You know you’re in a different space in life when you look forward to listening to a book on your 10-minute commute to-and-from work, and to-and-from the gym instead of EDM or NPR. I don’t know why, exactly, but I downloaded a book on ancient Egypt—specifically about women who became literal “Kings” in ancient Egypt— for the next 24-hours of ten-minute to-and-froms (in other words, I might be listening for a while.)
The biggest critique readers seem to have with the book has nothing to do with factual detail presented in the narrative (the author is a UCLA professor who’s been an Egyptologist for longer than I’ve been in higher ed.) and she’s good at describing and unpacking dense material. Probably better than I could be. Yet, there is a hesitation to nearly everyone who reads/listens. “I have no idea who these women where” one reviewer wrote, which basically says it all. Great information: but who were these people?
And for a while, I sort of agreed, until I really started to think about it. We’ve never uncovered a house or living space anyone living back then. No dirty (or for that matter, clean) laundry. All we have to go on are tombs, and even within them the most compelling evidence about anything is the writing people left on the walls. These were public statements, propaganda—(something akin to the Nevada billboard, perhaps) not intimate narratives that our society understands as necessary to understanding the soul of a person (and who really only become possible after the invention of the novel of the 19th century and of the “modern memoir” late in the last century.)
But even in a memoir—and in writing nonfiction—there’s a lot of truth that’s left out. In the end, even in the most well-written account, we’re left with something that’s always slightly slanting toward fiction. A version of ourself, a version of the past, a slice of the multi-layered cake that we all are, with the confetti sprinkles left off because they make it too complicated for narrative.
Who wants to listen to a story by the campfire that has a million digressions? Those are annoying. By necessity, we simplify, we narrow. And then, when all you have to write on is stone, you simplify and narrow a lot, presenting an imagistic view of the world that often omits whatever complex and higher level human thoughts or emotions you might have had.
Or, so were my thoughts as Rich, E., Freya and I started our adventure out of Sparks, Nevada, driving down a maze of dirt roads until we found the right one, that dwindled into to tire tracks in the sage and we knew we had arrived.
Griffith Canyon, Rich called it. I guess it’s somewhat famous (I’ve never heard of it, but then again I spend my free time listening to books about ancient Egypt, so don’t ask me about the latest trends about anything.) Back when Nevada had water, this was a canyon that housed a roughly flowing creek. Today, it’s all rock (although during flash flood rains, I bet it still sees water every now and then.)
Once we descended into the canyon, it was easy to see why it was a viable hunting ground: narrow with steep sides, a person could hide in the higher rocks and shoot arrows at any larger prey who came looking for water (or drop big rocks on their heads. But maybe that only works in Looney Tunes cartoons.) When we weren’t walking, I was amazed at how quiet it was. Quiet like: you can hear your own bones rotting.
When it’s that quiet I start thinking about questions like; who are we anyway? Are we stomachs with legs and arms? Or, are we beings identified by the social circles we create—the people we love, the people who care for us, our friends, our co-workers, the people we see every day at the coffeehouse, the grocery store, the gas station? Or, are we what we do? Writer, athlete, blogger, worker, mother, daughter, father, mailman? And how are these identities transcribed?
I’m doing my best to walk in the dry creek bed strewn with rocks (my feet will be so sore after this even though I’m wearing supportive runnings shoes), thinking: if this was it, if this was my blank page, how would I write myself on it, if at all? I don’t come up with a good answer. (Although a part of me always thinks about this 17th century French writer who basically pre-wrote Maslow’s hierarchy of needs by stating the very obvious: if you’re dying in the desert of thirst, you don’t have the capacity to worry about “higher” concerns like romantic love or philosophical fulfillment. At that moment, you’re occupied with the harsh reality that you’re dying in a desert.)
And so, when I see some of these drawings, I can’t help but connect them to the elemental: where you can find water, food, how to hunt the animals here. Perhaps warnings of danger. At the very most, stamps of: “I was here before I died.”
I think part of the reason I loved writing about racing so much is that each event offered me an easy narrative structure: the event itself contained a beginning, middle and end— the very basic elements of any story. This is helpful when life seems like some endless ongoing present or when you can’t help but ask yourself: “Where do I begin?”
Hikes are like that too, I guess, but when what you’re searching for is a layered history, sometimes relying on easy chronology isn’t the best approach. It’s not a linear narrative, but a generational one. Years upon years of etching into the same stone in a series of symbols that don’t translate into English. When circles equate to sun phases or sticks into the arms or legs of a person. No longer are you speaking in nouns, verbs or past participle; it’s the essence of the thing, the barest bare-bare of communication.
When we got into the canyon, we actually started walking the wrong way (down) the way the water flows. It seemed natural, to walk that way: the rocks on either side of the canyon were higher. The effort, too, not as challenging. We uncovered quail, mourning dove and lizard. And, as I recall: one petroglyph nestled in the web of fractured rock. Nothing notable, though. Nothing like Rich remembered.
After twenty minutes of walking in the wrong direction, we retraced our steps back up the canyon, past where we had accessed the old creek and continued up the dry creek bed. On our right were rocks covered in multi-colored moss. On our left: those were the bare rocks were, if you happened to see them, were various petroglyphs: recessed into the desert patina.
There’s always some interpretation when it comes to petroglyphs, but we seemed to have seen images of the wildlife people saw here (sheep, rabbit, hawk), the weather (rain, thunder, lightning) and the presence of water.
When we find them—and we do, after walking back up the canyon the opposite way—I would be hard-pressed to tell you a nonfiction story about the hands that carved these images into the rock. Was it a single person, a tribe? If it was a man and a woman, where they in love? Did they have children? Did the children make up stories about the trails they traveled and the animals they saw?
Their lives were not like mine, that’s for sure, but beyond the millenia between us: what do we share? I could suppose, relying on the narratives I sung to myself running through these Nevada hills as a kid, following the trail carved by mule deer and coyote. The story of a young girl who needed nobody.
That, too, would be a fiction, something I carved into the desert sand with the rubber soles of my shoes that, once the wind picked up, was erased.
I tried to write my first novel when I was twelve on spiral-bound notepaper and in blue ballpoint ink. It was the story of a girl abandons a complicated home life, opting to live alone in the mountains—running for hours—until she finds an aspen grove where, alongside a naturally occurring spring, she finds a small cabin of a former basque sheep herder where she makes a home away from everybody.
The trunks of the aspen trees are the carved petroglyphs of the past; records of loneliness, of happiness, of presence, even. I had imaged them as totems. So much so that, when I was an art major in college, I created series after series of aspen trees. The things we carve in them. The things we can’t. Aspens as our guardians, or as our guides. All these imagined spaces far enough removed to save a person.
And now, I find it interesting that what we find so permanent: our pens and papers, our internet: it is just as if not more fallible than a canyon rock.
It’s what’s alive that touches me, though. The live and skittering, the vibrant and real. The beautiful scales of a lizard that catch the gentle June light. What we can know, in this moment, because we are living it. Those moments we didn’t run away from, but share— as messy as they are.
Driving back, Rich asks E. what she can know of these ancient lives, and she admits she knows nothing. So much of our inner lives will always be secrets.
Do they have to be?