While living in Denver during the next seven years, travel kept me in contact with the Southwest. En route to Arizona, I stayed in a motel in Las Vegas, New Mexico. I visited friends in Tucson and Bisbee, Arizona. I visited a cousin in Seligman, Arizona, where, on a chilly November evening, every street in the high-plateau railroad town was perfumed with juniper smoke from the many wood stoves of the town’s residents.
An image from one of these travels has never left me. One evening, in the New Mexico quadrant of the Four Corners region, a friend and I were racing along a deserted highway leading to the town of Shiprock. Up ahead, in the twilight, a half-dozen men, all in a line, appeared to be standing beside a wooden fence that paralleled the highway. “Funny time to be repairing a fence,” I remarked. However, as we passed them, we realized they weren’t exactly standing. They were leaning against the fence. Some were even draped over it. All were obviously dead drunk. Then, a lonely roadhouse appeared on the same side of the highway, and out of it staggered and weaved another procession of Indians. Our road map indicated that we were on the Navajo reservation.
Occasionally, out of a Kerouac-ian romantic inclination, I’d slum at the Gin Mill, once Denver’s most notorious skid row bar, and drink with Native Americans well on the path to alcohol-fueled oblivion. I wondered if their sad condition was due to the fact that they were trapped in the urban cauldron, wrenched from their Mother Earth, their rural roots in Arizona, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Florida. Thus, it surprised me to see, as our car hurtled along toward Shiprock and I sipped on a can of Bud, such pitiful self-destruction even in the pristine high-desert of northwestern New Mexico.
I’d much to learn.