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By Katherine Johnson

February 18, 2018

Three Women Sitting On A Bench – Chetro Ketl, Chaco Canyon – San Juan County, NM

My first sojourn to the Southwest came a decade ago, during a time in my life that can best be described as the highest point of the lowest moment of being broke up, broke down, chewed up and spat out, a situation that nearly all of us are destined to endure eventually, especially those of us that are unlucky, unwisely love, or unexpectedly, so it seems, have a self-inflicted disaster, whose details only vary by circumstances and whether or not doing time like this is to be a misdemeanor stint or a soul grinding prison stretch.

Such was how I arrived in the Four Corners after months of being tethered to nothing, living as a fugitive, whose sentence already set, was to wander lost in the vast American West with nothing more than the scraps of 30 years of life left: an old truck, now my home, some camping gear, a bag of clothes, a 5 year old laptop with a busted hinge, a camera, two lenses, and a tripod.

At times like this there is no faith, no hope, no nothing and how this verdict plays out is more a matter of luck, with disappearing into alcohol and waking up in a tent by a river 10 years later, blowing one’s head off, a rational choice, when the pain in your soul leaves you doubled over, or waking up numb and going to bed numb until one day you’re just not so numb anymore, all have equal odds of coming true.

If there is anything positive to be found in times of profound numbness is that everything cools down, slows down, leaving even the inarticulate, in a semi state of hibernation where the conscious mind and the dreaming soul become automatons that are compelled to reflect, meditate about the faded faces that transited through the phases of your life’s moon, pine car derbies or cookie sales, communion or killing your first deer, watching the tears roll down your teacher’s face the day Kennedy was shot, the hurricane of a first love that ripped love apart leaving love permanently smudged, your children and how the gravity of family made you your parents. In that near frozen place odd details magnify, which in different times would never be noticed, especially those that exist somewhere beyond the bodies five senses.

There I spent the next couple of months in Hibernation, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico wandering every day, all day, amongst the red mesas, green junipers, yellow grasses, sage green sage, the vast clouds and sky, distant rain scents, wild ponies and antelopes, truck stops, casinos, cheap hotels, small towns, pueblos, and ancient places. There I spent those days sometimes still, sometimes on the move, sometimes watching the land while fueled by 86 octane, alcohol, caffeine, pepperoni sticks, and cheap McDonald’s hamburgers.

Odd details and odd people would come and go. At times they lingered around like snow on the north side of a hill in the spring or the guy who woke up in his trailer one morning and didn’t know a gas leak had developed overnight, who then struck a match to light a cigarette and blew it all to hell. Miraculously, he not only survived but found that he no longer had eyebrows and that he spent a lot of time asking people to speak up.

At other times those odd details made the hair stand up on the back of my neck, such as the time I was out on a canyon rim shooting photos, when suddenly, I for the first time became convinced that this land is literally alive. This scared the hell out of me and at the same time left me with an overwhelming sense of being in love. After months of numbness there was a path to peace and yeah, I cried for long time standing there. Over those weeks these moments of feeling connected to this part of the earth started happening with increasing regularity to the point I thought I was going insane.

Sometime after this I was hanging around a place for a few days and got to know a Navajo woman that showed up daily to sell jewelry along the side of the road. Because it was still early in the spring the number of tourists that came by was sparse, leaving us with long stretches to chat about this and that, while at other times she would make jewelry and I would read or doze off in the shade. On my last day there we talked for a time about my canyon experience and how that affected me. She never answered me directly. Instead she described the rite of passage for Navajo women, something I still consider a gift or honor. In hindsight, it was her way of affirming that what happened to me was real. I felt a lot less insane after that.

When my months ended, and I returned to the Pacific Northwest the numbness eventually receded leaving me living a life that was neither high nor low, the brokenness a lingering arthritis, and the coldness something that could be dealt with by wearing a sweater. What never went back to approximating normal was that sense of feeling at home, a state of being that only became more challenging over the next decade. Over the years the pull of the Southwest stayed a constant, if not an ever increasing force, until events in the Pacific Northwest forced my hand and I left for New Mexico.

Once again, I now find myself in the middle of this living land and its ancient places, with my sojourning days replaced with a state of being more like an immigrant to a country where its people regularly measure their connection here in centuries and millenniums. Still the canyons, the man with no eyebrows, the Navajo woman who steadied me, the ancient pueblos, and yes, this living land that owns me, there is no other place I wish to be, nor any desire too be any place else.

Sometimes being broke up, broke down, chewed up and spat out is exactly what we need to discover love anew, and that being here in the Southwest is the center of everything you need.

Chaco Canyon

Evidence indicates that Chaco Canyon has been inhabited, at least periodically from 900 BC with the most significant development beginning around 850 AD until 1150 AD. During that period the ancestral Pueblo people lived here and built magnificent buildings and developed a rich culture that made Chaco a center of trade, ceremony, and governance that is still inspiring.

My first visit to Chaco surprised me by how remote the site was until that sense of the living land and being surrounded by living spirits overtook me. It was then I realized that it wasn’t in the middle of nowhere, rather it was the center of everything.

Further Reading

Chaco Culture National Historical Park
Chetro Ketal Site, Chaco Canyon
Pubelo Bonito Site, Chaco Canyon
National Park Service Chaco Culture
Pueblo People
New Mexico Pueblos Map

Copyright 2018 By Katherine Johnson – All Rights Reserved