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)