I left Cochiti Lake Army Corps of Engineers park this
morning at about 9:00 and headed back into Santa Fe for supplies. Looking
at the map it didn't look like there was much between Santa Fe and Chaco
Canyon in the way of cities or towns. I bought a lot of stuff including
a few things, luxuries, I generally do without. A package of chocolate
chip cookies among other things. Sometimes I feel like something sweet
after dinner, and I guess my body needs sugar like it needs everything
else. I noticed that the grocery store didn't carry mild salsa. The Southwestern
palette seems to be accustomed to spicy foods given the wonderful Hispanic
influence - Mexico and La Herencia Colonial....the mild stuff must be
for the Midwest.
good friend of mine who was an exchange student in Chile with me claimed
to love all things spicy. His father's family was from Mexico, his grandfather
was actually a U.S. Senator (democrat) who represented New Mexico for
several terms. Well, this kid liked to show us how eating hot stuff didn't
bother him. While the food in Chile is generally not spicy, condiments
made from chile peppers, "ahí" is what the Chileans call
them, were common. The hottest chiles were the green ones, ahí
verde. One day we were talking about spicy things and just to show us
how much he liked spicy things, how they didn't seem "that hot"
to him, he took a green chile from my kitchen and just started chomping
into it like a carrot. He stayed relatively composed for the first minute
or so..."See, it's not that hot" he claimed.
I had pierced the skin of one of these "devil's fruits" with
my front teeth once, testing to see just how hot they were. I didn't have
any feeling on that part of my tongue for the next three days. Rob insisted
that it really wasn't "that hot". He didn't seem physically
bothered until I told him that the seeds are really what's going to hurt.
His eyes got wide....
"Really?" he mumbled with his mouth full, still chewing.
"Yea man, my host brother told me the seeds were poisonous."
He looked concerned, a spicy tear creeping out of his eye, but he swallowed.
He ate the whole thing....seeds and all. Perhaps he just has a high threshold
southwest out of Santa Fe and caught Hwy 550 North about 20 miles North
of Albuquerque. Going North on 550 I passed through the San Felipe, Santo
Domingo, San Isidro, and Jemez Indian reservations, several of them boasting
"loose slots" and "huge jackpots".
The landscape began to change quickly....from rolling hills speckled with
spruce and cedar trees to a much harsher, stark landscape. The road was
desolate, the drivers of the few cars that passed going in the other direction
waved or nodded from under their cowboy hats. I was just waiting for a
coyote to spring a trap he might have acquired from the Acme Corporation
and car jack me. It looked like a Roadrunner cartoon.....red and white
rock mesas emerging from the flat landscape, like ships sailing a dusty
sea. I tuned in a "Tejano" radio station and listened to the
accordions and horns spout tunes of lost "amores". It was about
102 degrees, I had the 2-60 air on full blast (2 windows down at 60 miles
per hour). I leaned forward over the steering wheel to rest my arms and
probably spent more time watching the New Mexican clouds than the the
road for a while.
I stopped in Cuba, NM to top off the gas tank...continued North through
the Jicarilla Apache reservation where I slowed to take a picture of some
goats grazing on the side of the road. I seemed to have blinked and missed
Counselor, NM. Just cruisin' down the dusty road I almost shot by the
brown sign announcing the entrance to Chaco Canyon. I slammed on the brakes
and hung a hard left onto a paved access road. My parents visited Chaco
Canyon a few years ago and had warned me about a horrible 20 mile long,
kidney jarring, wash board road from the highway to Chaco Canyon itself.
This road I had turned onto was definitely paved....What Luck! They must
have paved the road since they were here. That's what I'm thinking, all
happy like when I spot another sign with an arrow pointing West.....down
an unpaved road. It stretched to the horizon, winding this way and that,
up and down some rolling hills. The sign read...
National Historic Park 18 miles
Campground may be full.
No overflow camping available.
Have alternate plan.
a lot of writing on that sign and I didn't like any of it. They would
have to call a tow truck in and tow me out if the campground was full
and they didn't want me camping on the side of the road, that was my alternate
plan. The speed limit sign said 35, I looked down and I was going about
15, it felt like the poor Westy was going to shake apart. I kept an eye
in the mirrors to watch for essential parts falling off. Some parts of
the road were worse than others. It really was like a washboard, it felt
like a Land Rover test course. The steering wheel shook my arms as if
I were holding a jackhammer, they began to tingle. From time to time I'd
see an old junked car 50 or 100 feet off the road, apparently not all
the cars that make it in make it back out again. Fajada Butte came into
view after a few minutes....a huge Butte in the middle of the canyon.
I'd pass an occasional Navajo trailer or mobile home with a pick up truck
parked next to it. Very, very few true Hogans still exist I'm told, the
traditional octagonal Navajo dwelling. The ones that are still standing
are deep in the interior of the reservation where trailers and mobile
homes are not able to be transported. Other cars and sport utes were passing
me, probably going 40 mph. A lot of them were rentals I guess, but they
were just murdering them. I saw a hand lettered sign reading "Navajo
crafts and food 2 miles," I figured I was getting close. Two Navajo
girls had a table set up just outside the gates to the park. I waved as
I drove by, they smiled and waved back. I would have stopped, but I was
more interested in getting a campsite and eating lunch....it was 2:45
and I hadn't eaten. The 18 miles on that road took me about an hour and
10 minutes, I didn't see anything fall off of the Westy. Once I passed
through the gates of the National Park the road was paved and the butte
I kept my eyes on, what had turned into my goal driving down that road,
was right next to me .....after more than an hour on the other road it
felt like I was driving on glass.....glorious!
I pulled into the visitors center parking lot and saw most of the cars
that had blown by me on the way in. I went inside and asked about camping...it
was a self register system at the campground, but they needed to collect
the $10.00 park entry fee at the visitors center. I took this opportunity
to buy a National Parks Pass for $50.00. It gets me into all National
Parks without having to pay entrance fees for one year...camping is extra,
but regardless, I figure I'll pay it off on the trip. I got a map and
trail information so I can plan a hike to the ruins tomorrow. There are
no shade bearing trees in sight, so the sun is unescapable. I put up the
curtains in the Westy and began to soak it all in. There were cliffs right
behind my campsite with Indian ruins at their base. There was a couple
in their mid fifties in a pop top trailer at the site next to me. The
guy was playing what I thought was an acoustic guitar. I could not see
him, I could only hear the music. He wasn't strumming, rather he was picking
the individual strings and somehow playing the rhythm at the same time
as the lead. He played some classical music, Simon & Garfunkle's Scarbourough
Fair, and that song that goes..."Mama's little baby loves shortnin'
shortnin', Mama's little baby loves shortnin' bread". I looked up
and saw that a late 80's model Vanagon was pulling into the campground,
California plates.... Chaco Canyon already felt mystical.
The guy in
the Vanagon took the campsite just a few spaces down from me. After a
while I saw him walking past my site.
"Nice van." I said
"Oh yeah, how you doin'? I like your van too man, Westfalia huh."
"Yeah, I like it a lot." I replied.
"Mine's a Weekender."
And that's how it began. His name was Sam, 28 years old, originally from
a little town in the Dallas Ft. Worth area called Dustin, TX, currently
residing in San Diego.
Sam used to have a 1971 bus.
"Yeah, I had the motor out of it twice working on it, me and a buddy
a mine." he began "This one day I was driving down the freeway
and the dash caught on fire. All the wiring just burned up, smoke everywhere,
I could hardly see. I ended up selling it to my buddy, well, I just gave
it to him. I think he's had the engine out of it about three times since
he's owned it."
We went over to his van to check it out. I had never really been in a
Weekender before. It's a Vanagon with 2 captain's chairs up front, behind
the front seats are two rear facing seats, and in the back there's a bench
seat for three. Between the seats a table folds out of the wall. The rear
seat folds into a bed, hence the name...."Weekender".
"I really like Westfalias," Sam began, ''cause you got the stove
and fridge, it's great for camping, but I think the Weekender's better
for shows. Like, the Westfalia is good for living in, the Weekender is
good for entertaining in. I had like 11 people in here at a Phish show
one time, it was pouring rain, a bunch of people just hangin' out."
Sam was right....the weekender was better for entertaining, more seating.
"I bought it from a couple of lesbians." he announced, "they
took really good care of it."
I commented on his hub caps. He had replaced the original, newer style,
plastic wheel covers that originally came on his van with the old style
chrome hubcaps like the ones on my van.
"Yeah, I like 'em," he said, "I went to get new tires and
the guy there, he was like 18, said, 'Wow man, that's cool you put those
old hub caps on there, they look cool.' you know," he added, "It's
good to know a young kid thought they looked cool, it's so hard to be
Inside, Sam had decorated the fold out table with stickers from the different
places he'd been in the van. I told him about the magnets I get at the
different places I visit to display on the inside of the Westy.
it was about dinner time...."You know man? I'm gonna go fix some
dinner, cook up some dogs. I can put a few on for you if you want. It's
just processed meat, but you're welcome to it."
"Naa, no thanks, I don't think I'm gonna eat right now." he
replied as he reached into his cooler. "I am gonna fix a drink though."
He pulled a bottle of Bacardi Gold out of the icy water, followed by a
two liter of 7-Up.
"Tastes just like cream soda man....you got a cup?" he asked.
"Yea, I've got a cup, it's in the van."
We went back over to my van so I could fix dinner. Sam got my cup and
went to make me a drink. I offered him my folding camp chair, set some
salsa and chips out on my little camp table and went about fixing dinner.
The guy in the pop top trailer who had been playing music earlier emerged
from his camper.
"I must have picked the best site in the whole place," I said,
"You're guitar playing is amazing."
He looked over, "Oh thanks, but it's actually a dulcimer."
"Ohhh. Okay, I was wondering how you were able to play like that....I
guess now I know. Feel free to keep on playing," I said, "I
could listen all night."
"Oh, okay." he said with a smile.
Sam and I
talked road trips.
"When me and the wife were first married we took a road trip. The
day after we were married she drove up to her parent's house in Eureka,
that's Northern California, I followed her on my bike."
"So you're married?" I replied.
"Was married, divorced now." he replied, "I guess it's
a long story. I was in a bad motorcycle accident a few years ago. After
that I grew up a lot, my priorities changed. We got married too young,
"How old were you?" I asked.
"I was 23, she was 19. I was in the Navy. Her old man asked me to
do two things once we started talking about marriage. One, wait 'til she's
out of high school. Two, wait 'til she's 21. I could do one of them, but
sorry about the other man." he laughed.
"So how long were you married?"
"We were married about three years," he said, " then about
eight months after the accident we were divorced."
"What happened in the accident?" I asked. I just kept asking
these questions. Sam was easy to listen to and pretty entertaining the
way he told his stories.
"I was going down the highway...."
"Were you wearing a helmet?" I interrupted.
"Hell yea. It's California law." he glanced across the expansive
canyon and then back at me, "I always wear a helmet."
"So I'm goin' down the highway, three lane highway, behind a semi,
the kind with two trailers. I guess the guy lost control 'cause the trailers
started swaying back and forth, then the guy goes across the three lanes
and hits the center wall, bounces off and smashes into a car. I see all
this happening right in front of me and I'm like 'Shit.' So I started
emergency braking, that's when you kind of lock up your back wheel and
kind of do a manual ABS thing with your front brake."
"You pump the front brake, right?" I asked.
"Yeah, you pump the front brake. They always teach you to never "ditch"
the bike. When you hear a guy tell you, 'Awe man, I was outta control
so I ditched the bike,' if you hear them say that they don't know what
the hell they're doing, you ditch the bike as a last resort. If you ditch
the bike you got no control at all, you're just slidin', so you always
want to stay on your bike as long as possible, then at least you've got
"So I'm looking at this truck, it's sideways across the lanes skidding
down the highway, I pass the smashed car, I'm probably down at about 30
miles per hour and I say to myself...'I'm gonna go right under the trailer,
I'll slide right under and come out on the other side, no problem.' So
I laid the bike down on it's side and start sliding under the trailer.
Just when I'm about to come out the other side one of the feet on the
trailer, you know the things that hold the trailer up when it isn't attached
to a truck?" he asked hypothetically. I nodded .
"Well, one a them just caught the top of my helmet, I got knocked
out. The next thing I know, I'm stopped. I open my eyes and I got the
back wheels of the trailer on top of me, on my side. It all took about
"Did you feel anything?" I asked with a wince.
"I really didn't feel anything at first, I felt fine. I took my helmet
off and threw it aside. I was trapped, I couldn't move out from under
those wheels. After a few minutes some people began to crowd around me.
I was like...'Help me. Get me out from under here, get a jack, jack this
truck up and get me out from under here.' I'd be fine for a minute, giving
these people directions, asking them to get me out then this wave would
come over me and I'd just scream with the most horrible pain I've ever
felt. I'd be like.....'AAAAHHHHHHHHH!' shaking my head back and forth,
then I'd look back at the people and say, 'Please, help me.' and they'd
just look at me, there were like 30 people around me by this time and
none of them were doing anything."
"They weren't doing anything?" I asked.
"Nope. Then the first cop showed up. He saw me laying there without
a helmet on so he didn't think I had been wearing my helmet. I was like,
'Yes, I had my helmet on, when I came to I took it off!' He wanted to
cite me for not wearing a helmet, and I'm still under this truck! Well,
finally, this little old lady walks over and says that she's got a 2.5
ton floor jack in the back of her Cadillac, so the truck driver went and
got it out of her trunk. How about that? A little old lady with a huge
floor jack in the back of her Cadillac?!" He laughed.
"They jacked up the wheels and dragged me out."
"Were you losing a lot of blood?" I asked.
"No, No internal or external bleeding...just a crushed pelvis a few
broken ribs, and a torn urethra."
I winced again.
"I got three pins in my pelvis, and, oh yeah, I wore a bag of urine
on my leg for about a year, that was kinda weird." he looked across
the canyon again...."Got two belly buttons now though, that's a good
pick up line." he laughed. "I'd never even had a broken bone
before, I'd never been in the hospital, never even ridden in an ambulance
until that day. I couldn't work for the next 8 months. I'd been out of
the Navy for 6 months so those benefits didn't do anything for me, I'd
only had my job for 2 months so I didn't get any disability pay, hard
times makin' rent then. The wife was working though.
"What did you do in the Navy?" I asked.
"I was a fire control specialist on the U.S.S. Vincennes, that's
the ship that shot down the Airbus over the Persian Gulf in 1988. I was
in high school when that happened, but you still couldn't mention that
on the ship, nobody talked about it, but the Vincennes is the only missile
cruiser with a confirmed surface to air kill." he laughed. "So
I worked in electronics when I got out. I worked in a huge warehouse kind
of place where they'd bring in these big medical machines, as big as three
of these vans, and we'd take 'em apart and fix 'em, it was alright."
I asked him where he had traveled while in the Navy....he mentioned Chile
and I told him that I had spent time in Chile.
"Some of my buddies and I got off the ship in Chile one time. They
took me to this bar kind of place where there were a bunch of women. I
didn't realize what was goin' on until I noticed that my buddies had gone
upstairs with some other girls. I was sitting there, trying to talk to
this other girl, I think she was wondering why I hadn't taken her upstairs.....Then
I realized where I was. I'm like 'I'm sorry...I married, "el marriageo?"
and showed her my ring. She got the idea and smiled. I wasn't about to
cheat on my wife."
We talked through my dinner and into the night. The sky full of stars,
moon shadows being cast on the canyon floor.
"My dad's a Southern Baptist Minister." Sam stated. "He
was the janitor at the high school for a long time, when I got to be a
freshman he started being the janitor at a church, but now he's got his
own church and he's the minister there. Everybody at high school knew
I was the janitor's kid. When I graduated I didn't have the money, or
the grades for college so I went into the Navy. I'm taking some classes
at a community college in San Diego right now."
Sam was an interesting guy....We were different in many ways, but seemed
to have some things in common, a love of travel and sense of adventure...Volkswagens
too. He was on a two week road trip through the Southwest with the eventual
goal of visiting his parents in Texas. It was interesting how he spoke
of the motorcycle accident, it was like a watershed of sorts for him....everything
was described, "before the accident" or "after the accident".
It seemed to have been a real wake up call for him.
"I just realized my priorities were all messed up. I was a jerk.
We always went drinking (him, his wife, and their friends). I just started
thinking that there is more to it than that. That's when me and the wife
started growing apart, I just grew up a lot after that accident, she just
stayed the same." he lamented.
He was awarded a fairly large cash settlement by the truck driver's insurance
company which allows him to travel freely in the Summer time although
his wife did get 1/3 of the settlement.
"I guess she did work all that time that I was laid up and supported
us, so I'm fine with that."
has three motorcycles. One is a BMW from the mid seventies, "It's
in pieces all over my garage." he mentioned. One of them is a "Hyabusa"
which is made by Kawasaki I think, the fastest production bike ever produced,
I don't know what the third one was.
It was about 11:00 by now, we both decided it was about time for bed,
so we returned to our respective Vanagons and went to sleep.
forward to exploring the ruins in the morning.