Milestone: Three Score and Ten
by Earl Arnett '62
May 9, 2011
In the Fall of 2010, WM asked alumni: How have you celebrated your milestone birthdays, and have any of those birthdays become a major catalyst for change in your life?
This year I celebrated my 70th birthday—the Biblical “three score and ten” when, according to the 90th Psalm, we’ll be lucky to hit 80, after which our days are “cut off” and “we fly away,” one step away from Shakespeare’s “lean and slipper’d pantaloon.”
So I indulged in a calculus of aging. Never very good at mathematical calculus, I figured it was time to begin life’s end game, time to deal with dreams deferred and develop a conclusion to the essay we all write. So I phased out 12 years of intense community work and embarked with my wife on a “Journey to the West,” a personal version of Hesse’s famous “Journey to the East.”
In addition to the Midwest, the West has always been a part of my personal heritage, even though I’ve lived in the East since 1966. In 1948, I lived with my family in Pacific Grove, CA, an environment that still reeked of the people and places that Steinbeck described in the 1930s. I first visited Arizona in 1959, when Beta pledge brother Carlos Benito Antonio Sedillo III ’62 and I took a train from Craw-fordsville to his home in Casa Grande, a small town between Phoenix and Tucson, where his father, C. Benito Sedillo ’35 had established a land title business between fortunes as a land developer. And I lived in Los Angeles for a year in 1963 while in the Army.
I’ve made at least 50 trips to the West over the past 45 years, including getting married in Aspen, CO, 43 years ago, but this particular journey was different. Spurred by a growing awareness of my fragile mortality, I headed once more for Tucson to celebrate my mother’s 92nd birthday, my 70th and my sister’s 60th, all just a week apart in July. We would take time to explore the country and see the Navajo-style, forked-stick hogan where I had once planned to live. This trip would be the physical manifestation of a need to begin an interior journey, to cast aside previous cares of the day, and concentrate on a diminishing lifetime. That task, in itself, is monumental—not from an egotistical standpoint—but from a recognition that each of us is an unexplored universe.
So we flew to Bozeman, MT, and met a long-time friend/outdoors-man who led us through the Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks to Jackson, WY, where he’s also the oldest staff member at the National Museum of Wildlife Art. Walks through geyser fields in early morning and up-close encounters with elk, bison and other “critters” stripped some of our city veneer and brought us closer to the elemental realities of earth and sky, animals and stars. The Western spaces and silences remind us of our insignificance and evoke a bracing, beautiful terror beyond language—a tonic that awakens us from the sleep of everyday consciousness.
Then we drove the 500-mile length of Utah along US 89, the old highway that takes you through valleys settled in the 19th century by Mormons who trekked across the United States from original destinations as far away as Scandinavia. Towns like Ephraim, Manti, Sigurd, and Panguitch bespeak encounters between immigrants building “Zion” in the mountains and the Utes, Paiutes, and Shoshone who were already there. All the struggles, fear, and suffering seem far away now in these peaceful little villages, but they linger in the knowledge that Indian, Anglo and Spanish still don’t live lightly together in this ancient landscape. The land is old, but the United States is very young, not much older than Shakespeare’s “whining school-boy with his satchel and shining morning face.”
We stopped to explore Zion National Park and then continued south across plateau valleys and vermilion cliffs to the north rim of the Grand Canyon, accessible only in warm-weather months. Despite our many trips to Arizona, my wife had never seen this world-famous geological testament to the planet’s age. I was celebrating 70 years; this place is 6 to 17 million years old and exposes rock believed to be two billion years old. This antiquity transcends the Bible, Shakespeare and everything else that we call civilization—one more experience that the West provides to overcome our cultural self-indulgences.
We crossed the Colorado River at Navajo Bridge, drove to Tuba City, and then turned east across Hopi country to Ganado and the old Hubble Trading Post, now a national monument. A few people can still remember the Navajo coming here in their wagons from isolated homes to trade and gossip.
From there it wasn’t too far south to where two old friends have built a straw bale house on several hundred acres of historic ranchland. He’s a retired archaeologist/anthropologist; she’s a working artist. We met in Los Angeles 47 years ago and have been friends ever since. At age 75, when most people are seeking comfort, they truck in their own water, generate their own electricity and enjoy an immense solitude where it seems like you can reach up and touch the starry night skies.
The last two-and-a-half weeks of the journey were spent in Tucson, where we celebrated birthdays, recalled family stories, ate well and drank a lot of champagne.
I suspect that the bubbly has accompanied many other 70th birthdays this year. The sparkling wine feels good in the mouth and spurs the hope that Shakespeare left out a few stages before oblivion.