Carta de Huitzilopochtli
Every day you have to know I’m up here
On the banks of the Greater Miami fighting
The gringos: I am one of those men
You called forth in one of your poems. And because
I live so close to them, I can taste their greed when I eat,
When I break bread at daylight, sitting
In a clapboard Dutch-roofed farmhouse
That overlooks the oak-lined street.
Listen: this morning I drove my son
To school. I thought of the war, I looked
In vain for any other dark haired heads
Like mine stumbling through this wicked
Part of Ohio I never imagined in my little
Desert home. My son’s eyes tell me I am there
And otherwise a part of a greater nomadic urge—
To leave the Chihuahuan wastelands forever in search of water.
When my mother was 41 years old, in 1976, my family drove up to Chimayo New Mexico so that she could fulfill a promise she had made to La Virgen de Guadalupe in 1968, when she almost died giving birth my sister Ysela. She would crawl on her knees to the main alter at the main chapel in Chimayo. She did it, even though she was embarrassed and in pain. She was scared, you could tell. All of the tourists. The old Franciscan priest and some monks from a Buddhist monastery in Taos. I as well, suffering from what were the beginnings of my life-long battle with Moerch-Woltman Syndrome, was taken to a holy site there at the chapel when the dirt itself was said to cure the afflicted. Crutches and canes everywhere, I rubbed the red dirt on my leg, to no effect.
Now, when I think of pilgrimages, I immediately think of Allen Ginsberg’s travels to San Francisco with Jack Kerouac. A place they considered divine and full of possibility, a place where they would begin, reinvent themselves, and prosper. I think of Ginsberg sitting in his Berkeley apartment hallucinating Blake, seeing roses in the walls. I see Kerouac looking for “visionary angels who were visionary angels.” I am also drawn to the Children’s Crusade, for some reason. I remember a poem I wrote in 1987, in Jon Victor Anderson’s poetry class, an allegory using that particular crusade to highlight the tensions I was living through as a young writer whose main themes focused, and continue to focus on escape and transcendence. But the Crusade was not an escape, as much as a meaningless pilgrimage, and I felt that meaningless living in Tucson, there, at the time. I had become a nomad, making pilgrimages to distant desert ivory towers to learn how to write, and to escape another desert. Every step forward that day I left Albuquerque was the beginning of a pilgrimage away from who I was to what I wanted to become. I wanted to find my inner holy self, I wanted find someway of being that would help my shattered soul. In the desolation, I laid out a plan to move away as far as I could, and I would consider now that a venture to the boreal woods and temperate zones was in order. On one trip to Boston and Vermont in 1991 I had pretty much decided that I needed to leave the desert forever, leave my connections behind, and forge a path, make a pilgrimage to these grand woods and rolling hills.
I grew up in Gallup and Albuquerque New Mexico. My father’s family is mainly Tejano, that is, an ethnic mix of Spanish, Basque, German, and Czech. My mom’s family is mostly Mexican and Apache. When I was growing up I always saw many Americans coming to the Southwest, pilgrims, tourists, wanderers, mystics, travelers traveling through the Native sites and Pueblos, the Ruins, the small towns in Dinetah, looking for something. Spiritual. Forgiving. Awesome like the blank blue sky and the transient and almost non-existent weather. But when you’re 20, 21, maybe you want to leave. Maybe your relationships have dried up. Maybe you’ve seen your friends turn to the darkness. You’ve had it with the way things turned out for most of you after high school, during and after college. Stuck in New Mexico, forever, maybe. Maybe for all its light, the desert is a darkness so complete it’s a dry black hole filled with scorpions and snakes and the never ending sun. You see this in all of your friends, the kids with whom you went to High School and college. I think about who made it out, who stayed. To me the desert is devastation. I chose to leave, to make my way to the East, to the green lands and forests I had only seen once or twice. But there are the experiences that brought me here now, living in temperate America, to walk in the holy Oak and Maple forests, to walk in the dead of winter through a copse of silver maple and dogwood. The stunning sight of hard winter snow in the woods, the rabbit and bobcat tracks. I don’t want to call it my heaven or my ultimate destination. But it is enough. As if I have walked one thousand miles in bare feet to get here. I feel as if I have made to an older holy place, a place of ghostly forests and sweeping cornfields that speak to me of life and possibility.
* * *
These are the stories of the desert, the place I wished to leave. Unholy and destructive, I always wanted to leave. My brother always said he could tell by the time we were six that I wanted to leave, to walk as far as I could away from what I knew to some holy land. There were other pilgrims too who found the dry Western woods, conifer and Scrub Oak, to be somehow soothing. We all made pilgrimages to the mountains, like the Jack and Allen and Gary, hoping find enlightenment and desolation.
Collin and Harold were best friends, since 7th grade, when they met at Hoover Middle School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. My brother and I met them in 9th grade Algebra 1. They played dungeons and dragons, read sci-fi, wore Levi Big Bells and ratty t-shirts and work boots. Collin smoked Marlboro 100’s constantly when we were out of class, at lunch, whenever, wherever. Harold knew a lot about computers: his dad worked at one of the DOE labs in the city, and they had built HeathKit/Zenith pcs by 1983. And of course, we all knew Basic and Fortran. Soon, Harold had programed his computer like a video game, albeit primitive by today’s standards. In a chessboard like setting, we could play Dungeons and Dragons on the computer, which also had a random number generator so we wouldn’t have to roll dice. Mostly, I remember partying a lot with these two in 12th grade. Collin’s dad made awful, yeasty, 14% grape wine, which he called “Cloud 9 Wine.” There were jugs of it in the garage. Cigarettes and pot were also popular. At lunch, we’d drive up to the edge of the foothills, smoke up, get some burgers at McDonalds, and head back. No one cared. We were seniors, all going to college, smarmy-bright nerdy freaks who listened to Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, and the Stones. Since Collin was also in the Theatre group and was quite the young actor, I met many new people, who were more like me in sentiment and intelligence. It was all good. But as I remember now, all the songs we listened to, about vast other worldly realms and places unknown, about places in the mind deep and scary and revelatory, haunted all of us. The need to escape.
Collin and Harold chose to go to New Mexico State University on scholarships: Harold for Math, and Collin for Art and Theatre. Of course, I was, like my brother, bound for the University of New Mexico: I won a scholarship, and with loans and work study, I decided to make the best of it. I have to admit that my First year is a blur of parties, involving all of those theatre people, some of whom were a year behind us, but in some ways, much heavier partiers, much darker emotionally, too. For them, there were no pilgrimages, as they could journey into the minds of other people and kinetically transfer those lives to the stage. There was some kind of stability to that and I did not have it. I saw them as static as much as I moved around, never secure, always wanting to leave to someplace that did not exist.
It was at this time that Collin and Harold, bored with life in Las Cruces, NM, used to travel back up to Albuquerque. But there was something new: Harold had a girlfriend, Susan, who had gone to Manzano High School, who was always with him, even when Collin was around. So when these three would show up, there was tension in the air, even at the kindest parties. Let’s just say it was a tumultuous time. A wild time in the early 80’s when sexual promiscuity, drug and alcohol abuse were just fine for everyone. I have to note here that the ultimate forms of escape were mostly just there, for the taking. No one I know wanted to live the life they had, no one wanted to go home, or even go on sometimes. Deep escapes became the norm: all day hiking followed by all night beer drinking, heavy use of hard liquor and strong cigarettes, random hookups that lasted the night.
Because we had all grown up in sight of or even right next to the great Sandia Mountains that rise almost 5000 feet from the plain of the Rio Grande, which floats serenely at 5600 feet above sea level, we had become very good to excellent hikers, mountain climbers, boulderers, and scramblers by the time we were 19. We’d spent our younger years in Boy Scouts and thought we knew the woods like we knew every little corner of our small but growing minds. By that I mean that most of us were convinced we were invincible, proud, determined to succeed, and determined to be masters of the forest and mountains. There were the big Friday night parties in Sunset Canyon, part of the Ponderosa National Forest, right behind Tom Alexander’s house, usually after the long 8-10 mile hikes that also involved climbing boulders and so forth. Beer, whiskey, and pot were common, but Tom, who was a math major set to go to Berkeley, along with Collin, Harold and Susan, had started to delve into hallucinogens: LSD, Psyllocybin Mushrooms, even, of all things, Datura, or Locoweed, called such by the local ranchers because of what it did to cattle when they ate it. Of course we know now know that hallucinogens are the most dangerous form of escape, and in the past could be associated with a rite –of-passage or a pilgrimage into an unknown from which you might not return. But some of my friends were ready for that. After all, our favorite bands sung of pilgrimages to far off lands, and the sci-fi and fantasy stories we read convinced us that our lives were journeys to be filled with pilgrimages into the unknown.
By this time, Collin was dating Jessica Roybal, a Chicana from Truchas, NM. She had thick black hair and a sharp native face. We’d often talk in Caló when we hung out. She liked to smoke menthols like me, and even worked at the same place I did, as a lighting tech. But now this group of four still liked to go into the deep, deep, high desert outside of Las Cruces to hike and climb, to test their skills and to dose up on LSD or Mushrooms. They favored the Organ Mountains, which lie directly East of Las Cruces. Jagged and dangerous compared to the Sandias. They in fact, preferred the Wilderness Areas on the East side of the mountain, where one could encounter waterfalls, rushing streams, and animals like cougar, coyote, or antelope.
What I know of the rest of the story comes from Jess and my brother, who was told by Collin. One early morning, the guys got up to do some early pre-dawn hiking. They left Susan and Jess back in their tents. About an hour later, Collin returned. He was white-faced and covered in dirt and dust. According to Jess, and to my brother, Collin and Harold had each dropped several hits of LSD early that morning, and having not slept, decided to go scale a 65 foot rock tower that lead to a higher plateau. Collin reached the summit first. As Harold climbed behind him, he grasped onto a large loose rock, which broke from the mountain ledge, sending him tumbling 65 feet to the ground. The rock, at least 50 pounds, landed on Harold’s chest and throat, crushing his windpipe.
They say Collin carried Harold all the way down the mountain after he got back to camp, alerted the women, and tried in vain to rescue him. Jess ran all the way down a dirt road for two miles in her army boots until she found a state cop who called in a helicopter rescue team from Ft. Bliss.
I found out about this one early morning. I was back at my parents’ house to get laundry done early on a Monday and then drive back to campus in my busted up 1978 Ford Bronco in time for my 11 am class. The radio was on. It was about 7 am.
Very simple. A New Mexico State University Student had received fatal injuries in an unlikely and bizarre accident, what one calls a freak accident. Crushed windpipe while climbing in the Organ Mountains. And then his name.
It was the middle of April 1984. We were all packing up our dorms to move into the student neighborhood next year (at UNM we have a student ghetto too, but it is, much more, shall we say, run down and dangerous). I called my brother in his room—he was incredulous and disbelieving…I had hooked up with Harold’s sister once at a party the summer before, and Rudy and Harold resented for that…anyway, I told him I was on my way back to the dorms, to Coronado Hall, where he and Gabe Greenfield lived. I got in the Bronco. It had no radio, so I had taken a GE boombox and plugged it to the cigarette lighter for music. I ran a couple lights, stunned, in a hurry, taking older routes down to the U so I could think. There was a Billy Joel song on the first station I tuned to: “for the longest time,” a silly 1950’s do-wop style song, sweet and sick like candy. For years I would associate this song with this horrible series of events.
Upon entering Rudy and Gabe’s dorm, I knew that Rudy had heard the news on the radio too and Gabe was crying quietly in the corner. After that, who knows. There was no memorial service in Albuquerque, as Harold’s parents’ bundled his remains and buried him in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in a family plot. Susan totally disappeared, never to be seen by us again.
About a year after the accident, Collin and Jess were living in Albuquerque, both now going to UNM instead of NMSU. They had to get away. Collin began to make all sorts of carvings, pipes, and art objects from clay, rock, wood, anything he could shape and remake. They were remarkable, organic and solidly ingenious in artistic design. But as his art went on, his images more and more focused on faces and images of death. Collin liked to sit in his very nice hardwood floor apartment from the 1940’s watching his enormous fish tank. He would mold, carve, cut, shave, break, remake so many pieces of art, each about hand-sized, that he sold them for $5 each at the Albuquerque Flea Market on Saturdays. At one time he had over 200 art objects that he’d made, and was making about $200 each week selling them to tourists and oddballs. I was working, in my senior year, at Keller Hall on the UNM campus as a lighting tech. Jess worked there too. We shifted and moved lights, heavy cables, and used equipment from the 1960’s to light Keller Hall for concerts performed by the Music Department faculty and students. Mostly she and I sat in the Director’s booth behind the audience, turning lights off and on, softly talking in the dark about Collin, the weight he bore, how she couldn’t stand it. We spoke mostly in Caló. We would get really stoned and then talk about astronomy stuff: the planets, the stars, the possibility of life. We had both begun dreaming of the ultimate pilgrimage, death, which we discussed allegorically, in terms of outer space and far out planets that might exist somewhere out there in the dark. After work I would stare up into the dark and the nomad would call to me. And I heard the Eastern forests singing in my ears.
* * *
In 1987 I lost track of all of those people. I moved with a woman I had known for two years to Tucson, Arizona, to attend the fabulous Graduate Creative Writing Program. Rolling Stone said it was the place to hone your skills as a young writer. I was also another escape, as I was actually going somewhere different and new. There was the notion of the student going to learn from the masters, the wonder boys from Iowa who had moved to the mystic west to improve their writing. My plan to was to learn from them and move East.
Tucson, 1987. I lived in a concrete and stucco apartment, one of “Las Casitas Viejas,” an apartment complex near the University of Arizona. Six little four room boxes surrounding an old round dark green Juniper tree. It was never my intent to move, like a nomad, from desert to desert, but that’s what I did for the next six years. I lived with Sarah, and we lived across the way from Mike Vinyl, a local radio dj and Elvis worshipper. From Mike we learned about hard drinking and from the windows late at night I’d watch his friend, “Cotton,” freebasing cocaine. Afterwards, he would sit on Mike’s porch drinking 151 and Doctor Pepper, while Mike smoked Marlboros and drank gin…I think, whatever Elvis drank, no doubt.
I thought I was beginning my pilgrimage as a writer, as a poet. Instead, this phase of my self-exile would bring me down a trail I never intended. There was a darkness that each of us touched in one another. Like playing at keeping house we were lost bohemians who were trying to find a way out, but there were no plans for after graduate school. We’d made the mistake many young hipsters make, confusing sex for love, wanting out of loneliness only for some company, somewhere. But there in grad school I encountered the second darkness: the back-stabbing, airy and elitist world of the Writing Program, with its dilletantes, wannabes, true-believers, crazy, drunken geniuses, losers, geeks, and desert rats. That they seemed to be all rushing somewhere unknown at the guidance of their teachers worried me. That alcohol, weed, tobacco, and sometimes cocaine flew freely at wild after-workshop parties numbed me. After a while, there were only a couple people I’d talk to. I wrote my poetry but mostly stayed away, working as a research assistant for an Education professor, Carl Foster, Ed.D, who worked with the BIA School in Tuba City, Arizona. I learned more there and working with him in some ways than I did from my writing teachers. I took the outsider classes, like the Southern Arizona Writing Project, and worked with High School teachers who taught mostly indigenous peoples, Dine, Tohono-Odham, San Carlos Apache. In Spring 1988 I dropped out from the Program without informing anyone.
In the Summer of 1988 I moved with Sarah to Alamosa, Colorado. There are no pictures of those days; they’ve been destroyed by various parties who thought they were, at the time, immune from regret and shame. This was no adventure: there was already a lingering tiredness to the way Sarah dealt with me, how she approached me. We had both undertaken this pilgrimage to a promised land of permanent jobs, a new life in a wild part of the West, away from the heat, but alone, terribly alone. I saw the 14,000 mountains and decided for a while that I had made it. Physically the mountains meant a kind of desolate and stunning holiness and danger that convinced me that I was meant to be there. But in my human life, my exterior life, their was not much tenderness, only the feeling of regret, of living in an odd trap that no one really wanted to build in the first place. Full of hidden corners and defenses. But no way out. Instead of reveling in the wild holiness of the Rockies, the darkness of the Rocky Mountain winter I felt through to my bones, and into my deepest state of mind. The heavy snow, the deep, deep, cold, the trap of the place: to leave town in winter, to the “city,” which meant Colorado Springs, Taos, Santa Fe, or Albuquerque, meant crossing over high mountain passes on curving, steep highways that we not plowed regularly in winter. One time for something to do, with 3 feet of snow on the ground, Sarah and I drove to Albuquerque in our pickup. There was only snow, packed hard, unplowed, on US 285 South until we got to the outskirts of Española. It was 30 degrees warmer in Albuquerque, and my brother and some of my college friends still lived there.
These back and forth trips to Albuquerque were but symbolic pilgrimages to a past that was quickly slipping away like a greasy rope. We’d drive to my brother’s house in central Albuquerque, where he lived with a variety of freaks and graduate international students from England and Wales; he was about to drop out of his job as the Technical Director of Keller Hall at the University of New Mexico School of Music. He wanted to travel the world, and at the time rode his English girlfriend’s motorcycle. He would start his first pilgrimage by going to Ecaudor and Peru, and then to Venezuela, and Kathmandu. But we knew we were going our separate ways; we had spent the first 18 years of our lives as twins always together, in deep competition, jealousy, togetherness, and even out right dismissal. A true love/hate relationship. One time, Rudy and all his Albuquerque friends drove out to Tucson to surprise Sarah and me, for example, so we could all go to the cold but sunny beach in Puerto Peñasco one spring with all my Arizona friends. He would also drive up to Alamosa quite a bit in the 1974 Peugeot 504 station wagon he’d bought from Sarah’s father. He’d sprayed paisleys all over it. But everybody knew, in some ways, that we were all bound to be nomads, crossing rivers, borders, seeing places we’d never seen, living here and there for 2 two 3 years at a time, passengers passing through.
Like I said, by the time I lived in Alamosa I owned a 1988 Toyota ½ 4x4, sand colored, with brown racing stripes. A perfect vehicle for living in the high mountains and valleys of Southern Colorado. It was desert there, too. At 7500 feet, the town of Alamosa Colorado was the central town in a valley, the San Luis Valley. In an area the size of Connecticut, there were only some 38,000 people: mostly farmers and ranchers, their families, small towns scattered in the high desert and in the deep valleys of the San Juan Mountains. The main attraction was Mount Blanca, which rises 14, 375 above the sea level, where the Sangre De Cristo Mountains meet the Crestone Mountains and the Rockies.
It was a cold hard life in Colorado, with nothing to do except hope for Spring. The summers were wild with terrific thunderstorms, beautiful unknown insects like the hummingbird moth, sharp shrill blue jays, wild stands of Salt Cedar and Elm along the young Rio Grande. The best times happened in the high mountains, with my friends and dogs, taking forest roads into the high mountains or out to large wetlands teeming with frogs and Sandhill cranes. I hung out with a bunch of Cowboy poets and old hippy poets and we’d gather every week out on the range, build a fire, read poetry and drink all night. One guy I remember the most was the poet in residence at Adams State College (where I taught in the Upward Bound Program), Cole Thompson, an Iowa MFA poet who loved hunting, fishing, camping, and trailblazing. He loved dogs, but his most famous poem was about the death of his one dog. It was titled “Shooting Snowball.” So now death was an escape. I had to move on.
* * *
After two years Sarah and I left Alamosa; another pilgrimage had begun. There’s nothing like a failing marriage and the promise of more failure that makes one want to move forward, to join the nomads. But this time, my pilgrimage was to Tempe, to meet and work with the poet Norman Dubie. I considered him a holy man. I now know that Sarah knew our move back to Arizona would be disastrous, even though she had secured a high-paying job as a Federal worker. So she would work in Downtown Phoenix and I would teach and write in Tempe.
Separation can either bring togetherness or be a porthole to failure. In writing school there are many temptations because many of your colleagues may be wilder, drunker, more stoned, or more horny than you. And the cutthroat competition to get Norman Dubie’s or Alberto Rios’ attention: how to make a career in the Arts by kissing ass. My relationship with Sarah became intolerable. There had always been race and class issues, and now Sarah wanted “a normal life” that did not entail me wandering forever in the desert like my Apache ancestors. And I felt no love, no connection. Several incidents involving blind racism and classism by her parents and siblings left me wounded and insecure about her commitment to me. I knew in my heart and in my groin that she would not be a good mother. She was cold, alcoholic, and sadly, self-traumatized by gender identity issues that troubled both her sisters as well. She would often refer to herself as a “gay man trapped in a woman’s body.” Once day when we were walking our dogs through Tempe, I looked upon her and saw her, in her tattered, ripped, thrift store clothes, short, mannish hair, no makeup or lipstick, dirty jeans and boots. I had had enough. I could only focus on the literally tens of scars on her arms from cutting. I fell out of love, knew I had to save myself and move on, rebuild from scratch. But how to do it without hurt and pain? So one of my last pilgrimages was the drift from one person to another, the moving forward of bodies and the romance of fucking wildly and freely with women I hardly knew, mostly for the pure thrill of knowing others’ bodies and souls. I had no choice but to make harsh and ameliorating decisions that would satisfy my burgeoning sexuality and force my way out of a relationship that become as dull as a stale Saltine Cracker.
* * *
I met Madeleine at a party I was having one summer. She was wild, thin, feminine, hard core East Coast Irish-Italian working class, married to a cokehead guitarist, purely sexual and intellectual, frank, opinionated, a noisy talker with a heavy Philly accent. We found we could debate for hours a number of theoretical issues from poetics to anthropology and linguistics. She could also speak Spanish well and we could often talk privately without anyone really knowing what we were saying. Mostly high theory and rock and roll: whether the Stones were better than the Beatles, why the Grateful Dead kinda sucked, what Foucault meant when he talked about the archeology of knowledge. Between classes we got into the habit of wasting time together. We hung out and read, watched afternoon tv. Neither of our spouses were ever home. One day, after class, we had sex on my living room couch. It just happened. One minute Gilligan’s Island on tv, the next moment pure nudity. And, the next week, before class. It was some of the most blissful, intense, loving, and physically active sex I’d had in years. I’d crossed another frontier in my pilgrimage away from what I knew to what I wanted to know. In the deepest ways, sexual experiences are pilgrimages into known territories, where one might think he has an idea of a map to a fabulous and holy territory only dreamed of. Or is a mundane, biological reaction based in pheromones and biology. Humans migrate too, out of loneliness, out of the need to know other places, territories, bodies.
For three months we saw each other once a week, in pure secrecy, and then decided in early January 1993 that we had to decide what to do. We had become way more that friends or fuck-buddies, and we admitted the blinding need each one of us felt to procreate. Sarah, from the beginning, had no intention of being a “breeder” as she called people in our generation who had kids. I had to tell her it was over. Steve, who was always flying high on Prog rock and cocaine, didn’t seem to care. He was as distant as the Rockies. In fact, it was Sarah who had turned into a roommate, preferring the company of anyone else but me, anytime. There was no life at home, and I admit I mostly drank and partied with the rest of the MFA students: hard drinking every night, heavy smoking, drunken escapades to dark, evil bars and midnight desert cemeteries. We were all out of control for a while, some of us, including me, deeply mentally ill, but we read and wrote in the hopes of living the life, becoming a real writer. At home, a small two-bedroom townhouse with a tiny dry yard, laundry on site, and a cool porch, we lived in an emotionally empty and hollow marriage. Work had consumed Sarah, and she more and more wanted more and more, the kind of upper class life her sister lived in Chicago. We had nothing to talk about. And shitty old student furniture, ashtrays filled with butts 00everywhere. In the evening her friends would come over to watch Star Trek—The Next Generation and drink Irish whiskey. In the morning I would bike to ASU and work out, then teach, meet with Dubie or his wife, and then go home to smoke cigarettes and weed and watch tv. These were weird times, sharp and competitive, dulling and hatful to Sarah. Sure, we met others from the outside who lived in the well trimmed Phoenix suburbs. There was one couple we met through mutual friends from Alamosa, Justinian and Helga. Justinian, for all his named implied, was an Alamosa boy, born and bred, a vato like me. Helga was a tall beautiful Nordic. We ate Sunday brunch with then regularly, and smoked weed regularly. Justinian worked for a large telecommunications company as a PR guy. He was bi-polar, alcoholic, and suffered from bleeding ulcers. He would eventually die just like Jack Kerouac. He and Sarah, unbeknownst to anyone, had a short tryst sometime in the spring of 1992. But what I also knew was that Sarah was and had been for years a secret alcoholic; suffering quietly from so much LSD abuse and self-abuse, debasement, and sexual identity issues in High School and college, she had become a bit off-balance, anti-social, hostile and unemotional towards me. I became a bad man with bad habits and bad friends. Petty criminals, poets, bohemians on the edge of death. While I wallowed in loneliness and discomfort. I rode my bike a lot and lifted free weights. Madeleine and I continued to see each other once a week. But then, in March, I busted. Being no longer able to contain my love for Madeleine, and her love for me, we announced to our partners we were in love and would seek to end our real relationships for the fantasy affair we’d created. Friends became enemies, enemies became friends. Accusations, lies, betrayals; second and third doubts occurred. Madeleine and I tried breaking up by picking random sex partners at local bars. There were unmentionable sexual acts and relationships, wild drunken threesomes. That just caused more hurt. By May it was over; Maddie and I moved into a cheap apartment in a part of Tempe known as Singh City and made plans to move to back East in the fall. As my graduation neared, I won a Post-Doctoral Fellowship to Union College of NY. I would, and Madeleine would, leave the Southwest behind, would leave Sarah and Steve behind to forge their new destinies, while we went out, sure of love and lust, sure of commitment and courage. It didn’t matter who we hurt; the stars were in our favor.
I had never lived beyond the Western Untied States before. As far East as I had been in a car was Austin, Texas. We passed through Tuscon. We visited with my mother’s half-sister, JoAnn, for about three hours, talking old stories, explaining our new story. She called ahead to Hatch, New Mexico, where my Grandmother lived with JoAnn’s father, Felipe. I knew him as my grandfather. Thick, tough, with a lot of Apache blood in him. A chilero and truck driver. We left Tucson, and I would not see JoAnn again until 2004.
Four hours out of Tucson, after a stop at “THE THING” a roadside attraction and Stuckey’s Restaurant, at the Deming exit, a lone, long road that leads from Interstate 10 to Hatch New Mexico: Highway 26. It follows a Southern Pacific Rail Line and the trains move cotton, chile, corn, and cattle between Hatch and the Deming Depot for shipment to Califas. There’s a town called Nutt half-way between the lush, rich Hatch Valley and the dry, unforgiving desert where trains often stop to get fresh food, burritos, sodas, sandwiches. Otherwise, you might see an old truck with Mexican license plates from Chihuahua loaded down with inmigrantes and braceros who work the farms of the Hatch and Mesilla Valleys of the Lower New Mexican Rio Grande.
In Hatch, my grandmother had cooked a meal of freshly butchered beef roast, tortillas, green chile and pinto beans, and fried corn. It was a farm. There were bugs and wild little cats everywhere. My grandfather cried when he saw me. My grandmother, Josefina, was confused. “WHAT!!!!!” She yelled, in her native mestizo loudness, and in shock. She still had photos on the tv of me and the woman I abandoned to be with Madeleine: Le Dije: “Pos, tu sabes que algunos tiempos un matrimonio es malo, es difcil pa’ mantener. Entiendes, Abuelita?” After looking at me, Madeleine, my two big dogs, she said, “OK. Es tu vida, mijo,” as she picked up the old pictures and turned then over, face down.
That night we slept not at all. The farm had had an infestation of some sort of beetle, and they were everywhere outside, and desperate to get into the double wide trailer that made up my grandparent’s homestead in the desert valley. I fell asleep at 4, only to be awakened by Felipe at 6, when he turned over the tractor to start cutting Alfalfa. We ate fresh farm eggs and homemade bacon. Felipe helped me back-out my Jeep Cherokee and U-haul Trailer. He handed me a pack of smokes, Viceroys, and we were off. My grandmother was somewhere on the 15 acre property no doubt killing chickens for dinner. We were in Albuquerque in three hours. I would never see my grandmother again. She would die in 1997, a year after my mother died. I would see Felipe again at my father’s funeral in 2002. This is the heart-break of being a nomad, seeking out the impossible, imagining a grand pilgrimage out East that was to become, for a while, a self-exile.
What can I say? We stayed with my mom and dad. It was the summer and Burque was dry and cool at night. I would be there again in late 1995. So we drove and rove and drove. To Oklahoma City. To Little Rock, to Knoxville, and then onto Virginia. When we crossed into Pennsylvania, I knew I would never live out West again. My self-exile and pilgrimage to the big woods had succeeded.
Madeleine and I spent two cold and snowy years in Schenectady, NY, getting to know each other, our habits, our day to day lives, not just our bodies. I became a part of her family. By then, we had established a strong relationship and had a daughter. We would go to western Massachusetts every Sunday, in good weather, to hike Mt. Adams. In the summer, there’s an ice-cream shop built by the WPA and the YCC in the 1930s. You can see the whole Berkshire Valley yawn when the sun strikes the red autumn leaves. Along the frozen Mohawk, in the winter I learned how to ice-skate and cross country ski. I would push myself deep into the woods outside of town, or drive up into the hills where the snowy apple orchards and Christmas tree farms gave my joy just driving by and smoking joint. At Union College, I worked in a rarified atmosphere, a culture that dated itself to 1795, a culture that forced me to move into its sphere of influence intellectually and physically. Of all the places, there is a large garden, Jackson’s Garden, dated to the early 1830’s. For my free time, I would sit in the summer, watching bright birds and small red mites, soaking in the Eastern sun. In Mr. Jackson’s garden bloomed exotic flowers that he had collected from all over the world. Even Audubon was said to admire it. In the summer we would go to the woods outside of Saratoga Springs—haunted with larch, spruce, and birch, we would walk with our young children and feel the summer air come by like the ghosts said to inhabit the places around Yaddo. For me, it was all about transcendence, and change. One summer we watched a million fireflies light the wild fields out in Schenectady county. It’s the light you see that matters in a pilgrimage, then.
* * *
Soon, by the end of 1994, we would have daughter, and and son in 1996. My mother died in October 1996. She never knew her new grandson and it wasn’t until 1998 that we made it out West for a visit. We were living in Minneapolis, where Maddie had begun her PhD. Studies in Hispanic Language and Literatures. We would live in that snow bound, hectic, rude, uptight, and thoroughly socialist city for almost eight years. My kids were raised in daycare while I taught writing at the University of Minnesota. What I remember the most: the heavy, wet snow in January and February, the temperature drops into the minus 20’s, hot humid summers. I also remember the coldness of the Nordic culture there, its stoicism and private, outrageous Lutheranism. The Whiteness of the place shocked me. I also remember my children as children. Now they are adults, “beyond my command,” as Bob Dylan might say. So my children became Northerners, used to harsh winters, sledding, ice skating, ice hockey, snow-ball fights. For them it was glorious, but I was always dreaming of warm spring days when all the snow would suddenly melt and give way to grass, weeds, and dandelions. We became a true family in Minnesota. I remember driving home from work one day with Madeleine and her friend Juli as the Who’s song “The Seeker” blasted on the stereo—my six year old daughter, Madeleine, and Juli all belted out the lyrics as we slid along the icy streets. Still kind of bohemians. But now budding academics who had to choose to be bohemians or join the middle class. My pilgrimage away from bohemian extremism and childless marriages of convenience had long ended.
* * *
There was a point when we knew it was time to leave. Madeleine had finished coursework and I was on the verge of publishing my first real book. It mixed the mythologies of the desert with my new found sense of self-exile and shame, and contrasted the deep deciduous forests and Boreal land to the desert I once knew: there was the same loneliness and solitude to be found. Nature as an external and internalized space in which to create and write. But I loved the Minnesota woods. I would go in the morning to the hollow behind my house, about 100 acres of oak and spruce, with my Terrier Angus, in deep brush and thickets of wildberries. I spent wandering the deep woods of Minnesota and Wisconsin, meditating, exploring, walking with Angus through deep bush and ravines, finding in the deep snow signs of life, seeing how young people had built huts from long prairie grass to sit in the frozen salt marshes and meditate. One early spring, walking a frozen salt marsh, with the snow melting and ice trickling into water, I came upon a young woman lying in the sun, on a rock in the middle of the marsh. It was about forty outside, and she was in shorts and a t-shirt. Soaking in the sun. Everyone has pilgrimages to complete. And I think of amazing Pottsville, old City of ancient Eastern Anthracite gambles, my second home, the Northern Appalachians of Pennsylvania, where it has carved itself into the straight, sharp mountains and coal mines, the deep birch and fir forests that I roam every summer and winter. The secret places, the home of the muskrat, the lair of the bobcat, the tracks of bear and deer in the deep woods. I have stood in the deep moonlight along a pond in Northeastern Pennsylvania at Christmas time, haze building, snow flying, fir trees in the distance dancing in the wind. Thanked G-d for that vision.
* * *
My pilgrimage away from the desert is complete. I live in the woods and rolling hills of the Miami Valley, in an older rust-belt city with not much going on: segregation, lack of jobs and industry, and the rich suburbs and fertile farmlands that surround it. My children are grown, my wife of 20 years is close enough to home; we’re eight hours from Philly. I see my brother and some of my old Albuquerque friends once a year, and we hike trails and walk the city in search of something we never found when we were young. My kids were young when my parents died, so they do not know the Southwest, let alone Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Gallup, or Dinetah. The red sandstone, the blazing blue sky. They know instead the deep woods, the thick unbearable humidity of late July, the threat of tornadoes. They also know the green, green fields and hedgerows, the thick copses of Oak and Maple that dot the hills. I walk a lot, through the wooded suburbs, into the hills and golf courses that surround my home. I walk to the university where I teach. I see the plants and animals in ways I would have never imagined 20 years ago, when I left the desert forever in search of a kind of peace I could not find in the desert, or among lovers who had grown in ways unpredictable and sad, alone in themselves while baking in the hot Phoenix sun. It is the punishment, a mental one that the desert dumbly inflicts. And my pilgrimage has brought me to this white-bread land, este Gringolandia, where I write my poems in peace and have learned to love even my enemies.
But is seeking the impossible a kind of pilgrimage? Is making a plan to leave desolation in search of greenery and real life a real pilgrimage? I have always considered nature to be a deep reflection of the holy, of the impossible and of the possible. I can remember my mother, when I was young, making a religious pilgrimage to Chimayo, NM so that she would be healed or cured of her sickness by the place, by the sacred soil. When I dig my garden in the springtime, and plant my morning glory seeds to honor my ancestors, I am digging in the same holy dirt of earth that brings forth life. Surely in my desperation to leave what I thought was desolate and unforgiving nature and life left me to travel, a nomad. So when does travel become pilgrimage? The traveler or nomad quickly comes to realize that every city and mountain contains the abject, the spectacular, the danger of death, the joy of instant enlightenment. When I chose to leave my homeland, la tierra de la Jauja, I knew I would not live there again. In my pilgrimage to the East and to the deep Midwest I have actually traveled into myself, as every outward journey is an inward journey as well. When one goes on a pilgrimage, when one decides to seek out the holy and the unknown, one chooses to leave the past self behind in the hope that the journey is the story itself, that each step forward is a pilgrimage of sorts. I am reminded of my brother, Rudy, who traveled to Nepal at a confusing and sad time in my family life. But what he saw and experienced is beyond measure, for his travel to an unknown land quickly became a pilgrimage into the heart of Buddhism.
I also think about the deep journeys I take in my mind, the journeys I make across the country to see friends from long ago. When does a simple trip out West become series of deep, thoughtful conversations, the joy and comfort of old, old friendship, a spiritual reawakening, a light that you did not expect, an unforeseen pilgrimage? I remember not so long ago walking down old familiar streets, holding hands with my high school sweetheart from 30 years ago, drinking warm red wine in brown bag on a warm day in February and singing, just singing. I remember the stars we saw that night on our “official” pilgrimage to see the winter stars from the Eastern side of the Manzano Mountains. The crazy blind highway joy ride with Rudy at the wheel, sitting in back of his SAAB like teenagers, chugging red wine, scared to death of the night and the dark road. At this old ranch in the deep woods near Edgewood, with his friends inside smoking bad weed. Finally standing on a flat fallow field in the high woods, in bare feet, to feel the earth as the stars wheeled above, while we held onto each other for hours. The light in my heart from those stars will never go out.
This brings me back to Jack and Allen. Why? I think about the idea of becoming a bohemian during the last year of high school, 1982. I had read On the Road and Howl and Other Poems. In 1983 I actually saw Ginsberg, Corso, and Orlovsky at the famous Madrid, New Mexico No Nukes Rally. Ginsberg sang songs and played harmonium while Orlovsky played guitar. Corso read “Bomb,” and some of my friends actually took off their clothes, got naked, in approval. We all wore army jackets, usually from West Germany, and truly believed that for most of us, the last thing we would see in our lives would be mushroom clouds. And we wanted to be different. We grew up in upper middle class Albuquerque, republican, Midwestern in character, Reagan Country. So during that particular morning in America we were ready to walk our own roads, even those who knew that the odds of surviving as bohemians was low. I can always go back to Dylan’s song “Tangled Up in Blue” to hear that truth of my generation ring through my soul. I know we were all outcasts, children from the island of misfit toys, even Sarah, even Tom and all the others who lived or died out there. But I found a place to be free, somehow of all things impossible.