Posted from Apache Junction, Arizona, United States.
We have once again rejoined the world… We hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving. We are thankful to our readers for remembering that we are out here and for sending us notes and comments. And we are thankful to everyone who has offered us any and every assistance from a place to stay to a site to visit on our journey thus far. Thank you! (Tears.)
For photos from this leg of the journey, please see the accompanying photo post.
On the morning of Wednesday, November 16, we left our campground in Needles, California, a stop in between from where we came, Las Vegas, and where we were headed, Twentynine Palms, CA. Originally, we had considered camping in Joshua Tree National Park either before arriving in Las Vegas or after leaving. But because of the 4000-foot altitude of the park we felt that it would have been too cold at night for us to camp comfortably. The nighttime temperatures for this time of year are typically in the 30s even though the daytime highs are comfortably in the 70s. Hence our return to Needles. We needed to be in Twentynine Palms that afternoon and since Joshua Tree National Park borders that city, we allowed for time so that we could drive through the park and appreciate what it had to offer.
The way was led by historic Route 66, which surprised in its modesty but still offered unique sights not found everyday or everywhere. For instance, parallel to the road itself was a raised ridge of land; it could have been an old railroad track path or fulfilled some other function. The intriguing thing about this ridge was that for dozens of miles travelers had spelled out their names or just their initials with stones on it. Sometimes the stones were of uniform color, sometimes they seemed artificially hued; sometimes the names were long and heroic, announcing to the world and maybe outer space that “Martin” had trod the path. Sometimes they were humble and sweet, just wanting to participate in the tradition and be a part of the history of the road. Just when we thought it had concluded, the trail of names would pick up again and continue for many more miles. It was peculiar and satisfying at the same time.
There were also vast fields of dry, dusty dirt along the highway and even some chloride fields. At one point we passed a plow – a dirt plow. In the Midwest we have snowplows, but this was a dirt plow/road grader that pushed the drifts of dirt and sand off the paved highways. Ah, distorted memories of home… Along the way, little oasis towns would suddenly appear and vanish behind us before we even new they were organized civilizations; a few homes, some trailers, maybe a gas station and a souvenir shop, and lots of sand.
Joshua Tree National Park is where the Colorado and Mojave Deserts meet. The view is dominated by two entities: the scores and scores of Joshua Trees populating the land in enormous fields and the mounds of rocks that would be perched unpredictably on the Earth’s surface. The Joshua Tree, it should be noted, is neither tree nor cactus; it us from the lily family and was so named by the wandering Mormons who felt they resembled Joshua beckoning them to the Promised Land. Although the park offered lots of daytime activities including plenty of hiking trails ranging from easy to advanced, we only had time to drive through the park, although we did make time to stop for lunch at an unoccupied picnic table at a campsite. There were many campers at the park but we only witnessed one courageous soul who pitched a tent on the ground; the rest of the overnight visitors had camper units which undoubtedly included heating devices. The weather was interesting because despite the bright, warm sun the breeze was always rather chilly, even while sitting in the sun. During our lunch, Joe chose (and Erik followed) to sit on top of the picnic table. This was because upon entering the park, there was a sign asking drivers to please be careful to avoid injuring tarantulas that may be crossing the road. (It is, after all, their habitat, not ours.) That was enough to convince us that prolonged periods of contact with the ground may invite an unwanted guest. We only had enough peanut sandwiches for two people, after all.
Do see the accompanying photo post, because although Joshua Tree State Park is beautiful to observe, there isn’t a lot of variety; thus your flummoxed author is at a loss as to how to creatively describe the barren, sand-covered ground; the low, scraggly bushes; the gnarly, thorny trees: and the towering, carved boulders with any prosaic eloquence. Feel free to create your own adjective-saturated descriptions as you peruse what our lens captured.
Our destination that afternoon and residence for the next ten days was the Vipassana Meditation Center in Twentynine Palms. This was an opportunity that just happened to intersect with our planned schedule so we enrolled for this experience even though it involved a little backtracking on our part. In the next day or two Joe will be composing an essay on the more substantive reasons on why this was important to us and the benefits we received. [To read that essay, go here.] But below are the nuts and bolts of this wonderful retreat center.
The course is an intensive 10-day seminar in the process of Vipassana Meditation. Despite the fact that this school of meditation was rediscovered and taught by Gotama the Buddha 2500 years ago, there is absolutely no religious context or sectarianism to this form of mediation – in fact, it really doesn’t work if any sort of religious overtones interfere in the process, either from the outside (the student) or the inside (the teacher). Even Buddha insisted on this; he worked tirelessly day and night to spread this knowledge and asked those he trained to themselves teach as many people as they could. The malady of negativity is found in all humans regardless of race, religion, gender, class, age, etc.; therefore, the solution should be a universal one.
After nine years of planning, the facility opened this past spring and was incredibly well planned. It was not fancy or elaborate, just smartly designed for its purpose. There were residence halls, a meditation hall, a walking path that displayed many various forms of desert flora, and a dining hall in two halves, since the segregation of men and women was essential to the course. All students had a private room (which was a welcome surprise since we didn’t know exactly what to expect), and most people had a private bathroom. In an accidental oversight, the two of us actually shared one bathroom. This was surprising because for almost the entire ten days of the retreat all students were to observe Noble Silence, which means we were not to communicate with any other person at the facility whether by word, gesture, or expression, nor even make eye contact. This is to eliminate any possible distractions that may encroach upon a student’s training. (There were, of course, managers who were available for emergencies or other issues.) And naturally if two people (or more) arrive together, the administration intentionally separates them to lessen the temptation to communicate. But we there to willfully participate in the full experience and made the situation work out just fine.
Every day consisted of a 4:00 a.m. wake up bell and we were to be meditating by 4:30. For some meditation periods we were required to sit in the hall, but for others we could meditate in the hall or in our own room. The day ended at 9:00 p.m., and during the awake hours formal meditation was scheduled for eleven hours per day. The rest of the time was for breakfast, which always the usual breakfast fare; lunch, which changed daily and was usually quite good; and dinner, which was nonexistent: first-time students could have tea and fruit but returning students could only have tea (with no milk) but no fruit. All food was vegetarian but most was vegan-friendly, and it was hand-made and very nutritious and well balanced. Thanksgiving wasn’t acknowledged, but lunch that day consisted of black bean chili and corn bread, which were tasty. But the pangs of missing Thanksgiving were easily drowned out for these Minnesota boys by the distraction of being in the warm, sunny desert in late November.
These courses happen throughout the world and are free of charge. Yes, free. That’s part of the purpose of the retreat: to isolate the student in the manner of a monk or nun so that he/she can focus on the task at hand. By receiving lodging, food, and instruction without cost, students are grateful for everything they have. If students had to pay for the services, thoughts of value or ownership may creep into the mind, which is supposed to be concentrating on other issues. Another reason for the private rooms and total separation of men and women: to eliminate all possible distractions. The courses exist entirely because of donations from students who have been through the course and even then there is no “suggested” amount. There are no corporate sponsors. This network is amazingly impressive and is in itself a testament to the how much this technique is valued by those who have learned it. Because there are courses taught in Latin America, we hope to either attend one as students or possibly volunteer as servers at one some time in 2012. Overall, it was a very enlightening time and most fulfilling experience, and we gained a unquantifiable amount of knowledge of ourselves and human nature. More on that in the upcoming post, but for the basic background of this type of meditation, you can visit the website. (Our most recent addition of Quotes was influenced by our time at this retreat.)
Despite having to drive a little out of the way, we are spending Sunday night (the 27th) at a campground in the Phoenix area. Why? Because we are trying to be where it is warm when we have to camp. But “warm” is relative these days. Even in southern Arizona it will be in the 30s at night in December, when we are there next. But after one night here, we head to northwestern New Mexico to help out on a vineyard for two weeks. Yes, there are vineyards in New Mexico. And we are excited!!