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Four Corners Sojourn, Part 2

In a chilly twilight, I exited the interstate in Gallup, New Mexico, and, as the Stones’s rendition of the Bobby Troup song played in my head, motored down the city’s stretch of the former Route 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, yet 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 66, the Santa Fe Railroad, heretofore consisting of merely two tracks, now appeared to swell to ten, with many of the tracks loaded with long, dark strings of freight cars. Except for one string crawling westward, all were at rest.

Just a handful of pedestrians appeared on this stretch of 66. A small group of men, each lean, broad-shouldered, and bearing a waterfall of raven hair―Navajos likely―wandered through some brush beyond a chain-link fence that partially cordoned off an 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 was dispensed with because the object was to get hammered as quickly and cheaply as possible. In any event, I imagined them beginning to fill up. Fifteen years earlier, had I been in Gallup, perhaps on route to Tucson or Phoenix to visit friends or relatives, I would very likely have entered one or more of them, slumming, getting buzzed, as I occasionally did on Denver’s skid row. Now I was grateful to be free of that scene, as well as the regular patronizing of bars of any repute.

Yet, in my imagination, there was still a stubborn, attractive romanticism to all of it. For there was a time when bars offered me laughter, music, male companionship, female companionship, and one fight (which I lost). For years, I thought such authors as Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski, sodden alcoholics both, understood and harnessed such romanticism to their benefit (Bukowski maintaining wine was his best accompaniment to writing). I thought Malcolm Lowry, English chronicler of Cuernavaca, Mexico, and arguably literature’s most ruinous drunk, did as well; indeed, of him, film critic Pauline Kael seductively wrote: “[H]e somehow got himself to believe that alcoholic self-destruction would give him access to the states of mind necessary to set words on fire.” I didn’t seek self-destruction in alcohol, but I often found comfort.

Today, I acknowledge the enormous complexity of alcoholism, including and especially Native American alcoholism; that Friday evening, I simply felt smug that I had managed to avoid the predation of places like Gallup, although I was still fascinated by the city’s tragic nature. Even Bob Dylan, although no alkie, fell prey to Gallup’s romance, once, when he was 20, falsely telling an interviewer that he was “raised” in the city.

I continued through Gallup, past its cold, dark brick and sandstone buildings, 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 millions of freight cars, held an eerie glow that seemed to defy the diminishing twilight: silver ribbons afloat on a black sea of desert that spread to eastern Arizona.

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Four Corners Sojourn, 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 Four Corners region, the Colorado Plateau country northwest of the city. Ten months prior to my arrival in Albuquerque, I finally visited the Moab, Utah, area, regarded by many as one of the prime destinations of the plateau country and the locus of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. I would visit Moab two more times before moving to New Mexico. Like Abbey, I was fascinated by this arid “red wasteland” of 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 aimed to enter it alone from northwestern New Mexico.

On a Friday afternoon in March, directly from work, I headed west on I-40. In Little Red’s rear was stowed my camping gear: a circa 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 Desert Solitaire. I had no idea where I would lay my head that night. Fifteen years earlier this prospect would have frightened me; now, I reveled in its limitless possibilities. After all, I was now a cocky 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 eighteen-wheelers. Meanwhile, I glanced at the frequent freight trains on the Santa Fe Railroad main line intermittently visible from the highway. I passed the Indian pueblo of Laguna, a small, pale apparition on a hill overlooking the highway. I crossed the Continental Divide, a mere swelling on the land, a trifling imitation of its soaring, rugged, snowbound stretch in much of Colorado. 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 about to skirt the southern edge of the Navajo reservation. Soon I passed an exit to a place with the odd name of Rehoboth.

Out of curiosity, I switched on the Lynx’s AM radio and began turning the tuning dial from far left to right. Almost immediately, at about mid-60s 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 Chinese I’d overheard as a busboy at Denver’s Lotus Room years earlier was odd enough. The language of the announcer sounded like Chinese sliced and diced, then recorded and 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.” 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.”

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1-9-20

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 wood stoves.  

An image from one of these visits 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 appeared to be dead drunk.  Then a 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 romantic curiosity, I’d slum at the Gin Mill, once Denver’s most notorious skid row bar, and drink with Indians well on the path to alcohol-fueled oblivion.  I wondered if their sad condition to due to the fact that they were trapped in the urban cauldron, separated from their Mother Earth, their rural roots in Arizona, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Florida, so I now was surprised to see, as our car hurtled along and I sipped on a can of Bud, such pitiful self-destruction even in the pristine wilds of northwestern New Mexico.