Early in September, while Santa Feans readied their gloom for the combustible catharsis of Zozobra, I snuck into a friend’s metal shop and prepared a descanso for my father.
He died in June of this year, in a sudden accident on Highway 395 in California.
He was a traveler, both literally, on the day of his death—a man on the road between two places—and, it seems to me, in broader metaphorical terms: a soul on the move. And so I resolved to haul this most New Mexican of symbolic markers to the quiet summit of a mountain pass far to the west and pay respect to the most curious moment of life: the moment of death.
Descansos are not in any way unique to New Mexico. They are common in all lands with Hispanic influence, and I have seen them in most states of the US that I have visited. But in New Mexico, they bloom along our roads like a sad and secret state flower, with a frequency that suggests the melancholy of ideal growing conditions.
In Spanish, a descanso is a “little rest,” a pause to catch one’s breath and gather strength before continuing on the journey. If I understand the history correctly, whenever the bearers of coffins faced a long walk, with all the physical and emotional weight of the deceased borne on their shoulders, they often had to stop for descansos. These places of rest became sacred ground by virtue of respect, and a marker was customarily left as an indicator of that event. Also, when travelers died and circumstances failed to permit other means of burial and honoring the dead, a roadside marker was placed to commemorate the passing. The two customs essentially merged into the descansos of today, totems erected on the spot where lives have been lost to the roads.
Whether by virtue of his coming-of-age in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s or his liberal anti-war stance or the mishmash of spiritualities—from Buddhism to 12-step recovery—that mingled in his soul, my father was an unabashed fan of both the word and the sign for peace. So, despite my own generation’s prodigious discomfort with heavily used iconic symbolism, I fashioned his descanso with a giant peace sign. It is meant more as an indicator of what he so often expressed toward the world rather than a wish for a restful afterlife. I can only assume that death settles all turmoil for the deceased—but people will make their own interpretations, as they inevitably do.
My father was an alpine climber and a mountaineering guide. He found a logic, a solace and a sense of gentle purpose—elusive in the distractions and machinations of people—when he roamed the high, often foreboding mountain ranges of the world. When I was young, he was always off to climb and guide in Ecuador, Mexico, Nepal and other far-flung places where mountains loom in defiance of human understanding and with democratic apathy toward our individual and collective concerns. But it’s only in beginning to sort his vast collection of 35 mm slides that I have developed the rawest sense of how many places he visited, how many lives he touched and the diligence of his hunt for respite and self-knowledge in the thin-aired wilderness—a place that, for most people, is as exotic and untouchable as the surface of the moon.
Because of this, the peace sign on my father’s descanso is affixed to a stylized ice axe, the mountaineer’s traditional and primary tool for navigating glaciers and the precipitously rising ice walls that inevitably lead to the summits of the world’s tallest mountains.
In addition to his identity as a climber, my father was known at various times of his life as a carpenter, a drunk, an artist and a vagabond. It is because of his penchant for these archetypal pursuits that I think of him as a traveler in the broadest sense—not only someone who eagerly dispatches himself to Pakistan, Argentina or Russia for the conquest of altitude, but someone who knows himself as a quester for some ineffable, transitory something.
Intrinsic to knowing oneself as such, a search must be a kind of acceptance—a peace, even—with the understanding that what one seeks may never be, precisely, found. At least, not in any permanent way, short of death. It is a hard and wildly strange thing to contemplate the sudden vanishing of a person. One day, there is a voice, a presence, a tangled relationship of adorations, misgivings, intimacy and confusion; and the next day, there is a vacuum. There also is the clichéd but true reminder that we are as transitory as the lost moments and the bold ideas that we seek.
I like to believe that my father innately understood this, and that there is some kind of beauty in his dying on the journey, rather than at the destination. He was on his way to climb a mountain that day. He stopped for a little rest and that was that.
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