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 is a 130,000-square-mile, amoeba-shaped upland whose geographic center lies just west of a place known as the Four Corners, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, uniquely among American states, meet. It is predominantly a land of mesas, canyons, badlands, buttes, and volcanic necks, of cracked, broken, and naked sedimentary rock; yet it also encompasses 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 am 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 alone from northwestern New Mexico―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 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 is 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 and diced 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.”
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. The string nearest 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. On this Friday evening, I tried to imagine the bars 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 thought.
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, as I occasionally did on Denver’s skid row. 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 alcohol―honestly, 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. 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 agreeable, on a string of grimy, disinterested carriages of steel scented with the remote.