Work: Santero: Chimayo, New Mexico

Santero Robert Bal wears a pair of jeans, worn where he holds his work against his leg.  The tradition of woodcarving is often passed down within a family from one generation to the next, but Robert is self-taught.  When I ask how he learned to carve, he tells me about Don Pablo.
Returning to New Mexico after an absence of several years, Robert was surprised to find his friend dressed in good clothes and living in a nice house.  When he left home, Don Pablo was only a poor woodcutter.  Curious, he asked what he was doing now. 
“I’m a stone mason,” he said, proudly. 
“But Don Pablo,” Robert said, “you’re a woodcutter.” 
“Don’t be crazy.  See that wall over there?”  Don Pablo pointed to a finely-laid stone wall.  “I built it.  Don’t ever think that you can’t do something.  Do it and the job will teach you.” 

As he talks, Robert moves his fingers over a carving of John the Baptist, feeling the texture of the wood.  The santero points out how he worked the juniper in different directions, following the grain to emphasize the folds of the prophet’s cloak.
“Most people,” he says, “wouldn’t have the patience to do it.”
“Juniper has a pleasing grain and nice variations of color,” he continues.  “But it’s a wildwood.  You can’t control it.  You have to let the wood control the carving.  There was nothing in the wood that told me to carve John the Baptist.  But once I began, the twists of the grain controlled the strength and movement of the piece.”  He points out a small nubbin on the back of the prophet’s fist.  “I just couldn’t bring myself to cut that off.”


Ritual: Meditation: Arizona, Boynton Canyon

Terry Gustafson wants to check out a New Age vortex, so we drive over to what’s said to be the main power spot.  On the way, he tells me about a Zen Buddhist from Burma who meditates with a skeleton in his room.  "He got to the point," Terry says, "that when he ate his meals with the other monks all he saw were their skeletons sitting next to him."  As we pull into the parking area at Boynton, Terry says Buddhists wonder why New Agers are always looking for out-of-the-body experiences.  "They say the New Agers still haven't had an in-the-body experience." 
Walking up the trail, I mention that a vortex can be either positive or negative.  “Yes," he says, "you can hear the two energies – listen."  An airplane drones high overhead; a truck rumbles on the road below us.  Suddenly a raven banks over the redrocks, swooping toward a bare snag.  "And that's an omen flying up there," he adds with a smile. 


River: Colorado: Grand Canyon, Arizona

As we float across a flat stretch next morning, Jene Vredevoogd wonders about river guides.  “Boatmen spend their lives planning ahead,” he says.  “They’re always watching for rocks and rapids, reading the water, but in their own lives they never make plans for the future.”  A few strokes and he finds the current again.

River: San Juan: Mexican Hat, Utah

A raft and eight kayaks, the mother goose and eight goslings, drift through The Goosenecks – a textbook example of entrenched meanders.  Sunk deep in the canyon, never shifting course, this stretch of river loops back and forth for 23 miles to cover 7 straight-line miles.  "Last night," says Beth Goforth, "we finally realized we've become entrenched meanderers ourselves."

Mystery: Archaic: Sonora

I run into Roger Henderson on the street.  He begins telling me about a friend who took a trip to Mexico.  The guy lost a silver split-twig figurine that he wore around his neck.  He had gone swimming in the Gulf of California and noticed it was gone when he left the water.  A couple of months later his girlfriend received the figurine in the mail from a Mexican friend.  Her friend had been watching a fisherman clean his catch.  As he gutted a fish, a green, slimy object fell out.  She recognized the lost figurine when he washed it.


Hopi: Painted Desert, Arizona

Light brushes across the Painted Desert at dawn, sweeping up the far cliffs.  Ahead lie the Hopi mesas where the ruined walls of a church form a stark glyph against the sky.  I drive past rock layers stacked on older layers and stone houses on older rubble.  Whenever I return here, a sense of beauty and strangeness settles over the scene.

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cairn wind rock scaffold



Light: Rock: Panguitch, Utah

A scientist and I are having a conversation during dinner at Harold's Place.  He has shown a wide-ranging curiosity about the places we've visited on a National Geographic trip, and has used his scientific knowledge to deepen his aesthetic appreciation.  When he looks at a rock, he sees not only its form and color but the intricate web of its chemical composition.  As our talk draws to a close, he makes a final observation.  "There's no mystery," he says, "only light.”


Lessons: Writing: Griffith Spring, Arizona

Reaching an open stand of ponderosa, we stop for a rest, having seen only a few old tracks.  George Renner keeps his rifle handy as we continue our earlier conversation about learning how to write.
“Lots of young people,” he says, “always take the long way to get what they want.  They want to write something so they go to school to get educated.  They lose their enthusiasm, they learn somebody else’s style.  I don’t want to tell you your business, but here’s what I’d do:  Go direct to your goal.  If you want to write, tell yourself – tomorrow morning I’m going to be a writer.  Then when you get up in the morning, start writing.  That’s the only way I know of becoming a writer.”

renner renner




Ritual: Sun Dance: Northern Ute: Utah

As Ute Indian Rick Chapoose unloads the boat on the Green River, I notice his Sun Dance scars.  “I have done four Sun Dances with the Lakota at Pine Ridge,” he tells me.  “I did them to be a better father, for health, and to be able to speak better before people.”
            After dinner the Ute boatman brings out his drum and sings some songs, more melodic than Pueblo chants.  The first song, Rick says, came to him on a Greyhound bus as he rode through Texas.  He sat staring out the window for hours and said a prayer each time he saw a hawk sitting on a fence post.  And then the song came to him.   But he had to fast four days – no food or water – to learn its meaning.


work   road

Work: Navajo:Tsegi, Arizona

Two pickups have stopped next to a third which is stuck in the sand.  Half a dozen Navajo struggle to push it free.  Ten miles down the road, another pickup has broken down on the shoulder.  Four legs stick out from underneath; another two kick from beneath the hood as if the truck is swallowing the man. 
     We've gone to great lengths to avoid getting stuck and have created an elaborate service network to unstick us if it does happen.  We make sure we don't need each other, and then wonder why we feel cut off.  The world offers a few ways to get close to people; getting your truck stuck is one of them.


Road: Highway 89: Cameron, Arizona

Clear morning light draws in the horizon, and soon Speedy’s gas station appears.  It sits so detached from the surroundings only the road keeps it tethered.  The speed limit drops, but instead of slowing down my foot stays on the gas.  Give me an empty highway this morning, nothing else.  Let me draw a single line through space, and the rest will fall into place. 


flash flood   ruins

Flash Flood: Antelope Canyon, Arizona



Monsoon weather pushes up from Sonora and moves north beyond the rimlands of Arizona.  Thunderheads build above the Navajo country, gathering force in dark fists of cloud.  Over the Kaibito Plateau the sky turns raven black as gusts sweep the high desert.  Lightning flashes, and suddenly a cloudburst unloads a pounding rain so localized the weather radar misses it.  A stealth storm. 
Dry washes quickly fill with runoff, setting all in motion.  Tongues of water course down Red Mesa and Many Ghosts Hill, threading together as the flood gains deadly momentum, dropping 2,000 feet in only 15 miles.  Thick with silt, the floodwaters are rushing toward Antelope Canyon, a spectacular slot canyon on the outskirts of Page, Arizona.  Navajo Indians call it, “The place where water passes through rock.”
It’s 4:10 in the afternoon. 
The skies above the canyon remain clear, and no rain has fallen.  Pancho Quintana, the 28-year old tour leader for TrekAmerica, heads up the narrows with two clients on their way out.  The other three members of his group have wandered deeper into the slot.  Quintana gets within 100 feet of the entrance and hears a rumbling ahead.  Without warning a flash flood tears through the upper narrows and plunges into the deep chamber below.  Flaring overhead, the cliffs cut off all escape for the dozen hikers trapped inside. 
The tour leader wedges the couple against the wall as the muddy surge sweeps past.  He looks down at the water reaching his knees, and the next second it's chest-deep.  From somewhere upstream two tourists tumble past with arms flailing, unrecognizable in the muddy tumult.  Another surge wrenches him away from the cliff, and he shoots down the gorge. 
Floodwaters rebound through the twisting passage, swirling 80 feet up the walls. Tossed and tumbled, Quintana surfaces several times, gulping air.  Silt fills his eyes as he shoots downstream a quarter-mile in a matter of seconds.  Slamming into rocks and brush, he grasps blindly about – and finds a hold.  “You can live,” he keeps telling himself, “you can live.”  Pulling himself from the water, he lies on his back dazed.  He is the only one left alive. 
Highway patrolman Dennis Bratcher arrives on the scene and races along the east rim.  He finds Quintana, the lone survivor, lying naked and blind.  The force of the water has stripped him of everything except his shoes and watch.  Mud seals his eyes and cakes his body.  The officer checks for injuries, finding scrapes and contusions from head to toe, but nothing life-threatening.  He begins to question him, asking about the other hikers – names, descriptions, and locations last seen. 
Memory is fluid, following the runoff channels of older memories.  Sometimes it percolates into the deeper strata, and sometimes it evaporates completely.  Still disoriented, Quintana remembers hearing the roar of the water coming down the canyon, but says he lost consciousness and can't recall what happened next.  He doesn’t know how much time has passed, how far he has climbed, or what became of the others. 
It’s now 4:30.
As Quintana lies on the rim of the slot canyon, he waits for the questioning to end.  Then he asks the highway patrolman if he can tell him something, and of course he agrees.  “He felt that he was going to die,” the officer reports, “and had accepted the situation.  A feeling of comfort and calm overcame him.”


Ruins: Navajo: Long Canyon, Arizona

Pothunters mined the Southwestern ruins for more than fifty years, going after various curiosities – pottery, baskets, weapons, mummies – especially mummies.  Those dried human husks have always drawn a crowd.  Scientists later mined the same sites for information, gathering the fragments, screening and washing, sorting and counting them.  Once translated into numbers, the common artifacts are left in brown paper bags like the leftovers from somebody’s lunch.  Legend gives way to raw data, a midden of dead facts deep enough to rebury the past.
At night I walk through the ruins beneath the cliff, solid black against a star-scattered sky.  High overhead, the rock curves along the elliptic on the same arc taken by Orion and the Pleiades.  Old ruins under ancient light.  Standing here, I sense a shift in time, the way a river current rises and falls.  Normally it unfolds in a single direction, an ephemeral fourth dimension.  Now it’s different.  Time surges for a moment, taking on a dimension not recorded in Greenwich.  The contours deepen, moving beyond pure duration.  It’s a perceptual shift but as visceral as the sensation of peering over a high cliff. 


Archaic: Kanab Canyon, Arizona

I roll over again as all the painted images of the day resurface.  They cover the rock wall the way tracks crisscross the sand, revealing all the roamings of a night in a single glance.  The human mind leaves traces of its passing, the images braiding together the way thoughts do.  At one time the meaning of these old paintings was as clear as a claw mark, the drag of a tail, or the brush of a wing thrown into relief by the morning sun.  At one time you could trail the thought of the artist to where the wind is always on the verge of rising and the rain about to fall. 

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kanab hades shaman