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"

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