Imagination can lead you back in time

I began hiking up King's Canyon Road about 10 years ago largely because of an old sketch I had seen of Hank Monk (immortalized by Mark Twain) driving a stagecoach pell mell down a steep mountain road with rocks and stones flung like spray from beneath the wheels of his swaying coach. The caption told me Monk's passengers had to have nerves of steel to make this harrowing trip down the mountain.

Although I do not have nerves of steel, nor an interest in dangerous sport, I found myself very much attracted to the image of that careening, breakneck ride down the mountain. Later, I realized that it was the mountain itself that I was drawn to. That, and the bygone days of the West that I wanted to retrace. So I began hiking King's Canyon and all the trails I could access from the foothills of Carson City.

Each time I hiked, I forgot who I was and, as if I were a reincarnated mountain woman, became one with the trail. King's Canyon Road more or less parallels present-day Highway 50, although it rises high above it, sometimes running close to the edge of the mountain and at other times moving deep into the silence of the Jeffrey and Ponderosa pines. At one point - and each time on reaching it my heart would quicken - I would come upon the place that once was Swift's Station, a favorite stop for the stage. Nothing of the station remains except the flattened, now grassy, expanse of earth on which it once stood. But that doesn't matter. The shadow of what once was is still there.

The "image" that triggers our imagination doesn't have to be a sketch, photo, or painting. A map can do it, too, or even words in a book. Since last fall I have been working with the writer Hunt Janin on a book about the historic trails of New Mexico. Recently, we flew (he from France, I from here) to New Mexico, where we explored a number of the trails (their traces), Ft. Union (its remains), and ancient Pecos (its ruins). The maps we had studied, the books we had read had incited our imaginations and now we wanted to touch and breathe in the air of history.

We were in southern New Mexico, in the Gila Wilderness area. Leaving the car at the top of an arroyo, we commenced walking down the gravel road to what looked like a dry riverbed. The Gila River itself flowed beyond our range of vision. We had gone but a short distance when Hunt pointed down at a burro or mule and asked me if I thought it was wild. The mule was too far away for me to make out anything like reins or saddlebags, so we decided we'd walk down and take a closer look.

Once we were down, however, the mule was nowhere to be seen. I wondered if we had been hallucinating. We walked back up and looked down. There was the mule, exactly where he had been to begin with. Before we could decide whether to go down again, a game warden drove by us in a cloud of dust and soon enough we saw him parked down by the mule. We could see nothing, but heard voices rising and falling.

About half an hour went by. Finally the warden got into his pick up and drove off. To our amazement, two more mules suddenly joined the first mule, as well as a man wearing a red shirt.

We waited. We watched as the cowboy, astride one mule and leading the other two, rode by. Tempted to ask questions, but reluctant to be nosy, we stood and stared after him. Once in our car, we soon came upon the cowboy again. He had pulled his mules to the edge of the road and was gesturing at us. I had already stopped the car for there was some kind of large silver object glittering on the road. Hunt got out and picked up the object. I got out, too, just in time to hear the cowboy thank us for stopping.

He told us his axe had slipped out of its holder because his two mules were still a bit unruly. He had been breaking them for a rancher who lived about 50 miles away. The man was lean; his face deeply tanned. When he smiled, I could see a black tooth and thought he must not have enough money to see a dentist. His life, his worldly goods, were packed on his mule. On a belt on his hips he carried two weapons. On the right side, a single action revolver (the classic cowboy type) and on the left side, a large Bowie knife. He told us his wife had died several years ago in an auto accident and he was alone.

Back in the car, Hunt said the man's knife was of old time vintage, the kind we had been reading about in the books we'd been researching. We felt as if meeting the cowboy had opened the door of history and we had stepped over the threshold into another time.

Gaston Bachelard, a French philosopher, has written that it is more enriching to imagine than to experience. He also says that image is a phenomenon of being because it is a pure product of absolute imagination. In other words, it's our imagination that expands our physical and emotional world, that raises the roof of our being. Without it, we would be as if shackled to a post in a dungeon, locked into ourselves, unable to empathize. The more we can imagine - of how others live and feel - the richer we become.

• Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., teaches writing and literature at Western Nevada College.


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