Thursday, December 28, 2006

What the shaman said (Part 9)

The bluffs are irregular silhouettes swimming against a paler darkness when we three converge on the stove. It soon begins hissing a small blue flame. Chod throws together what passes for breakfast burritos, and as we choke them down by the sterile light of our headlamps I consider petitioning Congress to ban him from ever again cooking Mexican food. The thought of the Blake’s Lottaburger green chile hamburger I’m going to eat at lunch—and the motel later—is a sweet warmth dispelling the 38-degree temperature.

Leaving the others behind, I march to a point overlooking Fajada Butte. Though I hope for an errant sunbeam to strike the peak, it’s a vain hope. There is no dawn, only a gradual shift from black to gray. I wait beside my tripod as sparrows and rabbits stir in the chamisa and the sky brightens and the butte rises like some craggy sentinel, and I wait some more, and finally shoot a series of photographs anyway and hustle back to camp. The others are already packed so I throw myself into knocking down the tent.

Jim wanders over and watches me as I finish jamming my sleeping bag into a stuff sack. Motioning me over to the picnic table, he lays his hand on a large flat stone.

“Shaman says, ‘This stone has been sent by the gods. We must do what it says.’”

I’ve still got work to do but I’m humoring him. All his haranguing about connections between patterns found in the terrain and how people lived has been thought-provoking but I’m a little busy right now. The stone is like any of the millions that have fallen from the cliffs—reddish, rough, fissured. He flips it over.

For a moment I stare stupidly. It’s not just a stone—it’s a blueprint of Pueblo Bonito, the largest of the Chacoan communities, replete with its odd half-moon shape, pocked with dozens of circular indentations like kivas and banded with outlying walls. When I open my mouth to say something nothing comes out. Jim claps me on the on the shoulder, barks a laugh and walks off.

In all the Chaco literature I’ve read there has never been a mention of shamans dictating architectural designs from asymmetrical stones, but here is proof. And I wonder if I could steal the stone, ferret it away as a memento of the shaman’s speech. I don’t, but it’s tempting. We leave it on the table for the next acolyte.


North we go, past the occasional hogan with its brush arbor and wooden corral. The land morphs into weird rock formations and colorful banded ridges, the towns all named in a foreign tongue. Traffic picks up as we near Farmington, but we veer off toward Aztec, the northern outpost of Chacoan civilization. If we thought it would be another Chaco, we are sorely mistaken.

Not much remains of the ruin other than a few buildings and several kivas. One has been restored and this surprises me. For some reason it never crossed my mind that the Anasazi would plaster the stone walls with adobe. The kiva is huge, dimly lit by recessed lights, and our entry triggers a recording of Native American dances. Regardless of the interactive music, I’m unable to get a sense for anything other than a lifeless room. The sign at the entrance says “This is a sacred place.” I wonder if die-hard Bible-thumpers are able to make that connection or if their self-righteousness blinds them to the fact that others worshipped differently, if not equally as fervently as themselves.

On the way out of town we pass a Blake’s. My suggestion for an early lunch is soundly nixed. Democracy in action. Mouth slavering, heart rent, I pass on.


In Farmington my incorrigible cohorts decide they’re starving. It’s been many years since my last Blake’s green chileburger and my craving knows no bounds. The problem is that there are two codgers and one chilehead in the truck, and that math doesn’t add up to anything favoring my odds. Jim’s not picky but Chod is a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. Self-proclaimed and unrepentant about it, says it drives his wife crazy. I’m beginning to think we should have left Chod at home but since it’s his truck and he’s the chef I probably should just keep my Big Fat Mouth shut. But it’s damned hard.

We pass every kind of restaurant known to man and a few that aren’t. No Blake’s. The edge of town is coming up and we’re too tired to turn around so when we spot an Arby’s I’m commanded to pull over. Inwardly I’m gnashing my teeth and rending my garments.

As we eat our tasteless fodder we puzzle over how to head south out of town. Chod finally gets up and asks two burly dudes if they know. When he comes back he’s wearing a predatory leer.

“They say to go straight on this road and turn left at the Blake’s Lottaburger,” Chod says. He’s clearly savoring this moment.

I stop masticating mid-chew. “You’re screwing with me,” I stammer.

“I kid you not!” Mr. Innocence leaps to his feet and strides over to the pair. “Tell him where to turn,” he insists. They look at me as if I’m some kind of dweeb and say, “At the Lottaburger.”

The look on my face is cause for great hilarity. Jim’s croaking like a raven and may well be choking on his sandwich. Chod is all teeth.

Slowly, ever so slowly, I bow my head and bang it on the table.

When we get in the truck and head off, Chod says, “Notice what I did? I asked for directions. They say men never ask for directions.”

“Yeah,” I say, “but you’re the one who went to the ‘Becoming an Outdoor Woman’ thing. What does that mean?”

“I was there as an instructor,” Chod says. His voice has an edge to it.

“You wear such a lovely shade of mascara,” I say.

So much for Blake’s, and so much for men asking directions.

(Continued next week)

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