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"