April 8, 2020
Author: Chilton Williamson
(Unfortunately, wanderings like these are impossible in this wholly abnormal spring, when we’ve had to postpone a camping and hiking trip to the Southwest from fear of state border closures and being locked out of Wyoming when we attempt to reenter it.–author’s note.)
It’s 145 road miles from Belen to Gallup, New Mexico, a railroad town immediately east of the Arizona border on old Highway 66 and adjacent to the Ramah and Big Navajo Indian Reservations where my grandmother Williamson taught school early in the century, returning to Ohio after a semester or two when an amorous Navajo couldn’t be discouraged from dogging her footsteps around town. Ninety-some years later, I had a similarly unpleasant encounter in an Indian bar on the wrong side of the tracks in Gallup with a hairy Navajo carrying a knife in his boot who invited me to go deer-hunting with him and then, stroking my beard, asked me to be his squaw. At least that is what Ernie Bulow, who knows the language, made out from his somewhat disordered communication– Ernie only a step or two behind me as we made a hurried exit by a side door.
The son of a teacher at a Navajo boarding school, Ernie was a teacher himself at a Navajo school before the federal bureaucrats, in their zeal to “Americanize” the students, forbade him to wear cowboy boots in the classroom. A critic, author, and book collector, he operates a bookstore from his old bungalow overlooking Gallup and the forested mesas surrounding the town. He makes a cameo appearance as the trader Don Williams in The Fool’s Progress by Edward Abbey, a longtime friend, and after supplying Tony Hillerman, the late detective story writer, for years with information pertaining to the Dineh coauthored a book with him. I drove through town past the pawn shops and trading posts and stopped at a supermarket for a quart of orange juice. The Indian ahead of me on the checkout line was drunk enough to think he could fool the checkout girl into selling him a pint of blackberry brandy, which she confiscated instead.
Route 666–the Devil’s Highway–follows the Chuska Mountains north from Gallup until they begin to veer toward the northwest: Tobatchi, Nachitti, Newcomb, Shiprock. Shiprock Peak, highmasted emblem of the European invaders who smashed up the Navajo way of life forever, was visible 40 miles away to the south; on the northern horizon the Colorado Rockies floated miraculously like a chain of icebergs beyond the desert’s reach. West of Shiprock on Highway 504 a tourist in a speeding sports car nearly took out a couple of Indian ponies grazing on the shoulder of the road, and vice versa. From this road in the vicinity of Teec Nos Pos the Four Corners area appears in its entirety, staked down by Ute Mountain at near center. At Bluff, Utah, I crossed the silt-laden San Juan River and had a 20-minute palaver, while I waited for the returning pilot car, with the Indian flagger who claimed it was the best job she’d ever had.
At Blanding again–all roads lead to Blanding–I stopped to fill the truck’s twin tanks before starting on the 125-mile run across the head of Lake Powell to Hanksville. Above the purple depths of Glen Canyon hazed with a golden light, the Henry Mountains loomed across the river, backlit against the evening sun, their snows scarcely melted from the steeps above the dark precipitous forests. I watched them in the towing mirror as far as Hanksville, when they were obscured at last by the deepening dusk. Beyond Hanksville, a Mormon hamlet of not more than a few hundred souls, night came down at last and the grateful desert, bursting into the full bloom of spring, filled the darkness with a myriad heavy perfumes like conflicting currents of air pouring through the open windows. The town of Green River, when I reached it at a few minutes before ten, was sleepy with scent, and the office of the Motel 6 crowded with tourists wanting to know what the odor was. The place was full, so I drove on 50 miles to the southeast and camped in the dark on Island In the Sky 20 miles west of Moab.
At breakfast, the cloud above the western horizon at a point equidistant between the Henry Mountains and the Book Cliffs was no bigger than a puff of white smoke. It was a nice cloud, a point of interest in an otherwise banal sky, softly blue and paling around the edges. I tamped down the cookfire I had built in this official “No fire zone” (penalty 500,000 U.N. dollars, ten years in a Park Service dungeon, or both), slung the daypack on my shoulders, and walked out of camp under a warm spring sun, taking care not to step on the cryptogramite that, according to the government 2,000 miles away in Washington, holds the whole of southeastern Utah together. The red sand warmed, the blackbrush opened into new leaf, and the snow line lifted toward the triangular peaks of the La Sal Mountains, 30 miles away across the Colorado River. Horseless in deference to Park regulations (penalty 20 million U.N. dollars, and/or life imprisonment in Siberia), I stepped out bravely in the direction of the overlook, where the walls of the 6,300-foot mesa between the Green and the Colorado close in a rocky point north of the convergence of the two rivers. Admiring the desert wildflowers and cursing the Park Service’s hippophobia, I walked for a mile or so without looking at the cloud. It was bigger now, about the size of the Goodyear blimp, and turning dark on its bottom. I forgot about it in the pleasure of physical exertion, the warm sun on my back sending sweat between my shoulder blades under the thin cotton shirt, the jinking birds through the juniper trees, and the bottomless sky overhead, and when a breeze sprang up I pulled the shirt from my belt and let it in underneath. I was barely a mile from the point when the breeze stiffened to a light wind and I looked to the west again, where the cloud had thrown off altogether its benign aspect. It was a storm front now, sweeping across the slickrock wilderness toward the Green River and Sky Island, a blitzkrieg of wind and lightning extending 50 or 60 miles to the north and south. A flannel shirt was rolled up in the pack. I stopped long enough to pull it on and button it and reached the exposed point in a blasting sandstorm as the first fat drops of rain fell, steaming on the sun-charged rock.
The rain turned to hail as I climbed below the rimrock, following a deer trail leading to a shallow overhang 2,300 feet above the Colorado running swift and green in its blood-colored trench. I had a view of the Abajo Mountains and Elk Ridge, Six-Shooter Peak and Lavender Canyon, and the Needles before veils of rain and hail blotted the expanse, cutting away the valley below and leaving me shallowly encased in rock and floating in the clouds. Lightning bolts struck overhead and flashed across the canyon bottoms as waterspouts poured with the runoff: heavy falls of liquid mud and foam, bearing along sticks, cacti, and small rocks, streaking down the cliffs. I worked the pack from my shoulders, opened it, and peeled and ate an orange. Then as the storm continued I lay down in a cramped position in my small dry space and took a nap. When I woke, the rain had stopped. The sky was clearing and wraiths of cloud rose among the raindarkened rock columns above the river. Returning on the slick trail going up to the rimrock, I had to grasp at the rocks and bushes to avoid pitching backward into the abyss below.
In camp the sagging tent remained upright. My clothes were dry inside, the camp boxes intact. I restaked the tent and built the fire back to a defiant blaze before allowing it to burn down to cooking coals. The wind kept up that evening and throughout the night, and it was very cold. Several times I awoke with the nylon walls billowing around me and the aluminum poles swaying, as if the tent were a great bird attempting to become airborne. At dawn my hair and beard were filled with the fine red sand, but when I crawled out I was still on the verge of the cliff, not at the foot of it. The wind had subsided but continued to blow hard and cold from the northwest, where a shelf of gray cloud piled above the horizon—a spring blizzard I discovered, when I caught up with it later the same day.
Kemmerer lay under a foot of the heavy wet snow when I arrived there, and snow squalls blew throughout that weekend. The deep mud froze hard in the night and thawed during the clay to a thick gumbo. Fred Chambers called one morning from the ranch to ask for help. He’d been hauling water for our horses when the pickup became mired and sank to the frame in mud. Fred abandoned the truck and slogged the last several hundred yards on foot to the house, where he brewed coffee and drank the pot while he waited for Marcia to return from town in the Bronco. But when Marcia and Fred, using a tow rope, attempted to jerk the truck backward onto firmer ground, the Bronco stuck too and Fred returned to the house to call me.
Taking along ropes and a sheepherder jack in the Land Cruiser I drove to Twin Creek, where the Chamberses in muddy clothes waited on the creek bottom. We tried jacking up the rear end of the Bronco to lay cut sagebrush under the tires, but the big jacks sank in the wet clay without finding bottom in the bottomless road. So Fred attached one end of a nylon rope to the left rear leaf spring, while I advanced on him slowly in compound low. Almost within reach of the other end of the rope the Cruiser stalled out, sinking in mud above the axle as soon as its forward momentum ceased. “Well I’ll be dipped in shit,” Fred said. “Come on to the house, and I’ll fix us a pot of hot coffee.”
Fred telephoned Richard Lewis at the Lewis Ranch for emergency aid, and while the three of us waited for Richard to arrive with his stock truck and a winch Fred recalled an incident from his youth as a boy of 15 or 16, back in Tennessee. He was being harassed at school by a much bigger and stronger boy who had it in for him and was threatening to give Fred the beating of his life. Finally he jumped him on the playground and Fred, by a stroke of luck, managed to get the advantage. He knocked the boy against a wall and began to kick him in the groin and around the face. By the time they pulled Fred off the kid was a candidate for the hospital, and the principal summoned Fred to his office. The principal was an enormous man with round hulking shoulders and a huge paunch. “Hell, Fred,” the principal said, “l don’t know what I’m going to do about you. It looks like this is a case for the police. If that boy’s parents want to press charges, I’m afraid you’re in for a lot of trouble.” “He’s been laying for me for weeks,” Fred told him. “It wasn’t my fault.” “Well, why did you have to keep kicking him? Why couldn’t you just have knocked him down?” “Mr. Johnson,” Fred said, “you maybe have never thought about it, being such a big guy. But a little guy like me has to think. If I get in a fight with that fellow every couple of weeks I’ll maybe win one out of five fights, if I’m lucky. A little skinny guy like me has to give a big guy like that something to remember so he won’t come back for more.” “Well, Fred,” the principal said, “it sounds to me like you have a point there. Now I tell you what I want you to do. When I start yelling I want you to shout and holler and maybe cry a little, and ask me to let up on you. And don’t you ever tell anybody what we’re going to do, OK?” Then Mr. Johnson took off his belt and started to beat on his desk with it until (Fred said) he thought he was going to knock it to pieces. “That’ll teach you!” the principal yelled; so Fred began to holler and beg for mercy and shout that he was sorry and that he’d never get in a fight again. Then the principal quit beating his desk. He replaced the lengthy belt about his girth, and winked broadly at Fred. “You go now, son,” he said. ‘I’ll call this boy’s parents and tell them I’ve fixed everything, and you’re never going to bother their kid again.” Fred was about to make another pot of coffee when he happened to look from the window of the trailer into the creek bottom. “Good Lord!” he exclaimed. “Richard’s there already, waiting for us.”
We ran the cable out and Richard Lewis winched each of the three vehicles from the mud onto firm ground while Fred, Marcia, and I stood behind the borrow pit watching. “It almost looks like we knew what we was doing,” Fred observed. Then Richard rewound the cable on the winch and Fred took his Thermos from the pickup seat and poured him a cup of black coffee. Marcia walked back to the house while the three of us, ignoring the snow squall, discussed pending business by the planning and zoning commissioners. Richard promised he was going to inform the commissioners that the folks at Twin Creek were unanimous in favor of a developer putting a trailer park in the area. Fred countered that he’d take a can of white paint and paint the letters E L K on each of the Lewis cows, erect billboards along the highway (ONLY TWENTY MILES TO THE GREAT ELK SHOOT … ONLY TEN MILES … JUST THREE MORE MILES … ), set up a ticket stand at the entrance to the Lewis ranch, and sell hunting permits to hunters from Salt Lake City.
After the snow squalls stopped, the winds came. They howled for weeks out of the Southwest, pouring across the high desert country and removing the equivalent of five or six inches of rainfall from the ground, leaving it dry and hard as fired clay and the mountains stripped of snowpack. The latest storm front hit as they were beginning to sheep-shear on Thoman Ranch, where Bill Thoman was hustling now to contract the itinerant shearers before they moved up to Montana. Owing to the coldest and wettest spring in a decade, the Forest Service had warned ranchers in the Bridger Valley that they might not be permitted to put their animals this year onto summer range in the Uinta Mountains, where the snowpack varied from 250 percent of normal to 500 percent, and backpackers arriving from the East and West coasts were discovering the Wind River Range to be impassable above 9,000 feet. In Wyoming, the absence of that most lovely of natural phenomena called spring is one of the worthwhile sacrifices we make for the relative nondevelopment of the state by lotus-eaters from somewhere else.
I called Clyde Clark to make an appointment to have the horses shod, but two weeks passed before we had a day suitable for doing it. Several years before, when we’d shoed in wet weather, my unbroke gelding reared as I held his head, striking me in the chest with his knees as he went up and knocking me on my back in a couple of feet of mud and horse manure. Time arrested itself as he towered above me, a black Pegasus, and dropped back to earth in slow motion, his forelegs spreading in the final instant to plant his black hooves in the mud on either side of my rigid chest. Shoeing horses in mudtime, as T.S. Eliot said of writing poetry, is a mug’s game. I therefore waited patiently for clement weather, passing the time by sorting gear and loading the horse-packs for the season: tents, tent stakes, ground cloths, bedrolls, woolen pants, sweaters, and socks; hatchets, nylon rope, knives, map cases, .41 magnum rounds, fly spray, cooking utensils, canned deviled ham, canned smoked oysters, biodegradable soap, Jim Beam in plastic bottles, beer, fine Italian wines, a CD player, recordings of Scott Joplin, Maria Callas, and J.S. Bach, the complete works of P.G. Wodehouse, and a few good oil paintings to hang in camp (only Boy Scouts are never really prepared). When at last we got a fine day I met Clyde at the ranch and he went around two horses while I held the clippers, handed him the nails, and watched the fleecy clouds above and Truman Julian’s sheep below moving in opposite directions across the rolling sagebrush hills.
Toward the end of May I trailered the horses and pulled them up La Barge Creek to Scaler’s Cabin, a disused guard station belonging to the Forest Service. From there, riding the gelding and leading the mare with the packs, I rode up the overgrown trail into the freshly green wilderness of early summer. At Fontenelle Lakes the grasses were pressed down and rank with the scent of bedded elk. West of the lakes Commissary Ridge, unmarked by traces of snow, rose steeply red. The horses breasted the trail at a trot and I drew rein at the top of the ridge to let them blow. Eastward the succession of parallel ridges rolled toward the desert basin, but to the west the country is steeper and more rugged, a confusion of dark ridges pitching against one another at differing angles. This side of Commissary, a trough runs south to meet the forested headwall overlooked by Electric Peak, a massive head of red ore surmounted by a fringe of pine forest. The declining sun, reaching under the brim of my hat, burned my right cheek as we rode toward the park behind the headwall, and a dark cloud like the column of the Lord stood above the southern end of the ridge.
We made Red Park in half an hour. I tied up in an edge of pine and was pulling the packs from the mare when the first roll of thunder arrived. The cloud had spread and darkened, and I guessed the storm would strike hard to the south before moving east toward the Green River. I unsaddled the gelding and picketed the horses on the new grass. The next time I heard thunder the tent was already up inside the trees, and the packs lay around it on the pine needle ground. Mammatus hung from boiling purple clouds overhead as the rain began to fall. I tucked the packs inside the tent and ran to unstake the horses, who’d dropped their heads and turned their rumps to the wind and hail. Electric Peak drew down lightning in streaks of fire and bolts struck around the park with a tearing sound, followed by the thunder crash. I tied the horses in the trees with numbed fingers, wet to the skin and shaking violently from a deep cold. Inside the tent I stripped away my soaked clothes and crawled naked into the sleeping bag. I lay in the bag for an hour while the shivering subsided slowly and the storm rumbled away to the north, following the line of the ridge. Then I dressed in dry clothes and emerged from the tent into winter, everything white but the dark green of the pine trees and the hail a foot deep on the ground.
I gathered dry wood within the forest and built a fire. While the coffee boiled I repicketed the horses on the melting hail and brought the whiskey bottle from the packs. Standing above the hot fire I drank coffee and whiskey from a tin cup while a red wafer of sun went down over in Idaho, turning the mountains pink with evening light. Droplets of water from the dripping pine branches fell with a hissing sound into the Pentecostal flames that warmed me from the outside while the whiskey worked within, and the horses pulled noisily at the new grass where the last of the hailstones soaked through it into the red soil beneath.
I was dry, almost warm now, and in a few minutes it would be spring again. Taking the cup, I climbed to the top of the ridge and looked north to the Fontenelle Lakes, where elk had emerged from the timber to graze along the edge of the slough. They made a herd of about 30 head, including several new calves and a few good bulls. I watched them until the cup was empty. Then I walked downhill again through the trees, where a fire was already burning on the red wet earth.
(This article first appeared in Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.)