So this then is the end, the real end, not the one I’d envisioned for the past week, not the solo drive from Manhattan to Blue Rapids with my pulse quickening with each passing mile, not the opening of the front door and the stepping inside and my calling out, “I’m home,” not that one, though it makes sense that that would be the real end, the finality of it, the coming full circle. No, this is the real end, right here, sliding out of the truck into a cold wind, seeing for the first time the concrete path leading downward through sere gray fields to a shallow rocky foundation barricaded behind roughhewn timbers and the cottonwoods beyond, green and gold leaves clattering above tiny Ladder Creek, bare conical knolls rising in the background, the cloudless sky so blue it hurts the eyes, and the sudden jarring of emotions like a brick upside the head or a compression of the heart, as if a giant hand ripped through the bones and fibers of my chest to squeeze and squeeze until my eyesight dims and my ears ring like gongs and my knees buckle, and in those fading last moments the sudden realization that this is, indeed, the end of the journey, and everything that follows, the long drive back, the opening of the front door, the calling out that I’m home, mere aftermath and nothing more. This, then, is the by-God end. This is El Cuartelejo, the nation’s northernmost pueblo—the Kansas pueblo—and the sound of it rolls off my tongue like honey.
Almost I had asked my companions to allow me a solitary approach, a solemn, wordless promenade, but Jim is already halfway there and Chod’s screaming for us to look up, his arms flailing like a fledgling bird or a drowning man, and I follow his finger to a featureless reach of sky that looks like every other reach of sky but where in that vast depthless blue a trace of movement catches my eye, movement magnified through my binoculars into a ragged formation of sandhill cranes heading south. No doubt to join their brethren at Bosque del Apache, where we, too, had been. Full circle, indeed.
It seems there should be more. Having grown up in a country ringed with pueblos, from the ancient Sky City of Acoma, the multi-storied Taos Pueblo, Isleta, Jemez, Nambe, San Ildefonso, Cochiti and others strung like pendants along the upper Rio Grande, to the astral-aligned ruins of Chetro Ketl, Pueblo Bonito and Aztec, I had imagined something similar, close-knitted stone and mud daub, fawn-colored adobe prickly with wooden vigas, structures built for eternity but now an inhabitance only of the wind’s incessant lullaby. So little remains. Even the stones have softened and melted away.
What’s left is this: seven narrow rooms, an outline in the soil, an artist’s rendition. Leaves shimmying in the wind. Cranes fleeing the onslaught of winter. And three tired men wordlessly paying their respects before turning away.
We would not camp. That was decided almost from the beginning. With Jim in the shower, I told Chod at breakfast of our conversation, how he wanted to cut the trip short and run for home.
“And you?” he asked.
I shrugged. “Either way’s fine with me.”
Nothing more was said. In the predawn darkness we loaded the truck, bundled against the frigid wind, cursing the cold. Once inside, Jim announced that the selfsame wind would make Palo Duro Canyon unendurable. Chod, to his credit, didn’t even blink. “We’re going home,” he said.
And so it was settled. I nosed the truck onto the interstate and headed north, traffic mercifully thin, the sun just breaking the horizon to cast shadows onto the rolling contours of the Llano Estacado, or Staked Plains. The Canadian River a demarcation, the land beyond leveling out into a parallax shift whose horizontic measure was of sky and more sky and a minimum of terra firma, and upon whose surface we traversed like blind prophets seeing the end of times and little more. Small towns came and went without distinction nor characteristic other than of something to be left behind. Their names not even registering as we focused on destinations unique to each vision. Conversation sagged under the weight of that limitless sky.
Only Dumas, Texas, provided any comic relief. The name lent itself to a crude appellation we were quick to exploit, and we were even quicker to exploit the small museum advertising free coffee and clean restrooms. The proprietor showed us the exhibits while proudly lauding Dumas’s claim to fame—a hit song from the 1920s with the dubious title of “I’m a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas.”
So popular was the tune that it ended up on the Jack Benny Radio Show. After World War II, residents organized radio station KDDD, appropriately enough. The success of a caricature of the Dumas Ding Dong Daddy spurred the creation of a second Dong, this one named the Ding Dong Dolly from Dumas. This Dolly looked equally as ditzy as Daddy but with none of the bountiful attributes of that other, more famous, Dolly.
He also mentioned that the main communal event is called “Dumas Dogie Days.”
The coffee was good, the restrooms better, but there were altogether too many Ds for our liking. We didn’t deign to dally.
The sun rose to its apogee and began its long descent. Oklahoma came and went, and the border of Kansas, and still we maintained our northerly course. Past Scott City we turned westward and the flat land rumpled into creases and folds, and so we came at last to a lake shining bright where once the Plains Apaches held sway and, for a brief two decades, a tribe of Puebloans escaped Spanish dominion to create a downsized version of their mudwalled Taos homeland. El Cuartelejo.
It’s over. Cameras are put away, binoculars cased. Chod takes over driving, Jim moves to the front seat, me to the back. It’s 2:55 p.m.
And now I imagine the aftermath. Stepping inside the house and calling out, Sheba’s ears perking up, Lori moving to meet me…
Lori. This is where the road to Chetro Ketl finally leads. My sweet wife, my center place, I am coming home.