Receding splotches of orange were as lava, flowing down pink slopes of gray mountains. This rhapsodic vision, burning orange alternately brightening and ebbing, was the creation of clouds and sky during minutes post sunset. And with the Sandia Mountains’ bulk to the east, clasped by tree mantle, the span before my sixth-floor hotel window seemed not so much a large city — which Albuquerque is — as a grand oasis in immensity of plateau and plain.

A vastness one must not slight. Just outside Tucumcari, realizing there might not be gas over the 100-mile traverse of the Llano Estacado (the Staked Plains) and up onto the Canadian Escarpment to Las Vegas, N.M., I turned around to fill up. Back out on N.M. 104, vast vistas over the plains astounded.

Living at the bottom of rainy Nashville Basin, sightlines constrained, I was as a fly escaped from kitchen bowl’s bottom, shaking off soggy wings, with room to soar: New Mexico, three times Tennessee’s land area, but having less than one-third its population, has a population density over nine times less that of Tennessee.

From a New Mexican Aspen-edged highland meadow, we see Colorado. There, Mesa Verde would archaeologically articulate for us the 500-year breadth of ancestral Puebloan history that culminated in Cliff Palace. Deeper in time, at Moab, Utah, awe before Archaic and Fremont culture petroglyphs of shamans, bighorn sheep and spirals, and transfixion before three-pronged footprints of a theropod’s 43-inch strides from a day at Jurassic lakeshore.

Calmly the brownish yellow river wrapped around a mesa, inner bank’s greenery hugging gray talus strewn slopes, detritus from edges of mesa’s smooth gray top. Canyon rim’s sandstone walls made a sheer-faced plunge. Below that stony dive, yet far above river, an unlikely Jeep path lay etched across tan mesa. Upriver horizontal bands of strata climbed — pausing for broad mesa shelves — to canyon’s top. Spellbound, eyes always returned to the meandering Colorado, 2,000 feet below, at Dead Horse Point, Utah.

Crossing into Arizona, Monument Valley’s monoliths, uniting sky with land, were horizon, at center between cumulus puffs and highway’s miles-long ribbon. Driving toward Tuba City, Navajo land to right, Hopi to left, I could see to the west, over 50 miles away, the broad mount of the Kaibab Plateau, the higher, northern rim of the Grand Canyon; below the outlined plateau’s left flank would lie the Colorado. To the southwest, over 65 miles away, San Francisco Mountain peaks pierced horizon.

Son William stood at the rim, iconic desert tower behind him, below the Grand Canyon, and beyond, plateau’s rip marking the canyon of the Little Colorado River. Alone before the expanse, we are not diminished but strengthened. Dross of the artificial eroded away, as water erodes canyon, we realize our core bedrock of the natural. And the natural fueling mind, body and soul more than does the artificial, the profound tetra dimensions of Southwestern breadths, heights, depths and time make us mightier, expanding consciousness.

Before which, proclamations back East of “I am a liberal” or “I am a conservative,” ring tantamount to wars between Lilliput and Blefuscu over whether one should break an egg at the big end or small end, for they practically guarantee that thought will skim across superficies, not reaching the expansive dimensions nor nuanced strata possible to minds unbound from narrowed constraint.

Fred Jordan, who teaches history at Nashville State Community College, made a family road trip in June to New Mexico and the Four Corners area.

(2) comments

Sabra Gibson

Thank you for this oasis of beauty, this sacred pause!

KIM shanahna

Fred, come back to New Mexico and switch your teaching from history to creative writing. What a beautiful tribute to the Southwest that we all love.

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