Sunset bison

Sunset bison
Sundogs

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The codgernauts--Jim Mayhew, Chod Hedinger and me (L-R)


Barely a pueblo -- El Cuartelejo, the only pueblo in Kansas


The trail to El Cuartelejo


Coming full circle (Part 17)

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.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Home is also part of the journey (Part 16)

“This is loserville,” Chod says.

At a truck stop in Texas we confront an America nightmare.

Each pump is tethered to a vehicle like some intravenous feeding tube. More vehicles lie in wait, the faces of their drivers pinched with anxiety and impatience. Doors open and slam, a mass of humanity surges toward the doors to engage a second exiting mass, shouldering past one another with neither apology nor eye contact. They love this place for its amenities, the bathrooms, the snacks, the cold drinks and milkshakes, the fuel to whisk them away as fast as possible, while at the same time despising it, the cheap goods, the sullen clerks, the unkempt facilities, the jostling, rude strangers, the raw cold wind raking dust in their eyes, the colorless sky, the endless miles.

For a very brief moment I take in the scene. “The more I’m around people,” I say, “the more I like Cottonwood Canyon.” And we wade into the fray.

The place is stocked with a staggering array of shoddy trinkets and brand-name knockoffs manufactured in Asian sweatshops, and the truly horrifying thing is that people are actually buying the crap. They pore over it with a scrutiny not out of place in Cartier’s. One college-aged kid holds up a cheap leather wallet to show his friend. “This looks good to me,” he says.

To me it looks like discolored scraps of leather barely held together with fishing line, but what do I know.

I turn away, any hope for the human race diminishing by the minute. These are our next leaders. We’re doomed.

***

The girl at Days Inn is friendly. Very friendly, and excruciatingly helpful. She has all the answers and all the y’alls, and it sounds good coming from her. That soft Texas drawl is music to my ears.

I grew up with y’alls, mind you.

We rolled into Amarillo too late to visit Palo Duro Canyon, which is Jim’s choice of destinations. The sky has turned ugly, with dark clouds scudding before a stiff north wind. All we want is a place to eat a Texas-sized steak and then to lock ourselves into a room where we can relax. Plus, I have a date with a six-pack.

Our familiar routine kicks in: unlace bungee cords, stack plastic containers beside the truck, haul inside, return for another load. Jim grimaces as the weight of his container puts undue stress on his knees, and as he waits for the pain to subside he stares off at some reference point known only to himself and says, “It’s time to go home.”

It catches me off guard. Jim the shaman, the wise one who sees patterns and rhythms where others see only stones, or passing cars and trucks on the nearby interstate, and now, perhaps, a reader of hearts, for this was ascendant in my thoughts for several days now, though I vowed not to be the first to utter the words. At first I think he’s talking to himself, but I’ve never seen him do so. That leaves me with the certain knowledge that his comment is directed toward me, for Chod has disappeared into the hotel.

What is there for me to say? An agreement only, and no more. For I have suddenly been elevated to a precarious position, confidant to two others whose desires are now at opposite extremes, and none to ask where I stand.

In truth, I could go either way—home or another night camping at Scott City Lake in western Kansas. And I realize then that my ambivalence is my strength, a bargaining chip, that straddling the middle doesn’t make me a tie-breaker so much as a bystander. They will decide among themselves.

This is not a sign of weakness on Jim’s part, but unvarnished honesty. I’m proud of him.

After unpacking I walk over to the Love’s gas station cattycorner to the hotel. It’s the place to buy beer, the gal says. And the closest, which is important because I’m edgy now that we’re in the city. I grab a six-pack of my favorite brew and take it to the front counter. The clerk is young and so clean-cut it’s almost frightening. The fact that we’re deep in Baptist territory does not escape me.

“Are you old enough to purchase the product?” he asks with a shy smile.

“I hope so,” I say.

“The white gives it away,” he says, fluttering his hand toward my beard. He’s kind enough not to mention the wrinkles.

I smile and hand him the money.

“I hope I made your day,” he says. Same syllabication as the hotel clerk. Same politeness, the puppy-dog eagerness to please.

“I’m too tired for that now,” I say, “but I’m sure tomorrow I’ll have a warm fuzzy feeling.”

On the way out I hold the door open for a lady who gives me a sweet, and twangy, thank yew.

All the way back I keep saying “thank yew,” trying to stretch those three little letters into something you can take to the bank. For good measure I add a y’all. The rising gale plucks the words toward the Gulf of Mexico. Much as I hate to say it, Amarillo is a real friendly place.

We drive to the steakhouse, the skies now completely sealed, night falling early. The temperature plummeting. Since this is Texas the serving sizes are enormous, providing much-needed ballast upon our leaving, for by then the wind is a seething, angry monster.

Once again, outside the hotel, Jim pulls me aside to talk of cutting short the trip. “We’ve had our fun,” he says. “Going home is also part of the journey.”

And so it is. I’m noncommittal, but all night I remain half-awake, wondering how the morrow will play out.

(Conclusion next week)

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Long miles to Texas (Part 15)

Sign on a small building on the main street of Vaughn, New Mexico: “I buy rocks and things.”

Another, larger, says, “Female vocalist wanted.”

Barren, windswept, desolate, stores shuttered, cafes closed, Vaughn looks dead except for a budding resurgence in new service businesses huddled around the convergence of intersections east of town. Common to those found everywhere in the United States, the very newness and sameness of the brand-name motels and restaurants is a suppurating scab on the town’s sun-rotted corpse.

But for some they must seem a beacon of civility in a wild, uncompromising land, especially for weary travelers arriving late at night or looking for shelter in a storm. And, I suppose, they provide a few jobs. Road weariness is robbing me of objectivity.

The terrain undulates gently with nothing to capture the eye. No cow nor sheep nor dwelling, no tree, no shrub nor any other growing thing taller than the drought-stricken grass, only an endless procession of fenceposts singing in the wind. Inside the truck conversation dulls, as if that terrible voluminal emptiness could not dare be disturbed.

Had we known how lucky we were in those prolonged hours navigating the bleak prairie, how its very desolation, both of terrain and of road, was also a sort of consolation so that time and miles drifted weightlessly away in our slipstream, we might have appreciated it for the reprieve it was. Lulled into a state of benumbed dormancy, only dimly aware of our surroundings, we sailed along in a mesmeric daze of monotony. But it was shattered at Santa Rosa.

***

Is this indeed the old Mother Road, and can the Joads still be heard on the wind? Fat chance of anything being heard above the incessant roar of diesel engines and the jackhammering of construction as new branded businesses multiply like fungus. Three exits, each connected to the umbilical cord of the highway, sucking in travelers and spitting them out. Jim dimly remembers a Lottaburger here from a previous trip, but we’re unable to find it. Traffic is horrendous. We backtrack on a frontage road looking for a place to eat. A crowded Mexican restaurant looks appealing but I’d promised my partners to let them choose for the remainder of the trip. When Jim turns into a McDonald’s my stomach lurches.

The place is packed. As we wait in line the congestion worsens when two school buses deposit their loads. Dozens of young girls stream in, a voluble horde strangely singular in nature with each individual yakking away on a cell phone. Maybe they’re conversing among themselves. We take our tasteless meal to a remote table and contemplate the chaotic scene. We haven’t been around this much humanity since—when? I can’t remember. It’s frightening. Our nerves are fraying.

Santa Rosa serves as a reminder of why intelligent travelers should at all costs avoid interstates. Other than portions of I-80 near Cheyenne, Wyoming, I’ve never seen so many semis. And every one of them piloted by a psychotic lunatic.

It comes to me that I’m being a trifle harsh with Santa Rosa. It’s an extraction business—no more, no less, such as the Kerr-McKee mines in Grants or the gypsum mine in Blue Rapids—just a different sort of extracting. Money from wallet. And anyway, if we’d located a Blake’s Lottaburger I’d still be singing Santa Rosa’s praises. That level of hypocrisy should shame me but I remain stubbornly intransigent.

Northeast of Santa Rosa we run into road destruction. Orange cone hell. Thinking of home, dust blowing, temperature 54 degrees, sunny, hot in the copilot seat. Old Highway 66 paralleled the interstate, the latter now in ruins. Top speed of 45, which by trucker standards is infinitesimally slow. Jim’s cursing the truckers, they’re cursing back. Chod dozing in the back seat. We’re getting our kicks on—oh, shut up.

A sign says another it’s another 121 miles to Amarillo. It seems like a million miles. Tired and bored, the scenery stark. Between work zones traffic jackrabbits to impressive speeds, with trucks and cars jockeying for lead position. I try not to watch as the speedometer crests 75 and then 80. Chod cocks an eye and tells Jim to watch his speed. Jim’s response is swift. “I’m trying not to get run over by these #@%*# truckers,” he snaps.

“That’s fine,” Chod says calmly, “but keep it below eighty.”

His driving is making me nervous. Why can’t he use the cruise control? Just set it, sit back and relax. Let everybody go around. I can’t imagine any trucker being crazy enough to ram a vehicle from behind. But you never know.

More cones and signs, the highway narrows to a single chute. Jim chafing at the delay. Chod nodding off again, me wanting a bathroom and an empty road out of here.

***

Any question about my emotional status upon entering my home state is brutally answered when I read a sign at the border. Bolting upright, I let loose a vile imprecation, adding, not without some justification, “I’m going to throw up.”

Jim, nerves afire, looks around wildly. “What!”

I can’t decide which phrase makes me most nauseous, “Drive friendly the Texas way” or “Proud home of George W. Bush.” Anyone familiar with Texas knows the drivers are suicidal maniacs, so this could be an invitation to forget everything you learned in driving school and really cut loose. As for Bush shibboleth, all I should say is that as a former Texan my sentiments run closer to those expressed by the Dixie Chicks than, say, mainstream Republicans. Though that’s certainly changing.

To make matters worse, the map shows a rest area that plainly isn’t here. Discomfort turns into acute suffering at the conjoined gravity of too many fluids and too many miles. The traveler’s travail. Jim’s keeping it at 75. For once, just once, I wish he’d drive the friendly Texas way.

(Continued next week)

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Sotol, related not to yucca but to the lily, and the distant Sacramento Mountains


The malpais--literally "bad land"


Scenes from the fallout zone (Part 14)

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)