In which we go on a road trip…

The Southwestern U.S. is new to us, given our Northern heritage. One of the reasons we were excited about the Juárez assignment was the opportunity to do some exploring North of the border, and this week we got started. Here’s a map of the route we drove:

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We started off with a few nights of camping in Big Bend National Park. It’s bounded on one side by the Rio Grande, and is basically a massive desert plain with an island of towering mountains right in the middle. Up in the mountains there are evergreen forests, the plain is thick with grasses, yucca and cacti, and the river valley had palms and thick bamboo groves. It was neat to see such distinct eco-systems so close to each other. Here are some photos:

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After a few days of sleeping on the ground we were ready for a change of pace. We headed to Marfa, TX for a night. It’s a bustling metropolis that is home to 2121 people, and that also happens to be the spiritual and home of the Minimalist Art movement in America. You know when you see a white canvas hanging on a museum wall with like a single line drawn across it? That’s minimalism. Apparently back in the 70s a number of prominent Minimalist artists moved out to rural Texas, drawn to the stark (one might say minimalist) landscape. They set up shop in Marfa, and now this sleepy little crossroads is home to galleries, bookstores, theaters, coffee shops, and fantastic restaurants galore. We had fun, and I even saw a few pieces of art that I didn’t find ridiculously confusing.

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After Marfa we blazed a trail North over mountain and desert, going for hours at a time without even a radio station that we could pick up (forget cell phone signal). We stopped at Fort Davis, which was built to protect the San Antonio to El Paso road from Apache raiders, and was home to many of the famous Buffalo Soldiers. We even got to see an introductory video narrated by Kareem Abdul Jabbar in cowboy getup….

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Our next stop was Carlsbad, NM, where the main attractions are the impressive number of Chinese Buffet restaurants, and Carlsbad Caverns. We partook of both, and the Caverns were the more memorable. The main caves are located about 80 stories below ground, and the elevators were broken, so we did it on foot. It was a long walk both directions, which left a lot of time for thinking. Being fairly well read I know that there are a lot of things to worry about when you go hiking underground. Balrogs, for one thing (see The Fellowship of The Ring). Also, armies of little men under the enchantment of a green witch who are planning an invasion of the surface (see The Silver Chair). We found neither of these things, and when we started seeing the rock formations I forgot my fears. The pictures speak for themselves:

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After Carlsbad we headed West for home, the dog, and another week of work. It was a great trip, and we look forward to more.

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Regarding Paris, strange lights in the sky, and old Jewish Prophets

Last week I was tired. Visa interviewing is draining, emotionally and intellectually. The last few months have involved a lot of learning. The news had been exhausting too. Suicide bombings, unrest on campuses, a flap about red cups…all of this mixed with the rage and counter-rage brought by social media.

K and I were ready to unplug.

Three days in a National Park without electricity or web access was just the ticket. Three days of thinking about birds, rivers, plains, canyons, and mountains. The forces that raised and shaped them, and the people who have worked to preserve them. At night there was an ocean of stars to consider, and a Stephen Hawking book to read by head lamp after K fell asleep. It brings perspective; reflecting on our smallness in the universe, and the consequent smallness of our problems.

We left the park refreshed, and clicked on our phones on Friday afternoon. It didn’t take long for all the Paris related alerts to pop up on the screen. The exhaustion made a comeback.

We went out after dark to take a look at the Marfa lights. These lights are an unexplained phenomenon. They show up right above the desert horizon, looking like distant headlights or fireflies. They flit back and forth for a few seconds or minutes before disappearing. No one knows what causes them. Some say it’s moonlight reflecting off of mica in the mountains. Others say it is light bouncing off of plasma from a long dead volcano. Still others say it’s the ghost of a Spanish conquistador. And some say it’s nothing but headlights.

Lots of questions went through my mind as I stood there in the dark, watching those mysterious lights.

What are they? Why haven’t we figured it out yet?

Why do we humans kill one another? Why haven’t we figured out a way to stop?

Why do we care about death and injustice in one place, but not another? Why can’t we resist using tragedy as a way to justify our own narrow view of things?

When will we succeed in making a better world?

As the weekend passed the answers to my questions have not become any more apparent. The Internet is full of opinions, few of them particularly useful or comforting. Politicians claim to have answers, but wear their ignorance on their sleeves. The news does its best to terrify us, probably just to keep us glued to the screen.

What am I supposed to do in the midst of such tragedy and chaos? Cry? Yell? Act? Sit still?

In times of confusion I am often drawn to a passage in the Bible written by the prophet Micah. Old Micah lived in some tough times himself. There was war, fear, corruption, and the failure of his society to live up to its potential. It bothered him. Micah must have wondered how to live his life from day to day in the midst of hopelessness. He wrote:

“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.

And what does the Lord require of you?

To act justly

and to love mercy

and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8, NIV

I am often discouraged by my powerlessness; my inability to do anything that seems meaningful in a world so full of need. Micah’s words provide encouragement. To do justice where I can, to love mercy and forgiveness, and to remain humble and conscious of all that I do not know or understand. Maybe this is what can help me walk forward. Maybe this is what starts to make a better world.

So tomorrow I will return to my visa a window, a very small cog in a very big government. I’ll try to make my little corner of the world better by pursuing that glorious intersection of justice and mercy in my work, my relationships, and my community. Maybe tomorrow, next week, or next year will be better. Amidst the chaos the world remains beautiful. Mountains, rivers, and birds remain, as do the people who work to protect them. And even in the midst of the darkness, there are lights flickering. We don’t always understand them, or how to get to them. But they’re there, and sometimes that’s enough