It started out as a lovely day. The song today had been that song that goes “One more for the rooooh oh oh ooad” I don’t know the title or the band but by a 70’s American band I think? The next line goes something like “Bleeder whoa oh, oh oooh” It was going around my head and it turned out to be pertinent. I still don’t know the title or the name of the band. But the tune stuck, a message
Mary had woken me at 6am to tell me that I could have an extra half hour in bed. Which of course made me laugh. Mary has the knack of being able to make me laugh. We’d then left I think around 7am I think. We called in at Java Joes to get coffee and a breakfast burrito. The place was wonderful, we’d arrived there just as the guy was roasting the coffee and the place was thick with coffee smoke. Some might cough and splutter but I knew that that coffee clung, I remembered my girl hair when she climbed back into bed her hair smelling of warm toast; it was that sort of thing. I imagined the clouds being absorbed into my hair and my clothes, I felt lucky and presumed that the guy doing the roasting would be popular when he got home. I could have sat there for a while longer but Mary had plans to be on the move.
Mary had wanted to go up to a place called the “Bisti Badlands” she’d called it Beasty Badlands up in the north ogf New Mexico a round trip of around 320 miles as the crow fly’s. We headed out to the I-25 freeway north toward Bernalillo and were chatting laughing and putting the world to rights as usual.
We’d been discussing how to pronounce Bisti. I’d been corrected the day before and was told it was Bistai. Later that afternoon a highway patrol man would correct me again and say it was Bistie-ah, a Navajo guy would tell us later too it was pronounced Bistah and meant Mud hills and in between we had developed various ways to say it but after all was said and done I definitely preferred Mary’s version, Beasty Badlands.
We turned off and onto the 505.
She’d said “I’m too tired to talk”
It had been a long week for her I suppose. We had been running on high for a few days. Mary drove to Socorro 3 times a week to teach. A 150 mile round trip. She was tired.
She’d been telling me about the ‘Lincoln county wars’ “Billy the Kid’ and ‘The Santa Fe Ring’ cattle rustling, murders and such. She’d become very interested in Billy the Kid, But pretty soon she drifted of and was soon fast asleep. I didn’t mind at all, happy just to drive though this beautiful land
I had not driven this way before but where we were heading up to the San Juan Basin towards Farmington. I’d driven south on the 505 during the dust Storm the night I arrived at Ghost ranch. I’d really wanted to come back, just an instinct I’d glimpsed things at the time, I just had a feeling there was something more out there for me to see. I was looking forward to taking some photos. I was quietly quite excited.
Within 10 miles out of Bernalillo we were in another world. It has only been a few days in the city but when Hummingbird came around that rise it was like I had been away for years. I never tire of them, it never fails to quieten me and lift me Mary was out for the count.
Great folds and fractures in the land exposing the layers of whites creams yellows and pinks, great walls where the road moves in close and snug. I have often wondered did the land fall or rise. It definitely moved at some ancient bygone time. It wouldn’t have been a good time to be out there that’s for sure.
Now and again fields of exposed ploughed red earth, iron rich soil exposed to the blue sun rich sky. Then over the next rise, the land fractured ruptured and lifted into great frozen waves of rock, perfect pastel bands that at times look like great colossal slices of dusty geological rock cake we coast through it towards the next rise. Up and then in the blink of an eye, the mesas swept back miles away by blankets of brittle golden yellow grass and tough unyielding sage that spread out and away forever, the grass and sage carpet fitted crudely spilling roughly through the fences that hug the edge of black asphalt road edge.
It was a lovely peaceful drive, I had stopped now and again to take a photo but it seemed to be disturbing Mary so we rolled on. It didn’t take too long when I think about it now, we seemed to be there in no time.
Mary had asked sleepily about Cynthia, and was she in her seat. I’d told her they’d been quiet these last few days, but that was the Old Mans seat, Cynthia was sat between us. She thought I was joking.
Mary had printed out directions from google there had seemed to be sheets of paper all over the place. We were looking for a road with 4 digits. As we shot along the 505 we came to one that said
‘7500 ‘Bisti badlands – Da Na Zin’ wilderness ¼ mile’
Which was where the Beasty Badlands were. We drove on past a little while but we’d both thought, no, turn back. So a beautiful U turn, two miles back up the road and a right past the Dzil Na’Oodilli Bible Church, up there on the hill top with a toe hold on the highway but seemingly teetering on the edge of the unknown. These churches have always fascinated me. Once over the cattle grid off the tarmac and onto the dirt, the road led off disappearing into a horizon without end. Instantly wonderful to my eyes my sensibilities, my feelings and my spirit, we were right out there. According to the AAA map we were now in a blank space, which really appealed to me. But of course, thankfully, Mary had the printouts.
“Ok” She said “Were on the 7500 but were looking for the 7415… but first we should come onto the 7014”
It was out there, dirt road in the middle of the wilderness. Then as Hummingbird fishtailed at 35mph onwards, shaking her big ass on the gravel. Mary said
“Oh, oh I’m reading the wrong directions, these are the directions for Chaco”
I didn’t laugh immediately but I should have done. I think I just looked at her blankly. I’m not sure why we had the Chaco National Historical park directions, possibly because it was fairly near in wilderness terms but still about 60 miles away and maybe on the map it looks like a stroll, but it wasn’t and it was actually very funny.
“The road we need” she went on “Is the 4719 which will lead us onto the 7501 and eventually we’ll come out on the 371” these numbers may not be correct but you get the idea, it was all just numbers to me and I think there may have been more. But luckily we had seen a sign for the Bisti badlands so we just carried on. I may have hurt her feelings here but. it was funny and what else was there to do, I didn’t really care at that point to be honest, we were out in the middle of an incredibly beautiful place, that is exactly where I love being, but not everyone does.
So I said something on the lines of “So what your saying is that in actual fact, it isn’t the 7500 because the 7500 is for Chaco and we need the 7401 that will eventually get us onto the 4703 or do you mean the 7607 which will lead onto the 371” and were talking mud and dirt and bald gravel road here. It was funny. Perhaps my delivery was a little to dry
Mary said “Smart ass” It seemed to set the scene for the rest of the day. We rolled on slowly across dirt and gravel roads, both of us quiet now. I think in all it was around a 20 mile drive across, but what a place, I loved it and was just breath taking silent and open. We could have hiked anywhere but eventually came out on the 371 Normally you wouldn’t leave the tarmac road without a map or local knowledge, we’d done it though, accidentally, very confidently, straight across. It was a fantastic journey, lost at sea following the sun so to speak, even if we were quieter than the plains that we crunched slowly through.
Up on the tarmacked 371 was still a wilderness drive and as we were turning onto the Beasty road or what we thought was the Beasty road as there was no signs. A big white 4 wheeler pulled up going the other way. Turned out to be Tony the local Navajo shepherd.
He leant out of his window he’d seen Hummingbirds plates and said
“Hey California huh, how’s it going over there”
I leant out of ours and said “I’m not from California mate, I just bought the car there”
It took him a second then he said, “What are you?” Which took me a second
I said, “I‘m English mate, from the north and you, where are you from”
He said “From right here, Navajo, one of them code beakers, won the war for everyone. I got sheep and goats out here I‘m just watering them”
He had a great big white water tank on the back of the truck. I leaned out of my window and he his, we shook hands, it was cool.
“Good to meet you brother Tony” I said
“You too” he said “I’m just taking a little shot” and sort of winked at me and flashed a little silver pipe up over the window
“Marihuana, you want? It’s good medicine”
“No thanks” I said I’m as clean as a whistle. We shook hands again and I slowly took my foot of Hummingbirds breaks, her tires crunching slowly forward over the gravel.
“Sign your name in that book down there, tell them where your from” he called
Bisti Badlands sure is a remarkable place. On the surface of things it looks like desolation, a burnt hell of a place, dissolving, wind swept, barren, bleak and empty. Just distant wind whipped rounded mud hills. The winds though wonderfully warm, were unrelenting. A person couldn’t help standing in front of it juts looking out for a few moments going“Ok, so where too”
The was a notice board one side blank and map of the area on the others side for the few visitors that actually seem to make was almost bleached white, there were a few pale marks visible and the photographs had turned pastel like the land here, come to think of it.
There were one or two pointers. I had the lay of the place in my mind. It was after all what I have been doing this last few months, and before that, though as I have come to realize, it is never as straightforward as it seems.
Mary still quiet dropped back and I of course took off, its just my pace, but not too far I kept her in sight it would be a very easy place to get separated in. It is a great place to climb and walk, not to strenuous and it felt so good to stretch my legs up an dover those domes
Bisti itself is 4000 acres but that kind of terrain covers this whole corner of New Mexico. As we walked in there, realizing more and more the beauty of the place. There are times when beauty is not at first obvious but needs time to reveal. Maybe like a true love. A nature dissolving, something older or precious being revealed with time and patience, a veil being pulled slowly away. The gods perhaps had set it up like that in ages gone by, just so they can come back and have a look at their efforts and Bisti yeah, which ever way you approached, it became, it revealed, it was beautiful.
Layers of different coloured sediments mud domed hilltops that have buried and secreted away beneath them, the black coals and gray silts, the salmon pink shales and the grey mudstone all varied pastel hues and in between all of those the hardened golden yellow sandstone.
The place at some distant past had raged and burnt, open sores still seemed to weep down sides of those soft cream domes and yellow sandstones. In places the land appeared to have wounds and blisters of hard exposed molten burgundy knots bursting outward, begging the cool blue heavens downward, praying for the soothing winds, eventually and thankfully over the millennia they had been calmed dissolved and broken down, seeping downwards.
I was away and on the top, after climbing through strange mushrooms formations, stalks that looked like spinning sandstone plates and others like cartoon berets on stems, It looked so fragile, but of course it is stone. Up on the very top was a carpet of cracked olive khaki mud, dried and scaly, there was nothing growing out there. The constant winds felt like a wonderful warm blanket around me, sweeping and continual, it felt wonderful on my skin and through my hair. I sat down there looking out across it all. Cynthia popped up. “Hello” I said, my third eye burned for a little while
I’d noted where Mary was and so didn’t head off into the wilderness. Instead I took a seat looking out onto it and waited. Beautiful. I laid back and fell asleep, I recall looking up at one point, she was there asleep too, hat covering her face. I’m not sure how long it was, but long enough for an English man to go Bronze red, we both sat up and decided to make our way slowly back though the valley below
Mary marveled at the shards of petrified wood scattered right across the place. I at the beautiful dead twisted juniper roots. We walked back along the Navajo reservation boundary fence, both of us in our own space, I think, enjoying the risen warmth of the land and the clay, both swept up and carried along by the relentless wind.
I’m not sure what time it was when we got back to the car but we decided to head back to civilization. I’d not wanted to go straight back to the 1-40 I’d be on that freeway tomorrow. It has always proved rewarding to take the back roads if you want to see something out of your normal existence. I have found it illumination all the way along this journey, in fact through my life. Always the road less travelled if you can. The glowing neon jewels of civilizations busy streets, the straight and crazy and the comfortable lines cut and drawn by fellow citizens will always be there to greet us when ever we return, what ever the time.
So come on I said lets take the winding road. Mary was I thought uncomfortably quiet. I’d asked how she was and apologized if I’d hurt her feelings. She’d said car sickness and she’d said tried. I left it there and we left along the 9 back through the reservations, the bumpy road and the tiny towns of White Horse, La Ventana and San Lois. It was incredible; to my eyes.
I stopped here and there to take photos of this breathtaking mystical land and humbling places. Hummingbird hugged the rising and falling road a speedboat across the waves. I took it easy after one too many times her nose lifted a little too high into the air. The road signs said 45mph.
“Take note, hidden dips” Cynthia whispered
The straight road is easy to misjudge, oily shadows, clues, waiting there to snatch the unwary from the road. Far too many roadside crosses on the 550. These things sewn into the landscape now, many a mothers tear shed, a father’s empty bed.
“Slow down slow down” Mercury whispered in my head.
My foot was heavy with my thoughts.
Clusters of trailer homes, isolated wooden shacks, lonely and weather beaten huts, on a mesa of down in a gulley or simply stood out in the middle of miles of what would be grasslands come the rains.
At one point just to break the spell and also as it was the only gas station-shop we’d come across along that road. I pulled in. I had actually been a little nervous about gas . It was just below half when we turned onto the 9. I wasn’t sure how long the road would be and it sure twisted and snaked
We put some gas in and bought a coffee, it was an Indian store, spotless and the coffee we both agreed was the best we had both had for a long time. Really surprisingly excellent, service stations is usually nothing more than burnt water. As I’d gone in a little Indian boy had asked for some change for something or other, on the way out I’d dropped my change in his hand. Mary was taking her time inside. An old man sat in a car had clocked me.
I was just standing by the car, he’d rolled up and rolled his window down. Which was an invitation to speak. I went up to his window.
“Where is your place” He said
I said “I’m from England”
He said, “You sound like the Beatles”
“Well, they are from not to far away from where I was born” I said
This, the only store in all of this place, only one for all these people” He spoke so slowly it was remarkable “Where you going?”
“We’re just tacking a drive through this beautiful country, heading across to the 550, to go south” I told him
“Just down there, you’ll see the bridge, take the right after that bridge, follow that all the way, it’ll take you all the way there” He was side glancing me and spoke with his hands too.
I shook his hand and he mine. He then slowly just pulled out. Some times things, just little interactions are remarkable. A pick up parked a little way away also wound down its window, another invitation to speak. I went across.
I’d had a couple of previous jarring experiences with pueblo Indians from having a page ripped out of my journal for writing in it at Tesuque pueblo and being told not to take pictures of the Pueblo on the train to Santa Fe, so I was a little wary. But they turned out to be sweet
“Where are you from?” The guy asked warmly in that musical clipped Indian way
I told him England.
He said “What you doing here”? He asked
“Just travelling across’ I told him “I wanted to see the country so we’re out just raveling the back roads”
We shook my hands and told me his name John
“Mick” I said “Good to meet you”
“Listen just go down there” he said pointing over his shoulder “You’ll see a bridge there. Go over that bridge and then take the right, you’ll see it, there’s a graveyard there, you take that road right before that graveyard”
We chatted a little more, I noticed Mary was back out by the car.
“See you man” I said “Thank you” I nodded to his girlfriend sat in there too.
We took off I was pleased the directions had been confirmed. Mary was surprised at how clean the place was and again how good the coffee was. I would have liked to spend some more time there. But had the feeling we needed to go.
I couldn’t help but stop at the graveyard. It was a sea of colour hundreds of plastic flowers and wreaths. I wandered carefully in amongst the rows of graves I noted quite a noticeable amount of men born in the same year I was. It was a beautiful place actually, a sea of color in the dust and rocks. Mary sat in the car whilst I wandered.
We drove on, though I had to stop one more time at San Lois. A remarkable place, I would have liked to have stayed there a little longer there, could have opened and just felt the place. I took my time but I think Mary just wanted to get home.
It wasn’t long before we were back on the 505 heading to Bernalillo, I was just trying to get us home a little quicker and was doing around 80mph. Mary had said a little earlier that do you know your doing 90mph I’d said yeah, I did. I took the hint though and slowed down but obviously not enough.
A few miles ahead a highway patrol clocked us and flashed me my heart sank. I was gutted. Rolled slowly to the side of the road. I’d been well briefed by Jeff back in Moab. So hands on the wheel license and documents ready.
I saw him in the rear view putting his Highway Patrol hat on we sat quietly and waited. Tap on the window, license and registration, everything in order. He looked a little surprised for a second. British license.
“Hm” he said “ I suppose that they have a speed limit in England too right?”
It was a little humiliating and I just said rather sadly “Yes they do”
He asked me to step out the car and as I approached his 4×4 he said
“Stand right there by the front wheel” he began tapping into the lap top that produced the ticket and said over his shoulde
“Well unless your a wanted ax murderer we’re good to go, I’m gonna issue you with a caution”
I was genuinely grateful and said “Well if its any consolation I’m going to get an ear bashing when I get back in the car”
“Good for her” he said
He was actually a pretty decent guy said he’d clocked me at 82mph I took his warning and will be keeping it close by. He chatted a little and then waved as I drove away. Good guy. It could have cost me $84 phew.
We drove home and the nearer we got the livelier Mary got. I dropped her at home and I went to get supplies for the road tomorrow. I am looking forward to a last week out on my own.
It had been a very odd day. I am not sure why silence descended. Friends are friends I have supposed and sometimes friends get grumpy. My time here is precious, but then again everyone’s time is precious. Sometimes it seems there are no reason for things, though I suspect there that perhaps there is. Perhaps we feel if we speak up we feel we may loose a friend or spoil a good thing. But friends are friends regardless right? And a silence held in can be more damaging than a feeling expressed. We love who we love, sometimes beastly and sometimes beautiful and maybe that’s how it should be, well rounded and real.
I’ll be gone tomorrow and that silence, if unfilled will echo for a long time otherwise.