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)