Well, I’m back.
And back to a changed world. In the space of a week the skies cleared of swallows and swifts, and turned a deeper blue, too, almost as vivid as that of New Mexico but not quite. The shade beneath the maples grew cooler. Mornings are crisp. Our field of corn doubled in height, creating a green wall hemming us in on the south. The long, crepe-like leaves, composed equally of brooding shadow and incandescent light, shiver and shimmer with the slightest whisper of air, and endlessly change with the angle of the sun. I like the effect.
But I have not been back long enough to acclimate myself to the rolling hills of northeast Kansas. Instead, I inhabit a middle ground somewhere between high rocky desert and tallgrass prairie, a stranger to both, lost almost and uncertain of the road home. It will pass, I know, or suspect, or hope, but until then I feel displaced.
Perhaps the shift in terrain was too sudden, too severe, for my senses to handle. One moment I was hiking through shadowed hoodoos pebbling a land that resembled nothing more than melting ice cream, and the next driving through lush fields of corn and milo. Dry air turned wet and humid. Even the language and culture altered, a change involving more than mere mileage but a very lifetime; San Ysidro to Blue Rapids, Abó to Waterville, the blue Rio Grande to the muddy Big Blue.
When I sit still or close my eyes, I’m back in the Ojito Wilderness, or with my parents and brothers in Albuquerque, or staring mute and dumbfounded at a painting by Peter Hurd. But mostly I find myself at the base of a bluff in an unnamed canyon just beyond Abó Pass, and the sun is hot and the air dusty and the Manzanos a darker blue on the northern horizon, and above me, I know, are a pair of feathered serpents etched into the varnish of a tall basalt outcrop.
It was, for my brother, Reece, and I, one more stab into the heart of the plateau country. We got a late start but a start nevertheless and drove south to exit from the ribbon of I-25 onto a two-lane that bore straight as a ruler toward a low wooded ridge 20 or more miles to the east. What should have been a scenic expanse of geological flux, the upthrust of the Manzano Mountains bleeding into the treeless plains gradually descending into the verdant channel of the Rio Grande Valley, was instead a motley procession of scattered junkyards and cobbled-together mobile homes, each competing for the largest collection of abandoned RVs, engineless vehicles, mounds of tires, rusty appliances and other variegated layers of trash. More than a few were indeed surrounded by barricades of cars and buses, hideous compounds walling away the world at large. Each succeeding shantytown was more extravagant than the last, each decorated with its own stable of newer trucks shining brightly in the sun.
It was a relief to leave them behind and climb into the hills. At an intersection marked by a single unnamed mailbox we turned onto a narrow dirt road and bumped into a wide canyon. Though it had been a year since our last visit, the scenery possessed a familiarity that felt like a homecoming; the latticed corral and gateway hung with an antlerless skull, the wide sweep through fields of cholla, and finally the canyon proper, where the basaltic bluffs closed around us like mantling arms. We parked where a two-track disappeared into tall grass, and slipped into our belts and packs. The question looming large in my mind was how my hip would behave on vertical climbs, for it had been bothering me for months. As it turned out, not too good, but I managed. As if choices were rampant.
Panning the distant ridgeline with my binoculars, I located a petroglyph panel my brother had spoken of. We followed the two-track through the head-high grass to the base of the bluff, where junipers and pinyons stitched the rocky slopes. Up and at an angle to minimize the impact on my hip, we soon stood before a large inscribed panel. Not a breath of air moved, nor birdsong nor any other sound but our labored breathing and the creak of pack harness. Soon followed by the crisp snapping of camera shutters. Besides the usual animalistic carvings, spirals, snakes and faces, there were several groupings of finely-fashioned feet. I counted the toes: an even ten.
More petroglyphs could be seen on the opposite ridge, just down from the feathered serpents. We wended around the base of the bluff to escape the grass and once more scaled the hillside, a little more winded this time, a bit slower. Heat was building with the thunderheads to the north and east. The sky was the deepest shade of turquoise.
Another intricate masterpiece: a small face peering from a star. A spiral rattlesnake. And more as we clambered over the ridge back to the serpents, smaller glyphs tucked into secret crevices or scribbled atop fallen boulders facing the heavens. Our eyes restlessly scanned for markings and snakes, but the only signs of life were the occasional rock wren and small spiny lizards.
My hip didn’t hurt so much as throw me off balance, and sometimes threatened to collapse my right leg entirely. Descending the upper cliff was tricky but not as bad as the descent through loose scree. Near the bottom of the cliff I twisted wrong and pain lanced through my hip. For a moment I teetered unbalanced and then threw myself onto the hillside and, as luck would have it, a scraggly bush. Within seconds two rivulets of blood snaked down my left arm. I shook the blood off until it sprinkled the black stones at the base of the feathered serpents. Looking at the bright wet splashes, I glanced down canyon at the dark bulk of the Manzanos and a towering thunderhead clawing at the azure sky, and wondered how I could ever leave, and wondered, too, why this place resonated so strongly within me. The silence was staggering. Reece turned to descend and I remained a moment longer, blood dripping on the rocks, inhale, exhale, touch the stone, turn to stone, a part of me forever and forever beyond Abó Pass.