New year in the Southwest
My cheeks are chapped from days on high lands where the sidewinder sun and whipsaw wind conspire to beat the earth into ochre dust. My in-laws just moved to Southwestern Colorado, to a small farming town full of cows and horses and bare trees and gigantic white pickup trucks. There are consignment shops and a museum and art galleries and a hospital with a free clinic on Saturdays for poor people. There's a library and an art guild and everything's closed on Sunday except the gigastrous Mal-Wart. Mostly there's elbow-room. It's a decent honest place. It has to be, bare-ass out there. People look wiry and weathered and happy in solitude, they know how to live on the moon. I cannot fathom so many days of wind so close to the sun.
The sloping land stumbles in bare scrubby hillsides covered with cottonwoods down out of the steep raw backbone of mountians where the earth's skin is thin and flayed, frozen beyond feeling. Light on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains changes by the minute. From the window I watched highlights and glistening sunlight reflections on the face of the white mountains, the sky black towering behind them. In ten minutes the rough rock shapes loomed dark and craggy, with the sky above them bright and clear. I watched the whole body of a storm roll over the big mesa a hundred miles away, the blunted head of the black stormcloud thrusting up proud and spilling its dark belly in precipitation that evaporated before it fell on the ground. I saw the mountains shining white, slick with iced snow, the contours sculpted and polished by the weather.
We travelled up and over the near mountain, down onto a plateau and there the Black Canyon mawed before us, a terrible narrow guage and impossile depth. Snow clumped in stark contrast to the black steep crags and canyon walls carved by the serpentine streak of green water far down below in the ravine. We hiked through snow along the precipitous rim and listened to the hushed rush and the rocks grinding in the entrenched Gunnison's surge. Pines and stunted oaks, sage and other plants I didn't recognize anchored along the canyon walls. We examined tracks from deer and elk, and saw tracks from jackrabbits impressed in the soft white snow, evidence of life.
We later explored a little town called Ouray, named after the Ute cheif, nestled in the crook of two big mountain spurs. Steep streets, old brick buildings, friendly people accustomed to travellers and to the cold frozen air rolling down the dark mountain's flanks. Ouray is quaint, with hot springs and art galleries, and it is gritty, with old ramshackle barns and hand-painted signs, and road-grimed pickups with snowplows permanently attached to the front end. The road from Ouray to Durango is treacherous and perilous, and the source of horror stories and missing snowplows. We didn't travel that high way.
One thing we did, in amazing quantity and quality, was consume food. Meals made by Mom were delicious. We also napped, daily. Their old house in California was the best place to sleep, and when they sold it and bought a new home in Colorado I was afraid it wouldn't provide the same level of comfort and relaxation. But I was pleasantly surprised, and I think it is them, and not the house, that makes it so comfortable.
Wine is sold in liqour stores not grocery stores, and in the interest of imbibing we purchased numerous bottles of inebriants, including some port my love bought me, sweet as his smile. We also found some whiskey which should be pronounced whooshky because that's what these particular peatmoss-filtered acetone-butterscotch blended spirits did to the nosehairs. The store was huge, and had the largest selection of wines I'd ever encountered, from all kinds of places I've never even imagined produced wine. Places like, oh, Colorado.
The second to last day of our trip we started early for a long drive to Mesa Verde, traversed the snowy mountains at 10,000 feet, saw the road to Telluride and joked about To-Hell-U-Ride and outrageous real estate. Coming down the south side of the pass, headed for New Mexico, the road trundles in a sloping descent. The basin stretches wide to the four corners of the earth, and ridges of mountians jut from the lower slopes of dramatic sagebrush vistas. Above it all curves that magnificent domed sky, and I saw three bald eagles wheeling in the updrafts above a lake. We could see for miles and miles, until we dropped down into the river valley, where the glens and arroyos harbor vegetation and population. We could see the slouching mesa towered above the rangeland, pinon and juniper on its wind-carved banks.
The cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, remnant architecture of the lost ancient native civilization, spur the imagination and stir the heart. I could look all day into the dark windows, aligned with the sun and moon and stars, built into the face of the cliff with mortared adobe stones. I could dream about looking out, instead of looking in, and I could imagine the daily life of those who slept there thousands of years ago. Inside behind the brick walls and reaching up the sloping interior cliff, the ceiling is black with the soot from fires. Ladders of pine descend into kivas, and footsteps have worn the stone steps smooth and concave. Hundreds of cliff dwellings, abandoned hundreds of years ago when tree rings show terrible drought, remain from a people scattered like birds. It is an ancient place, and a thousand years ago there were thick forests and big rivers in this parched land. And ten thousand years ago it was beneath an inland sea. The world is not the same. The smoke-charred walls are testament to the breath and life in a changing world. I wonder what legacy will we leave to set dreams into motion?
S & I returned to the shadowlands, to the rain and the saturated air. Flying into the Willamette Valley we could see the farmlands flooded in the ancient river and creek channels, oxbows cut from the current by sediment, as the water drained and meandered across the face of the bottomlands. We lamented the thick dark sky, filled with clouds scraping their bellies on the earth, and have unfinished thoughts of the vast horizons and arid southern lands. It is good to be home, but only because it is the place where we have made a place for ourselves.
A most special thanks to JJ for taking care of the dogs and cats and fish during our absence, and thanks for not burning down the house!