Bible of the Apes

A decade ago, roadtripping through the California deserts, I had my version of a religious experience. Already, that vast expanse had produced wonders, starting with my days spent in Death Valley where coyotes trotted like pets beyond the golf course sprinklers at dawn and Europeans filled the campground and gift shops, here to see for themselves this huge cathedral of the American West open to pitiless blue skies. I’d planned to backpack for several days up a remote canyon but after crossing the valley floor with two gallons of water on my back in the afternoon heat (even in September) I was exhausted and hid for the rest of the day in the shade of the first gully wall that I reached. The next morning I was back to my car before eight. I’d drunk six canteens of water and peed twice, for I was evaporating faster than I could hydrate in the dry heat that had reached 107 degrees. I’d also tried backpacking Telescope Peak and had exhausted myself again, though this time I made my destination, because I wasn’t acclimatized to eleven thousand feet. But, struggle as I did at elevations high and low, I marveled at the epic scale of the place. Compared to my cozy green Catskills, where rounded 3,500 foot mountains looked monumental against the sky, these sharp summits stood three times as tall, the valley views stretched nine times as far. Even the size of the moon stunned me. Camped out on the savanna-like saddle of Telescope Peak, I’d seen fuzzy bright light swarming like a small pod of insects in the grass up on the ridge line. Could those be headlights, I’d wondered? Had someone driven a vehicle this far up the trail? That didn’t seem possible, or legal. Yet the light grew brighter, approaching. When the rim of the moon rose out of the grass, I almost jumped out of my skin for I thought it was a monster.

My final night before returning to L.A. and the end of my vacation, I stayed at Red Rock Canyon State Park, which had a loop road with campsites off the highway. Though not yet formally open for the cooler autumn and winter seasons, the campground wasn’t really closed, so half dozen of us occupied sites scattered about the small basin below the backdrop mesa of cliffs that weren’t tall but were architecturally fascinating. Due to erosion the cliffs had hundreds upon hundreds of pillars carved as if for sand castles. The pillar rows weren’t perfect but varied and woven in and out of alcoves, giving these sand castles the feeling of ruins partially dug out of the mesa. That plus the reddish color on some of the cliffs gave this park its unique features that California had decided to protect and make public. On the campground bulletin board a newsprint article yellowed by the sun reported that Hollywood had used Red Rocks years ago as a setting for Westerns. Now, I can’t say I care much about Westerns. They’re more for my father’s generation of the 1940s and 1950s. But there was another film listed that gave me a tingling frisson: Beneath the Planet of the Apes. It was as if I stood on holy ground. I’d stumbled upon my Israel.

Who can forget Planet of the Apes? Well, let me rephrase that, for I don’t remember much of it myself. (I was eleven when I saw it on a Saturday matinée at the Greenwich Cinema.) Who can forget the final scene in which Charlton Heston, released at last from the tyrannical society of talking gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans, rides his horse along the wild beach beneath grassy cliffs only to come upon one of the great shocking endings in movie history: the Statue of Liberty half sunken in sand. At that moment both he and I realized that our society had pushed the button of nuclear Armageddon. The worst had happened. At the start of the movie, Heston and his fellow astronauts had been away for two thousand years, though only twenty months for them in their travelers’ time warp, and they’d guessed that they’d crashed on a planet near Orion. They’d encountered wild packs of pre-verbal humans, but not until the final shot of Miss Liberty half sunken and slightly tilted like a ship wreck did I catch on to the Apocalypse. Of course, it was deeply disturbing, perhaps the first time someone had told me the world could end. (Many must get their first exposure to the Apocalypse in church, but I hadn’t gone to Sunday school, not after my parents had dropped out of the Unitarians. Plus, I’d felt an aversion to religion from my earliest years. So you might say that for me The Planet of the Apes was a surrogate Bible story.) Yet, as grim as the movie finale was, on some level I also must have loved it for I’ve been paying good money to see Apocalyptic movies ever since then: Road Warrior, Terminator, even Waterworld, which was Road Warrior remade on the ocean and not half as bad as its advance reputation as a big budget fiasco suggested it would be. As Rise of the Planet of the Apes ended, I was glad to see blood drip from the nose of a poor fellow hurrying through the airport, unwittingly starting to spread a deadly epidemic worldwide. Oh good, I thought, here comes the sequel.

Apocalypse is as American as apple pie, of course. We’re a nation of believers, and we all seem to believe that the world can’t continue the way it is, not if we don’t reform our corrupted behavior. For better of worse, Judgment Day will come. Of course, we bitterly disagree over what will bring on this day, be it God or global warming or whatever grave fear haunts us. But we also take solace. Not only will the Apocalypse prove us right in our warnings, but it will wipe the slate clean of human venality, leaving us to start over to create a good and just society this time. Even as he falls to his knees and pounds the beach with his first in rage at what humanity has done, Charlton Heston has the nobility of a king.

Is it true? Do we ever get a fresh start in life? I’d certainly like to think so. Every New Year’s I make my resolutions. Every so often I start a new diary or calender to record my new efforts to write daily or walk daily or take charge of whatever I’ve gotten slack about. As one month ends and the new one begins I tell myself that this time I’ll get everything done. I’ll make it the bottom of my list. But whom I am kidding? We rarely get a fresh start. We always start in muddle. I’ve grown to suspect that Apocalypse is a false promise. It’s intoxicating, but it’s not going to happen, not outside the movies. I wonder if we’d be better off with out it. If we faced up to the fact that we’re stuck with the world the way it is.

The next morning at Red Rocks I took a long walk up around the cliffs onto the mesa and down into other basins with their own exotically columned walls. I had the area to myself, a landscape that would have been a fantasy come true for capture the flag back in Boy Scouts with its lookouts on the mesa top and hideaways in the cliff alcoves. In Connecticut, where I’d grown up, we’d had to play in woods and yards, making forts out of rhododendrons, always confined and sneaking around, not like here where we would have commanded an open expanse like the cowboys and Indians. Then my daydreams drifted. What if I made my own Planet of the Apes movie? What would it be? Rather than a straight remake, I imagined mine as a story about young Sixties characters who’d driven up from L.A. to work on the Apes set. This would be a Dionysian story of life behind the movie screen where strange things happened around campfires. There might be an elderly Native American woman and a shaman. It would open with a scene of the pushy director having a snit, hollering for somebody to get a shovel to scoop a rattlesnake out of the way so they could start shooting. I chuckled at that one. But I didn’t get any farther in my fantasy. What did I really have to say about Planet of the Apes? That’s the problem with Apocalypse. It’s the end of the discussion.

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