Sunset bison

Sunset bison
Sundogs

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Inside the kiva--now restored

The great kiva at Aztec

What the shaman said (Part 9)

The bluffs are irregular silhouettes swimming against a paler darkness when we three converge on the stove. It soon begins hissing a small blue flame. Chod throws together what passes for breakfast burritos, and as we choke them down by the sterile light of our headlamps I consider petitioning Congress to ban him from ever again cooking Mexican food. The thought of the Blake’s Lottaburger green chile hamburger I’m going to eat at lunch—and the motel later—is a sweet warmth dispelling the 38-degree temperature.

Leaving the others behind, I march to a point overlooking Fajada Butte. Though I hope for an errant sunbeam to strike the peak, it’s a vain hope. There is no dawn, only a gradual shift from black to gray. I wait beside my tripod as sparrows and rabbits stir in the chamisa and the sky brightens and the butte rises like some craggy sentinel, and I wait some more, and finally shoot a series of photographs anyway and hustle back to camp. The others are already packed so I throw myself into knocking down the tent.

Jim wanders over and watches me as I finish jamming my sleeping bag into a stuff sack. Motioning me over to the picnic table, he lays his hand on a large flat stone.

“Shaman says, ‘This stone has been sent by the gods. We must do what it says.’”

I’ve still got work to do but I’m humoring him. All his haranguing about connections between patterns found in the terrain and how people lived has been thought-provoking but I’m a little busy right now. The stone is like any of the millions that have fallen from the cliffs—reddish, rough, fissured. He flips it over.

For a moment I stare stupidly. It’s not just a stone—it’s a blueprint of Pueblo Bonito, the largest of the Chacoan communities, replete with its odd half-moon shape, pocked with dozens of circular indentations like kivas and banded with outlying walls. When I open my mouth to say something nothing comes out. Jim claps me on the on the shoulder, barks a laugh and walks off.

In all the Chaco literature I’ve read there has never been a mention of shamans dictating architectural designs from asymmetrical stones, but here is proof. And I wonder if I could steal the stone, ferret it away as a memento of the shaman’s speech. I don’t, but it’s tempting. We leave it on the table for the next acolyte.

***

North we go, past the occasional hogan with its brush arbor and wooden corral. The land morphs into weird rock formations and colorful banded ridges, the towns all named in a foreign tongue. Traffic picks up as we near Farmington, but we veer off toward Aztec, the northern outpost of Chacoan civilization. If we thought it would be another Chaco, we are sorely mistaken.

Not much remains of the ruin other than a few buildings and several kivas. One has been restored and this surprises me. For some reason it never crossed my mind that the Anasazi would plaster the stone walls with adobe. The kiva is huge, dimly lit by recessed lights, and our entry triggers a recording of Native American dances. Regardless of the interactive music, I’m unable to get a sense for anything other than a lifeless room. The sign at the entrance says “This is a sacred place.” I wonder if die-hard Bible-thumpers are able to make that connection or if their self-righteousness blinds them to the fact that others worshipped differently, if not equally as fervently as themselves.

On the way out of town we pass a Blake’s. My suggestion for an early lunch is soundly nixed. Democracy in action. Mouth slavering, heart rent, I pass on.

***

In Farmington my incorrigible cohorts decide they’re starving. It’s been many years since my last Blake’s green chileburger and my craving knows no bounds. The problem is that there are two codgers and one chilehead in the truck, and that math doesn’t add up to anything favoring my odds. Jim’s not picky but Chod is a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. Self-proclaimed and unrepentant about it, says it drives his wife crazy. I’m beginning to think we should have left Chod at home but since it’s his truck and he’s the chef I probably should just keep my Big Fat Mouth shut. But it’s damned hard.

We pass every kind of restaurant known to man and a few that aren’t. No Blake’s. The edge of town is coming up and we’re too tired to turn around so when we spot an Arby’s I’m commanded to pull over. Inwardly I’m gnashing my teeth and rending my garments.

As we eat our tasteless fodder we puzzle over how to head south out of town. Chod finally gets up and asks two burly dudes if they know. When he comes back he’s wearing a predatory leer.

“They say to go straight on this road and turn left at the Blake’s Lottaburger,” Chod says. He’s clearly savoring this moment.

I stop masticating mid-chew. “You’re screwing with me,” I stammer.

“I kid you not!” Mr. Innocence leaps to his feet and strides over to the pair. “Tell him where to turn,” he insists. They look at me as if I’m some kind of dweeb and say, “At the Lottaburger.”

The look on my face is cause for great hilarity. Jim’s croaking like a raven and may well be choking on his sandwich. Chod is all teeth.

Slowly, ever so slowly, I bow my head and bang it on the table.

When we get in the truck and head off, Chod says, “Notice what I did? I asked for directions. They say men never ask for directions.”

“Yeah,” I say, “but you’re the one who went to the ‘Becoming an Outdoor Woman’ thing. What does that mean?”

“I was there as an instructor,” Chod says. His voice has an edge to it.

“You wear such a lovely shade of mascara,” I say.

So much for Blake’s, and so much for men asking directions.

(Continued next week)

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Where the moon stands still (Part 8)

Solstice, eclipse, equinox, standstill. If the Chacoans expressed their lives in the long slow arc of the moon and sun across the celestial horizons, ours is the opposite extreme—a race to beat the sun. Already descendant, it falls into a west rapidly clouding over. Shadows creep across the face of Fajada Butte, pool in tree-choked Chaco Wash. We pile into the truck and head deeper into the canyon, binoculars and cameras ready.

By the time we reach the visitor center I know that everything I’d hoped for hangs on that narrowing interstice between the horizon and the pendant yellow dwarf. As I stop to look at a small butterfly a surge of apprehension jolts me; here is a new species, and there, in the truck, is my field guide, and over there, quickly disappearing over a rise, are my partners. In the distance a cluster of ruins stand out like broken teeth against a glyphic, carved cliff. Una Vida. The witchcraft woman’s house, according to the Navajos. Could she witch me more time? Legends say that Jacob commanded the sun to stand still, but in this desert place the gods have fallen silent. One last look at the butterfly and I’m scurrying up the trail. Incrementally, heartbeat by heartbeat, time and hope slip away.

***

White-crowned sparrows flee the truck, interrupting our motion with regularity. Jim mutters something vile and announces that he needs a sage sparrow. Hungo Pavi passes with barely a glance. When a bird flies up to perch on a tall bush I yell for him to stop and clap the binos to it. Dark gray mantle, broad white throat stripe, eye-ring—“Sage sparrow,” I chime.

Silence falls as we study the bird.

“That’s a northern shrike,” Jim says. His tone expresses grievous doubt about my birding skills. I’m immediately on the defensive, remembering too clearly the shiver as the prairie dog went under the tires.

“Are you nuts?” I seethe. “How can you mistake a sage sparrow for a shrike?”

“Because I’m looking at a shrike!” he snaps.

Jim’s something of a legend in Kansas birding circles but we aren’t in Kansas anymore. I’m aghast that he could be so—wrong.

Following his line of sight I see a shrike not twenty feet from the sparrow. “Pan right,” I tell him. He does, pauses, and says, “Nice.”

Indeed it is, and the satisfaction of finding him the bird momentarily eclipses the sting from his judgmental attitude. Though the two of us haven’t birded much together before, I know that beneath that gruff, curmudgeonly shell there’s a warm and generous nature. The problem is breaking though that gruff, curmudgeonly shell.

He lowers his binoculars and turns to thank me. His eyes are startling pale, like ice melting in the sun, made paler still by a ruddy face capped with a white shock of unruly hair. A slight smile plays on his lips. Score one for the youngest member of this irascible, crotchety trio.

***

And here at last is Chetro Ketl, whose fabled wall forms an axis from the minor lunar standstill to distant Kin Bineola and Pueblo Pintado and beyond. What once was five stories tall is now rubble, and the sun is falling fast. Chetro Ketl, where I thought to feel the power of something I cannot name, now witnessed through fast footwork and the shutter of a camera. We’re there and gone before it even registers.

A small crowd follows a park ranger into Pueblo Bonito, the largest of the Chacoan great houses, so we bypass it in favor of nearby Kin Kletso. As Jim stays near the truck to bird, Chod and I hightail it past the ruins to a narrow incline leading to a notch in the cliff. The first fifty feet are almost straight up and there are no ropes or rails to assist. Near the entrance I look down and shudder. “That isn’t going to be fun,” I say.

“It’s easier going down,” Chod says.

“You haven’t looked down yet,” I remark. We squeeze through the cleft and break out atop the bluff. A pair of youthful hikers confronts us.

“You’re going to run out of light,” they say. The sun lower now.

“We’ll make it,” Chod says, setting off at a grueling pace. The next group of hikers makes the same comment. I’m getting irritated. Do we look too old to make it to the overlook, a distance of only a mile? Loosely following the edge of the cliff, we zigzag past cairns until the half-moon shape of Pueblo Bonito appears far below. Jim waves at us, no larger than an ant on the valley floor. Shutters whir. Cottonwoods lining the wash glow golden in the slanting sun.

We’re halfway down the notch when I mention how I wish we could stay longer. Chod says, “This is a month-long trip squeezed into one week.” Yes, and more’s the pity. And contrary to Chod’s placatory musings, he does not skip lightly down the fractured detritus of the escarpment like some two-legged bighorn sheep. His descent, like mine, is largely made on his butt.

***

Another sleepless night. As I toss and turn and fight my sleeping bag, it comes to me that Chaco is a sacred place, a place of power, the center of a civilization that extended hundreds of miles outward like spokes of a wheel. In the end, it is a place of forgetting, and of remembering.

Lately I’ve been transcribing my old diaries of the first years of our marriage. The entries were sickening, with me preoccupied with myself, living a twisted macho fantasy where I pitted myself against criminals and always prevailed. I often wondered if it would be best to burn them.

The people of Chaco knew the paths of the sun and moon. Such knowledge was not gained lightly. Nor was that in my story. In the dark emptiness of night I feel the bad memories slip away, as if in this holy place they have no hold over me. I see Lori standing at the bridge above the Rio Grande, the sun in her hair. I see her waiting for me at home. Like the Chacoans who left here so long ago, I, too, know where my sun rises and where it sets.

(Continued next week)

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Home sweet home one more night

Guardians of the gate: the entrance into Chaco Canyon

Descent into the center place (Part 7)

Chod’s thermometer reads 20 degrees in the predawn darkness. There’s frost on the tent, in the tent, glistening on the truck. Our breath flares in great clouds that glow ghostly in our headlamps. Greeting him as he prepares breakfast, I kick in with my cold-weather whining as only I can do.

He listens as he stirs the sausage, a slow grin spreading like an oil spill across his whiskered face. “Sissy,” he says.

I remind him who was too wimpy to eat the fiery enchiladas in Raton. “I am a sissy when it comes to cold,” I snarl. “Remember, I’m a desert dog.”

Jim joins us. He looks more tired than when he went to bed last night. “Don’t you ever stop complaining?” he asks.

“Why stop now?”

Though the coffee is hot enough to melt lead we gulp it down in shuddering gasps. There is only the tiniest hint of light in the east. Chod hands us each a plate and we chow down. I learn what it is to eat biscuits and gravy in subfreezing temperatures. Hint: hold plate to mouth, shovel food into maw, chew when plate is empty.

***

Northward now, the early sun slanting hard through the cottonwoods lining the Rio Chama. A few miles upstream we pass a hotel advertising hot tubs. Our heads swivel in unison as we drive by. Nobody says a word but it’s clear that we’re all imagining how last night could have been different.

There’s a palpable sense of anticipation or expectancy this morning, as if everything we’d seen, every place we’d visited, mere prelude to what would come, mere roving southwestward, traversing the “empty space” between. From the onset the voyage of the codgernauts was fixed on the ruins of those who came before, the Anasazi, spread across the San Juan Basin throughout three states and two nations. And now, turning west from Chama, we descend from the Continental Divide into the Jicarilla Apache Reservation, ponderosas giving way to junipers, fur-clad peaks to flat-topped buttes, and we all, in our way, leaning forward to see what awaits around each bend.

Around one such bend a prairie dog wanders into the road and is promptly flattened. I’m appalled. Jim acts like he’s surprised to feel it under the treads, yet I saw the beast a hundred yards off. “Are you blind?” I ask. Chod and Jim find this hilarious, so I scrunch down into my seat and sulk. Jerks.

Buttes give way to vast stretches of wasteland the color of old mustard stains, crisscrossed web-like by dirt scrapes angling off to oil fields, derricks and storage tanks. Our conversation turns to how the white man relegated the Jicarillas to this heat-blasted sinkhole, only to discover untold mineral wealth beneath the barren soil. Oops. Who’s laughing now? And yet the few towns we pass show little sign of wealth of any kind, with government housing being the only structures halfway decent. Everything’s coated with a patina of despair and neglect.

I chart a shortcut to Nageezi, where I hope to buy Lori something at the trading post, but first we pass Teepee Junction, a compact gambling complex crafted from white plastic sheeting. As if still shell-shocked by the Taos earthships, Jim says nothing of the cheesy architecture. The parking lot at Nageezi is empty except for a single car. When I step from the truck a stout Navajo girl talking on the pay phone shakes her head. Victim to the plastic tarp. Ditto for 44 Store a few miles farther north. We turn back, leave the pavement and immediately begin losing altitude. The outside temperature rises into the sixties. An occasional octagonal hogan dots the horizon but otherwise there is only sand and bunchgrass. If not for the placement of the hogan’s single door, which always faces east, directions would be impossible.

Eighteen miles of dirt road leads us to a pair of sandstone hoodoos. Framed between them is the distant crown of Fajada Butte. I center the trio in the viewfinder and twist the polarizer filter. Thin cirrus clouds leap out of a sky gone indigo. A tuft of gray fur, a bloody-edged bone splay out on the nearest stone, almost sacrificial, relic of the once-alive, now spirit. As spirits are everywhere here, tangible in the shifting breeze, in the stark silences, in the vast blue dome of sky the ancients knew so intimately. The shutter snaps. And for a moment I wonder what I could bring to this hallowed place, what offering, but I can think of nothing but my self: marrow and blood, breath and bone, heart, spirit, soul, reverence. The others are waiting at the truck. I breathe a silent prayer to the gods of this place and join them. The road to Chetro Ketl takes us in. My heart is singing.

***

After finding a suitable campsite we eat a quick lunch and pitch our tents. They’re still rimed with frost, but the warm sun rapidly dries them. Inside is warmer than I could have imagined or wished for early this morning. It’s better than a hot tub, but I know it won’t last.

There’s also another option: the bathroom has a heater. If necessary I’ll spend the night there, and if someone has to use the toilet they can step around me.

The heat makes us ripe. Other campers look fresh and neat, their clothes crisp and pressed, and us rumpled, wrinkled, frowzled, fetid. It looks like we slept in our clothes.

Come to think of it, we did sleep in our clothes.

From frostbite to sunburn, it’s a day of extremes. I slap on my wide-brimmed Tilley hat to protect my ears. Jim smirks and says, “Now you look like a birder.” Somehow I don’t think it’s a compliment.

(Continued next week)

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Night without end, amen (Part 6)

I’ve enjoyed camping since I was knee-high to a collard lizard, and I’ve done just about every kind a person can imagine short of tent camping in winter. Which is exactly what we’ve preparing for, a fact that gives me pause. But I learned long ago that enduring cold weather is as much psychological as it is physical. If you want to do something bad enough, the cold will have little effect. The physical part can be dealt with by layering. I’ve taken long walks in white-outs and sub-zero temperatures and barely felt discomforted, so this should be a piece of cake. No worries here.

Our tents pitched, Chod turns to his duties as head chef. Ham and beans is the menu but I eschew it in favor of burned Wranglers, not because of any lack of trust in Chod’s culinary arts but because beans pose frightful consequences for me. A layer of yellowed pine needles, another of small twigs, crisscrossed by larger sticks, two matches and in short order the hotdogs are turning black.

The smirk on Chod’s face lets me know how he feels about that second match. Self-righteous Boy Scout leaders anyway. I’m suddenly reminded of my older brother, who could light a fire with a single match but only after adding copious quantities of combustible liquids. Orbiting satellites could witness his handiwork.

Under the disapproving stares of my companions I slit each Wrangler lengthwise and lay down a thick bead of habanero mustard. A cold beer and scalding coffee wash them down. Excellent.

At dusk Chod lights a small fire. Ever the show-off, he uses only one match. Canadas sound from the lake, preparing for night. The late-October sun is down far too soon. What does that leave for us to do, talk? We’ve talked all day. Jim slips off to his tent, and shortly after Chod and I retire to our own nylon domiciles. I’m developing a new appreciation for my camper, with its lights, oven, four-burner stove and, best of all, forced-air furnace.

It’s ironic that for months I’ve said that if I ever had another vacation I’d sleep straight through. Here’s my chance and I’m not pleased. It goes to show that some people are never happy. A sentiment essential to the codgernaut manifesto: find fault, complain often, bicker without end.

***

Lori asked, Will I hear from you every day, and I said, I don’t think so. I’ll call from motels, otherwise we’ll be in the boonies. But if some night you hear the echo of an agonized bellow, it’ll be me crawling into my sleeping bag.

My screams are confined to my mind, I believe. (Neither Chod nor Jim hear anything, or if they do nothing is mentioned the next morning, and they’re the type that go for the jugular at the first hint of weakness.) Though I’m layered with polypro long johns, cotton sweats and a fleece hat, it’s still like being mummified in a freezer. I stuff my pillow in the bag’s opening and dunk my head like a turtle in its shell. It’ll warm quickly, I promise myself. The bag, narrow at the feet and shoulders to prevent cold spots, is rated to 15 degrees, which should be plenty warm enough.

Nor am I concerned about things that go bump in the night. Being buried so deeply precludes hearing anything other than the chattering of my teeth.

The pillow pops out. I wrestle it back, bunching up my clothes and skewing my hat. The bag’s narrowness makes straightening them impossible. Turning over is an exercise in futility and knocks the bag off the mattress. In spite of these thrashings I eventually doze off. I think.

A frigid stream of air down my spine wakes me. Wrestling the pillow back into place twists my clothes into more knots and shoves the hat over my eyes. Again I slide off the mattress. Silently cursing, I duck my head back into the bag and try to relax. I’m freezing.

Why hasn’t the bag warmed up? In the past Lori and I always had our bags zipped together, and the warmth of two bodies was more than adequate. Now I feel like a boa constrictor is squeezing me to death.

I can do this if I set my mind to it. We have a full week ahead of us with camping every night. It’s simply a matter of psychology.

I’ve lost feeling in my extremities. Psychology, my ass.

***

Later, in the darkness, comes the subtle murmur that inevitably croons me awake, either sooner or later depending on the amount of liquids consumed and the ambient temperature, one which is high and the other very low.

Go away, I say.

No. It’s time.

It can wait.

Ah, but for how long? Remember, you have to crawl out of your bag, get dressed, unzip the door and crawl out. That’s a lot of contortion on a full bladder.

Beat it.

I’ll be back.

And so it is. Though it pains me to reach an arm out of the bag, I check my watch. No way can I make it through the night.

Outside I hear a zipper and the pad of footsteps. One of the others had the same argument and lost.

I finally roll out of my bag. The cold is unbearable. My boots are like ice packs, my jacket stiff with frost. Opening the door unleashes a deeper wave of Arctic air. I debouch into sandy soil and straighten to the stupefying display of the night sky, the millions of stars etched diamond-sharp against a velvet black, the spiral galaxies, supernovas, red giants and yellow dwarfs, the double stars in the crook of the Big Dipper, the fuzzy Seven Sisters, each momentarily obscured by billowing plumes of exhalation. For a moment I feel nothing but awe.

The emotion is short-lived. Back in the tent, zip the door shut, burrow into the bag, stuff the pillow into the opening, hunker down. The pillow pops out. Tent camping sucks.

(To be continued)

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Tierra Amarilla across the Rio Chama

Across the riven land (Part 5)

It’s hard to feel morose when crossing the sage flats of northern New Mexico, so soon enough I rouse myself to tell Jim that if he thought the view from the cliff’s edge at Wild Rivers was good, he should see it from the bridge outside of Taos. Chod mercifully says nothing, for I’m being a real dope here. My half-hearted map-checking of our itinerary apparently enlightened me not at all, for as we wend our way southward I realize our trajectory will skirt Taos and leap the Cañon del Rio Grande.

Good Lord, my heart’s getting hammered. How much of this can I take?

The emotional whipsaw now lashes me another direction. Thirty-three years ago Lori and I walked out onto the selfsame bridge, newlyweds of less than 24 hours, and here I am without her. I had no idea us codgernauts would be here and the suddenness is a fist to the gut. Ironically, prior to our departure Lori asked if the others knew what they were getting into by inviting me. The question should have been if I knew what I was getting into.

Thinking of her brings a smile and a sense of peace. The mood-setting CD is still playing but it’s become an aggravation. At my request Chod ejects it.

Jim says he’s always wanted to see Taos. I tell him he wouldn’t like it. Noise, congestion, it’s too expensive, everybody acts like a celebrity. But I’m not sure he believes me.

The bridge, though is mind-boggling. It’s the second highest cantilever bridge in the nation, a delicate silver arch stretching 500 feet from rim to rim and 650 feet above the emerald Rio Grande.

Sullying its splendor is a bloodclot of vendors lining the parking lot. Fronting them is a brown-skinned man with an old beater car covered with vegetables. He’s flailing a guitar and loudly shilling folk tunes while staring vacuously into space. A beautiful black woman twists into a lotus position atop her vehicle, eyes closed in meditation, as her boyfriend hawks cheap silver jewelry, his ragged clothing and waist-long blonde dreadlocks doing little to entice customers. The others are equally bizarre.

“These people inhabit a world of their own,” Jim muses.

We steer clear and step onto the bridge. It’s something like walking on air. Flexing and thrumming with each passing vehicle, the span transmits an electric vibration that sizzles from sole to gut. People approach the railing like it’s an optical illusion, uncertain of its solidity until their fingers grasp the cold steel. And grasp it they do, vertiginous, giddy, almost queasy.

We were so young. I remember her standing there braced against the rail, eyes shining, long hair fanning in the wind, a smile that encompassed all possibilities and all futures. If there were others with us I can’t remember. There was only her. And now—bad singing, cheap trinkets, tourists dressed like celebrities, old geezers for company. Such a future I could never imagine.

But I wonder if these memories are carried by us alone or if the past is ingrained within these steel beams, these basalt walls, only to be released at the right impetus. Such as me looking around for her. Camera shutters snap like a gaggle of paparazzi. Tourists crowd the rail. Without her it’s just a big empty hole.

***

West of the bridge we encounter the first “earthship” communities. Self-sustaining, energy independent, constructed of recycled materials, theoretically they’re the future of housing in a world depleted of resources. But mostly they’re grotesque conglomerates of part-berm, part-fantasy structures like hobbit holes only far more ornate, festooned with turrets, pennants and colors like rainbows on steroids.

In keeping with the spirit of the codgernauts, Jim becomes incensed at the sight.

“It’s too much,” he gripes, hammering on the dash. “Simple is elegant! Why don’t they get it?”

His idea of architecture is the adobe casas we occasionally drive past, with dark-wooded vegas and smooth earthen walls melding into the landscape, or the Taos Pueblo, which can be seen in the distance. The natural colors are seamless with the golden cottonwoods outlined against a turquoise sky. These fever-dream monstrosities only vie with their neighbors for outlandishness.

I can’t be certain but I sense a change in Jim. If the sight of housing fashioned from old tires and beer cans arouses his ire, those made from the earth itself creates a deep resonance. It’s more complex than simple shade and hue, or primitive nostalgia, but centers on being one with the land, as integral as the aromatic sage, the gnarled juniper or the rounded knoll of San Antonio Mountain. He grows silent as we leave Taos behind, climb a saddle and disappear across the riven land.

***

A sign outside Tierra Amarilla shows a Che Guevara-like head and the words, “Tierra o muerte.” Land or death. It’s a sentiment dating over a hundred years, fueled by the outright robbery of land grants issued by the Spanish crown. On June 5, 1967, this tiny New Mexican village was the focal point of the struggle to return land to its rightful heirs when Reies Tijerina, leader of the La Alianza movement, raided the Rio Arriba Courthouse to free several of the group’s members. In the ensuing kerfuffle two law enforcement officers were shot, followed in short order by the largest manhunt in the state’s history.

My family’s sentiments then were common to the Anglo Republican elites we thought ourselves to be: kill them all. Only after living in Las Vegas did I realize there was complete justification for the uprising. My sympathies still lie with the locals, but I wonder if they know that.

Heron Lake State Park is only a few miles away. We find a level site to pitch our tents and set to it as shadows lengthen. The camping part of our trip is finally here.

(To be continued)

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

San Antonio Mountain and the distant Sangre de Christos

Far below, the confluence of the Red and the Rio Grande

Jim Mayhew stands at edge of the Rio Grande gorge

Revelations at a confluence (Part 4)

The third day almost ends before it begins. A deer wanders into the road in the predawn darkness a few miles southwest of Raton. Chod sees it at the last minute, brakes hard, swerves and misses. And brakes again for another a quarter-mile away. The road’s a veritable playground for mulies, and we don’t let down our guard until the rising sun bathes the foothills in light.

We’re entering a part of the state that New Mexicans cede to outsiders, both reviled Texans (among whom my family is unfortunately numbered, though in fairness we’d had the good sense to renounce the faith by relocating to the mountainous West—lapsed Texans, that’s us) and Boy Scouts. Chod drives through Philmont Scout Ranch to show Jim around and provides a running commentary on its history and purpose. In 1922 Wade Phillips, an Oklahoma oil baron, bought 300,000 acres of mountains and plains and then donated a sizeable portion of it to the Scouts. It was an incredible act of largess, and perhaps a tidy tax deduction, but I really wish he’d passed it down to my family.

“Whoever said ‘money can’t buy happiness’ didn’t know where to shop,” I say as we coast past the palatial grounds of the main lodge.

In stark contrast is the tiny town of Cimarron, just outside the entrance. Inundated each summer with a zillion uniform-clad kids and their chaperones, it’s put to sleep in early September like some droopy-eyed bear. Now at October’s demise it quietly slumbers as the river sidles by, low and clear. Other than a gathering of vehicles in front of the James Hotel, a historic outpost on the Santa Fe Trail whose ceiling still bears bullet wounds from the 1800s, the town appears deserted. We keep our voices low as if concerned some merchant or resident be roused to open their curtains onto a bright sunny morning and wonder what the ruckus is, and us disappeared without a trace.

The prairie behind, we ascend along the Cimarron River. Westward now, the canyon narrow and shaded. It looks familiar as all such canyons do, a thin forested band with a jumble of boulders foaming with whitewater and cliffs anchoring a blue sky. Jim yet harangues us about not telling him about this country. To nobody I say, “For most of my life I took this scenery for granted.”

Indeed. And now it’s as if I’m seeing it for the first time. Though there’s a part of me that deeply yearns for it, it’s odd how little effect entering the foothills has. Not at all like I suspected it would be, and certainly not the emotional upheaval I briefly brushed against at the top of Capulin. But I haven’t seen snow-capped peaks yet, which is another beast altogether.

When we do, Chod asks, “Now?”

“Not yet,” I say.

In my tote is a CD recorded for just this occasion. Actually it’s the soundtrack to the PBS special “The Way West,” but somehow over the years its central theme has come to encompass every emotional nuance associated with the West condensed into one achingly beautiful melody. But something holds me back.

We pass Eagle’s Nest and descend into Red River. From afar the town looks ridiculously narrow, squeezed between the narrow walls of the canyon. The main street is lined with ticky-tacky stores geared toward stealing one’s hard-earned money, and this is evident even in the grocery store where the cost of a pack of hot dog buns stuns me. Even the snacks are outrageous. I decide I don’t need anything that bad. It’s a relief to leave, and mentally I shake off its dust from my boots. If I had to choose between Red River and the howling wastes of Sharon Springs, Kansas, it would be no contest. Sharon Springs might be depressingly desolate but at least it’s authentic.

***

There’s a surprise waiting for me when we clear the foothills and enter a wide valley of sage and stone. On the northern horizon juts the tall rounded dome of San Antonio Mountain, an integral part of my childhood topography. Thinking of the dozens of times my family drove past it on our way to southern Colorado leads inevitably to thoughts of my parents, whom I haven’t seen in over three years.

The feeling intensifies as we enter Wild Rivers Recreation Area, an area they often recommend to me. After a hurried lunch hunkered down in a shelter, punctuated by a flurry of excitement as a Clark’s nutcracker flies overhead—a lifebird for Jim—we follow the road to its conclusion on a spear of land sandwiched between two vast gorges. The Red River rolls in on our left and the Rio Grande on our right, and the sound of their currents conjoining is muted by the jagged basalt walls into a soft mournful sigh like wind in pines on a moonlit night.

The enormity of the geological spectacle makes it difficult for the eyes to linger on any one thing, but rivers have always fascinated me and confluences most of all, and here are two fabled rivers becoming one. Leaning over the railing until I grow dizzy, I spy a flash of color below. A flock of pinyon jays skirt the base of the cliff, their raucous cries merging with the rivers to become one wild, untamed sound.

Again I’m reminded of my father. He once related a story of how as taps played at the military funeral of a friend, a lone pinyon jay perched in a nearby tree called and called as if in some primitive response, and how forever afterward the jay held a special place in his heart. Plus there’s the fact that my hanging over this railing with a pair of binoculars draped around my neck is mostly attributable to his influence.

Leaving, I dip into the tote and bring out the CD.

“Now’s a good time,” I say.

The opening strains rip open whatever armor I’d placed over my emotions. It’s not mountains I’ve lost but family, I suddenly realize, and as we drive away my eyes fix on the distant snowy peaks as the pinyon pines, junipers, chamisa and sage flow by in an endless loop, as if they were in motion and not us. The others are respectfully silent. Within me something collapses. I am undone.

(Continued next week)

Friday, November 17, 2006

End of the road in Cottonwood Canyon

The view from Capulin Volcano, New Mexico

Chod at Carrizo Canyon

Petroglyphs at Carrizo Canyon, Colorado

Places known only to the heart (Part 3)

Comes dawn, comes wind, comes a cold drizzle. We load the truck in the dark and eat a quick flavorless breakfast. The streets of Lamar are deserted, ghostly in a gray, unforgiving gloom. Leaving town we pass the last fringes of civilization and enter a land as rawboned and wild as it was the day after creation. The few houses we encounter lean empty-eyed and hollow, skeletal remains of failed dreams. Here at the southeastern corner of Colorado the land is merciless. It takes no prisoners. And at best it allows, grudgingly, the imposition of a paved ribbon of highway rising and falling on its stark, barren back.

West of Pritchard we run into snow flurries on a raking gale. I’m poring over an atlas, trying to decipher the maze of interconnected lines, most of which are barely visible in the fading light. It’s not a matter of finding a way to Cottonwood Canyon but of finding a way from Carrizo Canyon, which lies to the east. When I realize we’ve gone too far, Jim turns back. We settle on a dirt road that looks not at all familiar, but it’s been fifteen years since I’ve been here. Nothing has changed but me. We head south.

The road dies at an intersection marked by a collapsing stone house. And suddenly, like an epiphany, I know where we’re at. Two miles more and we see a small wooden sign pointing to Carrizo Canyon. The road narrows into a thin track scraped through cholla cactus and the first fringes of pinyons and junipers. A flock of mountain bluebirds flash by, impossibly blue. We bump through shallow washes and wind upward to the high ground, where the land falls away into deep chasms and rocky gorges. The transition is startling, even when you know what to expect.

A rocky trail leads us into the canyon. Snow is blowing sideways but the clouds overhead are breaking apart. We cross the stream, a clear, spring-fed rivulet pooled between huge blocks dislodged from the cliffs, and climb through Gambel’s oaks to a sheltered spot beneath the crest of a ridge. On a flat slab varnished to a deep oily black are etchings of bighorn sheep, or elk, or fabulous creatures of a prehistoric imagination.

“These are new, right?” Jim asks. They look it, but actually are hundreds of years old. We stare at them in silence. For the first time we get an inkling of the age of humanity in our native country, and all the empty-eyed houses, the rotting corrals, the tottering fence posts, are nothing more than remnants of a time nearer to us than yesterday.

***

“Oh my Lord,” I say. “I could live here forever and never leave.”

I’m standing behind a hand-hewn cabin moldering back into the soil of a minor side draw off Cottonwood Canyon. The skies to the south are Oklahoman. A stone wall, now collapsed in places, shows a linearity out of place in such jumbled terrain. Set back in the trees is a corral, and below, in an oak-shaded gully, runs a trickle of water, the green shoots of watercress vivid against banks carpeted with fallen leaves. Dark clouds scud overhead. An occasional Chihuahuan raven soars by.

I walk to the stone wall and sit on a large flat rock. It provides an unobstructed view of the old cabin and the high walls of the canyon. A canyon wren scolds. Oh my Lord. My emotions suddenly raw, tears a blink, a thought, away.

It’s like coming home only different, a return to a place I had once loved more than home. From the first time I saw this cabin I’d felt an affinity for it, as if I’d lived there in another life. Each visit was the same, and as powerful, but then we’d stopped coming and finally left Colorado for the prairie, and the years had swept away its memory. Until now. Chod goes searching for the wren. I hunch over, queasy with yearning.

I’m weighing the feasibility of having them leave me here when Chod returns.
Reluctantly I join him as we climb over the wall and hike back to the truck. My feet are leaden, each step a betrayal.

***

A new emotion filters in. If Cottonwood Canyon affected me so strongly, how will I fare when seeing the mountains? I’m soon to find out as we cross into northern New Mexico. The road gains altitude, winding between buttes and low ridges, until the peak of Mount Capulin juts into view. We drive through Folsom, a town so lovely we barely keep to the road, our heads swiveling madly.

“How come I didn’t know about this country?” Jim demands, but we have no reply. He’s practically speechless, a comical change of pace.

His silence grows deeper at the sight of northern New Mexico as seen from atop the dormant volcano. Here the vista is on a grand scale, a raven’s eye view, gazing down on the broad sweep of pressure ridges, flat-topped buttes, treeless mesas and the snow-dusted slopes of Sierra Grande. And, more important to my state of being, the distant Sangre de Christos, half-veiled by storm clouds and not dusted with snow, not whitened, but buried, vertical snowfields fulgent in the afternoon sunlight. My pulse races. Though the climb to the pinnacle of the volcano was tough, mostly due to the frigid gale blowing from the north, all that comes to mind is a fragment of Whitman’s poem: O my soul. O my soul.

And I wonder for a moment if I can ever again be content in Kansas.

***

We decide to stay the night in Raton rather than pitch tents in 24-degree weather, which is forecast. At the hotel Jim and Chod make themselves comfortable, curtains drawn to the rarified autumnal air of New Mexico. I drift outside and find a Say’s phoebe plus a small flock of pine siskins. The falling light lies golden on the cottonwoods and chamisa. How could I have ever left?

My emotions are on overload. Lord, I’m tired. And tomorrow we cross the mountains…

(Continued next week)

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Anatomy of a journey: settling in for the long haul (Part 2)

This is the part I always forget about long-distance travel: the bonedeep weariness, the unrelenting boredom, the sense that time has slowed to a crawl. If the landscape had some defining feature it would be easier, but out here past Sharon Springs, Kansas, there’s nothing. It’s not flat, boring and ugly, it’s just flat and boring. A distant cow is the tallest thing around. If not for the clouds swallowing the blue sky I’d be tempted to believe we were going in circles. Same cow, same fencepost, same abandoned ruin, same prairie dog. The odometer claims we’re moving, but I’m hard pressed to believe it.

“I’d hate to spend a winter here,” Chod says.

“Or a summer,” Jim adds.

Or a spring or autumn. One would have to love the land to make a home here, to see something other than utter desolation in fields plowed to the horizon, or close-cropped by hungry ungulates. Not that there’s much grass to eat. Or anything else for that matter. Out here it’s all sky and wind and little else. It takes a certain breed of person to carve a life from a land stripped to its basics. I’m certainly not cut out for it. In fact, I wonder what my impression of the state would have been had Lori introduced me to Wallace, or Page, or Sharon Springs. Somehow I think we’d still be living in Colorado.

When I get home I’m going to hug a tree.

***

Chod’s telling Jim about a store in Cimarron, New Mexico, that caters to the massive influx each summer of Boy Scouts to the nearby Philmont Ranch. My fellow codgernauts are scout masters, and their entreaty that I volunteer to lead a pack of impressionable young men would be laughable were it not for their earnestness. “It’ll make you feel younger,” Jim says.

“I prefer to age gracelessly,” I snap.

Chod says the banana splits are heavenly, the best he’s ever tasted. When the scouts come off the mountain after backpacking a hundred miles they hit the place hard and eat everything in sight.

“I would, too,” I say. “I’d have a beer float.”

An awkward silence descends. Jim studies me out the corner of his eye. Chod shakes his head.

“You are screwed up,” Jim snorts. “That’s why I like you—you make the rest of us look normal.”

When we hit the time zone we set our watches back an hour. For a long time there’s just the whine of the tires and the hum of the motor. Cow. Fencepost. Ruin. Prairie dog. Cow.

***

We haven’t been on the road for a full day and already my plan is unraveling.

In preparation for this trip I rented “Jason and the Argonauts.” As a kid I thought it the best movie ever made, with thrilling swordfights, skeletal warriors, a gigantic metal Cyclops, the Hydra, the Golden Fleece, etc. There was something about the Argonauts that stuck in my mind and made me, decades later, want to inaugurate our trip along the same lines. But why were Jason’s men called Argonauts? And how could I adapt it so it would adequately describe the nature of our adventure?

The movie, alas, was almost painful to watch. “Argonauts” derived from the ship, which was called the Argo. Since we three are older and more crotchety than the young members of Jason’s crew, I settled on a translation of codgernauts, or curmudgeonauts. Personally I preferred the latter but found it unwieldy. When I realized we’d have to name our vessel in order for the scheme to work, I almost gave up. A white Chevy pickup named Codger? Wouldn’t fly.

On the console between the two front seats is an envelope with the words “Receipts for geezer trip” written in bold letters. Chod is evidently thinking along the same lines. My problem is that I don’t consider myself a geezer. As Chod and Jim are both a decade older than me, they certainly classify as geezers. But me—I’m a young thing.

But I am a codger, and a curmudgeon, and I know my partners are, too. Age teaches us to adapt, whether by begging, borrowing or stealing. I call it blending. Taking the best of both definitions (“eccentric,” “old,” “ill-tempered,” “full of resentment and stubborn notions”), in spirit if not in letter, I settle for codgernauts.

I secretly think the others find the term ridiculous, but they’re ill-tempered old farts so I’m going to ignore them.

***

The Arkansas River Valley of southeastern Colorado, cottonwoods tinged with yellow and orange, broad fields bracketed by acequias, the Hispanic influence at play. Someone forgot to tell the cartographers that this part of the state belongs to New Mexico. I’m on home turf now. My pulse quickens. The sun touches the horizon.

In Lamar, we’re three to a room, Chod on the floor in his sleeping bag and pad, Jim and I with our own queen-sized beds. We unpack, trying not to breathe too deeply of the manure-infused air, and walk across the highway to a steakhouse. The food’s excellent, worth every mile of the drive.

Now we’re back in the hotel, Jim’s asleep and Chod’s watching the Weather Channel for tomorrow’s forecast. The smiling face says there’s a 30% chance of rain and snow showers tonight, tapering off with a high of 57 tomorrow.

I call Lori. As always her voice turns me inside out. It’s awkward talking to her with the others in the room, but we’re all friends and this seems to be the norm. Sheba, Lori says, is sulking under the table. Wants nothing to do with her. Wants me. She isn’t the only girl in the house with that problem.

(Continued next week)

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Beginnings and the flow of time (Part 1)

Time is linear; memories are not.

Photographs can be, when viewed in the sequence they were taken. But that, too, is not assured. The eye, like the mind, roams wild as the pronghorns west of Sharon Springs, and as light-footed. When I open the folder on my computer where I store digital photos, I’m offered a choice of dates. If I click on the first day of our trip, a Friday, I see one image, that of Chod Hedinger walking along the shoulder of I-70 west of Junction City to retrieve a lid blown off a plastic tub. But when I click on the second day, several dozen images are available, and my eye grazes those with the most color, contrast and resonance. The regulated flow of time becomes like a braided creek. Which is the main channel? It doesn’t matter. Each rivulet is a part and a whole. So, too, our memories and our stories.

But every tale does have a beginning, or several beginnings, and if I had to choose one this would be it: We headed west, me looking for familiar territory and a canyon haunted with more questions than answers, Chod for photographs, new birds and new country, and Jim Mayhew for all the above and more. Jim, the incidental shaman. Shaman says, This rock fell from the sky. It’s a message from the gods. This is what we must do. Jim holds up an ordinary stone like the millions of others that have fallen from the cliffs, and flips it over. The cynic, half-listening while stuffing his tent into its carry sack, takes one look and freezes. Everything he knows or thought he knows suddenly moot.

There—I’ve already lost my place. This might be more difficult than I thought.

When does the beginning begin? When a plan is first conceived or proposed, or when action transforms an idea into reality? I can’t be certain; there’s that stone to consider. For months we three had a plan, an itinerary, shifting, fluid, as meticulous and uncertain as words on paper can be, and as inconsequential. And until the last moment, when I locked the door and stepped into a warm morning, the trip didn’t seem real. It was as if I’d been playing a sort of make-believe, or wishful thinking, and beneath the barely-realized imagery was the idea that I wasn’t really going at all, not because of the lateness of the timing or that I’d agreed to take my first vacation in three years without Lori along, but because I wasn’t worthy of going. That the horizons of my new life were encompassed with work and more work, that work was all that was allowed to me. And then I rubbed Sheba for the last time, shut the door and drove away.

That, too, was a beginning. Maybe the real one, or a side channel, it’s hard to tell from my perspective at the conclusion. Or the beginning. Shaman says…At any rate, it’s what the eye settles upon.

The mid-morning sun slanted through the clouds and burned the transmission poles outside Waterville into a long, graceful curve of bone-white crosses, and between them the grain elevator stark against a dark cloud mass to the west. Lori’s car in the parking lot at Travalong drove home the point of my departure in a way nothing else possibly could. And then I was past, nosing the truck into the autumnal flight pattern of migratory birds, and everything that was to be was before me, and everything I loved behind.

In Manhattan I transferred my packs to Chod’s truck. While en route to Abilene to pick up Jim I thought of the relief that accompanies the end of packing, when the last zipper is tugged shut and the luggage is hauled out to the car. A second stage in the journey has begun. Lists can be checked and rechecked but there’s no turning back, and anything missing will have to be dealt with later or done without. Where we were headed, the ancestral grounds of the Anasazi, it would be without.

But that was just a prelude. The start of our journey actually began when we three came together. Jim loaded his things into the truck, space suddenly becoming more constricted. Chod drove, with me in the copilot seat and Jim in back. I had a pen and notebook handy, and my camera. Chod explained that whenever we stopped for gas the copilot would move to the driver’s seat, and the driver to the back. That would put me driving into Cottonwood Canyon, which was good because I was the only one who’d been there and maps of that region were all but useless. Actually, they were useless, for not even the DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer showed the canyon. We were falling off the face of the known earth. But that was tomorrow.

Today was Kansas. The route of I-70 was so level I reluctantly admitted that parts of the state really were “flat, boring and ugly.” In Oakley we stopped to stretch our legs, buy water and snacks, and check that everything in back was tightened down. Clouds darkened the northwest. We left the interstate and fled before the storm.

That, too, was a beginning. There is one other that comes to mind, many miles back, the sun just clearing the trees.

Lori said, “It’s always harder on the person left behind.” After a moment she added, “I’ve always been the one who left. This is going to be hard.”

“You’ll be fine,” I said.

She was in my arms and so warm, and then she was gone. I sat on the floor with Sheba curled against me and rubbed her into a furry state of bliss. Then I kissed her on her nose, went out and locked the door behind me.

(Continued next week)

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Fables and the falling sky

An acorn falls. It caroms through the tree, careening off leaves, limbs and twigs, bouncing and jouncing and ricocheting like a pinball boxed back and forth, up and down, hither and yon, and each ping and each pong carries it lower and lower until it boinks free, embraces gravity’s pull, straightens its trajectory, picks up speed and kerplunks atop the feathered crown of one Gallus gallus domesticus, also known as Chicken Little. You know the rest.

Each election year the fable of Chicken Little should be required reading for reasoning voters of all stripes. More than merely a children’s nursery rhyme, it’s a cautionary political tale about the dangers of jumping to conclusions or believing everything one hears, and illustrates the ease at which the populace can be whipped into mass hysteria by judicious use of catchphrases. (“Cut-and-run,” “tax-and-spend” and “flip-flopping Christmas-hating traitorous godless scum-sucking liberal” come immediately to mind.) And it’s been on my mind lately, not so much because of the rancid political affrontery we’re increasingly subjected to but because it seems the sky is actually falling.

It began almost a week ago, when I hustled out the front door to go to work. Overhead was a ceiling of moon-washed clouds rent and torn as if by talons, and through the jagged rendings the glittering lights of unknown stars were set against the midnight velvet of deep space. So deep, and so perfectly void of color, that I stumbled in a sudden baptism of vertigo. Brought short by the frost-rimed fender of the car, I gaped at the spectacle until I felt gravity’s hold lessening. For a moment it felt I might break free and drop into that celestial vacuum, spinning and purling endlessly toward the farthest edge of the galaxy, no more than a terrestrial mote that once was sentient.

When the moment passed I started the car, cranked on the heater and took a hard pull of coffee. The sudden infusion of caffeine and warmth jolted me back to reality. Headlights swept the night away. At the end of the block I stopped, looked both ways and began to go. That’s when the sky fell.

A shimmering net of golden leaves engulfed the car. They skittered down the windshield, danced in the lights and ticked like the toes of mice on the roof of the car. Already dazzled by those depthless tears in the night sky, I was unnerved by their unexpectedness on so calm a morning. Adrenaline pounded through my veins. It was better than the coffee, and I rewarded it with a queasy laugh.

By nightfall clouds eclipsed the sun. A crump of thunder echoed through the darkness. By the time I crawled into bed rain drummed on the roof. It was falling still when I arose the next morning.

Another type of falling, one which would have discomfited Chicken Little had she been out wandering the Kansas prairies. But another type of sky-falling took place last weekend at the county fairgrounds where we were engaged in the first Art in the Barn sale. Had she been there, this falling would have propelled the skittish fowl into veritable paroxysms of panic.

It was on the last day of the two-day sale, getting on toward afternoon when wan shadows filtering through the dense cloudcover stretched long and thin. Taking a break from the crowds, I walked to the truck to retrieve my camera. I almost there when I heard something hard strike the ground with a solid plunk. More followed, and a few plinked off the truck. It was like hail only larger, and as I stooped to identify the culprit several nailed me in the spine. They were small acorns, about the size of my thumbnail, which identified the tree above me as a pin oak. A steady shower of acorns began falling.

Under that assault it’s easy to imagine how a young impressionable pullet would believe the sky falling. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Whole acorns and empty shells laid a fine sediment over the grass. It was then I noticed what Chicken Little had’t—a flock of hungry grackles busy in the canopy.

Much later, after the sale was over and the barn emptied out, I was very tired and wanted to go home, but stronger still was the pull of the area below the fairgrounds, where Juganine Creek disappears into woods so thick no summer can dispel the gloom. All the yammering I’d done with the hundreds of visitors made me crave a moment’s reprieve. I told Lori I’d be home shortly and drove my truck around the outlying buildings to where a broad opening in the woods framed a deeper darkness. Silence was an explosion when I turned off the engine.

Night was descending, and a cold mist that bled away the colors. Sidestepping silvered puddles, I stepped under the canopy and made my way to a sharp bend in the creek. When my path was blocked by a tangled mass of vegetation I hesitated, and closed my eyes and listened.

At first I heard nothing, and then sounds slowly filtered through the roar in my head; a trickle of water, the whisper of light rain high in the trees, a trill of a cricket or a tree frog. Slight, subtle, delicate, the tones fell like the descending notes of a canyon wren, and becalmed me.

The harsh caw of a crow injected itself. Looking up, I saw a river of blackbirds flowing down from the north. A yellowed leaf drifted down to join others at my feet, and then others, until the ascendant shadows were flecked with their shapes wordlessly, soundlessly dropping.

Don’t look up. Autumn is here. The sky is falling.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

An alignment of stone and shadow

The wall bisecting Pueblo Bonito is aligned with true north. Each day at noon its shadow disappears.

I read this and look out my window on woods veiled with mist. Colors leached out, the mulberry leaves shriveled and darkened from first frost, those of locusts gone already, prairie grasses on the low hills burnished into the last rich shades of autumn. Soon to be no more. The image of a long stone wall stretching toward low bluffs superimposes itself. For a moment I am in two places.

I am going on a journey. I say, wordlessly, soundlessly: I am going on a journey. I am going with two friends. I am going alone. I am going on a long journey. I will be in two places.

Shadows creep toward the wall and disappear. High noon. Behind the wall the ancient ruin once reached five stories and housed almost seven hundred rooms. The eastern half of the southern wall of Pueblo Bonito is aligned on an east-west axis. During the spring and autumn equinoxes the sun rises and sets in perfect alignment. Cities as observatories. Cities laid out along cardinal directions. For what? Cities settled for hundreds of years and then abandoned. In this prairie landscape it is hard to imagine that such a thing could be.

I was there before, many years ago, when our boys were little. The place was dusty, it was hot, our trip had been difficult, we were tired. The archaeoastronomical significance meant little, and we escaped just as a storm was moving in. The twenty miles separating Chaco Canyon from the nearest paved road were, and remain, washboard, sandy, impassable when wet. Wet it was becoming, and we had little desire to stay. It was another fifty miles to the nearest town. Chaco is as remote as they come.

Now I think of that shadow creeping toward the stone wall. I think of Chetro Ketl, whose back wall is aligned within one degree of the lunar minor standstill. One degree. Ditto for Pueblo Pintado. This by stone-age people.

I am not as observant as I sometimes think I am. It was while we lived in Broomfield that I first noticed the sun’s horizontal trajectory. As the seasons changed it wandered from north to south and back again, setting sometimes behind Mount Evans in the south and sometimes behind the Never Summer Mountains in the north. I thought of marking a notch in my back fence for the location of each sunrise. After one year I would have a visible map of the astronomical calendar, and I could tell at a glance when the days and nights were the same length, and when the sun slowed in its wandering and seemed to hesitate and stop as it reached the end of its journey. Solstice. But I never did.

Nor have I done so here in Kansas. At times I’m taken by surprise at the hard slant of shadows as the wintering sun is embraced by the trees along the road, or when in summer it slides behind the hackberry and welters in a crimson haze, and I wonder why I notice it more when the sun is at its extremes. These are things modern people have forgotten. Our days and nights are arranged to the absolute of a clock. But a clock in itself cannot inform us of the time. Seven o’clock is either morning or night, but a notch on the back fence indicates when autumn has arrived, or when the nights will begin to get shorter. They would tell me when to plant and when to harvest. They would tell me when the birds come, and when they go.

Sixteen days before the winter solstice, the sun rises along the northern edge of a notch in a butte to the southeast of Wijiji. Sixteen days later it rises along the southern edge. I wonder how long it took for the ancients to find that location, and once found, why they built a city there. Of the significance of living in a place so intricately and reverentially aligned to the sun, the moon, and the cardinal directions. Was there power of some sort, religious, mystical, actual? Was it part of being centered, an alignment of place and people?

In a large duffel I stuff a tent, rainfly, fiberglass poles, candle lantern, inflatable mattress, folding shovel, stakes. A tote holds notebooks, pens, batteries, flashlights, a camera, binoculars, battery charger. A pistol. A book of poems. My friend Scott Edwards, who hiked from Wisconsin to the Grand Canyon with only the clothes on his back and a camera, advises me to keep it simple. Too much preparation ruins the adventure, he says. He’s right. He’s wrong. I add winter clothing and a Gore-Tex shell.

I am going on a journey. I say. I am leaving behind the two things I most desire to take. I am going with two friends. I will in two places. I will be lonely. The sun creeps toward the stone wall at Pueblo Bonito. I think of standing there in that center place and watching the shadow compress. I want to be there when it disappears.

Time changes all things. The man who left Chaco Canyon at the forefront of a storm is not the same as he is now. The time of children has flown. My hair has silvered. I feel more deeply. My emotions are more raw. In a world spinning into chaos, I look for connections. At Kin Kletso, at Hungo Pavi, at Una Vida, there are connections galore, some known, some never to be known. Of the fourteen major buildings within the canyon, five are oriented to the solar cycle, seven to the lunar cycle. In the fortress of Fajada Butte, the sun dagger waits for the solstice.

Something waits for me at Chetro Ketl. I am going on a journey. At Pueblo Bonito, a shadow grows thin. I am going with two friends. I am going

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Probable Phidippus apacheanus, the Apache jumping spider

In the boneyard of beetles

Reading too much Walt Whitman can lead to a preponderance of exclamation marks, a feeling of hopeless bewilderment and an overblown sense of self. As the latter comes hard for me and the former is a no-no for modern English usage—and the middle describes my normal state of being—I’m left dizzied, wearied, frazzled, flummoxed, perplexed and astounded at the poet’s reach. It’s taken me a dozen tries and more to wade through his magnum opus, Song of Myself, and now that I have I’m not sure how much of it was absorbed, how much lost, and how much skimmed by a mind grown glazed with incomprehension. Nowhere in it did I see a mention of spiders.

It’s probably not for lack of trying. Within those stanzas can be found oxen, elk, moose, tortoises, horses, chickadees, turkeys, wood ducks, prairie dogs, soldiers, farmers, hunters, pilots, deacons, carpenters, contraltos and escaped slaves. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” he begins, and his song encompasses the entire universe and the commonality of man. One sentence in particular resonated in ways I could never have imagined, though certainly old Whitman would have clapped his hands in joy had he known of it.

Last Thursday I went to work as usual. I admit that I wasn’t singing of myself, or even to myself, though if a Bruce Springsteen song had come on the radio I might have followed along. At 3:30 a.m. it’s hard to feel anything but exhausted. The descendant moon was ringed with clouds that intensified her cold luminance, and the trees along the river gone pale in their autumn dress reflected it palely still.

At the office I shook out rugs and vacuumed, using the detachable hose to suck up the desiccated carcasses of beetles, millipedes and crickets. Every October it’s the same, an endless cavalcade of insects crawling into the building in search of warmth and finding instead only starvation or a giant’s lethal tread. The vacuum works best as the legs of the insects tend to stick to the twined fibers of the dust mop, making them harder to shake loose. As Murphy’s Law dictates, the bodies also tend to drop from the mop after the floor has been swept clean, but only when you don’t notice. I find them there on a return pass and have to sweep again, instigating disgruntled epithets more than celebratory yodeling.

The basement is different. Lacking carpet, there’s little reason to drag the heavy vacuum down the stairs, so the broom must suffice. After placing chairs on the folding tables, I swept everything into an untidy pile. Then I switched to a hand broom and dust pan. Besides the usual grit and dirt there were beetles of various species, some dead, some half-dead and others very much alive, millipedes dead or rolled into armored balls, and something small that waved its front legs as if in total indignation.

Setting the dust pan down, I knelt and put on my glasses. What before had been a thrashing object now became a fuzzy-legged jumping spider about the size of my thumbnail. It withdrew into a posture that was both defensive and offensive, staring me down with its huge eyes. All four of them.

I’m used to finding spiders at work, though jumpers are uncommon. The usual assortment of recluses, crab and wolf spiders inevitably lead me to a moral conundrum. Do I destroy them or let them live? This is never easily decided. Some mornings I feel benevolent and others less so, but one rule I always adhere to is that wolf spiders are to be unharmed. Not due to any particular love for the species, but because of their fearsome size.

Seeing them could lead one to believe that all spiders are colorless and drab. Here was an anomaly. The jumper was brick red across its back, the color dulled from the white gypsum powder it had been swept up in, with colorful banded legs, the front two being longer, more powerful, and held wide in an I-can-take-you-with-three-legs-tied-behind-my-back stance that soon changed to a timid tapping or feeling as it explored its new confines. Being pressed for time, I flicked the spider from the pan and emptied the contents in the trash.

When I turned back the jumper was facing me. Again I went to my knees and studied it. Once it determined I was harmless—or scared of it—it moved off, probing the ground with its two front legs. It reminded me of a blind man using a cane, and for a moment I wondered if the dust had blinded it. But there was nothing in its composure that would suggest anything other than a supreme confidence and curiosity. “I exist as I am, that is enough,” it seemed to impart. Whitman’s words. It tap-tapped its way along the wall, pausing occasionally to inspect something invisible to me, and continued slowly on as if possessing an infinitude of time. Which I did not. When I returned later the spider was gone.

I had hoped the jumper would turn out to be Phidippus whitmani, Whitman’s jumping spider, but the scant information I could locate suggested a cousin, Phidippus apacheanus, the Apache jumper. Both are similarly colorful but the field marks pointed to the latter. Whitman’s jumper would have been more appropriate.

Though spiders play no part in Song of Myself, Whitman did pen a poem about them. In A Noiseless Patient Spider, the author begins by watching a spider descend a thin filament and concludes with a comparison to his own thoughts, “ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing…till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.” When I read it I couldn’t help but laugh. And for a moment, silently, reverentially, I celebrated Phidippus, I sang it, and its song was my song in that way Whitman describes as “Every atom that belongs to me belongs as well to you.”

O my soul, that was certainly worth getting out of bed for.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The courage of small things

In the beginning was darkness. And more than darkness: a void of luminance so profound as to be matched only by that infinite moment before light burst into being and stars were hurled spinning into space.

I was there, whether floating or standing, corporeal or apparition, I could not say. Only that after a long time a sense of dread fell upon me. Slowly, as if mere imagination, a thin shaft of light appeared. It came from nowhere, serving only to accentuate the darkness, but as my eyes adjusted the dim outline of an endless hallway came into focus. The light bent at an angle indicating an open doorway. Something hard and round and metallic lifted at a slight angle into the light and disappeared back into darkness. And again, and again, with an almost metronomic rhythm. I recognized it as the pitted barrel of a Winchester Model 97 shotgun, the bluing worn off, a bayonet adapter hooking backward like a question mark.

Did I hold the shotgun, or another? Was I, or the person, in wait? There was only darkness, the sliver of light, and foreboding. And that limitless hallway that had no beginning or end.

I told myself it was only a dream, and when in following nights I found myself there again, trying to get beyond the doorway, something blocked my way.

I took this dream on the road, and in a southern city I found that hallway, or one remarkably like it, and the dread nearly paralyzed me. Were it not for a special slice of pie and a single migrant sailing the skies homeward, my journey might have ended there.

Fortunately, it did not.

***

I believe that imagination is the principle fabric binding our selves together. Some call it faith and others karma but it’s the same thing, a belief that our lives have meaning and purpose, that miracles or acts of serendipity occur with stunning regularity, that the best is yet to come. Just a week before I had driven down remote dirt roads in Washington County in search of a vermilion flycatcher, a rare southwestern bird that had shown up several days earlier. It wasn’t the first I’d seen—that honor went to a male found at Chatfield Reservoir near Denver, when on a stormy afternoon with the skies above the foothills forked with lightning we located the bird hemmed in by a feverish mob of birders like half-crazed paparazzi. The Washington bird failed to show but in its stead was a low-flying B-17 Flying Fortress, its turrets bristling with machine guns. Hearing my shout, my friend asked what it was. “A ghost!” I crowed.

I was in my element there, with only dirt roads to wend and new country all around, and the potential for miracles as thick as pollen. Even then the thought of driving to Wichita for the first Kansas Book Festival, where I was scheduled to autograph my book, was troubling. Not for nothing did we move to a tiny rural town, for my tolerance for traffic and people had grown tenuous over decades of living in Denver. To willingly go into the maw of a big city seemed a betrayal.

Normally we drive the backroads but this time we wanted speed and distance. We left the northern Flint Hills on the interstate, joining hundreds of other sojourners, all bent on reaching their destinations in the shortest time possible. Hours later it was a relief to escape the rush and stairstep down rural roads to the tiny Amish town of Yoder, where I’d promised a friend to visit the hardware store. It was everything he’d said—a throwback to another era, with possibly the largest selection of kerosene lamps and supplies in the state—but around the corner was something even better: the Carriage Crossing Restaurant.

I’d heard rumors that their pie was to die for, especially the lemon meringue. After a perfect meal of fried chicken and mashed potatoes and gravy, and of course a hefty slice of pie, I knew that if death were a requisite for the pleasure, I’d willingly lay my bones beneath the grass of Yoder cemetery.

Through Haven and Mount Hope, past blocky Mennonite churches and woods tinted with the first autumn hues, we made our way toward Wichita. The chosen route postponed the inevitable but eventually traffic engulfed us and the city’s gravitational pull sucked us in. We found the hotel, checked in and unloaded our luggage. I was already frazzled. The place was a dump, the room too small, but it was nothing compared to the hallway.

I found it when walking to the front desk. A short jaunt, a left turn and it stretched away, innumerable doors segmented into groups of eight, four on each side, narrowing exponentially in perspective. In my mind’s eye I saw the shotgun slide into the light, and a sense of vertigo hit me. Lori, unaware of the dream, never noticed my flinch. Though my stride barely wavered, I felt like running back to the room and barricading the door.

This, then, was the city, a vortex of traffic and noise and menace, the culmination of nightmares. I felt lost, and knew suddenly the book festival would be a failure. It was a mistake to come. We should have turned back at Yoder.

The next morning we drove to the stadium. A monarch butterfly flew by in a lazy spiral as we entered, its brilliant color contrasting sharply with the dull concrete walls. So incongruous was it that I stopped to watch as it made its way southward on its long migration. It had so far to go, and was so fragile, but it did not falter.

The simplest things can imbue inspiration and courage. In a southern city, under a clear hot sky, I made my way toward the row of tents where people were waiting who knew me and called me friend.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Gravity-induced customs and the long flight of birds

For much of my life I held a sort of half-baked belief that America was different from the other nations of our planet, not merely in its governmental structure, laws, religious beliefs or purple mountain majesties but in semi-mythical qualities bordering on divine providence. Not unlike that of a majority of Americans, and most Midwesterners, if you believe the polls. In part this was simple homespun xenophobia, a haughtiness based more on unenlightenment than knowledge or experience. When one knows nothing else, superiority is relative. The British once felt the same about Rule Britannia, exemplified notably by a chauvinistic attitude toward the “mud” races of the world, garnished with overtones of the absolute transcendency of the white man. Back then, of course, the sun never set on Great Britain, and now that it does so on a daily basis attitudes have been forcibly subjected to revision.

Looking back in my diaries I find an entry in 1976 where I questioned how I had become such a “flag-waving redneck.” Strangely, there was no explanation for what triggered the comment. When several months later a bill came from the IRS for $400, a princely sum we could scarcely afford, my hoo-rah status of the U.S. came to a crashing halt.

This is not to say I’m unpatriotic, though such opprobrium has certainly been directed at those of the liberal bent. It’s worth noting that those bandying such ill-conceived malapropisms often stray perilously close to becoming mere caricatures rather than rational human beings. Let us all, red and blue, right and left, strive for moderation, temperance and sobriety.

While I’m still trying out my newfangled approaches to the modern world and attempting to adopt a more cosmopolitan orientation—difficult at best with the ascendancy of militant Islam and the either-or negativity of today’s politics—I was caught embarrassingly flat-footed last week when one of Lori’s cousins from Australia brought over his fiancée. Through various conversational threads I discovered that such heavenly staples as Cool Whip and pumpkin pie never grace the shelves of the Down Under markets. At first shocked, then aghast, I asked how they could possibly find culinary bliss, and then, in a mindless lapse harking back to my earlier mindset, I sputtered that it was “un-American.” To which they replied: Indeed.

Oops. This launched an intensive comparison about our two nations, not the least of which involved the various foodstuffs that define our cultures. Having recently visited her first Wal-Mart Superstore (or is a Mega-Brobdingnagian-Store?), Karen, Laurence’s fiancée, was agoggle over the vast quantities of items lining the aisles. “There’s nothing like that at home,” she said. Of particular interest were the innumerable choices for the same product. Implicit in her statement was a veiled question about how Americans are able to choose with so many similar items vying for their attention. Had we carried this thread to its conclusion—which we did not—my answer would have been easy: brand name tastes good, generic like sawdust.

It was the topic of dessert that most horrified me. Besides not having Cool Whip or pumpkin pie—nor Thanksgiving for that matter, and don’t get me started on green chiles—an Australian birthday favorite is angel food cake with peanut butter topping. I was silently gagging when Karen mentioned another popular food, one so ingrained in every Aussie that it has become iconic: Vegemite. It’s a dark brown spread derived from yeast extract, and for this trip she’d brought enough to last the trip. In squeeze tubes. When she said this we were halfway to Frankfort to eat at Grandpa Red’s, one of the finest eateries in Marshall County. The idea made my stomach flop.

“That’s the problem of living on the bottom of the world,” I said. “All the blood drains to your head and you can’t think clearly. That’s why you have Vegemite and we have Cool Whip.”

As if funny brown substances squeezing from a tube like rancid Cheez-Whiz isn’t bad enough, Australia also favors roundabouts. Roundabouts, for those rural denizens unfamiliar to the latest trend in traffic control to hit these shores—surely an oxymoron in this instance—are diabolic replacements for four-way stops at intersections. When Laurence mentioned the number of these he passes on the way to work, I blanched.

“I hope whoever invented those dies and goes to the lowest bowels of Hell,” I grimaced.

“That was my grandfather,” Karen said.

For a few moments there was utter silence in the car. I choked out, “Did he like hot weather?”

Lori was looking at me as if I had morphed into some strange insect. I mentally vowed to keep my Big Fat Mouth shut more often. After a while, Karen admitted that she made that up.

“You’re going to have your hands full with that girl,” I told Laurence.

Supper was, as always, delightful, an American repast devoid of brown goo. By the time we left the restaurant the sun had disappeared behind a cloud bank. Light was fading. The streets of Frankfort were deserted.

Lori commented on the architecture, and as we stared up at the tall limestone buildings studded with black metal stars a flock of chimney swifts wove through the air, chittering and calling in their thin reedy voices.

I explained how they were named for their favorite roost, and how most of our swifts had departed for South America three weeks earlier than usual. These had probably come down from the north.

The four of us stood there in the middle of an empty street, our eyes lifted to the skies. Dark clouds shot with streaming veins of silver formed a backdrop for the birds as they dipped and swirled and rose into the beckoning night. For us, gravity-bound, residents like the swifts of both hemispheres, the unfettered birds on their long migration seemed the most amazing thing of all.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Bringing in the (proverbial) sheaves

Hairy Houdini, our local red squirrel, has been busy lately getting in his larder. Across the street from our house a walnut tree is dripping nuts, and Hairy seems determined that not one of them goes uncached. Back and forth he streaks, his mouth stuffed with a single fat nut, his beady little eyes lit with a crazed gleam. The determination of where to secrete the treasure is known to him alone, but careful observance leads me to believe the decision is based on happenstance and a what-the-hell attitude, so typical of the long-tailed rodents. Which could explain why he so seldom remembers where he buried them, and why so many young walnut trees are springing up in our yard.

A great restlessness pervades the air this time of year as the sun slants harder and the days grow shorter. The skies burn with blue fire. Apple trees and Osage oranges bow under the weight of their fruits. Goldenrod blossoms plume the breeze like yellow smoke, and a close inspection finds the flowers abuzz with activity. Competing for the nectar are bees, beetles and butterflies, an unruly multi-species mob with one thing on their minds: gather as much as possible in the shortest amount of time. For time, as they know it, is winding down.

They are not alone. Every September I check our own larder and calculate how much we have, if we need more, and if so, how much. But unlike the squirrels and the insects, what we store is not so easily gathered. It’s green chiles—preferably New Mexican or, if not, from southern Colorado. And a glance this year assured me that we needed more, much more, to tide us over for the coming year.

Back in Denver this was not a problem. A trip to the chile vendor at 38th and Brighton Boulevard garnered three or four bushels of fire-roasted Hatch chiles, the very best, grown and harvested in the fabled Hatch Valley of southern New Mexico. Big, meaty chiles like Big Jims or Sandias, plus a bushel of fiery jalapeños thrown in for good measure, roasted in mesh barrels over high flame until the skin blistered and peeled, then steamed in plastic sacks—they were heavenly to smell, and better to eat.

After we moved to Kansas, we’d make an annual pilgrimage back to Colorado each September. Ostensibly to see our boys, the real purpose of the trip was to restock the freezer with chiles. On the final morning we’d stop at the vendor, load the back seat and make the run for home, all the while salivating over the exquisite aroma escaping the damp sacks. If we stopped for a burger en route we’d be sure to order take-out so we could peel a thick wedge of chile to place atop the meat.

When we got home we’d place the chiles in freezer bags, a dozen or fifteen to a sack. Each would be dated, and I’d rotate the stock in the freezer. That night we’d cook up a huge pot of green chile stew to celebrate. My usual manner is to triple or quadruple the recipe in order to have some for leftovers and freezing. This is what I did several weeks ago.

And, like Hairy Houdini, I went looking for the extras and could not find them. I rooted and dug through the freezers—we have two, one just for chiles—and came up empty. Where had I buried them? It finally dawned that we’d eaten them, not having the fortitude to wait. I made a mental note to make a dozen batches next time.

After a while the idea of a trip to the city paled. Several Quixotic quests across Kansas after rumors of genuine Hatch chile failed, but in the nick of time we discovered a produce grower south of Manhattan who specialized in chiles. In a late season panic that Hairy would implicitly understand, we ended up buying five bushels of chiles and one-and-a-half bushels of jalapeños. Enough, we figured, to last two years, if not more.

It did. But as August waned and September waxed, and our supply steadily dwindled, I knew we’d have to restock, and soon. The days were getting short. Time was running out.

It’s been said that one can find anything on the Internet. That’s only partly true. One cannot find Hatch chiles in Kansas via the Internet, for I tried, many, many times. There were elusive hints that so-and-so garden center would have a shipment, but when I clicked on the link I found that it was years old. Phone calls went negative. Like Hairy, the look in my eye was becoming edgier each day.

Lori saved the day by convincing a trucker coming through southern Colorado to grab us two bushels of fire roasted chiles. Though I was dubious over this—once roasted, chiles don’t last forever—it worked out as planned, and she arrived home one afternoon with the car smelling sublimely and two large bags of steamed chiles piled on the back seat. Like a starving hyena, I tore into a sack and tasted one—very hot, just as I like.

Still, the freezer looked half-empty, and I wondered if we’d have enough.

The thermometer read 44 degrees this morning when I rose from bed, poured a cup of coffee and fed Sheba a stalk of broccoli. The low numeral didn’t adequately register until I opened the door and stepped into the darkness, at which time it settled on me like a rime of frost. My breath steamed the stars away. Moonrise cast a pallid glow on the beanfields adjoining the river, and in my weariness I imagined they were fields of chiles. For a second it warmed my heart, and then realization set in and the cold air settled in my bones. I cranked the heater on.

Two bushels plus a half-bushel in reserve. I hope we have enough.

Friday, September 08, 2006

A minor relocation, distant stars

Sirius rises in the east, Orion higher still with his three glittering stars aligned in tandem, red Betelgeuse in the fore and a wash of stars ghosting the heavens like the tendrils of fog wending the fields alongside the river. No moon nor pale sliver. Crickets fiddle their symphonies. Ant lions slumber in their earthy dens. Birds are silent save an occasional owl questioning the darkness. Who? Who? Just me, stumbling down the eroded stairs, fumbling for the car door, the coffee not yet kicked in, a weary dreamer sent out into the night. And I’d been sleeping so sound.

Lately I’ve been having a real problem with my alarm clock. It seems like right when I’m in the deepest dreamscape, when nocturnal imaginings are at their most vivid and unrelenting—for good or ill, it matters not—a jarring sound inevitably blasts me awake. Rather than smashing the thing with a fist I carefully slide a little lever to a secondary alarm position and lay back, heart pounding, eyes staring at a ceiling invisible in the darkness, and wonder why on earth we buy gadgets that limit our sleep. I groan. I grumble. I climb from bed and start the day.

Since midsummer’s heat spell we’ve moved to the lower bedroom, mostly out of expediency rather than any desire to trade a king-size luxury air mattress with dual adjustable chambers and three inches of memory foam for a sagging full-size spring mattress our sons once slept in. It’s certainly cozier than the larger bed, and much more uncomfortable, and we have the advantage of not having to mitigate the heat that collects upstairs like unwanted bills. Though the house is equipped with central air conditioning, the singularity of the second floor vent renders it useless. A window a/c unit helped but unfortunately its output was too little for the too much it’s required to overcome. The deciding factor was a particularly exorbitant electric bill which led us to reduce expenses by sleeping downstairs.

This is only one of a long list of quirks this house possesses. Interior walls are as plumb as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, several windows are caulked shut to stop drafts, the rear addition is utterly uninsulated and the oak floor sags in places. Missing roof shingles give the house a snaggletooth look. But the place has ‘character,’ that indefinable aggregate of distinctive features, characteristics and qualities that in anywhere other than rural America would be considered deficiencies.

Indeed, our house, and notably the lower bedroom, perfectly illustrates the opposing cosmic forces—the yin and yang—of life. Though the bed is too small, the windows can open, an impossibility upstairs. Though crowded with Lori’s loom, sewing machine and fiber supplies, it’s closer to the bathroom, which is a plus at my age. Adaptability is never so crucial as when owning a century-old house or living at our financial means.

Being able to open the bedroom window has led to some surprising thoughts. Where before the act of going to bed was merely perfunctory, now it’s an adventure. The vast acreage of the master bed had dulled my mind to equate it to a mattress and nothing but. The diminutive size of the downstairs bed, though, is more reminiscent of our little backpack tent, and I found that whenever I crawled into it I pretended to zip the door closed and snuggle into a cool nylon sleeping bag. Beyond the thin fabric of the tent the stars wheel in their celestial arc, denizens of the night sing their songs, and the convergence of the two creates an atmosphere of ease and harmony, the sweetest lullaby sending me off to the Land of Nod.

And then the alarm goes off and shatters the illusion.

Having the camper in sight of the open window no doubt fuels this idea, as does my impending trip to the Four Corners region. Cooler temperatures also help. Sometimes I imagine aligning my tent with the lunar standstill, as is the main bulwark of Chetro Ketl, an Anasazi city in Chaco Canyon, or along a gridline toward the winter solstice, as at Wijiji, another of the cities. Adventure beckons and there’s no reason to limit it to the vacation itself. Even as in dreams, the simplest, most mundane act can be gilded with expectation and desire.

Preparing the bedroom for slumber was an adventure in itself. Since the room was lightly used for the past year or so, I was afraid it had become the dominion of brown recluses. Several searches came up empty. Just when I was starting to let my guard down I found a recluse at the foot of the bed. A boot summarily dispatched it to whatever afterlife toxic spiders attend.

Another was found in the bathroom, and another in the hallway. “Houston, we have a problem,” I said to Lori, and brought out the big gun—the canister vac.

We tossed furniture and upended chairs, stripped sheets and rummaged through the closet. A large recluse wandered in from the hall, no doubt wondering what the ruckus was about, and disappeared up the vacuum tube. Other spiders were sucked up as I ran the nozzle along the molding. In the process we came across two glue strips I’d set years ago. Both had dead mice stuck to them, with a cadre of spiders encircling the corpses as if intending to pick the bones clean. We set several new traps.

There’s nothing like a surfeit of creepy-crawly things to disturb one’s slumber. Surprisingly, my dreams weren’t of tiny legs scribbling across my face but of spacious rooms and distant stars. The night was cool; a slight breeze whispered through the grass. Katydids conversed like small stones clinking together. The foundations of Wijiji aligned with my tent, and through open vents I could dimly see a notch in the buttes where the rising sun would announce the solstice. My sleeping bag was cozy and warm.

When the alarm sounded, as I knew it would, I’d rise grousing and start another day. But for now Sirius rose in the east and I was elsewhere. Adventure does not come to us—we create it. Even here, on a small bed with a sagging mattress in an old house on the edge of the Flint Hills, beside the one I love.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

The road to Chetro Ketl

In most ways, the road to Chetro Ketl and back began on a Friday afternoon in mid-summer.

Lori walked in from work, took a long look at me and asked, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“You crashing?”

“No.”

I lied. I was standing on the brink of an unimaginably vast black hole and my footing was none too steady. Nor, as is the case with these things, was I sure I wouldn’t rather just tip forward and fall in.

A marriage is made of honesty and openness but I’m still trying to figure out what my mind is doing. If I don’t understand, how can I explain to someone else? The last thing I want is my wife worrying about my mental state.

As I worry.

Not ten minutes before I’d been washing dishes, hands deep in sudsy water, when the walls disappeared and a clear-running stream appeared at my feet and I heard the sound of it rushing over its gravel bed, and the air was crisp and clean and snowy mountains rose up in the near distance and about me a cluster of sunwashed wooden structures. I recognized Fairplay, a rustic town in the middle of an extended ovoid bowl of grass called South Park. My eyes held the long sweep of meadowlands, saw sunlight reflecting off the South Platte River, the stony peaks of the Mosquito Range snagging the clouds. I felt free as a bird, severed from bonds I’d only suspected. And then as suddenly as if a door slammed in my face it was gone, and I was back in our little kitchen in Blue Rapids.

I couldn’t breathe. My hands shook violently. I sagged against the counter, closed my eyes, gripped the rim of the sink and held on tight.

The stream still echoed in my ear. “Come back,” I begged. What remained was a mirage, there but not, translucent, fading even as I struggled to hold onto it.

By the time Lori walked in it was like nothing had happened. But something had. I had gone and returned in the blink of an eye, not a chance memory but a bodily visitation, but why or how were questions not all the angels in heaven could answer.

***

The itinerary was three pages, handwritten in pencil by Chod Hedinger, Lori’s distant cousin. When it came in the mail I glanced over it and set it aside. There’d be more time for planning as the time approached. The end of October seemed as distant as the moon.

For weeks I mulled over my visitation, looking for reasons or meanings, and the deeper I searched the more bitter I became. Before moving here I told Lori that I needed to see the mountains at least once a year, and now it was going on three barren years and I was feeling thin and stretched out. Which might account for what happened, but why so vividly?

One afternoon, when darkness settled over me, I walked to Mr. Bun’s cairn and slipped into the trees where I could not be seen, and I berated myself long and harsh over being so weak. I thought of South Park, and of the time I slipped into waist-deep water at the head of Antero Reservoir and cast to fat trout that ignored my fly, and the recollection was a metaphor for everything that failed me. Savagely, I cursed the memory and myself.

The truth is, I never had any of it. Only a short section of serpentine stream that I shared with cows. The mountains belonged to the citizens of the United States, the meadows to the ranchers, the road was long, the traffic fierce, the view heartbreaking, and nearly all of it inaccessible. Every trip there ended in some sort of frustration, whether from fishing or not finding the right camping spot or simply not knowing which way to go. I wanted it all and ended up with nothing but a handful of bad memories. For my mind to whisk me there was senseless and cruel. I hated it.

***

There is no darkness so deep that light cannot pierce, and slowly, slowly, it filtered through.

I ended up with nothing. The statement was patently false. I have an Orvis medal for the one that didn’t get away—the largest trout I ever caught, and that on a stream so narrow my nine-foot flyrod could touch both banks. What’s the worth of that? Of fishing the small feeder streams, of teaching Joel to fly-fish in Tarryall Creek, the bright brook trout, the ice cold water, the alpine flowers on the slopes of Mt. Sherman, and Lori’s 35th birthday wish to bag a fourteener, when Joel got high altitude sickness and Lori lost her footing and cascaded down a snowfield. The time a friend and I photographed the abandoned mines above timberline and the wildflowers blooming along the tiny rivulets dripping down from the snowpack—does that mean nothing?

When I was more or less myself again, I took out the itinerary and set it beside a map. With a finger I traced the route from Blue Rapids to the red rock canyons of southeastern Colorado, familiar territory, across northern New Mexico and into the Four Corners area, home to the Dineh, where scattered ruins were not just cities but astronomical observatories aligned with solar solstices and lunar standstills, back into Colorado and over Wolf Creek Pass and past Antero Reservoir where the trout snubbed me, and on down to the prairie and homeward. It was not, to my surprise, just desert and Anasazi ruins I would see, but the mountains of memory.

With tears blinding me, I began adding to the itinerary. I started lists of things to take, and things to do, and things to find, which would be the biggest challenge. And then I went off on a tangent. The road to Chetro Ketl begins here, I wrote. I am going on a long trip. I will walk in beauty.