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.