The West

Our Trip out West

Adult Bible Class originally broadcast August 24, 2008

Craig D. Atwood

Introduction                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. It is good to be back with you after my vacation out West. I want to thank Pastor Harris for teaching class while I was away. I want to give a shout out to Hope Moravian as they celebrate their anniversary. I preached last night at their vespers service in the old God’s Acre. I’ll be preaching at Konnoak Hills this morning for their education lovefeast this morning. The public schools start tomorrow, and I think students and teachers both could use our prayers. Classes start at Wake Forest on Wednesday and this year I’m teaching the required theology class. I’ll soon find out if I am prepared.

Vacation:            Julie, the girls, and I travelled 7150 miles in 17 days in a four-passenger car. We all got a little sick of traveling, but we saw some amazing things. One of them is how big the bugs are that hit your car at 75 miles per hour in South Dakota! Several people have been asking about the trip, so I hope you don’t mind if I take the lesson to tell you about it. I know many of you have your own stories about family trips in the car to the West, and hopefully what I have to say will bring back good memories. I am glad to report that the new car lived up to expectations and averaged 44 miles to the gallon. Also, I’m glad that no one was sick a single day on the trip. It appears that spicy foods do help with adjusting to the high altitudes, by the way.

Memphis Zoo:            First of all we went to the zoo in Memphis, Tenn. We were glad that we were able to see the giant pandas. Memphis is one of only 4 zoos in the US with Chinese pandas and is the only zoo that has successfully bred pandas. They were truly beautiful and gentile creatures that are even better in person than in World Wildlife Fund advertisements. Memphis also has a nice collection of large cats. Sarah was just saying that she would be completely happy if there was a snow leopard, and we turned a corner and there was a snow leopard. We also saw a Komodo Dragon, which is quite frightening even in captivity. We were going to look at the great apes, but a zoo-keeper suddenly appeared, waved us off and closed the gate. He told us that one of the animals had escaped. That’s never happened to us in a zoo before, and we were kind of disappointed we weren’t there to see it. After the zoo we ate at the famous Corky’s barbeque where I had fabulous ribs.

Carhenge and Route 66:            After Memphis we had a long drive through Arkansas and Oklahoma. We took a little diversion in Oklahoma to visit a nice little museum at the University. They have a good collection of Russian icons and some nice Impressionist paintings. It was 105 degrees in Norman, OK at noon, but thankfully we were there before the flooding that hit last week. As we passed through the Texas Panhandle, we stopped outside of Amarillo to see one of the most unusual bits of Americana. Several years ago a Texan rancher began disposing of his old Cadillacs by burying them nose first in a field. There are now ten cars sticking up in the air, and thousands of people have left their own marks on them with spray paint. People call it Carhenge, and it something to see. I wonder if future anthropologists will be discussing the religious significance of Carhenge. Unfortunately we did not have spray paint and so there is no reminder that a handful of Moravians were ever there.

We spent the night in Tucumcari, NM and ate at a diner on old Route 66. Tucumkari is a flat-top mountain that sits all alone in the high desert. The mesa can be seen for fifty or more miles on the horizon, and it used to be a sacred meeting place for the Comanche and Apache. The name apparently means “place where you wait.” Geronimo used to tell a legend that the name came from the names of Toocum and Kari, who were in love. Kari was the chief’s daughter. When Toocum and another brave fought over her hand, Toocum was killed. Kari then killed the victor and took her own life. When the chief saw that his daughter and her lover were dead, he in turn plunged the knife in his own heart and his dying words were “Toocum, Kari.” In my family Tucumcari is famous because many Rawhide episodes were shot there in the 1960s.

Santa Fe:            From Tucumcari, it is not far to Santa Fe, which is in northern New Mexico in the Sangre de Christo Mountains. It is 7000 feet above sea level, which makes it the highest state capital in the US. The old part of the city is beautiful. Most of the buildings are adobe, and the old palace of the governors is now a museum. There is a wonderful collection of early Spanish-Indian religious art, especially icons and sculptures of Jesus and the saints. Santa Fe has become popular with the rich and famous, and I’m afraid that we could not afford to shop there, but the city remains beautiful. We did have two fabulous meals there. I never knew what tamales, chili rellenos, and chalupas were supposed to taste like.  

One of the highlights for us was the little Loretto Chapel, which had originally been part of a convent and school. There is a winding stairway to the choir loft that is remarkable because it has no central pole for support. The nuns claimed that they had prayed to St. Joseph for assistance in finding someone to build a stair for them because they could not use the normal ladder to the choir loft. A master carpenter arrived one day and built this marvelous stair. He refused to accept payment for his work and was never seen again after he completed the stair. All the nuns knew about him was his name: Joseph. The other highlight was the museum of Indian Arts and Culture. Unfortunately, we did not have time for the Georgia O’Keefe museum and other museums in town.

Turning Left in Albuquerque:            From Santa Fe we made a short jaunt back down to Interstate 40 in Albuquerque. Having grown up hearing Bugs Bunny complain that he should have taken a left turn at Albuquerque, we made sure that we did so. We also sought out the petroglyphs in a national park on the edge of the city. They are ancient graffiti scraped on lava rocks from an extinct volcano. Birds, snakes, and other animals. Anthropologists have speculated that they may have had religious significance, or they may just be evidence that humans like to leave a record of their existence. Whatever the original purpose of these rock-pictures, it was thrilling to see the artwork of ancient humans in America.

Sky City:            There are ancient ruins of human habitations in New Mexico, but we did not have time to go to the cliff dwellings. We did stop to visit the Acoma Pueblo west of Albuquerque. That is an important pueblo because members of the tribe still live in the original village on the mesa. It is called Sky City in English, and the Acoma tribe has built a beautiful visitor’s center about a mile from the mesa. To get there you travel through some of the most remote country I have ever seen a road go through. It is all in the high desert, and suddenly you reach the top of the ridge and see a magnificent broad valley below you. In the valley are two mesas. One is the mesa where Sky City is located; the other is sacred and uninhabited. According to ancient legend, Acoma people lived on that mesa at one time, but lightening destroyed the only path leading to the top. The people on the mesa could not get down and no one could go up to bring food. They died on the mesa and it remains a sacred burial ground.

Sky City was fascinating. It was begun in the 12th century and still new homes are being built. We toured the oldest church building in the United States. It is the San Esteban mission built by the Acoma under the orders of Spanish friars in 1641. Outside the mission is a burial ground that has been used for four centuries. The Acoma call burial “planting” because they are returning bodies back to the ground from which the original humans emerged. The Spanish had come to Sky City because the straw in the adobe glistened like gold in the light of the setting sun. They thought they had found the fabled El Dorado, the city of gold, but that was not the case.

 The friars tried to turn it into a city of God, but the Spanish approach to missions was so cruel and oppressive the pueblo Indians revolted in a well-organized uprising in 1680. They burned all of the church and governmental records they could find because the Spanish used writing as a way to assert authority over the native people. They only mission they did not burn was the one at Acoma which had cost them so dearly to build. The beams for the roof had come from Mt. Taylor forty miles away and had never been allowed to touch the ground. The great Pueblo uprising may be considered the first major war of independence from European rule in American history.

Today, the Acoma Pueblo is best known for its beautiful pottery. We were able to talk with the artists themselves as they sold their wares. Unfortunately, the cost of hand-made native pottery is a bit beyond the salary of a theology professor, but it was lovely to see. We learned that many Acoma combine their native religion and Catholicism, and we saw the outside of the local Kiva, which is a building for prayer and meditation. The entrance is on the roof and is reached by a large white ladder that symbolizes clouds in the sky. Outsiders are not permitted to enter the kiva, of course. Julie and Madeleine rode the bus back down to the Visitors Center, but Sarah and I climbed down the original stairway carved into the side of the mesa. Movie fans might be interested in knowing that John Wayne filmed several movies at Acoma. For lunch that day, we enjoyed bread baked in an earthen beehive oven and apple turnovers.

Arizona:            We had a very long drive across Arizona to Flagstaff. Our only stop was in Winslow for gas. Some of you may remember the Eagles song that has the line “I was standing on the corner in Winslow, Arizona and such a fine sight to see.” So I did indeed stand on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, but no girl “in a flatbed Ford slowed down” to take a look at me. That may have been in part because massive thunderstorms had just swept through the area. It is remarkable how beautiful it is to watch a thunderstorm fifty miles away across the desert. The lightening and the clouds are gorgeous, particularly if you are driving under clear skies. In Flagstaff, we left I-40, marveling over the fact that a road that goes past our house can lead you across such diverse landscapes. I pondered Bilbo Baggin’s observation that roads are dangerous things. They can sweep you along on all sorts of adventures in strange lands. In Flagstaff, we had our last chance for getting our Kicks on Route 66, and even ate in a diner dedicated to the 1950s.

It was a long drive from Flagstaff to Jacob Lake where were staying for the next few nights. We were heading north on Rt. 89, which runs to the east of the Grand Canyon. It is a two-lane road through the desert, and about halfway to our destination we came to a complete stop. There was a major accident involving two tractor-trailers and a pick-up truck. We were stopped for more than two hours, and watched the sun set over the desert. Sarah sketched one of the small mesas nearby, and Madeleine watched a movie on the laptop computer. I watched something glowing bright pink in the distance. Later we realized that it was a rock outcropping in the canyon illuminated by the rays of the setting sun. It glowed like a jewel on the hand of a bride.

We stayed in a lovely place called Jacob Lake, which is on the road to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Jacob Lake has a gas station, café, gift shop, campground, and rooms to rent, and not much else. It was hard to believe that we had so quickly left the desert behind and were breathing the scent of Ponderosa pines. The land was largely flat, but it was nearly 8000 feet above sea level. We spent three whole days at the Grand Canyon, two at the North Rim and one at the South Rim. The driving distance between the two visitors centers is over 160 miles, I’m afraid, but it was worth seeing both sides of the canyon. Driving to the South Rim we saw the landscape that we had missed in the night. The Vermillion Cliffs shone bright red in the morning light as we descended a thousand feet down to the desert where the Navaho still dwell.

Grand Canyon:            Scientists say that it took 60 million years for the Colorado River to carve out the canyon and for the shifting of Tectonic plates to lift portions of the earth’s crust. There are simply no words adequate to describe the sublime beauty and complexity of the canyon. My daughters summed up our sense of awe simply by saying that it makes you feel very small and insignificant. I don’t understand why some Christians insist that God made the heavens and the earth in only six days. It is so much more awesome to contemplate our creator using the river to sculpt the canyon for 60 million years. God was creating long before humans were there to sing his praises, and it is truly humbling to stand in speechless awe before the artistry of God. I understand better Schleiermacher’s idea that religion begins with the feeling of absolute dependence. I think it is good for our souls to experience being so small and to recognize that the world has a life separate from our own. What is even more amazing is to realize that the One who created the mountains and deserts and canyons also created you and me. Though insignificant in some ways, we are loved with an infinite love.

We entered the South Rim of the canyon from the less popular East entrance, which was less crowded. There were so many spectacular views that we finally quite taking pictures. Eventually we came to the area most people are familiar with since it is the closest to Flagstaff, but the area around the visitors’ center on the South Rim was packed with cars, buses, and people. I’m afraid we never even saw the new walkway over the canyon. We did have a mile hike along the rim, and it was thrilling to have condors flying directly overhead. On the way out of the park we saw an elk grazing, and a wolf crossed our path. I never imagined that I would look a wolf in the eye.

We liked the North Rim better than the South. The South Rim has the most panoramic views, but the North Rim is less crowded and commercial. We made several short hikes to various look-out points, each of which offered distinct vistas. One day we were caught in a thunderstorm while standing on a promontory called Angel’s Window jutting out into the canyon. The lightening was close, but not right on us, and we were soaked to the skin, but it was a great adventure for us all. The only rain we experienced on the whole trip was at the Grand Canyon, but they told us we were there during monsoon season. After we left, there was flooding in parts of the Canyon and campers had to be evacuated

The best part of the trip was our last night at the canyon. We ate in the lodge and then sat on the patio outside as the sun slowly set. I have never seen so many different hues of red and pink and purple and gold as the canyon seemed to come to life. It was so beautiful that it was hard to breathe. And then the sun disappeared and the canyon returned to its normal dull colors. As we drove out of the park the night grew dark. We stopped the car by a meadow and looked for some time into the night sky. There were more stars than my children had ever seen. And then suddenly there was a single falling star. I had never seen a meteor fall with such brilliance or leaving such a long tail of light in the sky. It looked like pictures I had seen that were drawn in ancient times. I could actually see the meteor wrapped in flames as it fell. I have rarely felt so blessed.

Utah:                        From the Grand Canyon, we journeyed north through Zion National Park with its spectacular canyons and looked at the Coral Pink Sand Dunes. We visited the Mormons in Salt Lake City and toured Temple Square. We stopped at the Great Salt Lake, and Madeleine and I did float in the lake. I’m afraid that the gnats were the most memorable part of the experience. We did enjoy seeing a herd of bison on Antelope Island. In Idaho we passed a museum dedicated to the potato, but it was closed. We did visit Craters of the Moon national monument, which is like no place I’ve ever seen. Thousands of years ago a volcano exploded and spewed lava over thousands of square miles. Some of it is still visible, but much is covered now in pastures. A visiting minister declared that one area looked like the Devil’s Garden. The volcanic cones and lava flow was thrilling in a quite different way than the Grand Canyon. It was good to see it, but good to leave it behind as well.

Montana:            About 500 miles away in northern Montana is Glacier National Park where Julie and I had our honeymoon. The children had never seen it, so we took a day to visit the park. I can honestly say that it is the most beautiful place I have ever seen, and it is hard to imagine any place more beautiful. The lakes are so blue you might suspect that a deranged Kentucky fan had poured paint into the water. Countless waterfalls run down from the glaciers into the river, and flowers are everywhere. We ate at the Lodge and enjoyed the alpine peaks.

As for the rest of the trip, we had a nice time with family in Missoula. Julie’s grandmother’s 100th birthday celebration went very well. Almost all of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren were there. Grandma Vivien loves candy and I offered her some M & Ms. She chose one of each color. When Sarah offered her a brown one, she said she didn’t like those and looked at Sarah like she was crazy to even suggest it.

The 2500 mile trip home was largely uneventful. We did pay our respects to Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt on Mt. Rushmore. It was amusing to pass a billboard that said “Prepare to meet Thy God” just before getting to Mt. Rushmore and seeing the graven images on the mountain. We also stopped at Wall Drug and the Corn Palace in South Dakota. It was a great trip and it is very good to be back home. I hope you don’t mind that I’ve taken the whole class to talk about our adventures. Next week, we’ll return to our study of I Samuel where we’ll discuss David’s adventures before he became king. 

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