It means different things to different people: “sacred.” Extending to things not remotely divine, sanctified, or religious, the word is somewhat generalized today. But in a certain mindset, that’s not a bad thing. Rather, I like to think that our horizons broadened just enough that our perceptions are not nearly so narrow. In my travels, I visited a lot of places that are “important,” but sometimes I think that term just doesn’t cover it. They are all just something more. Here are six:
I’m not even sure of its name, but this rather unremarkable hill towers in the cosmology of the Agua Caliente Indians in Palm Springs. The story put to me was that far back in the divine past, before mankind, the air was filled with strange, winged creatures we would not know. One day, one of these creatures broke with tradition and was the first of its kind to actually alight on solid ground. Instantly, its wings fell away and the first human was born. This hill is where all that happened, and the site is absolutely off-limits to non-natives. I think this picture, on the ridge overlooking the Indian Canyons oasis, was about as close as I could get and not tick off human and pantheon alike.
The Desk of Dylan Thomas
“Holy ground” comes in all shapes and sizes. And what is a god, if not a being that creates whole universes and populates them with characters and creatures of all sorts? Just like a poet, some would say. It was at this desk, in a humble converted garage in the tiny Welsh hamlet of Laugharne, that Dylan Thomas did create such a universe, or as we call it today, Llareggub. Thomas took the townsfolk and local geography and transfigured them into the characters and setting of Under Milk Wood, considered his seminal work. With views of the River Taf and his home, the famed Boathouse, Thomas also penned here include Poem on His Birthday, Over Sir John’s Hill, and the fiery-yet-sublime Do Not Go Gentle, a pean to life striving against the impossible odds of death.
Pu’u O Mahuka Heiau
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this site overlooking Waimea Bay in northern Oahu is even more sacred now than when it was a living village. A complicated term, a “heiau” is most simply described as a temple, but it also had aspects of a town, and a cultural hub, and a military base. They are kind of a big deal, or they were: With all the fire of the newly-converted, Christianized King Liholiho ordered all heiau destroyed in 1819. Several remain, however, including Pu’u O Mahuka, and their ties to the old religion are so strong that I was warned to stay out of the enclosure completely. Things that go bump in the night have a very strong sway in Hawai’i.
If you want to make a federal case of it, the full name is Wat Phra Chettuphon Wimonmangkhlaram Ratchaworamahawihan, but I’m sticking with the nick-name of Wat Pho, thankyouverymuch. While not the oldest of Thailand’s temples (AKA, “Wat”), this one smack in the middle of Bangkok is the highest of the high; of the six temples considered “first-class royal,” Wat Pho is number one. Actually older than Bangkok, which itself is only around 300 years old, the most dramatic draw is the 46-meter long reclining Buddha. I was told that an image of the Buddha in repose actually recalls the moment right before he died, yet he is all smiles because he knows of the eternal life awaiting him in the next world. Technically speaking, this isn’t Wat Pho’s “most holy” of holies — that’s the sitting-Buddha statue in the Ubosot, a separate chapel on the temple grounds — but the image of person about to die and have confirmed it isn’t the end was far more striking.
The Pyramid of San Miguelito
Do a Google of the Mayan civilization and you’ll get pictures of Tikal, Palenque, and lots of other grand ruins surrounded by a vast green sea of rain forests. It sorta gives the idea that all these communities rose up in isolation of each other, when in fact the opposite is true. The whole Yucatan — and quite aways from it — is absolutely spangled with more modest Mayan sites lining the vanished roads and trade routes that linked the metropolises together. We also tend to forget that the only buildings that remain in any Mayan ruin are only the ones important enough to be built of stone: palaces, observatories, and temples. The actual cities were much larger than what stands today. Such is the case of San Miguelito, smack in the middle of modern Cancun, but so tiny is the made-of-stone district that the village must have been only just that. Still, what today is called the Pyramid, the largest temple of the site, was a point of pride, and grand in its small-town modesty. I just hope things didn’t get too bloody back in the day.
Center-front Stage of the Grand Ole Opry
Ok, stick with me on this one. Country music isn’t my thing. HOWEVER, if you come all the way to Nashville and skip the Grand Ole Opry, you have completely missed the point. But even though my knowledge of country musicians begins and ends with Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, I can totally get my head around the tradition. And embedded in the center-front stage of the Opry is tradition you can touch — or stand on. See, before there was the Grand Ole Opry, there was the Ryman Auditorium. It was where country music was born, and the building still stands, but is hemmed in on all sides by the rest of Nashville. It could not expand, and could not handle the burgeoning crowds, and at one point was so dilapidated that it damn near collapsed. To give the Ryman a breather, and a much needed restoration, the cavernous Opry was built. And during the refurb, a disk of the original Ryman stage was cut out and planted in the new stage of the Grand Ole Opry. It’s the bright-colored circle on the left of the photo, and you cannot stand in center-front and not be on the circle. It represents the unbroken heritage of country music, and is as sacred as any holy relic.