"The West invites possibilities but ignores rules."
So writes Barbara Tyner, first-place winner in our annual writing contest's non-fiction category of "The West." Tyner's words, in a funny way, echo Territorial Gov. Lew Wallace's (also a writer) famous quote: "Every calculation based on experience elsewhere fails in New Mexico."
Indeed, New Mexico and the West inspired all our non-fiction entrants to consider—in very different ways—the unruly nature of the West's open spaces and rebel spirits.
Tom Ireland encounters the West from his motorcycle, seeing mostly a lot of road while pondering the nature of freedom.
Mario Gonzales evokes the unknowable mysteries of the desert, its inescapable power as home and inspiration.
This week finishes up the publication of our '08 writing contest winners. Congratulations, again, to all nine of them, and thanks to the hundreds who entered.
Look for next year's categories and contest dates in fall '09. Until then, keep writing. —Julia Goldberg
The Wild West Comes of Age
Barbara Tyner is a Canadian-American writer, painter and art historian who is currently wearing a lot of hats. Her return to the sunny Southwest from Vancouver’s misty shores is proof of something someone told her many years ago in a small rez town: “Once you get that red New Mexico mud on your boots, it’s hard to scrape it off.” She rides her bike everywhere.
I grew up in the West, but didn’t know it. You can’t get more west than West Los Angeles without getting your toes wet. West as an idea never occurred to me; it was just a better address: Westwood; West Hollywood versus the screaming expanses of nameless suburbia East of Downtown. I didn’t know what West was until I hopped the Amtrak East and unpacked my red foot locker in Gallup, New Mexico back in the late 1980s. It was a kind of Joad trail in reverse. LA was boom-boom-booming, but I traded in my club card for the quiet of vast, piñon-studded horizons and endless blue skies.
LA really was the outrageous place of legend back then, but in the Southwest, freedom seemed to whip me the way the bittersweet wind whipped the plains, making me giddy, whispering promise, passion, everything. These were the carefree, irresponsible days. HIV was new but distant; Global Warming unknown. A roadtrip to Canyon de Chelly didn’t have to be a guilt-trip, and more than a kiss didn’t require latex or fear.
My new home didn’t boast a Little Tokyo, but the small reservation border town offered a rich cultural stew, blending Zuni Pueblo, the Great Navajo Nation, nearby Acoma, Laguna, sometimes even Hopi, and an Hispanic population with roots in medieval Spain. Add to this a scattering of outsiders, taking their turns in the US Public Health Service or at the newspaper or the college branch. It was a heady mix of unsettled but harmonious flavors, a microcosm of the Southwest. Folded in was the one ingredient I have come to understand as the real magic of the West: a sense of the haywire. The unpredictable. In moving East to the Southwest, I discovered the Wild West.
This West is a place of confluence upon which powers that be try to exert a little restraint or impose order. But forget it. The West invites possibilities but ignores rules. People here don’t always bother to repair a broken taillight; red cellophane and tape will do. I learned in Navajoland that baling wire is a car’s best friend. And when my old, sunburned Audi finally died I learned that entropy, like forgetting to check the oil, has its price. But I found you can make a great table out of an old car windshield. The first rule of the Wild West is that there are no rules, especially when it comes to re-invention.
The Southwest’s legacy of re-invention is endemic, tracing back to the day an Anasazi ancestor made a clay pot, not a basket, defining herself a homebody, not a wanderer. Navajos bid their Canadian cousins adieu some 1,200 years ago, and have been re-inventing themselves ever since. Spaniards became conquerors or re-builders, depending upon the story. And the rest—from Georgia O’Keeffe to Julia Roberts—are still hopping off trains and setting up shop and new identities. We learn from the snakes to shed our skins, to become new and more interesting. Possibility and promise roll in on the tenacious wind.
But it’s not all personal growth and pluckiness. Everyone knows that skinny, knock-kneed neighbor with bad teeth and meth zits whose friend rigs emissions tests for a few extra bucks. Try to get a stoplight installed on a dangerous corner, or enforce the 20 mph speed limit in Las Vegas’ tree-lined historic district. Just try. As a journalist, I hung out with the city reporter of an un-named town who recounted a chilling story years ago: during an emergency meeting following the murder of a cop’s wife by her husband, a police chief asked any of the assembled civil servants to raise his hand if the cops hadn’t visited his house for a ‘domestic.’ Not a hand lifted, not even the chief’s.
I moved back to this Wild West with my husband in September, after a few years’ foray to another part of the West—Vancouver, Canada’s westernmost city. Vancouver has a mythic quality for Canadians, its exquisite beauty, warmish weather and stylish sense of cool lures Canucks from their frozen farms, and out from under their plaid shirts and tuques. Vancouver is that really hip kid we longed to be in high school. But it is also strangely tame, lacking that sense of ‘what the hell’ we in the Wild West know so well. In a region bursting with over two million people from around the globe, it manages never to be haywire. The orderliness and lack of rule-bending shocked us, but it helped us identify what we missed about our West: its maverick style. In its defense, Vancouver is a big, teeming city and anarchy is a valid concern. Maybe growing population demands a certain social responsibility.
Our return to the Southwest has been surprisingly jarring. It’s getting crowded. We all who moved here for breathing room are bumping each others’ elbows. Maybe haywire is best in small doses, with smaller populations. While it’s still the Wild West, at least at intersections, today’s wildness feels more like selfishness. It probably always has, but the global stakes were unknown until now. As an archeologist in the 90s I drove 160 miles across the Big Rez daily, because gas was cheap and Al Gore was just a vice president. Sorry. I didn’t know. But the party is over. We can’t pretend our actions don’t have consequences. In the 80s we learned condoms. Now we can learn sustainability.
Albuquerque and Santa Fe are embracing urban style—look at all the new condos—but urban responsibility? Hello public transportation. If the West is about re-invention, we can re-invent ourselves as responsible people. We’re creative and free, remember? Being responsible is the new cool; green really is the new black. It’s not exactly haywire, but it’s alternative. It’s almost sexy. The new maverick can roll in on a bicycle, a hybrid, the Rail Runner, leaving plenty of resources for the next wave of rebels. The West is expanding from within; it’s time it grew up.
A native New Yorker, Tom Ireland moved to New Mexico in 1971. After two years at Lama Foundation, he and his former wife traveled by mule in the direction of southeast Utah, but they only made it as far as Durango (snow, fences, renegade mule). They bought land near Ojo Caliente, where his daughter Hannah was born, and raised sheep and goats. Ireland has written four books of nonfiction, including Birds of Sorrow: Notes from a River Junction in Northern New Mexico. After moving to Santa Fe in the ’80s, he began editing books for various academic publishers and has been employed at the Office of Archaeological Studies, a state agency, for 20 years. One of his essays was published in Best American Travel Writing, and two others were cited as “notable” in Best American Essays. He received a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Jeffrey E Smith Award in nonfiction.
I was nineteen and, technically speaking, a virgin. I'd heard rumors of a vast continent west of New York City, but the farthest west I'd ever been was Fort Lee, New Jersey, for a wrestling match in high school. My college buddies and I had planned a motorcycle trip to the West Coast to see what we could see, and when they flaked out on me at the last minute, I decided to go alone.
My middle-aged BMW R69S, earnestly saved for over two years of college, had rubber-dampened engine mounts, making the ride exceptionally smooth for a motorcycle, and pistons that went in and out rather than up and down, a design that its Bavarian inventors called "horizontal displacement." It made the machine into a sort of gyroscope. The faster you went, I argued to my father, who was opposed to motorcycles in general for reasons of safety, the harder it was to lose control.
I was an English major by default, which meant having to read the works of English writers. In my saddlebag when I left New York was a thick hardbound journal, still blank except for the epigraph on page one, a quotation from Book 13 of William Wordsworth's Prelude: "But much was wanting: therefore did I turn to you, ye pathways, and ye lonely roads." It was just as well that my friends had abandoned me, I figured, since anyone who aspired to the authentic spirit of Romanticism had to travel the lonely roads alone.
After stopping at my sister's place in suburban Detroit, I camped at Indiana Dunes State Park, where I met a girl named Sue. A student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, she was vacationing with her parents and bored to desperation. She and I walked the dunes of Lake Michigan, observed the floating dead bodies of sea lampreys, watched the sun go down, and made out until after dark (she had an extremely athletic tongue). After her parents went to bed she walked back across the dunes and came uninvited into my tent. I was convinced that the whole trip, maybe even the whole rest of my life, was going to be just that easy.
The next morning, "trailing clouds of glory" (more Wordsworth), I left Sue in the prison of her vacation and headed west. Corn and hog farms. Bugs that were forever destroying themselves on my face shield and had to be wiped off. What I experienced on the road was mostly the road—eighteen-wheelers that nearly blasted the cycle off the pavement in passing; kids in back seats of cars for whom I was a moment's entertainment in a long, hot, dreary afternoon, and they for me. Days in the saddle sequestered me with my thoughts and forced me to hear them out, along with the wind in my helmet and the tapping of the engine valves, in a way I never had before.
Those clouds on the western horizon in Colorado, a whiteness rising out of brown farmland murk, weren't clouds at all but mountains with snow on them! When I killed the engine at an elevation of over 10,000 feet and dismounted, my head was spinning so wildly that I could barely keep my feet. Independence Day I climbed Mount Audubon. Who needed trails? I climbed along the fall line, drank from mountain streams, and collapsed at the summit in a little rock shelter. To the east were the plains, and in all other directions, nothing but mountains. If it was true that "the individual Mind" was fitted to "the external World" and vice versa, as Wordsworth wrote in The Excursion, then my mind and those mountains had both found their fit. I resolved that one day I'd return to live in them.
People I met along the way were curious to know what I was doing and why I was doing it alone: Mike Crowley, a Harley salesman on his day off, took me on a tour of the San Fernando Valley while my motorcycle was in the shop ("engine slap," they said; I didn't have enough money to get it fixed). A dark-haired girl from San Francisco smiled at me on El Capitan Beach and didn't call the police when I tracked her down and started a conversation. Phil and Dora Chamberlain, friends of The Mamas and the Papas, had painted the lyrics of "Monday Monday" on the outside of their camper. Being from the East, where suspicion is a way of life, nothing in previous life had prepared me for the warmth of Californians.
In The Dalles, Oregon, I was adopted by a gang of middle-aged bikers, among them Gary Kuppenbender, who made me get my bike steam cleaned and replaced the front tire. They all rode Harleys and had their "mommas" ride along with them in the passenger seat. It wouldn't do for me to ride alone, not with that crowd, so they requisitioned someone's daughter to ride with me for a tour of the valley. One of their gang, called Piggy, had lost his nose in a motorcycle wreck; another one showed me a scar on his cheek where a grasshopper had gone clear through it at seventy miles an hour and into his mouth, still kicking.
Having left the coast, all I had on my mind was getting home before my money and my transportation gave out. Montana lasted forever, an immensity that has been known to cause panic attacks in Japanese tourists, just as the confinement of cities frightens people from the West. Waiting for a rainstorm to pass, I drank coffee and listened to truckers talk about Bobby Kennedy and Jimmy Hoffa.
All the progress I'd made in the direction of independence—west—was squandered in five days on the ride back east. At the end I was so worn out that even New York looked good. My parents were happy to have me home in one piece, and genuinely sorry when, one month later, the BMW was stolen by two men who snatched it off the street and loaded it into the back of a furniture truck—according to a neighbor who watched from an upstairs window—as if it hardly weighed anything. Without any insurance, I "chalked it up to experience," my father's antidote to heartbreak, and settled for a Volkswagen convertible.
Pasquala Enos writes to keep her sanity and currently uses her computer as a bookshelf. Fiercely and proudly Native American, she hopes to write for Rolling Stone magazine while still adhereing to her roots. Pasquala's perfect childhood denied her of any creative angst and she now relies on her eccentric family for inspiration. This story is for Vishnu Ma....
My two friends and I are driving aimlessly down a nondescript dirt road, lost, after taking a left at what appears to have been the wrong abandoned house. Like most of the things we do, this trip was spur of the moment, a random invitation from a faceless pow-wow pretty boy to a random party in the desert; a 49, my parents call it, a sixtiesism from an arroyo party after Gathering of Nations. A few directions later, we got in the car and left the lights of the city behind, ready to have as much fun as we could before the sun rose. However, as we drive further down NoWhere Road, the prospect of shrieking girls and drunken boys becomes less and less appealing. Somewhere between there and here, we stopped caring. Somewhere between there and here the moon shining over the desert began to beckon in the most irresistible way and the stars began to shout. Somewhere between there and here, our native blood began to call.
We spill out of the car, our veins on fire, our lungs grabbing for the pinon-infused air. We run at first, laughing and screaming, chasing the farthest star until it gives up and falls far behind us. Incensed, the coyotes begin to call, voicing their indignant response to our sudden intrusion. They reprimand our noisy disrespect by scolding and barking until we fall onto the sand, surrendering to their chorus. If the night is cold, the desert hides it well, warming us with leftover heat from the day, trapped inside the earth. We melt into the desert, the wild sage becoming ensnared in our hair, the sand camouflaging our skin.
It is now and only now that I understand the stories my mother would tell about her summers in New Mexico when she was a little girl. My mother, blessed with storyteller blood, would hold my attention captive as she stressed the importance of knowing that the desert, no matter where I ended up, would always be home. Finally, I know why my father only smiled and nodded when I spoke of my escape from New Mexico; he knew the desert was already in my blood. Now, as the mountains stand sentry, I feel guilty that many of my twenty-two years have been spent wanting to be anywhere but here. It is only now that I stop fighting the pulling and urging of the New Mexican night and allow it to envelop me.
Finally accustomed to our presence, the coyotes slip into song, bitter notes entwining with sweet harmonies that naturally fold into a solitary note. Somehow, the forgotten desert blood we each carry is awakened and released; hot, restless, and utterly overwhelming. It is here, on the corner of NowHere Road, as the coyotes finish their song, that we finally understand why sometimes, when the sun hits the mountains just right, our hearts race and our thoughts rush. It is here that we finally understand why sometimes, when the moon floods the arroyos, we crave the continuity and quiet strength of the mountains.
For the first time that night we are silent. It is not a silence that can be pulled and dictated. It is a comfortable silence, not one plagued with need or request. It is that silence that only the desert can understand, after all, it is in the desert that this silence originated.
Note of correction:
The story "Desert Blood," the third-place winner in the non-fiction category of our 2008 writing contest, was initia incorrectly attributed to writer Mario Gonzales. It has since been determined that the actual writer of the story was Pasquala Enos.
Our writing contest is close to a decade old and this is the first time such an egregious error has been made. As such, a detailed explanation of how our writing contest is administered seems in order.
As entrants are aware, we require everyone submitting to our writing contest to leave their names and any identifying information off of their submissions. Their names and contact info is submitted on a separate piece of information. This allows us to have a blind judging process.
When the entries come in, they are coded: F1 for the first fiction piece; P1 for poetry; NF 1 for non-fiction and so on. Those same numbers are correlated with entrants' contact information.
Once we have received the numbers of the winning entries from the judges, we then match them to the contact information and then contact the winners.
Winners are required to then send us their winning entries in digital form. This keeps us from having to retype them (!), and also provides a bit of a failsafe measure, as it ensures we've got the right person and the right story.
In the case of "Desert Blood," we obviously made a mistake while coding and contacted the wrong writer. He did send us his piece digitally, but it was in a program we could not open. What we should have done was contact him again and have him resend the piece. However, we had never made a mistake in terms of a winner before and, because the piece was short, it seemed easier to just retype it ourselves.
A perfect storm of mistakes with a very regrettable outcome!
To be clear: I personally code and organize all of the writing contest entries. As editor, I probably should have delegated all the coding of the entries a long time ago. It's a lot of work (we receive hundreds and hundreds of entries) and the potential for human error is large. I have always felt that if someone was going to screw it up, it might as well be me. And thus it has come to pass. The error is mine and mine alone. Perhaps it is time to pass on the duty of coding hundreds of entries, or eliminate blind judging. Or simply accept that sometimes mistakes happen. I deeply regret that Pasquala was not given proper credit and congratulate her on the publication of her story. --Editor Julia Goldberg