the ascent

One January morning 12 years ago in Los Angeles, I was driving to the dump in a pickup truck with a friend, depressed. My rowdy friend was weary of my malaise. In between throwing emptied beer cans out the window, he suggested that rather than continue wallowing in suffering, that we might instead celebrate the fact that we were still alive and free to move around. “Don’t be such a chickenshit,” he said.”

Curious to experiment with this novel approach to my persistent blues, I suggested a trip to the Kelso Dunes.

The Kelso Dunes are one of seven North American dune fields that produce “booming dunes.” The cascades of sand that walkers dislodge set off vibrations that sound like low-flying planes, and feel like standing front and center at a Sunn O))) show. We began our ascent after dark under a waning gibbous moon, our heads percolating with fifth kingdom remedies. Six hundred feet of elevation gain in shifting sand and howling wind took us around two hours. We descended in a fraction of the time, hooting and hollering as we tumbled down the dune’s face. A cold night sleeping in the open desert under a sky rippling with shades of deep purple followed.

Adopting this approach to depression – staying mobile in spite of anxiety and unpleasant thoughts – has been a life-changing practice. Embracing impermanence and indulging in the fullness of the present moment didn’t solve any of my problems, and it led to a cold night sleeping in the open desert. Six months later it meant leaving my life as a writer in Los Angeles to become a medic with Marfa EMS in a remote region of Far West Texas. After a few wild years in the Big Bend, the path led to residential practice at the Indianapolis Zen Center, and now to a rich and comparatively quiet existence, happily married in East Central Indiana. I’m still depressed sometimes, but I’m better at taking care of the depression, and not seeing it as a barrier to life.

I wouldn’t have talked about it this way at the time, but in hindsight these photos remind me of one of my favorite Alan Watts lines, from The Spirit of Zen (1936): The freedom and poverty of Zen is to leave everything and “Walk on,” for this is what life itself does, and Zen is the religion of life.

Thanks, Dave.

summit contemplation 1

summit contemplation 2
the morning after



swale-blossom-1Chihuahuan Desert Cactus Bloom Tower 1. Texas, 2014
Inkjet print on canvas with wallpaper
85″ x 38″ canvas installed on 8′ x 10′ wall

 Swale + Blossom is on view now at Mary Etherington, 124 E. El Paso in Marfa, Texas

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 4.45.20 PM

Swale 1. Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas, 2014
Inkjet print on canvas
38″ x 50″

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 4.45.42 PM

Swale 2. Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas, 2014
Inkjet print on canvas
38″ x 50″

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 4.45.54 PM

Swale 3. Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas, 2014
Inkjet print on canvas
38″ x 50″

“Inter-Dimensional Music,” the New Age and earth-psych show that I host with David Hollander, floats through the Far West Texas air every Sunday night at 93.5 FM from 9-11pm (CST), and is often available streaming live online at

The above image is from the Bottomless Lakes, a series of desert cenotes near Roswell, New Mexico.

Here’s what we listened to on 5 December 2010:

Farmland Fantasy by Atlas Sound from Bedroom Databank Vol. 4
Ripley Station by Swanox from Dawnrunner
Gordon’s Theme by Dylan Ettinger from New Age Outlaws: Director’s Cut
Alfa (Dusted) by Arp from The Soft Wave
Moving Apart by Mark McGuire from Living With Yourself
Gudene Vet + Snutt by Lindstrom & Prins Thomas from II
Departure From the Northern Wasteland by Michael Hoenig from Departure from the Northern Wasteland
Echolocation by Pocahaunted from Threshold
Solar System Is My God by High Wolf from Ascension
Makes Sense to Me by The Fun Years from God Was Like, No
Paper Windmill by Mountains from Mountains
Primitive Associations/Great Mass Above by Growing from The Soul Of The Rainbow And The Harmony Of Light
Ke Ala Ke Kua by Dolphins Into The Future from Ke Ala Ke Kua

In April of 2009 I traveled to Terlingua, a remote border settlement in the Chihuahuan Desert of Far West Texas, to spend time with the DIY homesteaders and off-the-grid outsiders who were getting down together for the first annual Terlingua Green Scene. I’m in the process of publishing my account of the wild times I had there in Arthur Magazine.

Read the first installment, “No Winners, Only Survivors,” at the Arthur Magazine website. More chapters are on their way, so stay tuned.

For more of my reporting and photography about the Marfa “drug blimp” and other paranoid visions from this unique region of the Lone Star state, check out “Dread Zeppelins: Letter from West Texas,” also in Arthur Magazine.

Balmorhea 1

Whether they are classified as arroyos, oases, wadis, tinajas, cienegas, step-wells or swimming holes, collections of fresh water in arid lands — however fleeting they may be — possess an air of holiness, the abundance of life-giving liquid radiating with metaphysical fertility when surrounded by miles of dry earth. Among such human-made temples of Dihydrogen monoxide, the San Solomon Springs of Balmorhea, Texas,  stands as one of the most opulent — though little-known outside of Texas — in all of the American Southwest [1]

Balmorhea is a small town on the great high-desert grasslands of Far West Texas, an outpost of some 527 people that sits just a few miles south of Interstate 10 between Ft. Stockton and Van Horn. The abundant springs were discovered by enterprising Anglos in the early part of the 20th century; the founding of the town Balmorhea quickly followed in 1906. While the exotic nature of the town’s name — pronounced Bal-mor-ay — suggests the stuff of Native American ghost stories (or Western-Gothic instrumental music), its origin is far more mundane. As the story goes, the three land developers responsible for luring settlers to this remote desert oasis could not decide upon a name for their holdings and, as the great-grandson of E.D. Balcome tells Texas Escapes:

According to my father, the name of the town was suggested during a dispute between my great-grandfather, Mr. Morrow and the Rhea brothers by the conductor of the train they were riding on. What little I know of my ancestor and those that joined with him in the venture is indicative that certainly none of them possessed such creativity.

These developers were hardly the first to have discovered these artesian springs, of course. They were previously known as Mescalero Springs, for the Jumano and Mescalero Indians that made use of the water for various agricultural projects. Following that Mexican farmers gave them the name San Solomon Springs. [2]


The 22-28 million gallons of water that this artesian spring produces on a daily basis collects into a massive 77,053 square foot pool [3]; two long rectangular sections extend from the main circular swimming pond. One of the extensions features a concrete bottom and is shallow enough for children. The rest of the pool ranges from five to 25-feet deep, and the water is clear down to the bottom. A pair of goggles reveals  Mexican tetras, lone Channel catfish, the occasional crawdad and Comanche Springs Pupfish and Pecos Gambusia, both endangered.  The surface is broken by large Texas Spiny Softshell Turtles coming up for air, and by the bubbles discharged by scuba divers [4] exploring the clumps of Chara algae that wave lazily down in the rocky depths [5]. The water temperature ranges from 72-76 degrees Fahrenheit, year round.


The pool is surrounded by Spanish-style adobe and stone architecture constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the late ’30s and early ’40s. The ideology behind the CCC projects fosters a populist utopia here on weekends: Stone shelters and adobe dining halls are full of families celebrating birthdays and reunions, children running over the grass while their parents throw footballs and keep watch on the grills. The water is full of waders staying cool, wandering in the shallows, or splashing about on fluorescent foam water noodles. People stand in a short line to do jackknifes and cannonballs off the high dive. Others roast their backs in the West Texas sun, tracking schools of fish and exhaling through snorkels.

Balmorhea collage-2

Weekdays are a different matter: The pool is deserted, and once one becomes accustomed to the nibbling teeth of the Mexican tetras, it’s possible to float quietly for hours, drifting aimlessly amidst the reflected clouds hanging in the sky up above.


[1] Technically speaking, the San Solomon Springs are part of Balmorhea State Park, which is located in the neighboring town of Toyahvale, TX. Though with a shrinking population — 60 people at the 2000 census — travelers are advised to follow road signs to Balmorhea when seeking these waters.

[2] “San Solomon Springs,” The Handbook of Texas

[3] Balmorhea State Park, Texas Parks and Wildlife

[4] “San Solomon Springs,” Dive Training Magazine

[5] “San Solomon Springs, Balmorhea, TX” from The Encyclopedia Earth

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