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Rain and Sage

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Rain and Sage

On the Scenic Route, some journeys are olfactory

A long time ago, back when I still had some vestige of innocence about me, a friend and I made off with a summer, stole it out from under the noses of responsibility and progress and squandered it on travel and camping and thunder storms and sunshine. 

We had a red Mustang, fat wallets and time to kill, and we began our travels by escaping the sun-fried city of Las Vegas into the red sandstone of Zion National Park and the water-carved wonders of the Virgin River. From there, we wandered east and north, skirting the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, camping where we pleased. We meandered up the continental spine, treading lightly the muscular back of North America, and for our first week, not a cloud scattered the light of the sun. 

We turned right in Utah and crawled up into the Wasatch, past Heber City, past Bridal Veil Falls, past Park City, and on into the great state of Colorado. Somewhere along that stretch, we ran into our first rainstorm, up in that empty country between the Utah border and Grand Junction.

In that storm, the sage stretching out from that tiny speck of red crossing the plateau turned from gray to green and the fragrance of that simple shrub filled our car, an aroma that still takes me to a hundred places: to Nevada, Utah, California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, Arizona. 

In those places, off the Interstate and over the hill from the neon and pavement, is nothing; just openness, air, sky, wind, and soil. 

What can grow there? 

Just prickly pear, cholla, rabbit brush, grease brush, bunch grass and sage. 

Who could live there?

Just rabbits, magpies, redtails, lizards, rattlesnakes, mice and the occasional mule deer. 

Common critters, common plants, common commodities; common as dirt, common as every day, common as the sun coming up. That’s all. 

Who needs it? What good is it? By the standards of this crazy world we live in, that country isn’t worth much. It takes a hundred acres to support a cow. There’s not enough water to grow a crop of anything. The only thing that would make it worth having is oil, gold, coal, or some other comparitively rare commodity under the surface. Then, we will tear holy hell out of it to get at the hidden treasure. It’s just scrub, after all.

The native tribes who occupied the West before Western European Man came and kicked them out had a different view of the land and resources. I am not sure we can understand it, living in the times we live in, and with the emphasis that is placed on the rare and outlandish in our culture. I suspect sometimes that the current social order could no more comprehend the mind-set of a pre-European native than we could an alien from outer space.

We may think we are understanding, even compassionate, but until we immerse ourselves in their world, and experience it as they did, how can we know what they saw, or how? Compassion is a human invention, and I wonder if we have learned how to use it yet. Often, it is based in pity, not simple respect for other humans. Often, we offer it from the seat of superior morality, not the footing of common ground.

Some of the native tribes of the continent—many of them, in fact—saw the sacred in the mundane. They found things to worship in the air, the water, the plants, the very rock that frames the earth. We treat the rare as sacred in our society; gold, diamonds, celebrity, power. We worship the unavailable. We even place God beyond our reach, in inaccessible dogma and perfection.

Last night, I sat in my old green chair, under the lamp my grandmother used to darn socks under, thinking of nothing in particular. Mostly, I was tired, having had a day of reaching for the rare in life. Yes, I’m guilty, too, and I know it. 

But, as I sat there, a smell came to me, a smell of wide-open places as sacred as any cathedral, as holy as any fought-over spot in the Middle East, more valuable than any jewel; and I knew, just for a moment, that it is the most common things that are the most sacred. 

Water. Wind. Air. Sky. Sunshine. Stone. Wood. Common food. Soil. Children. Memory. Friends. 

Rain and sage.

Sandy Compton’s books can be purchased online at BlueCreekPress.com, with a new book, a compilation of the best of the Scenic Route, coming out this year. You can reach him at mrcomptonjr(at)hotmail.com. “Sage” was first published in June, 1996. Sandy still tries to make off with summer—at least, as much summer as he can—and he still travels with the smell of sage.

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Author info

Sandy Compton Sandy Compton Sandy Compton is one of the original contributors to The River Journal, and owner and publisher at Blue Creek Press (www.bluecreekpress.com). His latest book is Side Trips From Cowboy: Addiction, Recovery and the Western American Myth

Tagged as:

travel, The Scenic Route, sage, common

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