I left the house two hours ago, amidst a soft rain, the odor of damp sage and dirt clinging to my nostrils. The earth was dark and close. Drifting rain clouds surrounded me like a thick blanket, hiding the moon and stars. It was hours before daybreak, and aside from a few house lamps and distant headlights, there was scant light anywhere.
I love walking. I love walking wet, I love walking cold. I love walking in the dry heat of early summer, and in the winds that cascade over the mesa, breaking and swirling on junipers and pinons, pouring over my head and into the valley. My hair, though short, follows. So do my thoughts. I follow the wings of solitary hawks, or the murmur of starlings. On occasion I meet an owl, a great blue heron. Mostly, it’s just dogs.
If the sky is black and filled with stars, I am there, walking. If the sun is high, or if the wind rustles the leaves of the cottonwoods, I am there too, just walking. I walk past houses and cars, past the telephone poles that are the same telephone poles each time. The grain of their wood is exposed, and they stand tall, yet, not so straight. We, all of us, lean. My route, which varies slightly, never deviates much, so that my eyes and ears and skin absorb the subtle changes of season, time and place. My nose adds to the conversation. I am always talking to myself.
In the course of a week, I will cover twenty to thirty miles, all within roughly the same circuit. This is my mind. It lives in the spaces between evergreens, in the geography of the mountains, and the rhythm of my footsteps. When the grasses turn from green to gold, and then brown, my thoughts change. One solitary cottonwood can give rise to a flock of scampering thoughts, or break my heart. I follow the tracks of dogs, coyotes, and then jackrabbits. Sometimes I agree, sometimes I don’t. Rain makes for mud, and within the curved depressions left by small animal feet, I read myself. The sun bakes each step and cornice, even the zigzag of tire tracks, like pottery. Sometimes weeks pass till a new rain resets the tableau.
I know where my thoughts are, because I can walk to them. There are discarded bottles and piles of trash, the hum of electric cables, and sloping paths that curve exquisitely into the hillside and disappear behind a clutch of junipers. Shades of dusky olive blend with roseate plant stems, ochres shift to gold, yellow and brown. In late summer, purple asters spread across these fields like whitewash. There’s a burned out building I walk past, haunting my thoughts, crumbling adobes, and once a flock of cranes. The withered stems and husky seeds of fall are the same thoughts, succulent and green, in spring. We talk about it all summer long, my hands and eyes running over their coarsening jackets. Cars rumble by, even at four in the morning, and I have to reckon with that. The dirt road underfoot turns to pavement.
Two days ago, I was walking with the earth children, nine kids in tow, Silke in front. I’m the caboose. Eleven people on a dirt road is a noisy, chattering mind, but I still felt the familiar left, right, left, right plodding of my feet and spine. That rhythm ties everything together, even my bowels. I was holding Ruby’s hand. We were walking from the top of the canyon, overlooking the Hondo River, heading down to the more massive gorge of the Rio Grande. It was a long walk for children aged three to six - half a mile down, the Rio Hondo burbling on our right, past the horse skull and broken toilet, past the flat promontory stones, the wild apple tree, over the little bridge, the bird and sun petroglyphs on our left, high above the confluence of the two rivers, then the big steel bridge, drop in a stone, and still a quarter of a mile back up the other side, the Rio Grande now on our left, down the path, finally to the cave. Then, we’d have to do it in reverse. A mile and a half or more, much of it a steep climb. The kids complained almost immediately. I love that kind of shit.
“What do you think, Joe?” Silke had asked. We all stood outside the cars at the top of the canyon, weighing the course of the day. “No, I don’t want to walk,” whined Little Bear and Griffin, and the others took up the lament. I was conflicted. I’d made the trip with Pema before, easy enough. Most of the other kids I was pretty sure of, but a few were more fragile. Plus, I had Ruby with me, who’s only three years old. I didn’t really doubt any one child, but I had my doubts about all nine together. That uncertainty, to my way of thinking, meant we might as well try.
At first, we were higgledy-piggledy and many of the kids groaned. But by the time we really got moving, having stopped for a good view of the horse skull, the kids had broken up into two’s and three’s, holding hands or each other in conversation. Some walked alone. Silke and I exchanged occasional glances, she well in front, me in back, hardly a word between us. Humping along, like the legs and neck of a camel, our jaunty vertebrae rose up and down, clicking and clacking with the irregular hoofs and heartbeats of eleven apes of varying size and shape. Like always, the soft roar of the Rio Hondo held the background, splashing and hissing its way through the boulders below.
The snaking course of the path clings to the south wall of the canyon, meaning the sun, now in its winter aspect, spread a broad cloth of shade over us and the path. Permanent ice. Ruby slipped and slopped in my hands, casually repeating the obvious, “I slipped and fell.” “Yep.” The air wasn’t that cold, so I was wearing sneakers, the soles of which are worn smooth from so many miles underfoot. It was all I could do to keep from slipping myself, and aside from the two bags I carried, I had a three year old Ruby in my left hand, and the occasional Little Bear in my right. Heaven, precarious heaven. As we crested each outside turn, we had patches of sun to warm our bodies, and bare earth under our feet. After slipping most of our way down the path, it felt so good to be grounded.
Griffin and Wolfie, having seen the horse skull for the first time, spent much of the time identifying moose and elk skulls with all kinds of antlers and pointies. Advah, perhaps the most fragile in our group, was wrapped in the hand and conversation of Autumn. Autumn is a powerhouse of a girl, and the two of them conquer almost anything. At some point, Ruby, who spends plenty enough time with me as it is, had scurried up to Silke in the front. I could see her, still slopping around and dangling occasionally from Silke’s strong arms. Pema and Esperanza, to my quiet delight, were walking together like old friends. Rudy, one of the newer kids, a boy, was doing his best to keep up with Griffin and Wolfie. Little Bear, who keeps to herself most of the time, wove in and out of the groups and occasionally drifted back to me.
Contrary to her name, Little Bear is not so little. She is the largest of the group and one of the oldest. She is the first child I have interacted with regularly that really tests my strength. Often we’re clambering over rocks and rivers and I occasionally help the kids up or down a steep embankment. Little Bear, a knowing sort of mischief in her eye, stands ready for her turn. She knows it’s a challenge for me, but she wants me to pick her up all the same. It’s a sort of test. “Me too…?” she seems to be saying.
Little Bear also tends to isolate herself. She is Native American, the only one in our group. She’s also a bit overweight and has the disposition of a mule. Maybe a bear. Stubborn and intelligent, she is above the typical playthings of most of the other children. Everything is old news or boring to her. She is by far the strongest child in our group, but she almost always lags behind. That’s why we’re such good pals. We have developed a unique relationship, in that she tests me very thoroughly to see if I’m authentic. Mostly, I am, and she demonstrates her affection by playing coy and twisting my fingers into tortuous poses.
After a brief bathroom break at the bottom of the canyon, we crossed the steel bridge, the Rio Grande raging beneath our feet. “Tell me if you see a river otter,” I shouted as we walked over the bridge, and, of course, Griffin and Wolfie immediately claimed to see one upstream. Don’t forget, these are the thoughts that accompany our footsteps. Those river otters, whether seen or not, swam in our minds. Griffin’s loud claims rang with real clarity in the steel trusses of the bridge, softening into a gentle chime, singing in the steel. Truth is not so simple.
We climbed up the other side and settled into the cave for lunch. We had an hour or two before we’d have to repeat the journey. After lunch, I told a story and then we climbed out into the sun. Silke made small crafts with the children. I lit a fire. After pressing bread dough onto sticks, I passed them out for the kids to roast. But mostly they preferred to mill about, playing in the cave above our heads, settling who was a baby, who was a mom, and whether there could be three dads or not. They came and went, firing like neurons along jagged paths. We clung to the western wall of the gorge, the Rio Grande spilling below from north to south. My imagination filled the space around us, and it glowed in the sun. Across, to the east, we could see gray, black and yellow stone cliffs, exactly like ours.
My thoughts are like words, like children’s feet. I connect one place to another, forming a geography in my mind. I walk the same paths over and over, not for dullness, but to observe the subtlety of variety. “Someday,” I thought, staring at the stone cliffs beyond my reach, “perhaps we will sit over there.” We would rest and eat lunch on yellow-gray stones, much like these yellow-gray stones, and eat the same foods, peanut butter, bread, seaweed packages with green letters. We’d have the same arguments and groans, but we’d also stare at this cave with a new perspective, remembering. We’d put the pieces together. The earth. Our minds. The labor of our feet across dirt and stone.
“What are you doing?” asked Little Bear, the last word drawn out in a whine like an accusation. Her eyelids drooped, half-closed, over her pupils, and her whole expression feigned boredom. “I’m driving a boat,” I said, pleased with the absurdity of my answer. She rolled her eyes.