Comes dawn, comes wind, comes a cold drizzle. We load the truck in the dark and eat a quick flavorless breakfast. The streets of Lamar are deserted, ghostly in a gray, unforgiving gloom. Leaving town we pass the last fringes of civilization and enter a land as rawboned and wild as it was the day after creation. The few houses we encounter lean empty-eyed and hollow, skeletal remains of failed dreams. Here at the southeastern corner of Colorado the land is merciless. It takes no prisoners. And at best it allows, grudgingly, the imposition of a paved ribbon of highway rising and falling on its stark, barren back.
West of Pritchard we run into snow flurries on a raking gale. I’m poring over an atlas, trying to decipher the maze of interconnected lines, most of which are barely visible in the fading light. It’s not a matter of finding a way to Cottonwood Canyon but of finding a way from Carrizo Canyon, which lies to the east. When I realize we’ve gone too far, Jim turns back. We settle on a dirt road that looks not at all familiar, but it’s been fifteen years since I’ve been here. Nothing has changed but me. We head south.
The road dies at an intersection marked by a collapsing stone house. And suddenly, like an epiphany, I know where we’re at. Two miles more and we see a small wooden sign pointing to Carrizo Canyon. The road narrows into a thin track scraped through cholla cactus and the first fringes of pinyons and junipers. A flock of mountain bluebirds flash by, impossibly blue. We bump through shallow washes and wind upward to the high ground, where the land falls away into deep chasms and rocky gorges. The transition is startling, even when you know what to expect.
A rocky trail leads us into the canyon. Snow is blowing sideways but the clouds overhead are breaking apart. We cross the stream, a clear, spring-fed rivulet pooled between huge blocks dislodged from the cliffs, and climb through Gambel’s oaks to a sheltered spot beneath the crest of a ridge. On a flat slab varnished to a deep oily black are etchings of bighorn sheep, or elk, or fabulous creatures of a prehistoric imagination.
“These are new, right?” Jim asks. They look it, but actually are hundreds of years old. We stare at them in silence. For the first time we get an inkling of the age of humanity in our native country, and all the empty-eyed houses, the rotting corrals, the tottering fence posts, are nothing more than remnants of a time nearer to us than yesterday.
“Oh my Lord,” I say. “I could live here forever and never leave.”
I’m standing behind a hand-hewn cabin moldering back into the soil of a minor side draw off Cottonwood Canyon. The skies to the south are Oklahoman. A stone wall, now collapsed in places, shows a linearity out of place in such jumbled terrain. Set back in the trees is a corral, and below, in an oak-shaded gully, runs a trickle of water, the green shoots of watercress vivid against banks carpeted with fallen leaves. Dark clouds scud overhead. An occasional Chihuahuan raven soars by.
I walk to the stone wall and sit on a large flat rock. It provides an unobstructed view of the old cabin and the high walls of the canyon. A canyon wren scolds. Oh my Lord. My emotions suddenly raw, tears a blink, a thought, away.
It’s like coming home only different, a return to a place I had once loved more than home. From the first time I saw this cabin I’d felt an affinity for it, as if I’d lived there in another life. Each visit was the same, and as powerful, but then we’d stopped coming and finally left Colorado for the prairie, and the years had swept away its memory. Until now. Chod goes searching for the wren. I hunch over, queasy with yearning.
I’m weighing the feasibility of having them leave me here when Chod returns.
Reluctantly I join him as we climb over the wall and hike back to the truck. My feet are leaden, each step a betrayal.
A new emotion filters in. If Cottonwood Canyon affected me so strongly, how will I fare when seeing the mountains? I’m soon to find out as we cross into northern New Mexico. The road gains altitude, winding between buttes and low ridges, until the peak of Mount Capulin juts into view. We drive through Folsom, a town so lovely we barely keep to the road, our heads swiveling madly.
“How come I didn’t know about this country?” Jim demands, but we have no reply. He’s practically speechless, a comical change of pace.
His silence grows deeper at the sight of northern New Mexico as seen from atop the dormant volcano. Here the vista is on a grand scale, a raven’s eye view, gazing down on the broad sweep of pressure ridges, flat-topped buttes, treeless mesas and the snow-dusted slopes of Sierra Grande. And, more important to my state of being, the distant Sangre de Christos, half-veiled by storm clouds and not dusted with snow, not whitened, but buried, vertical snowfields fulgent in the afternoon sunlight. My pulse races. Though the climb to the pinnacle of the volcano was tough, mostly due to the frigid gale blowing from the north, all that comes to mind is a fragment of Whitman’s poem: O my soul. O my soul.
And I wonder for a moment if I can ever again be content in Kansas.
We decide to stay the night in Raton rather than pitch tents in 24-degree weather, which is forecast. At the hotel Jim and Chod make themselves comfortable, curtains drawn to the rarified autumnal air of New Mexico. I drift outside and find a Say’s phoebe plus a small flock of pine siskins. The falling light lies golden on the cottonwoods and chamisa. How could I have ever left?
My emotions are on overload. Lord, I’m tired. And tomorrow we cross the mountains…
(Continued next week)