A Pocketful 

of 'Upanishads'

at Bear Creek Canyon,

Telluride, Colorado

The night was a hunch over the steering wheel. When he awoke, McDaniel was on the side of the road, and the first thing he noticed was the moon coming over the rise. He was thrilled and scared and had no idea where he was. Somewhere outside of Cortez, by the Dolores River, in Colorado he knew, yes, but he’d never been there before. He was thinking about bears, about the bottle of wine that he cracked open, literally, since he didn’t have an opener. After many hours of driving after picking up a ghost, the Kachina’s Son, on the reservation, he decided the only way he was going to get some sleep was to pull over and drink some, enough to make him drowsy. So when he woke, at around 4 a.m., the moon was coming over the forested hill, a lacerated tree line against the lit-up sky, the sound of water down the embankment, the early morning stars. He mumbled a prayer of tongues to himself, or, to the poltergeist he’d picked up along the way. Asking it to guide him, help him. He was borderless and free. But not alone. It was the Fourth of July.

On this road into the San Juans you just keep rising, climbing up to the source of the Dolores River. By about 5 a.m. he was standing in a mountain meadow at Lizard Head Pass, watching a herd of deer, which was watching him: an early bird without a gun. Then began the descent again, down past jagged peaks that were 12,000 feet high or more, white Rockies tainted with a reddish copper tone, sections of stubborn, dirty snow. Then McDaniel pulled off the main road again, started going up a rutty dirt road toward the ghost town of Alta, a place with piles upon piles of wooden rotted boards and hundred-year-old frames of structures now as jagged and worn as the mountains surrounding them.

He stared at the ghosts and ghosts stared back at him as he suddenly realized how drawn he’d always been to ghost towns. And here he was, again, wondering why? There were power lines or telephone lines around and mounds of shards from many years of mining. This was the place that cross-current electricity, at the direction of Nikola Tesla and L.L. Nunn, was first applied in a practical way: that is, to light up the mines of Alta. The peak of 19th-century since worked its electrochemical miracles here, then fell back down the hill all of the way to New York City and a new century. At the end of the old century and the beginning of the new, McDaniel stared at the ghosts, the weary miners and red-rouge harlots: All the ghosts stared back at him.

By 9 a.m. he was on the streets of Telluride watching the unfolding drama of a busy-body merchant moving parade barricades around. He sat on the sidewalk and smoked bidis, feeling like an old Irishman’s dog, dirty and wired, hands visibly shaking. Clearly, it had been a while since he could remember actually sitting still and eating. He found a bench near an alley bar a tried to focus on his notebook of poems. It was a difficult chore, and he made the mistake of looking up, only to catch the eye of a very drunk older gent with a quart-bottle of beer in a paper bag.

He asked what McDaniel was doing there with the notebook. The old miner had a scraggly gray beard, cowboy hat and grimy jeans, maybe aged 60, and he looked like an old mining camp relic just in from the hills, which, in fact, he was. He said that after fighting in the Vietnam War, he came here more than 25 years ago to work in the mine, but then it closed. So he went off to cut stone in Ashfork, Arizona. He drew McDaniel in, but he kept up his guard. He could see the haunt of in the miner’s bitter red eyes, in his distance from his children. Was this future caricature of himself? But before he could dwell too much longer on that thought, the miner said he still panned for silver and gold in the mountains around Telluride, and he’d been able to find some. Not much, but some.

Now, that wouldn’t be very unusual except for the fact that while the history of the town had everything to do with mining, it was a deceased industry. McDaniel’s interest, of course, was instantly piqued, if only because by about 10:30 a.m. on July 4, as the way was made for the annual town parade, he had read and absorbed every historical marker on both sides of Colorado Boulevard. The myths of Telluride were coming alive. Miners. Red-light district girls. The rumble of motorcycles, teams of them turbolatin’ into the ravine, filling up the Valley with enough sound to make the ground shake. He had just been to Alta and realized how Telluride would have never existed if not for the lust of silver and gold. So he felt pretty much in touch with the history of the place. And here was history, too, in this guy, dysfunctional and alone, talking at him with bad breath blowing in his face and the local police eyeing him from a block a way with his paper bag.

They chatted. McDaniel read him a few lines of a poem he had written up in the mountain in Alta:

Tourista legends tell of screams:

The echoes of old mining accidents.
But why would phantoms linger
In the freeze at 12,000 feet?

Where to still look for the gold? It’s still there, he said, in fact, it’s still everywhere. The secret to finding it is relatively simple. Just look for still-water deposits, he said, at the base of waterfalls. McDaniel, looking up at the head of the box canyon that enfolds Telluride into its womb, suddenly had a funny idea: Just pan for gold at the base of Bridal Veil Falls!

The ridiculous nature of this was meant, no doubt, to be a diversion, because the fact was: She didn’t want to see him. Certainly, she wasn’t returning his phone calls, or maybe wasn’t even in town. It was enough to focus on the fact that life, if it were to go on, would be at the base of Bridal Veil Falls. (Which, like the woman he had been looking for, had already been plundered). The Pandora Mill facility for the Idarado mine had been inactive for years, laying off miners like his dysfunctional friend decades ago, but active enough with barbed wire and fencing and private property signs and tailings ponds to make it a pretty threatening proposition for a wannabe profiteer. Disgusted that he wasn’t the profiteer, he left and headed toward the base of Bear Creek.

Since he’d been to a hokey, make-believe Western theme park called Rawhide in Scottsdale, Arizona plenty of times, he’d had several opportunities to practice the art of sifting through dirt to find rocks that were painted gold, which was even more foolish than iron pyrite, or, fool’s gold. The dysfunctional miner had described in detail what gold looks like. So he was sure to be able to recognize actual gold. He just needed to find a decent base of a waterfall. He had already bought an aluminum pan at the grocery store.

Still dizzy in lust and loneliness and exhaustion and this sense that the spook He’d picked up in Navajoland was still following, watching over him, pointing the way: his grievous angel. In the late afternoon there was something reorienting about the base of the waterfall at the end of Bear Creek as it emptied finally onto the Valley Floor. He couldn’t put my finger on it. He panned for gold a little bit, but really, as he considered the beauty of the place, he paused. Maybe he was feeling a little sick from the shenanigans of the day before. But no, it was more of a reflective feeling. He just wanted to kick back, listen to the water and read from his pocket-sized copy of The Upanishads, another 50-cent pickup, probably at a library sale.

After soaking up all that he could about how desire is the source of all suffering, he returned to town to pursue further adventures. We are, you see, diamonds in the roughs of contradiction. McDaniel has made no apologies for that.

That night, he stayed in an overpriced lodge room, named after an old floosie who used to live in the old red-light district. All night people along Colorado Avenue bounced around like ping pong balls. He wandered into somebody’s real estate office, with a sign that said, "Blame it on the Altitude," thinking it was a bar. Sure enough, there was a bar set-up and a friendly guy, the realtor, it turns out, who refused to take money for the tequila shots. Before the sun was down, McDaniel was out cold after a mid-afternoon drunk, and awakened by the sound of explosions: a Fourth of July display. He leapt out of the bed, groggy and confused. He had been sleeping for five or so hours.

He spilled out on the street (It was night by then) and didn’t come back until it was all he could do to stumble from streetlight to streetlight on Pacific, navigating himself to the persistent thumping of tribal drums and cigarette lighters, on into the night (There is at least one bar in Telluride for every tenth person in town).

The next day, he drove up and down the canyon. The police officer was waiting for him. Just knowing he would slip up.

As speed traps go, Telluride is an eventual dead end. There is no point in going any further. The road into town leads into a narrowing box canyon and, eventually, non-vehicular mountain terrain leading straight up. It is a virtual roach motel for cars pointed east. Pointless to go too fast in the uphill direction. Unless you want to try a white-knuckle mountain pass to Ouray, past the old Tomboy mining town, up and over the hill, at 12,000 feet. The main road, though, drives up to winding switchbacks that lead you up to Bridal Veil Falls. You have to just leave your car behind.

Yes, it takes concentration to go 15 miles per hour, Telluride’s only legal speed limit. One has to be mindful, at all times, of one’s speed. To be really good at it takes a Zen awareness. So he was neither mindful nor concentrating. He was stressed out about a lot of things, especially the high rent of lodge, knowing finances couldn’t tolerate any more of this.

So he was being neither mindful or concentrating. He was stressed out and his brain was already far down the road, beyond anything he could actually see ... When one of the local law officers pulled him over as he looked for a parking space, he barely even realized he was driving. Indeed, on top of everything else, it was the altitude.

"Good morning," says the officer, who looked like a forest ranger with a blue baseball cap and green shorts. "Your vehicle registration is expired."

It wasn’t going too fast at all. He smiled, gave him a warning, and walked away, after advising him to get it renewed when he get back to Arizona. McDaniel just smiled, thinking: He wasn’t going back.

Nonetheless feeling a little tweaked from the experience, he went on with his day, grabbing his notebook and heading to a nature talk sponsored by the Greenbucks program. They gave away concert tickets if you attend a talk, took a nature walk, pick up trash or whatever. He did it not so much because he cared about the environment, but because of the ulterior motive of obtaining tickets for the concert the next day. Music was simply a bigger deal for this city slicker than separating aluminum cans from the trash. Money was a problem, and if he was going to find her, it was at this show.

Turned out to be a talk on recycling. And, while he felt free to write away, the images came in a flood of ideas. Is the environmentalist a hero, a quack, a hacker or a fool? You know, that poor, over optimistic but imaginative warrior harboring that hobgoblin of liberal anxiety: technology. We used to call him a Luddite. But if King Lud is a disenfranchised ruler without a nation, there sure are a lot of people out on the seas of change with him, swimming against the tide with the rest fleet of the damned.

Unlike the hyper-romantic Don Quixote and his nemesis, the windmill, the foe is real and the odds of success in an assault threatening to devour the entire planet are daunting. They are the discontents in the transition zones: Urban sprawl, the growing beehive of fetishistic tools to feed the greed for more power, the inefficient industrial paradigms and outright evil, pure and simple, of technology for its own sake.

Quite alike are these Earth First! sorts, chained to the rocks by the new Zeus, a counter-cultural Prometheus, an antithetical reactionary to the ever-present flux of things. But one can’t really stop the turning of the windmill anymore than one can start the perpetual motion machine. The wheel of fortune, like Ezekiel’s fiery vision in the sky, is both elusive and ubiquitous. But still, they try. High in a tree to slow the lumberman’s scythe, flaming the barons of e-commerce with harsh digerati, or hacking autocratic networks with waves of discordant, viral code, this monkey wrenching of King Lud’s worst fear is always a defensive action. Like Jesus of Nazareth in the marketplace and his desired result to raise some Cain, the performance artist and his inquisitor are One.

The question is: Why object to changes on what’s left of the uncompromised plain, the pioneers of thought on the open frontier, those who deign to preserve all that remains for free-thinking and dreaming and reflection into our inner selves; why do we so frequently repeat the same mythological constructs to describe who is right and who is wrong, what is the impact when too many people believe in the myth, who is responsible, and, what can done about it? Can we get a better grip on the situation if we simply locate the right archetypes, and in doing so, start hammering away and dismissing, breaking the curse, accordingly?

McDaniel hammered away by writing poetry. It was my only response to this thing. The speaker at the event spoke of the story and myth of Mobius, and the pen grabbed his name and flew:

Turn the bad into good.

Glass into sand.
The agent is the pulverizer.
Beat up the plastic.
Improve the soul.
Trauma separator.
Matter turning to smoke.
Three moon shots separatin'
nine stages to nirvana,
Twenty-three roads
to Mythville.
Think of performance art
and persecution
as one. Fear nothing
and nothingness will run.
Embrace everything,
everything will come.
Leave this place clean
as when you came.
Reflective sand,
driveways paved
with Cibola gold,
mustang mosaic,
round Indian shield...
creativity expands,
censor's cage contracts,
the tao of two is whole.
High performance standards
increase the odds of survival.
O protected one, carry us,
to a higher plane.
While it may not be apparent,
everything is in order.
Mobius strip, everything eternal,
ebbs out, then in, then out again,
the feedback loops gain force
or devour, depending upon
the potency--or, poison,
of the form. Interfere,
as little as possible.
Live in the present.
Study the past.
Know the future,
nature, soul fire,
is a neverending cycle.
Real time is irrelevant.
Strip mine Mobius:
Reduce, solve, practice
what is preached.
Wear often,
a plastic pop bottle hat,
corrugated cardboard shirt,
shoes and old rubber tires,
for a head like an alien.

Who says Augustus

would never amount
to anything?

When it was over he was on his way back up Bear Creek—with an aluminum pan in a plastic bag, water and the Upanishads in his pocket. But when he climbed, actually finding the gold, flecks of it in bits of pebbles in a plastic baggie, he threw it back, and fell back down the hill.

Beaten down, exhausted, feeling the impact at 12,000 feet, he fell asleep by the creek, stretched out on a cold stone, his mind’s eye upon a crystal blue flame on the water, just as he drifted to dream just below the treeline.


An excerpt from "23 Roads to Mythville," a "reality lit" novel by Douglas McDaniel

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