Driving up from the desert floor into the forests of Arizona has the excitement of driving through Salt River Canyon. When I was a kid, we had an older, small two-door car which was a stick shift whose name was “Puff.” Driving “Puff” through the Canyon was always precarious. The road through the Canyon has switchbacks and a constant grade (steep slope) up and down. Strong winds and heavy traffic make the drive an event requiring full focus.
The drive through Salt River Canyon was always daunting. I’d find myself holding my breath as we careened left to right - tight turn – downshift - push gas pedal to the floor – all while hoping that we gained enough speed to creep back up to the 35 mph speed limit. If you were in the car, you were using your will power to help make this happen. If we could top out at the speed limit before hitting the next switchback, we would try to keep momentum, never taking the foot off the gas for too long for fear of stalling out or rolling backward into the traffic behind you. The process was repeated over and over through the long drive in or out of the canyon.
The car, “Puff” had a tape player. Tracy Chapman, the Chilean band Illapu and Suzanne Vega were all car trip music of choice, but for the canyon, my Mom always requested Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
“Just look at them and cry, and know they love you...” Bright southwest sun, pavement slanted so steep you smell the fumes of all the smoking vehicle brakes. The music plays loudly as we focus on the perilous journey. Calming Music was pushing us forward.
I think about this Canyon journey as I sit down to try and write today. The road has been improved since I was a kid. The narrow, two-lane road, has been widened allowing room to pull over and for semis to make the switchback turns without going into the oncoming traffic, but even now, it’s still intense.
The thing I didn’t expect about this creative work is how scary it is. I’m scared all the time. Facing the steep grade, weaving in and out of switchbacks – thinking I’m going one way until Spirit tells me I’m supposed to be going another, it takes my full focus. I’m not in some V-8 truck that can chug through gas fast enough to gain speed. I am in a small V-4, pedal to the floor just to maintain.
My mom squinting eyes at the road, in the passenger's seat I would try to stay quiet. Not for fear of making her mad, but for fear of making her laugh. We always laugh to distraction. Quiet, I’d stay until, “Find The Cost Of Freedom” came on. I’d always sing along adding to the depth of harmony. Singing was always welcome.
Now, in the driver's seat, I sing so little in this creative process. Focus and fear make it difficult to relax the lungs enough to breathe deep. It sounds like I’m suffering. I’m not. Well, maybe suffering as growth always makes us suffer. I am learning to be committed to creation.
At the bottom of the canyon, the Salt River runs, dividing one Apache nation from the other – at least in the eyes of the United States.
Reaching the bottom of the canyon was always a break. We couldn’t keep the air conditioning on as we drove the Canyon because “Puff” would overheat. Pulling over and opening the door to the smell of water, my whole body would relax. Wind whipping down the nature-made tunnel lifts all of my hair off my sweaty head. The smell of water is a rare treat having just driven up from the desert floor. There is a relief in the settling of the body into the earth. A true pause.
In my writing journey, I think I’ve passed the middle and have pulled back on the road. I’m creeping upward, gas pedal to the floor. It’s more work going up, but the slower pace does feel like I’m more in control. It’s been a long time of careening towards the canyon floor.
I think about my fear. It is saturating. Paired with my focus, my fear is easier to avoid. It is this resistance to facing my fear which has taught me more about myself than anything else. I’ve slowly learned how to surrender to divine guidance, show up for the process day after day, and try and let go of the need for external validation. Most of all, I’ve learned the only way through is to tell the truth.
Through expressing (writing, painting, etc.) our truth, we see ourselves and we see each other. We learn. We grow. Our truth is power and vulnerability all wrapped up in one. For me, it is this power and vulnerability combo that makes the experience of truth-telling terrifying. It’s a truth and it’s not the truth. I wonder if people will know that.
When I find that I’m unsure why I am making this journey, I return to the river at the bottom of the canyon. The wind’s reassuring nourishment dries my panic induced sweat and the water cools my heart which sometimes burns with such intensity. Most of all, the river reminds me what it feels like to flow in the crevice between two Nations. To embody the separation and yet to also embody the link.
I am working on emerging from the canyon. I am remembering that breath, sound and singing are always welcome. The truths I bring with me, I will be able to share.