Monday, August 8, 2011

The Land of Enchantment

I have begun my trek back to the east coast and despite my pledge to blog daily I found myself too much under New Mexico's spell to sit down and write each night. New Mexico touts itself as The Land of Enchantment and I admit when I read the slogan as I passed under the gateway that welcomes visitors into New Mexico, I thought it was a huge claim to make. I visited Las Vegas several years ago and though I loved it, I was not impressed at all with the surrounding landscape. Coming from an area of the country that has a great diversity in its landscape I found the arid, desolate landscape of the west a bit depressing really. The mountains looked, to me at least, lifeless and hostile. I expected to feel the same way about the landscape of New Mexico with its red rock and a nearly barren horizon that seemed to stretch out infinitely in front of me.

The first two days we were in New Mexico were the sort of days that Robert Frost's famous poem "The Road Less Traveled" talks about. The poem's main assertion about how much difference the path we choose can make in our lives became very clear to me as Carolyn and I ventured into the hills of New Mexico. For most of this trip the GPS has been my best friend, when I wasn't sure where I was going the voice inside that little box offered me the security that no matter how many wrong turns I made, someone (or something) knew how to save me from myself. So when, on our first full day, we met a friendly local man at the gas station I was a bit nervous to take his advice and stray from the path the GPS had laid out for me but if this trip has been about anything it's been about exploration and so we decided to follow his advice and take a back-road through the mountains to see an old ghost town and a few locales where movies like Young Guns, Wild Hogs, and Cowboys versus Aliens were filmed.

One thing James (the local's name) didn't mention to us was that 8 miles of that road was unpaved and often steep. Though at first I was having a hard time turning off my cynicism,  I even turned to Carolyn and said "Bet he's calling his friend right now telling him he sent two 'victims' out to the old ghost town and that he should meet and (insert a variety of bad things here) the two of us", eventually we laughed and kept right on driving that mountain road. What a difference that made.

The road, lined by cattle and barbed wire was surrounded by rocks that rose up dwarfing us. As a rule I am terrified of heights and I am not known for being outdoorsy but Carolyn and I stopped on that road and climbed up those rocks. I walked at first tentatively then slowly gained a sureness of foot. Some rocks crumbled beneath my feet but most held steady and allowed me passage. I was, however, always aware that nature was in the driver's seat as I made my way down the road. I suppose this is when I first found myself genuinely enchanted with the land because as I stood there I realized the land exists despite us and the harshness of the terrain reminds me that I borrow my sustenance from the land but the relationship is not reciprocal. If anything, the earth would be better off without us. To become acutely aware of your own position in nature is truly mystifying. 

The unpaved road ended in a small town called Cerrillos, when we rounded the corner I felt sure we'd reached a long-abandoned town. The roads, unpaved, were unpopulated but when we parked the car suddenly there stood a local shop owner, Lori. Lori was an invaluable historian for her town and she was quick to inform us of its place on The Turquoise Trail and how the land and the people suffered as a result of industry and its exploitation of the land. In addition to explaining the impact of mining she was excited to tell us about her experience when she witnessed the first Young Guns movie shooting several scenes in town. Lori, like most of the people we've met here, was a kind and talkative soul who worked both as a shop keeper and as a visual artist. I have been surprised by how openly and eagerly New Mexico embraces art of all kinds. The place seems to pulse with creative energy and I began quickly to see why it provided so much inspiration for DH Lawrence, Georgia O'Keefe, and countless other artists. 

After leaving Cerillos, we drove on to Madrid (pronounced Mad Rid) an abandoned mining town that was reestablished by hippies in the 60's who began squatting in the abandoned mine housing. The town is now a haven for artists and full of funky little shops and strange characters wandering the streets selling homemade jewelry. The town's newest claim to fame is that the movie Wild Hogs was shot there and the 'diner' (really a biker shop) featured in the movie is right on its main street. We met some interesting locals while dining at The Hollar. Saul, a self-described flower child, lived in a local hotel and paid his rent by selling earth watches.  I admit I have no idea what an earth watch is and though Saul tried to explain it to me, it looked to me like a rock wrapped in leather. Though what he was selling was lost on me his enthusiasm for living with the encumbrance of a job or a wealth of material goods was something I admired (but could not emulate).  
The creativity that abounds in New Mexico combined with the generous spirit of the people I met that first day cast the initial spell on me, a spell that would only be strengthened by the events of the next few days. I wanted, as I said, to write daily but I find myself needed time to 'digest' the events of each day and I suppose that slowly, as I speed across the stern spine of each American highway I will have the time I need to explain each of the enchantments New Mexico had to offer me. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Flies, Lightning & The Difference a Minute Can Make

'Haste is good only for catching flies' or so the Russian proverb says so needless to say I did not catch any of flies that seemed intent on being my travel companions yesterday. It seemed they were drawn to us all day, those minor annoyances buzzing by our ears, landing on our food, intent on proximity for reasons I can never know. I spent the morning trying to escape them and, admittedly, allowing them to alter my mood. Silly but true. 
Oklahoma City was sweltering even at 8 a.m. and so Carolyn and I decided to head downtown early to see the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial before the sun became too oppressive. The city itself felt abandoned with few people walking about and only minimal traffic. The city streets stretched before us almost void of other vehicles and the heat seemed to rise off of them in sullen waves. The people we did see were friendly and eager to offer assistance and moved with a slow assurance that is becoming increasingly admirable to me. 
The remains of Murrah Federal building are flanked by churches and as you explore the memorial, the steeples hover in the distance. I was struck first by the entrance and it's simplicity. The staunch black wall stands against the city skyline broken only by the light that flows through the egress and the quote about the door reminds those who enter not only of the people who died there but also of the people who lived and of the survivor's struggle to rebuild their lives in the wake of an act of explosive violence. 
One of the many things I loved about this memorial was that it honored survivors as much as it honored those who lost their lives and in doing so recognized that wounds inflicted by violence are enduring and while we may physically walk away from violence the emotional scars are far often more difficult to manage than the ones visible to the outside world.

As I walked the grounds of the memorial I was struck by the beauty that has risen from the ashes. A place once soaked in blood and littered with twisted metal and concrete has emerged a verdant field where empty chairs face a reflecting pool as an homage to all those families who will forever have empty seats at their tables as a result of a few radicals and their twisted ideological war against the government. The chairs line the footprint of the Murrah building and among them are nineteen smaller chairs, a striking reminder that among the casualties where nineteen children. It is a moving sight and as spectacular as it is saddening.  

The memorial itself is flanked by two doorways, one marked 9:01 and the other 9:03, the space between marks the moment the bomb exploded, the instance when the world changed forever for the people in that building, their families and the consciousness of America. In the immediate wake of the bombing, as people and dogs dug for survivors the speculation was that a foreign terrorist group had done this but in time the terrible truth that the extremism was homegrown became clear. As I stood there I could not help but consider the current political climate, its divisiveness and heightened rhetoric and wonder if we've forgotten the dangers from within. 

There was one part of the site that I found particularly powerful and it was not designed by an artist but a spontaneous proclamation by a someone working in the rubble of the building and it reads like a despairing call to salvage some sense of order and justice. Even in the midst of chaos human beings are driven to create order and understanding. 

Leaving Oklahoma City I felt the repercussions of that one minute when the world changed and I could not help but think of the scars closer to my home and how 10 years after 9/11 New York City has yet to physically turn Ground Zero into a monument to human bravery and a testament to the American will to survive. 

While Oklahoma City was struck by man-made lightning, as we drove through New Mexico its horizon was ablaze with the kind I am at least a bit more familiar with. All through New Mexico Carolyn and I struggled to capture in a photograph those moments when the horizon would ignite with singular strikes that were both awe-inspiring and frightening. Between us we must have snapped over a hundred photos but we were never able to capture a single strike on 'film'. The combination of the open plains, the clouds that came down in streams and seemed to tether themselves to the terrain and the explosive presence of the rumbling heavens made me feel tiny and yet offered me a largess that was enchanting. Like Alice I grew and shrunk in only a few instants. Eventually we turned, as humans do, to a simpler solution that was available and overlooked the entire time and captured it on video.

We ended our day driving through across the desert chasing lightning, beneath the open sky raging in the distance, the brush of tragedy still stinging our skin, we arrived in Santa Fe with an understanding of how much a difference a minute can make, the power of place and how silly it is to raise a sword to battle a fly. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Heat and History

Today was a combination of sweltering heat, 109 degrees here in Oklahoma City, and both recent and distant (?) history. I woke up this morning in Little Rock, Arkansas and Carolyn and I decided to take a few hours to explore the city. I must admit that my idea of a city is based firmly on growing up in close proximity to New York and my trip through several southern cities has been eye-opening. Little Rock was a clean, friendly, relatively uncrowded city. The fact that the air there was not filled with peeling car horns combined with the relative emptiness of the streets caught me off guard. We started our exploration at the Little Rock Visitor's Center where a very friendly woman gave us a list of 'must-do's' given our short time frame. The first sight she recommended was the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library, the second the River Market district, and the last Little Rock Central High School (a pivotal battleground in the fight to integrate public schools in the the 1950's). 
We first made our way to the Presidential Library, a bit of a misnomer since the term library evokes the idea of stodgy librarians, rows and rows of books, and a need to maintain subdued silence. The library could probably more aptly be called a museum where the Clinton's legacy is preserved. The history here is a history I clearly remember. I was an adult when Clinton ran and was elected twice and I remember the prosperity of his tenure and how starkly it contrasts to the times we are living in right now. I saw in the films and the mementos however, an idealized version of the time. Isn't this what history tends to do so often? Strip away the less-than-stellar moments and seek to preserve the best of what we were once-upon-a-time? I found myself wistful at the thought of the Clinton-era and the controversies seemed to be minor footnotes in the annals of history. I haven't decided yet if this is a good or bad thing. The library itself held replicas of both the Cabinet Room and the Oval Office and standing there in those rooms that are facsimiles of power centers it occurred to me just how glad I am to not have had to make the kinds of decisions that must have made by Clinton and his cabinet. It's fun to sit at the faux table, but I am glad that the I'll never have to confront the sorts of things that he and his cabinet confronted at the actual table. That is a heat I simply could not withstand. 

When we left the Clinton Library, Carolyn and I headed down to the River Market for lunch. The market, despite it's modern feel, reminded me in many ways of Faneuil Hall in Boston. It's most important function, at least for me today, was that it provided a safe haven from the oppressive heat of the day. For a few moments we escaped the relentless sun and it's steadfast determination to beat us down. 
Because we had very little time to waste (we needed to get to Oklahoma City) we headed to Little Rock Central High School just after lunch. The neighborhood the high school is in has seen better days but the school itself is an awe-inspiringly beautiful piece of architecture. It's difficult to stand in front of this building without feeling small. All of my concerns, physical and otherwise, seemed dwarfed there, not just by the building but also by the events that took place there. It is hard to imagine an America that openly divided along racial lines, but if I doubt the enduring nature of divisiveness in this country all I need to is watch the news coverage of the debt crisis and more broadly the coverage of the current president. I need only look in my own home to see that America has not yet reached it's stated tenet that 'all men are created equal'. In my own experience as the mother of African-American sons, I have seen prejudice up close and personal from store clerks, from teachers, from members of my sister's neighborhood association. I have seen too though the good and accepting people of the world. There are, in my experience more of the latter than the former. 
Standing in the shadow of the school, the focal point of so much of America's shortcomings, was humbling. I tried to image those nine students having to run the gambit of hatred, the angry shouts and vitriolic rhetoric from politicians that encircled these young teens must have been terrifying. The school is outwardly an impressive place but it's the knowledge of what happened there that gives it its real weight. As hot as I was standing in the shadow of that building today, I know I didn't face half the heat those nine teens did back in 1957. 
Tomorrow we're heading to downtown Oklahoma City where another chapter in American history was written. Where the heated rhetoric of militias culminated in the historic bombing of a federal building but more than that we're heading into a city that turned tragedy into strength, much the way those teens did as they walked up the steps of that Little Rock school and into the annals of history.