Gray Mountain

Tuba City, twenty minutes to midnight: a tumbleweed scurries across a lamp-lit patch of pavement and then is gone, disappearing into the howling night.  Tribal cops circle the intersection in green-striped SUV’s, killing time until dawn calls them back home to Kykotsmovi, Burnside, Tonalea.  A neon sign for Moenkopi flickers on and off in the wind.  A thick wedge of moon rises in the east, large and unhealthy yellow, not a good moon to be caught out under.  I sip gas station coffee and slump back into my seat, trying not to think about the drive ahead.  The wind whispers in a voice of fine desert grit, pouring out of the night through the streets of the sleeping city, and then back into darkness.

Horned larks wheeled and careened across the road, narrowly dodging our truck’s rapid advance along the muddy path towards Shinumo Altar.  Steph spun the wheel and fountains of mud rose in curtains as we slalomed forward, birds scattering, transmission straining.  To the northwest, a line of low, feathery grey clouds obscured the Vermilion Cliffs, heralding snow and high winds.  The dark shadow of Shinumo Altar rose in front of us like the fat, black stump of a tree that could hold the world in its roots.  Beyond, past the mesa, the earth dropped off.  On the rim of Marble Gorge great gusts rose from the thin green thread of the Colorado River, half a mile below us.  Geodes embedded in the sandstone gleamed dimly in the muted morning light.  I looked out on the walls and spires of red stone and though about plate tectonics.  In a couple of million years, these canyons will be draped in a carpet of tropical greenery.  Lush vines will ascend the sheer walls, between nooks where mosses and ferns cluster around seeps and springs.  Unfamiliar hardwoods will crown the weather-beaten parapets, spreading boughs over clear streams cascading a mile down to the swollen river, meandering lazily across a wide floodplain below.  This area is so young, geologically speaking, even though it is the womb so many of us emerged from, back in the misty ancestral haze.  Scattered shafts of sunlight played across the silent stones, then disappeared, swallowed by the roiling clouds.

At four in the afternoon I plowed into the one snowbank on the mountain, sending up a wide spray of mud and ice and nearly making it to the other side, where the wheel ruts marked a path northwards, to Route 64 and the Little Colorado River Gorge.  The steppe-like plains on the plateaued top of Gray Mountain rolled around us, small thorny shrubs shivering in the first gusts of the gale.  When it became apparent, hours later, frost-nipped and having read about the Winslow Lady Bulldog’s state championship win for the eighth time, that the rescue truck sent by HQ to extract us wasn’t coming, Steph expressed some concern.  The sun was dipping below the horizon, and while the snow had let up as the cloudy front passed us over, the wind had only increased, and the night promised to be clear and cold.  We could stay in the truck, using the last of our gas to run the heater, and hope that the residual warmth would last us, if not comfortable, at least alive, until morning.  We could strike out for one of the main roads, hoping to either rendezvous with the erstwhile rescue party or reach somewhere warm and marginally civilized before all of our toes fell off.  We could split up, one of us staying with the car, the other following a GPS downhill towards the highway.  Neither of us had winter clothes, let alone survival gear or even a first-aid kit.  The day was to have been warm and sunny, a milk-run.  Back in reality, the night wasn’t getting any warmer, and the situation was grim; I was worried we might have to eat the cabin boy.  Stuffing our sweatshirts with the Navajo Times, we gathered our navigational aids and set off by starlight for the town of Gray Mountain, across a gorge, two washes, and ten miles of windswept high desert.

All feeling of cold evaporated as the adrenaline took over.  There was no thought, no hope held for rescue, just the blinking pointer casting southeast on the digital compass.  We passed under an avenue of power-lines, their dimly-illuminated wires crackling and moaning in the ever-present wind.  Ridges and washes stumbled under our feet as we groped towards the distant highway lights just scraping the eastern horizon.  Above, constellations spun slowly as the continent crept away from the sun.  Dark shapes swooped overhead, blotting out the stars and moving strangely against the wind.  Steph reached out and asked if I had a knife handy, “in case something comes out.”  The weather was not our only, nor even our greatest, concern out there in that night.  I had been three seconds away from completely losing my composure for the past four hours.  The knife was in the top of the backpack, easy to reach in case of trouble.  We kept walking.

A faint light played through the stunted piñons just over the north wall of the canyon.  Steph swung the flashlight, blinking, in wide arcs.  Like drunken fireflies, answering signals wavered, then drew closer.  Headlights made ghosts of the sandstone boulders, following the road through the wind and the darkness.

Flagstaff:  A dense grey cloud covers the San Francisco Peaks.  Fresh snow is pouring out of the sky onto the foothills and the volcanic cones to the east.  There’s an edge, hard and sharp, to the world, to the nighttime especially.  Out of a stormcloud or a wave at sea sometimes emerges the face of a god or a spirit, breathing warnings in the song of wind.  We forget, huddled behind the barricades of walls and roads that so dissipate the world, the sound of our planet’s old and uncompromising voices.  In the rustling of the grass in a field, in the slight, sweet breeze before a summer thunderstorm, in the wafting odors of desert blooms, and in the howling gale that destroys cities lives a power that will outlast us all.

“There’s a roaring in the forest, further out.” – Algernon Blackwood, ‘The Man Whom the Trees Loved’


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