West vol. 7: Watershed


Uranium country

Santa Fe, New Mexico

17 December 2013

Dear fellow-travelers,

I had made a deliberate decision on the morning I left Dove Creek, Colorado: it was going to be a good day.  The sky was visible.  The landscape was visible.  Pain and misery were not conspicuous at any point around the compass, and there was no good reason why a passing sheriff might consider me a danger to myself.

There was a spring in my step, then, when I came upon a bicycle on the side of the road, attached to a skeletal trailer and half-buried under immense ragged rolls of what might once have been cotton batting.  On the other side of the bicycle a man sat on an upturned bucket with a bottle dangling in his hands.  If you imagine what a cow might look like, having died long ago in a lonely place, and having subsequently been dragged through a tangle of barbed wire and run through several tubs of engine grease, you might imagine the substance from which the man, the bicycle, and the luggage seemed to be made.  A tiny American flag pinned to the stern of the trailer fluttered over him as I walked up.  He wasn’t moving much.

“You’re doing okay?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said.  He looked at the dirt a bit more.  “I had some rain.  The last three days.”

He took a swig from the bottle, which looked to contain a mixture of iced tea and mud.

“Where are you heading?”


“You’re close.”

“Yeah,” he said.

A blue sky and a dry road: what a good day we were having!  Four nights earlier, I’d been howling with frustration as snow fell thick and fast on the thorn brush along Highway 191, losing all sensation in my toes, trying to put up my tent with fingers that no longer bent and hands that might as well have been ping pong paddles, trying to throw in my gear without throwing in drifts of powder, and hoping nothing hidden under the snow would punch through the floor beneath my weight.  Then the tent condensed in the night, and every time I woke to knock the snow off the outside, on the inside, it rained.  Once there were red lights flashing on the other side of the shrubs I was sheltering behind, but it wasn’t until morning, when the police pulled me over, that I learned they’d had people out searching for me in the blizzard, because concerned drivers had phoned in reports of a man staggering through the dark and the storm pushing a baby carriage, out in the middle of the desert.

That was the night before I reached Monticello, which is where things really got interesting.  The police think it’s bad when you’re out on the highway, but it’s when you’re in a motel room, crumpled over and feeling eviscerated – no one’s phoning for you then.  That’s on you.  You pack up, open the door, and go out for a good day.

My destination that good day out of Dove Creek was a house by a canal north of Lewis, and my host had told me there were two ways to get there.  I could follow the highway southeast and then take a side road north, or I could veer east off the highway on a dirt road that would be shorter, but muddy.  It had, after all, been raining.  I was having a good day, so when I got to the eastward turnoff, I squared my shoulders, put on a happy grin, and took it.

I was still in sight of the highway, and the object of several horses’ doleful curiosity, when the mud began to disagree with me.  It caked to my shoes, but didn’t stick to itself; it formed great masses on my shoes, but it wouldn’t completely hold my weight.  It didn’t stick to itself underfoot, but it stuck to itself on the bicycle wheels of my cart – stuck so successfully, in fact, that in short order the wheels were entirely cased in solid mud a handspan thick, and I was sliding and gasping, and eventually screaming, out in a field of stubble and clay, still in sight of the highway, heaving viciously at a cart with cemented wheels that had rapidly come to rival me in weight, as my good day set westward in the cold thin Colorado air.

On the advice of my hosts in Lewis, who helped me cobble a makeshift psyche together and helped me break the frozen mud from my wheels in the morning, I spent Thanksgiving eve at The Bridge Emergency Shelter in Cortez, on the premises of the former Montezuma County jail.  The staff there helped me wrestle my cart through the door; I followed the manager to the office, set down my backpack, and checked in.

“Do you have any weapons?  Do you have a knife?”

“I have a knife in the cart.”

“Not on you?”

“It’s in the cart.”

“How big is it?”

“About like this.”

“Nothing in the backpack?”

“No, just in the cart.  I can go get it.”

“If it’s in the cart, it’s all right.  No one’s allowed down that hallway, and if anyone does go down there –“ she pointed at the monitor behind the desk – “we’ll see them.”

Then, to make sure I was heading to the correct wing of the facility, I took a breathalyzer test.  The Bridge, the manager explained, is unusual in admitting people who are intoxicated, but it does shelter anyone with a blood alcohol content above the legal driving limit in a separate room.  I stayed up late talking with two of the staff about their travels in Uganda and Costa Rica and spent the rest of the night restlessly, my assigned place in the sober men’s dormitory being next to the plastic curtain separating the bunks from the toilet.  At 5:30 am, a man in blue gloves came in and turned on the lights.  I ate something, bundled my bedding into the laundry cart, mopped the floor, and waited with some of the other residents in the dining room for it to get a little warmer outside.

Across the table, a middle-aged woman sat down, talking fretfully to herself, clutching a doll in one hand and stuffing doughnuts haphazardly into her mouth with the other.  We were joined by the man who had kept the plastic curtain flapping through the night.  He wanted to know if he should transfer his belongings to the other wing of the facility right away, given that he hoped to have a couple of beers to celebrate Thanksgiving, or if he should wait until the evening, and see if he failed the breathalyzer test then.  He was also curious about my trip down to Texas.

“You’re going to El Paso?” he asked.


“Are you going to get there today?”

It took me a moment to realize we weren’t quite speaking the same language.

“I’m walking,” I said.

“You’re walking?”


“To El Paso?”


He tilted his head at me, and said, slowly, “Well…”

It kept getting colder.  Fall ended, and on the first of December, I was in Durango, on the brink of a cold front unlike anything I’d experienced.  I bought a thermos as a last-resort way to keep at least some water liquid, and my host loaned me an extra sleeping bag; and I made it to Pagosa Springs before the temperature dropped.  Thanks to the kindness of my hosts there, I kept indoors through a spell that registered as low as -20°F, or -28°C.  As soon as the front moved through, I moved south as fast as I could.  I reached the New Mexico border and crossed the Great Divide on the tenth, stopping for two nights in Chama, at an official elevation of 7,871 feet, or 2,399 meters, on the high western edge of the Rio Grande drainage.

My host there was teaching himself to play guitar, and had, as yet, two songs up his sleeves: “Amazing Grace” and “This Land Is Your Land.”  I asked him why he’d gone for those two songs, and he told me he particularly liked the melody and message of the Guthrie song, especially the original final verses, which for some reason tend not to be sung in grade school.  He handed me a sheet of the lyrics, and they would certainly have taken some explaining in the grade schools I went to, Woody Guthrie being a fellow traveler in more ways than one.

The next place I stopped was Cebolla, and my hosts there brought Guthrie up to date.  Like other people I’ve met in the course of this journey, Bill and Leah Hoffman are worried about fracking.  They live in a solar house, partially subterranean and made largely of recycled materials, on a dirt road a couple of miles off the highway, amidst dry forest and grazing land, off the grid for water and electricity but connected to the Internet and landline phone service.  They’re engaged in a grim, prolonged struggle over potential Bureau of Land Management leases of surrounding public mineral rights to oil and gas development.  Such development could essentially trump their immediate property rights as homeowners, pollute the headwaters of the drainage, expend enormous quantities of water in fracking slurry, overwhelm the local road network and sanitation infrastructure, and turn the valley where they live into an unregulated toxic industrial wasteland – business, in other words, as usual.  They should know.  Coming from a family business in the tanker truck fleet out of Salt Lake City, Bill used to work in the industry.

In the evening when I arrived, and in the morning when I left, my host accompanied me through the field below the house, to make sure I wasn’t trampled by the horses.

Finally, on the road to Abiquiú, the elevation began to drop, the air to warm, and the vegetation to change.  At Española, heroin capital of New Mexico (or, depending on whom you talk to, of the United States), I crossed the Rio Grande.  I’m in the land of ristras, chiles hanging from every ceiling, wall, or doorway with space for a hook; in the land of adobe, square houses, wood beams, and metal gateways; in the land of casitas and trailer homes; in a land of memorial crosses, guard dogs, diapers on the roadside, and a ubiquitous scattering of miniature hard liquor bottles.  Vote Catholic.

I’m beginning to feel that I’ve walked a long way.  I have seen immense things.  I have been given much, and have lost much, in some balance or imbalance I can’t measure.  I continue growing older.  I feel kindness more acutely.  I miss places where I’ve felt at home.

On the night I reached La Puebla, the sky was a pale purple band above the trees; and above me, everything else was blue.


Next: West vol. 8: Resolution

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