tour were in Utah. As soon as they crossed the Arizona-Utah state line on US 163, the cyclists encountered some of the coarsest chip and seal of the entire thousand-mile route. After their night in Mexican Hat, Utah, they turned south on US 191, an old red road with wide shoulders composed of older, rougher composite . Compounding the misery of the rough surface were freeze cracks every two or three pedal strokes. On the shoulder, they were from two to four inches across, while on the main roadway some were even wider. No escape from the numbing thump, thump, thump. Cyclists could take comfort in the structural integrity of their bicycles.

Maybe the best road of the trip: After a pleasant day at Canyon de Chelly, PACTourists turned onto Navajo Tribal Road 64. For thirteen or fourteen miles, they climbed steadily on a new road of exceedingly coarse chip and seal. At the top of the grade, however, everything changed. A steady, sometimes exciting descent was one factor, but more important was the roadway itself: wide and smooth traffic lanes in very good repair, and shoulders that provided absolutely secure places to bicycle. Furthermore, the harsh, unsettling rumble strips that characterize state and federal highways in Arizona and New Mexico were nowhere to be seen!

Not yet heavenly streets of gold, but as close as we can ever hope to see on this side of the great divide. One more foretaste of heaven: with few exceptions, the cyclists encountered the greatest of courtesy and respect from motorists—not quite angels, but close enough.

Note: Images (except for the one below) courtesy of Scott Park.

Chapel of the Holy Dove: Religion as Respite

October 4, 2010

Kendrick Park, AZ; September 23, 2010: Four days of serious cycling brought PACTour’s Grand Canyon expedition to Flagstaff, cultural center of northern Arizona. One more day of travel on US 180 would take the cyclists to the Grand Canyon where they would have two days to enjoy the wonders of this remarkable place.

The first eighteen miles were a steady climb until the highway reached the highest point of the thousand-mile tour: 8,046 feet. A short distance beyond the crest, they were met by one of PACTour’s trailers where they could get snacks and water for the next section of their journey. Most of the riders failed to see the Chapel of the Holy Dove, tucked into a wooded alcove across the highway and only two or three hundred feet on down the road.

This compact shrine was first constructed by Watson M. Lacy, MD, and his wife Ruth in 1961 as a place of respite from his medical practice at the Grand Canyon. And respite it does provide because of its setting in a tranquil place, free from society’s urgent intensity. Oriented toward the San Francisco Peaks, the Chapel of the Holy Dove calls to mind Psalm 121:1-2: “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

The chapel’s name comes from Matthew 3:16, which describes the Spirit of God descending  like a dove and alighting on Jesus at the time of his baptism. Although the chapel is a freestanding religious space, open to a wide range of spiritual understanding, its shape, furnishings, and descriptive literature indicate that it is founded on classic Christian ideas.

At an earlier time, scraps of paper were posted helter-skelter on the low walls and A-frame roofing members. They expressed the yearnings and anxieties that visitors brought with them, and were placed in this prayerful space in the hope that the people tarrying here could receive some inner sense of resolution to the burdens and joys of life. Today, this aspect of the chapel’s life is cared for more circumspectly. A drop box provides a place for these requests to be deposited, and the promise is given that they will be prayed for.

This little church serves as a wedding chapel; according to a sign posted inside, four would be celebrated during October 2010.

One reason why the Chapel of the Holy Dove can be a place of respite is that it is so fully fixed on only one of the functions of a church. It provides a place where people can contemplate the divine reality by gazing out upon one of its sublime manifestations in the natural world. Ironically, this chapel sets aside entirely the very purpose of the Spirit’s anointing as described in Matthew, which was to commission Jesus for his active ministry of preaching and healing, a ministry that led him to confront the political and religious establishment of his time and would lead to his martyrdom while still a young man.

A campfire on March 9, 1999, destroyed all but the stonewalls of the original building. With permission from the Lacy family and public support from the wider Flagstaff community, Christen McCracken, a student at Northern Arizona University, generated funding to insure the chapel’s reconstruction. Since its rebuilding in 2000, the Chapel of the Holy Dove continues to be a place where travelers can experience in a few moments of poignant awareness the living Spirit that animates—gives life—to the grandeur of the world through which they journey.

Note: Several websites describe the Chapel of the Holy Dove and provide more images. For historical information, click here. For images of the chapel in the winter, click here. A brief video can be accessed here. Note, however, that it is located on US 180. It shows the chapel with scraps of paper affixed to walls and ceiling. This column is being published several days after the date when the chapel was visited. Additional columns may be published in the future that are based on stops made by the Grand Canyon Tour and they will be dated according to the Tour schedule.

Canyon de Chelly: Living in Two Cultures

October 1, 2010

Canyon de Chelly, AZ; September 30, 2010: Whereas the Grand Canyon overwhelms because of its immensity, the Canyon de Chelly invites participation because of its more human scale. The name itself is not an obscure French name but rather the effort by early explorers to spell a Navajo name—Tsegi or Tcegyi—which means our physical and spiritual home.

After three hard days of cycling, the PACTourists enjoyed a free day at Tsegi. More than half of the company chose to be shuttled to the White House trailhead on the north rim and, with Navajo guides, hike down to the canyon’s floor and back to the entrance and their lodge just inside the park gates. Eight of the company chose to tour the canyon by jeep. Because the sandy canyon floor is deeply rutted, with only the semblance of roadways, there were moments when passengers feared that they might have to push the four-wheeled vehicle through sand traps.

The Navajo guides had strong family connections with the Canyon. One man had been reared by grandparents on their farm deep in the Canyon. At sixteen years of age, he left home to work, first at Phantom Ranch in the Grand Canyon and later in cities including Las Vegas. Because of these years in the outside world, he had overcome the deep reserve that marks traditional Navajo culture and learned to communicate openly with strangers. He has returned to the Chinle community, is married to a Navajo woman, and they are seeking to rear their children with a full knowledge of their language, stories, and culture—all of this while living in a world of modern farm equipment, complicated school schedules, and cell phones.

His narrative was a quiet and informative accounting of crops grown in the Canyon, family history, and Navajo attitudes. He stopped at important sites, pointed out the ancient dwellings and explained why they were built the way they were. One of his explanations was that when each dwelling was built, it was only a little distance above the canyon floor. In intervening centuries, the floor has continued to wash a way. He showed the travelers the figures inscribed in canyon walls and interpreted their meanings.

His story frequently revealed the tensions experienced by people who seek to live by traditional wisdom while participating in the technological world of modern America. How can families keep their language and its stories alive when the surrounding world speaks English and scoffs at old stories? People remember that not long ago boarding schools and even public schools prohibited the use of the Navajo language and suppressed expressions of Navajo culture. Now public schools on the Reservation require that students take courses in Navajo language and culture. While children learn about their people’s ancient ways, the majority of them do not learn to speak the language.

He described tensions between visions of the meaning of life and principles of how to live. Half of the Navajo people, the guide reported, are in families converted to Christianity. Because of their new faith, they have little interest in the traditional language and culture or in a way of life centered upon respect for the world and all its creatures.

During his narrative, he revealed another point of tension—between history as remembered by the people in their stories and history as told by archaeologists and written in their books. One narrative says that the Navajo have been in this region from the time of emergence into this level of the world while the other describes their coming in historic times. “The archaeologists are wrong,” the travelers were told.

The proper care of the Canyon itself is another point of tension. During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps set up its operations in the Canyon, planting Russian olives and other non-native species to control erosion of the sandy soil by the periodic flooding that occurred year after year. The unexpected consequences, however, were rapid takeover of native plants by these exotics, the channeling of water runoffs, and serious lowering of the water table. Now, under Navajo management, the exotic trees, shrubs, and grasses are being removed and plantings native to the area are being restored. Maybe the natural rhythms can be restored.

Cycling into Chinle, the PACTour travelers had been aware of intense commuter traffic and the frenetic character of modernity. Inside the Canyon, everything was quiet. Motorized vehicles crept along. There was a sense of peace and, if we might use the word, respect.

For one day of the tour, this company of PACTour travelers found their athleticism melding into something different—a poignant aestheticism.

For many of them, it will be the finest day of the journey.

Note: Images are courtesy of Scott Park.