“You sit with us in a congregation of the dead,
Where one handful of dirt says, I was once a head of hair.
Another, I was a backbone.”
~ Jalaluddin Rumi, from No Ordinary Friendship
A chunk of Route 66 sits on my altar.
It is a large piece, from a derelict alignment of the road in Bellemont, Arizona. I had turned off to find the Pine Breeze Inn, famous from the first scene of Easy Rider, to photograph it for my boyfriend. Initially I turned the wrong way and traveled some distance down a crumbling stretch of road that became more and more particulate and fragmented as it eventually disappeared into a thick forest of pine trees. The highway was returning to earth. No human would ever use it again to reach one place from another. I got out of my car and knelt down to take a big red chunk of it home to my altar.
For the Day of the Dead, it is an unusual ofrenda.
Any journey down an old road is a meditation on the passage of time. Samhain, Dia de los Muertos, Hallowe’en, is a feast of overlapping times and wayfaring souls.
At this season of time in the year, we are more aware of the presence of other souls beside ours, riding other timelines alongside ours.
Driving Route 66, you can see through the veils of time, layers of the past that are one another’s past and future. For part of its near-2500 mile length, the route mirrors the course of the Santa Fe Railroad. 66’s replacement, I-40, a younger, huger highway for higher-volume transport, also parallels it, sometimes within eyesight. The railroad came first, then 66, once people began more frequently to travel in cars. 66 was in its turn replaced for heavier use by the roaring modern interstate.
There are times on the road where, if you are on 66, you can take in with one glance all three courses running at the same time: the railroad in the distance, the big booming monster of 40 closer by. You can see at least three distinct times running side by side with one another, coexistent and visible. Sometimes 66 will pass under 40, sometimes curve up towards the railroad, until the three courses braid one another like a triplicate DNA.
Perhaps that is what keeps drawing us to old roads in general: they are modes of time travel that also awaken compassion. Driving Route 66 is a prolonged moving meditation on impermanence and decay. Along the road you see husks and carcasses of businesses established in full-throttle optimism when the road was booming. Many of them have architecture that evokes the Space Age, built according to the earnestness of the entrepreneurs and business owners who intended them to last far into the future. Some of them are so decrepit that you cannot tell what the structure originally was. Sometimes there is only a sign, indicating nothing, signifying only an absence. In the background are mountains, who have much longer lives, but eventually face their own mortality.
All true roads layer time: following ley lines, the energetic meridians of the earth, tracing along watercourses, following the tracks of deer through the woods. They accord to things that are real. Animal roads become indigenous peoples’ roads become cart tracks become paved roads. They all are iterations of the same needs. None is an ‘improvement’ on the ones that came before; all are necessary. The soaring Grossglockner in Austria, one of the most breathtaking roads through the Alps, is built on bridle paths and ancient Celtic and Roman roads.
Each is part of the story.
In The Lord of the Rings, whenever the characters pass the remains of an old road, you know that J.R.R. Tolkien knew exactly what road it was, that it was perhaps from the First Age or Second Age but that it is a significant road that was part of someone else’s story, journey and conflict.
As much as Samhain is a time of deep inward dwelling that prepares us for an internal, introverted Winter season, it is also a holiday about journeying. In fairy lore, it is one of the two Moving Days of the Fae (the other is Beltane), when the fairies change their Summer and Winter residences, along their own ancient roads.
Many of my seasonal essays are introspective but I want this one to be extrospective. One thing that interests me about Samhain is that, as an ancestor feast, it is very much about others: about honoring others and understanding oneself in relationship to them.
For all the drama and spookiness of Samhain, after all the festivities have wound down, it is a humble, gentle holiday about recalling our place in the great Wheel of Life. That Wheel neither begins nor ends in us. We contribute to it through our uniqueness, our ardor, and our gifts. Knowing history, learning from and appreciating the lives of those who came before us, reading the life stories of the dead, of those we admire, is one way we develop as whole people. The contributions of their lives made the possibilities of your life more possible. They blazed trails for you to branch off from, just as you will blaze trails for those who follow, when the busy roads you take for granted are but a distant memory in another age.
If you are ever at a loss of how to celebrate Samhain, which can happen sometimes, consider an act of appreciation for at least one special person who went before you, who made mistakes so that you would not have to make them, who exemplified the kind of life that you want to lead. Even remembering them, consciously and on purpose, is such an act.
Your lighted Jack O’Lantern is a beacon for travelling spirits, whether ward or welcome or simply a light to find one’s way through the night. The food offerings you leave on your doorstep or give to trick-or-treaters are sustenance on their journey. May we likewise feel the support of the others who recognize us through the veils of Time. To all travellers of the roads before us, to all who will come after us, we recall you and invoke you and your dreams.
“Of the progress of the souls of men and women along the grand roads of the universe, all other progress is the needed emblem and sustenance.”
~ Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road
May you all have a Happy Hallowe’en, a blessed Samhain!
Blessed be and Love,
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Ed: Bryonie Wise