The third day almost ends before it begins. A deer wanders into the road in the predawn darkness a few miles southwest of Raton. Chod sees it at the last minute, brakes hard, swerves and misses. And brakes again for another a quarter-mile away. The road’s a veritable playground for mulies, and we don’t let down our guard until the rising sun bathes the foothills in light.
We’re entering a part of the state that New Mexicans cede to outsiders, both reviled Texans (among whom my family is unfortunately numbered, though in fairness we’d had the good sense to renounce the faith by relocating to the mountainous West—lapsed Texans, that’s us) and Boy Scouts. Chod drives through Philmont Scout Ranch to show Jim around and provides a running commentary on its history and purpose. In 1922 Wade Phillips, an Oklahoma oil baron, bought 300,000 acres of mountains and plains and then donated a sizeable portion of it to the Scouts. It was an incredible act of largess, and perhaps a tidy tax deduction, but I really wish he’d passed it down to my family.
“Whoever said ‘money can’t buy happiness’ didn’t know where to shop,” I say as we coast past the palatial grounds of the main lodge.
In stark contrast is the tiny town of Cimarron, just outside the entrance. Inundated each summer with a zillion uniform-clad kids and their chaperones, it’s put to sleep in early September like some droopy-eyed bear. Now at October’s demise it quietly slumbers as the river sidles by, low and clear. Other than a gathering of vehicles in front of the James Hotel, a historic outpost on the Santa Fe Trail whose ceiling still bears bullet wounds from the 1800s, the town appears deserted. We keep our voices low as if concerned some merchant or resident be roused to open their curtains onto a bright sunny morning and wonder what the ruckus is, and us disappeared without a trace.
The prairie behind, we ascend along the Cimarron River. Westward now, the canyon narrow and shaded. It looks familiar as all such canyons do, a thin forested band with a jumble of boulders foaming with whitewater and cliffs anchoring a blue sky. Jim yet harangues us about not telling him about this country. To nobody I say, “For most of my life I took this scenery for granted.”
Indeed. And now it’s as if I’m seeing it for the first time. Though there’s a part of me that deeply yearns for it, it’s odd how little effect entering the foothills has. Not at all like I suspected it would be, and certainly not the emotional upheaval I briefly brushed against at the top of Capulin. But I haven’t seen snow-capped peaks yet, which is another beast altogether.
When we do, Chod asks, “Now?”
“Not yet,” I say.
In my tote is a CD recorded for just this occasion. Actually it’s the soundtrack to the PBS special “The Way West,” but somehow over the years its central theme has come to encompass every emotional nuance associated with the West condensed into one achingly beautiful melody. But something holds me back.
We pass Eagle’s Nest and descend into Red River. From afar the town looks ridiculously narrow, squeezed between the narrow walls of the canyon. The main street is lined with ticky-tacky stores geared toward stealing one’s hard-earned money, and this is evident even in the grocery store where the cost of a pack of hot dog buns stuns me. Even the snacks are outrageous. I decide I don’t need anything that bad. It’s a relief to leave, and mentally I shake off its dust from my boots. If I had to choose between Red River and the howling wastes of Sharon Springs, Kansas, it would be no contest. Sharon Springs might be depressingly desolate but at least it’s authentic.
There’s a surprise waiting for me when we clear the foothills and enter a wide valley of sage and stone. On the northern horizon juts the tall rounded dome of San Antonio Mountain, an integral part of my childhood topography. Thinking of the dozens of times my family drove past it on our way to southern Colorado leads inevitably to thoughts of my parents, whom I haven’t seen in over three years.
The feeling intensifies as we enter Wild Rivers Recreation Area, an area they often recommend to me. After a hurried lunch hunkered down in a shelter, punctuated by a flurry of excitement as a Clark’s nutcracker flies overhead—a lifebird for Jim—we follow the road to its conclusion on a spear of land sandwiched between two vast gorges. The Red River rolls in on our left and the Rio Grande on our right, and the sound of their currents conjoining is muted by the jagged basalt walls into a soft mournful sigh like wind in pines on a moonlit night.
The enormity of the geological spectacle makes it difficult for the eyes to linger on any one thing, but rivers have always fascinated me and confluences most of all, and here are two fabled rivers becoming one. Leaning over the railing until I grow dizzy, I spy a flash of color below. A flock of pinyon jays skirt the base of the cliff, their raucous cries merging with the rivers to become one wild, untamed sound.
Again I’m reminded of my father. He once related a story of how as taps played at the military funeral of a friend, a lone pinyon jay perched in a nearby tree called and called as if in some primitive response, and how forever afterward the jay held a special place in his heart. Plus there’s the fact that my hanging over this railing with a pair of binoculars draped around my neck is mostly attributable to his influence.
Leaving, I dip into the tote and bring out the CD.
“Now’s a good time,” I say.
The opening strains rip open whatever armor I’d placed over my emotions. It’s not mountains I’ve lost but family, I suddenly realize, and as we drive away my eyes fix on the distant snowy peaks as the pinyon pines, junipers, chamisa and sage flow by in an endless loop, as if they were in motion and not us. The others are respectfully silent. Within me something collapses. I am undone.
(Continued next week)