The next morning I stopped at a Mexican restaurant (notice a pattern here?) for breakfast. And hit the road toward Colorado. My sister Lou Ann and her husband live in Loveland, a foothill community just north of Denver. I hadn't seen them for awhile.
The sky was clear, but it was windy as I headed west on Interstate 80.
Having grown up in the Far West, I forget that the Midwest is the West too. When you're there, you can feel it in the history, and the people, and the lay of the land. Instead of broken down covered wagons, you now see the occasional overturned semi truck. It has the same effect. It gives the sense of mortality, and respect for the sheer size of the land to be crossed. I kept expecting to see bison herds. But, alas, there was nary a buffalo in sight.
When you think about it, almost every iconic American image is Midwestern in origin. The buffalo. Buffalo Bill. The covered wagons. The Plains Indians, with their ponies and headdresses of plumage, and teepees. Cattle drives. And so on. If you silence your mind, and center yourself as you drive across Nebraska, you feel those ghosts.
The van, however, is just not a big fan of interstate highways. It's more of a two lane black top kinda cruiser. Much like me. But we do the best we can. At a point, as we're buffeted by the wind and passed by giant trucks, I wonder if we're going to make it. I determine to at least get within a hundred miles of Denver. She just doesn't seem to have much power. I suspect it's because of the headwinds. We valiantly push on, wind be damned. And hope that's the problem.
Almost no day on a highway is a bad day per se. Stubbornness can be a virtue. I bypass the megalopolis of Denver, and head into Loveland.
As soon as we reach the mountains, the van perks up. Maybe I just don't have the gear ratios right on the flat land... I don't know. Maybe it's the big prairie winds. But when we reach the mountains, on the kind of roads I learned to drive on, the van is perky and even quick. We go blowing by the trucks, instead of vice versa, as we climb into the foothills.
I arrive at my sister's house. Spend several days unwinding, visiting, and taking the occasional hike. In that part of the country, people wave as they pass by. It's a mountain tradition. I've noticed in the Ozarks they do the same thing. Somehow, you're just happy to see somebody coming over the hill or around the bend.
After a few days, I head south to Albuquerque.
I get an early start. It's snowed a few inches in the night. When I get to the city, the freeway is a slippery mess. The trucks going by are now throwing up big sheets of slush. I almost get cut off by a phalanx of snow plows entering from the right, forcing me into the path of a semi lumbering through on the left.
I remember going to high school in Denver, and how I couldn't wait to get out of town. Even though I had many a life transforming experience there, I always felt the city was a magnet, holding me. And I wasn't comfortable with that.
I was painfully shy in high school. I could go for weeks without engaging in a conversation. My sister Nancy, who has lived in Alaska for decades, studied the effects constant moving has on children. She once said that all the moves we made came at precisely the wrong time for me.
So I turned to music for companionship. I began to play guitar and write songs. Music became my alternative world. It became my solace, and my friend. Writing became the conduit through which dark thoughts came to the surface, as though through fissures in a volcano, whereupon they reached the light of day.
I left Denver after high school. And I never went back. Because there was nothing to go back to, really. My family kept moving. And I did too. All the memories there, even the good ones, are basically rooted in isolation and loneliness.
Eventually, I had to get to California to re-invent myself. I had to morph into a writer, a musician of some repute. I had to conquer my shyness, and stand in front of people, baring my soul. And I had to learn that some people aren't comfortable with your naked soul, or just plain don't like it. Or don't care. I had to learn to say fuck 'em. I had to meet my wife, and have children of my own. I had to become whole... not just pieces of fragmented soul matter scattered hither and yon. I had to eventually reclaim each piece, and stitch the fabric back together.That's a long process that leaves a lot of scar tissue. But it's worthwhile.
Anyway, my take on Denver that snowy morning is this. Everything's different. Nothing has changed.
The road conditions are a little better south of town, but this is still by far the worst weather I've encountered on the trip. It clears up around Colorado Springs, but then in Walsenburg it starts snowing hard again. The windshield has been icing up a bit, and I have to stop and clear it periodically. The wheel wells are full of frozen slush, which I knock off with a stick. The van looks like she's been through an endurance race, splattered with frozen muddy road residue. I'm not making very good time, because I have to keep stopping. Sometimes the windshield gets so bad I can barely see. The squirter/washer thingie stopped working in Lincoln. A victim of the cold, I suppose. After awhile, the windshield wipers are just spreading the glop around. So I pull over, get out, wipe off the streaks of freezing mud with a towel, and then drive on. Until I can't see again. Repeat process.
My short term goal is to make it over Raton Pass.
Raton is pretty gentle for a Rocky Mountain pass. No brutally steep grades or hairpin curves. As I come into New Mexico, the skies open up. It's a stunningly bright and beautiful day, the landscape covered in a thick layer of sparkling, reflective snow. I sail over the pass. No problem. I pull over at a rest stop. There are giant icicles hanging from the beams of the shelter there. The vista goes on for what must be fifty miles , with snow covered peaks gleaming in the distance.
I refuel in the town of Las Vegas. The people in the station are speaking Spanglish, that uniquely Southwestern dialog that bounces back and forth between Spanish and English.
I remember the old Navajo ice fisherman on Bluewater Lake. Indeed, there is a good deal of importance attached to where you were born. Sometimes I imagine my soul floating around that high desert, looking for a body to inhabit. And I'm grateful I found one.
I roll on into Albuquerque, where I stay with my niece Cheri, and her two little daughters, Jayke and Marley. My oldest sister lives there now too, and my niece Becka, named after my grandmother, whose house near the university was sold after she died. My nephew Jeremy lives in Albuquerque as well, but he's in Iraq, on his second tour of duty. I knew his dad, who died young. His ashes are scattered in the Gila National Forest, in southern New Mexico. Cheri's dad has recently passed away as well. He died in Lubbock, Texas. His estate consisted of a pickup truck, a pair of Tony Llama boots and a few other small items. Cheri has his ashes in an urn on a shelf, next to the boots, and the greasy cap he wore when he welded. Later, they'll drive back to Texas to bury him.
I meet Jeremy's girlfriend... a sweet Hispanic girl who manages a real estate office. She comes over with Becka and her boyfriend for dinner, along with my sister Jan, who has recently been living in Asheville, North Carolina and is now thinking of moving to Silver City. It's a nice little family gathering. We eat homemade chili rellenos and chicken enchiladas, and drink beer. The green chilis in New Mexico are the best in the world. When two people from New Mexico meet outside of the state, they usually reminisce about chili.
Cheri has two dogs. One a Boston terrier she found running around in a confused state at an intersection. She tried to locate the owner, but to no avail. So she kept it. The other is a little off-white mop dog, a cockapoo or something, which has no eyes. Apparently the eyes just popped out at some point, as they are prone to do with that kind of dog.
The blind dog's name is Grace. You can't really tell she's blind. Her hair hangs over where her eyes would be. She gets around perfectly well. Up and down stairs, leaping onto the sofa, going outside in the back yard, etc. I mean, once in awhile she runs into something. But you pretty much have to be told she's blind, or you wouldn't notice. She runs over to greet you when you walk in the door. Obviously she's compensated for her blindness with hearing and smell and tactile sensation. But there must be another sense at play as well.
Dog owners all know dogs are psychic. I'm pretty sure all critters are. Including us. Plants too, for that matter. And I suppose rocks and minerals in their own way.
I suspect most of what we do in this world is based on instinct. And our rational minds come up with reasons why we're doing it. Psychic is the norm, not the exception. We know so much more than we care to admit. We're scared of our own power. We are individual universes, all interconnected.
Grace is a very aptly named dog.
One afternoon I went hiking on the volcanoes west of Albuquerque. It's a great lookout area. There are petroglyphs left by people ages ago, who certainly must have gone there to see what was coming. You can see the Rio Grande valley below, and the Sandia mountains towering above the city of Albuquerque. To the north you can see the Sangre de Cristo mountains outside of Santa Fe, to the south the mountains near Socorro. To the west, the volcanic Mount Taylor towers in the distance.
You can hear the wind blowing and an occasional raven flapping its wings.
I remember before we moved to the ranch my dad took us out there. In those days Albuquerque was all east of the Rio Grande. Now there is lots of development on the west side of the river. Pseudo adobe houses, all mushed together in giant swaths that look like they were poured out of a huge bucket onto the unsuspecting desert below.
Anyway, we were walking around the volcanoes, when I was four or five. We found a weather balloon that had come down from the sky. They had no satellites in those days, and the use of weather balloons was how they gathered information from the upper atmosphere. We picked it up, and took it to the proper place, as per the instructions on the balloon.
My dad would always take us out on adventures like that. He was always curious, and instilled curiosity in us as well. He always tried, as most of us do, to follow his instincts and do what was right. He always loved his family, in the only way he knew how. It wasn't his fault his intuitive brain and his rational brain couldn't communicate clearly. Hell, no one wants to get thrown off a horse and have their head smashed on a rock. I know I don't. My parents were always decent people, who did the best they could. What else you could rightfully expect from anybody?
That flashes through my mind as I'm hiking to the top of one of the volcanoes. They're just nubby little things when you approach them from the west. They look much bigger from the valley to the east. I hike to the top of the second one as well. But I save the third one for later. Even though there may well never be a later. Sometimes you never return.
I think it's good to have volcanoes you haven't climbed, and maybe never will. It keeps things in their proper perspective.
After absorbing the silence, or it absorbing me, I head back to my niece's house.