Thursday, January 25, 2007

Return to an unfamiliar dawn (Part 13)

At the gateway to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is the famous Owl Bar and Café, and it is here that my codgernautical companions, in a fit of uncommon mercy, allow me to stop. Though a clear majority of our odd democratic party had settled on eating at K-Bob’s Steakhouse in Socorro, they take pity on me for my inability to find a Lottaburger. And, possibly, crave a cessation of sniveling.

By now I’m practically delirious. I babble my order of two green chile cheeseburgers to the waitress and then recoil at Chod’s unregenerate refusal to follow suit. Visiting Bosque without eating an Owl chile burger is downright immoral if not potentially illegal, and I furiously demand an accounting. He dismisses me with a bored look. “Because I don’t have to,” he says.

I don’t have to. Here’s his chance to try something new, something unique to southern New Mexico, to sample the very pinnacle of green chile burgers—the benchmark, for God’s sake—and all he can do is act like a spoiled child. I’m so disgusted my eyes are crossed. His parents should have beaten him more.

Jim orders a regular burger and asks for chile on the side.

Now, eating a green chile hamburger is not a meal so much as a religious experience, and nowhere on the face of the planet is it perfected as at the Owl Café. Years ago Outside magazine ran an article that listed ten restaurants that were so sublime as to warrant detours of up to 200 miles. High on the list was the Owl. Impressive as that sounds, my partners are unfazed. Their intransigence utterly dumbfounds me, and as I sourly nurse a beer I glance around at the other people and wonder if they would have been better companions.

When our orders come Jim slides the chile across the table with a wink. I add it to my burger until it oozes from the bun like green manna and remark that it’s a pity I didn’t bring my camera. Such a photo would have warmed many a cold Kansas night. With a zeal hitherto unseen, like a ravenous beast or deprived chilehead, I set upon the burger with claw and fang. At the first savorous mouthful the walls roll away and the heavens open, Gabriel’s trumpet peals, an angelic choir belts out the hallelujah chorus and divine light fills the room. It’s that good.

Chod refuses to look my way. With a sneer I hiss, “Sissy.”

After that I’m a little busy.


Night. We cruise the main drag for a liquor store with none to be found. Nor is beer sold in convenience stores. Socorro puts me in a drinking mood but my thirst goes unslaked.

At the hotel we turn on the TV and watch the weather forecast. Our usual routine, only now we’re wondering if our southward flight were wisdom or folly. Wise, it was, and then some. The smiling faces regale us with tales of blizzards and road closures, of belligerent winter cruel and savage. And here’s a new equation—a major storm to the east has us sandwiched between that roaring down from the north.

Out come the maps. Going south has added a day to the itinerary, mainly due to the extra mileage. Today we drove over 350 miles, and tomorrow should be about the same. And for the first time our direction takes us homeward. While none of us are yet willing to mention it, our trip is slowly drawing to a close. Now we’re at the mercy of an unpredictable stormfront.

I call Lori to tell her where we are. She’s surprised and wants to know if we visited my parents in Albuquerque. No, but I called them and left a message. I don’t tell her how much I miss them now. That it’s a bonedeep ache that throbs and throbs. That the very nearness compounds the pain. “Two more days,” I tell her. “Maybe three, depending on the weather.”

Hanging up is like some inward severance of sinew and muscle. I drag my wounds to the lobby where I scribble notes until weariness draws a veil over the pages.


How long ago did I wake in this town to an unfamiliar dawn? The twin beds, the rusty radiator, the bathroom tiles cracked and missing, the claw-foot tub mangy with worn enamel, the window staring out at the empty fountain whose waters had long since turned to dust, only a memory, like the memories choking me in my time of despair. The Colt unholstered on the nightstand. Uniform draped on the other bed. A pair of scuffed boots, a small suitcase, a book, notebook, pen. The earthly possessions of a vagabond or gypsy trapped in a limbo between what was and what was to be. And in that gray dawn my choices were so few, pared down to a grim minimum that I could not help but recognize. To stop or go. Behind me a manhunt, before me the lonely anonymity of a stranger, and always, always, the reiterant castigations and forlorn wishes that tasted like ash. The pistol, finally, heavy in my hand as I slid it into the holster, secured the snap, and went out into the new day.

Shadows stretch long in the early sun. We load the truck—a familiar routine now, our plastic containers against the tool box, the food box canted across the fifth-wheel hitch, bungee cords laced through all, ice box wedged by the wheel well, our personal belongings tossed in the cab. At a gas station we fill up and grab snacks for the day. Top off our coffee cups. Jim starts the truck and asks for directions. “Texas,” I say.

Across the Jornada del Muerto, the journey of the dead, and after that the malpais.

(Continued next week)

Friday, January 19, 2007

Sunset at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Dance of the cranes (Part 12)

After a thousand miles of two-lane highway, mostly through unpopulated regions, the traffic flow on Interstate 40 at San Rafael is like an explosion. Vehicles hurl past with no pretension of adhering to the rule of law, truckers being the most egregious. In the complete absence of enforcement, unmitigated anarchy rules. We’re swept up in the maelstrom, more prisoner than freeman, and when Chod obstinately sets the cruise control it quickly becomes obvious that we’re a terrible hindrance to the free movement of commerce. Sociopathic truckers inch forward until their polished chrome grills are inches from our rear bumper, or when passing glare like some B-grade Western baddie. Coupled with all the inattentive boneheads with cell phones pasted to their ears and the usual percentage of lunatics, it’s a shock to the system.

As we descend into the Rio Grande Valley, the Manzanos rising to the east, the Sandias to the northeast and Albuquerque an unseen but felt presence below those rounded blue mountains, I’m again reminded of my parents. I miss them terribly. On the truck thermometer the temperature hits 70 degrees, and not for the first time today we’re glad we didn’t head north. The valley is a vibrant ribbon tinged with yellow and amber and bright with fractured sunlight.

If anything the irritability of truckers increases when we take a two-lane shortcut southeastward toward I-25. Chod seems oblivious of the rising tension but Jim is visibly disturbed. As if in order to get his mind off the ill-mannered, rude, loutish—and potentially lethal—antics of lowbred, narcissistic drivers, he turns to me and asks, “Not counting your parents, who most influenced you between the ages of zero and eighteen?”

Nobody immediately comes to mind, but I pursue the idea. I was fairly insulated from the world back then, interested more in lizards and the outdoors than friends, though I had a few close ones. Or maybe not so close. Teachers bored me, as did school. Church was social, religious, mandatory, but nobody was a mentor or guide. Who then?

All I can come up with is Mr. Brown. He was a friend of my parents and a member of the church, and sometimes I would housesit for him. On his own accord he took a gangly red-headed kid and revealed to him the night sky, and for the first time the heavens had a semblance of order, and a beauty both heartrending and divine. There was Betelgeuse glowing red as a torch, Sirius like a distant beacon, the glittering belt of Orion and the pockmarked surface of the moon. I never knew his first name. He’s dead now, gone for many years.

Hesitant, unsure of Jim’s intentions, I confide how Mr. Brown literally opened a new universe for me. And in the saying emotions honed by proximity to a place once called home catch me unawares, and my words, sundered, fall into a wistful silence. An insistent wish to thank him suddenly strikes me. But how does one speak the language of the dead? I do not know. As the truck melds with southbound traffic, drawing me closer to yet another place of the heart, the best I can do is cast out my thoughts, silently, like a prayer or an affirmation, a song of one man’s selfless endowment, a priceless gift that has carried me breathless for all these long eventful years. Thank you, Mr. Brown. I have not forgotten.


And so we come to the place where my adult life started: Socorro, New Mexico. It’s a sensory overload. The town’s changed since I was here in ’72. All things do, I guess. Across the street from our motel is the McDonald’s where my parents and I had coffee before heading into Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. A few blocks away stands the old hotel where I spent those first lonesome nights separated from everything I knew and loved. The airport’s still there, and businesses have grown to surround it. How have I changed?

We dump our luggage, food and camping gear at the hotel, keeping only our cameras and binoculars. While the others wait in the truck I make a quick phone call to my parents, ostensibly to ask for the location of a primo Mexican restaurant. In reality I just want to hear their voices. And maybe, in the back of my mind, I wonder if they’d drive the 90 miles to see me, that we could meet again after a separation of over three years. But there’s no answer, and I set the phone in the cradle and try to fight the rising sense of loneliness.

I take the wheel now, the way familiar and certain. As if to deny us its light, the sun falls rapidly now. On the highway I open it up, but once past the small town of San Antonio the speed limit drops to 25. I can barely restrain myself. By the time we arrive at Bosque the eastern sky is purpling, flecked with hundreds of thousands of geese and ducks winging in to roost. The serrated hills westward mere blackened lumps like the spine of some great sleeping beast.

We’ve done this before, we’re a well-oiled machine now, spilling from the truck to surround the watering hole behind the visitor’s center, calling out the names of birds with a feral passion—white-winged dove, lesser goldfinch, white-crowned sparrow—as if that alone were the only language necessary, and then we’re back in the truck heading to the main pool. Behind us the sun touches the rim of the distant hills and wallows in flame. And in that magic space between day and night the sandhill cranes come on their long graceful wings, gliding above shallow waters gone peach and saffron, their reverberating calls like some primitive music redounding time until the low marshes transform into antediluvian swamps of yesteryear’s inland sea, and us mute witnesses, interlopers from a newer age, incapable of anything more than speechless wonder.

(Continued next week)

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The pool--20 feet deep, cool, shaded

El Morro -- Inscription Rock

The approaching storm and Shiprock

Flight to El Morro (Part 11)

Showered, shaved, clothed, fed—transformed!—we codgernauts collapse on our hotel beds and stare at the TV. The smiling faces are radiant with news of an impending cold front. Rain is coming and lots of it, a veritable tempest, a gale, a monsoon with all manner of dire inclemencies, and keep it right here for the latest breaking news. Manning the remote, Jim clicks to a football game and settles deeper into his pillow. Within minutes he’s snoring.

“It don’t look good,” I say.

Chod shrugs and pulls out a map. “Well,” he says, “plans are made to be broken.”

We quickly kill the idea of Hovenweep and settle on Mesa Verde. Camping is out but we can spend the morning there and then head east over Wolf Creek Pass to the Great Sand Dunes. Perhaps we can get in two more days of tenting.

For now it’s a rare luxury just to be clean and warm. After phoning Lori and updating her of our adventures, I slide between the sheets and stretch out in utter contentment. The mattress is deliciously soft and, unlike the sleeping bag, spacious. Let it rain. I’ll stay here.


Dawn comes gray and sodden with low sullen clouds scudding before a hard north wind. Breakfast is bare-bones continental with the weatherfolk giddy over the disaster heading our way. And now the equation changes, the balance tips—blizzard, the face says, teeth bared like fangs—ten inches in Durango and much, much more on Wolf Creek Pass. Frozen midbite, we gawp at the weather map and then at each other.

Heavy snow is expected from central Colorado to northern New Mexico, funneled by high winds and plunging temperatures. The latter part of our itinerary is now dubious, if not impossible. Quickly we clear a space on the table for the atlas. With no way to circumvent the pass, going north is no longer an option. Months of planning now have to be scrapped.

I trace a path southwards into familiar territory. Jim adds his two cents. In ten minutes we’re ready to go. Light rain is falling as we run before the storm.


Photography, like birding, is as much a matter of timing as skill, especially when timing is construed as blind luck. Finding a rare bird takes no more talent than picking one’s nose, an observation guaranteed to dismay a certain elite cadre of birders. The same holds true for photography. Being in the right place at the right time might not guarantee great shots but it certainly enhances the potential.

Our timing, alas, is inopportune at the ancient volcano known as Shiprock. Rising 1,800 feet above the valley floor, the spire is both holy to the Navajos and easily the most dominant landform within 100 miles. And when we find a good vantage point the sun tantalizes, teases, flirts and ultimately skips the towering edifice and instead plays at the base like some broken spotlight.

A cold wind propels us ever southward, past Little Water, Newcomb and Sheep Springs. The Chuska Mountains to the west are concealed in roiling clouds. Looking at the map, I wonder why towns fronting the highway have English names while those offroad have Navajo names. The latter are much more musical: Teec Nos Pos, Sanostee, Toadlena, Tohatchi. And then it dawns on me that the road we’re on is designated Highway 666, surely an ill-omened numeral. The Highway to Hell!

It also occurs to me that the city of Grants will be my last chance at a Lottaburger. It’s late morning when we skirt the city and approach Interstate 40. Restaurants abound, and I’ve secured a promise from the codgernauts to stop when we find one. But as at Shiprock the promise never materializes. We leap the freeway and climb into low hills furred with junipers and enter the Zuni Indian Reservation.


Besides having a permanent waterhole, the white pinnacle known as El Morro had an added benefit: soft sandstone walls on which to pen (or dagger, or sword) graffiti. The earliest record comes from April 1605 when Don Juan de Onãte, the territory governor, carved “Paso por aqui.” He wasn’t the only one to pass by, and in the succeeding 250 years dozens of travelers left their mark while passing down the old Zuni Trail.

Some time later I arrived with a young girl who would one day become my wife. Though we left no visible mark of our stay I can hear her in the whisper of wind through the ponderosas, and I’m contemplative of beginnings and the flow of time. These places of the heart stagger me.

Now we find a sheltered spot out of the cold wind and eat a cold lunch under the baleful eye of a raven. After relinquishing our spot to the corvid, we hike the short trail to the bluff and inspect the pool and inscriptions. On the north slope the land falls away into a broad valley with a stark rocky outcrops in the distance. To the north the sky is black but here it’s mostly open, the clouds dark-bottomed and dazzling white above, sailing serenely overhead. Shadows drag across the grassland and eclipse the gentle hills. Chod and I push on to the summit.

The strange part of this odyssey isn’t how I felt in the mountains—that was predictable—but in how the buttes and scrub oaks suddenly move me. I’ve been wrong about everything. Let me return to this beloved land when I die. Scatter my ashes at the base of El Morro, in a shady glade under the gnarled lattice of a Gambel’s oak thicket. Let them soak into the earth under a gentle spring rain, or whiten like alkali under a broiling summer sun. Let them sleep when the oaks flare golden and scarlet and the sky deepens to turquoise. It’s all the resurrection I need.

(Continued next week)

Thursday, January 04, 2007

There once was an inland sea...

The magic of Bisti--and an unexpected playa

Chod is dwarfed by a wind-sculpted hoodoo

JUmbled slabs of limestone choke ravines at Bisti Badlands, New Mexico

Turn away in shame (Part 10)

If the intersection is marked we do not see it, but the Blake’s Lottaburger is impossible to miss. Swinging into the turn, nose attentive for the divine aroma of fried burgers and green chile, I point out how full the restaurant’s parking lot is. As compared to the Arby’s we just left. But the codgernauts, sated, bellies filled with insipid gruel, are volubly and crudely unimpressed. The road climbs from the San Juan Valley and the city falls behind, and with the high plains before us we pass into a sovereign nation not our own.

I was here thirty-something years ago with my younger brother. Or not, it’s hard to say. It was before detailed maps, and we roved the highways and backroads with little idea of where we were or where we were going. Theoretically our destination was a moonscape known as the Bisti Badlands, a 4,000-acre void of multicolored hills, wind-sculpted hoodoos, fossilized trees and dinosaur bones, but anything photogenic would do—the forbidden church at Tecolote, a half-collapsed bridge near Cabezon Peak, eroded bluffs, a sunning collared lizard. We never found it.

Now it’s easy to find. But Chod’s getting fidgety as we trade pavement for washboard and he soon tells me to pull over. Grabbing a roll of toilet paper, he lopes across the sand and disappears down an arroyo. Jim and I meander to a shallow wash studded with stunted salt cedars where a lone Cassin’s finch plays hard to get. When we get back to the truck Chod is pale but wearing that ineffable grin of his. “I can say I left a part of me in Bisti,” he says. It sounds like an oldtime heartbreak tune, something sung when the world was young. Jim snorts. I groan.

There are no facilities at the trailhead other than a wooden sign announcing our destination and a gap in the barbed wire fence. No map, no visitor center, no gray-shirted ranger. With no idea which way to go, we just go, and as at Chaco it’s in a rush.

The badlands look like a wasteland where God threw all the unused parts left over from creation. We pass twisted rock spires jutting from seamed bluffs, black sand hammocks lumped atop red gravel piles (and vice-versa), sandy washes streaked with alkali, iron and other minerals, rock falls, hills so rounded they look like butter melting under a hot sun and a broad arroyo of water-sculpted ridges. It’s not a place to be in midsummer. Even here in late October it’s warm enough to shed clothing. I’m stripped down to a T-shirt and it’s soaked with sweat. From our latest exertions we’re past the point of rancid—we’re downright offensive.

In places the soil is fine and soft and hard as stone in others, and soon my legs are tight and sore. My right shin hurts fiercely, has had since yesterday, and now my left foot is cramping. I’m falling apart at the pace.

But I manage to gimp across the wash to the opposite side, a distance of perhaps a half-mile, where worn hills form deep ravines topped with teetering sandstone slabs, many of which have fallen to form impenetrable jumbles. A few scraggly plants make a scenic foreground so I hunker down to frame them in the viewfinder. The shutter snaps, freezing time’s inimical progression in a fraction of a heartbeat. My sense of haste blinds me to what I just did. In the distance the others are tiny specks against a raw and unformed land, and as I straighten the immensity of the phantasmal wilderness stretching away for thousands of square miles comes down like an unburdening, and the camera, solid in hand, as integral as throbbing leg or gritty eyes, becomes a half-forgotten sense of completion, a true compass to a place I once thought would be my meridian. And then it’s gone, fleeting as thought, and I’m left with a mile of sunblasted earth to traverse and an inkling that something has irreversibly changed, though what that might be is impossible to determine.


Where would we be without maps? They show us where we are and where we’ve been, and proffer nearly unlimited futures, given time enough, and money. According to the map a good road branches off toward the town of Shiprock, which would shave 35 miles from tomorrow’s destination of the Hovenweep ruins on the Colorado-Utah border. A vote is cast and we subsequently change course.

What maps cannot render is what will be found, or not found, making them a sort of cartographic augury no more accurate than divining tea leaves or foretokening steaming piles of entrails.

We enter Shiprock from the south. The town seems in a general state of disrepair, a sort of modern Anasazi ruin whose inhabitants have fled without a trace. There’s a half-abandoned mall with shuttered stores and empty windows, rusted cars moldering into lifeless yards, trash-strewn streets and a cluster of duplexes swimming in mud and trash. We stare aghast at the latter, taking in the desultory plywood walls devoid of paint, the wrecked vehicles, the listless mongrels, the sad scraps of clothing pinned to sagging clotheslines.

We want a motel, someplace with a shower and a real bed, but Shiprock is bereft of such accommodations. After driving through town we turn back and take the road north, but it soon breaks free into the desert. Another road leads westward, but it too peters out. I turn around in a high school parking lot where a group of Navajo teens watch us. Our waves are not returned.

Again we pass the hovels. I want a photo but am incapable of taking advantage of other people’s misery. The sense of abject poverty is palpable.

“This is worse than the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota,” Chod says.

Jim says, “Nobody in the United States should have to live like that.”

Me: “It makes me ashamed to be an American.”

A chorus of amen’s echo the sentiment. The long drive back to Farmington is a subdued one.

(Continued next week)