Friday, November 4, 2011

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

...This morning, my clothes still smell of smoke. Last night, I'd kept the fire low, since the speed in which the kindling lit was a hint at the lack of recent rain. It had been dark when I'd arrived, but I was able to set up camp quickly, eating dinner before the cold came. When I'd pulled in, a man and his son stood beside their RV, the senior pointing his rifle into the desert. Elk hunters. I'd seen many during yesterday's drive. I was disappointed to find others here, had hoped for solitude. But I'd placed a tree between them and me during the night, and despite it still being early, they were already gone. I eat my breakfast alone but for the lowing of cows a few bends downstream.

Stomach teased but not satisfied, I drop down to Carrizo Creek, and follow her waters a mile or so upstream. The morning is rich with birdsong, the trail flecked with the trident footprints of an opossum or raccoon. The trail leads me through the high reeds that give this place it name. Some of the cliff faces have fallen into the water, witnessed perhaps by the cottonwoods that look centuries old.

Back up into the Comanche grasslands again, these straight roads beginning to tire due to the monotony of landscape. The only features are the occasional grove of high trees, marking a town or a homestead. In most cases, the trees are alive, but the homesteads are dead. The trees of the greatest height reveal the age of some of these places. Many are near the Santa Fe Trail, to which I'm still running parallel. What I've driven in a day and a half took weeks for the wagons. It is little wonder their excitement to see the mound of Rabbit Ears near Clayton, the first of the hills that would multiply into the eventual heights of the Sangre de Cristos. At one point along the road, I find a small settlement, abandoned. Painted on one house are the words, "Andrix Community. Gone but not forgotten." It seems it hasn't happened too long ago. A reasonably new bicycle leans against one wall. Others don't want to go so willingly. Farm after farm have the signs, "Not for sale to the Army." The military is looking to expand an existing base which if implemented, would do away with both the Grassland and the private ranches, effectively displacing 17, 000 people. An interesting parallel with how the Army drove William Bent away from his own trading post 15o years and 85 miles away.

Mid-morning I pull into the general store at Kim. I wonder at this town's namesake, most likely a woman known to its founder, whoever that was. But I can find no history on it, so in my mind there is no reason that it couldn't have been named for a Korean. I stop for a cup of coffee, and am disheartened slightly that I could've had pancakes for less than I'd paid for the lousy camp breakfast I'd had. A couple of the diners here wear fatigues, making me mistake them for military, perhaps scouting some of the ranches. A second glance reveals them to be elk hunters.

West of town, a sign tells me that I'm officially leaving the Grasslands, and within a mile, the land begins to roll then get carved up into canyons. The reddish-brown of junipers begin to pop out of what had formerly been merely a dull green. To my immediate left are the cubist hills of New Mexico; fifty miles further on, the jagged snow-capped peaks of the Colorado Rockies. I turn south toward the former. There's a dramatic change at the state line. One mountain rises striated with green fields like the world's most challenging golf course.

The road takes me through a lovely series of canyons, then plops me square into Folsom. It's a quaint little town on the edge of the prairie, with good running water and plentiful trees. The Post Office sees the only activity, the remainder of the buildings on the main street mere facades, long abandoned. One small shop is a museum. I try to ring the curator, but our poor phone connection prevents me from asking her to come down and let me in. I'm growing hungry, and not finding any place to eat, I give up, and begin the long climb up to Johnson Mesa.

It is a beautiful drive, winding up the hills, the road lined with juniper and oak. Somewhere in the riverbed below me lies the spot where Folsom Man was found in 1908. Atop the Mesa itself are a few homesteads, usually abandoned in winter due to the heavy snows up here. The north side of the mesa is framed by low mountains, and glimpses between them reveal long drops into Colorado. I stop awhile at the small church up here, then drop quickly down toward Yankee, then Sugarite. The old Ensign Mansion lies in ruin amidst the scrub. It won't be long before only the chimneys remain. Sugarite too is disappearing into the brush. There are ample ruins here, but they consist of little more than squared foundations of brick. The signs are plentiful and informative, and it isn't hard to imagine a what had been a sizable community until the dawn of WWII. There had been many Japanese here, clustered up on what is called Jap Hill, and when the coal mines closed in 1941, it isn't hard to imagine where they went. I climb above their part of town to the mines themselves, now a mere arch of brick around the tunnel mouths. There isn't much to see, and numerous mountain lion prints makes me nervous, so I descend quickly. I spend close to an hour talking to the Ranger, who had done a Masters at Naropa. I'm disappointed to find that the Soda Pocket Campground, supposedly one of the nicest in New Mexico, is closed due to the fires of this summer. It is a slight relief though, as the campground is known to host at least 5 resident bears, who would by now be in the last stages of pre-hibernation feeding, made even more aggressive due to a habitat shrunken by fire damage. Plus, the sky is turning ugly, with snow on the way. After a quick visit to a small lake up on the Colorado border, I turn toward Raton.

I don't spend much time here. I take a very late lunch in town, alone but for a woman at the next booth, attractive in her 50's, and provoking the weather in her tight T-shirt and shorts the length most often worn in junior high school gym class. She's midway into her second Corona, which gives her the nerve to flirt with me. I'm flattered, but more interested in my book on ghost towns. She leaves her beer half full, then wanders out to walk up the road toward the off-highway motels. She's obviously trying to hold at bay the loneliness that I am personally trying to explore. And I find it in its full expression at my next stop, the cemetery of Dawson. The hillside below the mesas here is pockmarked by graves, the greatest collection of which are rows of identical white crosses ringed by a low fence. Dawson was of the largest of New Mexico's mining towns, and one of the unluckiest with two terrible disasters that killed the more than 400 men who lie under those white crosses. Their number is staggering. I walk above them, amongst the older graves. There must be over a thousand here, from a town that saw 9000 residents at its peak. Now the town too is a ghost. Later I'll be surprised by photos I'll find on the internet. This was a huge town, with broad streets, a bowling alley, a movie house. Today there isn't a single hint of anything but for these graves. One plot stops me completely. It bears the grave of an infant. Next to it is the mother, who died 58 years later, and was buried here long after Dawson itself was gone. The marker before the grave says, "Reunited." I too carry grief for my own lost child, and can feel the grief of this mother, who held her child in her heart for 58 long years, wanting to meet again in heaven. Surely, she must've had other children, and lived out an entire life in that 58 years. But she never forgot her lost baby. With tears in my eyes, I look toward the river below this cemetery and the trees in their full majesty of color, as they too move toward their deathlike state for winter. I talk to the dead. "Can you all see the Cottonwoods down there? Aren't they beautiful?" This road trip had been a seeking out of lonely places, yet it wasn't until I got here that I was finally alone, despite being amongst perhaps 1000 people in eternal repose beneath my feet...

...there was more to my trip, but it peaked there on that hill outside Dawson. I spent the night in Cimarron, in the Wyatt Earp room of the haunted St. James hotel. I had a meal, a beer, a bath. I passed a restful sleep just across the hall from a locked, scratched up door to a room reserved only for a resident ghost. In the morning I saw a photo that I am glad I hadn't seem before retiring, of a spooky mist floating a few feet above the bed where I lay. This morning, the sky had its own mist. The snow had kept to the higher peaks but rain accompanied me on my walk through town. I drove out, into a landscape of great variety with its trees and valleys and hills, but the clouds kept a low ceiling, flattening the impact as if I were in the grasslands again. There were a few brief stops. A museum at Philmont. Buying soup mix at La Cueva. Lunch at Sugar Nymphs in Penasco. Coffee in Dixon. And the sun finally came out, finally warming the body in its unheated 4-wheel drive casing, and the thawing of the heart coming only with the embrace of wife and daughter, and the return home.

On the turntable: Om, "God is Good"
On the nighttable: Frank Applegate, "Indian Stories from the Pueblos"

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