By Lucas, Mirrorrorrim2001@yahoo.com
continued from last month...
I set out for New Mexico with a rolled up knapsack, a backpack filled with non-perishables, and three hundred dollars. I had no notion that New Mexico would be my destination, but that's where I wound up. Having worked as a handy man, I decided that it was time to strike out and seek my great fortune. I climbed into the '59 Ford pickup and headed west.
The road is an infinity. I first learned this as I drove across the great Pennsylvania landscape. The great Interstate winds through the country with a mundane regularity. The constant repetition of entrance and exits ramps, overpasses, billboards, create the illusion that you haven't gone far. The only clues that you have gone a great distance are the names of the cities and towns that flash on the road signs. You know that Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas are a long way from New York.
It took six days for me to reach the New Mexican border, and I had only stopped long enough in between drives to catch some shuteye. My first notion about New Mexico was that things were redder. I'm not sure if this was due to the rock formations or the longitude and latitude. Along the highway just outside of Gallup, I pulled into a roadside diner as I had not eaten since the previous day. I shouldn't call the place a diner as it sorely lacked the chrome facade that easterners tend to associate with diners. This eating establishment was about as long as a railroad car and constructed out of a dry timber that was painted bright yellow. There were metal cola signs tacked to the planks, and a single red neon sign that read, "Kate's." I entered quietly and sat at the counter next to a young kid of about sixteen. He was talking to the waitress about chili.
"Yep, you know chili cookin' is a lost art."
The waitress feigned attentiveness as she walked down the counter filling half-empty coffee cups. "Is that so," she responded.
"Why Craig keeps a whole collection of chili peppers just for the way he feels. He showed me. He had these Serrano chilies, which were stubby, half red, and half green little things, and something called Habanero. They were kind of round and orange. He said he uses them for five-alarm chili." The boy extended his thumb and forefinger measuring the height of the invisible pepper. "And Anaheims they were long and real skinny -'not too hot,' Craig said, 'for false alarm chili,' And Ancho. Did I mention Ancho chilis? They were fat and purple, sort of like a stubbed toe."
The boy swung around on the swiveling stool at the counter -accelerating slowly.
"And for every one of those chilies he had a particular type of onion to go with it -yellow onions, red onions and white onions. 'I've even seen some people put black beans into the chili,' he said. But the thing that makes it is the tomato...three or four ripe tomatoes in there. Ramapo, they're the best. Mama even asks me to make the chili now."
The waitress smiled at the lad, "that's very interesting, Puck," she replied. Then she approached me to take my order. "Do you know what you want, sir?"
I sat quietly for a second, but there was only one answer. "I'll try the chili."
The young kid looked at me and grinned. "Good choice," he said, "I'm Puck," and held out his hand.
"Sam," I replied.
He grabbed the tip of his hat and tugged it in a friendly gesture. "Just passing through?"
"Well, I'm not sure where I'm going to land. But I need a place to take a nice hot bath for the night. Do you know of any trailer parks, or places where a fellow can get a quick shower...and cheap?"
"That's no problem. There are no less than 1700 motel rooms right here in town, but you can get cleaned up at my place. Pop takes in borders."
He hopped off the stool and stretched his neck to get a view of the parking lot.
"Is that your truck?" he asked.
"The red one. It's old but it's in good shape."
"I just got my license last month."
"Congratulations," I replied, "There's nothing like the freedom of the road."
"You know," Puck replied with grin, "I feel exactly the same way."
He sat back down on the stool, picked up a spoon, and carefully observed his inverted image in the reflection. "That's pretty scary."
"Being on the road?" I asked.
"No," Puck replied, "my reflection in this spoon."
He looked over and grinned.
"I'd be glad to take you over to the ranch."
He placed the spoon down.
"We'll if you're sure that it's not a bother."
"It's no bother. I'm always bringing people home."
I finished a pretty ordinary bowl of chili and decided to take Puck up on his offer. I broke the rule that I had made when I left New York. I wasn't going to mingle too closely with strangers.
"You want to drive my truck to your place?"
"That's mighty nice of you, Sam."
I threw him the keys, and we hit the road.
"So what's it like living in New Mexico?"
"New Mexico is a little bit of everything. Indians, Mexicans, Americans all living together."
"The landscape is beautiful."
"We've got the Continental Divide winding through, and acres of wilderness."
He jerked the wheel of the truck to the left and we were off down a dirt side road.
"Where we going?"
"This is the road to the ranch," he explained.
We picked up a little speed and started to bounce in our seats as we passed over potholes in the road.
"Little bumpy," I noted.
"Don't worry," said Puck, "I drive this road everyday!"
I braced myself against the back of my seat as we hit a pothole and sunk pretty deep into a puddle of muddy water. The back wheels of the truck spun wildly, spewing a cascade of muddy water in two directions.
"Damn!" I cursed.
"I just filled that pothole in yesterday, but don't worry, Sam. I've done this before."
He edged himself out of the open window of the truck and parked his rear on the door's window frame.
He put his hand to his mouth and exhaled strongly, making a strong whistling sound that raised in pitch.
"What are you doing?"
He stood quietly for a second, then cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted, "Carrots!"
I could hear the faint sound of pounding hooves. Out of the brush sprang a magnificent animal -much larger than the truck.
"What kind of horse is that?" I beamed in amazement.
"Palomino," he answered.
"A horse named "Carrots?"
Puck looked at me, grinned, and said, "No, the horse's name is Bambino," he paused, then concluded, "He works for carrots."
The kid pulled a rope out of the back of my truck, and within seconds we were driving down the dirt path. The truck was covered with mud, and the horse cantered behind triumphantly.
"Kid, you're going to have to learn to take life a little slower."
Puck replied, "Sorry, about the mud."
I had a stroke of good fortune finding Puck, for he had begun to treat me like a distant relative. I slept soundly that night on a soft bed. In the morning Puck made huevos rancheros. This is an egg dish with salsa. Puck, who apparently had been up since the first light of dawn, explained that we were to travel about twelve miles south to visit the Zuni pueblo.
The Zuni live in the extreme western part of New Mexico. The pueblo lies on a flat plain near the Little Colorado River. Around the plain rise the steep buttes and mesas of New Mexico. On the eastern border lies the great mesa, "To'yallane," the sacred mountain of the Zunis. Of all the secrets of their lives, none is more strictly guarded than the knowledge of healing. The days of the Zuni seers are numbered, and the few who remain have lost a good portion of the secrets behind their rituals. Plants are sacred to the Zuni, who believe that Star People had dropped some of them.
We traveled leisurely along N.M. 53 until we reached the pueblo. Puck led me along until we reached the oldest part of the town. An old church faces a courtyard crowded with the crosses of the Zunis who died in the church.
"Puck, what did you bring me?"
I turned to glimpse a slender young Indian who had surprised us.
"Why I've got something you probably have never seen before, Laughing Bear."
The young Indian had tanned skin that caused his teeth to appear ivory white. His hair was straight and black, and his eyes were dark but spirited.
Puck reached into his pocket and pulled out a round object. "It's a compass!" he beamed proudly.
"A what?" Laughing Bear inquired.
"A compass," answered Puck. "And look," he began to walk around in circles as he spoke. "No matter where I go, the arrow always points north."
"Let me see," Laughing Bear enthused reaching for the compass. He began to spin in a circle with his eyes fixed on the needle.
"What does the 'N' mean?" the boy asked innocently.
"Why New Mexico!" Puck responded. "If you carry that thing around with you. You won't get lost. See?"
Laughing Bear looked up at Puck and smiled while hunching his shoulders. "Oh!"
The Indian youth placed the compass in his shirt pocket.
"This here's my friend Sam. He's come all the way from New York... from the Greenwich Pueblo."
"Hi Sam," said Laughing Bear. "Welcome to the Zuni Pueblo."
"Sam and I are riding up north to Shiprock. Can you come?"
Laughing Bear asked Gray Cloud whether he could leave his chores behind, and it was agreed that he should go. As Puck, Laughing Bear and I strode to the edge of the village, I heard a loud screeching sound overhead in the direction of the morning sun. We turned and I shielded my eyes with my hands. Laughing Bear stepped forward and extended both arms outward at each side forming a cross. He arched his left arm over the top of his head -palm down- standing motionless. The huge bird circled around once and then swooned towards the Indian boy, flapping its wings, and grasping the boys extended right arm.
"I forgot to feed Bill," said Laughing Bear.
I stared at this miraculous feat, and felt a little wobbly in the knees from the sheer spectacle of what I had just seen. Laughing Bear reached into a pouch -strapped to his waist- and grabbed a handful of corn. He held his hand open to the young eaglet, and the bird feasted from his hand.
"How did you do that?"
Laughing Bear smiled at me and explained, "I rescued Dollar Bill from a near certain death when he was just a hatchling. I guess we just grew attached to each other."
Laughing Bear extended his left arm in front of him and the eaglet flapped its wings and was off on the wind.
We walked to the truck while Puck talked up a storm about Laughing Bear. It seems that the two had shared many secrets, and had been friends for a long time.
"Laughing Bear knows many secrets about the plants," Puck boasted. "If you chew the Yarrow leaves you can walk on fire. He even has a cure for the common cold. You make tea from Wormwood. Salt-Bush cures ant-bites, and Ha'techi or Goosefoot cures headaches. Laughing Bear is a medicine man."
"Not yet," replied Laughing Bear, "I have not had the ceremony."
Puck continued while counting the names of the roots on the fingers of his hand.
"And if your feeling fatigued, you take the Ha'uheya'we and grind it -mix it with water- and apply it with cotton. The best one, Sam, is the cure for Rattlesnake bites."
"Rattlesnake bites!" I repeated.
"That's right," said Puck. "Rattlesnake bites. It's none other than the Sunflower itself...mixed with the 'leaf mouse', the 'rainbow root'- and the hu'techi root."
"Never heard of it."
"Well, it all grows wild around here," said Puck.
He took a bandana and wiped the sweat from his brow.
"But the biggest secret is the Jamestown We..."
"Sshh!" Laughing Bear placed a finger to his mouth. "If you keep telling people, it won't be much of a secret anymore, Puck."
"Whoops...guess I got carried away."
"You're just like A'neglakya. And you'll wind up just like him if you're not careful."
"Who's A'neglakya?" I asked.
Laughing Bear told us the story of A'neglakya.
"A long time ago, there lived a boy and a girl. They were brother and sister, and their names were A'neglakya and A'neglakyatsi'tsa. They lived in the interior of the earth and came outside a lot to walk around -watching everything they either heard or saw- repeating everything to their mother. This constant talking did not please the Divine Ones. The Divine Ones asked A'neglakya and A'neglakyatsi'tsa, "How are you?" and they answered, "We are happy." They told the Divine Ones how they could make one sleep and see ghosts, and how they could make one walk around a little and see who had committed thefts. The Divine Ones thought that A'neglakya and A'neglakyatsi'tsa knew too much and that they should be banished for all time from this world; So the Divine Ones made them disappear forever."
Laughing Bear wiggled the fingers of his hand while raising his arms.
"Flowers sprang up where the two descended into the earth just like the ones that they wore on the side of their heads. This plant has many children planted all over the earth. Some blossoms are yellow, some blue, some red, and some white. So, the medicine is sometimes called "flowers white. You call it peyote."
I climbed into the pickup truck and turned the AM radio up loudly.
On the way back to Gallup, I pulled into a grocery store. The temperature inside the truck must have reached over ninety degrees, and I was sweating profusely. I bought a five pound bag of ice and a Coca-Cola. When I got back to the truck, I held the bag over my head. The desert sun is unbearably hot, and I was not used to the climate. I offered the bag of ice to Puck and Laughing Bear, but they just stared at me strangely.
"Is your radiator boiling over, amigo?" Puck asked.
"I don't know if he's going to last," Laughing Bear commented.
"Don't you feel it?"
It was the middle of July, and even though it was early morning, the heat was oppressive. It was a dry heat -without moisture- but still hot enough to make one want to seek shade. We arrived back at Gallup, and the roads were flooded. The manholes were pushed out of their positions by a rush of water backing up in the sewer. The truck made a quick slice through the flooded street cascading water on each side.
"I wonder what happened?" said Laughing Bear.
I turned to him and answered, "the North Pole probably melted."
He looked at me for a second and a slow smile spread across his face.
"Something funny is going on around here. You don't get water in the desert without rain. It must be coming from somewhere."
"At least the truck will be clean."
We slowly waded through town and set out on Route 666. Puck pointed the direction, and I noticed that there were very few signs. Puck explained that the tourists had removed most of the signs as souvenirs. I wasn't the only tourist who made a Biblical connection to Route 666. It seems that many people had complained about changing the name of the road. A Christian group demanded a name change, and the Navajo Indians joined the protest because six -according to Navajo tradition- is bad luck. On the map, the highway looks like a serpent coiling around a giant cross. Engineers in the nineteen-thirties named the road because it was the sixth road that crossed Route 66. Puck pulled out a harmonica and began to blow a slow bending note. Laughing Bear began to clap his hands in slow rhythm. Then, Puck sang:
"We're rolling to the Tse-Bit-Tai, Tse-Bit-Tai, Tse-Bit-Tai, We're packing a lunch and we're gonna stay, With Simmerin' Sam and Laughing Bear, we're truckin' through sand and we don't care, we don't care, we don't care."
Then Puck began wailing on the harmonica again.
"We're rolling to the Navajooo, Navajooo, Navajooo, with a bag of ice and a radiooo, radiooo, radiooo."
I pulled into a filling station just north of Gallup. Puck and Laughing Bear stepped out of the truck to stretch their legs. As I watched the service station attendant check my oil, an older man pulled into the station in a frantic rush. He was driving a VW bus, which was overheating. He popped the hood and was waiting for the temperature of the engine to cool down.
"Looks like she's a little thirsty," Puck observed.
"Huh?" the man searched for an old rag from the back of the van.
"Of all the days to have trouble with the bus," he complained, "why today?"
"Every good man finds a little hard luck sometime," Puck sympathized.
"You don't know the half of it!" said the man with an air of excitement.
"I'm Puck, this here's Laughing Bear, and over there, that's Simmerin' Sam from the Greenwich Pueblo."
"Greenwich huh," the confused man responded, "I'm Elliot Weston. Say, you fellows aren't coming up from Gallup are you?"
"We just came from there," Puck replied.
Doc Weston wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his cotton shirt.
"The dam at Church Rock burst this morning."
"Well, that must explain why the water was shootin' up through the sewers!" Puck exclaimed.
"The dam was built partly on bedrock and partly on soft ground and was part of the Uranium milling operation. There's gonna be hell to pay I tell you."
Puck raised his hand to his chin. "Why's that, Doc?"
"Can you boys keep a secret? That is, you won't repeat anything I tell you here?"
"Sure thing, Doc, you've got my word."
I had picked up the conversation as I stood next to the clicking pump.
The Doc drew a deep breath and then exhaled.
"Eleven hundred tons of radioactive mill wastes and ninety million gallons of contaminated liquid are pouring toward Arizona as we speak. We're talking about residues of radioactive uranium, thorium, radium, polonium, and traces of metals such as cadmium, aluminum, magnesium, manganese, nickel, selenium, sodium, vanadium, zinc, iron, lead, and high concentrations of sulfates."
The Doc drew in a deep breath and impatiently slammed his fist on the bumper of his bus.
The boys stood quietly staring at each other.
"The spill will pollute the Rio Puerco."
"How?" Puck asked innocently.
"Several hundred million gallons of liquid were being held in a large pond up there so the liquids could evaporate off and the solid wastes could be stored. The clay core gave way and the dam broke. This has to be the largest release of radioactive poisons on American soil!"
They stood quietly.
Finally, Laughing Bear broke the silence.
"In the desert," he said, "water is life."
We returned to the truck.
Laughing Bear spoke.
"Take me to the river, Sam."
Laughing Bear stared straight ahead.
"You must take me to the river."
"Sam, we have to go to Churchrock!"
I turned over the engine. "Which way?"
Anticipating roadblocks, Puck chose a route over rough terrain. It would have been easier if we had horses.
We left the truck in the middle of nowhere and approached the swollen riverbank.
Laughing Bear immediately removed several small stone sculptures from his buckskin pouch.
"What are those?" I asked Puck.
"Those are fetishes, Sam. Petrified animal spirits."
Laughing Bear began singing in his native tongue, dancing ceremoniously around the stones that he had placed on the ground.
"There are six guardians in the Zuni Universe," Puck continued, "One for each direction... north, east, south and west...one for the sky... one for the underworld. Healing is represented by the white bear."
Laughing Bear took some corn meal from his pouch and placed it around the stone carvings.
"North is represented by the Mountain Lion...west by the Bear. East is the Wolf, and South... the Badger. The sky is the Eagle, and the underworld is the Mole."
Laughing Bear sat on the ground, folded his legs, and seemed to go into some sort of trance.
He prayed with the small stone animal fetishes set in a circle.
After a minute of silence, Laughing Bear rose and reached into his pouch. He pulled out a sack of powder and emptied it onto the river.
He turned and spoke.
"We can go now, the river is cured."
Puck let out a holler, "Yes!!! Laughing Bear has saved the people of Gallup! He's a hero!"
Puck then looked a little puzzled. His expression changed as a small wrinkle appeared on his forehead.
"And to think," he said, "we're sworn to secrecy!"
Puck hitched a ride, and we drove back towards New York City together. He was a restless spirit, like myself, and wanted to leave the small western town where he had grown up. On our way back east, I stopped in Texas to visit a relative who had become a Baptist minister. He was my cousin's husband, who had fled to the south to kick a bad heroin habit. I had not seen my cousin in over twenty years, so after calling on the telephone, I arrived at the small church.
Brother Paul greeted us, and he took us on a tour of the facility. He handed us several pamphlets, and made a gesture over one particular pamphlet.
"Look, here! This here's a good one," he said handing me a paper which had bold letters on the front: "Homosexuality is a sin."
I humored Brother Paul as he had given me several pamphlets with outrageous sayings.
Over the next three days, we were given a crash course in scripture, as Brother Paul was obsessed with the good book. He studied it religiously, and even used the book to defend his own hostilities towards, well, I never did nail down completely who he was so angered with. During one particular study session in the late afternoon, we touched upon the subject of homosexuality once again.
Late Saturday afternoon, Paul turned to the book of 1 Romans 21:28 and began to lead me down a logical path of reasoning that was to explain
how it has come to be that some men burn with lust for other men, and women
after women. Starting with verse 21: "Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither
were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish
heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise they became fools. And
changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to
corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things."After reading this passage, Paul explained that men and women began to
worship the creation instead of the creator -meaning that they worshipped
the animals, and the trees, and the sun, and the moon, instead of turning
their attention to the creator, God the Father of creation. He continued:
"Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleaness through the lusts of their
own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves: Who changed the
truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than
the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. For this cause God gave them up
to vile affections; for even their women did change the natural use into
that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural
use of woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working
that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their
error which was meet.. And even as they did not like to retain in their
knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind."
Paul explained that because these homosexuals worshipped animals and
trees, and the sun, the moon, as God, he set them on the path of
homosexuality as a punishment. Now, I sat quietly through all of this. I am
a great listener until the logic hit me squarely between the eyes, and so I spoke.
"The scripture is illogical and therefore untrue!"
"What?" questioned Paul.
"I just visited the Zuni Pueblo, and they worship animal fetishes!"
"So?" questioned the minister.
"If you are to take that passage literally, then the Zuni tribe would have become extinct a long time ago. They would have all turned gay, and no one would have mated. That's what the Bible is telling you. And if you can prove just one passage to be illogical, then the whole book, then, must become suspect of its origin. It suspiciously sounds very chauvinistic towards women, and gays...makes you wonder about the author, doesn't it?"
There was a long silence in the room, and our departure was welcomed.
When I returned to the car, Puck turned to me.
"Thanks," he said.
I looked at him and smiled.
"You know Socrates questioned the Gods, and he was politely asked to swallow poison. He used logic and reasoning his entire life -abandoning myth. People love magical thinking. You can't prove that God wrote the Bible, anymore than you can prove that Santa Claus comes down the chimney. It doesn't mean that he doesn't exist."
"Puck," I said.