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One and Two

Christina Nealson

Solstice morn. Hot sun on my face. I have been awake since 4:30, Mexico rising to the surface, a wakening jolt of images and smells, not to be forgotten or unwritten.
Journal, June 22


We began as three. My husband, Tom, my good friend, Susan, and myself. We began at the top of the Camino Real, the old royal road from Mexico. The Camino Real, which brought priests and provisions up dangerous roads to Spanish Catholic outposts as far north as Santa Fe and our home in Taos, New Mexico. Now we were about to reverse the traditional direction and follow our imaginations like the three Magi, from Taos into the heart of Mexico. From Nuevo Mexico to Viejo Mexico. From one Hispanic and Indian outpost, into another.

In many ways, not such an alien jump. An Anglo in Taos already has a strong taste of the ex-pat existence. We were used to a minority life, where ritual and business, government and spirituality were dominated by those of darker skin. Where language could be Spanish, Tewa, or English. Now we would travel south to explore other ex-pat communities. Alamos. Ajijic. Pátzcuaro. Guanajuato. San Miguel de Allende. With special stops along the way, like San Blas and Xilitla. We would follow the promises of lower housing prices, cheaper living costs, welcoming Mexican populations and picturesque, quaint villages. With an eye towards retirement, we would add our truths to many others that are out there, in oral mythology and print.

We departed Taos on May 21st, after the idyllic weather had long left our destinations and the rains were yet to fall. When green was lost to the Mexican mountainsides. We figured this to be good. We wanted to visit when Mexico wasn't most perfect. When the comfort zone would be stretched.

Stretched perhaps, but not abandoned. We took a little Coleman stove and my moka espresso pot that had served up bold black coffee since 1983. I ground and bagged two pounds of Italian beans. No fool I. I had traveled Mexico extensively for many years, throughout Her best coffee growing regions. I knew how bad the coffee could be. How the primo beans were sent abroad, leaving their own to jars of Nescafe and plastic spoons. No. Morning coffee was one ritual this writer was not willing to leave behind.

We packed, prepared to camp as well as stay in motels. Still in all, we traveled light. A suitcase each. I resurrected my Zimbabwe travel clothes that resisted wrinkles and weighed about as much as an eyelash: shorts, long pants, several lightweight dresses and a skirt. Add one salmon-colored lambs wool sweater, my journal, fountain pen, camera pack a case of Fuji Velvia film, and I was ready to go.

I drove the first leg, setting off down the winding Rio Grande Gorge at 4:30 a.m. We planned to be home in about a month, around the Summer Solstice. A couple hours down the road I pulled into the Santo Domingo Pueblo, north of Albuquerque, to fill up with gas. We never miss this stop. The Pueblos don't pay gas tax and here at least they pass the savings into the gas prices, which are usually 20 cents less than anywhere else. Tom pumped; I washed the windows … this, our gas-up ritual of many years. Then I went inside to pee. When I came out Tom was nowhere to be seen, and cars were waiting behind us. So I did the polite thing: I jumped into the car and pulled away from the gas tank. With the nozzle still stuck into the vehicle. One amused Indian sat, watched the scene unfold, and smiled. Susan exited the station and shrieked. Meanwhile, Tom, who had never before left the car without hanging up the nozzle, was in the bathroom "freshening up".

The metaphors were not lost. This strange and comedic event served as a wake-up call for the scientist, hypnotherapist and writer. Get those rituals down. Talk to one another. Do not leave the vehicle unlocked and unattended when we get gas. Don't assume that old habits will hold under the stress of a long trip. We were heading for the border as the terror alert went up to high and a small tropical storm headed up the coast of western Mexico. Prospects. Uncertainty. Escapade. All wrapped up into this trip. Hell, don't assume ANYthing.

Okay. Okay.

We turned up Pimsleur's Spanish CD and faithfully answered the prompts in unison, laughing as we headed down the road towards our first day's destination: Portal, Arizona. Cave Creek. Past home of the Chiricahua Apaches. Cochise. Geronimo. Raven and rattler.


Two - Cave Creek

I feel a part of me reborn. That part that could go in search of birds and never look back.
Journal, May 21st


I roll over onto my back and open my eyes onto the aquamarine tent roof. Calm pervades. Cool waves of air flow down the streambed through the campground, as hundreds of birds lend their morning call to the dawn. Sunlight clips the sheer stone ravine of Cave Creek Canyon.

I have retreated here for years. When I lived in Tucson to escape the 110-degree summer days. When I lived in the San Luis Valley of Colorado to find a hint of warmth in winter. Always, in hope of catching a glimpse of the Elegant Trogon. That bird from Mexico-lands that sometimes makes its home in this tiny piece of Arizona. Here to hang with Apache ghosts, no doubt. Not far away to the west is Cochise Stronghold. To the east, Geronimo surrendered.

Here, blanketed in the authenticity of birdsong and Indian memory. Here, on the cusp of the border, my thought falls upon a word that I often read in relationship to the surge of ex-pats into Mexico. They say they go to "reinvent" themselves. Mexico, about one hour's drive south of where I lie under one pink flannel sheet. A Mexico that looms ahead like the excitement of Christmas. Reinvent. I suppose some do hasten to disconnect from the past and fabricate a new persona. I cannot help but think that the Indians of these lands would chuckle at a concept that undermines the co-evolution of spirit, mind, body and place. The mysterious mingling mix of surrender and will. "Guadalupe, put me where You need me," I like to say. Reinvent is not in my dictionary. It has a redundant ring. As if spoken by the faithless.

The Alligator Juniper begins to sway with the breeze. The flame under the coffee pot leans left, moves right. I hear it first, on this gentle wind: a raspy croak. It comes from a distance, unlike anything I have heard before. What is that? The call stops. I stop. Even my breath has ceased. He lets loose again, this time closer. It reminds me of the first time I heard an audacious fart-like shout from a near hilltop. It took many minutes for me to realize it came from the sky. A Nighthawk, in the midst of his display dive. I never dreamed it could have been a bird … a bird that nests on the ground.

The eternal optimist, I look in the bird book under Elegant Trogon. Voice: soft, hoarse croaking, also prone to hoot or cluck. Could it be? Hard to see, says the book, because he hangs out in thick, mid-story sycamore forests. I grab my binoculars and take off running towards the croaky voice, crossing a dry arroyo towards a grove of (you-guessed-it) white-barked sycamore trees. Closer. Closer. He calls again. I stoop and crane my neck to see through branches. There he is! Scarlet and iridescent green. Long tail and a white, broad band across his chest. Yellow gold beak. He calls and calls. I stand, mesmerized.

We are a pair. He tilts his emerald head and stares down upon me. We, in the witness of the magical sycamore. The Aliso to the Spanish pioneer, shade tree of sandy desert wash that thrives within cool canyon walls. Here it grows up and sideways, casting bending, sinewy shadows across the welcome earth. Massive trunks, mottled satin-like bark of faded greens and white. They beg for hands to grip, feet to climb, as they lean, roll up and down, fork and sprawl. These trees beckon the Huck Finn in everyone - the Huck who "lights out for the territories" where he ain't been before. I am caught in an enchanted net of feather, form, and sound.

Meanwhile, Susan and Tom are back at the camp, practicing siesta in their tents. I call to them, softly, but they don't hear. So I take one last, long look at the magnificent creature and turn up the arroyo to fetch them. "Susan, Tom! Susan, Tom!" Heads pop up simultaneously in two opposite tents. "¡Venga conmigo!" And they do. The elegant guest does not move on. For several precious minutes, we watch this gift from Mexico.

Later that day, his croaks will filter down canyon from over a mile away, as the forester, gardener and I happen upon a streamside of Golden Columbine. They will strike the senses like pieces of sun, shooting star petals and long, slim tendrils. We will dip our heads into the sweet, sweet fragrance and re-member Trogon's square long tail, hanging below his sycamore perch of choice. It is here, on the deep inhale, that I will gather his feather-laden message: Don't worry, Christina, Mexico will come to you. What you need, will appear.

Special bird sightings of Cave Creek:
Hepatic Tanager. Blue-throated Hummingbird, the largest hummer in the country. Acorn Woodpecker. Elegant Trogon. Scarlet Tanager. Townsend's Solitaire. Mexican Chickadee. Gilded Flicker. Rivoli's Hummingbird, that lines its nests with the down of the hanging sycamore fruit balls. Raven, as always

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2003 by Christina Nealson © 2008
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