MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 51 – Too Much Snow – Back to Albuquerque
Once again, our morning routine went as smoothly as our nightly one and we were dressed, packed, and ready to check out by 9:00 a.m. So far, with just the one glitch in our schedule due to the snow, our trip had been a wonderful experience for all of us. Our son had behaved remarkably well, mostly since we always made sure he had some time to run off his mountains of energy after lunch, and during any other stops. It also did not hurt that Margie had to be the world’s best baby. She was so good I worried that not all was well, but she seemed healthy and bright, watching the world around her with her big blue eyes. Maybe we were lucky, or God realized we needed to make this long journey so soon after her birth and He sent us an angel, and indeed to Billy and to me, she was just that, an angel. Other than my own weariness, Billy’s appointment with the 25th Division, and of course money, it seemed we could have stayed on the road indefinitely.
Again, we ate breakfast in the motel’s dining room. After all this was the first restaurant that had given us a military discount for meals, although at each motel our room was discounted, which was one of the several reasons we stayed exclusively in Holiday Inns. They catered to the military, and in the early 1960’s, a career in the Army was a most respectable profession, although financially the pay lagged far behind the civilian world. In addition to the discount, we were able to charge the room to our Texaco gas card, and since Billy had not drawn advance travel pay, we would pay it all off with one check after we arrived in Hawaii. We knew though that once we reached San Pedro, we would have to find other lodgings since there was not a Holiday Inn even close to the port.
I had two great uncles in the Los Angeles area, my maternal grandfather’s younger brothers, and I hoped we would be able to see them. I did not remember ever meeting them before, although my grandmother told me when I was just as a child they visited family in Georgia, and there was a family reunion. Obviously, I was too young to remember. I never even knew my own Grandfather since he spent his life, at least since my mother was sixteen, in a V.A. Hospital, and it would be nice to meet his brothers and their families. After talking it over with Billy, we decided it was comforting to have ‘kin’ on the West Coast, so I planned to call them after we arrived. At least I did not feel like we would be stuck in some far away city without knowing anyone and they were family, which was a good feeling, just in case of any major emergency.
Following breakfast Billy drove through the city of Denver just to look around, and we found it was not nearly as large as Atlanta, and unlike Atlanta, it had no room to grow, except up, because of the nearby mountains. We looked around for about half an hour and then Billy found the highway that would take us back down to Albuquerque. When we checked out, he had asked the desk clerk if he would call the state police again to make sure the route we had chosen was safe and they assured him it was completely clear of all snow.
This would be a very different journey from the nearly straight highway that ran through the verdantly green Red River Valley and according to the map; we would follow the course of a wild stream that cascaded down the rugged mountains. The road was full of corkscrew turns and high elevations and we would criss-cross our way across the Continental Divide at least six times. After all the flat land we had been through, this would be a welcome diversion, and soon we were headed straight up towards the jagged mountains for what I knew would be a beautiful drive.
There were no small towns on our route since it would have been impossible to build anything on the steep slopes of these uneven peaks, so we knew there would be nowhere we could stop for lunch. Just before we began the climb into complete wilderness, we shopped for some cokes and peanut butter crackers to carry us through until we reached civilization, and for Margie we could open a brand new jar of fruit that we would not have to be heat to be palatable. I think I was more excited than ever about the prospect of traveling this route through these rugged mountains. Certainly, I knew I would not have to worry about Billy falling asleep since this challenging drive would demand his full attention, and I knew I would not want to miss any of the scenery. These mountains did not even begin to resemble our soft ancient foothills and worn peaks of the Blue Ridge; rather they were like newly born volcanic apertures, although there were plenty of evergreen trees growing on the sharply angled slopes. However, like our own mountain streams, the wild clear water of the creek we would be following wound ever downwards over the sharp rocks, and I could imagine that it had to be icy cold!
We drove for several hours without a stop, averaging only about 40 mph., as we traveled around one curve and then another, first climbing, then suddenly descending with each succeeding curve seemingly more dangerous than the last. Billy loved it and shared his enthusiasm with our daredevil son, but for the first time, I had to concentrate on the horizon not to be ill. This was definitely not as much fun as I thought it would be! Besides there was snow, but it was packed all along the side of the road by the snowplows. At times, it was so steep it seemed as if we were driving through a tunnel, sheer rock walls on Billy’s side of the car and a mountain of white on my side. All that was visible was the road ahead and the bright blue sky above us, filled with frothy white clouds. Whenever we reached an overlook, if not blocked by a mountain of snow, Billy pulled off so we could get out, stretch our legs, and look back on the mountains we had just passed through, and down to the road we had yet to travel. It was an amazing experience, but no place to let Michael run since it was a long way down to the wild stream below. I certainly was not surprised that we never saw even one truck and rare few cars since this road was hardly the fastest and safest way to get from one point to another.
Close to noon, Billy found another cleared area and we pulled over to feed Margie and to eat our crackers and drink our cokes. Here we discovered a strange phenomenon; due to the extremely high altitude, the cokes had no carbonation! They did not taste like any cokes either Billy or I had ever had before, and they were flat with no fizz at all, and when I ate a piece of the divinity we had bought in Arkansas, it too was like eating a mouth full of bubbles. I knew it was more difficult to breathe in the thin mountain air, but I found it exhilarating and clean, and I inhaled deeply. Had I known what awaited us in California I would have appreciated it even more. That magnificent, exhilarating day, high in the Rockies with the air fresh and clean, the clear blue sky filled with clouds that resembled puffs of dandelion heads, and it seemed as if I could reach out and touch them, and gather them into my arms like a bouquet of wild flowers.
Once we reached the bottom of the mountains Michael was more than ready for a long run, and just ahead of us was the sign pointing the way to The Great Sand Dunes National Monument. Although both Billy and I still could not believe there could be sand dunes in the midst of all these steep mountain peaks, since the sign said it was a ‘National Monument’, he turned off the road and headed towards the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range.
Before long, we found the stone entrance, and just beyond that the parking lot off to our left with the visitor’s center, gift shop and museum to our right. The obviously new building was made of rough stone, and looked perfectly natural in its setting, but by now, we could see the beginning of the dunes, and they looked anything but natural. The mountains of sand just behind the parking lot did not seem very impressive, but we did not realize that we only had a glimpse of a corner of a great desert. Our first priority when we entered the visitor’s center was to find the restrooms since only the men had been able to go to the bathroom since we left the motel, and again I was at the point of desperation. We also wanted to find some brochures that would tell us how this sand made its way over the mountains to accumulate in this deserted and most unlikely area. Inside we found a bored and friendly park ranger who seemed more than delighted to tell us the entire story, and I imagine we had been his only guests that day.
He told us the sand came from Mexico, and with the prevailing currents of the wind lifting it over the mountains, right above us, it met another current of wind that would allow it to go no further, thus dropping to the ground and creating this remarkable monument. He explained that the dunes were off limits to tourists, not so much because of possible damage to the eco-system, which was not even a word at the time, but also because the sand was ever shifting. The constantly changing desert was impossible to map so it would be only through sheer luck, and massive well-organized manpower that a missing person might possibly be located without having some of the searchers wind up hopelessly lost. In addition, the dunes stretched for miles and miles to the base of the distant mountains, and although they did not look so far away, the ranger explained distance was hard to gauge when in the desert.
Fortunately, there was plenty of empty space for Michael to run off some of his energy and Billy took him outside, carrying Margie in her infant seat with him, while I browsed the gift shop. It was here I saw my first petrified wood and found it hard to believe by the brilliance of the polished pieces that they had indeed once been wood. Although its beauty was distinct and earthy, it could not possibly compare to a gemstone without the clarity, at least to my non-discerning eye. There were many pieces of this wood all around the visitor’s area, and Billy had already planned to drive through ‘The Petrified Forest’, and ‘The Painted Desert’ on our trip to Flagstaff the next day, so we were getting a sneak preview.
I realized that although we had plenty of money with us, we had no idea how much we would have to pay for our room in San Pedro, the cab, and other expenses, so I did not ask Billy to buy me a souvenir. However, after he rejoined me inside, he insisted on purchasing a small pendant and said I could use it as a charm on my bracelet. He wanted me to have something to remember this wonderful trip, and particularly this day, so I did not argue with him, just gave him a quick kiss when the ranger’s attention was on our small son, watching him like a squirrel watches our cats, and wondering what he was capable of doing.
We took full advantage of the clean, obviously new center, and I changed the baby on a large wide countertop in the sparkling women’s restroom while Billy took Michael into the men’s room. I washed my face and felt much refreshed when I met my ‘men’ in the lobby, and obviously, Billy had cleaned up Michael, as the edge of his hair was damp and his face glowing. After enquiring how much further to Albuquerque, we resumed our journey although I could hardly believe it was now late afternoon. This had certainly been one of the most interesting days, so far, and the time passed by quickly, but now I was ready to reach civilization, and relieved there were no more mountains to climb before we reached our motel.
The scenery this day had been so different after the two days of flat straight highway, but while I would never suggest we ever take this route again, I was glad I had the opportunity to see the Rocky Mountains, up close, at least one time. This was also the first day I was not tempted to take a nap, since I did not want to miss a minute of that wild ride on the hairpin mountain roads, the icy stream cascading alongside, and the extraordinary, magnificent desert in the middle of the mountains.
Not far from Albuquerque, Billy turned off the highway wanting to drive through a village on one of the numerous Indian reservations. This tribe was the once fierce Jiciralla Apache whose great chief, Cochise, sought to rid the west of the White Man. Just a mention of his name was enough to bring terror to the hearts of settlers, and he claimed many a scalp. Surely, these once proud warriors would not resemble the more peaceful Navaho and Zuni. Afterwards, I thought we could have done without this side trip.
Always anxious to please, my handsome husband thought that he might find some ‘real’ Indians for our small son, but what we found was poverty, like none I had ever seen. Not even in the rural south, where the hard baked red clay roadside was dotted with tiny crude shanties propped up on cinderblocks and bricks, obviously without electricity and indoor plumping, and where barefoot black children played in the dust, had I seen such poverty as I saw on this reservation. A proud nation of our American Indians brought to their knees, living much as they did before the White Man came and penned them up like cattle, but unable to hunt the buffalo, which was long gone from these plains. They tried to eke out a living by farming the harsh land the white man found unsuitable for his own needs, and had planted corn with prayers and rituals to bring rain. However, none had come so far, and the stubble left in the fields was indicative of a failed crop. At least in my beloved south there seemed always to be a flourishing garden behind each small house, and the green leaves of a blessing, that had become a curse, known as kudzu. Never had I seen land so bleak, without a hint of green, not even cactus, and the only color, other than the reddish brown of the adobe, were the bright blankets hung over fence rails to dry in the sun. Outdoor ovens sent up smoke signals while odorless bread baked for the evening meal, surely a poor supper at best. Scantily clad barefoot brown children, much like the black children of the south, played in the yards sending up whirlpools of dust as they kicked balls back and forth. Was this the best we could do for those whose land we had taken? Sure, I know anyone could argue we fought a war and won against the proud people who were here first. I knew they had killed hundreds of white pioneers and soldiers, but still this place seemed like hell on earth, and surely, even prisoners-of-war received more compassion.
For the very first time in my life, I smelled poverty, and it was not a pleasant experience. I felt guilty, as if I had personally done harm to these people. All of my family’s land had once belonged to either the Cherokee or the Creek nations, but then again so had all of our beautiful country from New England to California, from Florida and Texas to the Great Lakes. Even as a child I deplored the story of the Trail of Tears and the other atrocities the White man forced upon the Indians, but it was here in the Great American West that I found apathy at its worst. The thought they had fought a war with us and lost did not seem important anymore, but who had really lost? Surely, not these brown eyed, black haired children playing in the dust. Why were they not in school? A million questions whirled through my head as I looked at my own healthy, happy, well-fed children, and I told Billy to turn around and leave, there was nothing to see here.
There were no proud warriors on horseback with headdresses made of eagle’s feathers, no squaws in buckskins with round little babies on their backs, or painted braves with bronze oiled skin dancing to the frightening rhythm of the war drums. There was no reason to dance in the land the White man had forgotten. We were trespassers. Trespassing on their land, as poor as it was, and we had no right to be here, no right to witness their enforced poverty, but worst of all, I knew there was nothing I could do to help them.
Back on the highway, Billy asked why I was so quiet and I shared some of my thoughts about the disgraceful way our nation treated the Indians, and he was surprised by my bitterness since the subject had never before come up in our four years of marriage. Why should it? We had never seen this, either of us, and I felt ashamed.
He did not say anything for a few minutes, and then he looked at me and said, “You know, I never would have seen what you did, and I am glad you shared this with me. I seem to learn something new about you every day, which makes our marriage so interesting. I see the need to help these people in your eyes, but you are right about one thing, honey, there is nothing we can do, but I am not going to allow this to spoil our trip, are you?”
Of course, I was not, but I knew it was doubtful I would ever forget that day and those beautiful black-haired children, and I never did.
Again, the sun was just beginning to slip under the horizon as we pulled up at the same Holiday Inn we had just left the night before last, and again we found a ground floor room for easy access to the car. We followed the ‘end of day’ ritual, feeding, bathing and nursing the baby, getting ourselves, and Michael clean and presentable, and I have to admit I did feel better as we left for the restaurant. Well, maybe not better because the Indians were still very much on my mind, but I did feel refreshed and very hungry. It had been a long time since we had our strange tasting snack high up in the mountains on the Continental Divide, and we were all looking forward to a good hot meal.
None of us had any problem cleaning our plates, and afterwards, back in our room, with the children sleeping, Billy and I planned the next leg of our journey. It was not too far to Flagstaff, in fact, we would be driving less miles the next day than any day previously, but we also planned to take side trips through The Petrified Forest and The Painted Desert. As excited as I was about the next day’s discoveries, I fell asleep in Billy’s arms while I thought about that barren land and the adobe huts with their outdoor ovens. My mind retained the image of the parched corn in the field, but most of all the children, those adorable black haired, brown-eyed children, descendants of proud warriors, and I hoped that I would never again smell poverty.