As We See It

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Of labyrinths and vertigo: Journey to the center

Stacy J. Willis

It’s odd that the ear is both the organ of hearing and the organ of balance. So many times, those two are at odds: too much mental noise leads to a shaky relationship with life balance.

A labyrinthectomy is an ear surgery performed to relieve relentless vertigo. Vertigo, of course, is the sensation that either you, or the world around you, is spinning. It’s also a fine 1958 Alfred Hitchcock film starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak, in which Novak’s character plays a duplicitous woman who pretends to be someone else and then pretends to commit suicide, dramatically killing someone she never was—profound, no? Later she admits who she really is, and dies tragically anyway, because we’re all trapped in an existential death spiral. And yet it’s Stewart’s character who was so troubled by vertigo.

It’s worth noting that two-thirds of the inner ear, known as the bony labyrinth, is devoted to balance, and only one-third to hearing.

I recently went labyrinth hunting. Not in my ear, but in our community. I was suffering from life vertigo brought on by the noise of incessant media and its meta-meanings, missing spoiler alerts, double-entendre emoji, guileful trolls, Donald Trump and #disruption. Turns out, the Valley has several actual labyrinths—places where you can walk on maze-like paths inside a circle, presumably with your devices off, and find inner peace. Balance.

Labyrinths have a long and colorfully interpreted history dating to Greek mythology. Some were designed as traps for evil spirits; other were made for pilgrimages to peace on a single, twisting, patience-stretching path to the center. There’s one in front of St. Andrew Catholic Church in Boulder City, which is nice because it’s on a quiet hill. There’s one at St. Rose Hospital’s San Martin campus, findable by following the (spiritual) emergency signs to the ER.

I tried them both. Sadly, I failed Labyrinths 101. I had a hard time staying inside the lines, and may have skipped a few rows here and there to get to the freaking center already. When I was kinda done, I was oddly still off-kilter, and now literally dizzy in addition to figuratively.

For some of us, when the din of civilization becomes deafening, (like my use of bad metaphors), and we start feeling like we’re living multiple lives (social media), or the wrong life (Kim Novak), and equilibrium is lost (Trump leads), there is only one way to reset: nature. Fortunately, there’s an app for that.

The Southern Nevada Health District offers “Neon to Nature” for free, and it’s nobly intended to help us get out of our chairs and onto a trail. I selected my specifications—rural and dirt—and up popped a nice selection of nearby paths. Sure, I’ve been finding trails on my own my entire life. But I’ve also relied on the occasional cairn, a stack of rocks left by a hiker who went before, to guide me home when I got lost. Those years seem weak and prehistoric now that I have an app.

For example, I was reminded that there’s a quick hike on the edge of Red Rock I’d yet to walk, but when I hit “directions” on my app, Google Maps insisted there was “no route” from my home to the trailhead. Apparently, I live in a closed-labyrinth subdivision.

No matter. It’s a cool app. And since I was seeking nature to escape the peace-suckage created by technological progress anyway, I just headed out to one of my old haunts in Calico Basin. Of course, on the way I listened to the radio, and I heard a story on KNPR critiquing ... excessive cairns. Help me, spirit animal dizzy Jimmy Stewart!

Never mind all-absorbent media culture. Apparently, too many people are stacking rocks in the Southwest. They’re not just meant as occasional trail markers anymore, but as overkill I-was-here nature selfies littering the desert and confusing the vertiginous. Yep. Where technology won’t reach, we have rock-stack addictions. My head was spinning.

I slammed the car door and headed up the hill, only to stumble upon—not making this up—a labyrinth made with stacked rocks.

At first, I had mixed feelings about the arrival of this 50-foot spiral: People! Excessive-cairning syndrome! But then, I took a deep breath, and decided to walk it. It demanded patience. Discipline. More patience. Breathing. When I finally got to the center, I turned my inner ear’s bony labyrinth to the ground, and realized I heard the sound of ... nothing.

In that silence, I found a nanosecond of balance.

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