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Deep Underground: The Hueco Tanks and Carlsbad Caverns

Journeys in Texas Continued: The Wind, Explorations of the Hueco Tanks, and Carlsbad Caverns of New Mexico

sunny 75 °F

“One night a wild young cowboy came in, wild as the west Texas wind.” Marty Robbins

I understand these lyrics a lot better now. I have a full appreciation of the wind that whips the grassland and mountains of west Texas. I have fully experienced the Wild West Texas wind during two nights of attempted sleep. The wind was just as Marty writes, it came on all of a sudden, as a cowboy would enter a bar, and suddenly the wind turns violently strong whipping everything in its way. I have never experienced wind like this, and I was impressed.

In our sturdy little tent (named Columbus), we attempted to sleep, but it was a long time coming. The wind hammered, harangued, whapped the sides of the tent, pushing them in with such ferocity as to slap us around every few minutes. I was viciously slapped in the face, until I finally rolled over and let my back be massaged by the tumult. It took awhile to get used to the noise, and the beatings, but eventually both of us slept.

What was just as amazing was the how quickly it came and went (just like Marty‘s cowboy). At one point, I had finally fallen asleep. I awoke a few hours later to silence, with just a breath of fresh morning air under sunny skies for wind. I doubt anybody would believe me if I tried to tell them of the gale in the night.

The wind is part of the allure of west Texas.

Besides the wind, the geology of the northern Chihuahua desert is just as impressive. Ihave been spending my quality time exploring the Hueco Tanks, east of El Paso, and Carlsbad caverns of New Mexico. Between both parks, I have spent more of my days underneath the earth as I have spent walking above it.

Hueco Tanks State Park
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Huecos are hollows, or water carved recesses in rock. The Hueco Tanks area are just that, an ancient low lying mound of rock that are filled with huecos. The huecos store water in them even during the driest parts of the year. In the desert, water is life, and life has flourished here for thousands of years. Man has used these watering holes for just as long. The low rocky mountains are a jumble of humongous rock slabs, piled up boulders and narrow caves and crevices. Man has been leaving their signatures for as long as they have been coming to the tanks. The ancient visitors left pictographs of masks, and hunting scenes, more recent but still historical visitors (in the 1800’s) chiseled their names, dates, and home into the rock. Modern morons have left their mark-using spray paint, sometimes covering up the priceless ancient markings.
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The park is well regulated, and they keep track of who comes and goes, as they only allow a limited number of visitors each day. They are doing a good job preserving the ancient sites, yet allowing the boulders and rock to be used what it ought to be used for: the great playground that it is.
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Hueco Tanks state park is designated by four “mountain zones.” Three of the zones are closed to the public and are only reachable by ranger-guided tour. One of the zones, North Mountain, is open for day use only, and that is where I spent my time exploring. With a map, a climbing guide to the boulders, and my reckoning, I spent a day traversing north mountain.
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It was tremendous fun to explore through the giant boulders, rock slabs, slot canyons and caves. It reminded me of exploring Joshua Tree National Park’s rock islands, and my approach was much the same. With determined effort, I found I could climb, slither, slide, crawl and squeeze my way through the mountain. I was in my element, my urge to explore unleashed.
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Using these methods, we stumbled upon most of the ancient sites. One cave was filled with paintings of masks in exquisite condition. The rock was slick from the hundreds if not thousands of feet that have visited this amazing cave. This was a good place, an ancient place, and one I will never forget.
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Though we were not the first people to explore these mountains, and find these ancient sites, it felt like we were the first. It was exciting, and fun, and the thrill of discovery was intoxicating. I happily left the mountain in the late afternoon. I was satisfied with my efforts.

Creatures of Hueco Tanks
Lizards and Horse Lubber Grasshopper
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At the campground, late in the night, I had stepped outside to use the bathroom. Beware, when stepping out to go pee in the desert. EVERYTHING is sharp. As I found relief, I looked up at the stars and found my self gazing at the constellations. I wondered what the ancient people thought of the stars. I became inspired and I captured a photograph of Orion (the Hunter), and Taurus (the Hunted) before I crawled back into my sleeping bag.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park
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A few days later, I found myself once again heading down the natural entrance to the big room at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. For once, I was prepared: I had a working camera with fresh batteries, and sturdy tripod. The caverns were mine to explore by camera. In past visits, I was hampered by a lack of batteries, or tripod, and unable to photograph the impressive decoration and wonder these caverns hold.

My traveling partner and I had made reservations for two of the wild cave tours, one for the Hall of the White Giant, and The Spider Cave. These tours were on two consecutive days in the afternoon, so we had the mornings to spend walking around the natural entrance and the Big Room. This turned out to be the perfect combination to exploring Carlsbad, (outside of dating a caving ranger).
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The Natural Entrance and Big Room are beautiful, and full of amazing decoration. The whole route is on an asphalt path, guarded by railings and lit up by decorative lighting. I had a great time setting up photos of the caverns, much like Ansel Adams had years before. The exposures are long, and a tripod is necessary to keep the images sharp. What is great about the tourist route of the caverns is that the lighting never changes. I had all day to get my exposure and focus the way I wanted it.
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Which do you prefer? Black and White or Color?
I can't decide which I prefer.
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I would highly recommend to any photographer who wants to learn to take long exposure extreme low-lighted photographs to practice in a cavern. Not only are the subjects beautiful and interesting, the lighting is constant, and a great place to learn.
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The walk was pleasant enough, but as this was my third visit to the place, I wanted more adventure than the easy routes could offer. That is where the ranger-guided tours of some of the other caverns came in. While I’ve gone caving on my own before, (a serious no-no in the caving world), I had never had the right gear, or gone on an actual caving exploration. I was curious to see what it was like to go on a modest exploration on well-explored routes.
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I was pleased to find cave exploration as fun and exciting as I hoped it would be. Once again, I found myself crawling, scooting, slithering into narrow, passages and crevices. I climbed up rock chimneys, and pulled myself up ropes, and ladders to get to our destinations. I was sweating from the exertion, I was filthy with mud, and dirt, and water. Above all, I was smiling.

The White Giant is impressive, a massive stalagmite rising up from floor, one of the cooler seldom seen decorations at Carlsbad. Spider Cave was full of pure white crystalline decoration, and rooms of delicate halectites, draperies, and soda straws. It was just as fun to crawl through the cave as it was to see these beautiful decorations.

The ranger talked of other rooms in the cavern that aren’t open to the public. Carlsbad has over a hundred miles of known passages, just about three miles of them are opened to the public. Granted, they are an amazing three, but just think about what other gorgeous views could be hiding under the ground.

The only way to see some of the other caverns is by applying for a permit to the four that are currently open to explore by permit, becoming a ranger, or by dating a ranger. The rangers have more access to some of the restricted caves in the area. I’m going to take the advice of one of the rangers and check out www.caves.org. I want to explore more caves, and this is a great place to get involved.

I am spending the day here in Carlsbad, New Mexico getting more supplies, (food, and gas) and taking care of some business. While on the road in the U.S., a great place to stop is the local library in whatever town you might be visiting. Not only are they clean, full of information, and quiet, almost all of them now have a WIFI connection.

It has been a great week here in west Texas. I am now heading into the Guadalupe Mountains to explore some of the high country, including a return to the highest point in Texas.

So long, and Adios, Amigos!
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Posted by Rhombus 13:56 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes rocks canyons photography caving texas philosophy boulders slot exploration caverns Comments (1)

Texas Tea: Introduction to West Texas

Franklin Mountains State Park, Awesome Hiking, On the Road

sunny 65 °F

I'm on the road again, this time in West Texas to spend three weeks exploring the parks of the region. For once, I don't have a lot of time to get long winded in my entries, and I'm going to let my photos tell the story. I've spent the first two days exploring El Paso, enjoying the scenes, the hikes, and the good life here in Texas.
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Franklin Mountain State Park has been my home so far. I've hiked up to the top of Franklin Mountain, which has some of the best hiking I've seen anywhere for a state park. They don't mess around. This trail isn't for the faint of heart, as it's rugged and technical, requiring you to rock climb up several sections to reach the top. Good views along the way, and a dust storm rolled in when we were on top.
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I spent last night being pummelled by the side of my tent, as the wind gusts howled around our campsite. After getting used to being slapped every ten minutes, I finally fell asleep. Needless to say it was a long night.
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This is indeed the good life. Texas has a lot to offer, and I'm sure to add more description as time allows. For now, Enjoy, and I will do the same.
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Onward!

Posted by Rhombus 09:01 Archived in USA Tagged mountains hiking camping photography texas Comments (1)

Sleep Deprived In Portland

On Sleep Deprivation, The Chinese Gardens, Powell's City of Books, Old Town Pizza, and Moments in Portland

It’s October 23rd, 2011, and I have been awake for 23 hours straight. The fun began seven hours ago when I helped dock the ship to the floating dock down in River Front Place near downtown Portland. After docking, I realized I technically was off duty, but I stayed on, as there was luggage to move from the ship to the dock. The easiest way is to hand it down from the upper deck to the main deck through a gate. This involves many spinal compressions, as travellers are apt to bring their antique typewriters and cast iron stoves on cruises; I don’t know why. I was the catcher, as I have some height to me, and am all right with hard work.

My good deed has cost me 10 minutes of my time. I feel good however, as the process went much more smoothly than without me. Luggage sucks when you are a guy down.

I went to my room, decided on a shower, refreshed with eucalyptus. Koala bears know what is good.

I leave the boat heading to the nearby coffee shop for some Stumptown, perhaps one of the world’s great coffees, and a cinnamon roll. I have a weakness for cinnamon rolls. I monkey around on the internet, posting a blog, making some inane commentary about my day on facebook, pull ahead of my brother in a game of scrabble, and snap my computer closed. The lighting is getting good.
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I amble back to the ship. I grab my camera, tripod, and offload my computer. I call my brother and I’m gone. I find a park bench lit up in perfect lighting. I have to photograph this light, as it is perfect. Not only that, but I’ve been waiting to compose this bench all season. I settle in, take my self-portrait, and enjoy the scene. It smells faintly of pee from the bums that sleep here at night, but the lighting remains beautiful. I call my brother back and the conversation resumes. It’s a good one. I haven’t talked to my brother in quite some time, and it is good to catch up, to philosophize, to laugh aloud, to reconnect, to be brothers.

I pick up and walk. I head towards Chinatown. I remember something about gardens, and I would like to see them. I’m wandering. Runners run. Biker’s bike. Good looking people look good. Frumpy looking people eye me frumpily. Nobody says, “Hello, may your day go well for you.” No matter, I’m lost in the conversation.

I find the gardens with little trouble. Pretty much the first place I looked. Damn, I’m good. At this point, I have been up for 18 and a half hours and feeling good. My phone battery is dying, and I’m dying, and I want to see the gardens before I die. So I say farewell to my brother who is drinking wine in a soft rain by a slightly silted river in central Minnesota.
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I enter the gardens, pay my fee, and say thank you to the garden hosts. The hosts are garden loving people and they remind me of plants by their quietness and composure. I let my senses take over. The gardens are wonderful. They offer a concoction that is irresistible to my senses. It smells fresh. Fragrant plants are important to a good Chinese garden. It is beautifully simplistic in some areas, strikingly complicated in others. The Chinese are into harmony, the yin to the yang, the tall to the short, the wet to the dry, the dark to the light. Every space has balance and beauty in nature. I’m smitten. I get it. My mind thinks. “I wish the surrounding city was silent. I wish the imposing neighborhood buildings weren’t so tall. I wish I were hanging out in classical Chinese gardens in midmorning without a care in the world. “HA! I am exactly where I want to be, and I’m happy.
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The koi fish are rascals, beautiful as dragons, swimming in erratic designs through the pond. The are intriguing, colorful, and hard to photograph. I follow them across the pond attempting to catch them off guard, but it’s impossible. I leave them be.
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The garden is wonderful. The pamphlet tells me this is the best example of classical Chinese gardens outside of China. I take out my camera and search the chambers closer than I could with my eye. I was looking and freezing the Zen moments that poured out of every chamber of this garden, and I was satisfied. I love taking photos, but I’ll not dissect that subject today. I walked through the garden twice, meandering a path in one direction and backtracking the same path in reverse. I pause to sit beneath a quiet tree in the Hall of Scholars.
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I decided to go and buy Frank Herbert’s "Dune" from Powell’s. It is a pleasant walk along streets I haven’t visited before. I cross through the park and take more photos of the elephant. When thinking of perfect conditions, I was hoping for rain. These elephants would look quite good in a gloom with nobody about, but alas, not today. I walk west along Burnside, pass the auto mart, and ignore the noisy traffic. There it is, Powell’s City off Books. I think I hear a chorus of angels singing.

On my entrance, I realize there is a handicapped person in a wheel chair with their family in tow behind me. I hold the door for them. Then I hold it for three more people leaving. They say, “Thank you,” I say, “You’re welcome.” A warm feeling buzzes around us.

I walk into the tall shelves of books. I know where I’m going. At least I think I do until I realize I’m in the wrong section. I ask a redundant man pecking at a keyboard which way to science fiction. “Gold Room, on the right.” “Thank you, sir.“ I’m on my way.

Frank Herbert is huge. He has written arguably the best science fiction series in history, and I want to read it. I want to restart with "Dune," and continue. My personal favorite science fiction series is "The Worthing Saga" by Orson Scott Card. I’m keenly interested in "Dune" for some reason. I like Science Fiction but only read it a couple of times a year. I find a copy for six bucks and move on, remembering the name of one more author I like Greg Garrett. He’s only written two books it turns out, and I had already read both of them. Ah well. I leave Powell’s purchasing only one book. It is possible.

Back to the park, to the north end, where the bums lie on benches, the ground, in the shade, and amble by working on their troubles. At this point, I have been up for 21 hours, and I’m looking forward to my pizza date with my fellow deckhands. I have some time to kill before one however, and sit down to read my new book. It goes well, but I’m nagged by the feeling of very deep tiredness, hunger, and the thought that they aren’t going to arrive at the restaurant until 2 pm. I want to be in bed by 3 pm… Not good.

I decide to go to get my pizza. I have to. I’m weary and losing my focus. I wander down Davis St. to Old Town Pizza, and enter. The place is terrific. It’s dark, hardly lit at all except by natural lighting from the front window. It smells good. A bar to my right made of good dark wood and high mirrors. Straight ahead, a politely smiling miss waits to hear my decisions. Looking at the menu, I decide on the following: Classic crust, pepperoni, bell peppers, and roasted garlic. I love roasted garlic. To me this is heaven and soon to be in my possession. I get a glass of wine at the bar and take a seat at an old wrought iron table with wood top. I love the lighting. This building is haunted, so they say, and I can believe it. This is an old building in Old Town, and it feels right for a ghost.
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It also feels right for a pizza, and it wasn’t long before it arrives. I called my friends, told them my plans, and they won’t make it in time. Ah well, I’ve dated myself before, and happily dig into my carbohydrates. It’s a damn good pizza. I eat half. I’m stuffed. I’m happy. I ask for a box. I get one. In the process of putting my leftovers in the box, I spill the last swallow of wine on my jeans. I catch the glass, somehow, and look at my jeans. It appears I wet my pants, and I now smell like wine. I laugh. This is funny. I dab at it with a napkin, cut my losses and exit.

I decide I may as well stagger back to ship and ask bums for pennies. Why not? It’s not too hard to act the part. I forget it when I near my first bum. I’m tired as hell, full, and happy.

I notice the small moments of life along the way home.

A haggard woman steps out of the public ladies room singing a happy song. A man makes out with his woman along the rail where not too long ago, I did the same thing.

A smile begins to form at the corners of my mouth. A smirk. I’m thinking of my wine stained pee pants, and the moments of my day. It’s been a good one, and I feel my face light up into a grin. I chuckle aloud to no one and everyone. Thom knows how to walk through Portland.

Geese give me the stink eye as I walk past the large flock eating grass. I hear the chomping of the blades and think of the shortening of the grass. I see many panhandlers and street people plying their trade. A man will sing you a ditty on his banjo on any subject you offer him. A talented young man plays the violin quite well. He’s not gifted, but he is good, and I toss him a buck. What do I need it for? I move on, swaying down the sidewalk. An odd-looking man in a black leather jacket talks quietly with his friend. I get the feeling he’s shy. He doesn’t strike me as a leather jacket type of guy. I think to myself that everyone has a self-image. Everyone wants to look like there own self-image of themselves. They know how they want the world to perceive them. This is too deep for me. I’ve been up for 22 and a half hours and homing in on the ship. I’m close to my bed.

When I arrive it is 2 pm, and I have been up for 23 hours. I’m completely inspired to write this, and sleep will have to wait. I stand next to my bunk in my underwear and begin typing. I don’t usually write standing up in my underwear, but I’m ok with it. The words come fast, and my typing accurate. I know I have to write this while I’m in this mood, so tired, yet so perfectly poignant in my thinking about my day. I remember everything. I want to get this all down before I forget. At this point, I’m getting tunnel vision. Must keep typing. I feel the ghost of Kerouac pacing behind me whispering, “Yes, Yes, YES! Dig IT! GO, MAN GO!” I think I’m there. In eight minutes, I’ll have been up for 24 hours straight. I’m satisfied. I take another shower. I think to myself. I soap. I rinse. I can call it a day, a very satisfying full day.

I’ve been up for 24 hours and seven minutes, and I’ve turned out the light.

Posted by Rhombus 15:39 Archived in USA Tagged gardens parks flowers photography pizza portland Comments (3)

A Week of Photography of the River Lands

A Dozen River Views.

semi-overcast 67 °F

I don't have much to say this week. It's been a good week on the river, and I've been making the best of my time here. Of late I've been viewing the river scenes through the lens of my new camera. All in all, I'm happy with it, and I hope you continue to enjoy my takes on this amazing planet of ours. Without further ado, I give you a weekly dozen of delicious delectables courtesy of planet earth.

Cloud In Pastels.
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This cloud had a good vibe floating around on a sunny afternoon.

Vintage Picture
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Portland used to be a wild west town, full of violence, corruption and sin. This is a picture of one of the many saloons from the 1800s. When the Willamette River would flood, the shop owners would build scaffolding sidewalks and carry on their business as usual. This is a great picture of the era, showing the patrons of the saloon going to great lengths to get their booze.

I learned all of this by taking an interesting "Walking Tour of Portland". I went on the Portland Underground Tour which talked a lot about the darker side of early Portland. It was cool, and I'd recommend it if you are into history and want to learn more about the Old Town, and China Town of Portland.

Fountain of Old Town
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I like this fountain a lot. In years past it was a watering hole for horses and men.

High Desert Wrinkles
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Eastern Washington and Oregon is an endless landscape of highlands. It is quite beautiful to see these open lands. I had forgotten how expansive the western landscapes are.

Highland Landscape
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Along the Snake River are beautiful bluffs and overlooks. I want to hike to the top of this bluff to see what lies beyond.

Me and the Big Tree
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This mammoth tree can be found on the little island park near Cascade Locks. The Pacific Northwest is home to giant trees and this one made for a good climb. Long Live Giant Trees!

Sun Dappled Park Scene
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This is my favorite park in Clarkston, Washington. I've spent a lot of my time here, hanging out, slacklining, reading, eating breakfast, and contemplating the finer things in life.

Kite Surfer
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Wind Sports are very popular on the Columbia River as the wind is tunneled down through the gorge at very high speeds. This kite surfer was tearing it up catching rides of up to five seconds through the air.

The New Bell
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The Sea Bird has a new bell after we finally polished a hole in the old one. It only took 30 years. This one is a beautiful piece, crafted in Italy. It has a very warm tone that lasts a long time when tapped with the knuckle of a finger. I took this photograph one morning at dawn, and I'm quite pleased with it. It does the bell justice, and makes the sunrise far more interesting.

The Elder Statesman
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A peaceful scene on the Columbia River. The little park near the river at Cascade Locks is beautiful, and full of spectacular trees. This is one of them.

"Red Sky in the Morning.."
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The sky caught fire again. When the sky is red in the morning, it often signals low pressure and possible storms. In my experience the old addage proves correct more often than not.

The Tent City
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If you want to live in a colorful tent city and protest everything the government is doing, come to Portland and chill out in the park. I dug the tent city and wanted to join, as tent cities are a lot of fun.

Posted by Rhombus 08:10 Archived in USA Tagged parks rivers fountains oregon columbia photography washington Comments (0)

The Soul of a River

Rivers and Grandfathers, Be like Water, River Grandeur

semi-overcast 70 °F

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There is something calming about a river. The scenes of a river are a soothing balm to an unsettled spirit. When the trivial petty little differences of life start to get to you and change your perspective, go outside, lean on a rail, a tree, a fence, or a friend and watch a river. Rivers are great listeners. They will listen to all your problems even if you don‘t voice them aloud. When you have finished venting, a river will often offer up some solace in the form of a continuous chuckle of the water, a dragon fly landing on a nearby flower, or a reflection of a cloud.
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To me, rivers are a lot like grandfathers, patient, understanding, often slightly amused by your petty problems, but too kind not to give it away except for the twinkle in their eye. I doubt I’m the first to come to this conclusion. Whoever coined the term “old man river” was probably of a similar disposition. Besides that, some rivers have a musty, earthy smell to them, which might remind you of your own grandfather.
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A troubled mind is not the only reason to venerate the qualities of a good river. I like them in all moods and temperament. There is something proper about a river. Perhaps it is their ancient quality, as if time doesn’t pertain to them. Take a hike down through the ages and layers of the Grand Canyon and you will understand what I mean. People come, and people go, but the river just keeps on running.
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One of my old teachers recently had this to say, “The other day I immersed myself in the Traprock River, as I had yet to do that this year. Do you see a difference between the Ganges and the Traprock?”

I think not. Rivers have been a part of humanity since humanity began. It doesn’t matter where you are, man and river are intertwined.
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Their greatest virtue is their laziness. Rivers are lazy. They never go out of its way for any unnecessary movement. If they move at all, it is because gravity is doing the work for them. Watts reminds us “to be like water. Watch water move over a piece of ground. It sends out little fingers of water, feeling its way along. When it comes to a dead end, it waits until it finds another way. Water always finds a way to go. You never see water cry out when it reaches a dead end, ‘Oh, I have failed’ for that would be neurotic water. Just wait patiently and like water, you will find a way without using any effort at all.” (Beware that this is roughly paraphrased).
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I have been spending my time on some of the once great rivers of the Pacific Northwest. Even though man has put tremendous effort into controlling and regulating these rivers, the rivers carry on patiently, waiting the day when they will be free once again. I doubt it will be in my lifetime, but I would like to think that in time the Columbia and the Snake will run free once again.
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In the mean time, these rivers are still offering up their solace and grandeur. I can lean on the rail late in the evening, look out over the star streaked sky, and listen to the sounds of the river. It is time well spent. I think I could have summed up this whole essay in one sentence. Rivers are good for the soul.
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Posted by Rhombus 10:35 Archived in USA Tagged rivers oregon rocks sunsets photography washington philosophy Comments (0)

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