Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Joy of Being Small

When I was a young boy, my asthma medication stunted my growth, and the other kids called me "shorty". There are worse nicknames than that, of course, but not when you're ten or eleven and wishing you could just grow up already. I finally did, along with all the other boys, but that stigma of being smaller than most others stayed with me. What was so wrong or embarrassing about being small?

When you're little, it's easier to get pushed around. There's always a bully around the corner, but hardly ever a bodyguard in your path. When you're shorter, you get picked last on the playground team, but always first to get picked on when you make a mistake. And, when you're small, you're always running to keep up with the others, and almost always the first to be left behind. Just like the Tom Hanks movie from long ago, when you're small, you wish you were big.

Most adults, later in life, are happy to be taller, bigger, stronger. They don't have to climb counter tops to reach the cookie jar anymore. They don't have to piggy back someone's shoulders to see over the fence. They don't have to worry about playing sports, reaching the gas pedal, or being high enough to ride that ride at the country fair. Of course, not everyone wants to stand out; they are more than ready to simply blend in and immerse themselves in a much larger world.

Years ago, I watched an old black and white science fiction movie, the kind that always came before the main feature at the drive in. It was called The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), the story of a man who begins to shrink after being exposed to a strange mist hovering over his boat. Soon he becomes small enough to live in a dollhouse; later, he is trapped in a cellar and must fight off a spider with a sewing needle. He continues to shrink until finally he is smaller than a blade of grass and, without fear, he crawls through a wire mesh and faces his new world with new curiosity and bravery. He begins to see with new eyes into a horizon that, until then, he had never noticed.

Like the hero of that old movie, I began to shrink about a year ago, when Chantal and I took to the road on our RV journey. All of a sudden, the roads multiplied, expanded, and went off into infinity. The towns and cities and people we saw along the way also multiplied, expanded, and seemed endless. The stories we heard, the lessons we learned, and the research we did also seemed endless. And, at the same time, our living space also shrank. We now had four tiny rooms pressed together. We had less food to cook, less food to store, and less food to buy. We had fewer things to clutter our way, fewer distractions to pull us away, and fewer items to clutter our plate.

I became even smaller as we explored through parts of America that once thought was never possible. Route 1 to Key West, Florida; the mammoth underground caves of northern Kentucky; the expanding farmlands of Amish Pennsylvania; and, the endless Chihuahuan Desert landscapes of lower New Mexico. I felt like a fly on the wall at White Sands and Carlsbad Caverns and the vast Apache National Forest, and yet nothing prepared me for what I was about to see in Arizona.

The Meteor Crater

I first saw this giant hole at the end of John Carpenter's Starman (1984), where Jeff Bridges is rescued in the nick of time by his alien comrades. The production did so much damage that the caretakers of the site refused to allow any more movies to be shot there. The crater itself is a sight to behold, and makes you wonder about the sheer size of the meteor that struck the area about fifty thousand years ago, at a rough speed of twenty six thousand miles per second. Even more staggering to consider, this crater site still leaves meteor fragments to be found, carbon dated to be about two billion years old. Still more incredible to believe is that this site is a mere fraction of the meteor that struck along the Gulf of Mexico about seventy million years ago, an extinction level event that ended the era of the great dinosaurs. After taking all that in, I could not help but feel very small.

The Petrified Forest National Park

No panoramic angle can ever hope to capture the breathtaking beauty of this often overlooked natural wonder. Wherever you stand, you see for many miles, and marvel at the diverse rock and wood formations that have been sitting for uncounted millions of years. Many parts of this preserve could pass for a Martian landscape, and every view challenges your senses and inspires the imagination. It would be quite something to become lost in the Painted Desert, or among the thousands of petrified logs, or even in the assorted protruding buttes, and many hikers have done exactly that, gripped by the silent stillness, completely alone with their soul searching journey.

The Grand Canyon

Everyone has a bucket list, and most have the Grand Canyon listed on it. But why? To take a bunch of selfies and being able to say "been there, done that"? To add to your souvenir collection and grab stocking stuffers for the holidays? To make a photo album for the grandkids?

You cannot take a bad photo at the Grand Canyon. But it is not enough to simply shoot and upload; you must download yourself into it. The Canyon got its name from American explorer John Wesley Powell in the mid 1800s, but native tribes dating back four thousand years refer to it as a holy place. This 277 mile long rugged landscape dates back even further; some of the older rocks at the bottom have been tagged as almost two billion years old. This immense chasm dares you to enter it at every turn; some of the best world hikers have described it as the ultimate walk. The air is thinner up here, at over 7000 feet, and the terrain is merciless. At the bottom, the mighty Colorado River teases you to ride through its twisting turns and rapids. To be one with nature here is to truly be small. The Canyon can and will swallow you up, and when you return from its depths, you are forever changed.

The Wupatki Sunset Crater Volcano

Surrounded by the Coconino National Forest (another dense otherworldly wilderness ready to take you), this hidden treasure outside of Flagstaff is a mountainous terrain covered by black petrified lava, and I was made even smaller by knowing that the Grand Canyon is just one of many vast landscapes waiting to be discovered and embraced. Painted by a volcano eruption a thousand years ago, the Sunset Crater and surrounding hills carve through 37 miles of scarred forest landscape, creating a view unlike any other. As I walked through this breathtaking wooded maze of frozen lava flow and the proud, upright pine trees that remained, I was again reminded of the power of nature and the insignificance of human footprints.

The Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff

After seeing the Meteor Crater, the Petrified Forest, the Grand Canyon, and a Volcano landscape, what more could make me feel even smaller? A seminar at the Lowell Observatory about stars and galaxies. Hosted by an undergrad dressed in pyjamas and a toque and looking like a cross between Sheldon and Bernadette from A Big Bang Theory, the classroom discussion introduced us to the expanding universe and clearly defined, once and for all, just how small I - and everyone else - truly are. Through various telescopes around the campus, we were shown the Vega star, a cloud nebula (a dying star), and even the "nearby" Andromeda galaxy, which was later explained to us will collide with our own Milky Way galaxy in roughly 4 billion years. The undergrad host, Ashlynn, closed her discussion by reminding us just how little and insignificant we all are compared to the infinite realm of the known universe, not to mention the rest of the universe which is still unreachable by us. The class briefly brought me back to my college days, when the world seemed so much bigger than it became years later.

Now, as an RVer, I have been given a chance to be small again, so small that every step I take now feels like the first step into a new universe. As we left the Observatory and the giant Clark Telescope and the earth shattering presentation on the expanding universe, we drove down the winding driveway and slowed as we reached a lookout point, where many vehicles were parked. We looked out and saw the twinkling stars meshing with the soft, glowing low pressure sodium lamps of the skyline of Flagstaff (a designated Dark Sky community). High above us, the Milky Way was proudly smeared across the darkness, and I knew that I had finally shrunk to the size of a blade of grass.

We are, in fact, microscopic, in the grand scheme of things, whatever that scheme may be. And it's okay to be small in it. More than that; it is reassuring, and a blessing.

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