January 31, 2016
185 Nogal Canyon Road
Bent, New Mexico
I have made a habit over the years of taking an extra day of travel when I have a chance and returning to my old haunts to rest and replenish my spirit. I have also neglected to do the same more often than not over the past couple of years as I too often have a companion with me. Even when I venture off in his company the distraction robs me of the much needed solitude I have always relied on to realign myself with myself. This time I insisted on going alone and I was well rewarded for the decision. I left Las Cruces, where I had spent two days on a meeting and proctoring a test and headed north and west to return, if for but a few hours, to the wilderness I so love.
Before I left Monticello I stopped to talk with one of the residents there. I might have missed the conversation but as I drove past him as he was walking through the small community I felt the obligation to return and speak to him. His inquiring look seemingly inviting a conversation but instead, when I stopped, he looked at me somewhat warily and hesitated to talk though he lightened a bit also. It wasn’t that he was unfriendly but maybe likened to myself and did not welcome distractions, probably marking me as one of the too many tourists who venture into this remote enclave. I cannot blame him for that and I had to rethink my logic also. I had thought, to the contrary, he might have welcomed a visit with someone other than those in his sheltered community and had returned to speak with him for that reason. In the end we exchanged a few friendly words, though for the most part he was questioning my purpose there and warned me that the road ahead was closed. I chose to continue anyway, explaining that I had friends up the canyon, as well as being acquainted with his neighbors.
At the entrance to the canyon there was in fact a Road Closed sign, though it was moved off to the side as if to signal passage was still permissible so I chose to continue on my quest. If it had been blocked from there I might have walked anyway, or else turned back and drove towards Winston instead. Even the drive from town had somewhat restored my good spirits and the peace of mind I am so in need of. The canyon, or even the high plain, promised so much more of the same and it returned to me in even greater measure as I ventured further on. Having spent so much of a year and a half of my life passing in and out of this wilderness every tree and bend in the road was still familiar as was the ache to return and stay. I made note of the For Sale signs with the same hopefulness that I had noted the vacant structures in Placita and promised myself to stop and inquire more on my way back through.
The dirt road, rough from the start, soon narrowed into the familiar two track and began to wind in and out of the creek, itself a part of the sandy roadway when the rock palisades narrowed the passage. The ever present sparkle of the water and the music of its flow across the rocks returned me to the years past when I stayed here a week at a time, sheltered from the worries of my day to day life as my phone and computer ceased to work miles before I got there. The last vestiges of a phone signal fade before the road falls into the valley and I have never regretted the loss.
From there I lost myself in the journey, taking in the familiar memories and watching the roadrunners, ducks, quail, deer and all the other wild things as they startled and fled from my presence. There is this sense of disrupting the harmony of the canyon and I am always reminded of the intrusion we are making. This is a place unchanged except for the cycle of the seasons and the touch of wind and rain, the occasional floods altering it also though they are such a part of its nature that in the end they too remain a constant. It is only us humans who alter the continuity of it all and we will never quite belong there.
So it was that miles later when I reached the Road Closed Ahead sign and found my way blocked by a chain I sympathized quickly and felt no resentment either. The truth of the matter is that I would have closed that road many years ago if I had the right to. I would have blocked the intrusion of all those who had so little respect for the peace and serenity the place has to offer. If not for the friends I have beyond that point I would have also turned back but I parked my truck well out of the way and walked in instead. After so much time away I wasn’t certain of the distance to their gate, which in the end was too far, but I was seeking familiar landmarks to measure the distance also.
The biggest challenge of the canyon, though it is a marvel of its beauty also, is the winding creek which defines the roadway. The road crosses the creek over thirty times from one end of the canyon to the other and one can’t venture very far before they meet with that challenge. The truck crossings are for the most part safe and simple but on foot there are few places to cross where the current and the breath of the stream make it easy. Not wanting to ruin my shoes, having ventured there unprepared for the water way, I had to pick and choose where to cross, climbing through the willows and looking for the narrower passages or else the shallow spread of the floodways.
Partway in I spotted a small and familiar cave on the rock face. In retrospect I do not think I had ever stopped to explore it though it had always aroused my curiosity. There again was the No Trespassing sign and I should have heeded it out of respect, as I had in the past, but the knowledge I might never have another chance overcame my caution. I climbed quickly to the spot and peered into the smoke stained shelter in reverence and wonder, knowing many a brown body slept there in years past, and that I could so easily do the same. In fact, the inclination to do that was and is so strong that I may have to ask permission as I feel I need to experience that feeling. Not just a day either, a week perhaps, alone in the depth of the canyon, bathing from the stream and wandering the hills by day, returning in the evening to ponder the peacefulness. If my venture into the canyon had restored my calm demeanor so the visit to the cave brought back an even deeper respect for the things I so require.
At first I hesitated to venture any further than to look into the mouth of the cave and refrained from sifting through the sands therein, though surely others with less respect have done so many times. Instead I sat in a nearby niche to have a brief smoke but then felt guilty for not sharing it with those who had lived here so long ago. I have learned from my Native friends to have a greater reverence for the smoke and thereby offered it to the cave also, climbing into its entrance when I felt welcome to do so, and sitting there as so many must have done before me. I watched as the clouds moved and shifted in the wind and they soon formed an eagle in the sky which could only be an affirmation of my being made welcome. We humans are not so different in the end and even if these others were such distant ancestors to my own, so they have accepted me also, as I have them. I have the greatest respect for those who have lived so close to the earth and I am as flattered by their acceptance as I was by the welcome I received from the cave. I came away from there restored and as certain as ever of my own priorities. Serenity cannot be bought or purchased but the cost of its absence is immeasurable!
I finally walked far enough to recognize I was miles from my destination and instead cut back to the hillside to walk the ridge back to my truck. Though the narrower canyons intersect the main one there is always a way across and I had scoped the ridge before I walked in. I quickly found an elk trail and climbed the steep slope to the grass covered ridge and turned back in the direction I had started from. The winds picked up as I left the shelter of the canyon walls but they also enhanced the beauty of the country. They rippled into waves the long golden grasses which were so plentiful as to not have been grazed off by either the elk or the cattle who range there. So it was I followed their trails also and even when the creases of the eroded rock that led downhill to the creek seemed impassable from a distance, so their trails led to the crossings. I was most grateful for that as I have climbed these hills before and at times walked a great distance deeper into the mountains before I could continue on my way as the crevices were too deep and dangerous to cross.
As it was I reached the end of the ridge soon enough and as I dropped back down to the canyon bottom I found my previous footprints in the dust of the roadway. I followed them back along the creek bank and too soon reached the place where my truck waited patiently for my return. No one had come through in the hours since I had departed, attesting to the sparse population of the canyon and their rare ventures elsewhere. A drive to town was an all-day affair and not one to be taken lightly and I thought of how I would have to have a garden and a greenhouse if I were to live there. Of course that is a prerequisite for me anyway, though I have lived without the same for the last several years, the lack of running water and my frequent travels prohibiting me from doing so.
I am reminded of all of this as I sit here in my familiar perch I presently call home. If change is an ever present factor in my plans for the future I have once more been reminded of the necessity of the same. I have been making excuses to stay here for years and have perpetuated my unhappiness by doing so. Having returned to the canyon I have reinforced the desire and the requirement for the serenity I found there in the past and which still remains there today. I might have spent another night and very well should have but I had to come back here also. If the road hadn’t have been closed I might have seen Randy and Donna and been invited to stay, which I would have. Instead I will have to call ahead next time and hope to be welcomed passage or meet them at the gate. When I do I will plan to stay for several days and perhaps ask permission to camp at the cave, someone needs to build another fire there, for old times’ sake!
The road may have been closed but all of the memories remained. A part of me has been restored and I cannot let it slip away again, it is an essential factor towards my survival. I will not dishonor the gift, nor the other opportunities and reminders which were offered to me in my passage. On my way out I was offered another affirmation, one I might have missed if I had not been turned back by the gate for I might have exited to the west instead. I stopped in Placita on the way out at a familiar place, neighboring a vacant old house that had so quickly caught my eye on the way in as well as re awakening my dream of returning to stay. I parked in the driveway and noted the absence of familiar things, the Coke bottle gone from the wellhead and no doves in the coop, but felt welcome all the same. I crossed the patio and was greeted quickly when I knocked on the door, though the face was unfamiliar. She welcomed me all the same and was quick to invite me in once I explained myself. It turned out we knew each other through a mutual connection which had brought me there to begin with, though we had never actually met. We were also bound by a mutual interest in art and prose and though our meeting was brief it was rich in both opportunity and serendipity, the greatest blessing we could ask for. We parted friends with a promise to connect again soon, the doorway to possibility open wide even though the road was closed…..