We see these things in hindsight, on reflection in silence, in meditation, which is as good a definition of writing as I can think of. This is why I rise earlier than the others, for these moments before the sun breaks above the horizon, when I delve inward deeper and deeper, a spelunker of the soul, a miner of inexplicable connections, touching the past, tracing its contours and textures like a blind man, sightless, unseeing except in some shamanistic sense, querying the known, the unknown and what lies between for what really happened. We walk in faith.
My return to Chetro Ketl was again in the company of men. This time my companions were the men I love most in the world—my father and my two brothers. Considering the amount of gray hair and cantankerousness at least three of us possessed, it was as if the codgernauts in another permutation rode again across the Anasazi West. My younger brother Reece, the baby of the family, has yet to lose a follicle to the silvering ravages of time, and appeared indeed much as he had eight years ago, when last we met. I wondered how long it had been since we four had gone afield together. When I posed that question under a covered picnic shelter outside the visitor center at Chaco Canyon, the answers ranged from long studied silences to “forever” to “the cretaceous period.” Suffice to say we were much younger, decades so. And slimmer, too.
Unspoken in the harsh light of Chaco was whether it would ever happen again.
Getting here, my father ran old Highway 66 up the Rio Grande Valley rather than take I-25 north to the Bernalillo exit. Rio Rancho spread like a plague across the west mesa and development tsunamied east of the interstate, but here little had changed since Coronado came through to deliver the heathens with the cross and the sword.
I can’t say how long it had been since I last drove the length of road westward from Bernalillo to San Ysidro, passing the Jemez and Zuni pueblos and the Jemez Mountains a purple shadow beyond. Too long. For some reason that area is quintessential New Mexico, encompassing everything beautiful and meaningful about the state. Memory plays a large part, I suppose, all the camping trips we took, the repetitious to-and-from, hours spent looking out the Carry-all window and dreaming of piñon-clad hills and clear rivers, that huge turquoise sky like a window into the universe. Here I was again, older and maddeningly broody, staring out a window on a changeless terrain and little had changed but me.
The emotional impact was acute. I kept asking myself how I could turn my back on this place, but then remembered the madness of Albuquerque traffic, the crime, the grit, and jackknifed the question around. How could I live here? Albuquerque was merely a trade-off, the toll exacted for living a short drive from these sacred spaces, but it was a price I would not pay. And yet I couldn’t help but wonder how Kansas would fare in the aftermath.
Chaco was both less and more than what I expected but in none of the ways I could have predicted. The ruins of Chetro Ketl, first to be explored, still possessed a spiritual aura that left me yearning for a more intimate experience. A night’s stay in the great kiva, for instance, a million stars wheeling across skies framed within a stone curvature, a winter solstice moonrise with the air frigid and brittle, or seeing firsthand the alignment of masonry and shadow with a major lunar standstill. Not this walk down dusty trails while others come and go, the entire valley little more than a playground for Tilley-clad adventurers.
We had just started down the path when I noticed an object ahead. A collared lizard straddled the center of the trail like some tollman or gatekeeper. Once I would have dashed off in pursuit, a spontaneous reaction of a younger age, but something made me freeze. The lizard raised high and studied us, and before any of us could react it darted toward us on its back legs in a rollicking lope, a miniature T Rex.
Closer it came, pausing once or twice to study us, and then forward again until it stood only a few feet from of us. In that dry colorless canyon the lizard’s hues were stunning—golden feet and head, gold bands striping a turquoise body, two black collars encircling a speckled nape. It studied us with liquid eyes, seemingly unafraid, staring at each of us as if looking for answers. As if searching us out, or reading us. And after a time, how long I cannot say, it slipped away into the sage and disappeared.
Breath returned, and time, the stirring of a cool breeze and birdsong, the faint chirruping of black-throated sparrows. We laughed at our good fortune but the laughter was uneasy. What had just transpired? Collared lizards do not approach people, they flee.
There was little time to mull on it. We made the loop through Chetro Ketl to Pueblo Bonito, ate lunch in the shadow of Fajada Butte, and parked at the trailhead to Wijiji to make a fast three-mile dash in a rush to beat the sun.
But as we approached the walls of Wijiji I wondered about the lizard, and about us, too, how the attack on the World Trade Center sundered us, and not cleanly, no, but like a jagged knife hacking us apart. Those years of separation, of chill silence, of bitter animosity, had slowly faded and come to this: four men striding in tandem, a slash of light painting the ruin stark, and in the distance a slender notch between two buttes where the Chacoans celebrated the solstice sun lifting into a cold winter sky. Celebration indeed. In this center place where the spirits yet dwell there was celebration, and consecration, and healing. Kachina had come to welcome and bless us. Far too long had we had been at odds, and apart, poisoned by political and ideological differences. None of that matters, said the kachina. Family is sacred. Family is unity. Family is wholeness.
I turned and looked back but the sun caught my eye and all I could see was golden light.
Dawn comes. The others stir. In the darkness of my own great kiva I reach out with trembling fingers and touch the hieroglyphics scribed on the halls of memory. I see the real but not the whole. And kachina comes, bringer of light, life-bringer. The glyphs flare. All losses restored, all sorrows ended.