Skeleton Canyon

Pema and I were alone in the greenhouse. It was Friday morning. The chickens had been fed, with oats, corn and millet. She and I had just breakfasted on some of their eggs, with sautéed carrots and cauliflower. After a particularly rowdy morning in the kitchen, vying for counter space and utensils with seven of our housemates, a dance we all know well, Pema and I now had the place more or less to ourselves. Francis and his parents, with whom we would have usually spent the morning, had left an hour ago on a car trip to California. After two full days of school and various playdates, Pema was due back at her mother’s in a few hours. Till then, we had a rare moment with nothing to do, no plans, just me and Pema. “Maybe we can go to Skeleton Canyon,” I had told her late last night, feeling her out. “Yeah!” Pema had shouted, eyes wide with anticipation.


Our greenhouse has three rows of raised beds, now bristling with kale, spinach, parsley and chard. The giant tuft of lemon grass in the northwest corner was slowly creeping back to life, fragrant and brittle, and several purple-green-red shoots of orach, a spinach-relative with a warm, bitter and salty flavor, poked between the four-foot kale stalks, plants who have overwintered for the second time. As I methodically watered each row with the hose, Pema came up twice to refill her watering can. “That’s enough!” she said to me, her body tense and anxious as the coarse spray of the hose bubbled and frothed inside the can and eventually spilled over the top, a chaos of noise and pressure. I released the trigger. The water stopped flowing. Silence reigned. The water in the can, now calm, gently sloshed as I handed it to back to her, about two-thirds full. “That’s perfect,” she said, eyeing the watering can lustily.


As she walked away, I returned to my watering, catching the sounds, but not the meaning, of the softly spoken words in the story she wove among the plants. She was talking to herself, building cadence and rhythm - meaning - into the fairy houses she arranged underneath the leaves of the plants, using the gravel stones of the floor, sticks that happened to be lying around, and the bright orange-yellow blossoms of calendula that, still blooming, make perfect fairy beds.


I had other plans. After finishing my watering duties, I prepared to leave, but Pema, who was perfectly engaged, informed me with plain innocence that she wanted her “threeth” can, by which she meant for me to fill it with water. “This is my threeth, no…my fourth,” she said, figuring to herself, “And then my fiveth…” She continued counting in this manner, me squealing with delight, before finally declaring that she would have ten more, a goodly number, and then be done. “Ten more?” I thought, “What about Skeleton Canyon?” But I could easily see that Pema was engaged, and I wasn’t going to steer her away from something just to do something else. I crave the interaction we sometimes have in lost canyons and idle patches of sand, the wildness that lingers in our bodies and minds, fostering a day’s worth, a year’s worth of memories. But I also recognize the vast wilderness of imagination possible in our own backyard, under the gentle sloop of a kale leaf.


“Dad, when can we go back to Skeleton Canyon?” Pema had asked me a few weeks ago, as we drove up the mountain to Mama’s house. The canyon, a small drainage up in the mountains, is a convenient stopping point on the “long way” from Hondo to Lama, that is, from Dada’s to Mama’s. The old, circuitous road is how folks traveled north from Taos for hundreds of years, by horse, mule, foot and coach, and then car, connecting the small villages along the way. When Route 522, the paved highway we usually travel, replaced it years ago, the old dirt road, then renamed Old State Road 3, lost its function as the main thoroughfare of borrowed tools, green chile stew and gossip. But it’s still quite traversable, and locals - now a diverse mix of old Hispanic families, hippie enclaves, wealthy folks with quaint, sprawling second homes, and modern immigrants like myself - still occasionally use it to travel back and forth in no particular hurry.


“We have to wait until spring,” I had told Pema. “The road isn’t maintained, and our car won’t make it in the snow and mud, even with the snow tires. We have to wait till it’s dry.”


“But when, Dada,” Pema whined, as if I hadn’t just answered.


I took my sunhat off and pulled the wool sweater, a recent gift from a friend, over my head. It was already getting hot, especially in the greenhouse. Laying my sweater on a shelf by the door, I began releasing the idea of soft footsteps in the sandy floor of Skeleton Canyon. I listened to Pema recounting her activities, her footsteps stirring up crunches in the gravel underfoot, but only with a hint of awareness. Observation, I’ve learned, is itself a disruption, an influence, as Heisenberg, the eminent physicist, made clear at the subatomic level. In order for the soft coral bodies of Pema’s imagination to creep out of their hard shells and bloom, catching the flotsam adrift in a sea of swirling currents, I have to remain like a slow-moving shark, only vaguely noticeable, circling in the distance.


So I leaned over in the corner by the stairs, stretching my body, still a bit stiff from the night, triggering the physical sensations that could, I knew, keep me occupied for an hour or more. I love this thing, my body. As my hand touched down to the ground, sloughing my skin against the chalky gravel, releasing tiny bits of flesh for the sponges, corals and other filter-feeders, I let my own imagination creep out of its hard shell into the rolling seascape of the greenhouse - funny, those kale plants like a kelp forest - recalling the first trip Pema and I took to Skeleton Canyon for the hundredth time.


Skeleton Canyon is actually the humble beginning of Garrapata Canyon (garrapata, Spanish for tick), which eventually bores a large cavity in the mesa below and spills into the much larger gorge of the Rio Grande del Norte. But here in the mountains, it is a small enclave whose muddy walls are modestly sloped and softly lined with long, fragrant pine needles. I pictured Pema and I walking single file through the brush at the bottom, ducking under fallen trees and scrambling over boulders. Water rarely flows here, but its swirling patterns can easily be read in the luxurious pools of pure sand, thick mud and leaves.


The first time we visited Skeleton Canyon, we walked along its sandy shore in autumn, the purple asters and red penstemons playfully accenting the muted landscape of sage green and caramel. A few hundred yards in I found a leg bone, sleek and white, with knobby condyles. “Pema!” I shouted, “Check this out.” Excitedly, I rubbed my hands along its grainy surface, its blunt protrusions and spherical cavities. Pema and I ogled it for a minute or two, after which I held it out for her to touch. Slowly, with one finger, she caressed it down the length of the shaft, then placed all four fingers on its surface and grasped, briefly, before letting go. She withdrew her hand, looked at me, and smiled. She was three and a half years old. Placing it back on the ground, we stood up and continued on our way.


Shortly afterward, Pema found another bone that curved delicately like a blade of grass. “This is a rib,” I said, running my fingers along its arch. “Like right here,” I continued, placing my hand on my own rib cage, giving it a good punch. “Your ribs hold your chest together, and protect the organs inside - like your heart.” I gave Pema a playful squeeze on her own ribcage, feeling the density under her soft, pliant skin. Giggling, she ran off in the other direction. I placed the bright white bone under a canopy of purple asters, admiring the sandy earth tones beneath, and the still green stalks. The earth was pulsing with color.


“Dada!” Pema yelled, now back in the greenhouse, “I’m ready for my fourth.” Feeling the heat of the spring sun down my back, I raised my body slowly, articulating the tiny muscles in my waist and hips, feeling the alignment of each vertebrae stack into that uniquely human posture. Relaxing, I wiggled my joints, juicy and soft, kicked my legs into the air, and walked toward the hose.


I smiled as I glanced past Pema’s fairy house, not daring to glare with full frontal awareness. I want her to have things like this, this not-me. “Why are you smiling?” Pema asked. “Why are you smiling?” I answered.


Returning to my reverie, I turned with a sudden shock. “Dada, look!” Pema had shouted. She was up ahead of me, around a blind corner. I got up hastily. There on the ground, nearly complete, was the largest skeleton I had ever seen in the wild. The bony frame, nearly intact, splayed along the hillside. The legs and the head had been severed, but the entire spine, including a giant hip bone and a hulking rib cage, was intact. Pema, who had momentarily reached her warm hand into mine, now ran up the hill behind the skeleton, discovering the skull behind a rotten log. Long and viscerally evocative, its jaws were still set with the heavy molars the animal had used to crush the grass and other plants it ate, mixing the pulp and juice with its moist saliva. I could almost feel it chewing.


I spend a fair amount of time in the wilderness, but I’m no expert. I don’t pay attention to the names of plants, or most of their uses (I look them up - like penstemon - when I need to). I can tell the difference between a bear print, a coyote, and a raccoon (no major accomplishment), but I would have a hard time differentiating between those of a squirrel, a ferret or a skunk. So, as I looked over this skull, lacking its cartilaginous nose, lips and ears - whose colors and shapes I would have easily recognized as a familiar species - I felt uncertain.


I looked up, scanning the opposite shore of the canyon. An eerie silence seemed to pervade the forest, but I suppose it was just in my head. The sun was beginning to set, filling the modest canyon with a rosy atmosphere and heightening the sense of color, including the vividness of the white bones. I had never encountered such a complete skeleton before, and so large. What was it? Much too large for a deer, it seemed even larger than an elk. It would be impossible, I thought, for coyotes to take down such an animal. Surely it must have been a mountain lion. But how could I know, now months, maybe years, since that awful moment? As I beheld the slowly disintegrating skeletal frame, what else could I do but ponder death?


The crush of gravel brought me back home, and suddenly I was staring at the familiar creamy-yellow skin of the watering can. “I’m ready for my fiveth,” Pema said. “Fifth,” I answered, slowly walking back to the hose. “First, second, third, fourth, fifth.” The familiar blast of sound filled the greenhouse. Pema’s limbs tightened with anticipation and cold water trickled over my hands. “That’s enough!” she shouted. I released the tension in my fingers, and the handle of the hose sprang back to its resting position. Silence. Three silhouettes, chickens outside in the garden, ambled past the translucent film of the greenhouse walls.


“Dada, come!” Pema shouted. She had wandered a little further up the canyon. Spooked by my own morbid reflections, I threw down the skull, jumped up, and ran to her. I had heard only excitement, not fear, in her voice - but still. As she came into my field of vision, evidently safe and sound, I followed the direction of her hand with my eyes and discovered a second massive skeleton, much like the first.


I was stunned. Two? I turned to Pema with a quizzical look, folding my arms under my chest. The roseate-orange light of evening filled the canyon now, blending imperceptibly into the coppery tan of the pine needles on the forest floor. It was perfectly silent. The ponderosa bark, red, black and yellow during the day, now appeared almost magenta. Slowly rotating my eyes and neck, I scanned the landscape. Nothing but stillness. Resettling my eyes before me, amidst all this syrup of color, speckled by gauzy brocades of purple asters, lay the central feast for my eyes, a great mystery, white with the fullness of gleaming twilight.


It seemed hard to believe. Why would a mountain lion - or whatever it was - take down two huge animals in more or less the same spot? It couldn’t even eat one of them, and I knew enough to know that no predator - none this large at least - would waste energy and risk injury wantonly. But surely the deaths of these two animals had been related. What were they? My mind was grasping, but I wasn’t finding much.


“Dada,” Pema said, catching my attention back in the greenhouse, “I’m ready for my sixth.” “Sixth,” I thought, smiling. It gets easier from here on out, the irregularity of common usage falling into a consistent pattern of normalcy. Isn’t that funny? The words we use the most are the ones most likely to break the rules. “One” turns into “first”. Come to think of it, that doesn’t make a lick of sense. I squeezed the trigger, erupting into sound.


“Do you see the skull?” I asked, now back in the canyon. Scanning the hillside again, I looked for any bones lying at a distance. Whatever animal killed this one, and whatever animals then ate it, they would each have ripped off pieces of flesh, some, like the legs, still set against the bone. A beast like this probably fed dozens of animals, thousands if you consider all the ravens and beetles that would have happened by after the ecstasy of the initial feast. I didn’t know how long it would have taken to strip every last piece of meat off the bones, but I knew that it would take some time for the bones, more of a milky tan at first, to bleach into the gleaming white Pema and I now beheld. It had been a year at least. Reaching down to stroke one of the ribs, I could feel a coarse grit, much like the first bone I picked up a few hundred yards away, a sign that the bones were deteriorating. Maybe a few years?


I started taking pictures. The sun was going down, and the setting was lovely even without two hulking white skeletons. Besides, these photos would make great proof that my daughter was a powerful and earthy girl, unafraid to touch death. In fact, by now Pema was picking up loose bones and arranging them much as she would a pile of sticks or flowers, making a proper game of it. She held onto one of the ribs idly, peering inside the frame of the ribs, as if into the mouth of a cave. I was proud.


Satisfied, I stood nearby, letting go of the mystery and just absorbing the presence of the moment. It would be dark soon, and I needed to get Pema up to her mother before too long. Gently, I rocked on the balls of my feet, while Pema moved in and out of the space, sorting the bones with piles of sand and the gorgeous red and purple petals she had stripped from the asters and penstemons. “Pemalina-reena-deena,” I thought, smiling, “these moments are going to linger in your body when I am dead and gone.”


“Dad, look,” Pema said, collecting my attention. She stood before me, a leg bone, white and sleek, in her hands. The ankle joint was still intact, and the movement between the two bones could clearly be discerned. Hanging, somewhat grotesquely, at the bottom was a small patch of brown hair, complete with a hoof. I stared dumbly. There, fastened underneath the hoof, plain as day, was a horseshoe.