We checked out of the Silver Saddle Motel and drove up into the Sangre de Cristos above Santa Fe, fifteen degrees cooler and threaded with aspen and gambel oak. Hummingbirds buzzed around bright red desert beardtongue in the shade of ponderosa pine. Our boots darkened with dew as we walked around the forest floor looking for the best campsite and fuel for the fire.Inmates in orange jumpsuits swept the campgrounds for garbage and cleaned out the iron fire pits. Paul walked over to them and asked if they knew where to find some firewood.
“Man, you’re cool. Most people won’t come anywhere near us.” They told Paul where they’d stashed leftover firewood behind the shelters.
We all set up camp. Johnny and Paul stayed. Mary, Rowan, and I hiked a circle trail that took us up over nine thousand feet. Santa Fe looked like a collection of slightly more rectangular rocks in the scrub below, a work of communal earthen art the size of a city.
We all went back down for a late lunch and souvenirs. We saw the officially-proclaimed oldest church and oldest house in the U.S., both built in the 1600s. We had a sampling of Meso-American liquid chocolates, unsweetened and flavored with prickly pear and chili, that revealed far more about 12,000 years of American history. Johnny quietly collected cottonwood duff and flint as we walked around.
Back up in the mountains Mary, Rowan and I hiked up the waterfall trail. It was late evening and no one was up there. I shucked everything and took a shower that about changed my gender. There were shards of green and brown glass in the shallows. Rowan took off his shoes and stomped around the rocks anyway. We all survived and I dripped dry in the cold dry air.
Down at camp, Johnny gave a fire-making lesson with a loose ball of duff, cedar bark, old man’s beard, some dry grass, and a steel striker. We whittled forked sticks and raked coals to make nature’s finest toaster oven.
In the middle of the night, we discovered it would in fact rain in the desert. Reckon all the water I took a shower in had to come from somewhere. Mary and I laughed and stumbled around in the dark with the rain fly. We got it on just in time for the rain to stop.
Nobody slept well except for Johnny and he was up with a fire when I crawled out at 6am. It was cold. We broke camp and went into town for a solid breakfast. As soon as we stepped out of the car, everyone shed their jackets.
We’re back in the high country again, cruising across hundreds of miles of sagebrush and juniper. The San Luis Valley is the cowboy country of dreams. Valleys that would hold all the cities of North Carolina. Semis loaded with hay headed south back down into the desert. A narrow-gauge railway for hauling all the grain. Silver willows along the river. Wagon wheels and snake fences. Black mountains rising into white clouds all around. Everything you imagined. It’s all true.
As soon as we crossed the border into Colorado, Johnny put on Willie and Merle’s latest hit song. Green crosses and leafs announced Colorado’s latest business boom. It all seemed like a joke on how uptight America still is. All I saw growing was about 100 miles of rye, rapeseed and potatoes. Stacks of hay like amber barges on a green ocean.
Conspicuously absent were flags of any kind. As if anyone would look around and wonder where they were. Dark cattle on the plain. Red horses standing over new foals in the grass. The dark mountains rising. The valleys beckoning. The clouds so close.
At the north end of the endless valley, we turned into the mountains, headed to Gunnison for tonight’s show. Every rock formation looked like a hideout. Boulders tumbled from the spine of an ancient seabed. Curtains of rain parted and there was snow on the road in the Buffalo Pass. Thunder rolled at ten thousand feet. From inside Paul’s phone Joan Osborne sang,
“If God had a face, what would it look like
and would you want to see,
if seeing meant that you would have to believe…?”
Stopped for a one lane bridge in a pass, a fellow got out of his truck behind us and sauntered up to the van. “You’re a long way from Massachusetts,” he growled, referring to the plate on our rented van. He smiled and held up a box of sweets. “Welcome to Colorado! Would you like a strudel?”