Thursday, June 21, 2007

Meditations from the back seat

Afterwards bits and pieces filtered back to me in unexpected places, the restaurant where we ate the finest Mexican food ever to pass these lips, in bed wakeful as the night bled away to dawn, in the back yard watching my father feed raw hamburger to one of the wild desert tortoises that call the place home. Nothing was clear. Snatches of conversation, my father talking of our old house on Palomas Street, my brothers joining in, and me dozing fitfully in the back seat of the car, Chaco behind, the night starless and absolute, as if the world had passed away leaving only a thin ribbon of blacktop flashing by in the headlights and an eternal void beyond.

Here was contentment enough for a lifetime, a murmur of familiar voices and familiar events, an annotated history of our collective childhood condensed into a few hours. The lights of Cuba came and went, and as I watched the town soundlessly recede I thought how welcome a cold beer would be, or a cup of coffee, but the opportunity passed and the night engulfed us.

I remember the time I ran that girl over with my bicycle.

Yes, and she deserved it. She kept running in front of you and you’d had enough. The big knobby tires rolled crotch to crown and she came up screaming like she was dying. Some lessons are necessarily painful. And she was a hard learner.

In the darkness it was easy to drift off while they talked of our boyhoods, of the neighbors, many of whom I remembered at least in name if not by face—and those fading fast—and of cats and kittens, of Fuzzy taking on the German shepherd and kicking its butt to protect her litter, one of many for she was nothing if not prolific.

I was reminded of the photos on my mom’s computer, how they held us mesmerized one evening while we were checking our e-mail. Wes and my father had scanned every slide my parents had taken and collected them on a series of DVDs, and as the screensaver began flashing these images conversation faltered and died, only to explode again in laughter and jests. There was Wes looking so studious with his thick-rimmed glasses, and me with a BB gun slung over a shoulder, and Reece in diapers. In one I was dressed in a lime green shirt and scarlet socks, which could explain why school bullies seemed to gravitate toward me. I dressed like that? And here we were at it again, dredging the past with stories rather than photographs.

Will we ever do this again? Time spent with family is time redeemed. This must happen again, I vowed, each year, every year, no matter the mileage, the price of gas, the difficulty of arrangements, the expense. I was blind not to know this, to think these things unnecessary or somehow able to be delayed.

Some stories weren’t told, or remembered, but arrived belatedly. In fifth grade the school bully took offense at something I’d done—possibly that garish costume—and challenged me to a fight on such-and-such a date. There was no way out, calling in sick would have only postponed the inevitable, and though young I instinctively knew this. The day crawled by agonizingly slow, and then we were face to face on the playground, a ring of excited kids goading us on. My brother and a friend stepped through the throng and everything came to a halt. “Let’s take off his pants,” Wes said, and the bully bolted like a jackrabbit.

Later it was my turn. I arrived on the playground just as an adolescent thug was assaulting my younger brother, and I grabbed the back of his shirt and hurled him sideways and he hit the dirt and ate gravel. Everyone was surprised when he came up spitting blood and went for my brother. What, you didn’t learn the first time? He managed to get one hand on Reece before I repeated my action. Behind us his mother leaned on the car horn and shouted obscenities at us but we ignored her. When he finally limped off his clothes were torn and bloody. He learned.

Were those paybacks or the price we willingly paid as brothers? I wondered. And it came to me that though we forget those moments they remain a part of us, somehow encapsulated within our DNA or bone marrow or bloodstream. Our entwined histories an unseverable bond. And such instances as these, time-stepping backwards in the night, somehow brought together again, the years melting away and us young again, sharing laughter, and joy, and communion, an unforgettable, seminal event. Wes was in the front seat, my father driving, and Reece beside me in back. The sacred tribal lands of the Zias and Jemez passed in the darkness, and the Sandias rose unseen from the Rio Grande Valley, and the lights of Albuquerque spread like a glittering carpet across the broad plains. The stories told were ours alone. Palomas Street was where we began, where we learned life. Palomas in Spanish means “dove.” Dove, the emblem of peace.

Headlights illuminated the house. We climbed from the car and evacuated the trunk of cameras, tripods and water bottles. Wes drove off. I popped a beer and slammed it down, and slipped into the bedroom as quietly as I could. Lori stirred and mumbled something. “We’re back,” I said.

“Did you have fun?” she asked.

“Yes.” And more than that. For all my life, through all my journeys, no matter what comes, I will forever be in that car.

Thursday, June 14, 2007


"T" doorway

Smoke signals

Light and shadow


From left to right: Wes, Carl (my father), me and Reece

Kachina at Chetro Ketl

We see these things in hindsight, on reflection in silence, in meditation, which is as good a definition of writing as I can think of. This is why I rise earlier than the others, for these moments before the sun breaks above the horizon, when I delve inward deeper and deeper, a spelunker of the soul, a miner of inexplicable connections, touching the past, tracing its contours and textures like a blind man, sightless, unseeing except in some shamanistic sense, querying the known, the unknown and what lies between for what really happened. We walk in faith.

My return to Chetro Ketl was again in the company of men. This time my companions were the men I love most in the world—my father and my two brothers. Considering the amount of gray hair and cantankerousness at least three of us possessed, it was as if the codgernauts in another permutation rode again across the Anasazi West. My younger brother Reece, the baby of the family, has yet to lose a follicle to the silvering ravages of time, and appeared indeed much as he had eight years ago, when last we met. I wondered how long it had been since we four had gone afield together. When I posed that question under a covered picnic shelter outside the visitor center at Chaco Canyon, the answers ranged from long studied silences to “forever” to “the cretaceous period.” Suffice to say we were much younger, decades so. And slimmer, too.

Unspoken in the harsh light of Chaco was whether it would ever happen again.

Getting here, my father ran old Highway 66 up the Rio Grande Valley rather than take I-25 north to the Bernalillo exit. Rio Rancho spread like a plague across the west mesa and development tsunamied east of the interstate, but here little had changed since Coronado came through to deliver the heathens with the cross and the sword.

I can’t say how long it had been since I last drove the length of road westward from Bernalillo to San Ysidro, passing the Jemez and Zuni pueblos and the Jemez Mountains a purple shadow beyond. Too long. For some reason that area is quintessential New Mexico, encompassing everything beautiful and meaningful about the state. Memory plays a large part, I suppose, all the camping trips we took, the repetitious to-and-from, hours spent looking out the Carry-all window and dreaming of piñon-clad hills and clear rivers, that huge turquoise sky like a window into the universe. Here I was again, older and maddeningly broody, staring out a window on a changeless terrain and little had changed but me.

The emotional impact was acute. I kept asking myself how I could turn my back on this place, but then remembered the madness of Albuquerque traffic, the crime, the grit, and jackknifed the question around. How could I live here? Albuquerque was merely a trade-off, the toll exacted for living a short drive from these sacred spaces, but it was a price I would not pay. And yet I couldn’t help but wonder how Kansas would fare in the aftermath.

Chaco was both less and more than what I expected but in none of the ways I could have predicted. The ruins of Chetro Ketl, first to be explored, still possessed a spiritual aura that left me yearning for a more intimate experience. A night’s stay in the great kiva, for instance, a million stars wheeling across skies framed within a stone curvature, a winter solstice moonrise with the air frigid and brittle, or seeing firsthand the alignment of masonry and shadow with a major lunar standstill. Not this walk down dusty trails while others come and go, the entire valley little more than a playground for Tilley-clad adventurers.

We had just started down the path when I noticed an object ahead. A collared lizard straddled the center of the trail like some tollman or gatekeeper. Once I would have dashed off in pursuit, a spontaneous reaction of a younger age, but something made me freeze. The lizard raised high and studied us, and before any of us could react it darted toward us on its back legs in a rollicking lope, a miniature T Rex.

Closer it came, pausing once or twice to study us, and then forward again until it stood only a few feet from of us. In that dry colorless canyon the lizard’s hues were stunning—golden feet and head, gold bands striping a turquoise body, two black collars encircling a speckled nape. It studied us with liquid eyes, seemingly unafraid, staring at each of us as if looking for answers. As if searching us out, or reading us. And after a time, how long I cannot say, it slipped away into the sage and disappeared.

Breath returned, and time, the stirring of a cool breeze and birdsong, the faint chirruping of black-throated sparrows. We laughed at our good fortune but the laughter was uneasy. What had just transpired? Collared lizards do not approach people, they flee.

There was little time to mull on it. We made the loop through Chetro Ketl to Pueblo Bonito, ate lunch in the shadow of Fajada Butte, and parked at the trailhead to Wijiji to make a fast three-mile dash in a rush to beat the sun.

But as we approached the walls of Wijiji I wondered about the lizard, and about us, too, how the attack on the World Trade Center sundered us, and not cleanly, no, but like a jagged knife hacking us apart. Those years of separation, of chill silence, of bitter animosity, had slowly faded and come to this: four men striding in tandem, a slash of light painting the ruin stark, and in the distance a slender notch between two buttes where the Chacoans celebrated the solstice sun lifting into a cold winter sky. Celebration indeed. In this center place where the spirits yet dwell there was celebration, and consecration, and healing. Kachina had come to welcome and bless us. Far too long had we had been at odds, and apart, poisoned by political and ideological differences. None of that matters, said the kachina. Family is sacred. Family is unity. Family is wholeness.

I turned and looked back but the sun caught my eye and all I could see was golden light.

Dawn comes. The others stir. In the darkness of my own great kiva I reach out with trembling fingers and touch the hieroglyphics scribed on the halls of memory. I see the real but not the whole. And kachina comes, bringer of light, life-bringer. The glyphs flare. All losses restored, all sorrows ended.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Author event at Town Crier Books, Emporia

The good people at Town Crier Books in Emporia hosted an author event June 9th with 40 authors attending. It was quite a show, with every genre imaginable represented, except for smut, I reckon. (Too bad!) Kudos to manager Becky Smith, who did a fantastic job in pulling off what can only have been a daunting challenge. As far as I'm aware there were no fisticuffs among the authors, who, as we all know, can be a might tetchy at times.

My greatest pleasure (beside selling a few books) was in meeting Cheryl Unruh, blogger of Flyover People fame, and Mark Scheel, a writer friend from the Kansas City area. I had been communicating through e-mail to both of these excellent people but had never met them in person. It was quite an honor.

Mark's book, A Backward View, has been a favorite of mine, especially the last paragragh. I can't say how mnay times I've read it, and each time it's as fresh as the first. In fact, I get terribly jealous when I read it. I wish it were mine. Mark's photo on the dust jacket shows a refined man, chin in hand, a pensive intellectual, a cultured poet and author--which made me wonder what kind of man he really is. Now I know.

When I first saw him he was grinning at me like a Cheshire cat. "You're even uglier in person than you are in your pictures," he said. God bless him, I could only agree.

Mark autographed his book specially for me and we retired to the local cantina where he bought me and Lori lunch. What a guy!

Afterward, we returned to the bookstore for a photo shoot. As you can see, we maintained our dignity as befitting "excellent" authors--Markspeak for "unsuccessful."

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Only a motion away

We rose late in the hotel along the Arkansas River, ate half of our huge green chile breakfast burritos, and headed west. Dropping down from Lamar into the rough country above Cottonwood Canyon just about broke my heart—unlike when I saw it in October, a hard wintry land, now it was green and verdant, kissed by a strong sun under a turquoise sky. The small town of Folsom, New Mexico, was every bit as enticing in late spring as it was in mid-autumn, and several times I pointed out a particularly favorable place to build our house or where a new Mercantile could go. I especially liked one of the old stone buildings on the main street, vacant and hollowed out by decades of neglect. All it needed was a little care and a dream. Over and over, until it became a tiresome mantra that made me feel slightly traitorous toward my adopted state, I said, “I could live here forever,” or, “I’d trade Kansas in a heartbeat for this.”

What is it about northern New Mexico that so enraptures me? Central parts of the state resonate deeper—the juniper-clad Ortiz Mountains, the rising bulk of the Sandias as seen from La Bajada Hill, the flat-topped buttes fronting the Rio Grande Valley, and of course the snowy Pecos Mountains thrusting above the piñons at Pecos, but the resonance is always shadowed by a glut of traffic and a sensation of ancient dust and grit choking the air. Were I to delve into this I would no doubt put the blame squarely on the mass of humanity squeezed into a narrow corridor between the various Native American reservations. Albuquerque and its environs dismay me, much as Denver does when I think of its founding locale on the banks of Cherry Creek. If not for the city spreading out like some toxic fungus, it would be a magnificent place to live.

I’ve become too much of a small-town recluse to manage in cities. But Raton turns me inside out—the luminance of the sky, the staggered buttes and volcanic plugs rising from the grasslands, the shape of the clouds lifting from the western mountains, the splay of light and shadow on the limitless sea of grass. I’m continually amazed that the town’s size never seems to change, at least not on the scale of cities such as Grand Junction and Albuquerque, or even Santa Fe in its northern reaches. I could live there, too, I think.

Before Raton we stopped at Capulin Volcano National Monument, where we ate the remainder of our breakfast burritos. The picnic area was ours alone. Broad-tailed hummingbirds zinged past, rock squirrels crowned the highest boulders and lizards cavorted in the Gambel’s oak. Birds of note included Virginia’s warbler and olive-sided flycatcher. Towhees sang from every thicket, fast-pitched burry chup-chup-zeeees ringing off the cliffs like ricochets.

From there we drove the narrow road encircling the volcanic peak, each wheel rotation granting a fresh view, ever higher, until the road topped out at the crater. Dark-bottomed anvils sailed forth from the Sangre de Cristo range in the west. I pointed out a winding dirt road far below. It led into a box canyon and deadended at a house and corral. Beyond it grass extended to a furze of junipers which in turn gave way on the upper slopes to darker ponderosas. “Can you imagine living there?” I asked. Ringed on three sides by steep slopes and the fourth open to the towering visage of Capulin. Sunrise must be spectacular.

I told her of the frigid conditions that met the codgernauts, how the wind was an angry beast trying to rip them from the mountain. How snow coated the trees, and the land below a pale rumpled blanket. It seemed like a dream. I looked to the west and back to my wife and thought, I have all I will ever need.


And all the while a song running through my head.

Part of the cultural baggage we unfortunately get to lug around are songs, ditties, advertising slogans and the like, most half-remembered, off-tune, jumbled or mixed with others with similar beats. They snag in our brains like plastic sacks on barbed wire and no amount of shaking will free them. As the miles roll away the dominant tune in my head is Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion,” though I know few of the words and the ones I do make absolutely no sense.

It’s one of those songs whose meanings are so vague that it launched more conspiracies than the Kennedy assassination. Simon said it was written after his dog was run over by a car, and that the title was inspired by a chicken-and-egg dish at a Chinese restaurant.

So why now? Because it fits, I suppose. We’re in the vortex between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, sucked into a maelstrom of dervish drivers cars whizzing left and right semis riding my bumper and Simon batting out no I would not give you false hope but there’s nothing false about this we’re just about there and I turn off at the wrong exit on this strange and mournful day something something and try several alternate routes before I spot a familiar street and a course of a lifetime runs over and over again and now I see the right street and we turn left on Topke oh little darlin’ of mine, mumble mumble right on Boone where in that corner house my best friend lived the one I traded a ten-speed bike for a yard-thick stack of Playboys my pulse quickening the engine revving east now on Baker and there’s the house with pines in front and gravel in the yard and my dad looking out the front window and this ain’t a chicken-and-egg sandwich no it’s the real thing it’s a mother and child reunion and it’s only a motion away.