IN THE ERA BEFORE GLOBAL POSITIONING SATELLITES, the gold standard for knowing where you were anywhere on the face of the earth were the United States Geological Survey maps (the map detail on the right is similar, but without the topographical elevation lines). We used a USGS map and a compass to navigate through unfamiliar terrain as we hiked up the Gorge Lakes canyon to cross the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park.
The view from Forest Canyon Overlook, across Forest Canyon and up the Gorge Lakes to the Continental Divide, is spectacular. You see four miles, as the crow flies, to the depression which cradles Highest Lake, just below the Divide. Framing the scene is Mt. Julian on the left and Mt. Ida on the right. My friends and I were just a few among the thousands of people who see this view from the edge of Trail Ridge Road every summer. If sightseeing were our only desire, we would have been satisfied to sit on the rock ledge and gaze toward the horizon.
But what we were going to do was climb down into Forest Canyon, and up to the Divide, going from lake to lake, until we reached Highest Lake, which that summer of ’74 was still frozen thick in June. We would climb up the small snow-covered glacier on the far side of the lake and cross over to the Pacific side of the Continental Divide. And for that, we needed a good map.
I HAVE ALWAYS LOVED MAPS. They offer a promise of the whole grasped in completeness, of knowing the end of the journey from the beginning. But a map is supposed to be a gateway, not just a window, and a good map can only exist if someone else has already covered the territory.
SO WE ARRIVE AT WHERE WE ARE BECAUSE OF THE MAPS WE FOLLOW. In the summer of ’75 I was again out West, accompanied by a friend, and three books which I thought might be good maps to the meaning of life. The first was the spiritual guidebook, Be Here Now, by Baba Ram Dass, the former Harvard professor who had done LSD research with Timothy Leary in the 60s, then traveled to India to study and practice under a guru, and returned to the States to promote a Westernized version of Hindu pantheism and meditation. I had read Ram Dass’ book the summer before, and we heard him speak that summer in Taos, New Mexico. I recall him alluding to Taos Mountain, at the foot of which is Taos Pueblo. There are many ways, he said, to the top of this mountain, just as there are many paths to spiritual enlightenment. He also alluded to phrases and ideas in the biblical New Testament, particularly the notion of being “cast into outer darkness”, which, Ram Dass implied, could occur repeatedly, whenever seekers allow something, such as egotism, to divert them from their path to enlightenment. Unimpressed, I did not see this man as someone who had himself entered the territory of spiritual reality. I set his map aside.
The next day, back at the central plaza in Taos, we wandered through the shops and art galleries. We walked over to the public library and I bought a couple of used books that I also thought might be good maps; a minor science fiction classic called A Voyage to Arcturus, and Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. A Voyage to Arcturus became like a guidebook for the rest of that summer’s travelling, and I would often try to relate what was happening in the book with our experiences on the road. The author, David Lindsay, wrote the book in 1920 after serving in the British army during World War I. That trauma, and his philosophical frame of mind, turned his book into a desperate meandering search on an imaginary planet, looking for the metaphysical foundations of reality—the really real. The story he writes ends as it travels, in uncertainty bordering on despair. I finished Nietzsche’s book back home in August. While I didn’t buy into his whole death of God idiom, I did for a time grasp onto his idea that our ordinary humanness is something to be overcome and the key to doing that was through the heroic individual assertion of the will to power—an aesthetic re-molding of ourselves in whatever way we desire. But Nietzsche’s work and life turned out to be little more than the gravestone of Romanticism. Eventually I would see both books as maps which led to nowhere.
SO, MAPS ABOUND and I have tried a great many of them and found them wanting. One map always seems to be beckoning: The history and wisdom of ancient Israel, from Moses to the apostles of Christ. We call it the Bible; that just means “book”. I know it seems strange that the collected writings of a people who began as nomadic tribesmen would be the real map to the territory of God, but I am persuaded that Abraham and Moses and David and Paul of Tarsus and John the beloved disciple, and Jesus of Nazareth have laid out the latitude and the longitude, the elevation and the waypoints, to what is real, and true, and good. They know because they have been there. There are very good historical, archaeological, and even existential reasons I could detail to demonstrate why I think this is so. But I won’t do that right now. But you might want to check this map out yourself, and see where it takes you.