We’re Going to Chama, Momma, Part I

A few years before the writing of this story I made my annual trip to New Mexico to visit with my mother, brother and sister in law.  This tradition had persisted for many years and I looked forward to its renewal every late summer.  Before my father grew ill and died I would fly to Albuquerque, and from there my brother and I would drive to Kentucky and back, mostly on two lane roads.  After Dad’s passing my mother moved in with Brad and Patricia and I was able to visit all three of them without leaving New Mexico, and that was just fine with me.  My visits were usually for one week, or maybe ten days, and that time was mostly taken up by eating wonderful food, taking afternoon naps in front of football games, “helping” Brad with his forklift business (mostly by staying out of the way) and chatting with family on the balcony in the cool of the evening while watching the hummingbirds duel for mates and chances at the feeder that Patricia had hung from the overhead.  On many a visit however we would find some interesting corner of New Mexico to go and investigate, and on every such trip I found something new to amaze me even  more about that state.  On the visit introduced in the beginning of this tale we decided to take a ride on the Cumbers & Toltec Scenic Railroad.

The Cumbers & Toltec Railroad is a narrow gauge line which runs between Chama New Mexico, and Antonito Colorado.  Originally the Cumbres & Toltec was part of a large web of rail lines servicing the mining operations of southern Colorado, but as that industry dwindled the railroad became unprofitable and most of it’s holdings were sold.  The stretch of track between Chama and Antonito was saved by a preservation society however, and built into the potent tourist attraction that it is today.  We decided that we would visit the railroad during this particular pilgrimage, and after spending the first few days of my trip lounging around Albuquerque we set off early one morning to do just that.

We left Albuquerque after having our morning coffee, intending to eat breakfast at El Bruno’s in Cuba New Mexico.  Cuba is a small town about eighty miles north of Albuquerque, and the drive passes through hills of gypsum, canyons cut through the soft rock by flash floods which rage towards the Rio Puerco during monsoon thunderstorms, and grassy valleys which become larger and more common as we climbed up from the Rio Grande Valley, which itself lies at 5,000 feet above sea level.  The road is good and not too curvy, and in all it took us about one and a half hours to get from Brad’s condominium to the parking lot at El Bruno’s, which put us there at about ten in the morning.  This was a problem it turned out, because El Bruno’s didn’t open until eleven.

“What do you want to do?” Brad asked me.  Since I was the visitor Brad always deferred to me, and one way or another I would defer right back to him since Brad knew the state like the back of his hand.  “Where can we eat up north?” I asked.  “No place in particular” was the reply.  We had all, with the exception of Mom, set our hearts on El Bruno’s.  Mom never did like New Mexican food all that much.  “It’s only an hour” I said.  “Let’s wait it out”.

And so wait we did, each in our own way.  Brad and Patricia took a walk, as they frequently liked to do, while Mom and I stayed in the car and chatted.  Our conversation required little effort, as Mom was nearly deaf and quite content to do the heavy lifting in any conversation by herself.  I would start out by patiently repeating myself two and three times in order to be understood, but eventually the effort would cause my mind to wander and I would make infrequent and perfunctory comments while Mom chattered on.  Eventually Mom tired of what had become an obvious exercise in futility and lapsed into the silence of her own thoughts.  We did this a lot, and mostly ended up enjoying each other’s company even if communication might be at a minimum.

On this morning as I sat in the car waiting for some of the best food in America, if not the world, I noticed an activity taking place about twenty or thirty yards away from the car under some cottonwood trees along the east bank of the Rio Puerco.  Two large nylon canopies had been erected and underneath them a team of people were busy sorting, cleaning, and bagging up a truckload of green chilis.  I had a sense that I was watching a scene which had been played out one way or another for centuries, if not millennia.  The people working there might have been Hispanic, but I am more inclined to believe that they were Native Americans.  They Navajo reservation is not far from Cuba and the Pueblos and Jicarilla Apache rez are all to be found at a much greater distance, so my money is on the Navajo.  The fact that they spoke in soft tones, if at all, and that the twist of a lip or twitch of a cheek seemed to be a part of the such conversation as I could discern lent support to the supposition that this team was probably Navajo.

The green chili that they were working on is the bedrock foundation of New Mexican cuisine, and whether you live in the south and prefer the chilis from the Hatch Valley, or in the middle Rio Grande area and indulge in the product from around Lemitar, or reside in the north and are more accustomed to the smaller yet still potent fruit of that region, the tasty and oftentimes fiery chili lies at the heart of a great percentage of New Mexico cookery.  The folk whom I was watching were generating a large amount of cleaned and bagged chilis and I guessed that they might be sold to restaurants in the area, although I could be far from the mark on that one.  No doubt the home kitchens of no bigger a town than Cuba (population 734) were fully competent to cook up enough delicious food to use up that mountain of precious green chili in not too much time.

Eventually the establishment opened and we feasted on more exceptional food than three gourmands and one reluctant senior citizen should ever eat.  We were in no big hurry, which could be said of just about everybody else in the sleepy town, and so it was probably another hour before we climbed back into Brad’s vehicle and nosed out onto the road north.

Much of the route from Cuba to Chama runs through upland hills and valleys, over a vast high desert plain dotted with natural gas pumps and the occasional casino, the Jicarilla Apache reservation on the eastern edge of that plain, and then the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.  It is a beautiful drive, depending upon how one wishes to define beauty.  The evergreen trees – pines of some sort I think they were – with scant brush or lowish grasses covering the ground in the spaces between them, the flat plains with scrubby growth trying with indifferent success to cover the caliche that formed the floor of that high desert flatland, and the foothills which were clothed thickly with trees of many sorts, and streams issuing from valleys splitting the hills, all have a beauty of their own, if one is patient and willing to look for it.

And patience is a virtue in this timeless land.  Nothing moves all that fast; not the people who go through life in their own relaxed rhythm and at their own chosen pace, not the hills which have been there since time began, not the streams which have cut slowly, layer by razor-thin layer through soil and rock as they alternately rush, gurgle, and meander towards their reunion with the sea which gave them their birth.  Yes, if you come from California or New York or just about anywhere else where time is money and everything should have been done much more quickly than it was, you will probably soon be leaving New Mexico with a curse on your lips, wondering how the people here even survive.  Like the rocks and trees and waters, the people of New Mexico do things in their own time, dancing to their own drummer, and they’re doing just fine.

At length we arrived at Chama, a town of about 1,000 nestled in the Rocky Mountain foothills, which offers a place to stay while you fish, hunt, ride your horse through the pine and alder covered mountains and, if you are so inclined, ride the Cumbers & Toltec Railroad.  We were too early to check into our motel, so we decided to walk around Chama, which did not take a great deal of time to accomplish.  We poked our noses into a few stores, bought Mom a doughnut (one of the true delights in her life), and then poked around the train yard from whence our ride would begin on the next day.  There was a station and the obligatory gift shop, where I purchased a sweatshirt upon the recommendation of Patricia to protect me from the high country cool of the evening and morning.  It turned out that she was right as rain.  I was accustomed to carrying little more than shorts and tee shirts on my summer escapes to New Mexico, with maybe one pair of long pants and a button-down shirt if we would be attending my brother’s very formal Episcopal Church.  Without the sweatshirt I would have had a chilly time indeed in Chama.

In a little time we had taken in all of the sights fit to be seen in Chama and set out on the road again in order to visit a valley nearby where Patricia and her family had spent many summers in her youth. The countryside in this area was gorgeous, with steep tree-covered hills and mountainsides divided by alternately broad and then again narrow grass-covered valleys, divided by rippling streams filled with trout.  The house which they had inhabited was still standing and Patricia shared many stories of riding horses, cleaning fish, and exploring the hills and valleys in ways that would make most modern parents cringe.  It sounded idyllic to me, and as I thought back upon my own growing up in the middle of San Diego, which was not a bad city to grow up in, I could see that there were a great many good things that I had not experienced in my childhood that I wished I had, and I considered Patricia to be a lucky girl indeed.

At last it began to grow late enough to begin our trek back to Chama and check into our motel.  We meandered down the road, paralleling the stream, and parted company with that waterway when we reached State Route 17 and it continued east to join the Chama River.  We had not traveled far before I looked down in the valley where I knew that the river was flowing and laid eyes for the first time on the chugging mass of the Cumbers & Toltec Railroad.  “There’s the train” I shouted, and we all looked at the black, smoking beast that was bringing several cars of tourists back to the station in Chama after an all-day run.  We quickly outpaced the train and soon came to a place where the tracks crossed the road.  We decided to shut the car down and wait for the spectacle to catch up with us.

Several other carloads of travelers had the same idea and soon there was at least a dozen cars and trucks stopped along the road.  There were no “Railroad Crossing” signs, no flashing lights, no barrier arms to descend to block the road of the careful driver or to challenge the spirit of the daredevil.  There was simply a pair of steel rails set in the roadbed over which the train would momentarily roll.  We all got as close as our individual perceptions of safety permitted and settled down to await the arrival and passing of the train.  The wait was not a long one.

In a few minutes’ time the shrill whistle of the train announced its presence, and in short order the engine came steaming up from along the river and around a bend about two hundred yards from the road.  I gasped as I first saw the black steel behemoth rolling steadily, inexorably, towards us.  The great steel cow catcher in front of the engine seemed to be as big as a car and the mass of the engine, which grew as it drew closer, looked to be huge enough to exert its own gravitational pull, and I had better stand back lest that gravity should pull me in spite of my feeble resistance under the bright metal wheels which rolled with only a whisper over the gleaming rails.  We all stood in awe as the great, lumbering iron horse chugged and belched smoke and cinders and whistled by us, seeming to glide like a phantom ebony leviathan across the road, dragging its cargo of delighted tourists behind it.  We waved at the tourists and most of them waved back, and then it was gone; disappeared behind a hill.

With the passing of the train we returned to our car.  It was now past time when we could check into our motel room and we wanted to unload our gear, relax, maybe walk a bit more and then have dinner and settle in for the evening.  Brad steered the car back through town and on to the Elk Horn Lodge,which occupied the southernmost limit of the town of Chama.  It was there that we would clean up, stretch out and enjoy our evening in clean and civilized comfort.  Or so we thought.

I’m A Fool for the City

The year of our Lord 1976 was not my best year.  The first five months of that year I spent trying to hold together a marriage which was slowly melting down, and the last seven months were mostly lost in a boozy muddle wreathed in clouds of marijuana smoke as I self medicated to forget the pain of my failure in that endeavor.  Each day of that last seven months was an undirected jumble of virtually meaningless hours and every night at the residence which I shared with three other people would have looked like a party to any reasonable person, not that there was ever very many reasonable people present in our residence on any given night.  One evening a person who accompanied a  friend of mine apologized for not bringing something to add to the party.  My friend laughed and told him “This isn’t a party.  It’s always like this here.”

That sort of lifestyle eventually either kills you or loses its allure and for me it was the latter, and so as that awful year drew to a close I awoke one morning, put my tools, some clothing and a few valuable items into my truck, and pointed the nose of that vehicle south and east away from Northern California and across Southwest deserts towards Albuquerque New Mexico, where my brother Bart lived.  I needed to restart my life and returning to my family seemed like the right place to get that journey underway.

Albuquerque is a very different kind of place than any that I had ever lived in before however, and it didn’t take very long after my arrival to find out just how different it was.  I actually felt like I had fallen into a crack between two universes and had emerged in some bizarre facsimile of the normal one I had inhabited up until I pulled into the city limits.  My introduction to this odd new universe came quickly when Brad announced on my first day there that he was going to K-Mart to buy some item which he needed for a construction project at his house.  I climbed into his truck and we were soon standing in one of the construction supply aisles near the rear of the building.  We were not alone however.  A few yards in front of us an argument was taking place between a young woman and a young man.

“I don’t know why you are saying that.  None of it is true” said the young woman.

“Don’t lie to me” replied the young man, spitting the words out between clinched teeth.  “You think I’m stupid?  or that I don’t have ears or eyes?  You’re nothing but a puta”

For those of you unfamiliar with the American Southwest, ‘puta’ is not a very nice thing for a woman to be called.

“Don’t call me that” she hissed at her accuser.  “I haven’t done anything wrong.  I don’t know why you’re making this up.”  The young man remained unconvinced.

“I’m not making anything up.  I saw you with Joe with my own eyes.  Are you saying that I’m blind, puta?”

“I said don’t call me that.  Me and Joe are friends and that’s all.  We’ve been friends for a long time.  You’re just trying to make something out of nothing.”

“I know you and Joe are friends.  Good friends, too.  You looked real friendly when I saw you get into the back seat of his car.  Maybe if I had stayed around longer I would have seen your heels in the window too, puta.”

This was as far as the girl was willing to let the young man go, and she lashed out with a vicious right hook that would have made Mike Tyson proud.  The young man’s glasses flew off of his face and spun through the air, landed on the floor and skidded to a stop at the feet of Brad and me.  Brad had found the item that he needed so we quickly did an about face and walked up another aisle towards the check out stand at the front of the store.  While Brad was paying we heard the quavering voice of a female in distress paging the store manager to the employee break room.  My guess is that the young man at that same moment was applying something warm and wet to the left eye that was swelling shut and already beginning to blacken.

I was completely blown away by the this event and as we arrived at Brad’s truck I asked “What the hell did we just see?”  “Oh, that’s no big thing here” Brad replied.  “You’ll get used to it”.  The funny thing is that I did get used to it, mostly because one odd event after another seemed to blend into the pattern of a unique personality of the city.  The next wrinkle of that personality was to make itself known to me before very much water in the Rio Grande passed underneath the I-40 Bridge.

My friend Wes showed up at Brad’s house two days after I did and all three of us strapped on our tools and began to hang drywall for a local contractor.  It was the dead of winter and Albuquerque sits at 5,000 feet above sea level.  Winter storms are not common there, but they do occasionally come and when they do they can bring significant amounts of ice and snow.  The three of us were working on the east side of the city one day when the grey clouds rolled in and began to drop snow while we were occupied inside of a building.  By the time that we noticed the weather there was a layer of snow an inch or two thick on the ground already and more was falling as we stood there.  Brad declared that we should quit and begin to make our way to his house on the west side of the city, as far away from where we were standing as we could and yet remain in the same city.

We stowed our tools in the back of Brad’s truck and he began to steer the vehicle slowly and carefully down the whitened streets, first stopping to procure a couple of cases of beer in case we were snowed in.  Many others had the same idea and there was an additional inch or two of snow on the streets when Brad completed his purchase and began to do the best imitation of a tip-toe in a half ton truck that I have ever seen.  Slowly and carefully he navigated the gentle hill which dropped into the South Valley where his house was, still many miles away.

Now at this point I have to explain something about the tires on many of the vehicles in Albuquerque.  New Mexico is a dry place, and Albuquerque is more dry than many other parts of that state.  Without a lot of rain and snow and ice to make the need for good tread on one’s tires obvious it is easy to become lazy and not replace a tire until it is a good deal past far gone.  Many of the tires in Albuquerque are simply bald, and bald tires plus ice and snow are a bad, bad mix.

And a bad mix they were on this particular day.  Brad and Wes and I were rolling slowly down Second Avenue, enjoying a few beers before actually arriving at Brads house (I am not advocating this behavior; I am simply reporting it) when Brad noticed a large American car – all American cars were large in those days – coming up behind us at a much higher rate of speed that we were going.  The first that Wes and I were aware that there was a drama about to unfold was when Brad said “Uh Oh, this probably is not going to end well,” and he began to slow down a little bit more to increase his maneuverability in case things went horribly bad.

The car behind us, driven by a young man with his wife or more likely girl friend beside him, pulled into the oncoming lane in order to pass us.  When he attempted to straighten the trajectory of his car the slick, bald tires allowed not an iota of traction however and the car continued on in the new path which the driver had just initiated.  That path took the car and its passengers across the oncoming lane, down into a low and somewhat broad ditch, up a railroad embankment which paralleled Second Avenue, and back down the embankment to settle in the bottom of the ditch.  While this was happening the car began to turn a lazy half circle so that it came to rest with the front of the car pointing towards us as we continued our slow, careful pace up on the road where we wanted to stay and the now hopelessly stuck driver wished that he still was.

The whole thing seemed like some slow motion dance.  The car making it’s lazy arc up and down the railroad embankment, narrowly missing a road sign in the process; the female passenger already giving the driver hell before we passed them by; it was like an opera without the music.  There was not one thing that we could do to help in those days before cell phones, but Second Avenue was a busy street and we knew that a police cruiser and a tow truck were in this gentleman’s immediate future, so we drove on laughing so hard that we almost wet ourselves.

A final tale (and I could tell many more) featuring the peculiarities of Albuquerque came a year later, when I was back in town following the construction trades.  Brad took me to Chuck’s Lounge, a bar and pizza place on Central Avenue in the heart of the city.  There was always a diverse crowd in Chuck’s due to its proximity to the University of New Mexico a few blocks away up Central and two interstate highways just a short distance west and north.  They also made some very good pizza.  On this particular night one could see sandals and boots, headbands and cowboy hats, paisley shirts and big shiny belt buckles and every manner of clothing and personal grooming styles you can imagine.  I was there for the pizza because they made the best green chili, pepperoni and chorizo pizza that I have ever eaten.  Actually, they make the ONLY green chili and pepperoni and chorizo pizza that I have ever eaten.  I was interested only in the pizza and not the other clientele who were enjoying Chuck’s hospitality that night.

All of that changed in one instant however.  Unnoticed by anyone in the building, a man entered the front door with a handgun of some unknown calibre looking for the person who was fooling around with his wife, and his wife too if she happened to be so unlucky as to be there that evening.  This person bellowed out a name which nobody responded to, which prompted the man to discharge a bullet into the roof to make himself perfectly clear.  At this point everyone in the joint hit the floor or took cover behind whatever they could find.  Nobody bolted for the exit because that would put them into clear sight and might suggest to the cuckolded shooter that he might be the guilty party.

The armed man peered under tables and around bar stools and decided that the Casanova whom he was in search of was not going to be found in Chuck’s that night.  At that point he pulled out his wallet and laid a wad of bills on the bar, apologized for disrupting everyone’s evening, instructed the bartender to set everyone up as far as the wad of bills on the bar would go, and took his leave to search for his wife and her lover elsewhere.

Brad and I crawled out from under our table and found to our delight that very little beer had slopped out of our glasses as we dove for cover.  We finished our pizza and beer, paid up, and departed shortly after the incident.  Chuck called the police, since he would probably have heard about it if he had not, and they showed up just before we left.  There was no sense of urgency shown by the police since nobody was hurt.  The officers took a description and seemed to know who their suspect was, and we all got to leave without a great deal of fuss and to-do.

These are three of a great many stories that I could write about life in Albuquerque.  I found that city and state to be unlike any others, and I frankly enjoyed their quirky if somewhat dangerous personality.  I live far away from Albuquerque now and my family has also moved on, so I have little likelihood of seeing that city again.  I still keep it in my mind and heart however, and that will simply have to do.

Road Trip, Part VI

I felt lonely for the first few miles after Ben parted company with me to rejoin his people at Laguna, but before long my mind returned to the patterns of the previous day; ranging far and wide in space and time.  The road was somewhat broken, as construction of the future Interstate 40 was underway and I would be sometimes hemmed in tightly by construction barrels and sometimes had to wait as eastbound traffic used a single lane, followed by westbound traffic when our turn came.  The delay was annoying but it allowed me to appreciate the harsh beauty which surrounded me.  The red cliffs on the north side of the road looked as if they belonged on Mars, and the jagged, broken black rock of the Malpais, a vast volcanic extrusion which occurred eons ago and yet still only sported tenacious and ragged shrubs and other hardy plants which grew in cracks and depressions in the rock where a little windblown dust had gathered in sufficient quantity to support life.

By the time I got to Grants I had broken free of the construction and was sailing once again on good and open road.  I stopped to get fuel and check my transmission fluid, which was low but no worse than before.  Near the gas station was a tiny hut which sold burgers, burritos, fries, and not much else.  I ordered a cheeseburger and found that it was even hotter than my breakfast burrito had been.  I gobbled that down and washed it down with an RC Cola, and then returned to the road.  On the very outskirts of Grants I saw two more hitchhikers and, since I greatly missed Ben’s company, I pulled over and indicated for them to climb in.  I no longer remember their names so I’ll call them Tom and Jerry.  They were returning home from some school east of New Mexico and one was going to Flagstaff while the other was going to Prescott.  Once again, this was not exactly the route I had been planning to take, but I could drop them off right at their destination at no inconvenience to myself.

Tom and Jerry were likable guys who were very grateful for the ride.  We talked of our homes and their school experiences, and mine in Vietnam.  The miles flew behind us.  Soon we drove through Gallup, on the eastern edge of New Mexico, and then we began to cross the high, flat countryside of northern Arizona.  That part of Arizona is very much unlike the arid land of the southern part of the state, or the lands further north near the borders with New Mexico, Colorado and Utah.  There were shallow ponds, or perhaps small lakes, with high grass growing as far as I could see.

As we approached Holbrook, one of the railroad towns that run across the West, I had a bright idea.  Tom was twenty years old like me, but Jerry was twenty one.  i pulled into the parking lot of a small grocery store and provided Jerry with the funds to buy a couple six packs and some snacks, which he gladly did.  Soon we were back on the road and enjoying ourselves even more than we had been before.  Winslow rolled behind us and in another hour we were in Flagstaff.  Jerry got out in the downtown area and said that he would like to walk the rest of the way home.  I was beginning to wonder about this walking home thing.  Prescott was an hour further down the road to the south, and Tom let me take him to his door.  I was offered the hospitality of his family but I was by now wanting very much to get home.  We waved and I was alone again and pointing the Mercury towards Phoenix and, beyond that, home.

The road from Prescott to Phoenix back then was a gently winding and steady drop from the evergreen-dotted high country to the low desert.  As I drew nearer to Phoenix the vegetation grew more and more scrubby and sparse while the land became drier and more rocky and the air like a blast furnace.  Driving through Phoenix was like swimming in a volcano, and as I turned first west to Glendale and then south to Gila Bend it got even hotter.  There is a story told about this low desert country.  At Yuma, which was in my path, there once was a prison.  A prisoner who had lived many years in one of the cells there died and, being a very bad man, naturally went to hell.  After a short while he petitioned the Devil to let him send a message back to earth, to which request Old Scratch surprisingly agreed.  His message was simple:  “Send my blankets”.

Turning west at Gila Bend I was now on a straight line for home.  Across the farmland of Dateland, Tacna, Dome and Azteca I flew, stopping only in Azteca for gas, fluid and a restroom break.  It was in the restroom at that gas station that I saw a sign that has stuck with me for all these years:  “We aim to please.  You aim too, please”.  It was now mid afternoon and hot as hell, but I had visions of home dancing in my head.  Since I was now driving straight west the sun was beaming in my windshield and roasting my knuckles on the steering wheel.  I had to take turns; first one hand and then the other.  The windows were rolled down and the scorching wind swirled around the growing fuzz on my head and face.  Occasionally I would rest my elbow on the drivers’ side door, but quickly the flaming sun would begin to cook my pathetically pale skin and I would withdraw a slightly more pink arm back inside the safety of the car.

Soon I climbed a low pass through an outcropping of jagged, sun-blasted hills and descended into the town of Yuma, of the shivering bad guy in hell fame.  A long, long line of traffic lights; the entire town seemed to be strung out along the east-west axis of U.S. Highway 80, finally gave way to the bridge over the Colorado River, the state checkpoint to keep out fruits and vegetables which could harbor pests injurious to California’s agricultural industry, and I was at last barreling across the sand dunes and sage-and-greasewood-and- cactus covered desert floor of the Imperial Valley.

The climb up the east side of the Laguna Mountains was a wonderful thing.  Each thousand feet that I rose brought the temperature down further and further from hellish to miserable to hot, until finally I achieved comfortable at the top of the grade.  Watching the temperature gauge on the Mercury’s dashboard gave me a few moments of heartburn as the extra effort of propelling a ton of vehicle and passenger up the steep, winding, 4,000 foot grade made the engine overheating more than a dim possibility, a prospect which was attested to by the rather large number of cars pulled over in turnouts provided with large barrels of water by the State Division of Highways to grant succor to those who had to drop out and cool off before continuing up the grade.  The needle climbed into the “HOT” range but never made it to “TOAST”, and almost the moment that I rose up over the crest and began to wind my way westward across a level valley north of Jacumba the needle began to dip back down to its usual resting place.

I wanted to keep going but needed one more gas stop in Pine Valley, where I was to be married one day eight years later.  The transmission fluid was not leaking any worse than before and I felt relieved to know that a phone call and a couple hours’ wait for my dad to arrive with a tow bar was the worst thing that could happen now.  I got a burger and fries, this one cooler than molten lead, from a little place next to the only motel in Pine Valley, and ate it as I resumed my journey west.

A couple of miles west of Pine Vally I mounted a gentle hill that marked the last high point between me and home.  Descanso slipped by and then Alpine, the town with a tavern that has a huge oak tree growing right through the center of the building.  Flinn Springs, El Cajon, and finally back to the incipient Interstate 8.  No more than five miles after that I was pulling up in front of the home that I grew up in.  I turned the motor off and sat there for a few minutes, listening to the ‘ting, ting, ting’ of the motor cooling down.  It had been a long and arduous drive for both of us, and my admiration for that car grew as I thought back over the last 36 hours.  It was about eight o’clock, just before the last fading of light in San Diego in the summer.  I emerged from the car and walked up to the front door.  I hadn’t called ahead, so i rang the doorbell.  it was Dad who came to the door and he was surprised to see me home so soon.  He opened the door as Mom came from a room in the back of the house to see what was going on.  I said “Hi”, and gave them both a big hug, just like the hugs I had been given at the campground at Wind Cave.  It was the hug that I should have given them a couple of weeks ago when I returned from two years of war.  It was the coming home that mattered, like Bens.

Road Trip, Part V

Morning began to make its appearance at Wind Cave National Park and I did my best to ignore it.  I awoke several times and several times I buried my head in my blankets and returned to the bliss of dreamless sleep.  Probably I just didn’t want to face the fact that this would be the last day of my vacation and sleeping was as good a way to ignore that prospect as any other that I could think of.  Not that I ever needed much of a reason to sleep late; I have never been a morning person and until the day I die I never will be.  At last, however, consciousness cautiously returned to me and this time it was accompanied by the smell of coffee.  That was all that was required to make consciousness stick around this time.

Brad had brewed the coffee before Ginny had crawled out from under her blankets, so we sat at the camp table and sipped from our cups while doing what most brothers do everywhere, I think.  We spoke of everything and nothing, and just enjoyed the closeness of a relationship that is unlike any other; not better, just different.  I am certain that sisters experience something very much like it, but different in its own way.  We emptied the pot and set another on to perc, sipping the final few swallows and enjoying the quietness of the campground on a midweek morning.

Ginny rolled out of the camper just as the percolating bubbles in the second pot turned a rich brown and poured herself a cup.  She joined us on the bench seat of the table and mostly listened to our rambling conversation, adding a bit here or there whenever we stopped to take a breath or a sip.  The chatter slowly died away and finally we were all three staring glumly into our cups.  It was Ginny who finally took the bull by the horns.  “I guess I’d better get breakfast going.  You’re going to want to make some distance today” she said.  “I think I’m just going to plow through all the way” I replied.  “I want to get this leak business off of my back”.  Ginny told me that I was crazy but Brad knew what I was thinking.  When we were young and would accompany our parents on their vacations back to the South (they were no vacations for us), Dad would pack at night and leave San Diego at about two in the morning.  He would then proceed to drive non-stop until we reached central Texas, or about thirty six hours.  After eating and sleeping he would wake us up early again and do the same thing until we pulled into Georgia.  Dad wanted to make the most of his month.  Brad knew that I was about to do the same thing.

Ginny just shook her head and went about the business of preparing the ham and eggs and potatoes we had picked up in Rapid City on our way back from Phillip the day before.  She crammed as much into the skillets as they would hold, and we soon sat down to a substantial breakfast.  After slowly eating my share I offered to help clean up, but Brad knew that I had to quit procrastinating and get started.  He helped me pack my gear, which took all of about five minutes, and then we stood mutely looking at one another.

“Well, I’d better get this show on the road” I said, and Brad agreed and stepped forward to give me a big hug.  Hugging had become popular in California while I was away and I still wasn’t used to it.  I gave it my best shot however and then shook his hand in the familiar old way.  Then Ginny stepped up to give me a hug as well.  This seemed really weird, as hugging my brother’s wife was something I just wouldn’t dream of doing.  Ginny sensed my awkwardness and just hugged me harder, then stepped back and laughed at my reddening face.  We all chuckled for a moment and then I knew that the time had come.  I climbed into my leaking metal stallion, fired it up, gave a last wave, and pointed the nose of that Mercury down the lane towards the highway and home.

Away from home, actually.  The straightest, flattest route to San Diego led east and north, back through Rapid City, then north around the Black Hills to lead, Wyoming, and then south, straight as an arrow.  I gassed up in Rapid City and topped off the transmission fluid, and then crawled from stoplight to stoplight until the north end of town gave way to the endless plains.  As I rolled along at just five miles per hour over the speed limit my mind ranged freely, thinking about Chief and Strawberry, Alex and Rob who were still in Vietnam.  I thought about Diane, the girl who I thought was the prettiest in the neighborhood when I was younger and who was now an adult and still the prettiest girl in the neighborhood, and a friend.  I wondered if anything more might ever come of that.  College, a job, things I enjoyed during my childhood and childhood hurts that had never been addressed also took their turn on the stage of my mind.  Bullies whom I finally punched out.  Put-downs that I finally turned the tables on with a well-placed rejoinder.  What it would be like to be a hero; what it was like to be the goat.

This running mental drama of what had been, now was, and might yet be played on as I passed through Lead and began the long southward leg of my return.  Lead, Wyoming, is such a spectacular town that I have completely forgotten what it looked like.  That shouldn’t be held against lead however.  I was on a mission to get home before the Mercury puked a wad of rings and gears in the middle of the road and died in a cloud of blue smoke.  As I drove steadily southward I recalled a game which I used to play on our long trips to Georgia and Kentucky.  I would estimate the miles to some physical feature on the horizon and see how close I could come to the correct guess.  Five, eight, sometimes ten miles would be gobbled up in that manner.  A form of hypnosis set in and it was almost a surprise when I rolled into Cheyenne Wyoming, to gas up, top off the transmission, buy a soda and some chips, and resume my journey south.

Shortly after leaving Cheyenne I crossed the border into Colorado.  That crossing felt good; it felt like progress was being made.  Colorado shares a border with Arizona, which shares a border with California.  It was like I was almost home already!  Well, not really.  The highway continued on and on, across the grasslands of Colorado with the Rocky Mountains rising up on my right and the endless plains extending out in every other direction.  I grew weary of my estimation game and my mental activity slowed to what was necessary to keep the car at seventy miles per hour and pointed in the right direction.  Fort Collins, Denver, and finally, as the day was slipping into evening, I pulled into a parking space in front of a Denny’s in Colorado Springs.

I had been hungry for a while but was loathe to stop.  San Diego was still an enormous distance to the west and south and I wanted very much to get there.  The stomach makes its demands known however, so into the Denny’s I went.  My legs were a little shaky as I emerged from the car and I went straight to the restroom, mostly to stretch those cramped limbs and splash some water on my face.  I sat at the counter and ordered a patty melt with fries and coffee.  I don’t really remember ordering that particular dish, but that’s all I ever ordered at Denny’s, so it’s a good bet that that was exactly what I ordered.  I ate quickly, as I usually do anyways, and paid ahead of time so that I could simply get up and leave when I was through.  As I exited the restaurant I saw that the sun had set below the mountains to the west.  The Rockies are a very high range of mountains however so I knew that I would have a good bit of light left in the day.  I also knew that darkness would inexorably arrive and that I was faced with the long, lonely night and the duel with sleepiness that would begin in the not-too-distant future.  I fired up the Mercury, addressed my fuel and fluid needs, and once again headed south.

The monotony of the featureless drive put me once again in a reverie.  Occasional radio reception broke the silence, but usually it was country and western which I decidedly did not like.  I would hang on it, and local news too, for any kind of blessed diversion, but eventually it would crackle into static-y silence.  Soon I would once again be alone with my thoughts and the increasing darkness.  The darkness was finally complete somewhere between Pueblo and Trinidad.

I was not too tired but knew that I would be struggling in a few hours.  The nearness of the border between New Mexico and Colorado was calling.  I knew that a good many hours after I crossed that border I would would finally turn west, and that thought gave me a boost of energy.  I played with the radio dial and tried to keep my mind clear.  At some point close to midnight I thought I picked up Wolfman Jack a few miles north of Raton Pass, but it faded quickly and I finally just turned the radio off.

At last, the border!  “Welcome to New Mexico”.  The yellow sun with the red rays emanating from it that is the New Mexico emblem warmed my heart as I sailed through Raton Pass towards the town also called Raton.  I pulled into that town, which was mostly fast asleep at that hour, to get gas and top off the transmission and fill a thermos with coffee.  It was going to be a long night.  I drove a short way through town and finally turned onto the southbound lanes of the highway.  And that’s where I saw Ben.

Ben was standing by the side of the road with a small bag at his feet and his thumb stuck out.  Hitchhiking was common in those days and serial murderers were not, so I pulled over to give Ben a ride.  He climbed into the passenger side, said “thanks”, and closed the door.  That was it.  “Where’r you going” I asked.  “Laguna” was his one-word reply.  “Laguna Mountains”  I asked, it being the only Laguna anything which came immediately to mind.  “Laguna Pueblo” he said.  It turned out that the way home for him lay south to Albuquerque, then about forty miles west.  I had intended to drive to Los Cruces and turn west there, but I could turn at Albuquerque just as well and agreed on the spot to do just that.

We talked a little as we barreled through the northern New Mexico darkness; through country I would later come to know well and love even more than well in future years.  Actually it was mostly me that talked, but Ben did share a little of himself.  He was from Laguna Pueblo, a Native American tribe which has existed for hundreds and perhaps even a thousand years or more, depending upon which anthropologist you ask.  Ben said that they had been there forever, and I suppose he was as much an expert on Laguna history as anyone.  Ben was in the Army and stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado.  He was going home to participate in some holy days at the Pueblo.  “I would invite you to enjoy my family’s hospitality” he said, “but these particular ceremonies are closed to all but the Laguna”  I thanked him for the thought, but explained that I was in a bit of a hurry to get home myself.

It was about two in the morning and we were approaching Las Vegas when a thought occurred to me.  “You drive” I asked?  “Sure.  You want me to take a turn”?  I jumped on that offer and we soon pulled into a gas station on the northern outskirts of town.  The gas wasn’t that low but I topped it off and the transmission fluid too, and then climbed into the passenger seat as Ben took the wheel.  Ben pulled back onto the road and I leaned into the corner where the seat back met the door window and, like any ex soldier who learned to catch sleep whenever the opportunity presented, I was soon out like a light.

The lights came back on when Ben pulled into the town of Bernalillo north of Albuquerque for gas.  I saw that the new day was making a strong showing behind the Sandia Mountains to the east.  We took on gas and I checked the transmission.  It had dropped considerably since the last stop.  I asked Ben if he would let me buy him breakfast for letting me sleep, but he insisted on buying breakfast for me for giving him a ride.  Bernalillo is not excessively far from Laguna and Ben was familiar with the place.  He knew where a hole-in-the-wall takeout place was and  ordered a couple of breakfast burritos there, something I had never heard of before, and we were soon on our way again.  “I told them to go easy on you” he said.  I had no idea what he was talking about until I bit into my burrito and began to chew.  And sweat.  The spicy sauce lit my mouth and insides on fire but it was a strangely pleasant burn.  “You stay here long enough and you can eat it a lot hotter than that” he said, laughing at the changes of color that were going on in my face.  He didn’t tell me that my breakfast would be even hotter coming out than it was going in.

We were hardly finished with our burritos before we turned west in central Albuquerque and began the last leg of Ben’s journey. Soon we were climbing onto the high mesa west of the city, crossing the Rio Puerco and at last came to the turnoff which led to Laguna Pueblo.  Ben pulled over and set the handbrake.  I looked up the dirt road which stretched out from the passenger side window and followed it with my eyes as it meandered away up small hills and around gullies, sometimes disappearing around a curve, and always reappearing higher up as it climbed the hill upon which Laguna Pueblo is perched.

Laguna Pueblo is a collection of adobe structures, mostly brown and mostly multistory, with hardly a right angle to be found anywhere in the community.  Even from where I sat I could see that the buildings were not planned on a geometric basis, unless the geometrician had indulged in way too much alcohol before planning this town.  The whole place seemed like it was stuck to the crown and upper sides of that hill with a thin cement and could begin to ooze down the hillside at any moment.  The fact is that the Pueblo has been in that location for at least four hundred years and probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.  I couldn’t see any people moving about but there was no doubt that the community was already a hive of activity, getting ready for the ceremonies and festivities to which Ben alluded.

“I could give you a ride up the hill” I offered.  “No thanks.  I walked away from home and I want to walk back into it.”  I vaguely understood what Ben was saying.  I shook his hand and wished him well, and then I was back on the road headed west.  I felt moved by Ben’s approach to his homecoming.  it was more to him than “Hi Mom, I’m home”.  Ben was rejoining a community which spanned centuries and generations.  He was returning to resume, for a short while, a role that only he could play, and the community would be more whole because of it.  How Ben had left mattered, and how he returned mattered too.  I thought about all of this as I sped west on the asphalt ribbon which threaded its way between red rock mesas and the lonely train tracks and decided that I, too, should make it matter when I walked back into my home.


Not a Leg to Stand On: A Tale of New Mexico

I have made many trips to New Mexico over the years. I go there primarily to visit family but almost as much as that I go to visit New Mexico. The Great State of New Mexico is for the most part what some people call a “fly-over state”, that is, a state that they fly over on their way from one interesting place to another. Those people do not know what they are missing.

New Mexico is a mystical place where the common and the uncommon mix in a blend that requires sharp eyesight and attention to discern one from the other. There are cultural and spiritual forces at play that defy the expectations of the casual observer and won’t show their faces unless the observer has earned a peek by letting his or her eyes and ears do the heavy lifting and the mouth take a holiday.

The population mix in New Mexico does much to impart this rainbow aura.  To simply say ‘Anglo’, ‘Latino’, and ‘Native American’ is to woefully understate the complexity of the state’s ethnic fabric. At it’s most basic level ‘Anglo’ means white, but that would cheat the term of its richness.  More accurate would be to say that Anglo means ‘Not Latino or Native American.’  Anglos have been in New Mexico in serious numbers for the last 150 years, and they came from all corners of the nation and even of the world. The descendents of these pioneers are the leathery, sunburnt ranchers and farmers, truck stop owners and city denizens who relate more to the other long time citizens than they do to the Californians, New Yorkers, Texans, and other recent migrants from East and West and Wherever who have flocked to New Mexico to partake of it’s economic or cultural scene. The term Anglo gets one to first base in describing this group, but still leaves one a long way from home plate.

Latino is nearly as complex a term. There is much continuity with the northern Mexican culture in New Mexico with a sprinkling of Central and South American thrown in for good measure. These are recent immigrants or the children or grandchildren of such immigrants. But things stretch out longer than that. Old families can trace their lineage back to the conquistadores who brought Spanish rule and culture to the territory in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, before the United States was even a distant enlightenment dream. These folk are spread throughout the New Mexican population but can be found in greater numbers in land grant areas and in the mountainous region of northern New Mexico. A person might be working next to someone with red hair, freckles and generally pale skin who communicates with the guy next to him in the kind of Spanish that you have to be born into to speak so easily.  One might perhaps hear a trace of the ‘Cathtillian’ lilt, a linguistic leftover from many years gone by.

Native American is probably the most rich cultural mosaic to be found in the state. New Mexico is home to nineteen pueblos and all or part of three other tribal reservations, the Jicarilla and Mescalero Apaches and the easternmost portion of the Navajos. Within those groups there is plenty of diversity if one wants to look around oneself and see it. It is my family and this rich cultural stew that keeps bringing me back year after year, and I am never bored or disappointed when I am there.

The first thing that I look for when I arrive at the Albuquerque Sunport is the unusual, and it is not normally long in coming. On one visit I read a newspaper article before my brother arrived to pick me up.  A person was crossing a street one dark night and was hit and probably killed by an automobile who’s driver took off and left the victim in the road. Shortly thereafter a driver for the local newspaper was making his early morning bulk deliveries and suddenly found himself rolling over a body lying in the middle of the road. Being a sensible man and knowing that the papers had to be delivered to their distribution points on time,  and further reasoning that the body in the road was probably already dead anyway, the driver proceeded to finish his deliveries before returning to the warehouse where the police were waiting for him. His plea that the pedestrian was already dead was received by the courts with a sympathetic ear and he was released to continue his duties with the instructions that, should he run over any more dead people in the future, he should make some effort to notify authorities of the event. The driver was assured that his employer would be understanding of his late deliveries as a result of performing his civic duty.

Another story which was told to me by my brother was the time that the Navajo Tribal Council proceedings came to a screeching halt when a snake was found in the Council chambers. The Hopis might dance around with snakes and the Pueblos don’t care about them much one way or the other, but the Navajos have no time for snakes. All proceedings were held impromptu in other locations or postponed altogether until a Hataali, or healer, could come and neutralize the negative energy brought in by the snake and restore harmony to the building and the proceedings within it.  When I consider all of the snakes in my state government and at the federal level I begin to wonder if the Hataali could use a little overtime.

Native American spirituality manifests itself in many ways in New Mexico, and often catches outsiders and even insiders by surprise. My brother Brad and his wife Patricia have a liking for Native American pottery and will open their wallets for a good piece. A good piece is exactly what they found while visiting the Indian Market at the former Santo Domingo and now Kewa Pueblo. A young Navajo potter was selling his wares and a piece caught their eyes. They purchased the item and took it home, much to the annoyance of our Appalachian mother who saw no point is spending good money on such useless things. It was a short time later when they noticed that if the pot was turned ‘just so’ and the sunlight hit it at just the right angle the pattern in the glaze looked like a face.

To my brother and his wife this feature leant an additional richness to the pot and when they ran into the young potter at a fair in Gallup they eagerly told him about the face in the pot. The young potter was not as enthusiastic about the face as were my family. In fact, they said that he turned as white as it is possible for a Navajo to turn and asked them closely about the details of the face. They said that they couldn’t remember much and asked if he would like for them to bring the pot so that he could see if for himself. The potter turned a shade even paler and vigorously declined their kind offer, and then began to talk about other pots as a way of collecting himself. My sister-in-law, who taught for some time ‘on the rez’, quickly deduced that the potter was afraid that he had somehow captured a spirit in the pot at some point in it’s making and was terrified that a very ticked-off spirit would someday come to exact revenge for all of that time that it had spent on my brother’s shelf, rather than out haunting and generally pestering people or doing whatever Navajo evil spirits do. None of us have any doubts that our young Indian potter quickly found a Hataali to do a his stuff and get himself into harmony and gain whatever protection that was there to be had.

Probably my favorite story of New Mexico concerns a tour which my sister-in-law arranged for my visit one year. The state has a rich Catholic legacy and is strewn with churches built of adobe hundreds of years ago and still functioning today. Some are located in pueblos, others in tiny communities in the mountains or in the larger towns and cities like Taos and Santa Fe. Each church is sort of the same and sort of different. The tour was a circuit which began at Kewa Pueblo north of Albuquerque, then branched off the main road north of Santa Fe and wound through the mountains towards Taos, passing through places like Tesuque, Nambe, Las Trampas, Truchas, and others.  It was about early lunch time when we arrived at the mission church at Chimayo.

Chimayo is an important church in northern New Mexico. Every year during Easter season there is a pilgrimage to that church and people will walk or roll or crawl great distances to hear mass there. An additional attraction is a dry well housed in a low structure on the north side of the church proper. This dry well has no water, as the name indicates, but is rather full of red dirt. This dirt, like the waters of Lourdes in France, is reported among the faithful to have curative powers. Evidence of these powers can be seen by the appurtenances hanging on the wall that visitors once needed but need no longer, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

We parked in the gravel lot a short walk up a hill away from the church and the cluster of buildings which serves it. My brother, his wife and my mother and I walked slowly up that hill, partly because it is a beautiful walk but mostly because Mom was about ninety years old at the time.  Arriving at the top of the hill Brad and Patricia went to find the bathroom facilities and I navigated Mom to some benches under the tall elm trees next to the church.

We sat there resting and chatting for a bit before we were joined at the bench next to us by four Native Americans with musical instruments.  Some of the instruments were store bought many years ago and some were homemade. The group, which seemed to not notice us at all, began to tune the instruments and when they were done with that they lit bunches of grass that had been twisted together which smoldered and gave off a fragrant smoke. The group used that smoke to ritually purify themselves in a manner that could have been a thousand years old.

My mother, a country woman from Hazard, Kentucky, was baffled by this performance and asked me what they were doing. I just wanted to relish the scene but Mom, who was extremely hard of hearing (deaf as a post would not be an exaggeration) was not to be denied. “What are they doing?” she asked again in the high decibel manner of the hearing-challenged everywhere. I tried to motion with my hands for Mom to wait quietly but she was relentless.

“What are they doing?” she said again. I tried to tell her that it was part of their religion in low tones, but low tones to Mom was like trying to hear a whisper on a flight line. I turned it up a notch and told her at a volume that was disconcerting to me that it was a part of their religion. “That doesn’t look like much of a religion to me” Mom stated with all the sensitivity of a machine gun.

By this time a slow and painful death would have been preferable to my conversation with Mom and I gave an imperative hand signal which stemmed her talk, if it did nothing to mollify her scorn of the purification ceremony which continued unabated and unacknowledged as if we were no more than two flies on the church wall. Brad and Patricia soon rejoined us and we returned to our inspection of the church and grounds.

At last we entered the church and began to admire the art and architecture, and before long we became aware that people were beginning to sit down in the long wooden benches. We realized then that a mass was about to begin.  None of my family is Catholic so the procedure of a mass was completely alien to us, but we recognized, at least Brad, Patricia and I did, that an experience that we would remember for years to come was about to happen.

We saw some activity at the front of the church but I couldn’t tell you what they were doing. Soon however we could hear music coming from behind us. We turned to see where it was coming from and behold! The Native American musicians that Mom and I had seen tuning up and purifying themselves were now making their way slowly down the center aisle, playing their instruments and singing a praise or worship song; I couldn’t tell because it was in a native tongue. They made their way in a slow and stately manner, oblivious to the idiot tourists who were flashing cameras in their faces, to the front of the church. Once there they sang the mass to the four directions, which is a classic pattern of Native American spirituality. It was one of the most beautiful things that I have ever seen.  My knowledge of Native American spirituality was no greater than my knowledge of Catholicism but I could see that a worship that did justice to both traditions was underway, and if the cretins with their Nikons were unaware of it, I intended to be blessed by this experience, and blessed I truly was.

After the mass we arose from our hard wooden bench, with a predictable amount of grumbling by Mom, and we made our way up front and through a low door set in the north wall. This was the door that led to the dry well mentioned previously. The well was pretty uninspiring; just a ring of adobe bricks a couple of feet high with dirt in the middle. Apart from some troublesome sinuses and ringing in my ears I’m doing all right, so I had no urge to buy any dust and give it a whirl. I figured you had to be a Catholic to have much of a chance for success anyway.

Having had our fill of the church and the well we began to work our way towards the exit. Along and upon the righthand wall of this building were hung or parked the devices which people no longer needed after the healing dust of the well had done it’s miraculous work; a wheelchair, multiple sets of crutches, slings, back braces and the like were seen in profusion as we worked our way to the door. Then, near the exit, was the piece de resistance; a prosthetic leg.

All four of us just stood there and gaped at that peach-colored plastic, leather and metal leg hanging on the wall. Even Mom stood in front of that detached mechanical limb in speechless amazement. I don’t know how long we stood there, and I don’t know if the other tourists were as dumbstruck as we were. I doubt it, as they were probably winding their cameras and missed the whole thing.

Now I suppose that most of us have turned on the television at one time or another and seen some smooth tongued televangelist waving his arms about and knocking people down over here and raising up cripples over there, and many of us have responded with a dismissive ‘uh huh.’ But how do you fake that? I suppose the fathers or brothers or whatever the churchmen call themselves could have just hung up a prosthetic leg for sport, but I didn’t get any sense of that kind of thing going on there.

After getting ourselves back together we meandered back to our car and drove to the Rancho de Chimayo restaurant, where we had a very good New Mexican lunch. All of us agreed that if we lived close enough we would attend that church until the day we all die if only to have a chance to see the next guy who hobbled in on a wooden leg and walked out whole and happy.

Midway through my Monastery Stay

It was a dank, chilly morning in late May in the pacific Northwest.  Out in my back yard my garden struggled to survive until the warm-up of summer came, which is usually in early July.  Slugs were trying to get at my lettuce and green beans, and only a few granules of iron phosphate separated them from their goal.  The best part of this grey and discouraging picture is that I am not in it.

Here at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, about 25 miles north of Abiquiu, New Mexico, it is certainly cool as I write in the morning, but there the picture changes completely.  The sun is creeping up above the east rim of a canyon carved by the Chama River, if you are a uniformitarian naturalist, or lovingly made by God more recently if you are of that point of view.  Inch by inch, foot by foot, the night surrenders it’s shadows and the creatures of the day begin to take over the earth and skies from their nocturnal cousins.

Through this somewhat narrow valley with it’s steep multicolored cliffs the Chama River winds, alternately serene and wild and frothy as it rolls it’s way south to join the Rio Grande near the town of Espanola, with calm sections showing ripples caused by the nearly constant wind.  The coming of day brings out the swarms of tiny flies which hover in diaphanous clouds over the river, who’s only point in life seems to be to provide food for the swallows that wheel and dart over the waters, and for the trout that are teeming just beneath the surface of the water.

Tucked up against the east canyon wall is the monastery, a collection of brown buildings which houses an order of Benedictine monks.  There is little that I can tell you about this order, other than that they are Catholic.  I am not Catholic and so do not have any background in what these monks are all about.  A superficial view shows that they are all men, as one would expect at a monastery.  They all wear robes with a cowl, what we would call a “hoodie”, and they don’t talk very much.  The monks have chosen to separate themselves from mainstream life with all of it’s noise and distractions, retreating into the fastness of the northern New Mexico high desert where they can devote non-distracted time to prayer, meditation, study, service and work.

The monks are a diverse group with European, African, East and South Asian and Hispanic origins.  They are mostly older, as is seen throughout the Catholic priesthood, although a few younger members dot the chairs where they sit during the several masses each day and at the tables in the refectory  Their routines are not visible to me, as they spend most of their time behind walls and doors through which I am not permitted to pass.

One prominent feature of the routine is quite evident to me however, and that is silence.  The premise is that silence promotes or at least supports prayer, meditation and reflection. I can testify that to my overloaded 21st century senses the silence and the slow, measured rhythm of life here is like a soothing ointment placed over an angry rash.  The fact of this uncommon atmosphere is almost instantly apparent.  Signs advise guests that unnecessary speech is discouraged and any loud activity not related to some necessary job at the monastery should be avoided.  Failure to respect this rule is grounds for being asked to leave.  The monks may be kind and gentle, but they made the rules and we must all play by them or hit the road.

It takes a while to fully appreciate the difference that silence makes.  Absent are the sounds and pressures that mount a sensory bombardment against us in our daily lives.  The pressure to perform at work, the traffic which stands between me and where I have to be in 20 minutes, the ZZ Top song that I have heard 500 times in the last six months on the classic rock station, all are soon distant memories if thought of at all.  In their place are new sensory input.  Reading becomes easier as there are fewer distractions.  Simply resting on a stump by the side of the river watching several gaggles of geese float by, calling to each other and answering in return, becomes enough to satisfy one’s need to be entertained.  Pebbles crunching under one’s feet as the path between the guesthouse and the monastery is traversed has it’s own voice, and one can listen to it with a focus not available in the hubbub of daily life.

The “services”, if they can be called that, are completely alien to my Protestant eyes.  Several times each day all who wish to may file into a chapel where a mass is held.  I think that they “hold” masses, or do they “say” masses?  I don’t really know.  These are very formal, repetitious events in which one group of monks say or sing a verse, then another group joins or answers, then the congregation joins in.  People rise, people bow, people sit down in rhythms which Catholics know and the rest of us are left to figure out.  At first glance the mass seems stiff and formalistic.  I wonder how anyone could derive meaning and instruction from this?  Later I sense that, to me at least, the mass is something that we humans do as a worship of and to God.  In it we change our focus from ourselves and what we can learn to a returning of what we already know back to God in thanksgiving.  I don’t know if that is the way that a Catholic would look at it, but that is how I see it, and since I’m the center of the universe, that’s all that matters.

After the masses of Sext at 1:00 PM, and Vespers at 5:50 PM, we eat.  These are among my favorite times of the day, although that is hardly significant since all times of the day here have been my favorites.  I have enjoyed two day’s meals at this time and they have both been delicious.  Chicken, cooked vegetables, rice, beans, salad, bread with butter and dessert on one day.  Spaghetti, cooked vegetables, rice, beans, salad, bread with butter and dessert the next day, and so on.  I thought the rice was because rice and beans is a very common Southwest food combination.  I later learned that it was because the large number of Asian brothers felt a little more at home with the traditional rice on the table.  I loved it either way.  Dinner is a replay of lunch, with what didn’t get eaten brought out again and if all of something was eaten up at lunch it was replaced by something equally good.  Even with my avoidance of gluten I have had nourishing and plentiful meals here.  Before I came here I had visions of working in the kitchen scrubbing pots and washing plates and silver.  As it turns out, the monks do all of that.  I can pull a few weeds or sweep some pathways if I like, and then it is back to reading, writing, praying, walking, meditating, or napping in the sunshine and in the shade.

Walking back to my quarters one morning I followed the Chama and saw a gaggle of geese hugging the bank, feeding on the grasses and bugs that live there.  A sentinel circled lazily in the middle of the river and began to honk a warning as I strode into view.  The females began to swim out towards the center, one of them with some sort of river grass still dangling from her bill.  Four males arose from the river and waddled in a small circle nonchalantly, keeping their eyes fixed on me but pretending not to.  One of the geese, the alpha male I presume, separated himself and waddled just a little closer to me.  I changed my course ever so slightly and he seemed to accept that move as proper deference, and returned to the others with his plumage fluffed up ever so dandily.  I am certain that the ladies were saying “what a stud”, while the other males were pointing with their wings and saying “you the goose!”.

Nights here are far different from those back home.  At home I will usually stay up until 10 PM or later, reading or watching the television, playing on the computer or writing letters.  At the guesthouse there is no electricity, so when the sun goes down at about 8:30 your options are to sleep, sleep, or sleep.  I do not arise for the early mass so breakfast at 7 AM is what draws me out of bed.  That and the fact that I have been asleep or recumbent for 10 hours and am ready to get vertical.  How different this is from home where the alarm goes off at 5:30 AM and I groan at the thought of pushing myself out of my warm bed and face the pressures and demands of my life.  For the two nights past I have awoken after 1 AM to see moonlight streaming through our window so brightly that I could almost read by it.  Curiously the bright moonlight does not hamper my falling asleep at all and I am very quickly returned to the deepest part of my evening rest.

I am at this point half-way through my visit to Christ in the Desert.  I have no idea what sights, sounds, thoughts or revelations are yet to come.  I do know that they will be quiet, measured, and significant to me in ways that can only be appreciated when we slow down, turn off the noise, and take the time that is required to fully appreciate them.

Monastery notes

After two days of mostly sitting I decided it was time to stretch my legs.  The valley we are in is a bit narrow with a fair-sized river running through the middle of it to the west,  the monastery markes the north end of the road, east are perpendicular cliffs and just south marks the beginning of the Santa Fe National Forrest which is closed to hikers and other recreational users at this time.  That leaves the road itself, so down the road I went.

The road is very hard-packed dirt and easy to walk on, so I did fine for a half mile or so, but then the boy in me began to rise to the surface.  It’s been so long since I was a boy that the trip took some time, and by the time the boy fully breached into the warm New Mexico air I was already starting down the one section of the cliff rising up from the river that it looked like I could negotiate.  My legs were as good as my eyes and before long, and with only one slip from which I recovered with cat-like grace, I leveled out on a narrow bank between the river edge and the mudstone cliff rising a good 50 feet above me.

I really did not want to climb back up that path and hoped fervently that I would be able to follow the river back to our guesthouse.  The “path” was an ill defined trace with less than the usual riverbank vegetation which led north, but much of the time I merely trampled the young early season growth and made my own path.  I quickly came upon some bones jumbled next to the river.  There were some vertebrae, stubby ribs, a jaw and probably part of a cranium.  I could not tell definitively what it had once belonged to and was not inclined to look too closely.

I was a little over half way to a bend in the river that I hoped I could negotiate when the path disappeared completely.  The cliff ran down at a fairly steep angle to a sort of lip and then straight down into the water.  The soil of that incline was soft and I banked that I could dig in well enough to creep across while staying vertical and dry.  I crossed about 30 feet of this stretch and finally reached a flat surface on the other side.  A fall into the river would probably not have ended tragically as I left my camera and wallet at the guesthouse.  The water did not seem to be too deep, but there was a fairly strong current and I could see boulders, and I knew that I would have to float a good way downstream in very cold water to get out if I should fall in.  I really did not wish to test that theory out.

Just ahead is where things got complicated.  I could see as I approached the bend in the river that I would have to get around in order to return to the guesthouse a fence at the top of a small rise from the bank with a sign saying “private” on it.  That was not what I wanted to see.  I pressed on however and as I approached the fence the path dipped down to the river level.  There in the soft soil, I saw the print of a large animal without retractable claws.  Being reasonably confident that there are no cheetahs in New Mexico, the north end of New Mexico at least, I assumed that it was the print of a large dog.  I like dogs, but not random meetings with them on private property in the middle of nowhere.

It was at this point that the trail completely ran out.  Riparian vegetation, and thick at that, choked the steep bank between river and fence.  This triple whammy of vegetation, dog print, and posted private property in New Mexico where people don’t play games was sufficient for me to give up my quest and head back the way I had come.

The return trip had the same charms as has already been described, plus the hill at the beginning/end of my little adventure would be going up this time.  I began the ascent with legs I wished were a few years younger and by half-way the band of steel that surrounded my chest was getting tighter.  As I neared the summit my vision began to go dark and I knew that this was the big one.  Then the cloud that momentarily blocked the sun moved on and I completed my return to the road sweating, knees shaking, but all coronary arteries still working in reasonable good order.

The rest of the walk was uneventful.  I never did see the private residence or whatever existed on the property that blocked my way and I will probably walk downriver from the guesthouse tomorrow to see how close I came to completing my planned course.  For now, I had better clean up and get into my jeans for mass and dinner.  I will sleep very well tonight.