Sunset bison

Sunset bison
Sundogs

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 CaƱon 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)