Malpaís. The McCartys flow rivals anything in Hawaii. Underfoot the clink and chink, the almost metallic scraping ring of scoria where flat sheets of it have popped off the still-hot surface.
Black, black. Splits and fissures with grasses, mountain mahogany, and a few cacti clinging to their walls. As we scrambled west—wearing leather-palmed gloves, too aware of our bare legs—we climbed a pressure ridge in the lava, a standing black crest so steep we clambered up it on all fours . In its glassy crevices claret cup cacti were just beginning to bloom, the most beautiful red I’ve ever seen.
May is mockingbird month, when they return from their winter grounds. We listened to their changing carols all day.
The badlands escarpment west of the city is grotty and bitter, covered in crap: old refrigerators, truck cabs riddled with bullet holes, abandoned hardware—we saw a double sink complete with faucet—blowing trash, mashed beer cans. As we hiked down into the breaks, dirt bikes droned and snarled along the skyline. Light planes buzzed overhead.
Everywhere the gun people were out. Shots echoed from every side. A party of gunmen stood on a distant parapet, shooting out into space. The ground at the escarpment rim was littered with every conceivable style of bullet casing: slim, fat, stubby, long. Here and there was a spent slug, mashed on impact with a sandbank, and the occasional unspent bullet.
Explosions all around us. I was afraid to walk along the skyline, for fear some gun-happy soul might go temporarily insane.
As we hiked out of the red-rock canyon on a well-worn trail, we came upon mountain lion scat. A lion will make regular rounds through its established territory; evidently this path belonged to a particular cat. There were three enormous dumps. Lots of elk fur.
I’m careful around snakes, but mountain lions are the only animal I actively fear. The size of this scat made me feel too edible.
In the sand near the ruin of a Hispanic homestead, a chicken house woven of barbed wire. Lacking rabbit fence or hardware cloth, the settler had laboriously knitted his own: the enclosure’s six sides were crocheted like an afghan, crossed and criss-crossed, basted and pleated and pleached.
The wire itself was old, corroded by the patinating desert sun. Someone desperately wanted to keep coyotes out of the poultry—yet even the bristling homemade mesh wouldn’t have kept out weasels. The patient work of dead hands had been abandoned with the house.
Tumbling chant of a canyon wren.
On the San Luis road, a family of bald eagles on the plains west of the road, eating something: two adults, three juveniles. They rose lazily, the sun flashing on the adults’ white heads, and settled again farther away. They looked as big as sheep.
Hours later we left on the same road. A little marsh hawk came skimming along above the fences. Then a big, moth-eaten redtail sat on a telephone wire, sick or in molt. I stopped the truck right underneath it. It looked at me over its shoulder, lifted its tail to show its fluffy vent, and shat. Missed me.
On the Dinetah. A long, bright canyon ruined with pump stations and the smell of gas. A four-point buck bounded away with noiseless leaps; it stopped on the far side of the wash and looked at me.
Doug said the spacing of hogans in a historic Navajo dwelling cluster is “shouting distance”: a son-in-law may not see his mother-in-law, yet family groups must communicate. He demonstrated this by shrieking, mother-in-lawishly, “Dor-eeeen!”
We parked not far from an old rancho, and spent the day trudging up and down gravel hills. The bigger chert cobbles had been “mined” for the knapping of projectile points: busted cores, anvils, and hammer stones.
And rum bottles. Some cowboy was a rum drinker. We found bottles of every brand, broadcast as if by a man on horseback. And one lonely shot glass.
I discovered my poncho wasn’t waterproof any more.
It shed most of the water mechanically, so I wore it tied at my neck like a Superman cape. The rain pissed down. We were soaked to the thighs, but the wind was at our backs. When we’d slogged back to the truck—it took a couple of hours—we were so wet that when I lifted my feet to the pedals, water rushed to the backs of my boots.
Under the overhang of a rock shelter was a pictograph that reminded me of a marrano, the pudgy gingerbread pig you can buy in every good Mexican bakery. For the (pigless and gingerless) pre-Columbian artist this may have represented a mountain sheep. It had been drawn in white, presumably gypsum, and outlined in red ochre. Each “slash” at the head was framed with yellow ochre.
I roamed off to snoop around a promontory over the creek, a flat expanse of red sandstone. Though there was a fallen, turn-of-the-century Hispanic ruin just west of it, the place felt untouched since earth’s morning. So quiet, so scoured by water and time—only flowers and the bending grass.
In the sandpits of a big Archaic site we came upon a golden bull snake, thick-bodied, almost six feet long. We approached it cautiously. It did not move except to flick its black tongue, smelling us.
When we had looked at it long enough, we spoke and moved more normally. It wove toward us, aggressing; then gracefully, unhurriedly, it turned along its body and slipped back into the brush. For all its length and girth it left scarcely any mark in the sand.