The sun burned bright and hot on the brittle grass and sang in the cottonwoods shading the sluggish Pecos River.
“There’s nothing left,” the ranger said.
We looked through the glass door at a gravel footpath meandering toward a small mound of stones. Each stone was distinct and different in hue and texture and was carried from sacred homelands far away. Each, perhaps, a representation of a people who were starved into submission, herded like wild animals and starved again under the guise of Manifest Destiny. Beyond the mound was a grassy clearing.
We had come looking for the ruins of Fort Sumner. What we found instead was Bosque Redondo, a memorial to the Navajo and Mescalero Apache who were imprisoned during the Civil War. The Navajo were forced to march through winter cold for hundreds of miles; they call it, simply, the Long Walk. Those who survived were kept in squalid conditions, provided meager food rations and housing that consisted of burrows scraped in the soil and covered with branches and hides. In the succeeding five years a third of the people died. The Apaches escaped in 1865, dispersing into the high plains of north-eastern New Mexico. Soldiers were ordered to find them and slaughter every male. Women and girls were to be brought back in chains. What this meant, of course, was that most of them were gunned down where they were found.
The ranger said Native Americans often brought stones or trinkets to add to the pile. One young man asked if he could leave his Purple Heart. He didn’t need it anymore, he said.
The ranger, a middle-aged woman, looked somber. For a moment I thought she would choke up, but finally reined in her emotions with a visible effort.
“It brings tears to my eyes,” she said, “but sometimes we have to send our loved ones to foreign countries and wage war to bring them Christianity and teach them the right way of living. And sometimes they get terribly hurt or killed.”
The three of us stared through the glass. Butterflies skipped from flower to flower. A few lazy clouds dragged themselves lazily through the turquoise sky.
I didn’t know what to say. Her words were so shocking I felt dizzy. That she meant it in all seriousness, and in this place of sorrow and remembrance—this place where the American people did the most vile and reprehensible things to the native population in order to bring them “Christianity and the right way of living”—was an affront. That she couldn’t make the connection was unfathomable.
I thought of the Iraqi man who held up bloodied hands to an AP photographer after a car bomb blew his family to bits, screaming, “You call this freedom? This is hell!”
I wanted to ask her if Jesus’ message of love and salvation was most fruitful when attached to napalm, bunker-busters and .50-caliber bullets. I wanted to ask her what gives one people the right to claim their way of life divinely inspired to the point of exclusion, expulsion or vanquish.
Lori eyed me stonily. Don’t.
“There’s nothing left?” I asked. “Not even the traces of a wall?”
She shook her head. “Nothing.”
Maybe it’s for the best. Erase it, wipe the earth clean of all its traces. Only the senseless tragedy remains, and a brooding presence.
I couldn’t shake the “right way of living” comment. Couldn’t wrap my head around it. Nor could I provide with any clarity a single reason why I shouldn’t point out the fallacies of her reasoning. Not that it would do any good, I knew. Discourse would only create conflict and strife. But silence in the face of misguided patriotism, religious intolerance and xenophobic superciliousness seemed no more than a grudging acquiescence. By not speaking out I tacitly agreed with her. And I most certainly did not agree.
We pushed through the door leading to the memorial.
“Would you like a trail guide?” she asked brightly.
We walked the path to a boardwalk that led into the bosque. Past the first scrim of cottonwoods and Russian olives a narrow platform overlooked the Pecos River whose waters I consider holy. Standing there in the dappled shade I tried letting its current wash away the anger and bitterness I felt but it could not. No birds sang nor called out. The place was silent except for the buzzy drone of cicadas.
Returning to the path, we walked past the stone memorial to the clearing. The ranger was right, there wasn’t even an impression in the dirt. Without a diagram of where the fort stood in relation to the river it was impossible to get our bearings, but imagination carried the weight of our thoughts forward so that for a moment we could see ourselves standing at the exact spot where in 1881 Pat Garrett killed William Bonny, also known as El Chivato, Henry Antrim, Billy the Kid.
My great-great uncle, Josiah “Doc” Scurlock, rode with the Kid during the Lincoln County wars. When it was obvious that defeat was all but assured, Scurlock accepted Governor Lew Wallace’s amnesty and departed the territory, settling in Eastland, Texas, where he became a dentist. I’ve seen his signature in the Lincoln County Courthouse, written while incarcerated. In later photographs he was skinny as a rail, sported a furry mustache half-obscuring his mouth, wore small round spectacles and always looked slightly amused. In many of them he faced away from the camera as the shutter snapped, an oblique and withdrawn figure staring into the distance as if seeing something no one else could see.
There was nothing here. No traces, no connections, real or imagined, only an emptiness that hinted at wounds too deep and raw to forget. I wasn’t sure what I had come for, what had drawn me to this place, but whatever it was had led me astray.
Or maybe not. Maybe the lesson was in learning, at last, the right way of living. Silence in the face of fallacious convictions and perverted righteousness only perpetuates the notion of singularity. These are not the times to be silent.
And yet I remained silent. On the way back to the car I stopped at the visitor center and bought a new biography of the Kid. The ranger and I exchanged pleasantries while she tendered my change. By the time I reached the car I felt despicable, as guilty as the soldiers who watched the atrocity unfolding at Bosque Redondo and did nothing at all to stop it.