Ah, Mormon country. I’ve been at at my stepsister’s home in Idaho Falls, Idaho, for a couple of days catching up and visiting her and her family. This is the northernmost point of my journey. Camille and Michael are a quirky and liberal couple, in a low-key but generally-conservative town. They tell me more west coast folks are moving into the area, so it’s not as redneck as it was 35 years ago when I first visited. In any case, I have to share a local story, and explain the photos above.
Down the street from their house is a park, and a Mormon church. In the park is a twin 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft cannon from World War II. Back in the 1980’s, it was apparently fully operational, and kids could climb on it, crank the wheels and aim it. Perhaps you can guess where this is going. Some kids managed to pour gunpowder down a cannon barrel, along with some big rocks, aim it directly at the church steeple, and fire it. If you look closely at the last photo, you will see masonry repair on the center of the steeple. The town promptly disabled all the cranks, leaving it pointed directly at the church steeple for all eternity. I wonder how the church-goers feel about that? Another legend of the wild west is born.
For two days, we hung out and talked and listened and talked some more. I love these people, and hadn’t seen them in 3 years, since Jen and I traveled up to visit for the solar eclipse of 2017. But I need to return home on October 7th, and so I took off westward on the morning of the 5th to blitz back to California. I drove straight west across vast lava fields, through Craters of the Moon National Monument and past old wagon trails from the mid-1800’s. Crossing the Snake River, I sped across eastern Oregon, through Burns to US 395, then down past Lakeport and Goose Lake towards Lassen.
Now I’m approaching my home turf. I arrive in Susanville just after dark, and complete my 800-mile day by driving west on Highway 36 through Chester to Mill Creek, and my cabin up in the mountains. 14 hours on the road. I’m tired and happy, this has been the long day I knew I would need do in order to get home when promised. After dinner and a couple of margaritas, I’m in my own comfy bed for the night. I have a full day to relax at the cabin tomorrow.
I need to shut the cabin down for the winter, as freezing temperatures are approaching and, at 4900 feet in elevation, the cabin is going to get some feet of snow soon. The squirrels built a nest in storage space upstairs, and I take several hours cleaning it out, throwing away junk I will never use…old faucets and paint, broken children’s toys, ratty blankets. Finally on my last morning, I drain the water heater, pack the perishables from the refrigerator into my insulated bag, drain the plumbing, and lock up. My four-hour drive home is familiar and uneventful, and I’m happy to see Jen after all my private space and time.
Here is the full trip map. 3800 miles, 17 days, no road kills, no mechanical problems or issues of any kind. Obsidian the X5 is a wonderful, spacious and comfortable traveling companion.
I wish I could share something brilliant and conclusive after this trip, but I’m mostly left with a series of impressions and feelings. People are definitely dealing with the virus in very different ways across the different states. Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana are all having serious outbreaks, yet many people still wander around without masks and public opinion is deeply split, almost entirely along political lines. I am puzzled (and a little amused) that medical decisions and political beliefs seem tied together. It’s interesting that the current flavor of American conservatism shows up in both ways. And I was surprised to feel unsafe in some of the places I visited — I fear the Trump supporters, I don’t understand their thinking, and I don’t trust them to behave in compassionate and neighborly ways.
The land looked familiar (from prior trips) yet felt very different to me this time. I’m sure that says more about me than about the land. My last few years of training in energy work have deeply shifted my perception of the world around me, and it was a pleasure to feel the sacredness of places, like Yellowstone and the Tetons, Shiprock, Santa Fe, the Sonoran desert. It was also a bit horrifying to feel places that have been spoiled, altered and/or paved over. I’m getting more used to living in a world of feeling, with much less thought distracting my attention. This is a good thing.
Santa Fe is the easternmost spot on my journey, and from here, I’m heading north and west. Shannon wanted to visit her family ancestral lands near Shiprock, NM, and I was only too happy to tag along. So we packed up and set off in our SUVs, up through Abiquiu, the area where Georgia O’Keeffe created some of her most remarkable art work. Abiquiu is a very small town, and it looks a little dilapidated these days. Still photogenic, though.
I wonder what the Piñon Saloon was like in it’s heyday? Such is my sense of humor, I found the sign on this church’s cross quite amusing. We stopped at Lake Abiquiu for lunch, a spot where Shannon’s family would frequently travel to let the kids loose on a Sunday. The lake is very low, it’s clear the land is experiencing a severe water shortage.
New Mexico Highways 96 and 44 and US 64 wend up into the northwest corner of the state, through Farmington, where Shannon’s grandparents lived. Shiprock is a bit further west, and as we approach the town, an iconic rock peak emerges from the desert.
This looks strangely familiar, even though I’m not aware of driving through this area before. Then it hits me, my family drove to Shiprock when I was 4 years old. It’s an odd story — my father worked for the US Geological Survey, and was assigned to Lee’s Ferry, Arizona in the fall of 1962 to monitor sediment flows in the Colorado River after Glen Canyon Dam was completed. We stayed in a tiny adobe hut there for six weeks, a 2 hour drive from the nearest trading post in the Navajo reservation. One weekend, my dad wanted to drive further on out to see Shiprock, so we not only picked up groceries, we went east perhaps an extra hundred miles. I now remember seeing the strange rock formation, and the surprising dejá-vu experience is rather eerie. Shannon and I drive out across the desert several miles to reach the base of the rock itself.
Shortly after we cross the state line, the open arid desert gives way to more mountains and trees. Why is it that the feeling of the land changes so abruptly when we cross a state line? I’ve seen this over and over in my travels, how the same landscape both feels different and changes quickly. We arrive in Durango in time for dinner, where we meet a mutual friend, and then part company after almost a week together. I find a nice little private motel on the north side of town, and tuck in for the night.
This is the first time I’ve had a chance to explore Durango, so the next morning I’m out walking the downtown area, shopping and tasting some local wines. I chat with the vintner about my desire to head north, and he makes several great suggestions. By early afternoon, I’ve wandered up US 550 through spectacular mountains and aspen forests changing color, into the town of Ouray.
Now THIS is a fun place, quirky, friendly and charming, I find a fine lunch in a saloon with the coolest bar chairs I’ve ever seen, then pick up a few items at the local hardware store. Again, the proprietor is only too happy to fill my ear with suggestions about places to drive and explore, as I’m planning to camp tonight. I just happen to park in front of one of the most interesting buildings I’ve seen. Who is the Ouray Alchemist (note the name in the stonework over the shop)? Did he build this building? And does he live in the space above his shop? The mysteries are unsolved, I have no way to find out as the shop is closed.
I’ve never been to Telluride, home of bluegrass and jazz festivals, and this is a perfect opportunity. Driving up to Ridgway and west through Placerville, I find the one-way-in-and-out road and drive in. As it turns out, Telluride is a lot like Aspen, it’s an expensive commercial oasis full of people from other places. I ask around, and learn that everyone in the shops has come from somewhere else. I also learn that nearly the entire town is owned by one corporation, explaining the feeling of the place. I don’t dawdle, I head back out toward the real parts of Colorado. About 20 miles west of town, before I hit the highway, I turn up one of the forest roads and find a cute little quiet campground while it’s still light. I can even have a campfire. This is Perfect. (FYI, turn south on 57P Road a few miles to the Fall Creek Recreation Site!)
The October 1st morning is freezing cold, though I was completely snug in my sleeping bag and blankets. Both tent and ground are crunchy with frost, and I make coffee quickly. It takes me about ten minutes to pack up, and I am on the road back towards Ridgway and points north. In Olathe, a sign points up a hill toward a winery, and I cannot resist. Wine tasting in the morning could turn into a very bad habit for me, but what the hell, I’m on vacation. Much to my surprise, this small farm makes quite an excellent sauvignon blanc, and a very pleasing rosé, so I buy a few bottles.
Driving on through Montrose. I don’t know what I expected, perhaps the French-is name suggested something exotic, but I’m not particularly impressed. Montrose is a plain little town, with no discernible character. Perhaps I didn’t explore enough (though I did buy a really nice kitchen knife as a gift for my stepsister!) In any case, I head on towards Grand Junction and the Colorado River. The country is getting drier as I drive north, less mountainous and more like the high Rockies in Wyoming. Grand Junction is basically a gigantic train depot with an interstate running through it, so I don’t stop, and take a short eastward zag on I-70 to Rifle. Along the way, I spot a motorcyclist at the side of the road, and stop to lend a hand. He fortunately had just enough cell coverage to call a shop in Grand Junction, so I keep him company until a van arrived to pick him and his bike up. I love to see folks doing long trips on a bike, and he was in the middle of an excursion from the midwest out to the west coast and back.
From Rifle, I choose the back roads up to Rock Spring, Wyoming. This is my nicest afternoon of driving on the whole trip so far. First of all, in the plains near Rio Blanco, I see road signs marking the beginning and end of the Big Sandy National Forest…100 yards apart, bracketing the only tree in sight. Someone has a sense of humor! At Meeker, the highway becomes a dirt road up through the tiny spots of Price Creek, Maybell, and Sunbeam. For well over a hundred miles, I see almost no one, perhaps two pickup trucks, no houses, ranches or trees. But I get spectacular views, lovely mountains, and spot both antelope and grouse near the road. The dirt highway crosses into Wyoming, and after 30 more miles, I see my first signs of civilization since noon.
Just before sunset I drive past a petroleum processing plant, over one last hill, and into Rock Creek. Now this town is spooky. It feels both corporate and Mormon at the same time. The profusion of Trump signs and the complete lack of any visible humans gives no desire to stop, even though the older center of town looks interesting. I drive right through out to I-80, where I find a chain hotel for the night. Much to my surprise, the hotel has a really good Mexican restaurant, full of local Latino families. This feels like home, washing away the weird vibe of the town itself, and I feast on excellent spicy enchiladas.
US 187 goes up towards Jackson, one of my favorite places to visit. The next day I’m out early, and by mid-morning I’m seeing the Grand Tetons in the distance.
As I get closer, I’m feeling the spirit and power of the land more and more, and I’m remembering how special the entire area around Yellowstone park is. Perhaps it’s the geologic hot spot underneath, I don’t know, but the felt sense of the land delights me to my core. When I arrive near the mountains, I see mile after mile of burned forest, and after a few construction delays, land in Jackson for lunch.
Jackson Hole is a hoot. It has a touristy vacation-y vibe, yet the locals are friendly, easy going and fun. There is a mixture of long time residents and visitors, and a sense of humor about it. I wander into a place called the The Local Restaurant and Bar, find a superb lunch, discover a new whiskey, and hang out chatting up the bartender and (indeed) some locals. Before I get too intoxicated, I head back to the trusty X5, and drive over the hills westward to Victor, Idaho for another hotel evening.
If there is one thing I’m learning, it’s that I have to be careful making sweeping generalizations about towns, states or cultures. Small towns everywhere have lots of Trump signs — except Santa Fe, Durango, Ouray, Jackson and Victor. Every place along an interstate is careful about wearing masks, and though I hate the roadside culture next to our superhighways, I also find it safe and reassuring when I’m in Trump country. Places that attract tourists, like Santa Fe and Jackson, require everyone to wear masks everywhere.
I’m also learning that my black SUV is pretty anonymous. I was expecting some crap somewhere about driving a BMW from California, but there has been nary a peep. Until I bought the X5, I hadn’t really noticed how many black SUVs are on the road, and now I feel like a pine cone in a pine forest. I’m enjoying my invisibility.
It has been a beautiful five days of driving, since I left Santa Fe. Southwestern Colorado and the Jackson Hole area are liberal, pretty, warm and friendly. I could live here too.
Day two is chilly, and I am hiding in my snug sleeping bag as dawn breaks. Finally my desire for coffee and a hot soak gets the better of me, and I emerge into the frosty air and fire up the stove. I will say all the smoke makes for pretty sunrises. Even better, my strategy of planting the intake hose underwater in the hot tub paid off, as the temperature is perfect.
Yes, I’m traveling with a digital thermometer.
Breaking camp early, I’m on to Highway 6 down the Long Valley Caldera, site of perhaps the largest volcanic eruption in North America. 7600 centuries ago, the explosion covered the continent in ash as far as the Mississippi River. I head east on 266 up through the mountains past the ancient bristlecone pine forest. Again, no traffic on a road that is occasionally only one lane. I see six cars and trucks in a hundred miles. This is starting to feel like an adventure. Finally!
Today, the desert feels suddenly familiar, as though I never left. The vast stretches along the Nevada border are relaxing and scenic, and the lack of traffic brings a secret feeling of delight and exploration. I stop to check out the ruins of a mining town called Palmetto, then reach US 95 and take it straight down through Las Vegas into Arizona, through Kingman and south to Phoenix. As expected, Arizona is hot, 98 to 104°F most of the afternoon. The X5 is eerily quiet, comfortable and cool. As I expected, the tiny town of Wickenberg is a riot of Trump signs (including one of these!), no one wears masks even though COVID is rampaging through Arizona at the moment. I amuse myself while gassing up by searching for Wickenberg on the inter tubes, and of course, I find The Patriots of Wickenberg first thing. Sigh. As I approach Phoenix, iconic saguaro cacti start appearing, and I’m entering the Sonoran desert of my childhood.
After dining out and a quiet night in a hotel, I’m heading down towards Tucson, to visit my sister at her little paradise out in the middle of the desert. When I was a kid, the only thing out here were Strategic Air Command ICBM bases, with nuclear warheads poised to rain destruction anywhere on the planet. Now decommissioned, there are houses and ranches scattered across this especially-lush and mostly-untouched landscape. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
This is the southernmost point of my loop around the west, and I feel happy and nostalgic when I take my leave the next day, crossing parts of central Arizona I haven’t seen since I was a young man. Local roads and US Highway 60 take me northeast, through the Globe, the Salt River valley, and Show Low, another hotbed of Trump signs. There was actually a state-sponsored sign outside of town headlined “Stop the spread of COVID”, then listing four steps you can take with no mention of wearing a mask. It did say to “Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze”. Yeah, like that will help. No wonder Arizona has one of the highest infection rates in the world right now.
Regardless, the country is beautiful, and my senses are delighted. So is my mind — I was a geophysics major in college.
Emerging into mesa country, I followed US 191 and Highway 61 into New Mexico and Zuni indian lands. 191 is one of my favorite highways, as further south it twists through spectacular canyons and the copper mining town of Morenci on the eastern side of Arizona. It used to be called US 666, until some Christian group raised a ruckus about it, and a hapless government official caved and renamed it.
Now I’m within striking range of my next destination, Santa Fe. The empty road weaves across mesas, around outcrops, through reservation land, and past spectacular cliffs and arches.
Arriving at sunset at our dear friend Shannon’s house, my day of sensory delights is capped by New Mexico’s signature riot of color in the sky. I’m saturated, feeling like my eyeballs need to re-integrate with the rest of my body. It’s completely peaceful and quiet, though I’m only a few blocks away from the central plaza in town. I could live here.
Sheltering in place for 6 months has been good, but it’s time for an exploration. I’m learning that this is a good and necessary part of my soul, both the comfort and security of my home with Jen, and traveling out into the world. We usually do it together…aaaand we (or certainly I) need some time apart. So I’ve concocted a trip, to visit friends and family, in a big circular loop down through the desert to Arizona and New Mexico, and then north to Idaho. I’ve set aside two weeks, and am now spending my first night sitting at a campsite all by myself, with a hot tub, at 6000 feet.
My vehicle this time is a 2013 BMW X5, newly acquired after selling my Mini Cooper and our Jeep Cherokee. The X5 is the most luxurious thing I’ve ever owned, a modern, quiet and capable piece of German engineering, 5000 pounds and 300 horsepower, with leather seats and more convenient widgets than I can comprehend. She is black with tinted windows, a somewhat Darth Vader-like vehicle with tons of room. A friend suggested the name “Obsidian”, which just works. She calls one to competence, just like the mineral, and every meaning and association with the short name “Obi” works for me. I have a trusty companion on this adventure. Jen snapped this photo just before I started today, firewood, camping gear, water, computer…and my favorite hat, jeans, comfy cotton. I will be adventuring in Trump Country, my friends, and I need an anonymous western presence. And…this is pretty essentially me, I’ve always dressed this way, old habits from my Arizona upbringing.
The best laid plans…I was going to take California Highway 4 to 120, then head east across the mountains to Benton Hot Springs. The first part and the end of the day all worked out fine, but I missed the turnoff to 120, and crossed the Sierras on Highway 4. Not a problem, it just means I’ll arrive close to sunset. This is a remarkable cross section of the state: one travels through the delta over levies and bridges, seeing boats on waterways and small institutions offering food, drinks and live bait, interspersed with almond orchards and a few small towns. Then there is a confusing series of onramps, multilane highways and off-ramps that pop you over and through Stockton, back onto twisty two-lane roads east across the valley. More orchards, rolling brown hills with cattle, then Highway 4 takes you into the Sierras. I don’t think I’ve driven it all the way through before. The road is narrow, like 1-1/2 lanes, as it goes through towering Ponderosa pine up and up, into granite reality. There was little traffic, and Doc Watson on the stereo couldn’t alleviate my awareness of quiet and sadness in the land. This year has been tough on all of us, and the loss of Ruth Bader Gisburg and the coming election create a lot of fear and anxiety in almost all of the people I know and love.
Past forest fires have left a lot of scars, and current fires fill the air with haze. I drove through 50 miles of burnt forest. Ebbets and Monitor passes are over 8000 feet high, with stunted trees transitioning to high desert. The usual vast vista was barely visible through the smoke. With no cell coverage, I was relying on the compass (in the rear view mirror, how cool is that?) to assure me I was heading east. Dropping down to US 395, I cruised south from Topaz through Bridgeport, finally reaching Lee Vining and the barely-visible Mono Lake, to rejoin Highway 120 and head east. As I drive south, the smoke gets heavier until the Sierras themselves are hard to see, and the setting sun illuminates dark drifting clouds of smoke everywhere.
I turn east on Highway 120, where the smoke and the smell of burnt forest gets heavier. Finally after cresting a ridge, the air starts to clear as it gets darker after sunset. The last dozen miles to my camp site are a relief, as I can see the landscape again, and breathe normally.
Now I’m nestled into Benton Hot Springs for the night, a new place for me. It’s beautifully quiet, with widely separated campsites mostly populated by couples. I hear a child laughing in the distance, and an infant crying for a bit, while folk talk and laugh and splash in the hot tubs a hundred yards away. Conditions are so dry I can’t use the fire pit, so I dive in to my excessive camping supplies, silently eat dinner and fix a margarita, thoughtful.
So far the trip has been a journey down and in. The air is dry and clear, and the tub is warm enough to use, but not hot. I move the sprinkler that delivers hot water so it’s under the surface, for maximum heating. Crickets provide background music, while a blood-red crescent moon descends over the mountains I can no longer see in the darkness. It feels both good and a little sad to come to extreme stillness after a half day of driving. When I was younger, these adventures always felt exciting at the beginning, with scarcely a thought of what I was leaving behind. Now, I find myself feeling both the separation from home and the pleasure of solitude. One of the benefits of getting older, I guess — we can experience several feelings at the same time. I wonder what lies ahead.
There is an incredible shift happening in our culture, our relationship with the world, and each of us individually. Just on the face of it, this graph from the CDC shows that, in three months, 1 in 170 people in the USA have become infected. The infection rate is still running 25,000 new cases each day, and even starting to trend up again, while states and cities are relaxing the social distancing rules. There will be thousands of new cases each day for many months, and probably a huge second wave in the fall. We are in this for the long-haul, my friends.
This pandemic has killed more US citizens than the Vietnam war and the Korean War put together, soon more than we lost in World War I. By the end of the year, it will almost certainly be a quarter of a million. World wide, cases are still climbing rapidly.
“American exceptionalism” is on its way out the door, dissolving faster than snow in on hot plate. Far from exhibiting global leadership, we have become the location of the biggest devastation from this virus, we have one of the highest infection rates in the world, we have shown the poorest response by encouraging businesses and states to open back up even as the mortality rate is climbing, we are the butt of international jokes, and other countries are sending us aid (thank you!) Of course, our global influence was waning before the virus hit, thanks to the idiot we elected to the presidency, but I digress.
This is a collective ego death. Whoever we thought we were as Americans was mortally wounded by 9/11, and the virus is finishing the job. We have been the biggest consumer of global resources, and now we are the biggest recipients of this pandemic. I can only hope that we emerge from this with more collective humility.
Nearly all of us seem to be reexamining something fundamental about how we live and what we do. If we weren’t already working from home before COVID-19, we are now — and mostly liking it. In my tech-centric circles, we’ve been doing this for years, but now I’m hearing from friends in other careers who are seriously making changes. People who work in schools, or commute to non-profits are giving up their positions or changing their agreements to support work from home.
No one wants to expose themselves or their loved ones to the virus, so airlines, public transit, bars and restaurants, hotels, the cruise industry and international travel will take a long time to recover. No one wants to spend their day in a high-rise with a shared ventilation system, or get on a plane, or go to a movie theater.
Kids are schooling from home, forcing us to spend more time parenting and examining our family values. I have no doubt this is causing a ton of stress, both for kids with less social life, and parents working from home who have to manage their kids full time.
It’s almost like when I was a kid, before cell phones and computers. Games and jigsaw puzzles and books are super popular, kids playing ball in the street, everyone experimenting with baking, arts & crafts, gardening and growing vegetables.
The space we’re creating between each other is allowing us to introspect, and make new choices. With less crowding, less commuting and more time to feel ourselves, we can sort through our obligations and expectations and concepts of who we are, and find what is most meaningful. My partner and I are having some of the deepest conversations of our relationship. I’m
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we are seeing such an outpouring of political protest right now. Stuck at home and many without jobs, people are looking to find something to make this time meaningful and important. Pushing for political change is one way to do that.
And I’m anticipating an explosion of creativity, new business models, and a new relationships with government and each other that must be coming. Even as our economy and our livelihood collapses and shifts. I can only pray that we can navigate this time without either global or civil war.
Paro has doubled in size over the last 13 years, just like Thimphu. Since it is the home of the only international airport in the country, western amenities abound, and the shopping is delightful.
(By the way, Paro is one of the most challenging airports in the world, the pilot basically has to fly down a narrow valley, then hang a turn just before putting the plane down on a short, narrow runway. Check out this YouTube video for an idea of the experience. I remember looking out the window at the steep, terraced hillsides in 2004, and seeing people wave at the plane 🙂
I’m looking for thangkas and art. I am not disappointed. I find a local thangka painter, and spend a few hours in his studio, buying some beautiful work and admiring others in progress.
We not only get to tour Paro Dzong, but we drive up into the mountains to Ugyen Guru Lhakhang, a monastery that preserves a number of sacred magical items that are many hundreds of years old. The Rinpoche at the monastery brings some of them out for us, and we get to see a rock weep water, and other objects. There seem to be many stories about this place, although in honesty, there seem to be many stories about all of the dzongs and monasteries we have visited.
Now it’s my birthday, July 12th, and we set off for the Haa valley in the western part of the country. Again, this is new territory for me. The roads takes us over the highest pass I’ve traversed, and we descend into a lovely valley that seems pretty much untouched by western influence. Although there is electricity here and there, and we see transmission lines carrying hydro power westward into India.
On the 13th, we adventure to a cave/retreat spot where Machig Labdrön apparently lived. It’s over a ridge from a monastery, and the path is steep up and down to reach it. Spectacular views, basically perched on the side of a cliff. Unfortunately, it’s locked so we cannot enter.
However, our young guide, a monk perhaps 11 year old, tells us there is a shorter way back to the monastery. All we have to do is follow this path along the cliff. Oh, my god.
Alas, the trip is coming to a close. We return the next day to Paro, with just enough time for a last round of shopping. On July 15th, we climb into the plane for our return to Bangkok. 18 glorious days.
Now that I’m back in the lap of luxury, and I’m left with some longing to spend more time in Bhutan. There are opportunities to teach, and one monk told me his monastery would be happy to sponsor me for six months, if I would come live with them and speak English. I would learn a lot about Vajrayana practice, that’s for sure. Every school child is learning English, and most people have cell phones now (it’s oddly amusing to see an ancient Lama peering at his phone).
The country is doing well, striking a fine balance between preserving tradition and accepting modern convenience. The ecology is still pretty pristine, the constitutional monarchy is pulling the people slowly towards a fully democratic form of government. My heart stays open, remembering.
Westward ho. It’s July 6th, and we leave Bumthang valley in the morning to climb the 11,000-foot pass back toward Trongsa. The pass is, of course, marked by a stupa and many prayer flags. It is still rainy, and the roads are still muddy and slippery. We take a break before our driver skillfully pilots us back to the Trongsa Dzong.
It’s not an ideal day for visiting Trongsa, as the clouds and rain and fog are persistent. Yet our troop happily explores, and I’ll again let the photos do the talking.
Another six hours of driving on muddy roads, and we pass back through Wangdue Phodrang, where we spend the night. The next day we drive about five more hours to reach Thimphu.
This is the largest city in Bhutan, the location of the only traffic signal, and the center of commerce. I’ve never stayed here before. Almost everyone wears western-style clothing, and there are enough vehicles that traffic is a problem.
We spend time hiking up in the hills south of town to a small monastery, then go shopping the next day. Wandering around the town is a pleasure, there is much going on. Of course, we have to walk past the traffic signal.
The next day, we are treated to a Chöd ceremony, led by a monk with a group of local women. I have been exposed to Chöd in my own studies, however I am totally surprised to find out that it is widely practiced in Bhutan by lay people, mostly women. Transmitted by Machig Labdrön in the 11th century, it has apparently become an important personal puja (prayer) ritual for many Bhutanese.
It’s a beautiful experience, conducted in a large room in what might be someone’s home or perhaps a less formal practice space, in an otherwise unassuming part of town. They have created a lovely altar, with many offerings of fruit and flowers. We’re enraptured to sit in their space and feel the ritual flow through us. I’ve written more about it separately.
That afternoon, we’re back on the bus for the 2-hour drive to Paro, where we arrived nearly two weeks ago. I and my backpack settle in to another nice hotel. I have to say, accommodations in Bhutan are far more comfortable on this trip than they were in 2004, when there were few hotels and resorts in the country. Now, we get treated to nice mattresses, central heat, linens, hot water and really good food everywhere we have gone.
It’s now July 5th, I’ve been in the Bumthang district of Bhutan for several days, and get to spend most of the day at an impressively restored monastery, Kenchosum. Destroyed in a 2010 fire, the reconstruction is fresh and beautiful. Even better, we were allowed to take all the photos we wished inside.
First, a walk around the grounds. I especially loved the chain gutters, conducting rain from the roof corners down into drains in the ground.
Let me take you on a tour around the grand interior space, so you can see the incredible thangka images on all the walls.
What a privilege to see all of the fresh, beautiful teaching images and decorations.
We have traveled as far east as we are going, and tomorrow we will head back over the high pass toward Trongsa. So I’ll finally share a couple of photos from Yu Gharling, the resort where we’ve been staying for several days. It’s a pretty place, up on the hillside above the town of Chamkhar, complete with a pet cow that roams freely.
On our fifth day of this trip, July 2nd, we drove up to the Nyimalung Monastery, for the Bumthang summer festival. We are treated to a day of dancing, shopping and the pleasure of meeting many people from the area.
I love the informal and the sacred, weaving together. The Bhutanese paint sacred symbols on their houses, walk around stupas and chortens (and just about anything) in a clockwise direction. One does not point with the finger, you learn to gesture with your hand, palm up. And here we have the Mahakala dancers walking among the crowd, blessing each of us, as families and children and dogs walk through the dance space. Everyone is dressed in their finest. Everyone is smiling, and my friend Tina engages one of the jesters to the amusement of all.
Here you see Mahakala dancers in action, with jesters poking their phallic dorje wands, the blessings of the dancers moving through the crowd tapping our crown chakras. The eligible unmarried women in the community dance together, giving all the unmarried men an opportunity to weigh their prospects.
July 3rd, we go back to Kurjey to witness the annual unveiling of the largest thangka in the world, of Guru Rinpoche.
There is some doubt that the ceremony will happen, as it was a very rainy night. But the weather breaks, and people start to arrive for this auspicious event.
A very high Lama arrives with entourage, there are some soldiers with weapons, but everything feels serene. The festival continues with more dancing. Some are very modern, even militaristic, like nothing I’ve seen here before.
The next day (4th of July, who cares?) has us exploring a retreat site up on a cliff, where Guru Rinpoche (also known as Padmasambhava, who brought Buddhism to Bhutan 1300 years ago) sheltered. We also spend time in a nearby monastery, whose name I can’t remember, where we have an opportunity to meditate, view sacred relics close up, and rest.
I have a very special evening planned. Back around 2012, I got a very odd Facebook friend request from someone named Ngedup Om, in Bhutan. I accepted it, and it turned out she is a teacher in Mongar, about 8 hours drive to the east of Bumthang. We have been corresponding for five years, and when she finds out I will be that close (during the summer school break!), she and her husband and two children decide to go on a trip to Thimphu, and stop here on the way.
They come and pick me up and take me out to dinner in the nearby town of Chamkhar. There is a huge amount of food, including the national dish – ema datshi (stewed chilis and yak cheese, incredibly hot), rice, and some rabbit. Since they are both teachers, they and their children all speak very good English, although the kids are very shy. I am delighted and honored to finally meet them all.
Having gotten over the shock somewhat — I’ve seen more cars in my first couple of hours in the country than I did over the 12 days of my first visit — I’m settling in for the journey east. We are headed for Punakha and Bumthang, two districts that I saw briefly on my first trip, but didn’t get to explore much. I’m bemused as I watch the paved roads and cars and power lines.
Look carefully at the left photo, and you will see a power line in the lower left…and power poles running up the hillside in the upper left. None of this was here during my first visit. In fact, electricity was rare outside of the main towns. Now there is power running to most areas, towns and most houses have electricity. The country generates (and sells!) lots of hydroelectric power, so electricity is provided for free to all residents as long as people use it sparingly. I saw compact fluorescent bulbs everywhere, to minimize electricity use.
Our first stop was Chimi Lhakhang, a famous fertility temple. It was reassuringly the same as my last visit, even the bodhi tree in the courtyard, which shaded a cluster of monks engaged in discussion. The sacred phallus images on building walls were fresh and colorful, and of course a gift shop offered all kinds of phallic memorabilia.
And so much remains unchanged. People in the country still wear traditional clothing, woolen skirts called kiras, and men in robes called ghos. Hilltops and fence lines are decorated with prayer flags, and most people walk everywhere. I did see more signs in English, however.
On our second day, we visited Punaka Dzong, one of the lovely fortress-monasteries constructed a thousand years ago to repel Tibetan invaders. Dzong’s are the largest buildings in the country, and the seat of local government. They each have a rich history and many legendary stories.
Continuing south on our third day, we cross over into Wangdue, home of the Wangdue Phodrang Dzong. Only stopping for lunch, we head east towards Trongsa.
Since it’s late June, the rivers are all flowing well, and rains have made the fields lush and green, and the roads muddy.
We encounter lots of construction, a traffic jam and a rockfall on the road that all delay us a couple of hours. The drive east continues to the Chengdebi Chorten, a large sacred site that makes a good lunch stop.
After a lengthy drive down a valley, Trongsa Dzong emerges from the fog and clouds…on the other side of the valley. It takes about an hour to drive down the valley and back to reach the other side.
We’ve been on the road now for over ten hours, it’s getting dark, and we still have an 11,000-foot pass to climb and cross. There have been dozens of construction delays, a traffic jam, and a rockfall where we had to wait for 45 minutes.
After two more hours, we pull in to our luxurious hotel in Bumthang. Deep thanks to Ugyen Dorji. our skilled and tireless driver.
The next morning (it’s now day 4, July 1st), we start to explore. We will be here for several days. Here are some photos of our group. Most are now friends on Facebook, and I hope to travel with them again in the future.
And we visit the Kurjey Monastery, where we are treated to a charming women’s dance. Everyone is preparing for the annual festival, starting tomorrow.
We are fortunate we can attend. There are several days of events ahead of us at the monasteries in the area. Today we can rest, hike, and explore the town. I find a shop filled with the most incredible textiles from the eastern part of the country. The proprietor, Rinzin Wangmo, comes from a family of weavers to the east in Monggar, and they send their products to her shop, an eight-hour drive away. I make splurge, and bring home several beautiful wall hangings.