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The Last Cheater's Waltz

Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest

by Ellen Meloy

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Excerpt: The Last Cheater's Waltz

The Last Cheater's Waltz

Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest

University of Arizona Press

Copyright © 2001 Ellen Meloy
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0816521530

Chapter One

Tse Valley I:
Alien Pebbles

Any day, any time, I would without complaint travel seventymiles to see a claret cup cactus in bloom. The quest wouldnot arise from botanical interest, from some sort of dead-butterflyimpaling, snake pickling, tweedy naturalist curiosity. If you mustknow, I seek the claret cup--Echinocereus triglochidiatus, memberof the hedgehog cactus family, also called strawberry cactus--forsadomasochistic pleasure.

    The claret cup cactus grows in dense clusters of cylindricalgreen stems topped by scarlet blossoms so seductive, you want tobut should not fall facedown into the lush halo of nectar insideeach cup-shaped flower and wallow there. Each flower rests atop anest of needle-sharp spines; each succulent stem wears a fierysheath of them, deterrent to your lips and the tongues of herbivores.A mound of claret cups in full bloom throws its gloryagainst the russet desert in brazen harlotry. Theirs is a wild andtransient beauty of sweet, precise torture, an incarnation of thethin threshold between what the Zuni call the beautiful (tso'ya)and the dangerous (attanni). The flowers peak and wilt in a fewdays, and that was why I went traveling. On a seventy-mile loopfrom home and back, I aimed more or less for a broad ledge ofsun-warmed slickrock that would likely bear enough of those gorgeousgrenadine blossoms to drive me mad with love.

    It gives me great pleasure to rise before dawn and set out ona remote, empty trail or road to a seductive place. A giant reefof tilted sandstone, the morning's lure to claret cups, ran north-south,jumped the San Juan River near the Utah border, thencurved into Arizona like the tail of a snake. Its Navajo name, Tsek'aan, means "upright rocks." Amid a confusing jumble of bluffs,buttes, and dry washes, it remained distinct for its resemblance toa rib or a spine that seemed to run around the world undergroundbut just happened to surface here. I knew Tse k'aan's midsectionwell; it lay a few miles downriver from home. The less familiarsouthern Tse k'aan now guided my way: I planned to keep it onmy right, cross it, then drive back up the other side. Except for thefirst stretch of road, which was paved, I would find my way on theunmarked maze of sandy tracks that typify Navajo Reservationbackroads.

    Slung over the southern horizon, the Carrizo Mountains floatedabove the sprawling desert, their flanks indigo, the last veneer ofspring snow gleaming on their peaks like silver mirrors. I passedbleached white bones strewn along the roadside for several hundredfeet, the boneyard of a sizable flock of sheep, although noone around here has ever been able to explain its history. Upahead a hungry dun-colored dog, all head and rib cage, sniffed aroadkill but, lacking a spatula, gave up and trotted off.

    Around me stretched the land of the humans--Dine, thePeople, as the Navajo call themselves--a rugged, elemental expanseof Colorado Plateau whose face is inextricable from theNavajo soul. The flavor of Navajo country is almost palpable.Human and physical terrain fit one another in an exquisite frictionof conflict and harmony. What you see from the road is the landdwarfing the human: towering bare rock in bewildering shapesand vibrant colors and broad sweeps of rolling desert dotted hereand there with a house, corrals, stock tanks, usually a hogan, andalways a motley spill of junked cars, some upside down, some not,every car that anyone ever owned since the Korean War, lined upand sun fried.

    I crossed a deep, tamarisk-lined canyon, a major tributary of theSan Juan River and, rumor has it, the preferred route of skinwalkerson the move. These witches, also called Navajo wolves, arenormal people by day--well, maybe they have an extra pickuptruck or two--and evildoers by night. The Navajo feel great discomforttalking about witchcraft, not only because it is a seriousmatter but also because more than one Anglo missionary in thepast prohibited the chants and cures that could protect a Navajofrom such evil.

    For vengeance, envy, or other reasons, a Dine skinwalker inflictsinjury rather than a Faustian soul theft, often with spellsor by injecting a foreign article--bone, quill, bead, stone, arrow--intothe victim. Incantation levitates the projectile, which thenshoots off magically through the air: a kind of Navajo smart bomb.In years past, the victim could be a car--not so farfetched whenyou consider the possible consequences of a disabled vehicle inremote, sparsely populated country. The upper reaches of thecanyon I crossed have seen strife and tragedy in Navajo history,which may explain its concentration of skinwalkers. I understandlittle about such beliefs but admit that at night any number ofinexplicables could careen around the canyon's sinuous bends onaccelerated tendrils of an ill wind. I left the canyon behind.

    Several miles beyond the canyon I turned off the pavement to adirt road and started up a steep incline, slowing to maneuver thetruck over bumpy, exposed rock slabs but maintaining momentumthrough drifts of fine red sand. The road climbed to a notch in theTse k'aan ridge. On the other side I descended a series of switchbacks,fishtailing and vibrating on a washboard surface so rough,my molars rattled and the door handles fell off. In places thecurves were so tight, I collided with my own taillights. Partwaydown the dugway, I parked and peered over the road's edge toview the lay of the land.

    Red sand dunes five hundred feet high piled up against the baseof Tse k'aan. Beyond them sprawled a valley that tilted gentlynorthward toward the San Juan River, cut with dry washes andsprinkled with salt pans and sparse stands of greasewood, snakeweed,and fourwing saltbush. The valley filled over twenty squaremiles, with only two or three houses visible in the near distance.Close to the sand dunes rose a hogback with broken ledges on oneflank--perfect habitat for the claret cup cactus. Several roads andfaint tracks led off to ... well, nowhere. However, it was clear thatthe public access passed close to the ledges. I would not have towalk far to visit the wildflowers, and I was grateful for this, notthat I am lazy but because I was apprehensive about intruding.

    An intricate, largely invisible system determines customary landrights among the Navajo. Occupancy and use, stories, family lineage,and small bundles of sacred soil bear as much authority as acourthouse deed; they recognize land tenure but not possessionsince, in the end, the land belongs to no one. Without the Angloiconography of private property--survey pins, signs, barbed wire,gates, helicopter surveillance, remote sensory devices, half-starvedTibetan mastiffs--outsiders presume that Indian land is openrange and that they can wander over any or all of it as they please.For this and other reasons some Navajo post areas, but for mostthe message is implicit: trespassing is rude behavior. I returned tothe truck, bumped down Tse k'aan to the quiet valley below, andstayed on the sandy, single-lane, main track.

In a poem from ancient Greece, heartstruck mortals describe theirburning love as a powerful, transforming god that literally inhabitsthem. Eros lives inside me, one lover cries, Eros's wingbeats shakemy limbs. One mistake in my reckless love affair with this desertwas, perhaps, to invite a cactus to supply the wingbeats. Withininches of the claret cup's crimson blossoms lies a dense snare ofneedles. The hand that strokes the velvet will come away withthorns. And so, on a rock ledge with a delirious explosion of cactusflowers, my feast of bliss had to be visual and vicarious. Tsede, inNavajo, means "to be recumbent." I tsede'd across the warm sandstoneand shut my eyes. I made myself into a very small bug, hoveredover a bloodred cup, and, little bug heart pounding, dove in.

    I dreamed I fell into a lobe of hell. Something horribly magneticemanated from the rock. The flower's vivid colors struck likeblows. To fend off my assailant I had to reach up and seize theblade in my hand, nearly severing my fingers to save my own life.

    Wait! I shrieked, sitting bolt upright. I was merely seekingfundamental union with primordial nature. I was only pretending tobe a bug. I was only trying to take a nap.

    Around me all appeared normal--the truck parked nearby, asandy valley nosing up to the foot of Tse k'aan, slickrock ledgessprouting their gaudy wildflowers, including the claret cups, nowfilled with bees lurching about in drunken nectar stupors. A lizardscrambled up a nearby boulder, then turned to stare at me withthe stoicism of a creature fully aware that Homo sapiens are obliviousto their imminent demise as a species. Two ravens circledabove, and something--a toad?--plinked into a rain-filled potholeon the ledge below. Yet, like the religious statue, as inert andfamiliar as old furniture, that suddenly begins to bleed, or thecheap postcard photograph that pushes the desert reds a bit toofar, my surroundings had changed. I had the distinct sensation of asuppressed vibration in the landscape. I would see it clearly only ifI gazed more intently.

    I picked up the notebook with the Map of the Known Universeand, sitting cross-legged on the sandstone, began to draw. Warmstone, loose limbs, sun on my shoulders, dreams--weird dreams--thiswas the basking lizard life. I waited for the peaceful radianceto come. It did not.

    Red from iron oxides, the primary pigment maker in southwesternrock, dominated the earth's palette around me. I sat onthe Triassic, a geologic period that is often called, for its ubiquitousand unmistakable sediments, the Red Bed Age for the EntireEarth. On an empty folio in the Map I sketched a cactus flowerabove rosette-shaped bursts of daggers, sheep bones, a toad, atoothy section of the Tse k'aan anticline, and a rather fetchinglyphallic sandstone spire to the west. As I inked in an outcrop in themiddle distance, I noticed that several fans of rock debris formedan unnatural talus below a rough escarpment. The rim was dottedwith dark holes--mine shafts and waste piles, I thought. I workedon the Map but felt restless and uneasy.

    I set the notebook down and walked to the top of the hogbackthat held the claret cups. On its other side the valley stretchedaway into a hard blue glare. An intricate network of dry washesfanned out over the valley floor like dendritic veins, then fed into alarger, salt-lined artery. Cutting across the wash was an unlikelysight: the world's longest, curviest landing strip.

    No, not a landing strip, a road. A carefully graded dirt road aselegantly broad as a Parisian boulevard, plunked down in themiddle of wild, dust-bitten, single-track Navajoland.

    I saw that my route, the smaller road, met the larger swath at aT intersection. I would have to turn right on the Parisian boulevardto exit the valley and go home. However, by the time Iwalked back to the truck and drove to the intersection, tiny invisibledevils made me turn left. The fancy road veered southwest,aimed true and bold over the rolling desert. An uncharted routeto Las Vegas? Yet the wider and fancier it became, the fartherthe road penetrated the isolated, desolate valley. Only one signmarked the way. DIP, it said, warning of a slump across an arroyo.

    I cruised along this odd four-lane for several miles, passing aherd of pink sheep and goats, their fleece tinted by the dust androsy light of their environment. A pickup truck approached fromthe opposite direction. The driver, an ancient Navajo man in afaded plaid cowboy shirt and Stetson, lunged down the strip,white-knuckling the steering wheel with the grip of a stuntman in aballoon-tired truck, four-wheeling over a row of Volvos. But forthe spray of loose rocks from his rear tires as he passed, and thelack of about 15.3 million people in the vicinity, he could havebeen commuting to Los Angeles.

    Although reservation dwellers want better roads, county andtribal governments have neither the energy nor the budgets tomaintain far-flung miles of them. Thus, many routes to isolateddwellings remain slightly glorified goat tracks, dusty in summer,bogged in red gumbo in the winter. A wide, hard-packed, well-graded,red dirt freeway in the middle of the outback--I had noexplanation for it or the next onslaught of topographical bedlam.

    The big road ended abruptly at an enormous field of disturbedsoil, put back together and recontoured with earth-moving machinery.On it could have parked all those jumbo jets that mightsomeday take off and land on the ersatz airstrip. A smaller, moretypically bad road, striped by the old Navajo fellow's tire tracks,led to a distant house. Next to the reclaimed field was an enclosureroughly the size of a tennis court but squarish, surrounded by achain-link fence about twelve feet high. The fence undulated andsagged. The wind had blown so much loose sand out from underthe steel corner posts, their exposed concrete footers practicallystood in thin air; there was barely any ground left beneath them. Itwas a huge fence, it was not in good shape, and it was very strange.

    I parked, walked over to the fence, and peered through it. Insidewas a deep, sandy pit lined with wind-tattered black plastic,which at one time might have been laid down to prevent erosionand wind-borne dust. Tumbleweeds and a small pond filled thebottom of the pit. I could not tell if the water had pooled up fromrecent rain or seeped to the surface from a spring below. The pondshimmered in the bright sunlight--no skull and crossbones, danksalts, mutant plants, or dead bodies to indicate an alkaline or poisonousspring. Why such a cheap, half-baked fencing job? Anythingand everything--sheep, children, Boeing 747s--could go inand out of the enclosure. The plastic liner was in shreds.

    Then I thought of an even creepier question. This valley wasone of the most parched places in the region--ephemeral rainwaterin potholes, scant, widely scattered, one-drip-an-hour seeps,an average of about eight inches of precipitation a year, in a goodyear. Why fence off water in the desert?

    The more I puzzled over this place, the more fretful I became. Ipaced about. Here I was surrounded by my beloved home wilds,yet here I felt unspecified dread. Dread, I supposed, can be part ofthe neighborhood, so I sketched it into the Map of the KnownUniverse. Then it struck me. Rock--it has to do with the rock.So a rock, too, flying about with a question mark, went down onthe page under my name for this place: Tse (rock) Valley. Thegarish postcard reds were coming back. I wanted nothing morethan to lurch out of this aberrant, demented magenta blip in thedesert pastorale. The lurch came in memory, however, not venue.From some dim, fuzz-clogged sector of my oversized hominidbrain I dredged up motley remnants of knowledge and immediatelylost most of them. At least one nugget remained in the sieve:Shinarump.

    No one in the Southwest's red-rock desert can fail to be enthralledwith time. Through the soles of your feet you feel animprobable, skinless earth cut through and through with the past,every rock so saturated, there appears to be no space for the hereand now. The sandstone exposed in this valley went back 245 millionyears to the Jurassic and Triassic, periods that saw oysters,sponges, ferns, and dim-witted, three-ton lizards eating everythingin sight and stepping on toothy, insignificant beasts still trying tofigure out how to be mammals. Streams and rivers also flowedthrough these eras, carrying mineral-rich sediments in their broad,meandering braids and depositing them across the ancient plains.

    Disturbed talus slopes below local mine shafts, like those I hadnoted earlier, often bear the distinct hues of a Triassic sedimentknown as the Chinle Formation. Set against the bloodred of adjacentstrata, in a certain light, one variation of the Chinle's colorsresembles the pale mint-green of Crest toothpaste. The ChinleFormation, and specifically its Shinarump member, is one of themost common uranium-bearing strata on the Colorado Plateau. Iwas well acquainted with the plateau's role, from the early fiftiesthrough the seventies, as a major producer of uranium for the coldwar's nuclear arsenal. Relics of the uranium mining boom still lingeredaround the neighborhood. I lived in the continent's mostbombed province, where for many years the U.S. Departments ofEnergy and Defense tested their wares on the western deserts.

    I did not need my copy of Nuclear Physics for Poets to know thattons of raw uranium ore had been enriched into an atomic caviarthat would, it was once believed, run my mother's kitchen applianceswith power "too cheap to meter," keep a hot dog fresh forweeks, and save all of humankind from war forever and ever, theidea being that no one would ever use so unthinkable a weapon,even though they could and had and nearly did again, and had atone time kept approximately 43,900 of them worldwide to hedgetheir bets. I felt a tenuous gratitude for the remission of terror nowthat the cold war had thawed and test moratoriums had beenenacted, and for the nascent attention given to coping with analarming volume of toxic garbage.

    The reclamation works and the red dirt freeway, possibly atrucking route, hinted at a recent cleanup. While one way to getdecent roads is to be a Superfund site, this place seemed anunlikely Superfund site and a poor excuse for a Superfund fence.Whatever it might turn out to be, it was not likely to surprise me.I was, after all, a duck-and-covergirl born in the nuclear West.Nevertheless, I could not imagine that so serene a place could partakein so unquiet a century. In a strange convergence of humantime with geologic time, pieces of this valley had been deliberatelyunearthed, piled high, and exported to fuel an apocalypse.

    Instead of going home, I returned to the ledges, where thesun bore down hard on the slickrock and threatened to melt theclaret cups into viscous pools of scarlet. They felt so reassuringlyold, those ledges--petrified dunes burnished by wind and sand,cracked by heat and cold, sun and ice. When you are lost inAfrica's Kalahari Desert, the natives advise, do not try to figure outeverything that is odd; scan and digest the familiar. I was not lost; Isimply felt as if I had sleepwalked into an airplane propeller. Howwas a person to heal her numbed soul amid these fretful, querulousphantoms of mass death? Then I remembered the promise ofthe boiled lizard: to look closely and burn hotter, to forge thedesert's sweetness and ferocity into my own, to find beauty.

    The immediate task was to seek the beds of fossil rivers removedfrom their deep burial in eternity, to find the valley's missing pieces,now scattered far afield like alien pebbles.

    I opened the Map of the Known Universe to a new page.