A Native New Yorker
I am a Native New Yorker, though this isn’t exactly true. For one the moniker is incorrect as it stands for someone born and raised in New York City. I am from Suffern, New York which is thirty miles north of the city, ‘upstate’, so in reality I am simply from New York. There is a big difference for those of us who have lived here.
In reality I am actually more ‘Native’ than I am a New Yorker, even though I was born and raised there. I basically live and work amongst the Native American tribe of the Mescalero Apache in New Mexico. When they tease me unmercifully, as they so often do, and I ask them if they are harassing me because I am an Anglo they tell me, “You are a Native, you have been here too long.” I consider that as a compliment.
In all truthfulness I am not any sort of Native. My father is a son of Jewish immigrants and although I was born here in the United States my mother still retains her Canadian citizenship. In essence I am still first generation American and my roots are spread across the globe. I cannot lay claim to any specific heritage and it is no wonder I chose to be a gypsy.
My family members all stayed in New York while I fled to the west in my late teenage years. My return visit is one of few over the course of thirty five years. It has driven home the reasons I left here all those years ago and leaves me with no regrets. It also brings to my attention the reality that I, the proverbial Black Sheep, am the only one who has achieved the perceived stability nobody ever thought I would have. Hah! I live in a remodeled school bus parked along a narrow road which leads to the Reservation line up Nogal Canyon in Bent, New Mexico. If you didn’t know where that was you would never find it. Hell, the bus even runs and drives if I need to relocate it, though for the present I am happy with where I am.
My family. As this is all about contrast I must offer my opinion even as I beg for forgiveness if any of them should ever read this, it is the one article I will not ask my sister or my father to edit. My perspective comes from a jaundiced eye which is clouded by the golden splendor of the New Mexico fall colors. The chamisa, sunflowers and the leaves of the cottonwood and the aspen are in full majesty at this moment. The orange, red and magenta leaves of the eastern woods are lovely also but cannot turn my heart, things are different here.
My father, in spite of his eighty four years of life seems to live in a world all of his own. His sense of reality differs as greatly from mine as do our opinions, as they always have. I am my father’s daughter by all rights but we have chosen different paths. Ironically the man who was so critical of my choices has reached the late prime of his life without any of the stability he insisted I procure. Instead he can reflect on the pleasures of his life and hopes to remain in his home for the remainder of his time here on the good graces of a neighbor he is lucky to have. Sadly, there is none of his immediate family, myself included, who has offered to do the same and the details need not be explained. My Native friends are far less selfish than that and cringe at the fact I refuse to step forward, it is a reality I cannot even explain to them.
My mother lives in a nursing home and she is happy to be there, the place insulates her from any and all surprises. She refused to embrace the reality of her life from the very start it seems. She became a victim of her own device as nothing went as she had expected it to and she did little to change that. She was and is a most lovely woman and I imagine if she had lived among the people I have chosen as my own her life might have been far different. If she had been able to escape the judging eyes of the society she felt she had to be a part of she may have found the freedom to embrace the warmth and affection she denied herself of and she would have been well cared for. She took a more roundabout path instead as such alternatives never availed themselves to her, nor she to them.
My sister seems to have made some progress in this last year but she too wavers on the precipice of failure in spite of her many creative talents. She has tried and failed to achieve the success which defines the society I escaped from so many years ago. Just a few months ago she was living in a homeless shelter with her thirteen year old son though she has since found herself a home. She seems to have some sense of entitlement which to me is an unreality as nobody has ever given me anything I haven’t somehow earned or paid for, anything. The end result for her, as with my father and mother as well, is that they are still living in anticipation of some saving grace which will never materialize as it simply does not exist.
The irony is this. An Anglo friend of mine offered me a wonderful insight into the culture and the thinking of the Native American people which put much of what I was trying to understand and adjust to into perspective. He told me this, “The culture which he and I had been born into has a tendency to make things happen while in the Native culture they so often wait for things to happen.” When I consider the root of this philosophy it makes perfect sense to me though it also contrasts with the approach my family has taken to their lives in spite of the environment we were all geared to live in. The goal here in New York was always to live up to the expectations of our society, to prosper and excel, to work to the fullest of our ability to attain the comfort and security of a stable modern life. Everyone in my family seems to have somehow failed to achieve this goal, while I, who set such a low standard in comparison, have managed to do just that at a very basic level. In a way my bus is much like a teepee, it is warm and dry and yet mobile as well. I can relocate it at will to a better location and maintain all of my basic needs with a minimal effort. I have made things happen in my life; my family is still waiting for things to happen. Who then, I might ask, is the real Native?
The last time I was here I was certain that I had seen the driest this place could be, but I had not. My arrival this time was accompanied by the wind, steady and even fierce at times and swirling with it the dust devils I associate with more familiar territory, a natural occurrence in Carrizozo and further south. Too, there were clouds of dust kicked up from the roads and corrals, every place that the grass didn’t still cling to the earth and hold it still. Adding to the brittleness was the ever present reminders of the recent epic freeze, the blackened branches of the prickly pear turned to mush, wilted cholla and the barren branches of the greasewood, chamisa and mesquite that most often hold their leaves through the winter. Absent is the deep green of the native bushes and in its stead only brown and black branches amongst the remains of the bleached golden grasses, sparse as well in this late winter, early spring time.
Adding to the sense of desolation and struggle are the cattle, grown gaunt over the last two months with sparse feed and new calves all drawing off the fine flesh of the fall. Fat has turned to lean and then, for the older and less resilient ones, turned to skin and bone. I have yet to see the worst of them but I know where they will be found and hope that I miss it, I feel too deeply for these animals for it not to pain me even as I accept the reality of ranching on poor soils. While this may be good grazing in ideal conditions they rarely occur and it is marginal at best when they do not. The summer rains are few and far between and coupled with a dry winter such as this adds up only to dust……they named the place well.
Still, even as I watched the dust billow all day yesterday, enough to cloud the sky and obscure the distant mountains this place is far from lacking in beauty and peacefulness. I stood on the high mesa edge yesterday at the Garrett Ranch and was spellbound as always. There is no possible way to drive up onto the flat top of the mountain without taking pause to allow the height of the moment to surround you, or to feel its power, at least not for me! I am so taken with this place and all the wonders it holds, even more so now for I know what the deep canyons hold as well and can recognize the ramparts from above, each brings its own thrill.
I arrived at the bunkhouse before sunset, but not by much, and quickly built a fire to take the chill out of the house before I did the rest of my chores. I unloaded my truck, fixed my bed and carried water from the corral. There are no luxuries here but there is at least water nearby and good shelter and electric light. The woodstove provides ample heat as well, none of the necessities is lacking and I truly love to stay here. While waiting for the water buckets to fill I sat on the bench along the loading chute to get out of the wind, or at least diminish it a bit, and watched the dust clouds roll across the flats. It was in that moment that I gained a deeper understanding of the people who live here, their sun lined faces and their quiet determination, all the results of years of struggle to maintain their grasp to the land. I saw too where the bitterness and failing that I met with in Oklahoma came from; these are the children of the people who survived the worst of times and made it through and their legacy carried forth, these people are survivors such as few others can recognize in this day and age. There is a deliberateness in their actions that nearly equals resignation and the purposefulness of their lives reflects their commitment to their legacy yet lacks the enthusiasm that I require in my life. Even I, moving back and forth from the comforts I encountered in Santa Fe and in spite of my own simple existence, still take so much for granted. My life is easy compared to theirs, I visit and they live here! Though my own self imposed efforts to maintain a humble existence may be the equivalent of theirs they are but a small portion of what they face each day and I am free to walk away from mine at any given moment. For those who were born here and other such places it is a legacy that follows them everywhere even if they choose a different life.
Then comes the evening; the wind settles a little and the stars come out and I am suddenly overwhelmed by the utter peacefulness. There are so few places such as this where there is no light but that of the stars and no sound but the silence of stillness. Even where I live there is often an interruption, a passing car or truck, a dog’s bark if even at a great distance, still audible and a reminder that I am being encroached upon, here there is not. If there is a bark it is a coyote and followed by a howl and if there is a passing truck it is but one and gone in but a moment, offering a welcome reminder that there are a few other folks out here. I stepped outside to pee and then remained there in spite of the chill to take in the feel of this place for it is like no other. My spirit is replenished in a moment and the love I feel for this place is a deep as I could feel for anything or anyone, it is complete. I returned to the comfort of the house and the wood fire with equal relish. I required nothing else but the warm softness of the small bed in the back room for this is as much a home as my own and I cherish the time I spend here.
The wind howled on and off through the night, rattling the doors and the roof and then gave way to a clatter that at first was unfamiliar and then recognized as rain, such a rare occurrence here or at home. I cannot readily recall the last time I heard it rain and rarely if ever has it done so of a night when I was here and never with such force. It was a brief storm and the clouds never fully filled the sky but it was welcome all the same. It will call forth a few sprigs of grass perhaps but that will be all. It did quiet the dust though and made for beautiful glimpse of the night sky, illuminated by the waning moon. Too; it caused me to sleep late, something I rarely do though the time change still has me fouled up. I am a follower of light and dark and my internal clock has yet to adjust.
Morning brings again the comforts of home, a pot of tea and a good fire. I am slow to go to work, my thoughts too full and rich to ignore, a day full of writing if such were allowed but instead will give way to my commitments and more adventure. Where to go on a windy morn with the ground still damp from the nights’ rain? I will leave the Wahoo windmills for tomorrow and go to the solar wells instead, the roads will be firm and not muddy on Cupit’s, or so I hope, and the clouds are my friends with these wells. I will still have to wait for them to recover but they won’t be pumping as hard as usual, or as hard as the windmills! Too, the time I spend waiting on the wells will be filled with wonder and ample thoughts, it is a day to write!
Such a joy to come here and be paid for the time spent. I fill it well and work hard to be deserving of it while still taking in the full wonder of it all! I hope to have the chance to return here on my leisure as well and this would be a place to add the final touches to my book, to review and edit it and to take pause to savor all that I am surrounded by. I will never fully abandon this place and I will have to come back to visit and will also return ever more often in mind and spirit. Even as I write these words I know this to be so for I have but to sit and think, read or write and I am here once more, such a place to escape to!
This is the sort of windy day when the ravens fly backwards. I stepped out the door in perfect time to watch as one of these glossy black birds set his wings and allowed himself to be carried back and then slowly turn himself into the wind with but a flicker of a feather. I watched, spellbound, as he slowly arced into the steady breeze and gracefully followed its current, sailing off into the glow of the early morning sun. I was blinded as I tried to follow his course and he disappeared into the dawn as if he had never even been there.
Earth and Sky
I wish that I was walking the ridges with my native friends today, but I am not. I begged off as I was neither physically nor emotionally fit for the effort today and the remains of last night’s rare storm still threatened to return. The sky is peppered with clouds and the air is rich with moisture while the peaks of the higher mountains are still kissed with snow, it is a lovely day. I might have joined them with some encouragement but I am grateful for the respite, I am still coughing out the remains of the dust which has clogged the air and my lungs until this morning and I need some more time to recover. For the moment it is enough for me to picture them on the mountainside and to recall their shouts through the canyons as they sounded off to each other as the ravens do in flight, I can still hear them. They will come back richer in antlers and I will be fuller of thought, we will all profit from the effort.
I am still trying to learn more from and about my Native compadres. While we are the same in so many ways, being human beings on a shared planet, in others we are inherently different. Our sensibilities may be shared and yet they differ as do night and day, and some things make no sense at all. Where I, as an Anglo person, seek the peace and clarity I have attributed to the Native tradition of earth and sky so it seems these men I know I have embraced everything but that and seek solace in distraction instead. Where I walk into the desert to find my peace of mind they turn up the music and guzzle vodka. I seek respite from the world which surrounds me while they embrace the chaos. What, I have to ask, is the sense or the logic of that? It defeats all of my judgment and contradicts everything which has brought me to desire to live and work amongst this community. Where they seem to fail in their quest for knowledge I enhance my own existence with the very essence of their faith and find more solace in the elements of this earth than I do in the company of humanity. They crowd the hillside to share their bottles of whiskey and stumble down the road inebriated to the point of senselessness without ever achieving the comfort they desire. I escape to the desert to replenish my spirit in the utter solitude I find there and when I attend their ceremonial dances I am transported into another realm of existence. When their ceremony ends at midnight and we Anglos are banished from the feast grounds they celebrate the event by getting drunk. The contradiction is so maddening I cannot even define it.
Just days ago I parked my truck alongside the road and climbed the gate to the wilderness. I wandered along a dusty path to a deep arroyo where the river runs winding down the slope through rock and sand. Willows and elms towered from the depths of the draw and the glow of their fresh new leaves was illuminated by the setting sun. Filtered through the branches of the trees the sun’s rays spread like a fan into the canyon and I captured the moment on camera while kneeling on the crumbling edge of the wash. All the while I hoped the sandy wall would not crumble beneath me and send my body plunging to sure death below me, buried in dirt and stone. The resulting photo portrays a celestial moment of glowing light through which the curve of the river can be distinguished upon closer inspection. It was Godspeed to say the least, heavenly light at a bare minimum. I saved the picture and texted it to my friend with the caption, “May all be well with you fool, I will leave you alone now.”
Having satisfied my need to risk my life in order to capture and share the moment I wandered further into the desert as the sun slowly made its way to the distant horizon. Its glowing orb faded from white light to a rich golden glow as it settled on the distant mountains on the western horizon and the sky took on an amber tint. As the last light glowed over the mountain peaks I found my knees. I was mesmerized by earth and sky and drawn to the moment in a reverence that required absolute devotion of mind, body and spirit. It was in this instance that the contradiction between my personal practice and faith glared in such a contrast to that of my closest friends. While I found absolute comfort and solace in the complete and utter solitude of the moment and established such a connection with the totality of life itself my Native counterpart was whirling out of control in an alcoholic stupor. Such a terrible injustice seems beyond belief and comprehension to one such as I who has found such comfort in the simplest things which life has to offer. The very set of values it is based upon is something I learned from the study of the native beliefs! Just where is the disconnect and how can it be reattached?
If our ancestors captured the Native peoples and herded them onto the Reservations like cattle into a corral did they also effectively slaughter their spirits? Can such a strong and proud race such as they who lay claim to being the “First People” simply lay down their weapons and allow themselves to be killed off by a lesser human presence? Of all the tribes in this state the Apaches were the last to be driven into captivity and yet they are as defeated as any other I have met with. Can the force which is so effectively destroying the very atmosphere of this world we all live on poison the very spirits of those who inhabited this planet in absolute harmony with the earth and the sky and who held such a reverence for the same? Can the distillation of alcohol, rendered from the very fruits and seeds which nourished generations of people, be the final destructive force? What an injustice that would be! That these men and women willingly allow this to occur is the greatest injustice of all and I must ask each and every one of them how they allow this to happen. Who then will inhabit this earth when the other peoples have destroyed their own lives and the animals return without the Natives? They will have relinquished their own right to the planet by making such a choice.
I implore that there will be Natives who will read my words and wish to contest them. I hope and pray that they will rise above the defeat and the apathy which has allowed so many of them to relinquish their very spirits and that they can confront the demons which were introduced to their lives and conquer them instead. I beseech them to return to the desert and the forest and to call upon the same Gods who have blessed my heart and to find the strength in themselves to restore all which has been taken from them. I have searched my life through to find the solace and the comfort of earth and sky and have found it no place else except for the solitude of the desert and the forest and I wish for them to do the same. I cannot know their Gods or their spirits but have found something equal to them instead and I can only imagine the power they have for their own people!
I am amazed and saddened by the failings of the people who I have idolized from the early days of my life. I have taken the Native American wisdom and imparted it on my own spirit in order to rise above the fear and the strife which defined my youth on the east coast of this great country. I fled from the masses for the protection of the forest and desert here in New Mexico and sought to heal myself from that pain. I succeeded to a great degree but have also nearly defeated my purpose at the very instant I thought I might have found sanctuary! It is the very failing of these people who I have idolized which has driven me to the brink of my own failure as I have taken on the very sorrow they have allowed to destroy them. If they cannot survive it how can I possibly manage to do the same?
Survive I will, it is an inherent part of my nature to do so. I have communed with the earth and the sky and found it to be good. I have embraced the warm breast of nature and found the comfort I required. I have found strength and direction in the wind and the sky and all is well with me. I have walked in quiet solitude as the day faded to night and found the answers which I needed for my questions. I will walk forward proudly and in strength and offer my words and my accomplishments to everyone I meet with who might wish to listen and I pray that I am able to share that. I will turn my back, as I already have, to all which is out of harmony with life itself and instead embrace the goodness of the world while hoping that the very people whose wisdom taught me how will also do the same! May all be well with you, my Native friends.
Wide Open Spaces
A week has passed since I last wrote and reflects the need to adjust my timing to the better good. With daylight savings pending it will require some discipline I am afraid, I have become complacent and allowed my priorities to shift, sleeping later than I ever have and leaving no time for my precious reflections. My thoughts are no less valuable but have instead been set aside and left unrecorded, a regrettable oversight as the practice of centering myself each morning has served me well. Though my sleep may be precious I need to shift the hours I require and my mornings are the best time of day; I can cut the evenings short instead.
I have yet another excuse all the same. I traveled this week and made the journey west across the mountains and plains to Reserve to interview for a job. I wasn’t looking for another job, not just yet, with my store ready for business and my efforts devoted to the same. Rather than seeking another post I have set my sights on the possibility of working for myself instead. I went to Reserve because I had to satisfy my heart and see if there was a place for me there, which I now know there is even if it is impractical at best. Having focused my efforts on finding more time for my art and my words rather than simply going to work forty hours a week I hesitate to turn back to any other alternative. That desire was affirmed when I returned here and walked into my store. Though the wares may be sparse the prospects are rich and I was thrilled at what I have accomplished.
It is the wide open spaces that I miss. Travel has always served as an opportunity for me to peruse my life and all of the possibilities that it has to offer and I was far from disappointed. This journey in particular, in spite of being brief, was rich with insight all the same. I left here late on Tuesday, two hours after noon as everything at work seemed to go wrong at once, a challenge which I withstood better than usual as my determination to leave overrode everything else. I also stuck to my plans in spite of the adversity and stopped to see a friend in Nogal on the way through to absorb some of his valued wisdom and then went to my house on Indian Divide to put that in order as well. I remained there for an hour at least, as much to absorb the peacefulness as to put it back into some semblance of order, the weather and the mice having taken their toll in my absence. Old houses weather fast when they are left empty and it has been three years since I have lived there, even if I visit and stay on rare occasions.
It was late afternoon by the time I headed west and the sun set before I made it to Socorro. Though the drive from Nogal to San Antonio travels through the high desert and rolling hills, Socorro is the gateway to the plains. The Magdalena Mountains stand guard between the traffic on Interstate 25 and the true wilderness beyond them and I regretted that darkness would overshadow the remainder of my travels. I had hoped to have dinner in Datil but stopped to eat at Arby’s instead, less than healthy meal but the onion rings were tasty. I gassed up my truck and then had to hurry more than I wished to as the store in Datil closes at nine and I needed a key for my room. The moonlight illuminated the landscape and my heart clenched a little as I passed through Magdalena and the entrance to the Alamo Indian Reservation and I thought to call my friend Monte Chee but did not. My thoughts were the center of my focus for the moment and the phone signal is spotty at best. Instead I recalled the drive across the plain on the dirt road which meets back up with Interstate 40 another fifty miles to the north. Everything after the pavement is desert and high plain and barely interrupted but for an occasional barn, house or trailer and those are but a momentary distraction from the untainted wildness beyond them. The windswept dirt which covers the landscape continually realigns itself and the human presence becomes yet another part of it, there is no place for lawns or landscape here and even the fences lean towards the hillsides.
I arrived at my destination at five minutes after nine and was welcomed warmly as always. I got my key and went to the familiar room in the small hotel, having stayed there often enough to know all the pictures and the weathered furniture. I can even recall when they tiled the floor, a cold reminder of the warmth of the aged carpet they replaced. I paused as I unloaded my truck, the silence of the plain cloaking the evening air and reminiscent of the years past when I would have had all week to enjoy it. All places have their own unique quality and once familiar they bring back that feeling with an immediacy which we either savor or wish to avoid. This place makes me want to stay and the emotions run high each time I return, there is something I need there which I cannot find anywhere else and it is as much a part of my destiny as are the moon and the stars which glow in the dark skies above.
Here I must correct myself because I did find the time to write before I departed as it was a necessary part of the journey. I found my spot in the café in front of the fireplace, adding another log after I asked permission to do so and grateful that I felt enough at home to be able to do so. I had my breakfast while I reflected on the emotions evoked by the precious memories of the time which has since passed. The reflections were brief but heartfelt all the same and the pending storm which loomed on the mountains was reminiscent of years past when I would have been a bit hurried because of it. With an hours’ drive ahead of me I rushed off but the emotions remained and I promised myself to return by the same route so I could linger a while longer on my way back.
Reserve had all to offer that I had imagined it would, a small community huddled by the San Francisco River which runs through the canyons to the south, down past Cliff and all the other places I have thought that I could live if and when I was to move further west. The people too were as I imagined them to be and the Village Mayor and Council were the sort of folks I have always wanted to work for. I must admit that I felt a sense of belonging there even if my reservations were strong also with the promise of another forty hour week being the greatest challenge. I am so close, or so I hope, to another brand of freedom that I cannot freely commit to anything else. That they need my skills and the full commitment of my time is clear but I have to be selfish also, I must first consider how I want to live the remainder of my life before I make any sort of choice. To take a cut in pay and relinquish my freedom is to go backwards rather than forward even if the advantages are there also.
It is the wide open spaces I miss the most. It is the very nature of the country which shapes the people and the place and it is that which stays with me now. The interview went well and I stayed in town for lunch so as to get a better feel for the place. I quickly found a spot for both my bus and my horse, close to the river even, and before I left a few of the people were familiar to me, and I to them. I departed reluctantly and by the time I stopped in Datil for gas I was in tears. I have driven Highway 12 enough times to recall so many familiar places, the turn of the river it follows, the mew of the cow elk on the hillside and the names of the subdivisions which always have land for sale as the pilgrims who move there so often come and go. What stays with me the most though is the plains, the wide sweep of the rolling landscape and the broad sky above with the storm clouds lingering on the mountaintops waiting for the wind to push them across. The shafts of sunshine were interspersed with the snow and rain as the storms struggled to reach the ground and I thrilled at the vistas which surrounded me. I recalled quickly how the storms always seemed to follow me and as I drove I reminisced about every well and windmill I had visited during my stay there.
Every journey has its own lesson and this one does as well. What became clear to me upon my return to Mescalero and Bent is the closeness of the mountains in comparison to the plains. It is not that the mountains are any less beautiful but they are all way too close. Where to the west the rocky crags of the hills sometimes border the highway and the roads wind through narrow canyons the road always leads back to the plains. Here the mountains are blanketed with trees and come down close at every curve, hiding the storm clouds and shadowing the sunrise and sunset both. I need more space around me and the confines of the canyons are more clear because of that. Even if the mountains block the wind so it keeps it from cleansing the earth also and the clutter it leaves behind is more that I would choose. Though the wide open spaces are available here also one must drive a ways to get there.
There is another contrast also. While Reserve is one hundred miles from anywhere this place where I live is closer to everything and I yearn for the remoteness I have once more left behind me. The decision will be a difficult one though I have already decided to stay here. The argument is this; I do not wish to go backwards and the best option for the moment is to go forward instead. Reserve, as with the plains which surrounds it, will remain as it is, the wind and storm will preserve that place as it has from the start. My goal has been and remains to be that I may return there someday and make it my home, either in Datil or further west. I am as certain as I have ever been that I need the wide open space it has to offer and I want to be a part of a community which requires the same. I could go there now if I wish and it would work well enough but the distance holds me back and offers a challenge I am far too familiar with. Before I make such a change I must consider what my goals are and how quickly I wish to obtain them. I have a book I want to publish and I have already waited too long and that needs to come first. And I still have my Nogal House perched on the mountainside of the Vera Cruz. The wide open spaces wait for me there also…….they will have to suffice for now.