Day 6 & Day 7 – Santa Fe to Roswell
Just before we crossed the border into New Mexico yesterday, I began reading aloud from a book called “Ceremony” by Leslie Marmon Silko. It was a book I read ages ago, during a period when I was reading a lot of Native American literature. It’s about a native Laguna man named Tayo who returns from World War II, shell-shocked and broken and trying to find peace. The world he returns to is utterly different from the one he left. His cousin died beside him in the war, his uncle died while he was away. To top things off, he is a half-breed and when he returns he no longer knows where he fits in. Caught between the white people’s world and his native soul, he searches for healing. First he finds it in the white people’s hospitals where they medicate him so much that he fades into “invisibility.” Then, returned to his family, his grandmother pushes him to undergo a ceremony.
It strikes me that had the book been written in 2015, Tayo could have just chosen to identify as one thing or another and called it a day. No more guess-work. Just choose.
Anyway, it’s a beautiful book. Reading it, you have the sensation that you, too, might have been native somewhere back down the line. Tayo describes the right way to kill a deer – lovingly, gratefully – and you know in your bones as you read this that he is right. And even if you’re not part native (maybe you can just identify), you must be drugged up if you don’t feel this ever-present clash between the simpler world of the past and the stresses of modern life.
Over dinner Molly told us about the documentary she’s working on. It’s about a woman with native roots who was living in L.A. when she contracted some malady for which traditional medicine could not offer a cure. She then went on mission to try every possible solution, mental or physical. “Geez,” I said to Molly, “that sounds a lot like the book I’m reading aloud now – Ceremony?”
“You’re reading Ceremony?” Molly laughed and we exchanged a look. It did seem an odd coincidence.
For breakfast Molly took us into downtown Sante Fe. Along the square Native American artists sat hawking their jewelry to tourists. We got our dose of New Mexico cuisine at a local diner called the Plaza Café: Greg’s took the form of Frito pie, and mine the form of a taco out of Navajo fry bread. And along with our meal we received a basket of sopapillas, the New Mexican fried dough that you top with honey.
After breakfast Molly drove us down a few back streets in Santa Fe. Here all of the buildings are required to look alike, all with the same dusky red stucco exteriors. You have the sense that you’re seeing New Mexico the way it ought to be, a cluster of pueblos. Molly’s own house is from the late 1800s and has walls that are a foot thick. When they renovated, they discovered they were packed with mud brick adobe.
Molly and her mom invited us to stay for Thanksgiving. We were tempted, but had to keep making headway.
We debated our course from Santa Fe. We considered going to the Gila cliff dwellings, but we had already come pretty far east and didn’t want to backtrack so we drove straight south. We crossed over a lot of nothingness that day. At one point we slowed for a sign that said “School bus stop” but, looking around, we couldn’t imagine where the kid lived; there were no houses in sight. We passed through a place called Vauhgn where it looked like every business had been abandoned save the check-cashing center.
I found the Indigo Girls’ song, “Jonas and Ezekial” and turned up the radio:
I used to search for reservations and native lands
Before I realized everywhere I stand
There have been tribal feet running wild as fire
Some past life sister of my desire
In Ceremony when Tayo goes to the see the medicine man, he gets a little freaked out. He expects herbs and rabbits’ feet but finds what looks like a hoarders den packed with old phone books and calendars. He anticipates Tayo’s concerns and tells him that the ceremony as it was performed in the past cannot work. “After the white people came, elements in this world began to shift and it became necessary to create new ceremonies. I have made changes to the rituals. The people mistrust this greatly, but only this growth keeps the ceremonies strong… things which do not shift and grow are dead things.”
So many of the communities we’ve passed through are empty of people, empty of soul. Prophets in the graveyards. The ceremony long overdue.
In the war over land where the world began
Prophecies say it’s where the world will end
But there’s a tremor growing in our backyard
Fear in our heads, fear in our hearts
We finally stopped for the night in Roswell, the spot where a rancher spotted a UFO back in 1947. They had a hot tub and we sat talking to Steve, the father of Brandon, a 17-year-old kid with CP who was attending college in a special program nearby. Steve had been a technician with the phone company servicing lines in the Telluride area until he retired. He and Greg talked about dangerous passes they had both driven in the area while Brandon would dip underwater, float aimlessly in the hot tub and resurface abruptly as if the fact that he ran out of air came as a shock to him.
“How are you liking college?” I asked him.
“Some good days, some bad,” he answered, clearing his throat and adding, “Excuse me.”
I thought about our move, and how I miss L.A., and told him I felt that way, too.
I slept poorly that night, worried all night that someone would break into our trailer, and woke up on Thanksgiving Day with such severe sciatic pain that I couldn’t stand. Greg was also in a lot of pain – and worried that he had a rotator cuff injury, possibly while engaged in his new hobby, skateboarding). We extended our stay at the hotel, took painkillers and got back into bed. Later that afternoon, we ventured out on a walk through town – on the lookout for alien life forms. I guess most of America looks like a ghost town on Thanksgiving, but Roswell felt particularly vacant. There were only semi-trucks driving through town, except for two motorcyclists sputtering up and down the main drag. We got back to the hotel, ate grits for dinner, and took sleeping pills and painkillers.
It felt like we, too, were in need of a ceremony.