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DESERT TIME -- A JOURNEY THROUGH THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST

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Chapter 6:  water canyon
Cibola National Forest, New Mexico

This was marked as a campground on the map and I needed to get out of the desert for a while and "Water Canyon, Cibola National Forest" didn't sound like desert so I came up. I got here at sundown, a little late, but I've got so I can pitch a tent and set up camp in ten minutes even in the dark. It's a nice campground but I'm the only one here. There's just the canyon rising in a forested slice of ravine toward Mount Baldy, and there's a moon out, and I've lit my candle lantern and am writing home.

Not home, exactly. I found a nice note card back in Ganado and I'm writing to a man I've wanted for a long time and whom I spent a night with before I left home. I'm pretty sure I spent the night with him because I was just about to leave.

I'm fine on my own, see. Even so, it's only natural that when there are these little chinks in my time I find myself thinking of him. And I figure I'd be rude -- not to mention downright transparently insecure -- if I didn't send him some kind of note letting him know that I'm fine on my own, but that I think of him sometimes, even though I'm fine on my own.

Leaving Hopi country, I got into Holbrook by eight A.M. and spent two hours in a truckstop cafe eating the most monstrous breakfast I could hold, letting that ease the pang of reentry. I brushed my teeth and put some makeup on in the rest room along with a couple of lady truckers, we kidded around a little in there about a hell of a this and the damned desert that, and that helped, too. It wasn't easy coming out of the reservations. I'd been wearing the same pair of jeans for a week. I'd lost about ten pounds. My eyes looked bleached.

After three fried eggs, tortillas and cheese and chilies, bacon, homefries, two orders of toast, jam, juice, and uncounted refills of coffee, I spread out a couple of maps and got out my field guides. I spent the next two days crossing part of Arizona and half of New Mexico looking at plants, birds, and rocks.

I was laying a kind of baseline. Coming to an understanding with the natural history of the place, or the part of it that I could figure out on my own. In order to get to the malpais, the lava flows, I would have to come down off the Colorado Plateau down into the Rio Grande rift, into another hotter and lower species of desert: the northern fingering of the Chihuahuan desert that runs clear through West Texas into the heart of Mexico. That would be something else, something different again. I was going to miss this place. So I filled up the dashboard with clippings of sagebrush and wildflowers and pinyon cones and the back of the car with samples of sedimentary and volcanic rocks. I made my lists of species, and made notes in my field guides, but I had the nagging notion that some of this intensive busyness was an escape from the heart of the matter. My soul had been stirred back on those reservations. My heart had been touched, I'd been frightened, awed; most of all I'd been aware in a new way, as though I'd grown a new set of senses. Now the stars reverted to their old Western mythical shapes -- Perseus and the Big Dipper and all that -- and I spent some time at night learning the names of more stars with my Field Guide to the Heavens.

I spent three hours in Magdalena talking with an old miner who had two teeth left in his head and who knew his way around inside the now defunct Kelly Mine, on the other side of Mount Baldy. He showed me some pieces of smithsonite and chrysocolla and chunks of turquoise big enough to choke a bear. Afterward, all I could think of was the story that Pastor Paul told me about the origin of turquoise. It went something like this:

***

"In the beginning, the sky was made, and many spirits lived in the sky. And there was a minor spirit called Turquoise who had made nothing. And he liked the color of the sky a lot. So he stole a little corner of it, down at the edge where he figured the other spirits wouldn't notice, and he carried it away to keep for himself. Anyway the other spirits did notice, of course they did, they notice everything, always have and always will, and so they shouted out as loud as they could: 'Who has stolen this piece of the sky!' and poor Turquoise got scared, naturally, and he did what anyone would do who was scared of being caught red-handed, he stuffed those bits of sky right into the mountains where no one could see them. And then he walked right out in the open with his hands out and empty and said, 'Well, heck, I didn't do it! Wonder who did?' just like some people I know. Like some people we all know. And he got away with it, too. And that's where it is, right in the mountains. It's sacred because it is pieces of the sky. And if you look closely, you can see the clouds in the sky. And that's why we call it turquoise."

***

The rocks were getting interesting. Not the semiprecious ones so much but the regular ones, the bones of the landscape; in the desert you see these all the time. After I left the miner at Magdalena I drove to the edge of the rift. Down below was an enormous pale tan space, like blowing sand seen from an airplane. Way down there. The descent was pocked with cinder cones.

For a while, I'd been noticing that the layers of the landscape were not lying flat anymore. Coming across the dry highlands of New Mexico and the Mogollon Rim, you couldn't miss the disruption. The Mogollon field of extinct volcanoes, deep layers of colored ash, collapsed calderas, dark cones, black layers of basalt -- old hardened lava flows -- and whole hill-ranges of welded tuff: volcanic ash congealed at white heat to something that resembles, from a distance, bogus fun-park rocks made out of papier-mache. Though volcanic action here began maybe sixty million years ago, most of it right here at the rift edge is only five to twenty-four million years old. Not old, as things go. Many semiprecious stones, and uranium, silver, and gold, were veined into the mountains by volcanic action. Turquoise itself comes from the weathering of alumina-rich rock in arid environments. It's a desert rock, in other words. Not a volcanic one. I was glad to hear this. As far as I could tell, it pretty much confirmed the Navajo story.

I went down into the rift in the early afternoon, through the fields of cinder cones. It got hot, and hotter. I understood some pieces -- those rocks in the back of the car -- but I didn't understand how they went together. And I'd seen some little red writing on the map that said "New Mexico Bureau of Mines and Mineral Resources" right next to Socorro, which was down there in the rift, so that's where I was going.

On the campus of the University of New Mexico in Socorro it was 97 degrees in the street, the watered gardens were tropical. I walked into the Bureau of Mines and etc. and started asking questions. I wound up in the office of Orin J. (OJ) Anderson, a grizzled senior geologist, who was busy.

"What exactly is it that you want?" he asked.

"I want to understand one piece of it. Just one piece, " I said. "Can I go out there with you?"

"Are you a geologist?"

"No."

"Well ... "

"My car is full of rocks!" I said, and there was a little pause, and he nodded and climbed down off his chair, and then we got down to business and wrote down each other's name and address. And I knew it would happen.

After I got back to my ovening car I saw the words "Water Canyon" on the map and came back up here.

***

There's no water in the canyon right now. There's a coyote, though. I saw his tracks in the dust when I came and now there's a scoot and flicker of coyote-shaped shadow in and out of the junipers and the stones. I've learned that every camp has what I call camp goons; animals that make it their business to patrol human camps and scavenge. Coyotes are not unusual as goons go, but I've never seen one so close up. Maybe it's late in the season. No one's here. Slim pickings. Getting cold, and he's getting desperate, maybe. My campfire is fifteen feet off and what's left of my chili beans are in the pot there, and the spoon is lying next to the pot, and the fire is going out.

Hell with it. That chili was sure-nuff fiery and he's welcome to it. Here he comes ... there he goes again. I tuck my feet up on my picnic table bench and alternate between writing in my notebook and -- once in a while, when an elegant cool little turn of phrase comes to mind -- writing on that card from Ganado.

A barred owl calls from up-canyon, hoots and hhars.

The coyote-shadow scoots, flits, there's a clink, and the shadow vanishes.

I look down and see what I've written:

"Shit! The coyote just ran off with my spoon -- ! I wish you were here. I really wish you were here."

Petroglyphs on Chinle Sandstone, The Painted Desert, Arizona

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