Hailstorms, Fireworks

The storms out West were stark and angry. The sagebrush and juniper desert of New Mexico and western Texas allowed me to see the expanse of skies darkening out into the afternoon. Though the inside of my car was a much lower temperature, I could still smell the coming rain—the metallic scent of wet minerals and sage.

On the westbound side of I-40 a tractor trailer had blown over so that its whole long body was spread diagonally across both lanes. I could see the backed-up traffic for miles—people getting out of their cars, holding their hands like visors over their eyes, walking their leashed dogs in the tall grass of the median. At the time I felt pity for them, all these suddenly immobile people, but I didn’t know the danger that lurked ahead.

Once over a steady incline, I saw the storm. Its proudly blackening, circular cumulonimbus puffs of water vapor and electricity mounting, building, eating up space.

FullSizeRender (2)

Rain began to fall in fat, disparate drops, leaving quarter-sized splats on my windshield. The pace of their pattering quickened. Then their splats grew harder, little bits of ice melting upon impact. My throat tightened as I saw the cloud above and ahead fill suddenly with dark dots—hail pummeling into my line of vision. The sound was a roar. Cars around me slid off the road, their hazard lights blinking like a human’s uncomprehending gaze. I followed suit with the lights but kept on, much more slowly.

At first the hail was infrequent enough that I could still hear my music and my quickening breath, but it soon became a deafening clash of ice golf balls against thick glass and thinner plastic, so loud I could feel my lips form the shapes of curses without actually hearing them pronounced at all.

FullSizeRender (1)

It’s strange how one’s ability to sense time passing devolves in moments like these—I couldn’t tell you if the storm lasted for ten or twenty minutes, or more. I passed a bridge under which the shoulder was filled with cars huddled like rabbits in the rain. This, the storm’s edge as it moved over the highway, was already so destructive—what would its middle be like? I didn’t want to stick around and find out.

After countless dents all over the body of my car, I was under clear skies again. My rear view mirror was a black rectangle in the spider-web-fractured blue of the windshield. To the north (my left) I could make out another wide thundercloud in the shape of a dinner plate hovering low in the sky, menacing.

FullSizeRender

Lightning stayed inside the cloud, flashing it red. How many more thunderstorms lurked ahead? I drove to Amarillo holding the steering wheel the way a scared kid grips their mother’s hand while getting their first vaccination. My little brother’s pediatrician once told him he could punch him if the shot hurt. My kid brother, upon being vaccinated, promptly socked him in the arm. I still wish I had something to pummel after that day.

FullSizeRender (3)

West of Amarillo I-40 goes right by a feedlot full to the gills with cattle. From what must’ve been a half a mile away I saw it first—tall, fluorescent lights like streetlights and steam rising up from beneath their reach. Then I smelled the steam—that distinctive stench of warm, wet fur mixed with hay cud. Then I was next to them, their bodies still wet from drenching rains, their muddy hooves, their muffled shuffling, their matted black and white mottled fur. Then I passed them, left them behind—an island of glistening light in the nighttime darkness.

I’d forgotten it was almost the fourth of July, basically was since it was the Saturday just before. As I approached Amarillo from the dark western desert expanse, I spotted blooms of fireworks low in the sky, hanging in the air like slow lightning. I’d never really deeply considered the well-deployed physics of fireworks until now—to explode as they’re still rising, but just barely, then to catch in the air like a lump in your throat before falling—slowly, at first, then going out, blown out not by the movement of air but of it through air—before you get to see the colored sparks pick up speed. From this far the displays were all silent—something I’d also never experienced. I spotted several—maybe 4? —all going on at once, and wondered which were official and which were happening in open fields or neighborhood cul-de-sacs. I saw the displays as three-dimensional for the first time as I moved through them—I suppose that’s what was so surreal about it. Quiet, static fireworks, limited to their small patch of low sky.

When the repairman pulled out my weather-worn windshield last week, it completely shattered. I’m still picking out shards of glass no bigger than the ridges of my fingerprints from the passenger’s seat.

 

Advertisements
New Mexico, Land of Enchantment, Land of Circles

New Mexico, Land of Enchantment, Land of Circles

After two and a half weeks in the high-altitude New Mexico desert sun, I confess my summer freckles have returned. I like to think of them as my skin’s seasonal blossoming. They’re little circular perennials, roots dug deep and hibernating all winter long, waiting for a warm week to reappear.

IMG_1433

Juniper in front of Abiquiú Lake

I stayed in Abiquiú, New Mexico, a rural town outside Santa Fe, in June to work as an instructional counselor for a creative writing class for gifted and talented high school students. Ghost Ranch is now a retreat center, made famous by the renowned artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who stayed there for many summers and eventually lived there full-time.

IMG_1456

Instructor and friend Natalie atop the overlook at Chimney Rock

This was my first time to New Mexico even though its entire northern border is most of Colorado’s southern border. The high desert there was overrun with crooked trees and low brush—juniper, sage, chamisa.

IMG_1390

Trail to Chimney Rock on Ghost Ranch, Cerro Pederal in the distance

At the welcome center for Bandelier National Monument I flipped through samples of dried and pressed plants, matching them to what I’d seen on our hike around the cave dwellings, their ruins. These amazing light brown sandstone cliffs full of holes and pockmarks, made hollow by centuries of erosion.

IMG_1634

Cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument

Circular structures ringed with stacked stones were built and called kivas by the Pueblo Native Americans who lived there. These buildings were used in rituals, especially coming-of-age ceremonies for young men wherein the structure functioned like a sweat lodge.

IMG_1637

More cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument

Bandelier National Monument is a dormant volcano featuring an enormous caldera, basically the collapsed crater-like center of a volcano since overgrown with grasses, shrubs, and thirsty western high-altitude trees like cottonwoods and aspen.

IMG_1618

Bandelier plant life

As our class stopped beneath some of the less accessible cliff dwellings (reached via a series of ladders) for lunch, we wrote in response to a prompt about rituals, and it occurred to me that the caldera could be seen as a sort of first kiva—the stone circle first laid by some ancient, powerful hand. This is what it looks like when the land forms circles—a collapse, an eruption, layers of volcanic ash pressed into earth, then sandstone.

IMG_1660

Blooming Cholla cactus at Bandelier National Monument

The town of Taos contains the Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the longest continuously inhabited villages in North America. Here the Pueblo people built their multi-story homes out of adobe brick, which consists of clay, hay, and water.

IMG_1570

A typical adobe home at the Taos Pueblo site

Both the mortar and the plaster which covers the bricks are made of mud. Cedar logs were laid across each structure to help form and support their ceilings. These ceiling also functioned as the floor of the story atop it, accessed by wooden ladders.

IMG_1564

Red chiles as decoration at Taos Pueblo

Because of the materials of these structures, it is impossible to outfit them with modern plumbing and electricity. Our tour guide told me only five families remain as full-time residents here, though many more keep their ancestral homes while they live primarily in the town of Taos, or elsewhere on the reservation.

IMG_1544

A window at the Catholic church in Taos

While walking around Taos Pueblo, I saw a man setting up a table with a display of turquoise jewelry underneath a hay canopy in front of an adobe home. We chatted, and he invited me into the home he said had been the birthplace of his great-grandfather, and inhabited by his family many, many generations before that.

IMG_1555

The Rio Pueblo de Taos in the foreground, and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the background

It was a simple, surprisingly cool single room with a small fireplace in one corner. He explained to me the technique by which the Pueblo people made the chimney. They took a cedar trunk and covered it with adobe plaster. Once dried, they then set the wood on fire, which would leave them with a hollow, cylindrical adobe structure. A circle of sky, open to sky.

IMG_1565

One of many art galleries in Taos Pueblo

IMG_1567

A close-up of the bison leather dreamcatcher

One night on a silent walk to Matrimonial Mesa at Ghost Ranch, I pointed out to the students the hoofprints of a deer in the mud. In a place that receives fewer than eight inches of rain a year, it had rained that afternoon. One student had spotted a garden snake who’d been coaxed out of the shadows by the cool rain. And the small, halved circles of the imprints of hooves wandering from the dirt road to the arroyo’s cottonwoods, weaving between chamisa and juniper.

IMG_1541

Desert daisies and pink sunsets on Ghost Ranch

On the mesa that night we watched the scattered, sputtering circles of stars come into being. We lay there quietly, listening to the high-pitched echoes of chirping bats as they drew their own looped circles in the air above. Kivas, nightly natural rituals. Circles in space and time. Each time we return to repeat the ritual, each time we circle back, something is different. We hold constant what we can, but we treasure everything.

IMG_1450

Looking west from Chimney Rock at Ghost Ranch

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

[from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours, translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows]

IMG_1512

Sunset over Chimney Rock on Ghost Ranch

Georgia O’Keeffe painted Cerro Pedernal (Flint Mountain) over forty times. The story goes that she took any paintings with which she wasn’t satisfied, drove down the mesa, and burned their canvases right there in the desert. About Cerro Pedernal O’Keeffe said, “God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.” She returned and returned. She ritualized the process.

Locals heard of her affinity for bones and brought them to her, bleached white by desert sun and preserved by desert air. She painted a series centered on a cow’s pelvis. There are circles here, too—the spaces for each leg, the ball of each femur joint, the socket space. She painted it so close up, sometimes, that you can’t tell what the curves are a part of at all, what the lighting reveals.

Circles form from gravity, from wear and falling and moving and the difficulty of moving. Everything softens over time, forgets its corners, collapses. The desert is a land of circles, the simplicity of curves, the complexity of a single eye.