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DESERT TIME -- A JOURNEY THROUGH THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST

Wind and Ravens:  The designs of the border are adapted from black-on-white Anasazi pots and bowls that are now in museums. The ravens are at every camp you make, they keep an eye on you; they always see you before you see them. The landscape is disappearing in the wind.

Chapter 3:  wind
Navajo Reservation, Arizona

I pulled off on the side of a dirt road to write that there was red sand blowing. I had come down through Four Corners south into Navajo country. It was just past dawn; the plains of rabbitbrush were silver in the light. Here and there a mesa or stone column stood, lone and red, the sedimentary layers stacked like blocks from a ruin. Vast eroded skirts poured from stone rims on which there were dark flecks of junipers.

When the sun rose higher the wind grew, and as I went south the wind kept me company all the way.

There are no periods in the pages I wrote in that day. There were no periods and no stopping places in the wind. One thing blew into another too fast. The country was too huge and too colored and too empty of habitation and of anything man-changed or made to be finalized in any way. I seemed to be blowing myself, rolling, bouncing in the ruts, sliding and plowing through growing drifts of sand.

I was lost when I wrote that I had come to a landscape of blood-red mesas veined with silvery sandstone. Los Gigantes Buttes; tailbones of the Chuska Mountains. The land around the buttes was the color of metal and bone. Later I pulled over and wrote that there were low houses with sheds, sheep camps, very far apart so that whenever I came on one -- toylike in the great space -- it was a surprise, the last one having vanished so long before. There were some sheep, a few red cattle, otherwise rolling arid ground with the high red buttes marching closer and past and then more appearing; the wind so strong that even the clouds were pink.

Then a sudden cemetery bristling with plastic flowers, the flowers vibrating in the gusts, and a low white building with white gates and a small white cross on the peak of the roof. This was the only building of more than one story anywhere, the only one painted any color. It must have put an idea in my head.

Before the morning was gone I understood that roads in Navajo country are not like roads elsewhere. Traveling into the land on them is like following the tributaries of rivers uphill. The tracks branch and narrow until they come to a single sheep or cattle camp at which they end. Then there's nothing to do but turn around. By noon I didn't think that I could find my way back to any road that was on a map. Buttes and roads made a labyrinth and since that day I've had a kind of labyrinth-dream again and again; a dream of being in red butte country still, in the wind that lived there, and that I can't stop thinking of as living there all the time, the only thing big enough for the place. By midday there was grit everywhere; on my paper, my lips, my eyelids, the dashboard. The air was thick, red dunes riffled in the lee of every stone and clump of rabbitbrush.

All the time the wind grew. When I found blacktop at last and drove on south the whole landscape seemed to have blown away. Here and there were knobs of rock so raw they looked as if they'd poured down and congealed like wax. Ahead, a roll of waxy hills. Dry plants jerked in the wind, perched on heaps of red soil held by their roots; this was the only stuff held down anywhere that wasn't stone.

Something hit the window with a slap and went over, dark like a dead bird. Russian thistle: tumbleweed. Russian thistles grow out nearly flat like starfish on roadsides and dirt lots and eroded banks. They're an alien species, symptom of disturbed and overgrazed -- desertifying --land, and are so spiny they draw blood at the lightest stroke. They're held to the ground by a wee small stem like the narrow bit of a brandy glass, and when their seeds mature they dry out and curl up and catch the wind and the stem snaps and off they go, springing away like wads of barbed wire.

More of these went by in front and behind and over, I don't know how many.

The roll of gray waxy hills lay ahead with the road going through them like a scratch made with a pin. The air was vibrating and pale, all distances grayed out as if by mist. An odd phenomenon -- nasal hallucinations: a strong smell of excrement, then of cooking meat. Cars had their lights on. There were not many cars, maybe six in an hour.

"Rock Point Arizona Pop. 400 elev. 5000" said the sign. Then cattle, red and white; a herd of mohair goats like dirty rugs. A shedlike building that said POST OFFICE with pickups parked in its lee, people walking bent with papers over their faces. A tumbleweed bounced up the post office roof and sailed down among the pickups. I heard someone yell. Perhaps a dozen buildings was all there was. The rest of the pop. was out in the country.

The land lay flat between stone monoliths. Layers of ancient dune and seabed sediments lie flat here on the Colorado Plateau, the high land that takes up most of northeastern Arizona and beyond. Up here the soft layers are eroding fast. Past Rock Point the coppery buttes were sandblasted smooth like enormous pots. I didn't know if I was hot or cold, if it was too bright or too dark, everything lost distinction, edges, shape, as if it were night, but there were glares and distortions everywhere, so I drove with my car lights on and my shades on, too.

The wind began to wail and shriek and grit rattled against the car. A dry creekbed was a river of white smoke. The light was wrong. Darkness seemed to come from overhead, from a mantle of reddish cloud with rents of sky that were smoke dark, rosy, green.

"Many Farms Arizona" said the sign, I didn't catch the pop. or elev., noting only that once again the second was larger than the first. There were no farms or any other buildings in sight and none appeared for a long time.

I had realized by then that this was foreign country. There was no way I could just camp beside the road. No tent would survive that wind. There were certainly no motels. I had nowhere to go. I'd just got here, I didn't want to leave.

Then a scattering of trailers, hogans, a trading post with a gas pump. I stopped at the trading post and used the pay phone. I'd noticed a red dot on the map some fifty miles south and red writing (very small) beside it: Ganado Presbyterian Mission. I'm Presbyterian if I'm anything; this seemed identity enough in a world where anything else I could lay claim to seemed to have blown away. I talked to Pastor Paul Stone and told him who I was and what I was doing, said I'd work if I could stay. I was a wayfarer asking refuge of a church.

"We've got work and we've got beds," he said. "Is that infernal racket the wind or the Navajo telephone?"

"Both," I said. He laughed.

"Yeah. You can stay," he said. "Come along."

Outside two young men rounded up three ponies beside the road, one man threw a lasso, manes and tails blew. A boy rode home from school with his book bag over his face. The pony's head was tight to its chest. Scattered hogans, stick paddocks and sheds, boxy prefabs, trailers; these ended in flat darkening country through which the wind went on.

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