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)