Episode 24 New Mexico, 1966
“People of the Sun” watercolor by kayti sweetland rasmussen
The road leading east from Barstow is straight as a string, and the brilliant red sun resting on the highway as we drove straight into it on the second morning of our trip was eerily suggestive of an omen; but for good or bad?
I became aware of the effects of extreme heat when we passed the remains of several steers in quiet repose alongside the highway.
The Grand Canyon became our first campsite. Glorious in its immensity, I was overwhelmed to look down into the view which has inspired countless generations of man to wax poetic. Below us, the canyon surged with life; eagles fly and small drifts of morning fog moved. The air is fresh and clear and sharp as if we are looking down from a plane; a disembodied feeling. We gaze down with wonder on eagles flying through what seemed to be the depths of the canyon.
We stretched out in sleeping bags on the ground on a bed of pine needles, after a steak dinner cooked over a small campfire. For dessert we gathered a few pine nuts off the small trees surrounding our campsite.
My delightful traveling companion was Georgia Abeita Oliver, an Isleta Pueblo from New Mexico, and teacher of my children. Her husband, Emmett Oliver was a Quinault from the coast of Washington, also an educator. They had met at Baconne, an all-Indian college in New Mexico. While she had gone on to the University of New Mexico, he went to the University of Redlands in California.
I was put in charge of finances as Georgia was the driver, and we would share the cost of the gas. We had decided to keep our expenses to a minimum, and use all the money we could afford on books, pots, and artwork. Food would be a secondary expenditure. We would be staying with Georgia’s relatives all along the way, so our lodging expense would be minimal.
The next day we arrived in Laguna, where we would stay with Georgia’s two elderly aunts and their brother. He and one aunt had been teachers and the other aunt was a nurse. They lived not in the old village, but in an enormous house below the old village of Laguna. Their father, an engineer from England, and two other engineers who each married Indian women, had come to survey the land for the United States. The building, which was now in fine repair, had been a deserted mission, and was large enough for each man to live in his own space and raise families of 10-11 children, most of whom still lived in the area.
Before dinner we walked up the hill to the old village. The ancient stones which formed a stairway were worn with indentations from centuries of footprints. My imagination traveled back in time to the countless women who wearily climbed to the top to haul water, or to find potholes which held water where they washed their hair before rubbing with yucca to give a beautiful shine to their black locks.
Before we left, Georgia suggested that I bring only skirts rather than pants, as it made a better impression on people who might take a little while to know me. It would make climbing through ruins a bit more difficult, but more politically correct for people who maintained a suspicious attitude toward strangers.
Stone stairway to old village of Laguna
The old church was deserted as was the village. Everyone was inside their homes until after dinner. When we had finished our own dinner, we too went outside, and as I was accustomed to a great deal of conversation, feeling that if there was a lull in communication it meant that someone was either bored or upset, I was at first uncomfortable with the silence. We simply sat and enjoyed the evening silence. Astonishing! Now and then a small ripple of laughter came as someone shared the happenings of the day. An old bedraggled grey cat rubbed against my legs and seemed content to sit quietly at my feet. Above us the village was also quiet, without even the barking of the ubiquitous dogs.
Life takes on a slower pace here in the desert. The realization that we are only here for a short time and why rush it is prevalent.
The stars shine so brightly in the Southwestern sky, and it is understandable that ancient man was able to divine the paths of the constellations while studying the skies so intently,. We slowly drifted off to bed so that we might get an early start for exploring the old village.