Desert Dreamers: Cabot Yerxa 2

Cabot’s Old Pueblo Museum in Desert Hot Springs

Yesterday I wrote about Cabot Yerxa the writer. Today I turn to his Pueblo Museum on Desert View Avenue in Desert Hot Springs, a city a few miles north of Interstate 10 and Palm Springs. Other than the various spa hotels, the Pueblo Museum is the only real tourist attraction in that community. According to the pamphlet handed out at the museum:

Cabot’s vision is alive and realized in his 35-room, 5,000 square foot Pueblo built entirely of found and repurposed materials. Everyone who wants to see first-hand what can be accomplished with the three R’s—reuse, reduce, and recycle—will be in awe as they walk through the museum and home of Cabot.

In addition to the Pueblo itself, there are a number of outbuildings on the grounds, including a trading post, tool house, and meditation garden, to name just a few. The visitor can take a one-hour docent-led tour of the main Pueblo building, and easily spend another hour looking around the complex.

Cabot built the Pueblo later in his life, starting in the 1940s and continuing for most of his remaining years. Where most architects put together a plan to which they more or less adhere, Cabot did it the other way around. The size of the rooms had more to do with the building materials he had on hand at the time. Many of the windows, doorways, and stairs are unusually narrow or small. He justified his practice by referring to the Venturi Effect, which is usually applied to fluids, but which can also be applied to the movement of cool air in a desert building. In fact, the tour I had last Friday on a hot morning was remarkably cool in this non-air-conditioned structure.

Image of Eagle on Pueblo Wall with Narrow Window

There was no Home Depot or Lowe’s around for Cabot to buy standard windows and doors. Everything was based on found materials, as for instance in the window illustrated below. Usually, comfort on hot days in the desert is achieved by expensive air-conditioning: It is remarkable that Cabot’s Pueblo is actually quite livable. Even in West Los Angeles, where I live in an old uninsulated apartment house, the three windows facing the setting sun can heat the place up to 90º Fahrenheit (35º Celsius) until the middle of the night. Imagine what that would do in the Coachella Valley in August!

Check Out the Crude Bars and Barbed Wire on the Above Window

Although he traveled around the world more than most desert rats, Cabot Yerxa did know the desert from deep personal observation. That’s one of the reasons I am enjoying his book, On the Desert Since 1913.

 

Padre Apla’s

The Room Where Father Stanley Francis Rother Was Murdered

There are not many Americans who are idolized by the Maya people. One exception is a Catholic priest from Oklahoma called Father Stanley Francis Rother, who was appointed to run the church of Saint James the Apostle in Santiágo Atitlán from 1968. He learned Spanish and the local dialect of Tzu’utujil Mayan, and over the years became a beloved figure to his parishioners. Maya fabrics started working their way into his liturgical vestments, and the statues of saints in his church were lovingly dressed by the local people.

In August 1981, Padre Apla’s (Maya for “Francis”), as he was known, was threatened by right-wing death squads and ultimately murdered in his own bedroom. That bedroom, a few steps from his church, has been turned into a museum. Although most of his body is buried in Oklahoma, his heart was removed and is buried under the altar of his church.

Statue of Saint with Votive Candles

I visited the scene of his death on two consecutive days. Each time, it was filled with Maya who prayed and sang songs honoring the priest who had become one of them. I noticed that the Catholic church is considering him for sainthood and has designated him as Blessed Stanley Rother. At the same time, one wonders how he could simultaneously please the Maya people whom he loved and the conservative bishops to whom he reported.

Votive Figures Dressed in Maya Garb Lining the Church Walls

There are not many North Americans held in high regard by the Maya. In fact, it was John Foster Dulles and the CIA who, by deposing Jacobo Árbenz, President of Guatemala, in 1954, started the long civil war that finally ground to a halt in 1996. Even today, I deliberately avoided encountering the Guatemalan army, who seemed to be all over the place, and who have an unsavory reputation for massacring their enemies, the tribal Maya.

 

Ruins in the Middle of a Banana Plantation

Bunches of Bananas Wrapped in Blue Plastic

In my last post about Guatemala, I wrote about road closures from a village protest. Once that cleared up (after about an hour and a half), we finally made our way to Route CA-9 which connected Zacapa to the Caribbean at Puerto Barrios. A bit past the halfway point, after having passed numerous eighteen-wheelers bearing the logos of Dole and Chiquita, we made it to the Maya ruins at Quiriguá. It was smack in the middle of a banana plantation, much like the one illustrated above.

While still on the plant, the bunches of bananas were all wrapped in blue plastic. This was a Guatemalan invention (since practiced worldwide) which help protect the fruit from insects and keep it at a sustainably high temperature.

Isolated Stelae Protected with Thatched Roofs

What made Quiriguá so interesting were the giant stelae commemorating the rules of various kings. These are the largest of any Maya site in Mesoamerica. Unfortunately, many of them are badly weathered, more so than at Copán, where the stone is more resistant to the tropical rain. There are buildings and ball courts at Quiriguá, but these are no match for Copán.

Yet, interestingly, little Quiriguá managed to conquer Copán and sacrifice its god/king, 18 Rabbit, in the 8th century AD.

Detail of a Stela

It doesn’t take long to visit Quiriguá: I took about an hour and a half, some of which time was eating my lunch, consisting of a bottle of mineral water and a small bag of corn chips. (I skipped a lot of meals during this trip because of all the time I spent on the road.)

My hired car was waiting for me in the parking lot, and the driver was pleased that he’d be able to get back to Copán before nightfall.

Serendipity: At El-Kharga

The Oasis of El Kharga in Egypt

I am currently reading Jan Morris’s Contact! (2009), which is a whole book full of serendipity type encounters which travel writer Jan Morris (formerly James Morris when she was a male) had all around the world. This is only the first of what will probably prove to be more postings along this line.

El Kharga is one of the five isolated oases which lie well to the west of the Nile in the Egyptian desert, and it always has been a place of exile. Nestorius was banished there, and Athanasius too, it is said. In our time political prisoners are immured in a detention camp at the oasis, and I once encountered some of them. They were patients in the local hospital, lying on straw palliasses on the floor of a bare ward. A murderous lot they looked, all the more sinister because bandages and plasters covered their eyes and supported their limbs—one and all were enemies of the state, and their interrogations had not been easy. I talked to them warily of this and that, the conditions of their detention and their hopes of release, and they told me that every morning they were given a lecture of indoctrination by a representative of the regime. Something in their eyes, though, told me they were far from brainwashed, and now and then a particularly savage old dissident lying in a corner intervened with a caustic witticism, delivered in the most cultured of English accents and with the bite of an incisive mind. Thus Nestorius might have spoken, I thought, during his exile at El Kharga.

 

Trans-Chiquitano

A Bolivian Passenger Train Between Santa Cruz and Quijarro

As I sit here in L.A. in the middle of a heat wave—and getting no younger in the process—a new vacation trip emerges from the depths of my mind. I have already written about the 17th and 18th century Jesuit missions in South America. The anti-clerical Voltaire in his Candide appeared to be impressed by the enlightened rule of the Jesuits who controlled Paraguay.

You can find out even more by reading the forgotten classic history by R. B. Cunninghame Graham entitled A Vanished Arcadia: Being Some Account of the Jesuits in Paraguay 1607 to 1767.

Back then, before the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870) and the Chaco War (1932-1935), Paraguay included territory which now belongs to Argentina (Misiones Province) and Bolivia (Santa Cruz Province). There are ruins of Jesuit communities in all three countries.

This set my mind to thinking. There is a famous train route called the Trans-Chiquitano—still in existence as of a year or two ago—between Santa Cruz, Bolivia and Quijarro, just before the border with Brazil. Midway between the two termini and somewhat to the north are the ruins of Jesuit missions. I was thinking of touring the missions in Bolivia, then busing from Corumbá, Brazil (just across the border from Quijarro, Bolivia) to Asunción, Paraguay. There I could hook up with a tour to the Jesuit missions east of Asunción (if such a tour exists). Thereafter, it is a short up across the border to Argentina, where there are well-organized tours of the Jesuit missions such as San Ignacio Mini. From there, it is an easy bus ride to Buenos Aires, from which I can return to the States.

It would be a wild trip, with a long, comfortable train ride and easy stays in Santa Cruz and Buenos Aires. Asunción is a different story, but still quite doable.

 

Silent Cal

Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States

Before the word Republican became a term of opprobrium, there was a quiet man who served as President of the United States and who became something of a joke for his silences, but who said the right things when he spoke up.

In 2005, Martine and I visited his birthplace, Plymouth Notch, Vermont. It was a modest place near Woodstock and rather fun to visit. Coolidge was born in a white clapboard house on the premises (see photo below); and he is buried a few steps away under an unassuming tombstone in the local cemetery (see second photo below).

The House in Which Coolidge Was Born

As president, Coolidge dared to take on the Ku Klux Klan, which was a major political force in the America of the 1920s. Addressing an American Legion convention in Omaha, Nebraska, in October 1925, Coolidge said:

If we are to have … that union of spirit which is the foundation of real national genius and national progress, we must all realize that there are true Americans who did not happen to be born in our section of the country, who do not attend our place of religious worship, who are not of our racial stock, or who are not proficient in our language. If we are to create on this continent a free Republic and an enlightened civilization that will be capable of reflecting the true greatness and glory of mankind, it will be necessary to regard these differences as accidental and unessential. We shall have to look beyond the outward manifestations of race and creed. Divine Providence has not bestowed upon any race a monopoly of patriotism and character.

And that is more profound than any subsequent president has ever tweeted.

Calvin Coolidge’s Unassuming Grave Site in the Local Cemetery

I would like to close with two things Silent Cal said that I have always remembered.

The first is a kind of joke, but not far from what actually occurred:

President Calvin Coolidge was known as “Silent Cal” because of his extraordinarily laconic speech. A famous anecdote tells of a dinner party during which the person sitting adjacent to the Coolidge said: “Mr. President I’ve made a large bet that I would be able to make you say more than two words.” Coolidge considered this proposition carefully and then replied slowly and emphatically, “You lose.”

The other is a quote I often use whenever I begin to feel fearful that circumstances are conspiring against me: “If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you.”

 

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Matsuo Bashō by Hokusai

Several times over the last thirty years, I have returned to the 17th century haiku and commentaries by Matsuo Bashō on the subject of travel:

Amid mountains of high summer,
I bowed respectfully before
The tall clogs of a statue,
Asking a blessing on my journey.

There is a quality to Bashō’s writing that makes me want to hit the road. As he wends his way through Shogunate Japan, stopping at temples along the way, I see him as the ideal traveling companion.

This grassy hermitage,
Hardly any more
Than five feet square,
I would gladly quit
But for the rain.

I think of his poem about a ruined castle:

A thicket of summer grass
Is all that remains
Of the dreams and ambitions
Of ancient warriors.

Bashō’s prose, too, has a certain quality that is worth remembering:

Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one—when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural—if the object and yourself are separate—then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.

How marvelous! This is what I seek from my travels—not that I write poetry—a “hidden glimmering” that makes itself manifest when I confront it with my entire being.

The name of this post, and of Bashō’s poetic journal, was also used by Australian novelist Thomas Kavanagh in his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which tells of its physician hero’s imprisonment in World War Two Burma building the bridge on the River Kwai made famous by David Lean’s movie.