Watching for Falling Rock
When I was eight years old, my grandfather moved from Southern California to Sedona, Arizona. My dad did not completely understand his father’s decision to exile himself from civilization and his immediate family. The move was cause for consternation and subtle tension.
Yet, my grandfather had wanted a new start. Suffering from chronic arthritis and the emptiness of having lost his wife of 30 years to breast cancer, he had remarried to a woman that neither son really accepted as their true mother. With a private resolve, he longed to renew his life among the great red rock mesas and cliffs of the mythic West. He did not view this retreat from humanity or family as a resignation from life but in fact, a beginning born out of the ashes of tragedy. My grandfather’s renaissance rose like the phoenix and over the next fifteen years, he transformed into a quirky artist, high desert outdoorsman and amateur Native American historian.
His letters were rich narratives describing the desert as a vast and ever changing ocean of life. He came to understand the hidden power and the healing presence of the natural wonders of the world. He was reborn at the sight of the Grand Canyon and cured of his gray flannel color blindness after gazing across the Painted Desert. He marveled at the swirling, polished ravines of Canyon De Chelly. He often wrote to us of the ancients that had lived in these sacred places — the Navajo and Hopi who had walked as one with the land prospering in cliff dwellings under great overhangs of red rock and limestone.
We would travel over hundreds of miles of broken, lonely space to visit him in a mobile home outpost whose floor was a carpet of rocks, red soil and saguaro cactus reaching up to a great blue house of sky. We preferred taking the overnight Southern Chief Amtrak that followed intermittent stretches of Route 66 from Los Angeles to Chicago. My grandfather would navigate his car up the serpentine roads of magnificent Oak Creek canyon to pick us up in Flagstaff on the 7AM train. It was our first taste of freedom and he would begin to feed our restless imaginations from the moment we stepped on to the cool dry morning air. He would faithfully retrace his route down the canyon’s nauseating switchbacks descending into warmer air and the backwater pueblo that rested like a homestead in some John Ford movie.
During our visits, he would take us hiking and point out the more hidden aspects of the desert and the natural world that seemed so foreign to suburban children. At night, he would tell stories of the West and always regale us with the timeless classic of an Indian brave named Falling Rock who had disappeared trying to warn his people against the gathering threat of soldiers and the encroaching tide of pioneers. The story always concluded with Rising Star, the Navajo chief and father of Falling Rock, consenting to the Army to peacefully lead his people to a life on the reservation in exchange for help finding his lost beloved son. “That is why you will always see signs that say, ‘ Watch for Falling Rock’, he would conclude – allowing the weight of the night and the unsolved mystery of a boy swallowed up by history to settle on our narrow shoulders.
Over the years, the LA train deposited fewer boys on that summer green platform. Finally, there came a day when no boy wanted to spend a “boring” week in the hot desert with an old man and his dog. When he died, it seemed like some ancient tie had been severed.
As the years carved lines onto our faces, my three brothers and I went the way of men and built our own lives, allowing obligations and temporal commitments to eclipse the sage scented memories of four squinting, crew-cut boys standing next to a man with a hiking stick and a white and brown dog.
My brothers and I intuitively understand that we are bonded by a thousand invisible sinews forged during those summers of diving into an ice cold canyon creek, dodging cholla and cactus across a blazing hot broken field of rocks looking for arrowheads or sitting silent bathed in the glow of a twilight fire. Those strands stretch across a thousand miles of ribboned interstate and time. We remain mirrors of one another but we are each painted with a slightly different mix of colors from a palette of sunshine yellow 60’s, brown and orange shag 70’s, chrome and silver 80’s and black and blue 90’s.
We are a genetic collision of German resoluteness, Irish mischievousness, English hooliganism and French elan. We were pounded in the same blacksmith’s forge, alloys created out of a firebrand conservative and a new age free spirit. Over time, the boys that had once scoured the mountainsides for Falling Rock and marveled at the mysteries of great lightening storms and ancient tribes – lost their sense of wonder. As Kurt Vonnegut once lamented,” We do, diddly do, what we must, middly must, until we bust, bodily bust.”
We now only see one another when life crushes one of us with an unforeseen landslide. We gather at odd, unpredictable times, rarely achieving a quorum for a dinner or lunch –separated by miles and our own dreams. To find ourselves together unobscured by the shadow of a funeral, crisis or life milestone is a rare and fragrant moment as fleeting as a night blooming cirrus.
Observing the silent march of our independent lives, I was determined to bring us together for the simple purpose of celebrating our connection to one another. The storms of the previous two years had not left us untouched and had formed new fissures of uncertainty across our paths. Fear is a funny thing. It seems when you need people the most, you often choose to isolate yourself – choosing to follow your own best thinking which often excludes those that know you best. While your partner or spouse may be there for you, no one knows you like your brother.
I became obsessed with getting my brothers together. What better place for us to gather than among the red rocks of Sedona? Perhaps this special place that was so symbolic of our childhood and spiritual rebirth could reconnect us to the powerful mythology of our past. It had been over 30 years since we had communed in that sleepy community of hippies, artists and restless souls in search of some great intangible.
I sent out an earnest invitation reminding each brother that hospital beds and church pews were not appropriate locales for reunions. I challenged everyone to retrace one last time those same ribbons of highway to the crimson rock sanctuary of our grandfather. I was nervous that the memories of those few summers had been swept by life’s flash floods leaving only rock strewn gulches of empty space in their wake. Gratefully, everyone accepted.
As the long gray line of boys arrived, I was pleased to find us falling comfortably into old stories, gently dredging the sediment of our past and current lives. Our birth order remained forever established but had clearly molded from a line to a circle. With the addition of our own children and partners, the group had swelled to thirteen. Those outside the inner sanctum of boys could only watch in amusement as our sarcasm, hyperbole and humor rekindled a thousand stories. To their chagrin, neither my father nor our mother were able to attend to defend themselves from our relentless revisionist barrage of warm hearted lampoons.
Our time together dissolved too quickly under warm, wind swept days and cool mountain evenings. On the last night, a sunset burned tangerine pink illuminating the great citadels of iron and limestone to the east. We paused and said nothing as if we all understood how brief our time together would be. We were ten years old again – laughing and recklessly hurtling through life like dust devils whipped up by a sudden burst of canyon wind. The energy from forty summers past returned to radiate from somewhere among those great iron, lime and sandstone monuments.
On my final day, I looked back one last time across the great canyon lands and was warmed by a new memory and by the thought of our own shadows that would now forever dance among the mysterious Kachina who dart unseen across this mythic landscape. I turned, not wanting to say goodbye, rolling on to stretch of canyon highway that would lift me over a mountain pass and gently descend into suburban Phoenix. As we narrowed between two monoliths called Cathedral and Bell Rock, I noticed a warning sign, “Watch for Falling Rock.”
At that same moment, perhaps on a dusty blood red road, the silhouette of an old man and dog can almost be seen disappearing into the adjacent National forest. He comes here every day to walk his dog at twilight – and on this night, he is pleased because his grandsons have returned one last time to honor him – – simply by the act of never forgetting.