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Cowboys In Cars

Posted January 29th, 2011 at 10:19 PM by chas
Updated January 30th, 2011 at 09:03 AM by chas

“ ’Are you enjoying the show?’
‘Yes, but I wish she’d change up, and do some old rock and roll.’
‘And now folks, I think I’d like to do something by Chuck Berry!’ “
--Me, The Librarian, and Emmy Lou Harris
Synchronicity: Schaeffer Concert On The Pier, New York City, 1980s

“Power, when inactive, is described as being in its ‘home,’ a place, usually a cave in a mountain, where the shaman learns a ceremony in his visionary experience.”
--Apache Odyssey

Sometimes experiences of the individual and collective past, present, and future are linked together in ways we can’t begin to understand. Memories come back to one in odd connections from years ago. So if we start off inside the Brooklyn Bridge and end up in Arizona, don’t be surprised. Just come along for the ride.

You can easily understand why The Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage Museum was open only before the War On Terrorism. Built into the Brooklyn side tower of the bridge, you could actually see the supports for the cables and how they were constructed. You could also see and old lady’s tidy apartment from the days before the bridge was built. It seems when residents were forced out of their residences when an area in the Brooklyn Heights area was condemned for construction, one old woman refused to leave. She died and was entombed in what became the inside of one of the bridge supports! In time, her body was discovered, in one of the most poignant deaths I’ve ever heard about, and in the museum you could see her rooms just as they had been when she lived in them over a hundred years ago!

Another bizarre happening, this one on top of the bridge walkway was when I decided to quit my job. After a few years in City government, I’d become bored and restless. Suspended way above the river, I could see beneath the wooden board slats to the water below me. Suddenly the bridge became invisible to me, and it was just me walking on air high above the world between Brooklyn and Manhattan. I was ready to make a change.

In Gurdjieff School it had been noted that it could be a useful act to deal with our unfinished personal issues. Since my mother had chosen her children over her husband, I’d been pretty isolated from my Dad. We didn’t have much in common. I had an artistic bent, and he was a typical uncommunicative American male, who only talked sports, which I cared nothing about. He’d always talked about special times he and his dad did stuff together, but never suggested doing anything with me. So I decided to take my severance check and take a trip with my father, the only time alone I’d ever spent with just the two of us. I’d never been to the Southwest, and he hadn’t since his World War Two army days, so I planned a trip on the US Atlas. We’d fly into El Paso on the far west tip of Texas and drive a long way through New Mexico to Arizona in a rented car. Along the way we’d see Carlsbad Caverns, White Sands, Albuquerque (where we’d see Emmy Lou Harris singing live at the State Fair, along with some rodeo events), Santa Fe, Taos and the Kit Carson ranch, a few miles of Colorado when we took a wrong turn, the Sandia Peak aerial tramway, where on a clear day you could see into Mexico, the Painted Desert, the Petrified Forest, Meteor Crater and beautiful country on American Indian reservations like Shiprock, cross the Continental Divide (and see the film of the same name with John Belushi and Blair Brown), ruins of the ancient cliff dwelling Anasazi peoples, the reservations of the Mescalero Apache who I’d studied in college, the Grand Canyon, Red Rock country with its cinematic Western terrain and ghost towns, and finally Phoenix. In September of 1981, we did it. We got cowboy hats and turquoise belt buckles, too!

The border between the American South and the Southwest appears in roadside restaurants. At one point people eat grits with their breakfast eggs; that’s the South. When they switch to potatoes, and add juicy steaks to the morning meal, you’re in the Southwest: land of cowboys, Indians, and miles of driving on empty roads where the speed limit is only a state of mind. Here you travel routes marked with cozy names like Journada del Muerto. Having spent weeks in college studying the Mescalero Apache culture as a case study in Anthropology 100 where we read the story of a shaman (Apache Odyssey: A Journey Between Two Worlds by Morris E. Opler, 1969, SBN 03-076905-2), I now bought a history book covering their wars with the US Cavalry (The Mescalero Apaches by C. L. Sonnichsen, 1973, ISBN 0-8061-0416-3). As we drove for hours between destinations, I’d read Dad passages about battles fought where we were passing. On these empty drives we’d see little on the highway but uphill escape cutoffs for large trailer trucks, and what little music we could get on the radio was not to his taste. One time he’d respond to my reading and look up into the hazy mountains towering above us—having been in the Pacific in World War II, and known rough terrain—and say: “No wonder they couldn’t catch them!”

On the reservation, we’d see small spreads tucked in between the forested hills. A nice house with a couple of horses and pick up trucks nearby would appear suddenly and then be gone as we rode along. We were just driving through, we didn’t do any visit the Indians activities. Although we did see an exhibition of Indian ceremonial dances at one stop, they were very moving. Up in Shiprock, a more desolate desert land, a school bus passed us momentarily to drop off a couple of Native American children, with their book packs in the middle of-- nowhere. I looked around and saw no kind of dwelling structure at all. I stared at the bus again, as it drove off. Then I figured to watch where the boy and girl went. But they were gone. Vanished. Poof! Maybe their family was in some hidden New Age underground environmentally friendly house. I don’t know.

My Dad had been out here during the war, when he was riding the rails to the Pacific Coast, to train as a heavy bomber mechanic. He taught me a few things, too, that were not to be found in books. Riding on the rim of the Grand Canyon, I saw a big yellow dog running nearby, and wondered why he was out by himself. “That’s a coyote,” observed my father. Ah. I should have called up Coyote the Trickster--asked him what had happened to those Indian children…

In the old Albuquerque town square, nosing around by myself, I met a young ex-New Yorker selling local jewelry on a blanket. I complimented the local scenery and climate. “Yeah, man. I came out here for a visit, and then wrote my parents. I said: Send my stuff, send my dog, I’m never coming back from here.”

A showpiece hotel in Santa Fe was five stories high in the local faux adobe style, the only architecture allowed. Inside a colorful plaza of shops and restaurants we ate fantastic food with Mexican and Native American touches. They had never heard of a White Russian, but they had their own brands of alcohol. And all colors, and other sensory experiences seem brighter and more important on the road, especially when it’s a long way between stops. Even further north in Taos, Kit Carson’s adventures are chronicled with exhibits of clothing and Western cowboy gear. In a lesser known capacity, he served as a Colonel of Mexican American militia in the Civil War. As we drove back onto US 40 and headed ever Westward, the Rockies raised up in the distance to meet us. We took in the movie Continental Divide the day we crossed that landmark. On one side the rivers flow east, on the other they run west. The film explored a romance between a sarcastic Chicago newspaper columnist and a nature loving Westerner, and suggested that both sides of life were useful and necessary. As city boys in the country, we were ready to accept that premise. We were now cowboys in cars. When we bought our cowboy hats, the salesgirl swooned over her description of her boyfriend--he was a rodeo rider. This was not something that happened back home.

One of the best things about the trip was the unplanned nature I’d built in. We had a few reservations in a couple of places like the Grand Canyon, to make sure we’d have rooms, but on most nights we just stayed where ever we happened to be. This allowed us to take our time about it all, and stop where we wished for as long as we wished, within a general time framework. I remember an incredible sunset in the clear air at some Northern New Mexico motel where we’d stopped after mistakenly passing into Colorado, enjoying the scenery and getting back on our route. The fiery oranges and red were just like the ones on one of the local state flags, splashed across the sky in huge bands of color. It was peaceful and quiet, even just off the road. As the sun went down, there was a great contentment at just being there—where ever it was we were. I couldn’t find it today on the map.

Phoenix, Arid Zone (Arizona) was hot and dry, like the rest of the trip. Palm trees swayed in the breeze here, and art galleries showcased Western paintings and sculpture. Spanish style architecture on beautifully landscaped lots alternated with more modern buildings. As we drove past typical empty scenery framed in cactus, we knew we’d visited sacred ground. It’s nice to know its still there. As for my Dad and I, we didn’t have any Big Bonding Moment, but the whole trip became an epic we’d refer to with each other now and again as the years went by—a special time when it was just us together.

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