For three weeks the wind blew hard on the desert and the nights were very cold. The wind dropped, the days grew warmer, and the snow line retreated on the mountains. The winds came again and the red sand stiffened between the clumps of yellow grama grass before the gray clouds moved out, and then winter was over and it was starting to be spring in New Mexico. In the sand hills below the cliff front of the West Mesa at Bosque Ginny Hoyt and I sat our horses, looking across the Rio Grande valley to the manzano Mountains. The horses were sweated under their winter coats and an excess of sunscreen ran into the corners of my eyes and stung there. Ginny rode a long red horse as maneuverable as a vintage Cadillac, and I was mounted on a sturdy white Arab named The Mouse who Ginny had warned me was quick. Hunting for rabbits, the dogs knocked pebbles down from the cliffs above and a light breeze hummed in the sage and rabbitbrush. South a mile from us were the barns and corrals, and the adobe house that Ginny had built after coming west from Brooklyn two years before.
“Why would you want to live in New York City when you can be out here looking at the manzanos?” Ginny asked.
“I don’t have any idea. If you do, don’t tell anyone.”
“Even now New Mexico has a population of 1.6 million. That’s less than the population of Brooklyn.”
“It’s still too many people for a little state of only 120,000 square miles.”
“Does it seem to you that our culture has totally lost contact with reality?”
The Mouse lifted all four feet from the ground suddenly and relocated himself several feet to the left of where we had been standing.
“That’s what he does!” Ginny exclaimed.
“You took the words out of my mouth. Do you know what ‘manzano‘ is in English?”
“It means apple tree.”
“Isn’t it amazing how we’re assimilating,” I said.
We rode slowly back to the house, making plans as we went to meet in early June for a horse pack trip into the Gila wilderness in southwestern New Mexico. Ginny was leaving the next week to spend six weeks in Todos Santos on the Baja Peninsula, where she is building a house to be the center of a potters’ community. She enters Mexico at the crossing at Nogales, ferries across the Sea of Cortez, and continues south on the road that has been made into a modern highway since the 1960’s when Joseph Wood Krutch was exploring what was then a primitive region. Making a routine drug check, the federales are regularly dumbfounded by the load of potter’s clay in the bed of her red Ford truck. I have never visited Baja, California. Instead I drove north the next morning to Taos, New Mexico.
Mabel Dodge McLuhan started it; she and her husband, the Indian chief. Talk about sleeping with the enemy. Today Taos, lying between the deep trench cut by the Rio Alto and the Sangre de Christo Mountains, is a dusty Spanish-Indian town with an arty and somewhat elegant Anglo culture superimposed on it. The telephone book lists Trujillos for several pages and the Indians from the adjacent Taos Pueblo are a visible presence among the tourists, spring break students, skiers, and art buyers you meet in the streets. In Taos—as elsewhere in New Mexico—sacredness is conferred on mountains, animals, and potter’s clay. Artists especially are considered very sacred. In the Wade Gallery on North Pueblo I bought a fine oil painting by Chuck Waldman of Sonora, California: a medical doctor who paints in the time left over to him by a busy general practice. Unlike other of his paintings displayed, this scene of distant ranges viewed at sunset from a sagebrush hill is strongly impressionistic. hazy with spring and the gaseous sage and lit by an indefinable light source. I stayed on after making the purchase to talk with the director of the gallery, a blonde and lovely Virginian. People come to New Mexico from every place on earth, looking for the beauty, authenticity, and truth they believe no longer exists—if in fact it ever did exist—in their own cultures. And yet civilization is so simple a thing: a good book, a good cigar, a bottle of fine wine, a good painting, a beautiful woman, exquisitely dressed. If only because we carry our own, inherited civilizations with us wherever we go, we need to work out some sort of accommodation with them.
In Taos I visited a woman I had not seen for 18 years. Since our last meeting she had acquired a husband, a medical degree, and two small children. While Frank took Isabel and Philip to play in Kit Carson Park, Carol and I drove west across the mesa to Tres Piedras and up the winding road into the San Juan Mountains where we skied cross-country, through stands of pine and aspen and across open parks buried under several feet of snow. The skies whined on the granular snow which collapsed in places, bowing them in the wet deep holes. The snowfields reflected the heat of the late winter sun, and the aspen made a gold matting on the dark forests standing flat against the blue sky. We paused only to check the topographic map, and drink water from the poly bottles we carried with us in the packs.
“Your husband is a fine man.”
“Frank’s a gem, isn’t he?”
“You’re exactly the way you were 18 years ago. You haven’t changed at all.”
“You haven’t changed either.”
Later when our legs ached, “I’m getting old,” Carol said.
“Don’t say it. If you’re old, I’m the Ancient Mariner,”
She leaned out over her skiis to hug me. “Eight years made a lot of difference then. It doesn’t make any difference at all now. Do we have enough light left to get out by?”
“I was thinking the same thing.”
With the sun dropping behind the tree line, we skiied faster through the suddenly cold woods to the truck.
Leaving Taos the next morning I drove west on the same road, through Tres Piedras and over the San Juans, rolling and open to the sky, draining into a vast basin of broken forests and wide snowfields, cobalt and white in the springtime haze, the whole country running with the wet aliveness of spring. Water ran out from under the snowbanks beside the highway, and pastureland along the Chama River lay under several inches of water. In Chama, construction crews were building on to motels and repairing roads, readying the town for the coming tourist season. Proceeding west, I entered the Jicarilla Apache reservation, where eight years before Dwight Bridges and I had been temporarily imprisoned behind a gate padlocked after us by an Indian on horseback who gave us a hard look as we passed through. He was a very tall, very lean, very dark Indian, with a century of hate in his black eyes. When we returned on the same road an hour later we were compelled to take down a section of his fence to get the truck through. Having observed him make a mental note of the license number, we put the fence in place again afterward.
In this springtime world of perpetual motion, I wanted to stay in motion too. The aborigines of Australia are given to what they call walkabouts. You take off one day on a trek across the continent, and return when you have a mind to. Abos believe that the country, the landscape, exists first as a mental concept, requiring to be perceived by human beings and then sung: in this way only it is summoned into actual existence. “Singing up the country” they call it: a belief congruent with an idea of the aboriginal poet Thomas Fleming, who argues that a region or area acquires reality from being written about. The Old Ones are wise, listen to the Old Ones. Briefly I considered detouring to Chaco Canyon, over 100 miles to the southwest. The desert home of that long-abandoned city would be drying now under a climbing sun, the lingering snowdrifts shrinking slowly on the shadow side of the opposite cliffs and slumping behind the stony dormitories. The canyon itself is unspectacular, dry and dead-looking as the soul of a BLM man, a place to run cattle in. The ruins, though interesting, are not as impressive as the tourists—thirsty for mystery, romance, and deadness—claim to find them. Around the time the seed corn that produced the mummified little cobs that can still be found lying around Anasazi ruins today was being sown on the sandy canyon floor, Aquinas was writing the Summa Theologica; when these buildings of ungrouted sandstone rock were under construction, the Tower of London already stood. If anyone were seriously to propose housing homeless people or inner-city delinquents in these cramped and primitive quarters where sun-worshippers once pranced and Kokopelli, the hunchbacked minstrel, fluted on the rocky heights, the entire complex would be torn down at once and replaced by an extensive parking lot, lovingly maintained in perpetua by the Park Service.
In Cortez, Colorado, I stopped to inquire about a place to board a horse overnight on my trip south to the Gila in June, and in the morning continued up to Moab, Utah, where they had a marathon in progress: sunscreened men with washboard abs, not all of them Adonises, and women of every age and shape flopping around inside their sport bras and shorts. Warning signs stood in the road going out of town and Moab’s finest leaned against their parked cruisers to guard and cosset the runners, each and every one beloved by the Moab Chamber of Commerce and other sponsors of the event. I looked around for Ed Abbey’s ghost and found him in the person of a particularly repellent-looking turkey buzzard, leering obscenely from a slickrock parapet above the highway.
The highway crossed over the Colorado River and climbed out of the bottom, past the entrance to Arches Natural Monument from which Ed’s old ranger’s trailer was long ago removed by relic seekers. I turned off at the sign to Dead Horse Point, followed the switchbacks up to the plateau, and threw up a tent in a grassy swale surrounded by rock and juniper trees, a mile from the blacktop. Mounds of pale Navajo sandstone like petrified puddings rose above the low forest stretching southeast to Dead Horse Point, the geographical focus of Abbey’s finest essay where he recounts helping to find and remove the carcass of an ignorant unwary tourist in the 1960’s. Why, Abbey wonders scornfully, did this man, knowing death to be inevitable, choose to embrace it in the form of a bloated leaking corpse, rather than launch himself from the cliff edge into the clean empyrean? Well, Ed, because it isn’t the American way today. You knew that. Know that. Perhaps there will be more dead men at Dead Horse Point this season.
Gathering wood for a fire I overturned a stone slab and exposed a pygmy rattler enjoying his RIM sleep beneath it. Another hour or so and he would have wakened on his own to go in search of breakfast. He was a short fat snake, writhing desperately as he rolled from the sandstone cropping to the ground. I hazed him solicitously away from camp, and built a fire ring where the grass grew thinly. Hurrying to escape from Moab I had neglected to stop at the City Market to buy supper. There were granola bars, crackers, and a can of tuna fish in the daypack, and half a bottle of wine, water, and staling coffee grounds in the camp boxes. I built a fire and sat with my back against the rock, watching the early spring cumulus drift above the plateau toward the La Sal Mountains across the Colorado. The clouds were dark, edged with gold where they were backlit by the sinking sun. One, taller than the rest, was in the shape of a man, or god, black with woe and wisdom and bearing in his hand a vaporous spear, or staff. He came on as I watched, treading down the sky, passed overhead with a sudden rush of air and the sound of wind in the trees, and moved off toward the mountains: stately, unhurried but intent, as if he meant to spend the night there.
A journey is a fragment of Hell, the Muslims say. Arriving home, the wanderer has nowhere else to go. Home is the place where, when you go there, you’re stuck. For a while, anyway. In Kemmerer, Wyoming, the following afternoon I found the house immobilized in drifts of snow, and a gray wind blowing.