Looking Up

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A sudden gust of gravity.

That’s what one of my favorite children’s entertainers – a juggler – would satirically let slip during one of his shows when he purposely dropped all three of the bowling pins. It always made the parents laugh, the kids not so much. Made me laugh. Still does.

I ponder gravity, as one often does, when I look up. Upwards. To view the clouds in the sky, watch birds, scan a tall building. Down here, rooted to earth, looking up is an oft held practice.

A photo like this, dramatic clouds in the sky, just begs to be looked at. In this case, taken in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
(Photo courtesy of Laura Paull)

Mostly, I associate “up” with “positivity”. Upbeat as it were. When walking, I tend to look down to be sure of my footing, especially as I age. But when I pause, I invariably default to looking up. To gaze, assess, and orient in my new position. I’ve always done this.

There are no shortages of ups. Push ups, pull ups, screw ups, pin ups, knocked ups, runner ups, pile ups, jump ups, blow ups, pop ups, drive ups, fire ups…the list goes on.

The late comedian John Pinette, himself extremely overweight, made this part of one of his routines. He’d quip on stage: “I don’t do ‘ups.’ No…I do DOWNS. Sit down, lie down, chow down…” Obvious and funny.

I was recently in Southeastern Utah on a camping trip. We arrived late in the afternoon and set up camp in a broad expanse of the canyon floor. The next morning, we decided to explore up canyon. Naturally, the further up we went, the narrower the bottom of the canyon became as the walls closed in.

We slept warmly in down sleeping bags. My nighttime activity consisted of looking up at the stars, satellites, and jets in the night sky. I watched, mesmerized, as four evenly-spaced satellites traversed the inky expanse of a moonless sky in a straight line. It didn’t make sense to me. The lights were steady, not blinking like the lights on jet airplanes. I would later find out that I had witnessed a view of Elon Musk’s StarLink and found myself mildly annoyed at his lofty, wealthy arrogance. But I digress.

Our second, third and fourth nights were spent in a much prettier and intimate camping spot, closer to the stream and at the base of one of the canyon walls. It was only natural to look up at the expanse of red and tan sandstone, punctuated by the rich verdant green colors of the Piñon and Juniper trees. The trees were naturally spaced far enough apart that they didn’t compete for the sparse water they needed to survive. Of course, the Cottonwood trees only grow in the bottom of these canyons for the same reason.

Boulders, some of them as big as a Volkswagen bus, were strewn haphazardly as the high canyon walls crumbled over the centuries, delineating strata and textures of the exposed earthen exoskeleton of this geography. Our fascinating spinning globe unveiling its history in the epitome of slow motion. Gravity at work.

This canyon wall, across from our campsite, dominated our view. Photo: Adam Gottstein.

I spent literally hours contemplating, looking for signs of wildlife on the arid landscape and the sky above, consumed by the juxtaposed colors, deliciously lost in my thoughts. I thought of past significant relationships, those who would have appreciated this environment, imagining the conversations that might have taken place today.

I directed my sight downward since the temperature had cooled as the day wound down, creating a need for warmth and focus. We built our evening fire in the fire ring left by previous campers. The gathered grasses were so dry and combustible, the shredded bark of the Juniper as though soaked in flammable liquid.

A Juniper wood fire that is almost self-igniting. Photo: Adam Gottstein.

When I lit a match to the grasses beneath the Juniper kindling and watched as the flame ignited and grew, the smoke immediately began to curl upwards. Upwards, rising on the heat. Upwards above our camp, scenting the air, bringing to me a familiar and grounding state of mind. One borne of almost a half century of these camping trips. Of the bones of our Earth. Of memories laden with rich visuals, audio, smells, laughter, tears, and people who’ve populated my history.

As this wood burns into coals, so hot and clean, reduces easily to ash. Photo: Adam Gottstein

It is truly one of my favorite things: a Juniper fire in the canyons. I’ve backpacked each year for 45 years with this same kindred friend, always in Utah and always with this incredibly scented firewood. I dream about Juniper fires when I’m home in California. The scent is perfumed like the sweetest of Cedar wood. My clothes soak it up and hold it long after the evening fire has been extinguished.

I count my blessings with all of the “ups” in my life. Some are tangible and inevitably ascending, others are more subtle and ethereal.

On balance, I will always prefer to “look up” and behold the possibilities it brings, anticipate the mystery of the unknown, and treasure memories.

Up is a chosen state, intentionally matrixed into my life.

I know what I like. I like what I get.

Up works for me that way.



The late jazz pianist, Michel Petrucciani was born a little person. He grew to be only three feet tall as an adult.  It is safe to say that Michel spent most of his life doing just this: looking up. So, it was especially fitting that one of his most famous compositions is called Looking Up. It is a favorite of mine. (Look it “up” and turn it “up”)


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