Walking the Labyrinth That Isn’t There

“If we wish to outline an architecture which conforms to the structure of our soul […], it would have to be conceived in the image of the Labyrinth.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche, Dawn (1881)

Grace Cathedral interior with labyrinth
Grace Cathedral (San Francisco) interior with labyrinth similar to the one in Chartres Cathedral
I found a mention online of William H. Matthews’ Mazes and Labyrinths. It was published in London in 1922 and is still available.

I never encountered a real labyrinth until I was in college. I had read about famous ones and I found them alluring. I read about the Minotaur of Crete in one, and ones in the great cathedrals of Medieval France, and inside and outside stately homes and spiritual centers of Europe.

What could Herodotus have thought to stand before the Great Labyrinth of Egypt with its 3,000 rooms?


There are labyrinths that are made of rooms and columns, ones like caverns, mazes built to protect tombs and treasures. You can find labyrinthine patterns used to design gardens and used on coins and as decoration. They are given to children as puzzles or brainteasers.

My interest now is more with very simple labyrinths. Though some of these mazes have religious purposes, using one is probably more often spiritual or meditative.

I have written about walking a labyrinth before and mentioned them in other contexts.

Rather than trying to find the treasure or feeling trapped, in the ones that I have walked I didn’t where the path would take me, though I could see the center. I don’t try to guess or figure out the turns ahead. If I follow the path, there is one way in and one way out.

Once, I saw someone walking with me who was so frustrated at being “lost” and not finding the right path that she just walked right across the 2D maze to the outside. I felt bad for her.

I prefer to walk alone, but when you meet others along the path, you usually step aside to let them pass. Sometimes others are more in a hurry and will pass me.  I don’t like to pass others.

When I reach the center, sometimes I stop. There is nothing special there. No message or revelation. You haven’t reached the end. You still need to find your way out, which is also the way in.

A new maze is interesting because you don’t know the path. I have never walked one so many times that I have it memorized.  I wonder how that would change the experience?

If you were to ask me what I get from walking the labyrinth, I’m not I could give you a satisfactory explanation.

Psychologist and philosopher William James described four characteristics of mystical experience in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience.  I would describe walking the labyrinth in his terms as being transient – the experience is temporary and the individual soon returns to a “normal” frame of mind. The experience feels outside the normal perception of space and time. The experience is also ineffable in that it cannot be adequately put into words.

The ineffable makes the third characteristic impossible for me to describe, That is, it is noetic. You feel that you have learned something valuable from the experience – knowledge that is normally hidden from human understanding.

In the best experiences, this is passive. It happens to the individual, largely without conscious control. That makes walking the labyrinth or meditating or taking a drug the wrong approach. It is not something that can be turned on and off at will.

I wish to walk a labyrinth some day that is not there and that I did not enter and will not have to leave.

The Blue Roads

“Life doesn’t happen along interstates. It’s against the law.”
– William Least Heat-Moon

“It is not down on any map; true places never are.”
–  Herman Melville, Moby-Dick or, The Whale

I wrote in a preface or companion post to this article about the Red Road in Oglala Lakota holy man Black Elk’s vision and philosophy and how it connects to the “blue highways” of William Heat-Moon’s travel book.

This post is about modern day road visions. Blue Highways is the story of the author’s 13,000-mile journey and the people he meets along the way.

The Red Road may be the “right path” but he chooses the smaller roads and highways marked in blue on his paper road atlas. He avoids cities and interstates. He tries to avoid fast food and the usual interstate experiences. He seeks out towns because they have odd names and wants to find very localized American culture.

I read the book years ago when it was first released. It was on the NY Times’ best seller list for 42 weeks in 1982-83. The term “blue highways” became a way to describe a journey of introspection and discovery.

I mentally shelve this book next to Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. They are two books that I really loved reading and both are on-the-road, travel and spirituality texts. Pirsig is more spiritual and philosophical. Heat-Moon is more travel.

But both are modern epics and hero’s journeys to me. I read Zen upon publication in 1974, when I was a junior in college and it certainly made me want to take that journey (though in my VW Beetle rather than on a motorcycle).

This summer motorcycle trip of a father and his son took on other meanings when I was older and had my own two sons. But both books ponder big questions, as Black Elk did, of personal philosophy and how to live.

Pirsig’s route was a pretty straight shot from Minnesota to California. Westward Ho! Like Black Elk’s Red Road, Heat-Moon’s route is a loop. He does not drive across America, but he encircles it, mostly staying at the edges of the map.

There is an informative and interactive map of the trip at littourati.squarespace.com

I was particularly interested (as many of us would be) about his observations in my part of the country. That would be when he passes over the Verrazano-Narrows bridge in New York City to Staten Island, and then into Paradelle-country: Lakewood, New Jersey, Lakehurst Naval Air Station, somewhere on the Wading River in the Pine Barrens, Weekstown, Egg Harbor City, Millville, Bridgeton, Othello (“‘In Cumberland County we have a settlement of people called ‘tri-bloods,’ people that trace their history – or legend – back to a Moorish – Algerian, specifically – princess who came ashore after a shipwreck in the first years of the nation. The Indians took her in, and from the subsequent mixing of blood – later with a small infusion from the Negro – there developed a group composed of three races. The ‘Delaware Moors,’ they’re called…'”), Greenwich, Hancock’s Bridge and Salem, New Jersey.

Sadly, I have not been to most of those places myself. I really must plan a summer journey along that path for myself. No doubt, most of the places he passed through have changed a lot since he passed through tem.

I would also place on that mental bookshelf with those two books another one that I read much earlier in my youth that made me want to wander the roads of America. That book is John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley.

It’s not Steinbeck’s best book, but by the time I was in high school I had read almost all of his fiction and so I picked up this travel with his dog in search of America book. It is listed as non-fiction, but more recently I have read that some of it is fiction. Not all the people and experiences actually happened to Steinbeck on the road. I’m okay with that mix of fiction and fact. I think most fiction is that blend, though we hope that most non-fiction is not.

In 1960, Steinbeck started his trip because he thought he had lost touch with the country. I think he was looking for inspiration for his fiction, but found a book in the process. Like Heat-Moon, he traveled in a truck, a three-quarter-ton pickup truck he named Rocinante. (that is an allusion to Don Quixote’s horse. Heat-Moon names his truck Ghost Dancing, a more suitably American Indian name.) Pirsig’s trip is with a son. Heat-Moon is alone. Steinbeck was accompanied by a French poodle named Charley.

Robert Pirsig did take a Zen-like trip by motorcycle with his si, Chris, but most of the book is fiction. As far as I know, Heat-Moon did make the trip he describes, but as far as the accuracy of the dialogue with people and the many details he includes, I’ll assume some poetic license and post-trip research.

William Least Heat-Moon is the pen name of William Trogdon. He is an American travel writer of English, Irish and Osage Nation ancestry. His pen name came from his father saying, “I call myself Heat Moon, your elder brother is Little Heat Moon. You, coming last, therefore, are Least.”

He was born in Kansas City, Missouri and Heat-Moon attended the University of Missouri where he earned bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. degrees in English, as well as a bachelor’s degree in photojournalism. He also served as a professor of English at the university.

In the book and in his interactions with people he meets, he does come off as a professor. He assumes the role of just a sort of bum on the road

Heat-Moon’s journey of self-discovery (as we would say is one of its themes, if I was teaching the book) begins because of personal loss. He really starts his inward look by looking outward. He recognizes those who have made such journeys before, from ancient heroes real and fictional to Walt Whitman and Black Elk.

At the end of the book, when William crosses the Ohio River, drives through cornfields in Indiana and heads home, he seems to have more knowledge of himself through learning more about others.

I haven’t read William Least Heat-Moon’s book Writing BLUE HIGHWAYS: The Story of How a Book Happened and I don’t know anyone who has read it. I’m not sure if it will reveal some fiction in the facts, or if it will add more meaning to the book itself. It shouldn’t take a book to explain a book.

The Red Road

I recently retraveled the back roads of William Least Heat-Moon’s 1978 travel account, Blue Highways.  I read the book when it was released, but this time I listened to the audiobook which is how I prefer to experience books when I am on the road or walking my own backroads and woods.

Heat-Moon seems to have coined the term “blue highways” to refer to those out-of-the-way roads in mostly rural America which were shown in blue on the old Rand McNally road atlas. This is a book from a time when a GPS wouldn’t have even seemed possible.

But the author mentions an earlier version of his blue highways coming from his own American Indian ancestry. He references Black Elk’s “Two Roads,” one of which is sometimes called the Blue Road. On this recent reading of the book, I did some further research into that aspect of the roads.

I had read John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks a few years before I read Blue Highways, but I don’t recall ever making the connection between the two.

Nicholas Black Elk was born in 1863 and died in 1950 and saw tremendous changes in the lives of his Oglala Lakota people.  The book was published in 1932, but paperback editions of it were common in the 196s and 70s amongst college students. The “New Age” popularity was probably due to the visions of Black Elk that are recorded.

The book describes Lakota life and is a history of a Native nation, but it is often read as a spiritual tale.

Black Elk met Neihardt in 1930 on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and asked him to record and share his story. (There has long been some controversy about this non-native writer telling the story.)

At the age of nine, Black Elk received a great vision which is the central reflector of the book. His celestial vision has been interpreted as the totality of earthly creation. It is a joyous sky-spanning vision of Earth and the heavens united.

For perspective, think about that the year after his vision, Black Elk was present at the Battle of Little Bighorn. He was a second cousin of the war chief Crazy Horse.

Black Elk
Black Elk (USDA photo)

In the 1997 book, Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala, we get a more modern version of the vision and of the latter part of Black Elk’s life.

His childhood vision remained strong in Black Elk’s life until his death, though his own interpretation changed. He asks Wakan Tanka (God or The Great Spirit) throughout his lifetime if he properly interpreted or fulfilled the vision. In Black Elk Speaks, the conclusion seems sad and he feels he has not been able to save his people through his vision and works.

But Black Elk lived for almost twenty years after Neihardt finished his book, so the story there is incomplete. The newer book suggests that the answer that Black Elk finally received from Wakan Tanka was that he had fulfilled the vision.

Something that is missing from Neihardt’s book is that Black Elk was baptized on St. Nicholas Day in December 1904 and took the name Nicholas to preface Black Elk. He was a practicing and proselytizing Catholic until his death. He baptized hundreds of Indians, taught the Bible, held Masses, and preached sermons. That was a 46 year period of having a simple, righteous, useful Christian life.

This conversion changed his interpretation of the childhood vision. There is Roman Catholic teaching aide that he encountered commonly known as the Two Roads Map. It was a visual catechism that was poster-sized. Though it is a Christian “salvation history,” there are parallels between Black Elk’s vision and the Two Roads Map that Black Elk was probably pleased to see.  Some of the similarities may seem coincidental or trivial – thunder beings, flying men, tree images, villages, a black road, a red road, an evil blue man engulfed in flames in a “Hellish” place where people moaned and mourned. He used the Two Roads Map in his teaching.

The map has a pre-Christian black road and a Christian red road. In Black Elk’s vision as well as in the Christian map, the Red Road was the good and authentic path. For Black Elk, it seems to have represented both the traditional Indian way with Lakota symbolism and Christian symbolism. The Red Road was the Christian right way to live.

It may be cultural or religious appropriation that the Red Road has more commonly become a name for the right path without regard to religion but perhaps some regard for spirituality.

So where does the Blue Road that Heat-Moon alludes to originate? For that, you need to read in The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux. This book is also a transcribed version of Black Elk’s teachings on the sacred pipe that was written much later in his life. In this book, he speaks of the Red Road as the north-south cross of the Medicine Wheel. The east-west cross is the black or blue road, which is the way we should not travel.

For, Nicholas Black Elk, Christianity was the Red Road, a metaphor for living a spiritual way of life. Rather than being a road stretching forward to the horizon, he saw the people on the red road as one interconnected circle of travelers making a “sacred hoop.”

William Least Heat-Moon lightly references the blue roads as being a way to travel that is kind of a waste of your time, but his blue highways were chosen to help him reconnect to people, the country and himself. His motorized journey is a spiritual one, though not one Black Elk may have recognized or endorsed.

In the descriptions of Black Elk’s central childhood vision that I have read, there is almost always a disclaimer that, of course, words cannot really capture what he saw. He saw multiple manifestations of a single Great Spirit. This monotheistic image probably made the transition to Catholicism more logical.

Nicholas Black Elk and family
Nicholas Black Elk and family, between 1890 and 1910

In my next post, I will travel down the blue roads and highways…

Driving Is Spiritual and Mundane

In a  column by Omid Safi, he says that “Driving itself is a spiritual experience for me.”  That got me thinking.

“What else do we do that has become so mundane, so ordinary, so boring? What else can be opened up, like a sunroof, to reveal the luminous inside? What else is there in my daily life that could stand to have its sunroof opened up and the windows lowered?

What else is there in your life, friends, that could stand to have sun shining down on it with the winds swirling around, connecting you to the core of your being, your friends, your neighbors, your beloved, the soil under your feet, and the stars above?”

I don’t share that feeling. I think that when I was much younger I did. I loved cars as a kid. I read car magazines. I built model cars. I watched car racing on TV. I could identify almost any car driving past me.

Now, all the cars are interchangeable to me. I don’t read about cars, except for checking Consumer Reports when it’s time to get a new one. I want one that gets me from Point A to Point B economically and without repairs. Almost any new car will have more options than I really need.

“Spiritual” in this context is about things affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things. The word is often tied to religion and the sacred, divine, or holy.

But Safi’s quote above and that spiritual feeling doesn’t come from cars. It comes from driving. Although driving an older Toyota Corolla is certainly a different car experience from driving a new Tesla, I wonder how much it changes this spiritual aspect once you have been on the road for a few hours.

I have seen writing about the spiritual connection you might have to the car itself, but it is not a connection I have ever had to the vehicle. I loved my first car, a 1971 VW Beetle, which I drove for 11 years, but I never felt any spiritual connection to it. But I suspect many Corvette owners might disagree with me.

The book Earth Angels: Engaging the Sacred in Everyday Things by Shaun McNiff caught my eye n a shelf because the cover has an Edward Hopper painting. He would disagree with my soulless car theory, as he believes that we need to honor the souls of cars, and also furniture, rooms, computers and other ordinary objects.  He didn’t convince me about “soulful materialism” but I’m sure he has his followers.

I’m also not sure if everyone would agree, but I find being the driver and being a passenger on a drive makes the entire experience different. I find being a passenger much more spiritual. You need to be able to let the mind wander. You need to be able to really see what you are passing. Of course, this eliminates the Romantic notion of the solo road trip which I suppose is another level of spiritual experiences.

I still make mix CDs specifically for road trips with songs that resonate for me when I am driving and sometimes for where I am driving. One of the best experiences I have had with a friend was when on a long drive we sang along with almost the entire Simon and Garfunkel song catalog. Driving on the New Jersey Turnpike while they sing “America” click something in my brain.

The other factor is where you are driving. I have no love for the mundane city driving experience and I doubt that there is much spirituality involved. Any writing I have seen about driving that leans to the Romantic side is probably about open highways and wide vistas. Speed play a part, but it can also be a low-speed drive along a twisting coast highway.

The New York Times had a piece about a retrospective of Stephen Shore’s photographs, many of which are his cross-country color photos (collected in the Uncommon Places). The Times asked some American writers to create short fictions or comment on some of Shore’s photographs.

One piece, “Contemplating Geologic Time While Eating a Filet-O-Fish Under a Cloudless Sky,” by Charles Yu which was inspired by  the photo “U.S. 89, Arizona, June 1972.”

“Don McLean ON FM radio, windows rolled all the way down. In an old car in a new country. Midday’s brutal, blue.

He kills the engine, gets out for some air. Opens the door and the potential energy of the fight quickly dissipates, carried away from them along with their voices, words spoken a minute ago propagating waveforms of fear, of love, tumbling down into the canyon, the historical event of their first argument now traveling outward in all directions to the ends of the universe, sounds they made halving themselves again and again, until somewhere, hundreds of feet below, they break against the rocks in a wash of ambient vibration…”

Yu’s piece reminds me that I would include the road stops when driving as part of the driving experience – the scenic outlook, the classic diner, the odd, unnamed general store or the gas station with one pump in the middle of nowhere.

If you look at a dream interpretation site of book, you will probably find that a dream about driving a car is supposed to be about being in control of where you are going. Driving is taking responsibility for your actions. And in that dream symbolism way, being a passenger in a car might mean you are allowing someone else to control you or your life; or you feel you have no control over your life, and that someone is  “taking you for a ride.” I actually don’t recall any driving dreams (and I am someone who keeps dream journals).

I am much more likely to find spirituality in a walk in the woods than in a drive, but I cannot dismiss the driving experience because I have had those kinds of experiences too.  What about you?