“Thoughts are the seeds of actions of action.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
Lost in the Dark. Dust in a Drawer. Legends. Sheep and Burgers. Pueblo Leads to Santa Fe Pad and Huevos Rancheros. Press the Piano, Taco the Shot, Sleep the House. Aliens Exist. Into the Deep. Help Mob Inception. New Mexico Reading. Recipe. Gratitude.
Lost in the Dark
My van, Chief Joseph was not happy, we were lost in the dark, and I’d slammed him into several frozen riverbeds. I knew if I kept treating him like this, my trip through America would indeed be very, very long. But after three frustrating hours creeping over the labyrinthine dirt roads outside of Chaco Canyon, and with the help of a solitary car heading deeper into the reservation, my van and I finally made it onto pavement, and eventually to Aztec, New Mexico, a small town near the Colorado border. I’d spent a long day racing from Utah through the Four Corners area, past Shiprock, then down to the ghostly somewhat inaccessible Anasazi ruins at Chaco. I was exhausted.
At Aztec, off a tip, I stopped at a Mustang gas-station hoping to find a safe place to sleep for the night. The attendant, Stoney, smiled and told me it was fine to park my van outside; he’d be on till 5am and would alert the morning shift for me. “Don’t worry brother, you’re safe here,” he said, “I’ve got your back.”
The Anasazi, or Ancient Puebloans, whose ruins I visited earlier were a densely layered civilization. Their intricate culture integrated tightly with astrology for ceremony and agriculture, they maintained organized roads and signaling systems, and enjoyed lucrative trade networks, some stretching deep into Mexico. It was one of the most important early civilizations to exist in North America, a good spiritual point of origin and departure for my journey. This is one reason I chose to begin in New Mexico. The other is that I was born there; it’s an origin for me as well.
Dust in a Drawer
Memories of home are like the dust in an old drawer. You have to open it carefully, the dust is fragile, easily disturbed, if it’s blown away, it may be gone forever. My family owned a cabin north of Durango, and we’d made the journey many times from Albuquerque through Bloomfield and Aztec, passing right by the turn-off to Chaco. The roads around these small oil towns were familiar, opening the drawer to the first dusty memories of my trip. Time blurred as I remembered drowsily peering out the station-wagon window as we pulled in for gas at Bloomfield, as I now pulled into this exact same gas station over 30 years later, but this time there was no 8-track tape playing Pinocchio in the background.
If I sent my mind south, carefully back to Albuquerque, I would arrive in the neighborhood I grew up in, on a street called La Palomita, or “Little Dove” in Spanish. That’s where I fell out of trees, tangled with toys like Stretch Armstrong, LiteBrite, or Shrinky-Dinks. That’s where I learned my first cuss word when I traded my favorite Swamp-Thing comic to an older kid down the street, it was also where I learned about death when my dog named Chaco was put down. I remember the thunderstorms in the summertime that left the skies latticed with clouds and stunning sunsets. I remember the smell of the grass at the park, and the walls I’d run along as shortcuts to the homes of my friends. I remember sitting next to the radio after a big snow storm hoping for the announcement that our school district would close. I remember the colorful hot-air balloons that would land in our playgrounds, and how our teachers would open the doors so we could run out to greet them. This was the dust that comprised my own personal intimate story of life. Pixie dust in my drawer, a magic dust for me, and somehow it all accumulated into a walking talking adult, only very recently an adult in some sense, but now finally an adult nevertheless. I was an adult who drove a van, and slept in it, and planned to plant seeds wandering like Johnny Appleseed for the next year, although for others it was dust is dust is dust. Maybe I’m not so much an adult. We each live our own legend.
There were bigger more important legends in New Mexico than my own to myself. Legends find good root here, stories about clever coyotes and crows, ditch-witches who searched the arroyos for children to steal, hidden cities, lost treasure. Several centuries ago, some of these myths lured the Spanish from the South in search of fabled gold. Some of the legends are real, some are not…but who knows for sure. New Mexico lives up to its name, the Land of Enchantment.
Much of New Mexico’s magic springs from the fertile ground of its mixed cultural identity. Various peoples, Native, Spanish, and Anglo, all mix together with very different characteristics, they simmer like a delicious posole stew, they are part of a whole, chile, hominy, and pork. I thought about this as I turned into the gas-station in Aztec. The thought of stew made me hungry, and I’d eaten very little that day. Even after a Power Bar and some peanuts from the little mart, I dreamt of it in the womb of my van, until Stoney administered my requested wake-up call on my driver’s-side window.
Sheep and Burgers
I drove over the chill winding roads through Northern New Mexico towards Chama, maneuvered a right and headed down to the small village of Los Ojos, the Eyes. There I met Antonio Menzanaras who’d adopted a herd of sheep I’d worked with the year before. The morning was crisp, and the sheep dogs played in the snow while we gave hay to the hungry flocks, aided by one of his shepherds, a man who lived nearby in a small trailer. Antonio is part of Ganados del Valle, a non-profit created several decades ago to maintain the culture and industry centered around sheep. But the churro flock he’d adopted was in bad shape, they’re numbers had been decimated by disease, and they were on half-rations. Antonio hoped he could get them through the winter, although he said they were in healthier now than when he got them. He told me to stop by the co-op in town to see the rugs the community wove from the sheep’s wool. There, a friendly woman showed me the stocks of yarn, and how the traditional looms worked.
My intention that day intention was to make it to Taos then sleep in Santa Fe, with a quick stop by Georgia O’Keefe’s Ghost Ranch and Abique. That second day, driving, filming and editing on my iPhone, taking pictures, making notes, I realized what a marathon this trip would be. It was difficult to get my mind around. But I knew in time I would develop a new normal, I’d learn the balance, I’d relax into the movements of a life-style on the move again. The Chief made it a point to grumpily remind me that we were a partnership, and that his normal would not necessarily coincide mine. Therein lies the necessity to compromise, even if it is with a machine.
As the ribbon of highway slid under us, there were times it felt like the van was standing still, and that the world itself was rolling under his wheels, rolling under at the leisurely rate of 60 mph. Other cars passed us, many with the requisite thumbs-up an old Scooby-do van seems to inspire. A three-dimensional bubble churned outside in a surreal panoply of caramel buttes, powdery snow and frozen lakes. I poked my nose in at Ghost Ranch hoping for a glimpse into the mind of its famous occupant, it turned out she’d lived somewhere else; I knelt by a cross of flowers that marked an accident in Abique, and ate a green-chili cheeseburger at Blake’s Lotaburger in Espanola, the low-rider capital of the world. The burger joint offered a much needed stretch, a meal, and a break, the smells inside were familiar, more Pixie dust. I’d worked there for two weeks as a teen-ager, but quit after several friends teased me over my hair-net, required because of my glorious mullet, but mostly I quit because a big bag of grease exploded on me in the parking lot. It was apparent that minimum wage and discounted shakes were not worth it. But I still like the food, the burger was good and the taste of fries lingered in my mouth as I headed north to Taos and one of the oldest continuously lived in habitations in North America, the Taos Pueblo.
Pueblo Leads to Santa Fe Pad and Huevos Rancheros
The current residents are descendants of the Anasazi, the Ancient Puebloans who’d built Chaco and other famous enclaves at Mesa Verde and Canyon de Chelly. The Taos dwellings were stacked on top of each other, with porches accessed by ladders, the effect was pleasantly reminiscent of a pile of mud-pies or drawings by Dr. Suess. A young woman took time to show me how to make fry bread, and packed it, honey-dripping, into a brown bag to go. It was my snack on the way to the Rio Grande gorge, a great gash through the center of Northern New Mexico that slowly flattened to release the Rio Grande River. The muddy waters meandered down to Albuquerque, further to Las Cruces, until shorn of most of its water, it curved to make the jagged trek between Texas and Mexico to the Gulf. On the way out, I managed to visit the adobe folds of a famously photographed church before witnessing a breathtaking lavender sunset over that very river.
The Chief carried me safely into Santa Fe, where a friend in New York arranged for me to use his house, complete with many shelves of many books and cool art; I felt right at home. It was nice to be in a warm bed instead of on a thin mattress, with fresh mountain air instead of gas fumes. I tried to edit some of the day on my iPhone, but it was slow going, and I was beginning to realize the fundamental realities of the time it would take to upload. I fell asleep with the phone in my hand.
I’d been waking up at 5am for more than a year now, I couldn’t sleep beyond it. I tried, but some force lifted me gently up and up, like a feather on a thermal, until I broke the cloudy veneer of consciousness. I realized there’s no turning back, and with only one option I learned to enjoy the float. This time I rode the float into the warm shower, and into my clothes and car, I landed not too far away at Pasqual’s by the old Plaza for huevos rancheros, then strolled the streets. Santa Fe was just waking up; the stores were flipping their signs and arranging their goods: painted pottery, shiny silver and turquoise, kachina dolls, blankets, chocolate, sheep-skin jackets, sculptures and paintings. This was my kinda place, tacos, and art and margaritas. Santa Fe had always held a special allure for me, I was still intrigued by it. I decided I may have to live here one day and paint, write some poetry, have a couple of kids to dress up in funny outfits and teach how to ski.
Press the Piano, Taco the Shot, Sleep the House
From there it was straight shot to Albuquerque, I could see the Sandia Mountains in the distance and I was almost late meeting with Amber Hendren, an old friend and a talented piano teacher who’d arranged for one of her students to play for me. She’d also arranged for a television interview with one of New Mexico’s largest stations. You better know what you’re saying when you stand in front of a camera, this was the big leagues, I was used to the iPhone and the friendliness of my hand attached to my arm attached to my body, holding it. They shot the piece in the parking lot with the Chief preening behind me.
The young pianist was very eager, and full of hope. She planned on starting a piano club at her school and had submitted a request to the principal; she wore sequins on her shoes. Her father sat next to me on the couch, I practiced my Spanish. Afterwards, Amber treated me to lunch and what the waitress proclaimed were the best tacos in the country, a tall order considering the restaurant doubled as a drug-store, but they were delicious even though they came with a flu shot as well.
That night I saw my dad, my mom was asleep upstairs. We talked for a bit, I went down and looked at my old room, now piled with my mother’s stuff. My cassettes were still in one of the cabinets, my binders of notes from college still piled in my closet, my treasured collection of role-playing games and comic books still on the shelves. I was a nerd. This room was full of dusty memories, some not so Pixie. This room was haunted. I spent many nights as a teen-ager, lying on my back, eyes open while a knot of pale specters crowded around my bed, staring down at me with empty eyes. A concerned friend told me they were there to protect me, if they’d meant me harm they would have covered their faces so I wouldn’t be able to recognize them when I crossed into their world. But I knew then that they were just dreams, and now that I’m older and know more of the world, I still know they were dreams, but not just. I slept up in my sister’s room.
My parents made me breakfast and I got on the road again, enduring the drive through the nearly featureless terrain to Roswell, but if you tilted your head, and squinted your eyes, the sun blended the sad browns of this wasteland into a gold that actually quite beautiful. There was no phone signal out here. No radio. No FM1, no FM2, no AM. My van was like a wind-tunnel, so jammed the tunes on my iPod. My vision of cruising through the country with audio books, devouring some of America’s great literature, was not coming to fruition. The low tones of a thoughtful well-read narrative were no match for the rumbling air.
Aliens greet you when you enter Roswell. They’re all the same species, green with big heads, and big black eyes. They adorn chain-link fences, wave you into hotels, and grin from coffee-mugs, shot glasses, t-shirts, and key-chains. The Visitor’s Center said with my limited time, my only real option was to visit the UFO Museum down the road, closing in 20 minutes. In turn, the museum kindly offered an interview with the curator, who sat beneath a giant mural of a ship-wrecked flying saucer in the library. He gave me the run-down and led me into the Museum for free. At a gas-station I purchased an Alien Route 66 (nowhere near Roswell) driver’s license, and a friendly alien in sunglasses helped at the pump, pointing the way towards Carlsbad. It was getting dark.
McDonalds had become my Go To place for Wifi, and although I was thankful the service was free, it was very slow. This slowness became woeful when I tried to upload videos and images. While waiting, I ate several cheese-burgers, and then went to the Walmart on a tip. It turns out that Walmart has a national policy to allow overnight parking for travelers. I double-checked with the manager and it was true. Walmarts are everywhere, and the parking lots have security, I no longer had to worry about finding safe zones to sleep. I was very happy about this, so I bought a dop-kit, and smiled at the guys in the bathroom as i brushed my teeth. I smiled at some more in the morning; maybe I’ll stroll around in slippers and a bathrobe for affect.
Into the Deep
Carlsbad Caverns is amazing, go there, and don’t use the elevator, hike down. Nearly 800 feet below the desert surface is an unbelievable wonderland of dripping stalactites and stalagmites, connecting into towering columns, filling the giant Cathedrals with slender waterfalls of stone. I wished I could’ve stayed longer, but barely made it over the mountains to White Sands in time for the moonrise. I kicked off my shoes and spent some time padding around barefoot in the coolness of the park’s shimmering hills bridged to night by a Neapolitan sky. As darkness descended, I could see the glow Las Cruces, my last stop, where I would spend a few days and try to give back a bit.
Help Mob Inception
Part of my idea for the trip was not only to see the Good in America, its beauty, its people, but also to do some Good in America. So I figured I’d try to help out in some way at the end of each week by humbly giving back to the State I’d just traveled. Through conversations with friends, the idea blossomed into the concept of a Help Mob, based on a flash mob, a spontaneously created group that joins together for fun usually through on social media networks. The Help Mob is a flash mob gathered together to do Good. The idea also had some origins in the Occupy movement, which gained worldwide attention while I sojourned unaware and alone in the desert last year. The Occupy movement created media attention around an issue by taking over relevant locations and then staying there. But it seemed like there should be another step, Occupy…and then what? Part of the Help Mob concept came from this question. Maybe the next step should be Occupy and Action, or Occupy and Do. Why not use the power of social networks to bring people together into communities for positive action as well as fun? Why not form a structure containing elements that would lead to public good? They don’t need to be big or complicated, although they could be, they could also simply be a reason to get a small group of family and friends together for a few hours to unite around a beneficial cause, to do some good, to give back.
Thus, over the course of the week in New Mexico, and with the help of friends, Help Mobs organized in Albuquerque by Melissa Mick and Sara Macauley Limon, and in Santa Fe by Frank X. Cordero, while I tried to pull one together in Las Cruces. In Albuquerque they collected various donations for a charity supporting victims with cancer; in Santa Fe, as I understood it, they cleaned up by the river and collected books for a local library; in Las Cruces my Help Mob (of one) spent much of Saturday picking up trash around a local park. It felt good to be doing something, and I was happy to be doing some good. That night, after I posted a video, a friend I hadn’t spoken to in over 20 years saw it and called me from Virginia; he connected me with his sister who offered me her house in Mesilla, a nice neighborhood nearby. Their aunt and uncle were house-sitting and told me to come on over. They made me tacos and washed my clothes. This was the end of a very Good Week.
Tomorrow, I get up early, and with the Chief’s cooperation try to make from El Paso to San Antonio. Through various fortunate connections, word-of-mouth, and messaging, there may be a few Help Mobs organizing in Texas next week. My hope is to see the great big state, my hope is to remind people that a little bit of effort can be fun when shared with big group, or a few friends, or even alone if you want some quiet time to combine with a beneficial purpose. I also hope is that the Chief gets me to where I need to be. I thank New Mexico for an incredible week, and the Pixie dust, and every moment of an expectant life is full of surpises that will settle into the drawer. At dawn I will leave the Land of Enchantment, dance by a state sign, and enter the Lone Star. 49 states to go.
New Mexico Reading
Red Sky at Morning by Richard Bradford; When Legends the Die by Hal Borland; Wild Wooly and Wonderful by Jim and Ann Counselor; The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols and Rini Templeton, The Santa Fe Trail by R. L. Duffus; Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo A. Anaya; Black Mesa Poems by Jimmy Santiago Baca; Bluefeather Fellini by Max Evans
Pasqual’s Huevos Rancheros: 4 cups Black Beans. 4 cups Red Chile Sauce or Green Chile Sauce. 4 blue corn tortillas, plus 4 whole-wheat tortillas for serving. 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, if using corn tortillas.2 tablespoons clarified butter. 8 eggs. 3 cups grated Monterey Jack cheese. 1/2 cup finely sliced scallions for garnish.
Preheat a broiler. Place the beans and chile sauce in a separate saucepan over medium-low heat and heat to serving temperature, stirring frequently to prevent scorching. When using blue corn tortillas, brush each tortilla on both sides with vegetable oil. Place a dry skillet over high heat. When the pan is hot, add tortillas, one at a time, and heat, turning once, until soft, about 5 seconds on each side. If using flour tortillas, this step is unnecessary. In a small pan melt the butter and cook the eggs as desired: fried, over easy, sunny side up, or scrambled. Place a corn or wheat tortilla on each of the 4 flame-proof serving plates. Spoon 1 cup of the beans over each tortilla and top with the eggs, placed in the center. Ladle 1 cup of the chile sauce over each serving. Sprinkle the cheese over all. Slip under the broiler until the cheese melts and bubbles, just a few minutes. Garnish with the scallions and serve piping hot. Accompany with a warmed whole-wheat tortilla for each person.
Special Thanks to: The staff at Aztec McDonald’s, Stoney at Mustang Gas-Station Aztec, Antonio Menzanaras, Joshua Ramo, Amber Hendren, Melissa Mick, Sara Macaulay Limon, Jake and Sissy Kelly, Angelo at Walmart Carlsbad, Pasqual’s Restaurant Santa Fe, Kenneth Medley, The Downey Family, Glenna and Russ Radcliffe