I found Alan Watts in the glove compartment of a ’69 Firebird. It was years ago, and I was on a long, rambling trek home from Gallina, New Mexico to Los Angeles. You can drive that distance in about 14 hours, but it took me nearly three weeks of wandering the back roads of the Navajo reservation, through Tierra Amarillo and Chaco Canyon and Window Rock.
Anyone who tells you, you can’t have a spiritual experience on a car trip, hasn’t been to the American Southwest. There’s a vastness to these landscapes. And a certain kind of meditation that settles over you when all the radio stations fade to static and the road stretches out like a baked black ribbon across the desert floor as far as the eye can see. Next gas 75 miles. And they friggin’ mean it.
Out there, you can see storms forming an hour in advance. Great rolling thunderheads colliding with one another and the dark wall of rain heading your direction. Time to take shelter.
It was on one of those afternoons, holed up on a ridge near Mexican Hat, that I discovered a homemade cassette tape in the glove compartment of my car. I hadn’t had the car long. Bought it for $500 off some kid in Pasadena because his parents were sick of it leaking oil in the driveway. It needed a rebuilt tranny and a coat of paint but that car was indestructible. Even with hail stones raining down on it. Hail in the desert. Just one of the surreal moments of that trip.
“Alan Watts” was all the tape said. I popped it in. And a thin, reedy, bemused voice came on, to tell me the meaning of life. Literally.
If you’ve never heard of Alan Watts – he died before most of our times – he was a thinker of extraordinary caliber. An explorer of the mind, you could say. And he got pretty far out there. An Episcopal priest who ditched the church and moved to Berkeley, Watts went WAY beyond introducing California to Buddhism. In the late 1950s, Watts was the counter culture. Without him and Timothy Leary and Fritz Perls dropping LSD and questioning the very makeup of a society, the ‘60s might never have happened. Theirs was the philosophical underpinning. Theirs was the first ascent on the mountain that would BE the 1960s.
As you listen to Alan Watts, you really are transported to moments of impossible clarity. An understanding of yourself and your place in the universe that is refreshingly different from everything we’ve been programmed to believe. I will not paraphrase. His books are in print. His lectures available, freely online (if you do a little looking) which is what he’d want, I’m sure. There’s even an Alan Watts podcast app, you can listen to in your car. As I did. Many summers ago as hail swept across the desert floor. And it seemed the perfect time… for a bit of enlightenment.