Northern New Mexico
Once crossing the state line, the pointed Rocky Mountains of the north immediately flatten into mesas, and the cattle pastures become delicate yellow scrubland. The tree leaves are no longer the green that I have known in more temperate climates, but have become faded silver in the relentless sun.
This place seems to slowly pulse to a distant drumbeat that is steady, thoughtful, patient, like the way the people listen to what I have to say, waiting until I come to a full stop before responding. Their tongues lag in their mouths, their stride equally paused and pensive. I think for a moment that maybe people don’t hear me, or they’re all on drugs, or their daydreams have taken over reality. Or maybe they are just listening to the drumbeat that I can’t hear, the rhythm still woven into the landscape from the Native Americans of old. It reminds me of the smell of freshly baked fry bread from the Taos Pueblos, and the men with long braids down their back standing at the reservation grocery store. It resonates in the symbol of the New Mexico flag, a sun with rays coming out in the four cardinal directions, an icon harkening to the first peoples, some of whom still call this place home.
But now a new culture has emerged. As I sit at a café, I notice the group of men at the next table all wearing spurs as they clink their way to their seats, then begin to rant about the government and how many heifers they have this season ready for breeding. How no politician can understand the moods and individualities of the cattle they call their livelihood.
Outside the Taos library, I see a ragged man playing guitar, and can’t tell whether he’s serenading the infrequent passer-by, busking for money, or simply lost in the melody of his own thoughts. To be honest, the look of the people in this town at first unnerved me: the dreaded guy walking into the library with his huge malamute of a dog only to be escorted out, the lost-looking woman with no teeth in the magazine isle not reading anything, the bag of pot shake just conspicuously lying next to the boy on the computer, the elderly woman walking by in what I thought to be a miniskirt, but then realized it must have just been her bathing suit bottom, or simply underwear. My mouth hangs ajar as she struts past me, though I’m pretty sure I’m the only one to notice or care.
“One thing’s for sure,” a man in Taos told me. “Here, you’re never the biggest weirdo in the room.” And as I look around at the strange mélange of people, my helmet in hand, my motorcycle pants making me walk like the abominable snowman, my hair matted to my head in sweat, and my shirt smelling like a goat, I realize that if weren’t for them, I would definitely be the biggest weirdo in the room. But nobody even looks my way. I could get used to this, I say to myself, realizing that though it may seem strange, whatever elixir these people are drinking, I want in.
When we met a couple from Flagstaff, they were proud of their high altitude and mild summers. If we talked to someone from Phoenix, they were proud of their warm winters and continual sunshine. And it seemed that everyone from Arizona was proud of being different from everywhere else, either because of their screwy time zones or because of their unique saguaro cacti and gila monsters, their grandest-of-all canyons, their rattle snakes and hundreds of miles of shoreline around Lake Powell. Whatever it was, it was theirs and it was special.
They know that even the name Arizona holds a certain ring to it. Like what Paris is to romance, Arizona is to Westerns. We all have that image of cowboys riding through Monument Valley, but as we make our way along the road through the Navajo lands, I realize as I squint hard at the lowering sunlight just to see the road, that riding into the sunset is not as glamorous as the movies make it out to be.
Either way, Arizona was and always will be the land of the wild west, and of the hot desert. So when I wake to the sound of frigid rain hitting our tent at the Grand Canyon’s north rim, with pine trees sagging in the moisture and ravens cawing to each other, I realize that I was not entirely right about my assumptions. The man at the general store says that this ecosystem is actually considered to be Canadian Alpine, the forecast is a high of 52, and there’s always a chance of rain considering that at this altitude and with all the peaks and drops, no weatherman could ever predict these cloud patterns.
So much for the Grand Canyon in the hot desert.
I zip up my down jacket and wish I had down pants and down gloves and down socks and down underwear, but as the hours pass and the clouds disperse, we’re greeted with a view of the Grand Canyon that I had always dreamed of. The hawks screech in the distance, the donkeys bray going down the canyon, and Wiley Coyote goes chasing the Road Runner off a cliff only to momentarily hang in midair before falling.
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