Sunday, August 29, 2010
Thursday, August 26, 2010
Two days out and east with the dawn. Not a leave-taking but a rout, three men striving to coexist in a compact encapsulated space bounded by thin metal walls and bug-splattered safety glass, rising junipered hills and a narrow green valley winding serpentine for miles without end. The road hugged one side or the other and leapfrogged the quicksilver stream running cold and clear from the highlands and dew sparkling on the lush meadows. As the road ever climbed toward the continental divide and the rarified air of Cumbres Pass the junipers gave way to spruces and ponderosas and sheer rocky outcrops a thousand feet high. Some normality intruded into an otherwise somber voyage, mostly new birds of note that had me tapdancing the brakes and whipping U-turns on nearly deserted highways. During such times it was easy to forget that we were no longer a team but individual and disparate members of a failed enterprise whose unity had collapsed into unanswerable questions and a simmering resentment of unknowable origins. Birds brought us together, but the cohesion could not hold.
The scenery was a respite filling the otherwise empty spaces, and unutterably beautiful. And, once past the railroad town of Chama, as familiar to me as the back of my hand.
If not for having to concentrate on the road I would have slipped into a reverie of memories so depthless I would have drifted away from my corporeal state to become one with the ghosts that rose to greet me from the skunkweed and open meadows and the shining twin rail of the narrowgauge track and the pines with their gray jays and juncos and the rivulets winding down to join and conjoin and foam into the glittering surge of the Conejos River. Here were the meadows where we once encamped, as a child and a boy and a teenager and an adult and father and husband and now lost and alone and not alone. In limbo. There was the meadow where I almost had to shoot a bull with the .45-70 to protect our son, and a narrow side road winding toward a flat plateau where I photographed my father walking through fields of wildflowers and the distant cone of San Antonio Mountain marking one of the four corners of our own hallowed geography. We topped the divide where the waters also divide and descended and far below crossed the river and followed it toward the distant sagebrush flats. And for all our hurry to escape the present I turned into Aspen Glade campground and sojourned with the ghosts and listened for a short spell to the river’s haunting music.
And on and on and every mile another living memory, through Antonito and Mogote and Romeo and across the empty quarter into San Luis with the serrated spine of the Blood of Christ range our final hurdle before leaving the mountainous West. At Fort Garland we stopped to eat but the broken snag of a tooth had steadily carved a groove in my cheek and the pain held me in check and stitched me to this time and none other.
Beyond La Veta Pass it was an anticlimactic retracing of our former path with little to hold our interest other than a desire to reach our homelands. We reached Lamar early and though I would have pushed on through the night had it been left to me we pulled into the hotel and unloaded and the codgernauts collapsed onto their beds and slept while I downloaded images and at last took out my Leatherman and filed down the broken tooth with the metal rasp. After that experience I downed the last of the beer wishing all the while for something much stronger.
The next morning brought an insistence to the miles as if we were tugged forward by an unseen presence. In the navigator’s seat I pored over the map and counted the miles and thought not for the first time about the arbitrariness of borders and their meanings whose dependency lies buried within our past. I wondered if I would sense on some subliminal level the crossing of the border from Colorado into Kansas and in so doing tried staring out the side window to prevent seeing any signs proclaiming the end of one and the beginning of the other. We were close and I knew it but wanted no contagion to spoil my experiment. And yet without askance the signs hove into view invalidating anything I might have gleaned and so we crossed into Kansas skies.
I tried imbuing the fields with a symbolic presence altogether beyond their power and could not and in defeat resigned myself to watching the empty lands slide past in their own ranked order. Entering Kansas wasn’t the same as entering New Mexico with its ethereal turquoise sky so unlike any other, but less defined, almost lacking in recordable detail as if the terrain had adopted a stoic Midwestern attitude and shunned any outward form of showiness including mountains or mesas or glittering trout streams running cold from the snowy peaks. And yet dawn’s slanted sun burned golden in our eyes and glowed in the mist rising from the fields and glimmered on the elevators of Coolidge, a tiny town here one moment and gone the next leaving barely an imprint on our retinas but at once familiar as all prairie towns are familiar.
Wanting to write something evocative about our return, I picked up the little spiral journal scribbled with bird sightings and truncated reports of our peregrinations. But what was there to say? Our journey ended in disharmony. “We’re home and that’s all that matters,” I finally penned, knowing even as I did that it was only half true, that friendships mattered, that broken friendships needed mending. I wanted to write, “Are we up to the task?” but knowing that time alone would provide the answer I put away the journal and settled back for the long miles home.
Monday, August 23, 2010
Sunday, August 22, 2010
Saturday, August 21, 2010
Thursday, August 19, 2010
Everything about the morning was wrong for our stated purpose of photographing the hoodooed De-Na-Zin and Bisti wildernesses. The incandent sun mounted ever higher as shadows withdrew like turtles’ heads into their carapaced shells and the unfolding land flattened into a two-dimensional tapestry. Our Trailblazer dragged a plume of dust that rose fast and settled slowly in the unmoving air as we advanced westward hemmed by ragged barbed wire fences and few signs of civilization other than the rare mudwalled hogan. Dust-devils spawned in the distance and died away. Drivers we encountered seemed incurious of our lot and refused all method of greeting but stared stonily forward through streaked and begrimed windshields. Jim said it was due to their culture. I said it was because we were biligaana.
It was impossible not to feel our alienness. We were interlopers in a sovereign nation not our own and everything surrounding us hammered home the fact. The stunted trees, the brittle grasses, the reddish sandy soil, the turquoise sky, the birds—Cassin’s kingbird! Say’s phoebe! Black-chinned sparrow!—only accentuated the distances separating us from our homelands.
The trailhead for De-Na-Zin was a barren scrape with a single path cutting away to the north. We got out and stretched away the kinks and began festooning ourselves with our accoutrements only to stop and gape at a pair of elderly Navajos ambling down the road. They moved eastward without glance to the right or left, seemingly oblivious to the miles of nothingness on all sides, their transit almost regal as if they alone were lords of this land. They appeared fashioned from the earth itself, their raiment an admixture of modern and traditional and all of it tattered and frayed. We watched in stunned silence and never thought to lift camera for what we witnessed was a sacrament and holy. Neither spoke but moved in stately unison into the rising sun until the sun took them and they were no more.
The trail when we set out was crisscrossed with the tracks of reptiles and rodents and all manner of birds and the booted soles of hikers. Each imprint scored deeply the sand to endure until subsumed into another or erased by the wind. A hundred yards from the vehicle we came across a broad pad the size of a saucer with no other tracks to embellish it. Jim stooped over in study and announced that we were no longer at the top of the food chain. Our eyes swiveled to the sage and junipers and roved for tawny shapes with golden feline eyes and found them only in our imagination, but it was enough to inject a new wariness. It was fitting in that otherwordly place to believe our every move was monitored.
And for all that, De-Na-Zin was a disappointment. Reaching the hoodoos would require much more time that we’d allotted so after a short period where we again split up with Jim and Chod disappearing over a short bluff and me tracking what turned out to be a mockingbird with a distinctly Navajo dialect we reunited and continued westward across the dusty miles to the ribbon of asphalt where we rejoined the world.
The greater world, we discovered, had descended on the Bisti and lay encamped at the top of the bluff overlooking the main arroyo like some silvered army glittering in the sun. On the opposite side of the wash was a smaller camp with tents billowing in the soft breeze and semi trailers and miles of heavy electrical cables snaking across the ground and arc lamps and a host of workers bustling about. A flagman waved us to a halt and asked our destination and we replied but he appeared altogether dubious as if none in their right mind would wander this sunbaked desert willingly or without adequate salary. To our own query he said they were filming a television segment and did not want to be disturbed but after a while waved us on with an admonition to go at a snail’s pace but to go without gawking.
We were without question a source of curiosity among the workers and gofers zipping past on their four-wheelers but after a few hundred yards we faded into the bleached light and after a mile we entered a land riven with gullies and cañoncitos and disappeared altogether. On either side rose spires and crenellated towers and mushroom-capped mounds of cracked mud and hillocks of fine pebbles each another hue, some scarlet and others stygian purple. Nor did we walk together but struggled after Chod who took off alone as if wanting no more to do with us. After searching through a labyrinth of alluvial fans we came upon him sitting on a stone and Jim asked that we stay together or at least within eyesight.
“Fine,” he said, but it was anything but fine and we knew it.
I felt poisoned somehow and had no way of understanding the part I was to play among them. Jim tried refereeing but Chod and I clashed again and again and always over minor trivialities that seemed at the time of major import. Our bickering carried with us to a distant row of hoodoos and back the long miles to the vehicle and into Farmington and beyond to Aztec where the ultimate break came in a squabble over a map. I’ve never been one to back down from a fight and was not about to start at this juncture and yet I still held out a glimmer of hope that Shaman could magick a truce or at least defuse the situation, but he could not. The best he could do was announce with finality that the trip was finished.
“We’re going home,” he said. “It’s been a good trip, but we wore out our welcome.”
(Conclusion next week)
Sunday, August 15, 2010
Because I am now scarred for life and feel compelled, even driven, to do a Cheryl Unruh on the food we order, this time at Our Daily Bread in Barnes
Thursday, August 12, 2010
Something changed in Butler Wash though I did not know it then nor even shortly after we set out when I croaked out an invitation for free malts at the little mom-and-pop cafe on the outskirts of Bluff. I sat in the back seat nursing a bottle of water and watched the jaundiced stony ground whip past and fulvous tendrils of virga falling in long diaphanous veils to burn away before making landfall. Bluff appeared ahead but the vehicle turned onto another road whose sign directed us to Mexican Water and I knew something was amiss. Maybe they hadn’t heard me, I thought. Maybe I only thought I said something.
For a long time we drove through level featureless terrain bordered on every side by flat-topped buttes hazy in the dusty air, and the storm which had held off now bore down with wind and faint spatterings of rain that only collected the dust and clotted it into small brown specks like freckles. The air turned sulfurous and lightning forked the air but it was mostly behind us as we fled without dialogue. Uppermost in my mind was the remembrance of how we wished for adventure and found perhaps too much of it and here then was the price. But whatever cost I associated with the canyon was merely guesswork, preemptive and dulled with pain. The bill would come due in short order.
Slowly the soil reddened and spires jutted heavenward though still we moved blind to the greater horizons. After what seemed an eternity one such spire pronounced itself with its singularity to rise above the lesser buttes and dominate the eye and I knew then where we were. It seemed forged from altogether different materials and had the appearance of the prow of a ship cresting the waters. Its name was Shiprock.
We entered Farmington and immediately clogged in traffic. At the first chance we turned off into a Dairy Queen as was our wont but the place was packed with Navajos and a few roundeyes from which we stood in stark contrast for our filthy clothing. I tried wiping the dried blood from my hands without success and as we entered eyes swiveled toward us and never relinquished their curious gaze. The bathrooms were closed for cleaning so we ordered and washed as best as possible with a little vial of antiseptic gel left on the counter for that purpose.
Jim kept staring at me and shaking his head. “At least you’ll get your green chile burger at Bubba’s,” he said, meaning of course Blake’s Lotaburger which we comically missed during our last foray two years ago. We passed several Blake’s but we wanted clean clothes first and so found the hotel and showered and emerged almost human again.
But Blake’s wasn’t on the agenda. Jim broke the news that we were walking across the street to a cafe recommended by the clerk.
“We’re having comfort food,” Chod said, and I did not believe the edge in his voice was my imagination.
According to the map we were three blocks from a Blake’s but I was in no condition to walk that far. I stared at the two of them and knew I was outvoted and said simply that I was eating there tomorrow or somebody was going to get murdered.
The food at the cafe was terrible except for the small bowl of green chile cheese soup that had to be the finest ever to pass my lips. I almost wept with joy at being in New Mexico again where chile is the mainstay of all culinary repasts, but whatever delight summoned forth by that dish was shortlived for a cloud had settled upon us. Jim seemed his usual banterous self but between Chod and me a gulf loomed. He had rescued me twice for which I owed him but he had also split up and left me behind and the thought nagged me like my sore tooth. As we settled into the hotel he distanced himself from us and I wiped down my camera and inspected the sensor chamber and downloaded the images taken that day. Jim came over to watch and we talked quietly and then he tried engaging Chod. Shaman as dutiful peacekeeper.
Our last western expedition had ended rancorously and I hoped this would not be a repeat. But as dawn lightened the east ours was a silent trio. Jim and Chod ate a free continental breakfast while I waited for a green chile fix which came in the guise of a massive stuffed burrito at Blake’s. In between rhapsodic bites I navigated as Chod drove. We headed south to an abandoned trading post and turned off into a warren of dirt tracks only sparsely numbered. Trying to find our way in the DeLorme was like reading tea leaves at the bottom of a saucer or the indecipherable scribblings of a child. All we knew was that a certain road took us across a wide expanse of sand and sage to a small wilderness known as the De-Na-Zin and beyond to the Bisti, and that if we departed that road unwittingly our chances of finding either were in the low percentages. The horizon on all cardinal points was flat and void of notable feature other than the distant blue bulwark of the Chuska Mountains but even it proved elusive as the sun burned the sky white and distant marks shimmered like mirages.
We came at last to a crossroads whose skewed signs were bewildering and halted while discussing the merits of either path. Both were equally wide and meandered in the proper direction but deciding between them was an act of prophecy. As navigator I had the last word but my word was ignored and we charged off until doubt crept in and still we drove until we came to a Y whose signs had none of the proper numbering. I wasn’t expecting an apology and didn’t get one but a silence descended that had the hard edge of stone or ice or implacable distrust or something else I could not then nor even now put name to.
(To be continued)