Sunset bison

Sunset bison
Sundogs

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Flight to El Morro (Part 11)

Showered, shaved, clothed, fed—transformed!—we codgernauts collapse on our hotel beds and stare at the TV. The smiling faces are radiant with news of an impending cold front. Rain is coming and lots of it, a veritable tempest, a gale, a monsoon with all manner of dire inclemencies, and keep it right here for the latest breaking news. Manning the remote, Jim clicks to a football game and settles deeper into his pillow. Within minutes he’s snoring.

“It don’t look good,” I say.

Chod shrugs and pulls out a map. “Well,” he says, “plans are made to be broken.”

We quickly kill the idea of Hovenweep and settle on Mesa Verde. Camping is out but we can spend the morning there and then head east over Wolf Creek Pass to the Great Sand Dunes. Perhaps we can get in two more days of tenting.

For now it’s a rare luxury just to be clean and warm. After phoning Lori and updating her of our adventures, I slide between the sheets and stretch out in utter contentment. The mattress is deliciously soft and, unlike the sleeping bag, spacious. Let it rain. I’ll stay here.

***

Dawn comes gray and sodden with low sullen clouds scudding before a hard north wind. Breakfast is bare-bones continental with the weatherfolk giddy over the disaster heading our way. And now the equation changes, the balance tips—blizzard, the face says, teeth bared like fangs—ten inches in Durango and much, much more on Wolf Creek Pass. Frozen midbite, we gawp at the weather map and then at each other.

Heavy snow is expected from central Colorado to northern New Mexico, funneled by high winds and plunging temperatures. The latter part of our itinerary is now dubious, if not impossible. Quickly we clear a space on the table for the atlas. With no way to circumvent the pass, going north is no longer an option. Months of planning now have to be scrapped.

I trace a path southwards into familiar territory. Jim adds his two cents. In ten minutes we’re ready to go. Light rain is falling as we run before the storm.

***

Photography, like birding, is as much a matter of timing as skill, especially when timing is construed as blind luck. Finding a rare bird takes no more talent than picking one’s nose, an observation guaranteed to dismay a certain elite cadre of birders. The same holds true for photography. Being in the right place at the right time might not guarantee great shots but it certainly enhances the potential.

Our timing, alas, is inopportune at the ancient volcano known as Shiprock. Rising 1,800 feet above the valley floor, the spire is both holy to the Navajos and easily the most dominant landform within 100 miles. And when we find a good vantage point the sun tantalizes, teases, flirts and ultimately skips the towering edifice and instead plays at the base like some broken spotlight.

A cold wind propels us ever southward, past Little Water, Newcomb and Sheep Springs. The Chuska Mountains to the west are concealed in roiling clouds. Looking at the map, I wonder why towns fronting the highway have English names while those offroad have Navajo names. The latter are much more musical: Teec Nos Pos, Sanostee, Toadlena, Tohatchi. And then it dawns on me that the road we’re on is designated Highway 666, surely an ill-omened numeral. The Highway to Hell!

It also occurs to me that the city of Grants will be my last chance at a Lottaburger. It’s late morning when we skirt the city and approach Interstate 40. Restaurants abound, and I’ve secured a promise from the codgernauts to stop when we find one. But as at Shiprock the promise never materializes. We leap the freeway and climb into low hills furred with junipers and enter the Zuni Indian Reservation.

***

Besides having a permanent waterhole, the white pinnacle known as El Morro had an added benefit: soft sandstone walls on which to pen (or dagger, or sword) graffiti. The earliest record comes from April 1605 when Don Juan de Onãte, the territory governor, carved “Paso por aqui.” He wasn’t the only one to pass by, and in the succeeding 250 years dozens of travelers left their mark while passing down the old Zuni Trail.

Some time later I arrived with a young girl who would one day become my wife. Though we left no visible mark of our stay I can hear her in the whisper of wind through the ponderosas, and I’m contemplative of beginnings and the flow of time. These places of the heart stagger me.

Now we find a sheltered spot out of the cold wind and eat a cold lunch under the baleful eye of a raven. After relinquishing our spot to the corvid, we hike the short trail to the bluff and inspect the pool and inscriptions. On the north slope the land falls away into a broad valley with a stark rocky outcrops in the distance. To the north the sky is black but here it’s mostly open, the clouds dark-bottomed and dazzling white above, sailing serenely overhead. Shadows drag across the grassland and eclipse the gentle hills. Chod and I push on to the summit.

The strange part of this odyssey isn’t how I felt in the mountains—that was predictable—but in how the buttes and scrub oaks suddenly move me. I’ve been wrong about everything. Let me return to this beloved land when I die. Scatter my ashes at the base of El Morro, in a shady glade under the gnarled lattice of a Gambel’s oak thicket. Let them soak into the earth under a gentle spring rain, or whiten like alkali under a broiling summer sun. Let them sleep when the oaks flare golden and scarlet and the sky deepens to turquoise. It’s all the resurrection I need.

(Continued next week)

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