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Barlow in Rockspace

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Barlow in Rockspace

Date: Wed, 3 Jul 1996 19:31:30 +0200
From: John Perry Barlow <barlow@eff.org>
Subject: Barlow in Rockspace

 Miracle and wonder. Dig the range of the Possible at the end of the 20th Century, Folks! Consider that I am now in the Business Class cabin of Swissair Flight 122 plunging toward Europe when only yesterday morning I was creeping up a talus slope in southern Utah at pace that took me 7 miles in the same time I will require tonight for the arc from Cincinnati to Zurich. We take these things too much for granted, I think.

There is a nearly full, though waning, moon off the starboard wing and we have just left what would be Maine were we not 35,000 feet above it. Where there is no place at all. "Here" in the stratosphere it is as uniform as Cyberspace and, as in Cyberspace, the only detail is within. I'm crossing a wide sweep of times zones, so time doesn't matter. And that irrelevance of such brief time is about the only present similarity to where I've been for the last week.

At first sunlight yesterday morning, I was in Another Time. I felt Neolithic as Og, living in a cave in the bottom of Utah's Dark Canyon, a fissure that forks like geological lightning through the cedar-speckled slickrock around Lake Powell. The bottom of Dark Canyon is almost three thousand feet below that deck.  It is deeper than it is wide. A mile back from its plunge, one might look across to buttes on the other side and never guess it was there.

If you are among the roughly 600 people who e-mailed me last week and to whom I've yet to respond, this is the reason for my digital silence. I was as profoundly off-line as I've been in a decade. Not only were there no volts or bits where I was, there was no time but Deep Time. No time but Now.

They stripped me of my wrist-watch before I went down there. I was prepared to be relieved of this albatross, my Powerbook. Indeed, that was part of the reason I went. To see how I would feel unwired. Terminally unterminated.

And I was prepared not to know what was going on in the larger world, as it's been awhile since anything that CNN would consider newsworthy has dropped my jaw. I was even prepared to have my fistfone blink to "no svc."(Though I did take it along as a totem and exposed it to various ritual humiliations in cairn-shrines over the course of the week.)

But I was not prepared to be relieved of the strange luxury of knowing that this particular moment was, say,  6:32:23 on June 29, 1996. Or whatever. I had no idea I had developed such a bad jones for named time.

So it was like so many of my other journeys. The real discovery was an unintended consequence of other research objectives. I set out, as I often do, trying to learn something about communications technology. Looking, in this case, to understand it better by its absence. And looking to understand myself, of course. Looking to see how resourceless I'd been rendered by Business Class and my other staple amenities.

I also went there to take a kind of ritual leave of my eldest daughter, Leah. She's just turned 14, and has recently acquired what is now, in the strictest physical sense, her adult self. I took her down there, spent a week with her, and left her there in the care and company of a wolfman-godfather, a poetic goddess, a Spanish girl, a skate-boarder, a rebel without a cause, and a would have been Deadhead doctor's boy. There was an additional complement of women who descended and emerged with me: a couple of wild 40-ish redheads from Tennessee, an the cat-woman wife of the wolfman.

This pair, the wolfman/cat-woman are Creighton and Annie King. I met them when he came to teach English in Pinedale a few years ago, having made a legend of himself in Utah and elsewhere as the kind of freak of nature who could literally *run* up things like the Grand Teton, bashing previous top-to-bottom records by multiple hours. A Harvard drop-out turned Alta ski patrolman, who turned himself at 40 to the time-honored and genuinely holy occupation of corrupting the youth with the truth. He got himself a teaching certificate and landed his first job at Pinedale High School. Where, in the course of two years, he managed to change so many young lives for the better that the community had no choice but to expel him.

During their short tenure in Pinedale I developed a history with the Kings that is another tale, but they were certainly the right people rip me from my bath of jet-fuel and IP packets and take me down into the heat and stone.

I was plenty ready. There's been a lot of velocity around me lately, and while I've often genuinely felt myself at peace in the eye of my own hurricane, while I've truly felt that Business Class could be my zendo, others have observed that living a life where the average 24 hour a day speed almost never falls below 50 mph might violates the laws of both physics and biology. Not to mention common sense.

And all these tools of mine! I been feeling impaired by my enhancements. Weird as Edward Scissorhands, though not as visibly so. There is a cartoon in the current Utne Reader in which a laptop and cell phone are dashing down the street shouting "Which way did he go?" while their desperate owner cowers behind a corner. I can relate. (Though you, Cliff Stoll, should take no comfort from this admission.)

Anyway. After they were ejected from Pinedale, the Kings went to teach at a prep school in central Mormonia called Wasatch Academy. This school runs a summer program called Nature Writers that takes kids down into Edward Abby Country with a notepad, a minimal amount of adult supervision, and plenty of trail mix. It's Outward Bound for the aspiring young writer.

The daughters and I became genuinely familial with the Kings during their low pass through Pinedale, and they with us, so there was no presumption in their setting their own agenda for me and Leah.

They wanted to get me off time and her off me and, in only a week, they took us a long way toward that goal. The hook was a scholarship to the program for Leah on the condition that I would come speak at Wasatch. Having done that, I drove to a place in the desert, parked my Corrado, shouldered a back-pack for the first time in my life, and headed toward the lip of Dark Canyon. Annie stopped me. "Let's have that  wrist-watch, Big Boy." she said.

Unless I'm mistaken, this is the first time I've taken off my watch for more than 10 hours in the last 30 years. While I've been fancying myself to be asynchratic, it may just be that I'm only chronically tardy and am actually as time-dominated as the next white guy.

>From that moment forward, we plunged into a past where the sort of time one might measure on one's wrist is just silly. The Navajo sandstone formations that lie at the roof of Dark Canyon were blown into dunes there many tens of millions of years ago and the shales that lies along much of its bottom were cracking mudflats back when brachiopods, mosses, and scallops were about the most interesting thing Life could come up with, hundreds of millions of years before that.

Almost immediately, time opened up to me like sound to the blind. In the absence of my measuring device, the entire time spectrum became palpable. My first thoughts regarded the brief temporal gap between myself and Leah, as she strode out before me on her long, capable doe-legs. Her fresh youth and my lumbering age. As I wallowed along beneath my pack, my hip sockets immediately filled with fire, my knees bloody rubber at once. The Kings, the other kids, the giddy boys, the girl from Madrid, the doctor's son from Virginia, surged along beside her. And I hobbled over the slick rock, wondering if I hadn't for once bitten off more than I could chew.

But I didn't. I survived it. Not only did I descend into that paradise for lizards, but I spent a week in continuous motion along the Z-axis under a biblical sun, living in a world made not merely of atoms, but of *hard* atoms. Rockspace.  And yesterday morning I hauled my fat old self back up those 3000 feet in temperatures that hit a hundred degrees F. and did not sustain a massive coronary thrombosis.

In the meantime, I had ridden a flashflood to the Colorado River, civilized and made my own a cave previously inhabited by bats and moths bigger than bats with eyes that glowed red in my headlamp, built a sweatlodge of willows and tamarisk, watched the hallucinogenic Datura plant unfurl its wicked flowers in the light of a Blue Moon. And, more than anything else, learned about kinds of time that are both entirely local and entirely general. At the same "time." Now and forever.

But the first gap remained. I'm back out of there, but my legs look like I've been trying to yo-yo with a circular grinder while Leah's, last seen, were unmarked. Spared damage by the invisible shield of her grace.

Such a human eternity there is between the father and the daughter who's still down there as I blast toward another yet European opportunity for paternal windbaggery. Leah was born on Father's Day, 1982 and taught me unconditional love. She has always been a secret child of depths unplumbed by either of us, but especially bonded to me by her being my first-born. And by her genuinely terrifying beauty.

Even though she has never found much voice for her feelings, they would rise up in the way she felt when I hugged her, and since I am such a physically communicative person, that was sufficient. Then, a couple of months ago, as she thundered into formal adolescence, she froze in my embrace. As one might expect. Suddenly, my touch was fearsome to her and the main channel of our emotional communication was severed. A long awaited time had come.

Years ago, when she was about 5 I think, we spent the day in a mall in LA. When we returned to where we were staying, she appeared to be in a meditative, even dismal, frame of mind.

"What is it?" I wanted to know?

"I can't tell you."

"Oh, come on now, Leah. Surely you can tell me."

"No. I 'specially can't tell you."

"Then you'd *better* tell me," I said.

After much negotiation, she revealed her trouble.

"Daddy," she confessed, eyes misting, "I watched the teenagers with their parents n that mall today and I realized that someday I would be a teenager and I wouldn't like you anymore."

I'm not quite saying we've reached such a point as that, but it's close enough that I knew it was time I backed well away and left her to probe her own destiny with less direction from me.

In other words, it was time for me to take her out into the wilderness and leave her there. I know that if we lived in a more complete society than this patchwork we suffer now, if we were Quakiutl or K!ung or even practicing Mormon, we might have some more generally accepted ritual for such things. But the best contemporary Generica can offer in this department is a version of the Mickey Mouse Club that increasingly resembles MTV, so I know better than to look to my own culture for guidance.

Better it seemed to turn to that ultimate tabula rasa, the Desert. Better to go to a place where most of the tools upon which my culture bases itself would be useless. So we returned to the baseline of civilization to see what might naturally gin itself up from there.

The first night in the bottom of the Canyon we all camped together, but when I moved half a mile downstream on the second day and Leah elected to stay behind under the overhang she'd picked out - rattlesnakes notwithstanding - I knew the process was underway. And I knew it all the more the next morning when she ghosted into my cave, with all but her wide, white eyes covered in black river mud. A wild pagan girl, entirely her own.

A little later the thunderstorm we'd earlier heard thrashing around up-canyon yielded its consequences. Within a few minutes, the clear water that fell gently into the pool below my cave had turned chocolate and cubed its volume. It roared brown froth and stank. We jumped into it and rode it through falls and slides and rock-flesh sculptures of time without measurement until, some eons downstream, it emptied into irrefutable level that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had decreed with Glen Canyon Dam. Lake Powell.

We walked back in the moonlight, Leah catting along barefoot over the rubble. She was, at moments that day, the most beautiful sight of any sort that I have ever seen. I don't know how she feels about me now and I probably won't know for a few years. She'll have to find a new voice for her new heart and that will take time. In the meantime, I know how I feel about her. And that will have to do.

What else? My cave. I lived in a cave for a week. When I found it, I was puzzled that there were no signs of previous occupation since it seemed like such a perfect habitat, shelter from both thunderstorm and blasting mid-day furnace. Once I'd cleared some rubble, it even had a perfectly level berth along one side made of cool shale.

I busied myself tidying it up like some character from Wind in the Willows. I was surprised to find such a nesting instinct in myself. For what seems a long time, "settling in" hasn't amounted to more than figuring out the phone jacks and room service menu. Suddenly I felt like a vector of civilization, sweeping out silt with willow boughs, making rock granaries for food storage. I even asked the Tennessean redheads, who had almost immediately developed a superior aesthetic culture upstream, to come down and decorate the entrance, which they did.

What did I learn in my week away from measured time and electricity? I learned that the technological impulse is so strong in me that it doesn't matter how far I ratchet myself back, I will immediately set about to build what would end me up here in the 20th Century eventually.

I never completely quit jones-ing for time, though as the group of us moved into the simple present, time became more a philosophical than practical matter. We separated into five camps along a couple of miles of river and each camp rose at different times depending on how the sun hit them. Being sheltered most coolly, I generally rose last and proceeded forth languidly, counting on moonlight for the biggest part of my day.

But the thrust to build was insistent. By the third day, I found myself weaving together a sweat lodge like a giant basket, trying out various materials - cat-tails, willow shoots, tall grass - as binding twine. I felt like Robinson Crusoe or a member of the Swiss Family Robinson, an early moment in the thrust of Manifest Destiny.

I'm glad to be back in my usual jet-fuel burning, electricity sucking, data bathing plunge. I'm glad to back on-line and I'm even digging digging out from underneath my accumulated messages. I'm even glad to be in Dusseldorf tonight, if you can believe that.

But I think I also need to make a more regular journey to where time is measured by geological periods rather than megahertz. I recommend Rockspace.

 Dusseldorf, Germany Wednesday, July 3, 1996

We do not take a trip. A trip takes us.

                                        --John Steinbeck

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