creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, southwest

First Bivouac with My Beloved

The following month, I continued my exploration of the Southwest, this time with Linda.  We planned to camp at the Valley of the Fires State Park, outside of Carrizozo, New Mexico, in the state’s southeast quadrant. 

I knew very little about Linda’s outdoor experiences.  She told me of once fishing with her father, including sleeping in a tent, at Colorado’s Dillon Reservoir.  I didn’t get the impression it was one of her more enjoyable outings: cold, hard ground seemed to be the event’s main theme.  (Perhaps her future husband was cursing the same cold landscaped as he thumbed to his job in Breckenridge, Colorado, on nearby Route 9.) 

Yet I did not doubt she had an appreciation for the beauty and wonders of nature.  While we were together in Colorado, she proudly introduced me to Colorado Springs’s Bear Creek Nature Center.  We once bicycled for a day amid the Rockies on a paved path that linked Frisco, Colorado, to Breckenridge.  And we had an enjoyable spring picnic, this despite a raw, misty afternoon, on the shortgrass prairie near Kiowa, Colorado.  (Splendor in the grass―my somewhat unusual idea, of course.)

I suggested we visit Valley of the Fires for several reasons.  Carrizozo was roughly 100 miles south of Albuquerque, so I figured it had to be warmer than the Duke City, which was still occasionally experiencing the chilly April day.  Then, I was eager to pay my first visit to New Mexico’s only classic American desert and North America’s largest, the Chihuahuan, which encompassed the state park.  Finally, I couldn’t resist the dramatic, almost Biblical, name “Valley of the Fires,” although I had little idea it pertained to a specific geologic characteristic of the park.

Linda’s fellowship at the University of New Mexico gave her exclusive access to the institution’s “recreation” department, and it was from this that we rented an air mattress for her and a tent for the two of us.  (Like me, Linda owned a bulky Sears cloth sleeping bag; no wonder we were compatible.)  The smallest tent available for rent comfortably accommodated as many as four persons.  Fine, I thought, plenty of room.

We began our journey southward on Interstate 25.  Never having seen the Chihuahuan Desert, I knew little about what to expect in the way of its flora, fauna, geology, and climate, other than its presumed aridity and warmth.  My Audubon Society guide to America’s deserts, which I had purchased just prior to our trek, indicated that the Chihuahuan spread into New Mexico from northern Mexico in “four fingerlike projections,” with the northernmost projection reaching to “a point just north of” the town of Socorro, which was on our itinerary. 

Of course, there was no sign, official or unofficial, along I-25 announcing our entrance into this desert.  However, as we passed the town of Belen (Spanish for “Bethlehem”), 40 miles north of Socorro, I sensed that the character of the landscape was changing.  The Rio Grande, which paralleled the interstate to the east, was still bordered by dense woods and the occasional agricultural field greening with spring.  But, just west of the interstate, the land was disrobing, beginning with the disappearing junipers.  Disappearing as well were the bones of the land’s lower elevations, those rock outcroppings so common west and north of Albuquerque.  They were now being replaced by mere soils given to erosion.  When Sierra Ladronesappeared in the west not far from highway, I could see that the peaks and slopes it presented to the highway were bereft of the dark alpine forests that mantled the Sandia Mountains and the Manzano Mountains just south of the Sandias.  Instead, the range was dotted with smaller trees and considerably armored with rock.  In the far southeast, meanwhile, I saw, peeking above the horizon, a jagged range that appeared to be devoid of dense forests as well.  

The land was drying.

As we progressed south of Socorro, now well into the desert, one thing was certain: This was not the Sonoran Desert I had witnessed during my visit to Tucson, Arizona, the previous decade.  There were no multi-armed saguaro cacti waving at me; no luxuriant palo verde trees lending their cool green accents to arroyos; no teddy bear cholla cacti with their millions of murderous spines, aglow and threatening misery to the inexperienced Sonoran pedestrian.  The Sonoran was a subtropical, and thus a far more diverse, desert than the Chihuahuan; and, many would agree, a lovelier one.  Indeed, Erna Fergusson described the Sonoran as having “a beauty no fabled wood ever equaled.”  The Sonoran was also known as an “arboreal desert,” one in which, in the artless, yet no less accurate, observation of author and Southwest explorer Alex Shoumatoff, “[s]o much of the vegetation rises over your head.” 

Alas, the high-elevation Chihuahuan Desert we were now witnessing was primarily a monotonous one of squat shrubs and cacti, scattered grasslands, and only an occasional tree, usually the attractive desert willow.  [F]lat, drab, repulsive, strangely fascinating” was how Santa Fe author Oliver La Farge described the New Mexico desert in 1952.  (Perhaps no surprise there, given that, as author Tony Hillerman pointed out, La Farge, although a fine chronicler of northern New Mexico, lacked much of a connection to the state’s landscape as a whole.)

Yet it was now, for better or worse, our desert.  Soon I would learn that it existed in New Mexico for a couple reasons.  One was the “rain shadow” effect of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental mountains, massive landforms blocking the passage of rain-producing weather systems, condemning the mountains’ leeward expanses to unforgiving aridity.  The other was something called the Hadley cell, equatorial atmospheric activity that hindered the occurrence of moisture in southern New Mexico, west Texas, and northern Mexico. 

Linda and I had lunch in San Antonio, New Mexico, the birthplace of Conrad Hilton, according to a historical marker beside the sleepy village’s main street.  A more unlikely birthplace of the hotel magnate and husband of Zsa Zsa Gabor I could not have imagined.  At the east end of the town, we crossed the Rio Grande, swelling with spring snowmelt, the river’s bosque mirroring Albuquerque’s. 

We continued east on Highway 380.  Now that we were well into the Chihuahuan Desert, I was expecting miles of nearly barren sand, and thus I was surprised to find ourselves coursing across an upland dense with shrubs and dotted with juniper.  Yet the Oscura Mountains to the southeast―climbing to 8,600 feet, barren, burlap-brown―reminded me that this was indeed a land of little rain.  Meanwhile, the vegetation wavered in a building wind.

As we neared a town named Bingham, I knew from my reading that some 20 miles to the south of the highway, on the White Sands Missile Range, there existed a place called Trinity, where our country exploded the first atomic bomb.  Gazing at the surrounding desolation that somehow supported an occasional hardscrabble ranch, I had to marvel at the contrast: a device of staggering sophistication birthed in a territory so primitive.  And I vowed then and there to learn much more about the history of The Bomb. 

For some 20 miles the highway ran through rugged, juniper-forested hills.  Then, however, it traversed a landscape covered―no, smothered―by the blackest rock I’d ever seen, blacker even than the asphalt of the highway.  Most of the rock, which crested and troughed like waves on a tumultuous sea, was jagged, bladed, pointed, and coarsely textured.  Yet there were occasionally patches of the same rock that whorled and rippled and had a creamy smoothness that emitted a sheen beneath the midday sun.  In their structure and luster, I couldn’t escape their amusing resemblance to the piles of fresh cow manure I’d recently seen in southeast Utah.  A planet’s peristalsis revealed?  Meanwhile, this seemingly impervious blanket of rock accommodated vegetable life, and abundantly so.  Grasses, shrubs, and cacti throve upon it, their roots having somehow discovered life-giving soil. 

After three miles, we exited this landscape that, were it not for the paved highway, would have been utterly unfit for human travel, including foot travel.  Soon we arrived at Valley of the Fires State Park.

The park’s campgrounds overlooked the expanse of rock.  After choosing a parking space serving a small campground of hard-packed earth, we strolled―as the wind blew harder than when we motored Highway 380―to the do-it-yourself pay station at the park’s entrance.  Occupied now by only a couple other visiting parties, the park was a modest affair with some 15 campgrounds and a cinder block structure containing flush toilets and sinks.  We walked by two faded, dusty trailer houses, one of which had a padlocked door, that appeared to serve as administration buildings.  In the window of the locked trailer there were posters bearing photos of “missing” children last seen in places far removed from Carrizozo.  Affixed to the outside wall of the trailer was a bulletin board.  Enveloped in clear plastic and tacked to the board was a newspaper photo of “Jumbo.”  Wording beneath the photo explained that Jumbo was a 214-ton steel “bottle” that was placed 800 yards from the Trinity explosion and survived the blast intact.  Tacked next to the story of Jumbo―revealingly, somehow―was a list of Carrizozo churches. 

At the pay station we placed our cash in an envelope provided by the park and dropped the envelope through the slot of a steel cylinder that would likely have survived the Trinity explosion as well.  From a lidded wooden box, parched and splintered, beside the cylinder we took a pamphlet that explained the park. 

The sea of rock was lava that originated from a now-dormant volcano not far north of 380.  The lava field ran south for 44 miles.  The field was known in Spanish as a “malpais,” or badland.  

Holding hands, we walked back to our campground, I several times securing against the wind my black and orange Gallup High School cap, purchased during my return from Utah.  Asphalt, trailers, several automobiles, a state park pickup truck, picnic tables, tents, and rusted grills: No, this was not the wilds of Utah.  Still, owing to its distance from a major city―Albuquerque, 100 miles; El Paso, 135 miles―and the fact that it was a weekday, there was a very pleasant tranquility, even wildness, to the place. 

And visual splendor existed in nearly all directions: the bed of lava that stretched south to the empty horizons of the Tularosa Basin; the Oscura Mountains, just beyond which brooded the birthplace of the Nuclear Age, to the west; and the Sacramento Mountains, culminating in massive, forested Sierra Blanca, its array of commercial ski slopes still glowing with snow, to the east.

I hadn’t camped in a “state park” since the summer of 1964, when, as a 13-year-old member of a YMCA group of a dozen boys and two handsome, young, bearded honchos, “Bo” and “Dennis”―looking back, I suspect they were among the original admirers of the murdered John F. Kennedy―I spent the night in southern Vermont’s Ascutney State Park.  This was in preparation for a canoe trip down the Connecticut River through Vermont and Massachusetts―seven days of sand in my sleeping bag, constant hunger, and constipation.  (Thoroughly accustomed to nesting in complete privacy upon a flush toilet, I sadly discovered―as I clutched in futility, merely for appearance, our expedition’s trenching shovel―that the body mechanics of eliminating in woods and fields did not come naturally to me, and my bowels froze in confusion and hopelessness.)

With the afternoon waning and the wind unrelenting, Linda and I decided to establish a camp quickly, with the erection of the tent our first priority.  I removed the large bag containing the tent from the hatchback of Linda’s Celica and dumped its contents―the rumpled bolt of nylon, the clanging aluminum poles, the tangle of guy ropes, the dirt-encrusted metal stakes―onto the patch of packed ground beside the car.  I didn’t know what was going on in Linda’s mind.  For myself, looking at this mess that lacked any instructions, I tried to recall when I had last erected a tent of similar size and sophistication, and could not.   But Linda didn’t flinch, and I, having so far sold myself as a man of the outdoors, dared not, so we began by unfurling and unfolding the nylon and spreading it thoroughly over the ground. 

Or rather attempting to spread it over the ground.  We quickly realized that the wind was invading every square foot of the state park and intent on re-bundling the nylon.  Unsure of the tent’s four corners in the mess, and thus reluctant to drive any stakes, we searched our campground and the unoccupied ones nearby for some hefty rocks to act as temporary anchors.  We found none, so I descended into the lava field, where I eventually came up with four of them.  After weighing down what we presumed were the corners of the tent floor, we came to understand the shelter’s basic mechanics.  It hung from two arches fashioned from the aluminum poles, so we assembled one of the arches and attached it to the still-flattened tent.  However, when we hoisted the arch with the optimism of an Amish barn-raising, the tent, its door flaps unsecured, immediately filled with wind and decided it would be the mainsail of a catamaran instead.  It yanked itself from Linda’s grip and, while I continued to hold on, threatened to deliver me into the black cutlery that was the lava field just to the west.  I somehow managed to deflate and wrestle it to the ground like a roped calf. 

Eventually we erected and secured the nylon shelter.  The tent was far too big for our needs, but after four hours in the little Celica, we rather enjoyed its extravagance.  Its stakes were tight, its walls and roof taut.  We were proud of our first home in the desert.  Except for trips to the park restrooms, we spent the remainder of day huddled in the tent against the ongoing wind, weary but, of course, in resilient love. 

After unfurling our mattresses and unpacking our sleeping bags, we prepared our supper.  It was a joint effort: Linda whipped up the appetizer, Crunchy Cheetos, and I got under way with the main dish.  A plate of beans, often my fare on solo trips, seemed a bit too bland―and, for a relatively new couple sharing a tent, potentially embarrassing―for the occasion, so I went with that other reliable for the humble camper: Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.  Then, our expedition faced its next challenge: the Svea stove, perched on our picnic table, refused to light in the wind.  So, somewhat reluctantly, for we were aware of the extreme flammability of nylon, we brought the little stove into the shelter of the tent, established adequate ventilation, and prepared our meal. 

The mac and cheese cooling rapidly with the disappearance of the sun behind the Oscuras, we ate quickly.  Dessert was the dependable Fig Newtons and mugs of a satisfying hot beverage from the laboratories of General Foods. 

After supper, we bundled up and went for a walk through the campground.  The wind, now clearly coming from the east, continued, roiling the darkness.  To the north, the occasional headlights of motor vehicles crept east and west on 380.  To the east, the town of Carrizozo was a meager string of lights punctuated by a beacon of some kind whose light alternately blossomed and then disappeared every few seconds―an airport in that little town?  (Prior to our departure, a co-worker had informed me that Carrizozo was a “party town.”  Perhaps, but those few crumbs of light did not exactly suggest revelry.)  After a final trip to the restrooms, we bedded down for the night.

Which, due to the wind and the nature of our shelter, was pure pandemonium.  The wind had increased even more in velocity.  Every 60 seconds, a wave of wind came roaring from the east, crashing over Carrizozo, over the state park trailers, over the Celica, and finally over our tent, ballooning inward its east wall, tugging at its door flap, straining at its eastside stakes.  And in the diminution of each wave, an air current engaging a flap of some kind on the peak of the tent created a sound that could only be described as a Bronx cheer―the desert night crudely and perplexingly expressing displeasure with our humble presence. 

Staring into the tent’s total darkness, I was hoping and praying for Mr. Sandman to deliver me into slumber of any depth, yet he refused even as he spattered against the tent’s walls―this was the desert, you recall.  Meanwhile, I was certain Linda was staring with me. I could practically feel it.  This went on until the wee hours.  And thus the two newcomers to New Mexico were now vividly learning that wind is an inevitable element of springtime in the state.  (“Arizona blows and Texas sucks,” is how one Santa Fean would eventually explain it to me.)

At an immaculately still sunrise, after a meager hour or two of sleep, I crawled out of the wreckage that was our tent.  Three of the four corner stakes were extracted, thus allowing the aluminum arches, designed to scissor, to now over-scissor to the point of near collapse, and the tent to resemble a giant pile of melted candle wax.  Obviously, the weight of my and Linda’s corpse had been the only things that prevented the tent from being air-mailed to the Trinity site overnight.  Exhausted, our hairdos spiking in all directions, our tympanic membranes frayed, we had a cold breakfast of freeze-dried granola-and-blueberries and more General Foods. 

After we packed the tent, our bedding, and the remains of our food, Linda―curious, I guessed, in her scientific way to the bitter end as well as apparently determined to get our money’s worth―proposed that we partake in the park’s self-guided “nature walk” through the lava field before leaving.  So we shuffled over the 100 yards or so of the crude trail, variously composed of dirt and old, crumbling asphalt, that dipped and rose through the waves of lava.  A nature walk for the walking dead.             

Thus, our first morning in New Mexico’s classic desert.  I had expected the desert to appear as disheveled as our dawn tent, our breakfast coiffures.  Yet the grasses and yucca stood upright and apparently intact.    

Yes, it was a miserably sleepless night, and I didn’t know how I would remain awake throughout the long drive back to Albuquerque.  But my sweetheart and I had survived the night’s fury, the black gusts born in the Sacramentos―the revenge of the Mescalero Apaches?―and we wouldn’t have traded it for anything. 

creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, southwest, Uncategorized

Four Corners, Part 3

The Valley of the Gods, a vast landscape of sandstone mesas, buttes, and monuments, spread from the base of a 700-foot-high rampart that ran from northeast to southwest.  I parked Red at the entrance to a dirt road that looped through the valley.  Cars and trucks trickled onto the road.  Preferring solitude, I decided to distance myself from it.  I reloaded my backpack, including the ridiculously bulky Sears sleeping bag and wide foam rubber pad, hoisted it onto my back, and, after negotiating a barbed wire fence, struck off in the opposite direction, a roadless swale devoid of prominent formations, yet no less lovely. 

In addition to shrubs and juniper, the land was dotted with tufts of tall grass on which some two dozen Hereford and Angus cattle grazed.  Their piles of manure―dark, rippling, and glistening when obviously fresh, gray and crusty when aged―were not infrequent.  But neither the smothering manure nor the destructive footprints of these huge, lumbering beasts bothered me.  So charmed by the myth of the American cowboy was I that I accepted these things as tolerable elements of this landscape of jarring beauty.  Depending upon the landscape, however, this sentiment would soon change.       

I hiked for a couple miles. After making a campsite beside a tall, broad juniper, I spent much of that afternoon sheltering from rain squalls, my plastic ground cover doubling as an awning.  The purchase of a small tent prior to my departure didn’t occur to me.  After all, my two previous visits to Utah’s canyon country involving camping took place in July, when the weather was sunny and 104 degrees, and September, when the weather was considerably cooler but equally dry.  Thus, I had concluded that it rarely rained in southeast Utah.  Whatever, I considered myself tough enough to handle any weather condition.  So, in the shelter of the awning, I looked around and around, marveling not only at the distant formations on the valley floor, but also at the fabulous sandstone bulwark at my back.  

This was the fulfillment of a dream: the Pawnee Buttes multiplied beyond imagining.  The landscape fascinated me for a number of reasons, beginning with its geometry, a result of its sedimentary nature.  Except for the Pawnee Buttes, the natural world I’d known up to now―the Berkshire hills and mountains of Massachusetts; the Catskill mountains of New York; the hills, mountains, and valleys of central Colorado―appeared more or less fashioned with a waving, cupping hand.  Curves―often crude, of course―characterized these landscapes.  Utah’s canyon country, however, with its millions of predominantly rectangular and triangular formations, appeared to be the work of T-squares, meat cleavers, guillotines, and circular saws.  It didn’t flow.  It chomped. 

Meanwhile, as with the Pawnee Buttes, this angular landscape had a charming familiarity.  I loved it for its natural qualities, yet also for the artificial constructs these natural formations recalled: tables, temples, battleships, edifices, pyramids, butcher blocks, all in various stages of silent, mysterious, melancholy ruin.  And what curves there were in the land had a striking ability to evoke parts of the human anatomy such as breasts, nipples, and crowns of phalli. 

It was as well a naked land.  Before witnessing the Four Corners country, I’d become accustomed to a landscape cloaked not only with grasses, trees, and shrubs, but with soils.  The Colorado Plateau was often paved with nothing but bare, lifeless rock―the very bones of the Earth. 

Space in the canyon country looked and felt different.  All of these right angles, these vertical rock faces, seemed to arrest the flow of gargantuan quantities of space; trap, concentrate, and fortify them.  I could almost hear and feel space colliding with the massive rock wall that stood behind me. 

Within all of this, a uterine security, the trance of entrance.

By late afternoon, the skies had cleared.  Anticipating a long, cold, lonely night, I decided to create a warm, colorful, lively companion until sleep overcame me.  Wandering near and far, I gathered juniper limbs and branches that I found scattered, gray and fundamentally arid, upon the red earth, and piled them at my campsite.  After scouring the ground, I reluctantly took to breaking branches and limbs from nearby junipers dead but still standing.  Although still reaching for the sky, that leafless wood was equally gray and parched.  Yet when I ripped a limb from a trunk, producing a sharp report that echoed faintly off the stone rampart, a reddish inner pulp, like the marrow of a bone and faintly aromatic, was revealed. 

That night, after a meal of beans and apricots, I sat on a boulder and fed juniper into a fire for three hours, studying the distant lights of Bluff, watching a particular star progress across the sky at the pace of an hour hand, and thoroughly smoking myself with the spice of burning juniper, that unfailing fragrance through my ongoing Southwestern years.  

The following morning, I awoke―as I often would for years to come―to the croak of a solitary raven winging through the vast stillness in the direction of nearby Monument Valley.[1]  

Before leaving, I investigated, simply out of geological interest, a nearby cluster of boulders, some as big as storage sheds, at the base of the cliff.  After rounding the corner of one, I was stunned.  The side of the boulder was not belly-round, but rather planed perfectly flat, as if sliced with a giant diamond wheel.  Pecked into its surface, which was darkened as if with years of accumulated soot (later I would identify this “soot” as a geological/chemical phenomenon known as desert varnish), was a collection of obviously human-made figures. 

Several figures clearly depicted humans, or, rather, abstracted humans.   One was armless with stubby legs and an elongated trunk with a large rectangle in its center.  Another possessed all its limbs, although it, too, had an elongated trunk.  A third had an elongated neck and stubby legs and was accompanied by a circle―a primitive, if empty, “dialogue balloon”? I wondered―immediately to the right of its head.  There was a figure that recalled a snake, or perhaps a river, or perhaps a mountain range.  There was another that clearly resembled a scorpion. 

I knew immediately the figures were not the work of modern man or woman.  Any newcomer to Albuquerque with the slightest bit of curiosity quickly learned of the petroglyphs―human-made etchings―in the volcanic rock of the vast lava field on the western edge of the city.  Indeed, Linda and I had already visited the field that would, within two years, become Petroglyph National Monument.  There we saw etchings, some perhaps 700 years old―created well before Coronado’s arrival in today’s North America―that prepared me for the ones I now beheld in southeast Utah.  The idea that these lonely etchings near Bluff, Utah, had survived possibly seven centuries of wind, rain, heat, cold, and dust, murmuring their presence to virtually no one throughout nearly all of those years, stirred my guts.  I entertained the possibility―absurd but stirring nonetheless―that I was the first to witness them after such time, but then the knowledge of the paved road two miles to the east more or less affirmed otherwise. 

The petroglyphs stayed with me all that day as I returned to Albuquerque.

(“Eh,” dismissed Ricki, a Navajo I met in Carrizozo, New Mexico, long ago. “Old love letters.”)


[1] Years later, while consulting a map, I would learn that this camping experience occurred just below a place called Muley Point.  And I would read, in an October, 1982 entry of Edward Abbey’s published journal, his description of the point: “It’s as marvelous as ever up here.  The tremendous stillness.  The tremendous infinity of sky.  One raven croaking.  The inevitable raven, guardian spirit of this place.  Sunlight on the beaches down in the Goosenecks of the San Juan River.”


creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, southwest, Uncategorized

Four Corners, Part 2

I headed north on Highway 666, unaware of this number’s modern-day association with the antichrist or the devil.  (Some 15 years later, as a result of its Satanic connotation and periodic thefts of its official highway signs, the “Devil’s Highway” would be renumbered/renamed 491.)  Scattered along my first 10 miles of 666, apparitions coalescing in my headlights, were some one dozen northbound hitchhikers, undoubtedly yet more Navajos.  It was an odd sight: in a United States stacked with cars and trucks, all these individuals afoot and seeking rides.  At the same time, it revealed a solidarity, a remarkable faith, surely tribal in nature, on the part of each and every one of these thumbers that, sooner or later, despite the obvious competition, he or she could count on a car or truck for a lift to Sheep Springs, Newcomb, Sanostee, Little Water, or Shiprock in time for the 10 o’clock news.  Few, I sensed, are forever left by the wayside in Navajoland. 

Although, that night at least, no thanks to me.  I passed them all, wiping their existence away in the wake of my high beams.  My current solitude was too delicious, too individualistic, too white man, obviously un-tribal. 

Meanwhile, some station on the right side of my AM radio dial was broadcasting Merle Haggard’s “No Reason to Quit,” the ultimate drunkard’s rebel yell (without the yelling, however, only Haggard’s incomparably elegant baritone). 

After 70 more miles of darkness pinpricked only by the occasional light of a house near to or distant from 666, I arrived in Shiprock, New Mexico, a veritable metropolis in this remote country, for the first time in a dozen years.  At a Taco Bell, I purchased some Mexoid and a Pepsi to go.

Determined to get even closer to the Four Corners, I left Shiprock, heading west into Arizona.  As I drove, I knew that somewhere not far to the south loomed the legendary formation that gives Shiprock its name, but I was unable to see it in the darkness beyond the lights of my car. 

At a place named Teec Nos Pos, I pushed north on an even more remote highway, well aware that it was late, yet hoping that, in the light of a new day, I would find myself among those grand and colorful mesas and canyons, vibrating with broken rock, all that I associated with Moab. 

After some five miles, I paused at the junction of a road that, according to a sign, led to the Four Corners Monument.  I consulted my map: the monument was less than a mile away.  I stepped out of the car, its motor and lights off.  When my eyes adjusted to the starlit darkness, I looked around: no grand cliffs and canyons, not even a manmade structure; just a bland, rolling, nearly treeless upland.  Thus, my introduction to the Four Corners: a cartographer’s curiosity and some additional income for the Navajo nation (an entrance fee to the monument was required), but beyond that, not much.  Small wonder each state provided only the merest corner of itself to the place. 

I resumed my drive for a number of miles and then, exhausted, I stopped.  Wary of sleeping on the ground so close to the highway, yet equally wary of bumbling off into the gloom with a loaded pack on my back without a flashlight, which I ’d forgotten, I lowered the back seat of Little Red, raised the hatchback, and crawled in like a furtive high-desert creature.  I was unable to determine which of four possible United States I was in, and the mystery lulled me to sleep.

Dawn found me, to my surprise, at the top of a slope that led briefly down to a broad river, the San Juan, which I had skirted in Shiprock the previous night.  I hastily repacked my gear and continued roughly north.  I crossed the San Juan, which flowed through a dismal landscape of barren gray hills, its shoreline dense with trees yet to leaf out.  Other than the highway and a littered parking area beside a brief trail that led to the river bottomland, the place was devoid of any traces of humanity.  I passed a sign welcoming me to Colorado. 

Upon climbing out of the river basin, I pulled the car over and had a breakfast.  Hungry as I was, I would have liked five scrambled eggs smothered in chile verde, a side of chorizo sausage, and two 10-inch flour tortillas, but I settled for my stewed apricots and coffee.  As I ate, I studied Shiprock, not the city, but the actual geological formation, the Navajos’ “rock with wings.”  It stood 25 miles to the southeast, aglow in the sunrise, jutting above a horizon of dun-colored tableland like a lone, worn tooth of a saw blade.  

Driving on, I turned, at a junction as desolate as the one that led to the Four Corners, onto a highway leading west to Bluff, Utah.  After Aneth and Montezuma Creek, two reservation towns of ramshackle trailer homes, cars and trucks on blocks, muddy roads, and roaming dogs, I finally returned, just east of Bluff, to the red-rock country that recalled Moab.  

Bluff was a tiny, tidy town with a grocery store, motel, homes that were actually built there and not “manufactured” elsewhere, and even some lawns.  Great sandstone formations hugged the north side of the town. 

I didn’t linger there.  Under increasingly cloudy skies, I pressed on to a place northwest of Bluff with the alluring name of Valley of the Gods.  I plunged into and shot out of a massive canyon at the bottom of which ran a watercourse named Butler Wash.  More gigantic rock formations appeared, although far more curvaceous than those I recalled in the Moab area.  They stood upon a sea of the most beautiful combination of native soil and plant life I’d ever witnessed.  Even under gray skies, the soil was vibrantly red as chile powder and dotted with diminutive green shrubbery, all occasionally punctuated by a juniper tree.   

Shortly after turning north onto a road leading to the Valley of the Gods, I diverted onto a side road that led briefly to a place called the Goosenecks.  Since breakfast, the San Juan River had been shadowing my journey, flowing meekly over the desolate land, nearly always visible.  Then it seemed to disappear at Bluff.  Now, some 20 miles from the village, I stood at a railing at the Goosenecks, staring at the same river 1,000 feet below and flowing through a massive canyon whose convolutions recalled intestines.  Geologists called it an entrenched meander. 

The staggering geological transformation baffled me.  At what point over those 20 miles, I wondered, did the pleasantly daylit San Juan make the plunge into this appalling underworld, shed its flimsy blouse for an overcoat?  And why?  And how?  Staring at this spectacle, I had to wonder: Which had the greater appetite, the river for the land, or the land for the river?  

creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, southwest, Uncategorized

Four Corners, Part 1

After moving to Albuquerque, I was hungry to explore the Southwestern lands well beyond the cities and towns. 

My first exploration was to the Colorado Plateau country northwest of the city.  The Plateau was a 130,000-square-mile, amoeba-shaped upland whose geographic center lay just west of a place known as the Four Corners, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, uniquely among American states, meet.  It was predominantly a land of mesas, canyons, badlands, buttes, and volcanic necks, of cracked, broken, and naked sedimentary rock.  Yet it also encompassed scattered mountain ranges and such major Western rivers as the Colorado and the San Juan. 

I wasn’t a complete stranger to it.  Ten months prior to my arrival in Albuquerque, I finally visited the Moab, Utah, area, the locus of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and regarded by many as the premier destination of the Plateau country (although today, Moab having exploded with residents and tourists, Abbey would surely disagree).  I would visit Moab two more times before moving to New Mexico.  Like Abbey, I was fascinated by this arid “red wasteland” of timeless, relentless rock monoliths―like ruins of ancient, fabulous civilizations―and yawning canyons.  On all three occasions, accompanied once by family and twice by friends, I had approached it from west-central Colorado.  Now I would enter it from northwestern New Mexico.  And on my own―in Abbey’s words, the “way I wanted it, naturally.” 

On a Friday afternoon in March, directly from work, I headed west on I-40.  In Red’s rear was stowed my latest camping gear: a 1976 Kelty backpack, Sears cloth sleeping bag, foam rubber pad, plastic ground cover, Svea stove, surplus-store mess kit, plastic cup, can opener, a can of baked beans, dried apricots, instant coffee, sugar, creamer, water, and my worn paperback edition of Solitaire

I had no idea where I would lay my head that night.  Fifteen years earlier this prospect would have frightened me somewhat.  Now, I reveled in its possibilities.  After all, I was now an actual New Mexican; a Southwesterner; a friend of foresters, loggers, and sawyers; and no one could tell me I was a stranger here. 

On I-40, I was among the steady stream of westbound autos and 18-wheelers.  I glanced south at the frequent freight trains on the Santa Fe Railroad (today, the BNSF Railway) main line, which through much of northwestern New Mexico was within sight of the interstate.  I passed the pueblo of the Laguna Indian Reservation, a small, pale apparition on a hill overlooking the highway.  At Prewitt, New Mexico, an array of towering sandstone headlands, rosy in the setting sun, began to appear just north of the interstate.  According to my map, I was now skirting or about to skirt the southern edge of the Navajo reservation.  I crossed the Continental Divide, a mere swelling on the land, a trifling imitation of its soaring, rugged, snowbound stretch in nearly all of Colorado.  I passed an exit to the settlement of Rehoboth, named after a well in the Book of Genesis. 

Out of curiosity, I switched on Little Red’s AM radio and began turning the tuning dial from far left to right.  Almost immediately, at about mid-60’s kilohertz, I came upon an old favorite: Johnny Horton singing “Whispering Pines,” so I stayed there.  At the completion of the recording, a voice, presumably that of a station announcer, came on.  The variety of Chinese I’d overheard as a busboy at Denver’s Lotus Room years earlier was odd enough; the language of the announcer sounded like a recording of Chinese sliced, diced, flipped, and then played backwards.  Occasionally, however, some English would bubble up through the bizarre linguistic goulash: a numeral, “auto parts,” “Chevy pickups,” “Baptist,” “Four Corners,” “booster cables,” “chapter house.”  After George Jones sang “Walk Through This World with Me,” the announcer returned with the strange lingo, but this helping included the utterance “66 KTNN, voice of the Navajo Nation.”

Ah hah

In a chilly twilight, I exited the interstate in Gallup, New Mexico, and, as the Stones’s rendition of “(Get You Kicks on) Route 66” played in my head, I motored down that city’s stretch of the former 66, which seemed as long as the western New Mexico horizon was wide.  In what I presumed was the city’s center, the traffic on the five-lane blacktop was considerable.  However, its businesses, primarily Indian merchandise stores and pawn shops on the south side of the thoroughfare, were all closed, with many storefronts obscured behind drawn scissor gates.  Immediately on the north side of the street, the Santa Fe Railroad, heretofore consisting of merely two tracks, now appeared to swell to a dozen, with many of the tracks loaded with long, dark strings of freight cars.  A string near to me was crawling westward. 

Just a handful of pedestrians appeared along the way.  A small group of men, each lean, broad-shouldered, and bearing a waterfall of raven hair―Navajos, I presumed―wandered through some trees and brush beside a chain-link fence that partially cordoned off Gallup’s Amtrak railroad station.  A woman in a tee-shirt emblazoned with “GEORGE STRAIT” staggered east down the south sidewalk, her forward progress only slightly more than her lateral. 

By now, I knew―from conversations with long-time New Mexicans, stories in Albuquerque newspapers, and Abbey’s musings in Desert Solitaire―of Gallup’s history of rampant alcoholism among its visitors from the vast Navajo reservation immediately to the north of the city.  As a former barfly―in other words, before meeting Linda―I tried to imagine, on this Friday evening, the watering holes of Gallup.  Were they joyous places?  Was that “cowboy,” George Strait, crooning on their jukeboxes, the Indian wars now obviously over, differences now reconciled, all forgiven, and let’s drink to that?  Surely some of the bars were profoundly grim venues where sipping and light repartee were dispensed with because the object was to get hammered as quickly and cheaply as possible.

We destroyed their way of life and now expect all of them to remain sober? I mused, correctly or incorrectly, as I drove.

Fifteen years earlier, had I been in Gallup, perhaps en route to Tucson or Phoenix to visit friends or relatives, I would very likely have entered one or more of these establishments, slumming, getting buzzed.  For there was a time, a generous time, when bars offered me laughter, male companionship, female companionship, and one fight (which I lost).  I certainly never sought self-destruction in alcoholhonestly, who, initially, does?but I often found comfort and occasional fortitude.  Now, in Gallup, New Mexico, I was grateful to be free of the regular patronizing of bars of any repute, free of their predation.  (And today I acknowledge the enormous complexity of alcoholism, including and especially Native American alcoholism.) 

I continued through Gallup, past its cold, dark buildings of brick and sandstone, without stopping.  The last thing I noticed, while negotiating a bridge over the Santa Fe tracks, were two pairs of rails leading westward.  Above their grime, the crowns of the rails, cleaned and polished by the wheels of billions of freight cars, held an eerie glow that seemed to defy the dying twilight: silver ribbons afloat on a black sea of desert that spread to eastern Arizona.  Ah, to be borne along, to a destination known or unknown, both equally agreeable, on a dark string of grimy, disinterested carriages of steel scented with the remote. 

 

creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, southwest, Uncategorized

Albuquerque’s Slavery Row

Within several weeks of my arrival in Albuquerque, I was living in an apartment a block down Madeira Drive from Linda’s, which was the way we initially wanted it.  Today, the names of our respective apartment complexes back then might raise red flags in a marketing department of any residential development company in New Mexico, if not all of the United States.  Back then, however, they were presumably acceptable, and, in my view at least, they interestingly mirrored one another. 

My complex was called The Plantation.  However, I failed to see the New Mexico connection in the name.  As far as I knew, the state had no history of large-scale tobacco, sugar, or rice farming (although I would eventually realize that cotton is farmed in southern New Mexico, though hardly on the scale of the 19th-century South).  Since my arrival in the state, I’d not seen any Georgian and French Creole architecture, any mansions encircled by 12-foot balustrade galleries.  Therefore, all I could do was assume the name was simply meant to recall the bounty, leisure, and Gable/Leigh romance of . . . what?  The antebellum South?  The postbellum South?  Yet hearing the name, I couldn’t quash images of whips, chains, manacles, welts, auction blocks, and pints of salt.  And I had to wonder how Albuquerque’s Black community, which at the time comprised 3 percent of the city’s population, regarded the name. 

In any event, The Plantation was indeed a pleasant place.  It was quiet at night.  I thrilled to the spring winds that occasionally shook my apartment door.  On warm spring days, I’d occasionally and discreetly watch, through my front window, the female tenants sunbathe by the empty swimming pool in the complex’s courtyard.  And nearly every evening I’d relax to the moody serenade, through my living room wall, of my neighbor as she practiced her cello.

Linda’s apartment, meanwhile, was named The Conquistador.  It was obviously named to acknowledge, if not honor, the first Spanish explorers, Francisco Vasquez Coronado premier among them, to arrive in today’s North America.  Shortly after my arrival in New Mexico, I developed an intense interest in the state’s history, and, among many other things, I learned that many contemporary New Mexicans of Spanish and even mixed-Spanish blood revered these adventurers.  They were conquistadores: “conquerors.”  They conquered lands―loosely speaking, that is: they “claimed lands for Spain”; they were neither pioneers nor settlers. 

However, with lands they conquered peoples, and not always in a gentle manner.  This was periodically brought to my attention in the pages of Albuquerque’s newspapers.  In various articles, the Pueblo people reminded New Mexicans that these 16th- and 17th-century conquistadoreswere responsible for forced labor, familial breakup, punitive amputations, rape, religious persecution, and the spread, unintentional yet deadly, of infectious diseases among the Pueblans’ ancestors.  Thus, I was soon joking―sort of―that I was living on a two-block stretch of Madiera Drive known as “Slavery Row.”[1] 


[1] In 2018, the Spanish and Catholic organizers of an annual Santa Fe reenactment of the 1692 “reoccupation” of the city by the Spanish, the “entrada pageant,” agreed, after increasing pressure by New Mexico’s Pueblans, to end the event.  Today, my former apartment complex is no longer The Plantation.  Linda’s former dwelling, however, has kept its name.)