In his novel American Gods, Neil Gaiman’s character Mr. Wednesday talks of America as a series of countries, unique and disparate in their taste, culture, the deities they worship and the ways in which they worship them. I see now this revelation, as we cross the dry nothing of West Texas into the mirage that is New Mexico.
New Mexico! Prehistory permeates your bones. Older that America, older than your namesake and New Spain, older even than the native cultures that stack upon one another like layers of limestone on the cliffs of humpback mountains. Land of desperados, beyond mortal laws — interminable stretches of earth, scrawling pictographs of histories long forgotten. Lonely voices, legends and ghosts carried on the breath of stinging winds and dry skin.
A dead steer leers at us from the side of the road like a tintype photo of a bandit, shot and staged for the newspapers back east. A metropolis of flies in this kingdom of yucca and scavengers. Are you a victim of dry atmosphere and fierce sun, dearly departed bovine? A casualty of a driver reaching for the next Coors Light, or something as simple as a false misstep?
The light here is touching everything like a curious child; the shadows spell out rattlesnake, pronghorn, coyote and cougar, scorpions in the sand. The car frame rattles against cattle guards and graded dirt roads. Queen, N.M., with its fire station and country store, open Friday through Sunday. Today is Thursday — nothing to see here.
The odometer ticks off numbers but tells nothing of distances. The gas gauge blinks but can’t speak a word for the squirming black asphalt that bares its serpentine belly as far off as the eye imagines it sees.
We arrive at Dog Canyon around dusk, the day winking out between the few trees brave or unfortunate enough to make a stand on top of the ridge. Civilizations rose and fell here 10,000 years before Jesus Christo was schlepped to these remote cliffs. Man and beast found succor and offered wordless prayers to their wordless gods along the dry creek bed, in a time before syllables sought to break everything down into interpretative panels and tourist guides.
In Dog Canyon, the wind holds dominion. It leaves nothing untouched, nothing unviolated, whimpering and howling in hungry rancor, marking its territory with dust down your pant leg. There is a frenzy in the air that drives the human spirit to hunker beneath any breaker it can find.
A dinner of half-cooked rice and beans, struggling to keep the stove lit as the wind snuffs our flame. No fires allowed — too dangerous — and a gust that nearly rips the tailgate off the car signal an early bedtime.
The night is spent in uneasy terror of these raw beasts. “Windswept” cannot begin to define the gusts that burst spontaneously onto our hapless, brave little tent, bending it into contortions around our arms, legs, torsos, prostrate on the ground. What are we doing out here, soft-bellied east coast brats, spoiled by regular rains and deciduous trees? We spend the night clinging to each other for warmth, as the cruel waves of the western desert crash upon our spirits.
Sleep comes fitfully. Dreams are disturbed by this damnable hound-dog wind, sniffing at the exposed corners of our rain flap, nipping our toes and rattling ear drums, sowing a layer of white bone-dust into every exposed cavity.
Animal experts tell you not to be afraid; that dogs sense fear. They tell you to exert your dominance. The experts have never spent a night with the hounds who chase the winds of Dog Canyon.
Charise and I emerge from our borrow of blankets to a calmer sunrise. The dogs, having spent the night howling and pawing at our heels, are tired. We stretch and sulk over coffee. Breakfast is unappetizing. We pack our things and bid farewell to the ravenous canine valley.
Retracing our steps through Queen (the store is open now, but we don’t stop), back down the faded blacktop (the dead cow is gone), turning off a sideroad towards a sign: Sitting Bull Falls 12 miles.
Descending into new landscapes — the mountains starker and steeper, green shrubs and grasses begin to flesh out the barren cliffs above. The parking lot is deserted, except for a Subaru full of high school girls from Hobbs. They say it’s their senior skip day. They giggle and laugh and are beautiful in the way children in their last acts of innocence and wonder are beautiful.
Up past picnic tables and down an elevated boardwalk, we see New Mexico in bloom below us: reeds and moss-dappled boulders, fresh grasses waving in the wind and flowering plants I do not know the names of, or how even to describe.
Stepping from the wooden platform to the smooth limestone below, we stare in speechless awe as water falls from 20, 30 feet above us (maybe from heaven) casting a fine mist in its wake, while all manner of vegetation drinks greedily at its edges. Sitting Bull Falls: no one knows quite where your name comes from — the legend or the myth? Spouting life in the midst of history, creating anachronisms and contrasts — surely something holy is at work here. Surely all manner of creatures have come to drink at your cerulean pools and wept in gratitude, adding their waters to yours.
I cannot resist the urge — I strip down to my skivvies and ease myself into the frigid pool, slowly at first, then plunging waist, chest, shoulders beneath the surface, finally submerged completely and spit back out into the late morning airs newborn and gasping for breath.
I can’t help but shout my barbaric yawp — I want to add my off-key voice to your eternal choir, to sing your songs in my northeast accents, tinged with a put-on Southern drawl, and give thanks for receiving me this day.
“I am Max of New Jersey!” I cry out into your cascading wildness. “I am here to touch your face and sing your songs! I hope you will accept them as a poor boy’s tribute, and allow my transgression into your sacred arms!”
Sitting Bull Falls responds with a slight breeze that cast mist into my eyes, now crying in the conventional way, pure joy in my gut beyond any pale description I could afford it.
Stepping out to dry like a lizard on the surrounding rocks, I stretch and smile, I laugh and I loaf, I grin my jack-o-lantern grin at the visage of old men and eagles crafted by centuries of liquid movement, unceasing in its efforts to carve out a new world in green crayon on a parchment of burnt sienna.
Overhead, the vultures are turning, turning, playing in the headwinds over the falls, searching, searching….look around, you silent buzzards. Look long and hard. You will find no refuse here.