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Canon Tajo — as large and impressive as Half Dome

Like wind through the canyon

The chopping block. The first landmark we could make out was the huge, white block of granite overlooking a dark, Y-shaped slash in the mountains.
  • The chopping block. The first landmark we could make out was the huge, white block of granite overlooking a dark, Y-shaped slash in the mountains.
  • Image by Mike Palmer

“What I don't understand is how people can be so cruel to each other.” this big, kind, brokenhearted cowboy was saying. Just two days ago, he had walked into a restaurant in Phoenix and ordered escargot, an action so flagrantly out of character for him that it would have been unimaginable before his wife had left him and taken up with one of his best friends, two months ago.

This mountain range, the Sierra Juarez, just south of the Mexican border, is an extension of the Lagunas,

This mountain range, the Sierra Juarez, just south of the Mexican border, is an extension of the Lagunas,

“Archie, most guys who go through what you’re going through would just go to a bar, get drunk, and stay drunk till the pain went away.” Palmer, an old friend of mine, said. The three of us — Archie, Palmer, and I — were huddled behind a rock just inside the entrance to Canon Tajo. Blasts of wind were pelting the other side of the rock with sand, and even where we sat, we had to hold on to our hats to keep them from blowing away while we ate our midmorning lunch of cheese and flour tortillas.

By the time the canyon had narrowed, we began to see pools of water.

By the time the canyon had narrowed, we began to see pools of water.

“If you can't trust your wife and your friends, who you gonna trust?” Archie cried. I was surprised when Palmer had brought him along on our wilderness pilgrimage into Mexico.

 We were already coming into small stands of full-grown Washingtonia filifera, or cotton palms.

We were already coming into small stands of full-grown Washingtonia filifera, or cotton palms.

Palmer and I had worked in the National Park Service together for ten years, and even though he now lived in Prescott, Arizona, we still got together from time to time for our little forays into the unknown. I had some serious reservations about Archie's ability to hold up under conditions some people would consider brutal, but I still trusted Palmer's judgment, both in and out of the wilderness, and I was just now beginning to realize that he had brought Archie along because Archie needed this trip far more than either one of us.

The fruit of the blue palm was probably the major reason the Cocopa Indians visited Canon Tajo.

The fruit of the blue palm was probably the major reason the Cocopa Indians visited Canon Tajo.

“Archie,” Palmer said, “you can talk about it forever, but you aren’t going to be able to feel good about yourself and go on with your life until you forget about her. Like they say, time will cure everything.”

“Yeah, but how much time?” Archie wondered.

Indians believe the spirits of drowned babies inhabit pools of water.

Indians believe the spirits of drowned babies inhabit pools of water.

As for me, I was staring up at the magnificent block of white granite that overlooked the head of Canon Tajo. It was as large and impressive as Half Dome in Yosemite, and it could be seen from almost anywhere in the canyon.

I found a badly weathered petroglyph etched into the rock above a small cave.

I found a badly weathered petroglyph etched into the rock above a small cave.

The Cocopa Indians, who are close relatives of the Dieguenos of San Diego, used to make annual journeys into this canyon to hunt bighorn sheep and to gather the fruit of the blue palms. They believed that every major mountain had a resident deity — Palomar, Cuyamaca, Laguna.

Their fronds are tinted a shade of blue something like the color of broccoli leaves.

Their fronds are tinted a shade of blue something like the color of broccoli leaves.

This mountain range, the Sierra Juarez, just south of the Mexican border, was an extension of the Lagunas, and this rock at the head of Canon Tajo was the most impressive landmark for miles in any direction. So I’m sure it, too, had — or rather has — its own resident deity, and I was wondering, as I sat there, just what its character might turn out to be.

Chocolate swirl rock

Chocolate swirl rock

Talking about things like resident deities, water babies (the spirits of drowned babies the Indians believe inhabit pools of water), and other such animistic spirits seems foolish back in the city. Maybe that’s why anthropologists, in the protective shelter of their office cubicles, have labeled animism a “primitive religion.” But out in the real world, with the wind chipping grains of sand off the rock at your back, the sun growing hotter every moment, no water anywhere in sight, and a member of your party going slowly insane, things like animistic spirits begin to make a peculiar kind of sense.

“Archie,” I said, deciding to offer my own bit of advice through a mouthful of tortilla (the greatest danger in being as vulnerable as Archie was, I paused to consider, was that you are subject to all sorts of crackpot advice), “one of the reasons I like to come to places like this is that they put everything into perspective. Look around. Nothing human matters here. Give me three days in the wilderness and I'm ready to die, perfectly at peace with the world.” The furrow on Archie’s brow grew deeper.

We had crossed the border at Tecate and driven east through the Sierra Juarez, bravely battling the Tijuana-to-Mexicali buses for possession of that tiny space in time we liked to think of as our lives. Not far past the town of La Rumorosa, where Governor Abelardo Rodriguez had once built a summer mansion to escape the heat of Baja California, the road descended the eastern escarpment of the mountains to the desert floor, near Laguna Salada. This lake bed was once part of ancient Lake Cahuilla, and periodically throughout its history, it has been flooded by water from the Colorado River. A Mexican ranch worker we spoke with told us Laguna Salada had been wet now for six or seven years, to a depth of about twelve feet, but before that, the lagoon had been dry for thirty-nine years. The lagoon contained many fish, the worker told us — even an occasional sea tortoise, and he demonstrated their size by holding his arms as wide as the bed of a pickup.

It was dark when we turned south on a gravel road between the Laguna Salada and the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Juarez. We drove for about thirty kilometers, which we hoped would at least put us in the general neighborhood of Canon Tajo. But since there was no moon on this night in early May and we couldn’t see even a faint outline of the mountains to the west, we decided that any further navigation would have to wait until morning.

At first light the wind was blowing fiercely from the west, over the top of the Sierra Juarez, kicking up swirls of dust and sand, and a black rim of clouds hung over the mountains. But even in the dim light, the first landmark we could make out was the huge, white block of granite overlooking a dark, Y-shaped slash in the mountains. We knew it had to be Canon Tajo.

In Spanish, the word tajo means a steep cliff, a cut, which might describe the canyon, and a chopping block, which might describe the rock overlooking the canyon. Even though Canon Tajo is the deepest of the canyons on the east side of the Sierra Juarez, and the word “cut” certainly applies, the word “chopping block” so aptly describes the rock that I prefer to think that is the source of the canyon’s name.

After some searching, we found a jeep road that led west to the mouth of the canyon. As the sun came up over the Cocopa Range to our backs, the character of the canyon in front of us seemed to change by the minute, from dark and foreboding to brilliantly white and alluring. When the road came to an abrupt halt, still some four or five miles from the entrance of the canyon, we got out of our truck, hefted our packs, and began walking into the stiff wind.

It was a stark desert before us, of white alkaline soil, dotted with ragged palo verde and thorn-covered ocotillos. Occasionally a gust of wind would catch our packs and spin us in circles. At the first gravel wash we came to, we stumbled onto a bobcat chasing a jack rabbit. The wind had masked both our scent and our noise, but as soon as the startled, thirty-pound cat caught sight of us, it forgot about its prey and ambled for cover, glancing back over its shoulder in resentment of this human intrusion.

Scattered across the desert floor were several twenty-foot-long trunks of palm trees that had washed down out of the canyon. These palms — which might be considered biological miracles, if only all of biology weren’t one long series of miracles — are vestiges of an era when the climate in this region was more tropical than it is now. They are able to survive only where there is abundant water, and though Canon Tajo seemed to be a large enough watershed to house a year-round creek, here on the desert floor below the entrance to the canyon there wasn't a trace of water anywhere.

After we trudged for two hours into the wind, the bell-shaped entrance to the canyon began to narrow. We picked up an old, faint path formed over the centuries by thousands of animals and by some humans who had kicked small rocks aside as they headed into the canyon in search of water. By the time the mouth of the canyon had narrowed to perhaps 200 feet across, we began to see pools of water collecting in a graveled creek bottom. Then the creek began to flow intermittently, and finally it became a true stream of clear, pure water, its banks dotted here and there with tiny palms no more than three feet high.

The canyon bottom was a maze of large boulders that had broken loose from the walls above. Cholla cacti, barrel cacti, agaves, and impassable marshes grown thick with reeds made the going slow and tedious. But we were in no hurry. We were already coming into small stands of full-grown Washingtonia filifera, or cotton palms. These handsome, masculine palms, with their long, blond beards and glistening green fronds, are the same species found in the canyons of Anza-Borrego and are not uncommon throughout California. Yet they somehow seemed out of place in this harsh environment. After carefully picking our way through 200 yards of boulders and cacti, we suddenly emerged into lush groves of green palms, with deep, clear pools of water and white sandy beaches.

After another mile or so, we began to find groves of Erythea armata, or blue palms. It was impossible to mistake them for the cotton palms, since their fronds are tinted a shade of blue something like the color of broccoli leaves. The blue palms are also smaller than the tall, graceful cotton palms, and unlike the cotton palms, which have a small, dark seed, the blue palms had thick bunches of green fruit hanging from them like grapes from a vine.

The fruit of the blue palm was probably the major reason the Cocopa Indians visited Canon Tajo. They also came to feast on the cores of the agave plants, which they baked in the ground and ate like squash. They no doubt hunted bighorn sheep in the canyon, and perhaps they even used the canyon as a migration route during their annual visit to their neighbors, the Pai-Pais, from whom they acquired stores of pin-yon nuts, which grow in great abundance in the Sierra Juarez. But other canyons have agaves in greater numbers, and there are easier migration routes to the north and south of Canon Tajo. What Canon Tajo has that the other canyons don’t is almost limitless quantities of fruit from the blue palms. There are thousands of blue palms in Canon Tajo and its tributaries, and each of the mature palms is laden with perhaps twenty to one hundred pounds of fruit. To someone knowledgeable in the technique of eating the fruit of the blue palm, Canon Tajo was a feasting ground.

After we had been hiking among the groves of blue palms for an hour or so, I stopped and picked a handful of low-hanging fruit, sat down behind a rock where I was sheltered from the wind, and tried to figure out how someone would go about eating such a thing. The fruit was about the size of an olive, but it was covered with a fleshy skin, something like the hull around a coconut. I bit off a piece of it and spit it out — it was as bitter as an orange rind. I skinned the flesh from around the seed, about the size of a marble, then placed the seed on a rock and tried to crush it with another rock. The first few blows had no effect on the surprisingly resilient shell, but after hammering the seed for a while — as well as my fingertips — I was able to crack it open. The flesh inside was white as coconut yet still so hard my teeth were unable to crack it. I presume this flesh was ground into powder or perhaps soaked in water to soften it. At any rate, the fruit of the blue palm is not a fast food, and even though we were surrounded by tons of the perfectly edible stuff, it would require considerably more savvy than I had in order to make use of it.

After my failure to make a meal of the blue palm fruit, I sat there on the rock letting my eyes explore the canyon above me. My companions had already moved on, and I knew I, too, would have to be moving soon if I didn’t want to be left behind. Then my eyes slowly settled on something — a pattern on a rock not a hundred feet away. The gnarled metamorphic rock, with its stain of brown desert varnish, was covered with all sorts of natural patterns, yet this particular pattern stood out as something manmade. I went to investigate and found a badly weathered petroglyph etched into the rock above a small cave just large enough for a couple of people to take shelter from the wind and rain. The petroglyph was a human stick figure — surely one of the most common symbols in the history of art. Next to it was another figure too badly weathered to make out.

I poked my head into the cave and waited for my eyes to adjust to the dim light. Caves such as this one make me very nervous. Besides the possibility that snakes, or other animals as large as a mountain lion, might consider them home and so resent my trespass, there is another odd sensation, impossible to describe except to say that it is as though you are invading a place where you don’t belong. This particular cave had been inhabited by humans, so the feeling was not quite as strong as it might have been. The cave opened to the south — as do most caves once inhabited by humans in the northern hemisphere, to take advantage of the low angle of the winter sun. Also, it was of human dimensions, tall enough to stand up in, wide and deep enough to accommodate a human’s sense of comfort. Yet the strange sensation was still there. Once again, it seems almost silly to talk about these things back in the comfort and protection of civilization, yet I defy anyone to go inside a place like that and say they don’t feel something strange. Even in this late age, our instincts, slowly becoming vestiges themselves, are able to tell us things our science-scrubbed minds cannot accept.

I could see no other obvious signs of human occupation in the cave, and I quickly backed out. In similar caves, I have found sparkling white arrowheads stored in convenient niches just above eye level, as though the occupant would be back that afternoon to pick them up. I have found spear points, awls, beads — once even a brass U.S. Army button, and another time, a purple arrowhead fashioned out of glass. I used to gather up these artifacts and take them home with me, thinking they were treasures. Now I leave them alone. I’ve learned that back home, stored in my drawer next to the cufflinks I never wear and the watches that don’t work, they have no value. It was finding them there, as evidence of a human being of another race and time — that is their value.

Outside the cave, I studied the petroglyph one last time. Archaeologists have spent years studying inscriptions such as this, yet they know virtually nothing of their meanings. And if present-day Indians know anything, they aren’t saying.

It seems to me that we all have the primitive mind within us, and if we confront it in nature, we find it is not primitive at all, merely very human. My own guess about the meaning of that simple petroglyph, based purely on intuition, was that it was put there in an attempt to make this shelter a place for humans. I assume the artist felt the same uneasiness I felt upon entering it and felt compelled to do something to make the inhuman environment around him responsive to the needs of a man. Maybe that is the meaning of magic. Maybe it is even the power of art.

I’ll tell you one thing,” Archie said as he plodded up the canyon. ‘‘I ain’t gonna miss her brothers.” Following Palmer’s advice, he had taken to calling his ex-wife “her” or “she.” “I never could stand her brothers,” he said.

Palmer’s advice sounded reasonable to me. I had read somewhere that in some Indian cultures, after a person died, the family and relatives stopped using the person’s name and referred to the deceased only in indirect terms, or if necessary, as “No Name.’’ It seemed like a useful way to forget somebody and so stop being haunted by their spirit.

“I will miss her mother, though. Her mother made damn good meat loaf.”

Throughout the day as we hiked up the canyon, Archie continued to wrestle with the tragedy of his life. It didn’t seem to matter whether we listened or not. Palmer and I would grunt a word or two of sympathy, then go off to explore some curiosity. When we returned, Archie would still be walking, and talking, mostly blind to the world around him. He might as well have been back in a bar in Prescott, walking around a pool table as he pondered his next shot. Since he seemed indifferent to external pain, taking it in the guts, as it were, and because he was as big and strong as a beast of burden. Palmer and I had loaded him up with most of our food and gear. Lost in his maze of emotions, he didn’t seem to know he was carrying some sixty pounds on his back. Palmer and I didn’t feel guilty about making Archie our pack animal because, in his grief, he had lost forty pounds in the last two months, and, we reasoned, he would be used to carrying the extra weight. We checked on him from time to time, to make sure he was still headed up the canyon, but mostly we just let him wander, hoping he might pick up the lost thread of his life.

Around noon we came to something like a small valley in the middle of Canon Tajo. All morning long, we had been expecting the canyon to narrow and become steeper. Instead, it widened to perhaps 300 feet and leveled off into a series of steppes, each with its own grove of palm trees and its own enchanted pool, where a person might be tempted to linger a month or two. There was something exotic and luxurious, even erotic, about this little valley. Palmer, an artist and photographer, the kind of person who can sit and stare for an hour at the texture of lichen on a rock, was infatuated with the simple beauty of the place.

On both sides of the creek were several small caves. Some of them had petroglyphs marking their thresholds, but most lacked any other sign of human habitation, since their floors had been scoured clean by flash floods. In one cave, though, I found the wooden slats from an old oak barrel. At first this confused me — how could an oak barrel have found its way into Canon Tajo? But then I realized it must be a remnant from the gold rush days of the 1870s and 1880s. It wouldn’t be impossible to coax a burro this far into the canyon, and some miner must have used this cave as his shelter while he roamed the canyon in search of his fortune. I started to pick through the ashes and rubble beneath the barrel but hadn't removed more than a rock or two when a huge scorpion, as big as a crayfish, rushed out and thrust its tail at me, warning me to keep my distance. I had no idea scorpions grew that large, and I communicated this discovery to my companions with a yelp somewhat higher pitched than I would have liked.

One thing I've learned over the years is that almost any creature in its own environment is smarter than a human out of his. This applies to bears, rattlesnakes, coyotes, and almost any other animal that has a habit of making humans seem foolish and vulnerable. So I assumed it applied to scorpions, as well. That monster must have been guarding that pit for a hundred years, and since he seemed determined to guard it for another hundred, and since I was the intruder, and since I'd already had the devil scared out of me, I quickly backed out into the sunshine where a nervous primate, with his dread for the dark and his abnormal fear of death, belonged.

“Thought for sure you’d been snakebit,” Palmer grinned. Someone else's fears are always more amusing than our own.

A little farther on, I made what was for me the most important discovery in Canon Tajo. On the north side of the creek, above a white, sandy beach, was a small cave, just large enough for one person. It had an entrance as tall as the doors of a church, which allowed the winter sun to reflect off the rear wall and warm the little cave. At first glance, the cave didn't seem to have been occupied. Then, once again, the unmistakable pattern of something manmade caught my eye.

On the floor of the cave was a small metate — a stone with a concave upper surface used for grinding grains and seeds. The metate was resting on a pedestal of rocks and was as white and clean as if its owner had prepared breakfast on it that morning, then rinsed it off before going out into the world. I had seen dozens of metates displayed in museums and private collections before, but removed from their proper places — stolen, really — they had lost their significance and seemed nothing more than curious stones. Here, though, the metate truly seemed as though it belonged to somebody. More than just a stone, it was a tool turned to man’s use and worn smooth by his hunger. I ran my hand over the dish of the metate and felt what it must have been like to depend entirely upon the providence of the earth to fill your needs. Here, out in the open for anyone to see, was proof that another human lived, worked, and ate in this place. By touching the metate in its proper setting, I had made a kind of connection between me and the metate's owner. Even though I knew it wasn't so, somehow it seemed like that person might still be in Canon Tajo — perhaps up on the ridges hunting bighorn sheep — and that when he came home, he would need this metate. I left it exactly as I had found it.

We must have hiked ten miles that day, which, in country as rough as that, seemed like a long way indeed. The wind had blown hard all day, leaving our nerves frayed in that peculiar way only the wind can. Though we weren't physically tired, the concentration required to watch and plan literally every step we took had left us mentally exhausted — addled and goofy. We bathed in the creek and made camp on a sand-y beach protected from the wind by rocks and blue palms. That monolithic block of white granite overlooking all of Canon Tajo was looming above us now, its summit perhaps 1500 feet higher than we were. We could pick out features on the wall of the rock — small pinyon trees growing from its cracks, and even one palm — yet somehow the mass of the rock still seemed as far away as the moon.

After supper, Archie, still troubled, muttered to himself for a while, then crawled into his bag and went to sleep long before dark. He'd never been on a trip like this before. Every step he'd taken up the canyon had been an act of faith — in us, in nature, and in himself. Or maybe he just didn't care. Palmer and I stayed up late retelling old stories, the way old friends will.

Randall Henderson, who founded Desert Magazine in 1937, made hundreds of journeys into the deserts of Southern California and Baja. In an era before four-wheel-drive vehicles, he and his intrepid friends would gather in El Centro, Henderson’s home, pile into a Model A Ford adapted for desert travel with oversize tires, and drive as far as they could get up the dry desert washes before their rig bogged down in the sand. Then Henderson and his friends would get out and walk up the remote canyons, many of which had gone unexplored since the days when the Cocopas called them home.

Henderson became the most knowledgeable desert rat of his era and wrote dozens of articles about his adventures. Even today, anyone wishing to explore the deserts of Southern California and Baja would do well to begin by reading Henderson’s writings, now nearly fifty years old.

In 1947 Henderson visited Canon Tajo and was so impressed with its charms that he called it the Grand Canyon of the Sierra Juarez and wrote, “If the commissioners who established the boundary between Baja and Alta California had moved the line a few miles farther south and left Tajo Canon on the north side of the border, I am sure this canyon would long ago have been set aside as a national monument.”

Maybe it’s best that Canon Tajo, by lying some forty miles south of the border, escaped being designated a U.S. national monument. After becoming a national monument, it would soon become famous, and that fame would require that a road be built to it. After the road was finished, tourists would begin flocking to the canyon. The tourists would need rest rooms to relieve themselves after riding several hours over rough and winding roads. They would also need an air-conditioned visitor's center to help them interpret an environment somewhat more foreign to them than the inside of an automobile. Residences for the rangers, maintenance workers, and naturalists would have to be built. A gas station, store, and camping ground would soon be added, followed by a motel, restaurant, and curio shop. A swimming pool, tennis court, post office, art gallery, sewage treatment plant, disco, and the other necessities of civilization wouldn’t be far behind. But as it is, sheltered by its relative anonymity — and more importantly, by miles of roadless Mexican desert — Canon Tajo is better protected than any park or monument within the U.S. National Park system.

Tlhe next morning at dawn, it began raining in big, warm, sloppy raindrops that splattered when they hit our sleeping bags. We opened our eyes enough to see that there were stars in the sky. Apparently the bad weather was being blown over Canon Tajo from the Sierra Juarez. “It can’t be raining," Palmer and I agreed and promptly went back to sleep.

An hour later when we crawled out of our wet bags, an almost eerie calm had settled over the canyon. Maybe it seemed so quiet because the w ind had pelted us with sand for the previous twenty-four hours and there had been a constant howling in the upper canyon all day and night. Now it seemed as though the canyon had accepted our invasion or, like a sulking child, was trying a different tactic to get what it wanted — to be left alone. Though the silence was peaceful, in a way it demonstrated at least as effectively as the wind had how insignificant we really were here.

Archie took the change in weather to be a good omen. “You know," he said, cutting off his mustache with the scissors on a Sw iss army knife, “after she slept with what’s his name, I asked her if she liked it. She said yeah. I asked her if it was 'cause it was him or just because it was somebody new. She said probably both. Maybe I just oughta become somebody else.”

“Archie,” I said, rummaging through his pack for our breakfast, “do you want powdered milk with your granola, or do you just wanna eat it plain?"

We set off that morning, leaving our packs behind, to explore the upper canyon. Our legs were stiff and sore, and we had to start out slowly. Palmer was in the best shape of the three of us. Just a week earlier, he had run a sixty-mile man-against-horse race, and out of 200 entries, I believe he finished eighth overall, including the horses.

“You know what’s different about the desert in Mexico?” Palmer asked. “What’s that?”

“You don't have military jets screaming over your head all day long.”

He was right. I don’t know of any wilderness you can go to in the United States that the military pilots don’t know about. It’s technically against the rules for them to play with their billion-dollar toys over wilderness areas within the national parks, and administrators of a few parks have been complaining to the military for years about the violations of wilderness privacy. But to no avail. Mexico’s deserts, though, are perfectly quiet.

About a mile above our camp, the canyon forked. One fork went north, and one south. The canyon to the south seemed the larger of the two, and what’s more, it led directly below the Chopping Block. So we chose that direction.

The character of the canyon seemed to change as soon as we entered the south fork. Palmer said it reminded him of Zion, in southern Utah. It became narrower and steeper, and the rock suddenly had a reddish tint to it. Chunks of rock as large as houses had broken off from the Chopping Block and littered the canyon floor. Pinyon trees like green flames, flickered on the canyon walls above us. Thick stands of shiny yerba santa grew in the sunshine. The creek began to flow intermittently again, and on one dry wash, I discovered the fresh tracks of a bighorn sheep. Without even knowing it, we had probably been driving them up the canyon all morning.

Upper Canon Tajo showed no evidence of human habitation. It is truly a place where few humans have been. We had come here for precisely that reason, and now we could feel it all around us. We talked less and spent more time letting our instincts explore the unknown. We split up and wandered off to be by ourselves for a while, to absorb the strength that can be gotten from a place where men are not important.

I climbed up the side of the canyon to a point where I emerged from the old, dark, metamorphic rock, which most of the canyon consists of, and entered the newer, white granite that had intruded up through it. It is this clean, youthful rock that gives the Chopping Block, El Tajo, its character and charisma. While the older, metamorphic rock shows the weariness of its tortured past, the newer rock of El Tajo is full of sparkling youth and naive exuberance.

The resident deity of El Tajo, I quickly learned, wasn't about to reveal any of its secrets to me. I was nothing more than a tourist here, just passing through. Still, by standing in the shadow of El Tajo, I had come to the turning point in our pilgrimage into the wilderness. I had come to the oracle, and the oracle was telling me, with its indifference, that if I stayed a few thousand years more, a few words might pass between us.

Maybe it is our religious tradition that creates the barrier between us and nature. We sense the earth’s power yet prefer to describe it in terms of aesthetics — colorful sunsets, the aroma of pine, the music of running water. We are mistrustful of any god without the capital “G.” We fear that animism, which is nothing more than an awareness of the power of the earth, might be some sort of witchcraft or pagan idolatry.

We’ve only been on this continent some 500 years now, and we haven’t quite finished unpacking our Old World baggage. We still don’t see that holiness is only relative to place and that all healing comes from the earth. We know enough at least to try to preserve our wonders of nature in the form of national parks, yet we haven’t recognized them yet for the truly sacred places they are.

Sitting there below El Taajo, surrounded by the first scattering of pinyon pines, I remembered something an Indian friend of mine had once told me. His grandmother was an Owens Valley Paiute, and she grew up in that valley before the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power sucked it dry. One of the staples in the diet of the Owens Valley Paiutes in those days was the pinyon nut. But pinyon trees don’t produce seeds every year, so being dependent upon them was a bit precarious. When my friend was a small boy, he asked his grandmother how the people knew when the pinyon trees would produce nuts. Her reply was, “The pinyon trees only produce nuts when we need them.”

Canon Tajo is paradise or hell, depending on how much knowledge and grace, and perhaps faith, a person brings to it. In the winter, a shelter on the south side would be miserable and unlivable. while the north side would be bathed in warm light. To an impatient traveler, the agave plant, with its spearlike leaves, is an instrument of torture, while to a resident, it is providence itself, providing at least three sources of food. Everything in nature has this dual quality, paradise or hell. We haven’t begun to understand this continent we live on; we spend most of our time trying to convert the hell to heaven, rather than accepting the paradise that already is. Until we learn the grace necessary to live in this place, we're all tourists here, just passing through.

You know something?" Archie said, spitting out his wad of Copenhagen as though he had finally drawn all the meaning he could from it. “I’m sick and tired of hearing myself talk about her.” The fact was that Archie hadn't been talking about her. He hadn't been talking about much of anything since we'd left the upper canyon and started home. His outburst now, as we slowly picked our way back down the canyon, had surprised us. Earlier that afternoon he had found a piece of Indian pottery as big as his hand, but the find hadn't excited him, and he continued walking as though it had only disturbed his concentration.

"Nothing's gonna change," he said. "She’s not coming back. I know that now, and I might as well forget her."

“All right!" Palmer said, with his distinctive giggle, recognizing that for Archie, this was a major breakthrough.

"I figure when I get back to Prescott," Archie said with slow determination, "I’m gonna find me some big ol' gal who'll take me home and love me to death ”

Palmer slapped his big friend on the shoulder. "Goddamn!" he said. “We’d just about given you up for dead. You might live through this after all.”

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