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INTO THE LAND OF THE SUN Kate’s Journal


Episode 24 New Mexico, 1966

247“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.

IMG_0003Stone 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.

church at Isleta

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21 comments on “INTO THE LAND OF THE SUN Kate’s Journal

  1. What a lovely well told adventure from 1966. The Indians understood life.

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  2. This is so beautifully written. I enjoyed reading it and felt I was right there along with you in New Mexico, an area I’d love to visit some day.

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  3. I have been waiting to read of this adventure of which I have heard tidbits about over the years.. Can’t wait for the next episode!

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  4. I am interested in this trip with Georgia Oliver. Your ability to recall the rich detail and transfer it into words is admirable. Like your other readers, I am eager for the next installment.

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  5. Wonderful scene from life! And the painting and title and the stairway … wow! I want to go there and sit and look at the stars. Thank youxx PS. “Food would be a secondary expenditure” makes me laugh. We pay so much attention to food these days, and spend so much money on it, don’t you find?

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  6. Wonderful and that Sun People painting takes on a whole new meaning now that I know what was behind it. I will enjoy it even more.

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  7. I particularly loved this episode, pure poetry, thank you x

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  8. Your description of going out into the silence after dinner reminded me of the first time in Liberia some women came to “spend time” with me. They simply appeared at the door, said they had come to “spend time,” then came in and sat down. No one said a word. I didn’t have the slightest clue what I was to do, so I just sat down and waited, quietly. After about fifteen minutes, one of the women said, “Now we have spent time.” At that point, they all got up, shook hands, and left.

    Annie Dillard wrote:

    “Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock-more than a maple- a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.”

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  9. Well written. Makes me want to return to the Southwest, which I shall do in a couple of months. Like you, I feel the nostalgia for the first time I travelled through the land in the late 60s, in what seems like so ever long ago. –Curt

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  10. The art, photographs, and writing combine to make this a powerful post, Katie. What an adventure you had and how wonderfully you shared it with us.

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  11. Thanks Janet. It’s so good to revisit all these places. The first time is always the best isn’t it?

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