Thursday, November 25, 2010

A thought on Thanksgiving

Is Man's dislike of fishy smells a resistance to his aquatic ancestry?

On the turntable: Professor Longhair, "New Orleans, 1978"

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


It's funny, but emails can be a lot like haiku. There is a deliberate sparsity of language, yet the meaning can be inferred in multiple ways. Ironically, this sparsity leads toward experiential truth in the case of haiku, and toward perceived (and ofttimes misperceived) meaning in the case of mail.

On the turntable: Johnny Winter with Muddy Waters, "Live at the Tower Theater, 1977"

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sunday Papers: Hunter S. Thompson

"All energy flows according to the whims of the great magnet."

----"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"

On the turntable: Dr John, "St Bernard Cultural Center, 1975-02-08"

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Life Following Art

I am currently reading John Nichols New Mexico trilogy, which begins with The Milagro Beanfield War. I have read them before, during my first autumn in Japan, in an attempt to capture a little of that NM fall magic that I love so much.

I remember calling my folks back then and asking them to send the novels over. As they affixed the stamps to the package, it was like the release of water from an acequia, followed by a flood of books to follow over the next 15 years.

On the turntable: Grateful Dead, "1972 - 04 -14"

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sunday Papers: Homer Simpson

"It could be anything! Scrapbooking, high-stakes poker or the Santa Fe lifestyle: just pick a dead-end and chill out til you die.”

On the turntable: Grateful Dead, "KQED Studios San Francisco 1970"

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Desert Soul Affair (Pt. III)

It wasn't long until dark, so after a quick camp set up, Miki and I moved off in separate directions to find wood for a fire. We hadn't had one at Chaco since there are no trees in the canyon there. Our picking here too were meager, until I found a huge cache of wood behind the tree just next to our tent. Great luck! With dark came the cold, so the fire was a blessing. We ate quietly before the heat, watching the junipers dematerialize into the shadows. We were the only apparent ones at the campground in a tent, with two other sites here being occupied by RVs. With six layers on top I crawled into my bag and slept pretty well until just before dawn, when the chill in my legs awoke me. I crawled out into the predawn dark and built another fire, which helped with the chill. Miki awoke just afterward. She'd been warm but had slept poorly. I told her I'd heard something walking near the tent, but hadn't seen any prints. She told me she'd heard the bugling of elk, but further out in the forest. The sun began to cast its rays over the near hills, lighting up the face of El Morro in a rich yellow. The junipers stretched away toward the north, spaced in a way that recalled the Savannah of Africa. After a quick visit to the Visitor Center (where we were teased a little for tent camping on a 25 degree night), we got a closer look at the rock, El Morro's face autographed hundreds of times over the centuries. The trail led us up and across the top, above the hidden box canyon and past the short lived pueblo of some ancients, our trail a white strip of sandstone across the top.

The ancestors of El Morro's former resident lived just up the road, at Zuni Pueblo. This trip had been an attempt to visit the past, but arriving at the pueblo, we were immediately thrust back into the present. Unbeknownst to us, the Harvest dance was underway. It startled us at first, rounding the corner of the old Mission to find a hundred natives moving aggressively toward us, spurred on by incessant drumming. The dancers were in two long lines, their steps synchronized, the choreography a link to times past. The drummers were most interesting to me, the entire group of a dozen or so men pulsing to the beat, the right leg bending slightly at the knee to form a subtle sink and dip. The drummers were in the more common NM dress of plaid shirts and jeans, but the majority of the dancers were in dressed traditionally, surely uncomfortable on such a hot day. I especially liked how on occasion, an old woman would join the dance, moving with the rest as she wore 'street clothes,' her hands moving in small circles like the others, despite being empty of feather or gourds like the others. When this first group rested, another group, perhaps a different clan, took over. This one had was led by a bare chested man smeared in white, who looked the part of the trickster, even more so with his dark sunglasses. Another man, the one most intricately clad, carried a long staff with a fox pelt lashed to the top. The young girls had headwear with long bangles in front that reminded me of the bangs of the Japanese. A couple of young men had such looks of intensity on their faces that it was easy to see how such rituals are used to stir men to battle, rituals that cut across cultures. The group danced for the better part of an hour, causing some of them to drop out and find shade and water. Even the dog found it hot, sleeping in the shade of the drum group. Miki and watched awhile until it grew too hot for us as well. As we walked away, past the Mission and its overgrown, unkept graves of Spanish dead, I thought how odd it was that despite all the stomping and sudden turning, none of the dancers had left any footprints.

After a nice lunch at Chu-chu's, a small Zuni pizzeria, we headed east again. Passing the turnoff for Gallup a third time, we once again noticed a black dog by the roadside, apparently abandoned. When we'd come by last night, the dog watched our truck pass, as if in recognition. Further along Rte 53, we stopped at Inscription Rock Trading and Coffee Company for a cuppa. Miki examined an old heater in the pile of yard sale junk out front. I picked up a guide to the area's hot springs. Published in 1979, it was illustrated by dozens of photos of nude bathers. We stayed awhile and talked with the cafe owners, eavesdropping a little on the conversation of a couple people sitting beside us. It was a warm place, filled with local and native art, and a place I'd like to visit again, and longer.

Not far up 53, we turned south on a bad road that traced the western edge of El Malpais. A hillside of dull gray rose through the trees, a hillside composed of a old lave flow, now frozen in place. We stepped out onto the flow, following a line of cairns piled up to prevent hikers from losing their way in this confusing landscape. The rocks over which we walked were triangular, with sharp edges that would tear at the soles of boots and the paws of dogs. I wondered how the natives dealt with it as they moved back and froth between Zuni and Acoma. The earth below us was hallowed out by caves and long tubes. Our 'trail' led to a section of a collapsed lava tube, at the ends of which were huge mouths leading away into darkness. The floor of this 'canyon' was piled high with rocks the size of small cars. There was a spooky feeling out here, this landscape devoid of life, and the uncomfortable thought that the ground itself may at any time give way beneath.

Back on asphalt again, moving through the town of San Rafael, one building dwarfing the others in a size so great it looked like a plantation. Along the road, a deer head had been lashed to the hood of a truck, a sign of a successful hunt and an appropriate image, this being Halloween. Then I-40 again, leading me home as it often did, though this time 'home' was in a completely different place, a hundred miles north from where it had always been.

On the turntable: Allman Brothers, "New Orleans, 3/20/71"

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Desert Soul Affair (Pt. II)

The next morning we awoke early to the cold. It had dropped to 30F, and I'd felt it. (We weren't the only ones. A few days later, I noticed that mice had climbed up onto the engine block to keep warm. They'd chewed holes in the windshield wiper lines, plus the starter cables, a fact I'm relieved to have found early.) After breakfast we moved over to the Visitor Center. A jeep with German plates was parked in the parking lot, the words 'California to Syria' emblazoned on both sides. It was one of the smaller models, the size nearly doubled with all the gear lashed to all four sides. (I particularly liked the Coleman cooler strapped to the front grill.) The driver and his son wore matching red jumpsuits and were sharing coffee with the rangers when we walked in. Just after us, a thin blonde woman walked in, and began to complain to the head Ranger about a man who had a unleashed dog in the camp area, and that the dog had jumped up and frightened her. Her main complaint seemed less about the dog than that the owner "hadn't properly apologized." Miki and I had actually witnessed this encounter, and the owner HAD apologized, though in a casual, friendly way. The German too had said that he found the dog to be gentle, and that the woman was simply freaking out. So there it was, that sense of entitlement that many people so freely display here.

We spent the rest of the morning walking amongst the ruins, ducking through doorways and staring down into kivas. It was a warm morning, made more pleasant by the fact that we had the ruins to ourselves. For the week leading up to this trip, I'd read a half dozen books about Chaco
and the Anasazi, to help understand things better and to get some perspective. The photos in these books (nor this blog entry) can't come close to matching the incredible scale and beauty of the place. The fallen Threatening Rock, now strewn over a quarter of Pueblo Bonito, was far more immense than I'd thought. Interesting how it had hung over the Pueblo for a millennium, falling only after the archaeologists began poking around and removing the prayer sticks that had reenforced it. We followed a trail through a gap in the wall up to the mesatop, looking out over the ruins and the entire canyon. The trail led to Pueblo Alto, partially buried in the sand. We stood out here at the edge of the desert watching the ancient road leading away over terrain that had so troubled our truck on the way in. What had these ancients thought as they began to move along it, out into the wild? That said, what wasn't wild back then?

Our last stop was at Casa Rinconada, the place I most wanted to see. This had been the spiritual center of the Chacoan people, and I wanted to see what I could feel. But my mind was too busy with the fact that our truck had about an eighth of a tank of gas, with the nearest gas far away, out along very bad roads. I sped along, moving way too fast, hoping to get closer to civilization should our tank run dry. There seemed little out here but a few abandoned Navajo hogans, rotting into the desert floor. We overtook a few cars on the way, passing them in the hope that they'd not be too pissed at our dust to give us aid should we need it. A few of the inclines along this bumpy road dropped at near right angles on the far side, both of my feet hitting the brakes near their crests. I began to slow down after a couple of these, yet still moving at a clip that was both dangerous and stupid. After twenty miles, we were to bisect Navajo Rte 9, the condition of which I didn't know what to expect since the map showed a thin red line. How thrilled I was to find it newly paved, probably during the past few months. We overtook a wrecker, (bad omen?) and came finally to Crownpoint. I never expected to ever feel so happy to arrive at Crownpoint. However, after driving around a little we didn't find a gas station, and the gas gauge's needle was by now buried 6 feet below E. I thought we might find a gas station out on the highway, so headed south again. Luckily, we found a few Navajo parked on the side of the road, who led us back into town and to the pumps. We filled both the tank and our bellys, sitting awhile until our nerves finally calmed. Then south again meeting the Interstate at Thoreau, a name pronounced out here with an accent more redneck than Boston Brahmin. I usually hate the Interstate, but here couldn't avoid it, forced to move along in the shadows of the big trucks that infest this one. Finally, we arrived at the campsite in the shadow of El Morro...

On the turntable: Rolling Stones, "Got to be Worked On'
On the nighttable: John Nichols, "The Milagro Beanfield War"

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Desert Soul Affair (Pt. I)

We were somewhere around Abiquiu on the edge of the desert when the caffeine began to take hold. I'd just finished a coffee bought at that Java place near Cuyumungue, where Miki had yet again been called beautiful by a Native girl. The scenery around us was equally beautiful, scenery that captivated Georgia O'Keeffe and so betook us that we missed our turn. When we noticed, we simply pulled over, got out of the car and admired those sandstone pillars that resembled grain silos, those cliff features that looked like Buddhas.

We wound along Rte 96 to where it fed us onto Highway 550, a bigger and busier road than I'd expected. We connected the dots between Trading Posts until the turn-off for Angel Peak. This was a grand misnomer since there were no peaks to be seen, save for the higher, snow covered ones over the border in Colorado. The name actually refers to a strange rock formation hanging onto a narrow mesa, a formation that does kinda look like an angel if you cock your head and squint some. The desert floor dropped away, and the real beauty was below us. We followed the canyon's edge to a small picnic area, then walked down a short trail to a bench for lunch. The view truly was amazing, but the land had been badly messed with. All around us, small wells drilled for natural gas, hissing and sputtering like demented snakes. A short drive away was the campsite on the western edge of the bluff, an ideal spot for watching the sunset. There were a couple of pickup trucks here, one of them blaring Guns and Roses from the CD player. As we got out of our truck a bare-chested barrel of a man came walking over. Larry was a local Navajo who worked out here in the gas fields. Today was a day off, and he'd come out to help the driver of the other truck, who'd had some engine trouble. That driver, a white man in his 50s came up to me with his hand extended. As I reached out to take it, I noticed that what he intended was to show me a photo he had in his hand, of his young granddaughter. Meanwhile, Larry was busy telling us that this area was rife with arrowheads, and if we walked down to the bottom of the canyon, we'd be sure to find some. He also mentioned obsidians, adding that if we found any, to please share with him since they fetched about $3000 apiece these days. This whole encounter was a little bizarre, like a scene in a road movie. But, in my experience, men who live in the desert are always a little bizarre. These guys were definitely friendly, but there was also something a little off-putting about them, with the rock music and with how they'd apparently had a few, despite it being before noon. After Harry taught us a few Navajo words, we walked along the rim of the canyon. There was no trail, so we simply placed our feet in spaces between rocks and prickly brush. The valley below was rugged, striated walls falling away toward the floor. It was easy to see how this had all once been the sea bed, with the plants surrounding us looking like fans of coral. Our intention had been to climb down, but the lack of features here and our late start made us reconsider. There was something ominous about the gas rigs and their hissing. The poor Navajo. After all the battles and their eventual resettlement out here, the government and the gas companies were still after their land, under which lay this nation's largest natural gas reserves. There was no doubt that some people were making money, but I doubt it spread very far. As we walked back to our truck, white pick-ups with tall red banners sped along the roads, the gravel well groomed so as to lead tankers to all that natural wealth.

We backtracked along 550 a little, then turned west along a road which started out graded, then fell into ruts beyond the wells. It fed us eventually onto Rte. 371, and the entrance to Bisti Badlands. We walked away from the parking area out into a wide flat of earth, following a small arroyo out toward where the sandstone extended out of the desert floor as if it attempting to express itself in bizarre geometric contortions. Most looked like tall mushrooms, others had contorted features like the most talented of Butoh performers. It was a hot day, so we sat in the shade of one sandstone pillar and ate apples. This area had once been mined for coal, bits of black lying about like hundreds of broken Oreos. Otherwise, white shapes extended away in all directions. What there was plenty of, was silence. It lent a feeling of being a part of the infinity of time, of history. Here, as at Angel Peak, it was easy to see how the Navajo might hide out in this canyon in order to escape their enemies. Eventually needing a pee, I wandered into one crevice, my urine arc snap-, crackle-, and popping as it soaked into the parched soil. We wandered a couple of hours out here, mainly circumambulating an especially tall spire that looked remarkably like Mt. Kailas.

We drove out again to the highway, rocks pinging up against our truck's undercarriage. The next road was even worse, at one point crossing a wide dry riverbed that is surely impassable in the rains. The road beyond worsened until arriving at the paved section that marks the entrance to Chaco Canyon. It was close to 5pm, so we went immediately to the campground, scoring a site just in front of a set of small ruins wedged into the canyon wall beneath an equally impressive ruin of abandoned sparrow's nests. We walked over to ask permission of the former residents, then got down to the business of setting up camp. After dinner, we walked through the darkness, myself secretly pleased that the lateness of season had sent the rattlers underground. At the top of the campground, a few campers had set up their tents between the high pillars of rock, literally surrounded by stone. Their fires would insulate the space, the light flickering off the walls in a scene repeated since the birth of man. Above us too was an ancient connection of another sort. The Chacoans had had an advanced understanding of the night sky, and I don't believe I've ever seen so many stars, nor the shape of constellations so obvious. Later too, I'd come out to pee long after the moon rose, its face lighting the ruins and the canyon walls above us in a tranquil blue...

On the turntable: Ministry, "Every Day is Halloween"

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Sunday Papers: Steve Dublanica

"It amazes me that we ever reproduce at all. That’s probably why God created alcohol."

On the turntable: Mumford and Sons, "Sigh No More"

Thursday, November 4, 2010

On Gossamer Wings

Somewhere out along Bishop's Lodge Road there's a peacock. Often when I drive past, I hear its call, and am immediately taken back to India. Every time.

On the turntable: The Box Tops, "Nonstop"