Written August 20, 2015
Carla, Abigail and I hiked the trails to cliff dwellings and followed Frijoles Creek at Bandelier National Monument where the ancient Pueblo people once lived and laughed and loved. We brought little to eat, anticipating our night out in Santa Fe withs its promise of margaritas and fine New Mexico fare of enchiladas, beans and featherweight melt-in-your-mouth sopapillas. I was 18. The year was 1977.
Bandelier marked a coming of age—from the first margarita to the adventure with two young women also far from home. The three of us worked at Chaco Canyon National Monument. We were no strangers to the magnificent architecture of what we then knew as the Anasazis (now properly called ancient Pueblo people). Far from taking the culture for granted, we all sought to see and know more.
By campfires, we’d talk for hours of the mysteries of an elaborate culture that vanished, or did it? The Pueblo Indians of New Mexico pass down the stories of their ancestors.
I remember vividly parts of our day at Bandelier and evening at the outdoor cafe in Santa Fe—how cool, limey and salty were the taste of the beckoning first-time margaritas and how we laughed and stumbled our way from the table when we’d finished our meal and pitcher.
I remember Carla who had thick shiny black hair, a husky laugh, and a sturdy build, and Abigail with her long blond braid and slender yet tough frame. We were all so green to the ways of the world.
On our way back to Chaco the next day (with hangovers), we jounced the washboard back roads in Carla’s beat-up sedan until we noticed a bumping sound coming from the back left rear. Not daring to find out what might be wrong that we could not fix, we started singing and singing louder as the noise worsened. By the time we got to Chaco, the flat tire had worn to nothing.
Life has a way of coming full circle. How would I ever have predicted that 38 years later I would return with my 18-year-old son to New Mexico who would start college in Albuquerque. Here’s Ian at that same tender age. Here I am, the mother who must step back to let him make his own mistakes and come of age in his way. So I’ve left him on campus, trying not to think about all the wild oats he has to sow. The best tonic? Revisit Bandelier.
Camping in the same park campground, walking the same trails, I feel the ghosts of my own past mingling with those of the ancients.
Who was I then? Am I still that person? I had left high school in Concord, Massachusetts, midway through my senior year—flying to Seattle, then taking a Greyhound bus to look at a string of universities —my heart set on college in the west. I’d ended up at Chaco—my backpack lost for another week on the buses. How tempting it is to look at all those junctures in my life from that point and wish to alter some of them, to pause and savor others, and to long for the youthful me.
Now, the crowsfeet etched by my eyes carry my story of the joys and heart breaks of life, along with plenty of sunshine outdoors.
Once, Louis Adams, a Salish elder, told me that life is one long day from sunrise to sunset.
I think of his wise words and wonder if within that day’s arc are multiple circling backs. This morning I rose early from my campsite on the plateau and ran in the early light down into the canyon, stopping often to exclaim upon the beauty before me, the beauty behind me, and the beauty around me.
The sun illuminated sunflowers, vistas toward mountains, and the needles of pinyons and junipers. Bluebirds and goldfinches zipped by and I heard the achingly lovely descending notes of the canyon wren.
After four miles I was there. It was time to walk with the respect due the ancients.
Alone, I walked past the biggest pueblo off Frijoles Creek where a gargantuan flood in 2013had sent great cottonwoods battering down through the waterways, piling them like haphazard rafts against stalwart pines.Alone, I walked up the trail to cliff dwellings, placing my hand on the cool morning sandstone, listening to canyon wrens and the croak of a raven. A golden eagle soared by.
Bending low to look at a white primrose blossom, I saw a microcosm in the bloom. There, a colorful insect rolled pollen into its abdomen, while nearby a crab spider waved an arm and snagged an errant ant. All this, in a two-inch world.
That whole morning of climbing ladders and reveling in the ancient Puebloan homes, I encountered only three people—the first a park ranger by the visitor center, the second a slightly lost hiker who I helped read her map, and the third, an older woman descending the Frey Trail as I hiked up to return to the campground.
Among the glory of the day—with its unexpected gifts of ancient pines that already emanated the fragrance of vanilla, of wildflowers and pollinators, and clouds that clamored for attention from the sun—I kept wondering. Did I touch this same spot back in 1977? Did I hold this rung of the ladder? Did I gasp at the sight of the waterfall?
Did my breath quicken with the canyon wren’s song? Am I me?
Yes I am. The winds tell me. The raven who landed on the pine branch above me and looked down with a loud craw tells me. I am me but more so. I know what it is to love intensely, to lose people I’ve loved, to marry and divorce and especially I know what it is to be a mother. I’m still a runner, still freckle-faced, still forgetful, still adventurous, still intrigued by lost cultures, still a romantic, and still would choose a day in nature over a day in the city. Life comes full circle.