Mistakes were made.
In that we were merely human, trapped in our own consequential foibles and passions, blind only to what was important or necessary. Or mostly so: there was a moment at the bottom of Hobbs Wash where I forced myself to sit on a boulder to take stock of my rubbery legs, broken tooth and bloodied hand, the empty water bottle, an increasing panic that robbed what little air remained in my gasping lungs and the unforgiving rock face that seemed an indecipherable puzzle if not a prison. That I’d been in the same predicament before only made it more inexcusable. That other time had been a close call, fleeing from a winter storm high in the Rockies, snow knee-deep, cold seeping through my layered clothing, the wind a howling monster at my back. The basic steps needed to ensure survival I stupidly refused to follow even as the first traces of hypothermia dulled my senses. Though Hobbs Wash was a different animal the situation was identical: time was running out, and every step no matter how forced had to count. Above all, there could be no more mistakes.
There were, of course. What’s left now is to reconnoiter, to review our passage from Kansas prairie to Colorado Plateau and back, and, if possible, to find a way out of the box canyon we’ve descended into. At our age it’s not a matter of learning from mistakes—redundancy makes them mere objects of derision—but something much more difficult. We need to learn forgiveness.
Day one was something of a shakedown, familiarizing ourselves with one another and the way we travel.
A friend compared our jaunt to the trio of past-their-prime buffoons in the movie “Wild Hogs.” Hollywood infects reality like a toxic virus creating cardboard settings against which our actions are unduly portrayed. I argued that the comparison was invalid if not insulting. A more apt movie might be “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” though as always it’s impossible to distinguish the inmates from the keepers.
And who, another asked, are the codgernauts? Certainly more difficult to answer without a hefty dose of levity. We are, I replied, three unruly, curmudgeonly, irascible, gross, crude, obscene, petty, mean-spirited, opinionated, caring, passionate, intense and creative old fools. One is a stubborn meat-and-potatoes authoritarian figure, another a shaman of great insight (and compassion, when warranted) into human character. And then there’s me. It should, I promised, be interesting.
We departed Abilene on a drizzly Saturday morning, heading west. The Chevy Trailblazer was loaded with luggage and various bags containing camera equipment. Indeed, we laughed at the amount we’d brought, remembering our first such trip when we owned point-and-shoot cameras. Since our inaugural voyage to Chaco Canyon four years ago, we’ve grown paunchier, grayer, more set in our ways. It’s not just our belts that have expanded.
We quickly settled down to a routine. Birds were shouted out and logged. Braking was allowed for interesting abandoned buildings and requisite for shallow playas or ponds filled with waterfowl. Lunch was a democratic process with a majority vote deciding. Stopping at Dairy Queen, mandatory.
Near Lamar we left the pavement and the present and traveled back to the morning of November 29, 1864.
It wasn’t far, 20 miles at most of sand and sage under a glowering sky. When we arrived at a little wooded spot clustered around a few outbuildings a ranger was telling of the events to a couple from Trinidad. We listened for a few minutes until boredom and impatience crept in—standard protocol—and then marched off down a two-track that meandered up a short rise to an overlook above Sand Creek. Beyond a split-rail fence lay foreign soil, and sacred. Cottonwoods lined the creekbed, their leaves rustling in the endless breeze. The air was misty with rain.
Not much has changed since a ragtag rabble out of Denver, whipped into a frenzy by demagoguery and chicanery from the city’s early leaders—and in particular Col. John Chivington, one of those vainglorious popinjays the military seems to attract with stunning regularity—attacked a peaceful camp of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians on a sandy wash in the middle of nowhere. It didn’t matter that an American flag flew over Black Kettle’s camp, or that shortly after firing commenced a white flag was raised, or that the camp consisted mostly women, children and old men. What followed was sheer butchery and savagery, for which Denver was “saved” from the godless heathens and Chivington got a town named after him.
The parallels between how the war frenzy built to a fever pitch for Sand Creek and Iraq are obvious though most flag-waving Americans would probably disagree. The reasons for going to war were the same: the defense of loved ones and homeland from imaginary enemies, alleged weapons of mass destruction, intractable foes who refused to abide by treaties (disregarding our own congenital failure to do the same) and, at the root of the conflict though seldom mentioned, Manifest Destiny. Taking America’s role as leader of the free world, God bless the USA, blah blah blah. Bush, Cheney and Chivington were like peas in a pod, and far more lethal.
Standing there in a light drizzle it all seemed so clear, and so utterly depressing. We have still not learned to question our leaders or to demand accountability. Nothing has changed, not the bodies piling up, not the lies or the manipulated justifications, not the ceaseless wind nor the sorrow brooding over a sandy wash in southern Colorado. Sand Creek will forever inhabit the juncture of then and now.
(To be continued)