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.