The mountains recede abruptly behind us as we enter this desert of vast skies filled with huge clouds that will bring rain and lightning during the early summer afternoons. The receding mountains have given way once again to a broad desert plain with buttes and mesas brushed with pastel colors of rust, blue, yellow, and purple, the hues constantly transforming as the light changes throughout the day. It is a breathtaking spectacle, one that I now cling to and will for the rest of the ride, and for the rest of my life.
There are no fences here, no boundaries that say this is where my land ends and yours begins.” Gizmo and I are free to travel in any direction we wish, although nature guides us down the path of least resistance and shows us the routes that will carry us over the saddles that lie between buttes and along dry stream beds and red dirt swales, to places where we may find water. I enjoy picking out buttes in the distance and locating them on my map—or vice versa, finding one on my map and spotting it among the many that surround us. I have become an expert at visualizing the terrain ahead simply by studying the topographic maps. Unlike the Mojave, this desert’s elements are well defined and unique. There is no mistaking one landmark for another as there was back in the California desert.
I can see storms coming from a long distance away in the afternoons, mostly from the northwest. The rain often takes the form of virga, evaporating in midair as it falls from the clouds and never reaching the ground. A storm passes over us but leaves us dry, though sometimes the cool wind that accompanies it causes me to pull my coat on. When the storm clouds turn into dark, charcoal grey thunderheads, they bring the rain and lightning with them, and we must take cover where we can. If no shelter is to be found, I unbuckle my rain slicker from the pommel of the saddle and slip it over my head as I ride. It protects me from the oncoming rain, but more importantly, it covers the entire saddle, along with the bedroll and saddlebags, and keeps the gear dry.
I can see lightning striking the ground from many miles away as the storm approaches. It is a terrifying, yet exhilarating experience, one I never quite get used to. Still, I find myself looking forward to it in a strange way during these long days without company, and I share a special camaraderie with my horse as we face these daily trials by fire together.
I have never heard of extreme sports, nor has anyone else, for it will be many years before the concept of thrill seeking will invade the public psyche, in a future when people stampede in droves to test themselves against challenges, both natural and manmade. In many ways, these ordeals will mirror what Gizmo and I are doing now, but instead of meeting their challenges in a disconnected, private environment like Gizmo’s and mine, they will become normalized, their stories part of the everyday lexicon. People will share their experiences, day by day, via the digital networks that will connect everyone, everywhere, all the time. And in doing so, they will attempt to inject meaning into their existence.
I am a white man, and as I ride my horse across the reservation I know full well that in some ways Gizmo and I are trespassing, not only upon Native American land, but upon the cultural values and history of a people I know little about. The people we meet out here, though very few and far between, are overwhelmingly friendly, helpful, and supportive of the journey I have undertaken with my horse. Though they don’t speak of it, I know they appreciate that I am not simply another white man seeking to experience the indigenous wisdom of native people.
I have no intention of exploiting their world for anything except my own personal experience, and to that end, I keep most of what I witness to myself and ultimately, will never reveal the extent of our true experiences in the high deserts of Indian Country. I will disclose only those surface things—superficial details that, while interesting and impressive, don’t divulge what will grow inside me as a result of this pilgrimage. I know I will never be Navajo or Hopi or Zuni or Acoma, but I appreciate the grace and good humor of these people in allowing Gizmo and me to cross their lands, and I hope we have shown honor and respect in doing so.
Went to the Navajo church for the Wednesday night prayer meeting with Johnny and the family. I played an old out of tune upright piano and everyone sang along. Bringing in the Sheaves, Amazing Grace, Rock of Ages, and some others. They sang in Navajo, I sang in English. Music is a great bond, a universal language. Afterward we all had a giant spaghetti dinner with meatballs made from the goat I helped Luke kill yesterday. I ate too much, but I figured I’d kick myself later if I didn’t.
The constellations of the night sky have shifted, and Orion moves closer to the morning dawn until, finally, it is overhead only in the daytime and remains unseen. The Gemini Twins are setting shortly after the sun, so I catch only a short glimpse of them now. The teapot Sagittarius hangs in the southern sky, and when I look up at it, I see the glorious band of stardust that is the Milky Way, and I know that when looking at Sagittarius I am looking directly into the center of our galaxy.
The Painted Desert eventually surrenders to the mountains of the Defiance Plateau, which breaks up the desert terrain for a while and contains a defining marker for the ride—the continental divide—the line that delineates west from east in North America. Rain falling on the west side of this line eventually flows to the Pacific Ocean, on the east side to the Atlantic. It is not yet halfway across the continent in distance, but crossing this milestone affects me greatly, and I feel Gizmo and I have achieved something important. When we come to the spot on my map that indicates the continental divide I stop to unsaddle. I talk to Gizmo for a long time. I tell him how proud I am of him and how lucky I am to have such a fine companion. Gizmo eats the dry bunch grass and filaree while I talk, but his ears show he is listening.
We saddle up again and continue down the trail, leaving the Great Divide behind us as we follow the eastbound path that the water takes. The plateau gives way to more desert to the east, though its mesas are far less striking in appearance and blend more readily with the surrounding landscape. The land that is called the Malpais—the literal translation is badland—takes a terrible toll on both of us. I seriously consider quitting the ride here, but the situation renders its own paradox and becomes a sort of Catch 22: in order to quit we will have to reach civilization, and in order to reach civilization we will need to soldier on. If we reach civilization, our immediate problems will vanish, and we will have no reason to quit. So we push on.
Once across this expanse of desert badlands, we will reach Albuquerque and later, Santa Fe. The great desert of the American Southwest will be behind us, broken up by the intrusion of the Rocky Mountains. The Sangre de Cristos (meaning: the blood of Christ) and their smaller cousins, the Sandias (watermelon) and the Manzanos (apple trees), are the southernmost extension of the Rocky Mountains, and are sometimes called the tailbone of the Rockies. When we reach the eastern edges of northern New Mexico, I will turn to look upon them, and I will see what looks to be an immense dinosaur lying on its side with these mountains making up its long tail and extending far to the south.
In a few weeks Gizmo and I will gaze out across the great prairie that lies ahead, toward the grasslands of the Texas Panhandle, as he maintains a steady trot across the buffalo grass of northeastern New Mexico.