Even then I felt a displacement or disembodiment, subtle at first but intensifying as the miles rolled past. Whether lulled into a daze by the rhythmic hum of the tires or succumbent to a nameless residuum of the fallout zone we traversed, it seemed that while my temporal form occupied the front passenger seat, my focal plane existed somewhere else, slightly to the rear of the cab and above, peering through the dusty rear window at three men slumped in various stages of weariness and boredom, or sometimes low to the ground with the air rushing across my face, the ground below a blur while the truck remained standstill with only the bright sun winking off the chrome to mark its passage, or sometimes high above, a cartographer charting a tiny white speck wending sluggishly across a broad waterless plain littered with bleached bones and every manner of thorned vegetation. Less participant than voyeur. So compelling was this that even now my memories are of being not within the truck but without.
If only that godlike view had remained mine a little longer.
Yet while it lasted I was granted a transcendent view of this tortured land as only angels may aspire to, from the desiccated expanse of the Jornada del Muerto, the nuclear-glassed sands of Trinity, the pallid ice blink of distant gypsum dunes, to the rumpled slopes of Chupadera Mesa lifting above the Tularosa Valley. And then the vision abandoned me and I was summarily remanded to earth.
My corporeal self blinked and focused on a suddenly constricted view. The atlas open in my lap, binoculars resting on the divider, camera riding the dashboard, Chod nodding off in the back seat, Jim hunched over the wheel, the road gently rising to the cleft of Taylor Canyon. Behind us the Jornada del Muerto, the Journey of Death, so aptly named, first for the fallen travelers along the El Camino Real, but most notably for the new sun that rose here in the middle of the last century, a sun that would incinerate over 200,000 sacrificial lambs offered up on the altar of one nation’s suicidal lust for world dominion.
We stop at a roadside clearing to stretch our legs and follow a flock of birds into the brush. The north wind like razors shredding our resolve, so that soon we stagger back to the truck cursing the wintry gale, our reward frozen fingers and a lone Cassin’s kingbird. Jim cranks the engine and we continue, rising higher and higher until we summit and the faraway escarpments of the Sacramento Mountains limn the horizon, and before us a wide dark depression. The Valley of Fires. The malpais.
But oh, if only it had not failed.
Malpais is a Spanish word whose literally meaning is “bad country.” And bad country it is, a river of lava frozen in time, rippled, jagged, bubbled, sharp as knives, black as soot, interspersed with sparse desert vegetation incapable of softening its raw dermis.
This malpais—there are several in New Mexico, many much more extensive—was created nearly 2,000 years ago when the valley floor split open to vent a hellish stream of liquid magma. Six miles wide, 44 miles in length and 160 feet deep, it’s considered the youngest lava flow in the continental United States. Hewn into the stone on its western bank is a small campground and visitor’s center. When we pull in Jim opts for indoor comfort rather than outdoor misery, and drops us off at the campground before continuing on to the main office.
A few big RVs parked along a rocky ridge take the wind broadside. Nobody is stupid enough to brave the cold except us two, and I’m not sure how Chod feels but I’m regretting this. It’s miserable going. The wind hits hard and polar, roving unhindered across this dark melted plain with little to hinder its passage other than a few stands of sotol, Apache plume, prickly pear and cholla. Hunched over in full Gore-Tex regalia, we walk down a narrow trail to enter the lava flow, binoculars ready. Immediately we’re surrounded by birds.
Hidden in the sheltered coves are a bevy of sparrow species including the beautiful black-chinned sparrow. Chod attempts pishing but the wind freezes his lips. Only a slurry hiss escapes, something we find comical. A rock wren scolds. I’m distracted by a small mammal that pops out of a crevice to study us. It’s a ground squirrel reminiscent of a golden-mantle but subtly different—my first antelope squirrel. When I point it out to Chod he stubbornly ignores it. Mammals have no place in his imagination unless they’re the large flashy kind, like cougars or bison. This I consider an unimaginative self-imposed tunnel vision, much like his lame meat-and-potatoes regimen. Sad.
Coming to the end of the trail is a relief. Turning back, we’re pushed, propelled and battered back to the luxuriant warmth of the office. Jim’s ready to go so after only a cursory look at the library we pile into the truck and head out.
At the entrance a merlin zips past. And if in my omniscient hindsight I can claim that panoptic view again, to briefly inhabit the body of the falcon, to possess it unreservedly as my own, I would see that the campground follows the contour of the ridge and drops into a shallow declivity where a lone camper huddles protected and secure. In it are my parents. But the vision had abandoned me when I most needed it, and we three codgernauts, incognizant, unwitting, oblivious to their presence, are borne away on the restless wind.
(Continued next week)