The road to the village of Villanueva is rough and narrow and twists through hamlets composed of adobe houses and related out buildings. Scattered lights show in windows and a few people are about, standing by the road or walking along it. Red mud fills low spots and puddles glisten.
A soft wind shakes the trees as we bounce across over-sized and too numerous speed bumps at the entrance to the campground. It takes three circuits of my chosen spot, but I get the electrical post and the trailer close enough to kiss. I can hear a river running feet away and a canyon slope rises dimly behind it. This promises to be a bit of Paradise.
The dogs receive their dinner by flashlight because clouds bar the moon and stars. They finish quickly, then dance by the door to be let inside. The old dog stayed out at the cabin the last two days. The pack of dogs had excavated a tunnel under the house and I found him there, asleep. He got stuck as he tried to crawl out, but I tugged and coaxed him through. I”ll never know what adventures he had: he’s not inclined to tell.
I can see the wide rushing river, muddy from last night’s storm, as it flows across a pavement of cobbles and boulders, see the damp sandy bank as it crushes beneath my step, see the quiet cottonwoods, soft pines and cedar trees, and gray clouds which traverse the narrow sky. What I feel is my aching body. I lie down again after putting fresh sheets on the bed, stare at a map and ponder where to go next, but the future means nothing at the moment. I get up, gather my shower things and fresh clothes but lie down again, unable to face the walk to the restrooms.
“I will not die dirty,” I chant in order to work up strength. A hand-lettered note is taped to the Women/Ladies/Damas sign on the restroom door. “Please Help Conserve Energy, when you go shut the lights & close the doors. Thank-you Your Park Tech Ramon.” I do what I must.
I force myself to eat vegetable soup then lie very still so as not to cause an eruption. A hard wind has carried the clouds away and the door of the trailer swings within the limits of the bungee cord which secures it. Miraculously, I doze for two hours, yet feel weak and light-headed when I awake. I lie down again and wait. My stomach rumbles.
The river at my door is the Pecos. Though clear and shallow today, its water runs deep, red and roily after a storm; its soft banks are like sugar and cinnamon mixed. Sand is dropped on the road when the river floods and road scrapers must clean it away. Much remains. I observe these things and try to enjoy them but my vision is like a TV set that has lost control.
I managed to drive to Villanueva today, a collection of adobe buildings built on a low promontory around which the river bends. The postal clerk didn’t want to take a travelers check toward purchase of a money order, so I waited as he checked regulation books even though a card on the counter explained that travelers checks are good as long as fifty percent of the value is used to buy postal services and items. The exertion of driving had caused me to break into a cold sweat and I regaled him with symptoms while he pawed through big blue binders. In the end he sold me the money order.
“If you want this to go out today you’ll have to go to the post office about ten miles north of here,” he told me. “Our mail goes out on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and you missed today’s already.”
The tightly curving road was marked No Passing most of the way and I followed cars and trucks at ten, fifteen and twenty-five miles per hour through the narrow, sinuous valley. A sign on a gate said, Chiles + Vegetables For Sale. I saw one field of corn and a tiny winery. The oldest buildings, which in form are like two Monopoly houses built end to end, are shut so tightly that it is impossible to guage if they are inhabited. The immense timber doors on an intriguing, maroon stone barn stood open on total darkness, begging me to peer inside, but it didn’t seem a neighborhood in which the wise are nosy. A massive white church is about all there is to San Miguel, where I dropped my letter, settled, as I recall, by Indians kicked out of their tribes for turning Catholic.
On the way back I stopped at a square adobe house, its trim brushed with mint green paint. ‘Grocery’ was painted on a tiny board that hung from an eave. Inside, two people as old as the wood cases, which held very little, blinked at me.
“Do you sell ice cream?” I asked. I wanted fresh meat, but asked for ice cream because they likely had that. The woman grinned and pointed to a forty-year-old refrigerator from which I retrieved a cup of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry swirl and a flat wooden scooper from a box that contained sherbet push-ups, too. No meat.
“Do you sell fresh meat? Hamburger, pork chops maybe?”
“Oh no, no,” she said. Her glasses glinted up at me and she looked a bit frightened: she crept closer to her husband who coughed and said, “Oh, no, no,” as if he’d hidden the meat and was afraid I’d force him to show me where.
What the devil? All I’d found at the store in Villanueva, besides crackers and such, was hot dogs and cheese. “Where is meat sold?” I asked.
“Otre store,” they said, while making emphatic motions down the road, but there was no otre store.
Camping in a canyon means that the world is infinitely black two-thirds of the way up the sky. Lightning flashes beyond the canyon wall to the northeast like someone has left a huge TV set on. By the time I let the dogs run then scoop them into the trailer, the storm has arrived and clouds hide all but the southern stars.
“One hundred and seventy-five people?” Oh please no.
“Oh yes? Maybe more? That many of our family showed up last year?” A shriveled woman in a yellow T-shirt and black polyester stretch pants speaks to me, her voice rising on the last word of every phrase as if all her thoughts are in question.
Her husband and three grandchildren roll a gas-fired grill into to my shelter and place lawn chairs to either side. “You don’t have to be alone any more?” she effuses. “It’s fun? Everybody brings their radios, even stereos? And food? It’s a party the whole time?” She opens her arms toward me, the kids smile and grandpa scurries to secure every campsite in the vicinity.
Loudmouthed drunks, blaring stereos and screaming kids fill my imagination. “I’m sure you have a lovely family,” I lie. “But I think I’ll move on.”
“You don’t have to?” she says. “You won’t be in our way?”
My ill stomach bounces up and down as those of my ancestors’ may have when accosted by presumptious diminutive Romans who wanted to party in a sacred grove. Instead of braining this tweeky grandma with an axe I secure the trailer for the bumpy trip to the highway and round up the dogs. Who says humans haven’t progressed?
“We didn’t mean to run you off?” she calls.
North of Las Vegas, I find refuge at the state park. The afternoon slips away with the heat and my task is done. The stove ‘hole’ is now a ‘bin’ with the addition of a door and hinged top. The refrigerator compartment is lined with plywood, has a door and two new shelves. Best of all, a new refrigerator is in place, and it cools a six-pack of Diet Coke.
I test the roadworthiness of my stomach by ingesting a carne adovado burrito at the Chlorox Cafe in Las Vegas. Roast pork and beentsy red chilis have been rolled up in a Hudson Bay blanket tortilla and buried in gooey cheese. It’s red hot and wow! Halfway through I pause. If I can digest this, I’m cured.
Friends I haven’t seen for years live in Taos and on my way I drive up the Mora Valley toward a pleasant section of the Sangre de Cristos, mountains built partly from brown and black mudstones which account for much loose material in the roadcuts. An open range cattle sign shows an anatomically complete and correct steer in silhouette on a yellow diamond, yet humans on similar highway signs are represented as golf ball-headed, quadruple amputees.
As the valley narrows the road rises between limestone outcrops peppered by uniform, bottle-brush pine trees, the kind that look better reduced to model railroad scale. In the stream creases, willows have turned the color that results from mixing lime and orange Jell-O together. My mother made a habit of doing this, why I don’t know, but it gave me a color reference like no other.
At my friends’ house I find that a fourth child has arrived, a slight girl with opaque black eyes who already commands her world with words. The contentment of life proceeding apace suffuses the household and reassured, I say goodnight. Lightning pops over northern New Mexico and rain overtakes us on the outskirts of Mora where a car swerves off and on the road in a crazy weave through town. While slowing to avoid the drunk, I spy men lighted against a much-painted green wall, inside a barroom bare of comfort beyond a pool table and beer signs.
Although it’s between breakfast and the lunch hour, the two room Chlorox Cafe is busy. I sit on the side made smaller by the kitchen and bakery and watch the cooks, two toros in dirty white, express their indignation with the waitresses, whose insolence, I suspect, has grown from ordering husbands and children around. They congregate at the pass-through like bad girls who torment priests, but the augurs are bent on the protection of their steamy rituals and abuse the laughing and gesturing women with short bursts of temper, stern postures and dismissal.
One of the waitresses recognizes me, which makes me feel at home. “How are the papas fixed?” I ask her.
“Oh, the papitas – homemade fried potatoes with meat and chili all over them.”
Several postal workers hug a table in the corner, drink coffee and smoke. They look a bit ratty and slightly nefarious. The woman in the next booth, who looks like a female impersonator (not in this town) has teeth which are widely spaced and slightly protruding. I worked for a time with a woman whose tiny, gapped teeth made me uncomfortable because I felt like I was talking to a prehistoric fish.
Four old codgers whose chins graze their table, discuss Arthur-itis while they smoke cigarettes and drink coffee. “On TV they say to take one aspirin every day,” one declares. “You know what my doctor says? Huh? Huh? One every other day.”
“Have you heard about Zacatecas, down in Mexico?” another asks him. “A farmer has a well there and the water has cured all kinds of people, and you know what? He gives the water away: never charges for it.”
Two old ranchers enter the restaurant slowly, creeping along like they might know a thing or two about Arthur-itis. They look like talking chicken necks as they whisper conspiratorially, eye to eye under the brims of their gray hats.
Uh. My jeans are too tight. Reluctantly, I push away the platter of potatoes and chili and finish my coffee. I wrapped the computer in a blanket last night and shoved it under the table so that the hum wouldn’t keep me awake. Sometimes it fails to boot up and I’m afraid to shut it off. I should get to work but decide instead on a long, delaying drive through the non-Cartesian kingdom of New Mexico, where the purchase of levels, plumb bobs, and enough materials to complete a construction job has been banned for centuries.
I arrive late for the Bean Day Rodeo in Wagon Mound but in time to see a black and white bull try to climb out of the chute before the gate can be opened. The metal fence for a quarter of the way around the arena jerks and a crowd of youngsters who cling to it grab a little tighter. It’s no wonder the ancients worshipped the bull; it’s a terror and a wonder, snot and all.
The announcer, who rides a horse in the arena, chatters over a cordless mike while rodeo hands stuff the monster back into the chute. A black cowboy from El Paso, Texas, rides the bull without mussing his new white hat and receives a high score. He jumps down gracefully and trots past painted plywood signs that advertise rodeo patrons, ranches such as Dreyer, Mora, Daniels, Ocamora, Ty Jones Cattle Company, Ojo Feliz, and Rafter T.
The sun elicits rich, crisp colors despite the fine red haze which hangs in the air and as I look about I wonder if we don’t if we inhabit a magazine layout. Figures in bright shirts and white hats hang over the rails, lost in the expanse of plains to the east. Pick up trucks and cars churn up soft earth for wind whorls to carry away.
“Andalay,” someone yells as a cowboy, courtesy of his horse, shoots after a steer, but his loop never leaves his hand.
“The only thing this cowboy is going to take away from Wagon Mound is your applause. Let’s here it,” intones the announcer. A surge of wind carries away the weary formula with the dust.
“Why don’t you come with us?” a man wearing corduroy shorts, a polo shirt and athletic shoes asks, so I climb into a mini-van with him and his wife, a strawberry blond who models a denim dress decorated with glass studs. Their brand new trailer, outfitted with a generator, electric jack and automatic leveler, is parked uphill from my aluminum can.
The woman is apologetic when I ask where they live, whispering across the head rest to me in the back seat, “We’ve been traveling since January and don’t live anywhere.” Hmm. They’re well-off, homeless, and too young to be retired.
“We managed a hotel in Denver,” she says as we schuss down the mountain toward Santa Fe, just like stars in a Chevy commercial, then adds, “out by the airport,” when I tell her that I once lived in Denver myself.
“We’d had it with working seven days a week plus night duty,” the man inserts.
“We resigned our positions and bought the trailer the same day,” she says brightly. “The dealer wanted $10,500.00 but since it was winter we got it for $6,000.00 – cash.”
“We decided to spend the spring season skiing so we headed for Vail but the engine in the van blew on the way. That was another $3,400.00,” he tosses off. “But we did ski until April.”
Dollar signs bobble about in my head, such sums not having entered there in a very long time. The man drops us in thick traffic on the edge of Santa Fe, on the grounds of the city recreation center where we become obstacles around which a stream of locals and tourists encumbered with blankets, coolers and supposed gloom, divides. She mentions that previous to hotel work she was a building manager and I mention former careers in advertising and oil and gas exploration, past lives which provide a link of sorts to strangers now that I have slipped away. The difference is, they’ll go back.
He finds us at length and we march along with the tide of celebrants drawn to Zozobra, a fifty-foot puppet burned each year at this time as a sacrifice to gloom, courtesy of local Kiwanians who turn the gate receipts into scholarships. Will Shuster, a Santa Fe artist, conjured up the big puppet in the 1920s as an objectification of collective anxiety, a burrito of light psychic cares which when consumed might at least make for fun.
We girls settle on a blanket on the playing field while the man wanders to take snapshots. She reveals, again whispering, that he has undergone seven heart bypasses kind of like the interstate system around Fort Worth/Dallas.
“That’s really why we quit and decided to travel,” she admits.
“He looks so fit,” I must say. And he does, slender with a neat, gray beard. I’d guess that she and I are about the same age and that he is in his early 50s.
“Now he is, after he lost ninety pounds. I watch what he eats and he exercises every day. To tell you the truth I’m kind of scared. I lost my first husband, too.”
The man rejoins us and I stare at the redeemed one and his frightened wife. The sun slides away and still Zozobra waits. His white gown lifts in the wind, his oversized, finger-pointing hand drifts at the end of an articulated arm, his big ears and pink grin mock us. Someone in the enormous crowd begins the chant, “Burn him, burn him,” but nothing happens for a long time. When the sky is at last dark we are further frustrated by the arrival of persons in Spanish costume, hordes of bodies covered by white sheets, and a troop of dancers in spangled red and blue stretch suits who descend the stone ledges before Zozobra. The puppet waves its arms and points comically at the crowd then gains a groaning voice, like a rusted ship rocking at anchor, rubbing its hollow, disintegrating hull on a taught chain. I join the growing chant of “Burn him, burn him,” and the silly, wonderful fun.
At last, fountains of fire erupt below Zozobra, spinning wheels fling flaming brands and rockets go fsst, fsst! into the night to explode in showers of winking color. Bam, bam, bam! Zozobra roars and his pointing finger sweeps the watchers, then, with a whoosh! his head explodes, his pink lips part, and his floating gown is consumed to the last square inch. Fireworks in abundance continue to streak the night until the field of screaming bodies is obscured by smoke.
The three of us make our way off the field, feeling the letdown that comes when something that doesn’t happen often enough, does..
A young girl who walks next to me with several friends asks, “Are you tourists?”
“Yes,” I tell her.
“What do you think? I mean, really. Is it cool?”
“It’s cool,” I concur.