The Ghosts of New Mexico
No, you don't get a discount, you're the other kind of Indian.
It was Sunday and the wind was blowing hard through the sagebrush. I drove past a deserted school house, six shacks, and a mobile home. Then I came across a desolate courtyard with a battered Spanish church with a bell tower. The church was empty but men in jeans sat outside on the steps, drinking their Budweisers. A boy was diddling with the carburetor of a rusty Chevy pick-up. The dust whirled up everywhere, rattling empty beer cans.
The men on the steps of the church were all dark and tall, with large heads and brown oval faces. They wore shawls with vibrant patterns, but when their faces turned they had a solemn, worn look. I noticed an old fellow with a craggy face gazing out into the haze. His white hair fell down to his shoulders, and there were deep hollows under his eyes. For a while his watery eyes hovered on me, but when I walked towards the church he didn't greet me or smile. He continued staring into the haze, and so did his friends. They all seemed to be staring silently at the same thing. They were neither happy nor angry. It was a little after ten in the morning, and they looked like they had been drinking since dawn.
I had flown in to Albuquerque a week earlier and then driven north, driving past low oblong hills and sculpted rock columns. The road climbed slowly, winding its way through deserts of yucca, rattlesnake, and dwarf juniper. Road runners ran across the road, and the fast food joints started to diminish in number. I was leaving behind the land of the golden arches, to enter one of enchantment. Small farms appeared, vegetable gardens hacked out of the stony hillside, rough cottages adorned by wreaths of dried chilies and a few pick-up trucks. Each home was also a store, selling homemade pots, great clay sun faces, and garish stone carvings destined for suburban lawns. Then the cottages became fewer, giant rocks and ravines started to appear. The hills looked as if they had been plucked from the sets of Westerns, and I half expected columns of Indian warriors to suddenly appear on the ridges.
I visited many pueblos on that trip, Santo Domingo , Jemez, Acoma , and Taos . Some of the Indian settlements were no more than a collection of trailers build around a decaying school bus, others had the dusty sprawl of small villages. The Indians I found there sat all day boozing and playing cards. The women seemed to bear the brunt of the work. They wore shawls and cheap jewelry, and were immensely and cheerfully fat. Children ran barefoot to fetch water from the wells. The dust and stones and dogs and poverty and lack of running water and electricity made me feel quite at home; I could easily have been in a village in Rajasthan or Chihuahua or eastern Morocco . In similar environments people evolved in similar ways, using the same building materials, performing the same chores, day after day in the dust.
I spent a morning at Taos Pueblo, where descendants of the Anasazi had made their home for a thousand years. The unpaved road at the entrance was crowded with Toyota vans and station wagons full of families with igloo coolers, city Indians rediscovering their roots. In the dusty haze the Indians walking about seemed to lose their outlines, their shoulders and hips blending into the background. But their faces kept coming into view, with their high Central Asian cheekbones and prominent foreheads, each face large and smooth and mask-like. Their eyes were clear but expressionless, like the gaze of somnambulists.
The next day I rode out with Bob Storm Cloud, the owner and guide of the Taos Indian Horse Ranch. He was ruggedly handsome, a heavily built man dressed like a cowboy, but with earrings and jet black hair. He was a man of few words, with bloodshot eyes and nostrils that bristled in the wind, just like his horse Running Brave. His horses were powerful creatures, bearing us gracefully over the desert, but now and then they whinnied restlessly, and sometimes after a climb my own horse would become quite sluggish, stopping to graze on some choice trailside weed, at which point Storm Cloud would come up from behind and give it a solid crack on the rear with his whip, after which it would immediately resume trotting, as if suddenly awakened to its responsibilities.
We rode on mostly in silence till early evening. Storm Cloud took some getting used to. At first I thought his silence was a kind of bond, but there was a grim brooding about it. Yet he was not uncommunicative. He seemed knowledgeable about the comings and goings of birds and animals. Once he stopped to reveal a mountain lion's footprints in the desert. Another time he dismounted and rubbed deer droppings between his fingers to reveal dark berries.
As we were descending along the footpath, a range of mountains suddenly came into view. He pointed to the Sangre de Cristo, and then towards the bluish peaks of eastern Colorado . The mountains were a watery pastel blue, lightly stained with brown shadows. A few clouds swirled above them, shining like mirrors.
“This is all ours - has been and always will be”, he remarked, rather haughtily.
There was undoubtedly a mystical quality to those mountains. It was the quality of the earlier America sensed by Siberian hunters as they tracked the mammoths across Alaska , by the first Athapascan tribes as they watched herds of bison thundering across the plains. Once those mountains had been gods, rising up above the smoke of ancient rituals; but long before that, before being owned or named, they were simply there, basking in unseen perfection.
After the ride Storm Cloud took me to meet his family. They lived in a small ranch house, surrounded by an acre of stony land on which they raised three children, a dozen horses, and a wide assortment of vegetables. A girl in pigtails came to meet us, taking the horses away to their stables. The youngest child, no older than six, was riding bare-back on a big chestnut mare.
“He's grown up with them horses” said his mother, watching approvingly. “When he was a baby I used to ride him to sleep. I'd wrap him in a sling around my neck and ride out, and he'd nod off in a minute.”
She was a white woman with an enormous bosom, proud of her children's equestrian accomplishments. Over dinner she talked about her dreams, about starting a riding academy. The children would grow into instructors, there would be courses, with proper certificates, and Storm Cloud would take the tourists out on week-long horsepacking trips into the Sangre de Cristo mountains , they would all ride out at night into the desert. The children listened intently, their freshly scrubbed, healthy faces glowing in the firelight, their limbs light, agile, ready to mount on horseback. I could see them setting out with their father into the night, confident, strong, riding easily up the steep paths.
We drank Californian wine late into the night. Storm Cloud spoke bitterly of ancient wounds, broken treaties and promises. The pueblo was for him a last link with his culture. The lands he knew and loved were being taken over by the big developers. A fellow down the road had developed the ski resort, they were expanding, it would all be gone. All over the country, tribal lands had been desecrated, becoming dumping grounds for chemical and radioactive waste. There was nowhere to run to, no avenue for redress, everything ancient and noble continued to be relentlessly crushed by that great unfeeling underbelly of America .
I told him I was sorry the way things had turned out. But I knew that it was too late for him and his tribe. Western man had already come and done his worst. He had slaughtered the buffalo and butchered the whale, with his rough hands he had come and ravished the earth, her forests, soils, and sparkling streams, thrown fine mica particles into the air, filthied the wind, even sullied the inner womb of the sea. And wounded, battered, the earth went bravely on, carrying the burden of evil offspring. She was dying now, her youthful beauty the stuff of poetry and memory.
When I drove back that night I felt sad, the wine adding to the sense of nostalgia for things gone. A stag leaped across the road, its eyes shining in my headlights, proud yet fearful. I watched it bound away, wishing it well on its path through the nocturnal world. A frail and wintry moon appeared suddenly above a hill to the south, illuminating the old mission at the Ranchos des Taos , and bathing the valley below in a milky glow.
New Mexico is haunted by myths. Kit Carson, Indian warriors, Gods of the Navajo and the Zuni, the land of Tony Hillerman . On the reservations a few stalwarts still learn about the spirit world, about the Way of the Water Carrier. They sit in sweat baths, study rituals practiced by elders. But things which are lost, which have been torn out, banned, desecrated, are hard to recapture. The old religions and their oral traditions have been replaced mostly by the dusty crosses of Christianity. The peaks of the Sangre de Cristo hold memories, but they remain stubbornly silent.
The problem is not limited to the Indian tribes. The fact of the matter is, whether dwelling in cities or holding out on reservations, modern man has allowed himself to be robbed of certain sensations, of values once held sacred. To regain them requires not simply a training in ritual, but a systematic unlearning, a casting aside of apparently sensible explanations, a deconditioning, a way of pumping out the infinite from the finite. The cosmos has to suddenly expand, a lifetime has to suddenly expand, the world has to become once again a vibrant place full of possibilities, brimming over with the promises and terrors of primitive nature. In short, technological man must return to his dual, the so-called savage. He cannot be both, only one or the other.
The journey back involves a return to the senses, to careful hearing, sensitivity to the wind and the cries of birds and animals, a refined sense of smell, sensitivity to the smell of various kinds of dust, a sense of touch, a need to touch earth, to sift sand, stroke fur, tease out footprints and tree rubbings, light fires, fashion tools out of bone. It involves a certain attentiveness, a sense of fear and kinship with the shimmering lights of the night sky, a sympathy with trees trembling in the wind. It involves an appreciation of the dignity of speech, the capacity to utter syllables as if they were the first ones uttered. It involves the humble appreciation of labor and sweat, of tiredness, of the sense of fulfillment that comes at dusk from touching the earth walls of your home. It involves a remembrance of origin, an understanding of the joy and gravity of naming. Old, well-worn symbols have to come alive, rather like seeing the ancient Chinese characters for sun, earth, tree, rice field emerging suddenly from the ordinariness of the page. In short, it is no simple matter. It involves awakening the dead. It involves an arousal of the deepest pantheistic coils of the imagination, a mastering of the mumbo-jumbo of creation.
The next morning I went into the Taos plaza. I found Indians squatting on the sidewalk selling beads and baubles and pottery. Inside the galleries similar things were on display at astonishing prices. While the Indians grew poorer and died, their civilization in tatters, the white men inside grew rich peddling their artifacts to collectors. It was hard not to condemn them, considering that their ancestors' colonization of the Americas had wiped out sixty million Indians. Still, history marches on, unfeeling.
The bookstores were filled with coffee-table books reveling in the culture and lore of the Southwest, with the salesmen dressed like country music stars. I found a store dedicated to the work of D. H. Lawrence. It was then that I remembered his connection with Taos . I wasn't particularly fond of Lawrence , though as teenagers we had read Lady Chatterley's Lover very carefully. Still, I thought it worthwhile to dig around.
He and Frieda Lawrence had come to Taos in 1922, to stay with his American patroness Mabel D. Luhan. The D.H.-Frieda relationship was a lively, often tortured one, full of rich psychodynamics; he was a difficult man, like many writers at once impossible and saintly; she was a demanding woman, a mistress of mind games. A very peculiar couple. They moved to a cabin on the Kiowa Ranch, so he could live a simple writer's life up in the woods, chopping trees, huffing and puffing in the snow, the breath becoming icicles, only meaningful words uttered, half-believing that labor would lead to a kind of liberation. Eventually, it was all quite hopeless, the struggle inside went on unabated between the male and female halves of the soul, the rage and consumption meanwhile building up inside. A year later they left for Mexico , where he began writing The Plumed Serpent. They came back again, briefly, two years later, and then left again. Finally, in 1931, he died, quietly, in a French sanitarium. But New Mexico was wedged deeply in his soul; like other renowned dead men, he was not left still, and soon his remains were repatriated to the ranch.
The climb to the ranch was steep, along an unpaved road, the soil dark and muddy. It was bitterly cold, and there were still patches of winter snow on the ground. Lawrence 's cabin was at nearly eight thousand feet, a small rather ramshackle gray affair, with a heavy padlock on the door. I went around to the back, and peeped through the tiny kitchen window. On the table were two coffee cups, and on the stove an old iron frying pan. Someone had recently been living there. Perhaps the Lawrences had returned - I thought I heard a door or window opening, and called out. But it was only the creaking of a pine branch. Then I discovered, nailed to a tree, a sign: Closed to the Public. And taped to one of the windows from the inside was a rather mundane notice about residential workshops organized by the University of New Mexico . One had to be associated with the University to get in.
But they had allowed access to his tomb. He lay there in a tiny chapel. David Herbert Lawrence, 1885-1930, and right next to Frieda Lawrence Ravagli, 1879-1956. Their rather simple white tombs seemed a fitting counterpoint to their turbulent life.
I stood for a while in silence, listening to the wind whistling through the pines. From time to time the pages of the visitor's book flapped noisily. Pine cones were scattered on a floor rich with curious mosaics.
Later I walked in the woods, hearing the creaking of pine branches and the crackling of twigs and a few late afternoon birds. In the evening it grew very cold, and quiet, and then I heard the call of a coyote. There was no one there and it was very peaceful. It seemed like a good place to be buried.
Beside the main cabin was another, much smaller one. It too was locked, but peeping in through a window I saw a ladder, a bucket, some cans of paint. This was the groundskeeper's residence. I searched for him, this Mellors-like fellow, and as I was about to wander up into the woods I heard a long, inquisitive howl. It was a wolf, tied to a post behind a barbed wire fence. He looked up at me, his eyes glaring with territorial insult, and yet curious, perhaps wondering what had brought me to such a desolate spot.
After taking a walk in the woods for an hour or more, I decided to head back. On the way back to Santa Fe I stopped at Bandelier, the site of ancient cliff dwellings. In contrast to Lawrence 's cabin, one didn't have to be associated with a university to get in; in fact, it was crowded with the dregs of modern tourist culture. But there were exceptions: I came upon a small, brilliant-looking child with glasses and dark curly hair seated inside a cave. I took a picture of him crouching against the wall. His mother Sarah smiled hesitantly up at me. She was preternaturally thin, with short black hair and Levantine features, in her late thirties, very quiet. She told me she was a Lebanese Christian, from a prominent Beirut family, settled in Manhattan . She was recently divorced, and an assistant professor of anthropology at NYU.
Afterwards I joined them for a hike in the forest, and then we stopped at a little cafetaria run by the Parks Service, and the boy tripped and fell as he was carrying his can of Coke. He cut his lip, and the blood poured out on the sand.
“Mom, my lip hurts!”
Sarah lifted him up into her arms, and I thrust several paper napkins at her, before going in to ask for a first aid kit. Later she laughed as she rocked him on her lap. She had cut her lip too, she said, when she was a child. She showed the boy the scar. It was about half an inch wide, running right across the corner of her upper lip. I couldn't help looking at it with great interest, while telling her about my visit to the Lawrence Ranch. She seemed very conscious of my rather frank stare, but from time to time a sad, faraway look came into her eyes. Her natural pallor and her extreme thinness created an impression of insubstantiality, as if she would suddenly fade away. We spent a few hours having a late lunch of black beans and rice, and talking of this and that. I told her I would probably write something about my trip here, and she asked me to send her a copy. Then, after helping her shop for a scarf and some Santa Clara pottery, I bade her farewell.
It was hard to get back to normal life after my visit to New Mexico . It left me shaken for some reason, and then I came down with the flu. When I recovered, I decided to start writing down these impressions. When I was done, I phoned Sarah, to tell her a copy was on its way. After three rings a raunchy female voice came on the line: We're sorry - your call cannot be completed as dialed. Please check the number and dial again. I have an excellent memory for numbers, so I interpreted it as a sign that Sarah wanted to drop the whole thing, to treat New Mexico as no more than a pleasant, rather wistful interlude. Like so many others, perhaps she was just being polite when asking to see my writing.
I left it at that.
Of course, New Mexico isn't forgotten easily. I still have a pine cone from the offerings beside Lawrence 's tomb. It is now a horribly shriveled affair, a dark-budded flower with hard, clay-colored petals, each like a tiny nippled breast. Holding it gently in my hand, I summon up memories of my trip. The Sangre de Cristo rises bluish into the sky; the Indians are all quiet now, huddled around their Budweisers. I think of a father riding out into the coyote-filled night with his three children; and looking up above, beyond the region of stags with giant antlers, I know I can find a pair of sparkling white tombs.
As for Sarah, I prefer to leave matters as they are, though I do think of her from time to time. She reminds me of certain mysterious women who appear occasionally in dreams. They are pale, and wan, with pretty smiles, but with a sudden sad faraway look in their eyes. I have met them repeatedly over the years, strolling agelessly in sunken gardens surrounded by flowers or children. Sometimes they serve me tea in pale blue, delicate porcelain cups. They seem to live in a world run by women, where everything is inverted. I usually wake from these dreams in a cold sweat, with the taste of watery tea on my lips.
Inderjeet Mani's travelogues have appeared in the Reston Review, a travel anthology (forthcoming) and several newspapers. His fiction has been published in Nimrod (Finalist for the 2005 Katherine Anne Porter Prize), Wind (winner of the 2003 Short Fiction Prize), and several e-zines, including Word Riot, Kimera, and Poetry and Story. His scholarly publications include titles from MIT Press and Oxford. His website: complingone.georgetown.edu/~linguist/inderjeet.html.