The Southwest, or what we commonly think of as the Southwest, includes the states of Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. It also traditionally includes parts of Southern California, Southern Colorado, Southwestern Oklahoma, West Texas and the northern reaches of Mexico. This is a land that has been torn by the forces of wind, water and geology for millions of years. Oceans and rivers have risen and disappeared, leaving coral reefs at the top of the Grand Canyon and maritime fossils at the bottom of other canyons all over the Southwest. Hoodoos and other wind and water sculpted formations at Bryce and Zion National Parks in Utah, along with the fantastic Arches at Moab and Arches National Parks, attest to enormously long periods of erosion and stability.
The four major deserts of the Southwest – Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan – were created by the rain shadows of great mountain ranges, themselves the product of ancient tectonic plate movements that have been spreading the continents apart since the Earth was young. The Sangre de Christo Mountains, the Panamints, the Superstitions, the Sierra Nevada, the Hieroglyphics, the Guadalupes and the Chocolate Mountains, all are desert builders and ancient ocean keepers on their leeward sides. Parts of Nevada and Utah seem eroded beyond time’s keeping.
There is something deeply appealing about ancient landscapes that silently endure all manner of geologic chaos. This unearthly patience of the desert is what has drawn generations of adventurers, outlaws, poets, painters and writers to its secret Bedouin heart. They come to soak up the fierce romance of desert, wind and sun. The timeless duration of this land lends itself freely to the thoughts of those who wish to meditate on its history and vistas. Frederick Remington perhaps said it best: “the wild riders and the vacant land were about to vanish forever, and the more I considered the subject, the bigger Forever loomed.” Forever is always just beyond the horizon and for Americans, forever is tied to the lands of the Southwest in the uniquely American images of cowboys and Indians that are so aptly described in Travelers’ Tales Southwest by the Rosebrook father and son team in their story, “John Ford’s Monument Valley.”
Alex Shoumatoff, in his excellent book, Legends of the American Desert, refers to the Southwest as a “tongue, the northernmost projection of Latin America.” This is not an inaccurate assessment. The red and gold banners of Spain were flying in America long before the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock.
But of course the Spaniards themselves were newcomers. The Hisatsinom (the ancient people), as they were called by the Pueblo, or Anasazi (ancient enemy), as they were called by the Navajo, were the ancestors of many of the Indian tribes of the Southwest. They explored, settled and built small towns throughout the Southwest many centuries before the arrival of the Europeans. The influence of the Spanish, however, cannot be overestimated in the cultural formation of the Southwest and that influence is now reasserting itself. There are enormous numbers of Spanish-speaking people in the Southwest doing an extraordinary amount of work. Construction and business growth is at an all-time high in the region, and much of it can be attributed to these hard working folks from Mexico and Central America. They are, as Shoumatoff notes, part of the fifty million people who traveled and moved to the lands west of the Mississippi during the twentieth century.
Shoumatoff also aptly describes the Southwest as being one of the “four classic meccas” for people on quests. The other three classic meccas are the Amazon, Africa and Tibet. Henry Shukman, on a modern day quest to the Southwest, visits the former home of writer D. H. Lawrence in his story, “A Point of Human Light”, and has a titillating adventure of which Lawrence would have heartily approved. Lawrence once said that more than any another place in the world, the Southwest had changed him forever. Shukman, echoing this sentiment in his book Savage Pilgrims, from which we excerpted his story, describes travel as “bringing in the stores,” and he notes, “It would be a long time before this voyage’s nourishment wore off and might never wear off.”
As I have traveled throughout this torn and parched landscape, I can only affirm this – the stores that my wife, young sons and I have brought back have been sustaining in a way I sometimes feel I only marginally understand but immediately appreciate. Whenever I leave the agitated sphere of consciousness that comprise the likes of cities such as Albuquerque or Phoenix, and the mountains barrier themselves behind me, I feel a breath of fresh air moving in my soul. My entire being resonates with clarity, spaciousness and a hint of sweetness – a quest already fulfilled.
My younger sister Maggie, a reluctant Easterner, wrote after a recent visit: “the desert must echo something of eternity with it restful intensity, for I can pull the memory of it into my mind’s eye and it calms me. Funny, but the desert seems to be an oasis for me.” The desert will do that to you. It is as if an enormous and moving consolation has been made out of emptiness and wonder. People come to the desert for many reasons (including low-cost housing) but many come because something in the desert calls them to come and be broken, like the prophets of old, and made whole again with wonder. And there are so many things to wonder at in the Southwest.
I have been constantly surprised, for example, at ancient evidence, visibly present, for a lot of water moving through parts of the Southwest. The Guadalupe Mountains, which run along the Texas Panhandle and the New Mexico border, are connected to a ridge, the petrified remnant of the ancient Capitan Reef. Where there are now deeply eroded mesas, in many places there were once oceans. A mere ten million years ago in Arizona, north of Interstate 40 and west to the Grand Canyon, there was an ancient lake, once the size of Lake Erie. Lake Bidahochi, as it is called, lasted for nearly four million years before it finally dried up. Huge circular mounds of dirt and mud that could have only been deposited by enormous rivers of water are also found on the roads leading from Canyon de Chelly all the way to Monument Valley. I often ask myself, “What could this possibly mean in terms of our recent history?” Scientist say that the Grand Canyon and its even larger cousin to the south, Copper Canyon in Mexico, were created by millions of years of water erosion and “other earth changes.” It is those other earth changes over the short-run that bother me. There is still an awful lot we don’t know about Mother Earth.
Oceans of water also seem to haunt the collective imagination of those who live here. Lake Powell, one of the largest man-made lakes in the world, is almost surely the reincarnated image of ancient waterways such as Lake Bidahochi, where prehistoric creatures made their daily pilgrimage. How else might one explain the odd fact that the highest percentage of boat owners in the United States live in the middle of the desert in Arizona? I could take a full-sized submarine for days into the depths of Lake Pleasant, another large and growing man-made lake just north of Phoenix, and no one would know it was there.
The ancient sea bottoms of the American Southwest have conceivably influenced the fantasies and thinking patterns of more human beings than any other landscape on the planet. Who has not galloped into black canyons rimmed by fiery sunsets and chased outlaws into the purple sage with Zane Grey, John Wayne and other heroes of the imagination? Who does not have a little bit of the cowboy or cowgirl branded into their souls? The West is the real thing for America and the Southwest is as real as it gets.
Come with us and you will discover the truths of the Navajo with Douglas Preston, Alex Shoumatoff, and Tony Hillerman. Descend with us into the Grand Canyon and explore the heat of the Southwest until thirst stops you. In Travelers’ Tales Southwest you will uncover the history of Acoma, America’s oldest unsung city with Timothy Egan, and explore the vast staircase of Utah’s new Escalante National Monument with Jeff Rennicke. You will taste the richness of the land with Barbara Kingsolver in Tucson as she makes a pact with wild javelinas, and explore barely marked trails with John Annerino as he trys to run like an Apache. Enter the future with science junkie Michael Paterniti and have a few wild adventures with Terry Tempest Williams, Patrick Pfister and the Mad Monks. You will examine the origins and mores of Las Vegas and plunge into the radiance of a thousand suns at one of the fabled laboratories of the Southwest.
Do not be alarmed if you discover yourself smelling the sweet odor of sage after a desert rain while you are reading or, suddenly find yourself on the way to Moab, Phoenix, Santa Fe, Las Vegas or even Area 51. Hit the road friend, the desert is calling.
Introduction, by Sean O’Reilly
PART ONE: Essence of the Southwest
Land of the People, by Douglas Preston
Making Peace, by Barbara Kingsolver
The Recruiter, by Patrick Pfister
The Navajo Way, by Alex Shoumatoff
John Ford’s Monument Valley, by Jeb J. Rosebrook and Jeb Stuart Rosebrook
News from Nowhere, by Zeese Papanikolas
The House of Time, by Colin Fletcher
Water, by Edward Abbey
PART TWO: Some Things To Do
Vertigo, by Aleta George
Nuclear Memories, by Gregory McNamee
The Grand Staircase, by Jeff Rennicke
Riding with Apaches, by Susan Hazen-Hammond
The Lure of Hoodoos, by Linda Watanabe McFerrin
A Museum Etched in Stone, by Tony Hillerman
Running Wild, by John Annerino
Seeking Father Kino’s Tinajas, by Craig Childs
PART THREE: Going Your Own Way
Where the Wind Takes You, by Mariana Gosnell
In Cahoots with Coyote, by Terry Tempest Williams
Detectives in the Desert, by Barbara and Jon Beckwith
Planet Nevada, by James Crotty and Michael Lane
Encounter at Ghost Ranch, By Belden C. Lane
Bridge over the Wind, by James C. Work
In the Superstitions, by William Hafford
The Place that Always Was, by Timothy Egan
PART FOUR: In The Shadows
Haunted Canyon, by Craig Childs
The Kingdom of Deseret, by James Conaway
Saguaro, by Tom Miller
Living as an Alien, by Lourdes Leslie
PART FIVE: The Last Word
Searching for the Good Spirit, by Leo W. Banks
Searching for the Good Spirit
by Leo W. Banks
This blasted wind is all I have. It fills my head. It clouds my mind. It threads my clothes. It blows sand into my mouth and brings on black clouds, the smell of rain, and voices that stand out even above the howling.
I hear children’s voices, way off, in some place behind the beyond, but still clear, as though coming from lips pressed to my ear.
My partner, Edward McCain, walked off looking for the only thing photographers seek. Light. How strange to look at the world the way he does. To hunt light. To be consumed by it. To be in conversation one moment, and the light shifts, and something turns over in his brain, and he’s off, chasing one ethereal, always moving, always changing commodity. Light.
My own master is no less bizarre. A spirit.
I’m approaching a canyon on the western end of the Navajo reservation. This land, particularly Begashibito Canyon, is said to be inhabited by a benevolent force called the Good Spirit.
It’s a preposterous legend. Not a tale that could be told in my world without a nudge and a wink. Long beyond understanding.
But not up here, where the wind makes the rocks bow, a world of rust mesas, shimmering horizons that only get farther away as you move toward them, and moonlike ground so parched it could make a lizard weep.
I’ve been chasing the Good Spirit for almost two years. Several times I’ve come to this other world, searching. Now I feel as if I’m closing in. The children’s voices pull me forward.
We’re on foot, McCain and I. We had turned left off U.S. Route 160 some thirty-eight miles outside Tuba City, onto State Route 98 over Shonto Wash, then onto dusty reservation roads. We drove about thirty-five miles from the boarded-up Cow Springs Trading Post on U.S. 160 before we started walking.
They call it a canyon, but it’s so shallow it hardly seems to merit the description. The English name for this place is Cow Springs Canyon. Begashibito, pronounce ba-GOSH-ibito in Navajo, means “place where the cows water.”
The voices lead me down a split in the side of the wash that cuts the canyon, and I bounce on my rear end to the bottom. The wash banks are high, maybe twenty-five feet. They channel the voices and carry them to me, clear as the noon sun.
Still, I’m not sure they’re real. It might just be the wind talking.
McCain heads in the opposite direction, hauling his gear over fine sand, like he’s running in a dream. That’s what photographers do, run in their dreams hoping to catch fleeting light.
I go a long way. I don’t know how far, a mile, maybe, when a blast of thunder shakes the ground, and it occurs to me, for the first time, that I’m in danger.
I’m walking in a wash as though on a Sunday stroll, and there’s a storm building. Flash flood. The single most obvious peril of the desert didn’t occur to me until this instant, and even now that it has penetrated my consciousness, I feel no fear.
I keep walking toward the voices and out loud I say to myself something I don’t believe: “It’s the Good Spirit.”
My research brought me to one brick wall after another. Talking to a Navajo about spirits is a bit like being at the boss’s dinner party and mentioning the corpse propped at the head of the table.
Let me tell a story.
I’d stopped at the Old Red Lake Trading Post in Tonalea. A typical afternoon on the Big Rez. Pickup trucks whirled in, one after another, with bumper stickers that proclaimed: Rodeo!
Young men stepped out, shook off the dust, and strutted past, in uniform: slant-heel cowboy boots, turquoise rings, black Stetsons with rope hatbands and feathers dangling from the back brim. And that odd way Navajo men have of saying hello by pursing their lips. Those are the gregarious ones.
After an hour of leaning against the wall and watching the show, I went inside. The clerk was a young fellow, and beside him, at the movie-rental counter, stood three boys. They were imitating some variety of mayhem from the latest martial arts movie.
I wanted to ask about the Good Spirit. I had my presentation planned. My cover was a gum purchase. I dropped the gum on the counter. “Say, have you ever heard of a Good Spirit that inhabits the Cow Springs area?”
I swear, you would’ve thought I’d lit the fuse on a stick of dynamite and held it in his face. I’d noticed the corpse at the table. I pressed on, soothingly. “I read something about the Good Spirit of Begashibito Canyon. Gets people out of jams and such.” The clerk was so nervous, he couldn’t stop laughing. His shoulders shook. I took the hint and got out of there.
The truth is, stories are told of the Good Spirit. At least they’re told in print. A half-century-old magazine tells of a man riding through a sandstorm along what he thought was a trail into Begashibito Canyon.
But he got lost, and the storm grew violent. He felt his horse shake in fear beneath him. Squinting, he caught sight of something moving through the swirling air ahead of him. He had no idea what it was. Desperate, with no choice but to ride or die, he urged his horse forward.
The horse, suddenly finding its legs, followed whatever it was to safety. It was the Good Spirit, the man claimed later.
Three Navajo boys wandered from their mother’s sheep camp and got lost. Night fell. A search party was organized. When dawn broke, the children were seen walking serenely toward the camp. Asked how they found their way home, the oldest boy looked surprised. “Why, the man in the long coat came to us when the big star arose. We followed him.”
An old woman, also on horseback, was in the canyon when a rainstorm blew in, and with it came a tremendous roar. Soaking wet, she listened to identify the sound. Just then she saw the figure of a man walking out of the bed of the canyon wash. His head was bare, and he wore a gray robe tied with a rope at his waist and grass sandals. “I’d no sooner cleared the wash,” the old woman said, “when a great wall of water swept past, overflowing to the depth of several feet the place I had just left. I would have been slain by the Water Monster.”
The clouds hang low now, black beasts hovering above me. The wind blows relentlessly, almost painful as it hammers away.
As I struggle against it, I’m thinking about those published legends. Preposterous, inexplicable. But I realize again, as I always do on this great and unknowable reservation, that this isn’t a land of answers, only questions.
When McCain and I were wheeling along State 98, we drove over a pair of work gloves. Nothing around them, no other traffic, just two gloves.
They were on fire. Smoke rose off them, fanned by the wind. Neither of us said a word as we passed over them. A few hundred feet down the road, I couldn’t stand it any longer.
“Did you see that back there?” I asked.
“I sure did.”
“What the heck was it?”
“Gloves? I don’t know.”
McCain turned around to get a look, but by then I was swinging into a U-turn. They were exactly what they appeared to be, burning black work gloves. Only by the time we got there, one of the gloves was gone. The other was still burning.
Preposterous. Inexplicable. Like the white saddled horse we saw tied to a range fence with no rider in sight. And no place for a rider on flat landscape without buildings or concealment to the farthest limits of our vision.
Here we were chasing a spirit, and we came upon burning gloves and a riderless horse. We did what people from our world do. We joked about it, had ourselves a good laugh.
The wash zigzags across the Earth, its walls revealing deep gashes from previous floods. The sand on the wash bottom shows red, and that makes the pile of animal bones stand out. They’re bleached white, scattered at my feet.
I step over them. Lightning splits the sky. It seems to bring the voices closer than ever. McCain catches up, and we crawl out of the wash and climb a hill and lie on our bellies to have a look.
Until this instant, peering over flat red tundra, I wasn’t sure the voices were real. Now I see them, three children, looking tiny in the distance playing and giggling in the wash. Nearby stretches a cornfield, with two women working it.
The scene appears idyllic. Like a painting. Peaceful to watch.
McCain and I kick around the idea of approaching and asking about the Good Spirit. But that would be foolhardy, two strangers appearing out of a wash to inquire about an apparition.
Reluctantly, feeling we again have failed to find what we were looking for, we drive on steep dirt hills out of Begashibito Canyon to Shonto Plateau and Indian 16. The long-expected downpour starts the moment we reach pavement.
“Wow,” I say to the racket of the rain beating on the car.
“Yeah,” says McCain, “if we hadn’t gotten out of there when we did…”
He looks over at me, and his voice trails off. Nothing more is said. But I can see the realization in his eyes. I recognize it because I have the same thought: Those children in the wash were protected, and they knew it. So were we, only the dictates of our world concealed it from us until just now. In following their gleeful voices, maybe we found the Good Spirit, too.
We stop joking about the burning gloves and the riderless horse and the rest of it. We don’t understand what any of it means, if there is anything to understand. But we no longer laugh. We drive on quietly in the rain.
Leo W. Banks has been writing about the Southwest for various newspapers and magazines for twenty-five years. He also has written several books of Western history. For a brief time a decade ago, he taught school on the Navajo reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico. He lives in Tucson, Arizona.
Sean O’Reilly is a former seminarian, stockbroker, and prison instructor who lives in Arizona with his wife Brenda and their five young boys. He’s had a life-long interest in philosophy and theology, and is at work on a book called How to Manage Your Dick: A Guide for the Soul, which makes the proposition that classic Greek, Roman, and Christian moral philosophies, allied with post-quantum physics, form the building blocks of a new ethics and psychology. Widely traveled, Sean most recently completed an 18,000-mile van journey around the United States, sharing the treasures of the open road with his family. He is editor-at-large and director of international sales for Travelers’ Tales.
James O’Reilly, president and co-publisher of Travelers’ Tales, wrote mystery serials before becoming a travel writer in the early 1980s. He’s visited more than forty countries, along the way meditating with monks in Tibet, participating in West African voodoo rituals, and hanging out the laundry with nuns in Florence. He travels extensively with his wife Wenda and their three daughters. They live in Palo Alto, California when they’re not in Leavenworth, Washington.