Echo Location • 24 November 2012

Blood Sunset from DEN

Have I mentioned my relationship with Denver airport? Tonight at sunset, we drove up to the circus tent terminal, past the homicidal horse. His red LED eyes were on fire, as was the sky out over the Rockies.

Eh, the sky over the Rockies is always blood red when you're on the 7pm direct to Detroit, as I've been thrice in 2012. This place is so Cormack McCarthy. A temple to the apocalypse built over a secret-not secret doomsday bunker and decorated in masonic kitsch. But twenty days out from 12.12.12, it feels less menacing than ever. I want to pitch a tent here and call it a retreat.

On our way through security just now, my brother made that suggestion. Since it's the only place I've been able to write aimlessly since 2010, why not make Denver Airport a destination and stay here until a writing voice sputters back online?

Thinkin' about it. But last month, I turned the home-shala into an office when my brother dropped a giant apple screen in the mail for my birthday. I crack the sacrilegious laptop in that sanctified space and think of SKPJ smacking the wall open-handed and yelling THIS is god! Excel spreadsheets, workshop curricula, endless University administration… Boom. Light a candle and throw open the lid. THIS is god.

Still, Denver airport clears my head best. It's a massive vritti magnet; it's on the high plains in the middle of nowhere; it’s shaped by epic doomsday fantasies of a thousand dying Cold Warriors. Its form is undifferentiated gate after gate, gate, gate… tracing out a massive hash-tag on the land.

On each descent, I think of flying over the Nazca lines, and love this place a little more.

Anyway. My family just spent a day and a night soaking in mineral hot springs on Mount Princeton. (The neighboring peaks – some of the highest on the continent – are Mounts Harvard, Yale, Columbia. Apparently mountains can be derivative. Sigh.)

We rolled up the dark valley at 6 Thanksgiving night. It was hard to navigate; all we had were a bit of light (cabins) and sound (creek) bouncing off sheer cliff walls. There was a lot of empty black before the big stars opened up above, so apparently those walls went up a long way. We found something like a resort check-in, and, getting out of the Impala, realized the temperature had dropped 40 degrees in the previous 100 minutes and 2,000 feet. A beautiful (drunk) woman there treated us like locals. She said: just take the footpath and look for the dome.

The dome was far away but easy to find. First you just follow the glow, taking care to step in the crunchy, gravelly areas. Then the dome peeks up like a translucent pillow down the creek bed. It's a little bit Emerald City.

Turns out that “the dome” is just a white sheet, probably cut from the same stuff as the airport tents. It is pinned to the ground, and billows up over a very large swimming pool. The pool is heated to 98.6 degrees by mineral water that boils inside the mountain. Against the 20-degree air last night, the steam bloomed up inside the big white sheet. It looked like a glowing white hot air balloon, straining against its mooring. The only light anywhere filtered up from four bulbs at the bottom of the pool, but somehow diffused to make the whole balloon glow softly on the outside.

Inside, we couldn’t see our bodies. These were cold bodies in bathing suits, which had just skated barefoot on iced-over sidewalks. It took my dad the fire chief – turned – emergency room chaplain to figure out the door. It was heavy and wheeled, somehow suctioned back into the dome by the upward rise of the steam inside. The rest of us were a little distracted by being almost naked on icy sidewalks, in the dark, in 20 degrees, with nobody else around. Are we doing this right?

And then we were in the dome. Steamy dark above an expanse of water. The space and the pool had no discernable edges except for the one at our feet. Freezing, we waded in to the dark. But as soon as our bodies went below the water’s surface, they became visible. There was something about the light. It would not diffuse at all into the steam that crowded the surface of the water, but beneath the water, the light played freely. We became visible to ourselves and each other as we went under. My dad saw huge goosebumps on my shoulders disappear as my flesh returned to being the same temperature is my inner body.

The air is the same temperature as our skin, my brother said. Is there any difference between this and a sensory deprivation tank?

Yes and no. We floated away from each other, exploring the boundaries of that space, investigating to see if we were alone. More than 10 feet away from each other or the edge of the pool, the steam above the water socked everything in. The only stimulus, then, was warm condensation plopping onto surface of the nearby water and, maybe every ten minutes, right onto our heads.

We sounded the place out. Hello? Mom? Can you feel the bottom? We didn’t know who else might be in there, or what they might be doing.

The steam mostly ate the voices. I found a far edge and swam the perimeter, singing Canta, No Llores. Then singing started to strain my lungs, so I made anonymous words. Echo. Location. Echo. Location. Echolocation. Nothing came back but occasional signs of my nuclears. So, we were in there alone on Thanksgiving night. We stayed I don’t know how long, letting the hundred degree water do half the work of digesting our pie.

The boundary of above/below water was negligible. The air I was breathing was heavy with water, so eventually it seemed natural to stay under the surface for long periods of time. The weirdest images would come up to consciousness each time my head surfaced into the steam.

I’ve forgotten most of it already, like any of the random stuff that filters in from unconsciousness when we are in the sensory deprivation tank of dreams. It’s the same in meditation practice when consciousness gets a little gunky – it’ll throw up what Shinzen calls “image salad” as things clear out and quiet down.

But in the pool with my family, the edge of consciousness and the stuff beyond it was a little different in its texture and content. And in its sense of humor. I saw the Hobbit played by Tom Hanks, and popped up to the surface gasping and annoyed that my least favorite actor had rendered yet another holiday blockbuster unwatchable. Next, there was a quasi-dream of my cat with the head of an Elephant, sitting sphinx-like in front of a scroll. Also, pulling my body underneath the water, I suddenly felt I was a benevolent microbe inside my own body, treading through my blood.

But mostly I kept dreaming my primary relationships. Teachers and family and intimates – treading through dreams of them there in that bubble. Mother, father, brother, best friends, particular animals, landscapes, plants. (Airports.) Dominic and Jayashree and Narasimhan have come back in to my world in the past month, so their feeling was all ionized in my memory.

I guess it figures that my relational subconscious would bubble up so easily in a space that is all water and echoes.

There was a strong pull of personal responsibility in it. The emotions and associations would clarify as long as I could bear to stay under the surface. The echoes I created were my own, and the degree to which I wanted to attribute them to my intimates, my family, my teachers – that was up to me. I was the one actually making noise, blowing bubbles, diving through my own latent dreamscapes.

Mostly. Eventually, my brother floated up out of nowhere and bopped me on the head. We laughed. Then we ran out into the freezing cold, and toward a 110-degree pool with its surface open to the sky.