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Wild Horses

30 June 04

Near the Colorado border

Since I never unhooked, it wasn't hard to get away from Conchas Lake in the morning. I just made some coffee, scattered toast to a few rather pushy ground squirrels, and was on my way.

As I came through Las Vegas, the parking lots looked fresh, but not drowned. I ate lunch at a Mexican restaurant catty-corner to the Walmart. I'd never had a Zia taco before, which I take to be a local dish. It is a kind of open faced burrito. You start with a piece of Navajo frybread big as a plate. Then you pile on shredded roast beef, beans, onions, tomatoes, lettuce, and cheese. Then you smother it all in green chile. Sopapillas on the side.

Man, do Mexicans know how to eat.

Angel Fire is the address for something everyone should see. Especially if, like me, they grew up in the 60s. Here in 1968, on a hill with a sweeping view of the valley below, Dr. Victor Westphall built a chapel in memory of his son, an army lieutenant killed in Vietnam the year before. It is a single large room, built of concrete, painted white. From without you get the impression of a great bird about to take flight. In 1983 the chapel was rededicated as the National Vietnam Veterans Memorial. A small museum and some statuary have been added, including a helicopter seemingly caught at the moment of impact.

In the museum there is a hall where banners hang, representing all the units that served there. To the side, in a very small room, is the heart and soul of the site. Back in there a continuous movie runs, covering the history of those years. Spliced into this film are many a home movie and on-site vignette shot by the soldiers themselves. Laughing, drinking, showing off.

On the walls are letters home.

They look so young. They were. There is a shyness there, and the nervousness and bravado of kids a long way from home. Later some of the eyes grew cold. These were my friends, my schoolmates. Seeing their faces, I feel that shock of recognition that is shared by those who grow up together. They will never grow older. And I will never be that young again.

Come and see. You cannot leave this place unshaken.

Towards evening, on a deserted highway a little south of Costilla, I came to a dead stop to watch a band of wild horses cross the road. There were seven of them, including a couple of half-grown colts.

I don't know exactly why I think they were wild. It's an impression grown from a bunch of things, seen very quickly. Most horses you see are solitary. These were part of a group. They were small, lean, skinny, unshod, a little shaggy. Their backs unbowed. Mostly it was a matter of how they moved and held themselves. They were about their own business. They had a light step, and a purposeful manner. They were intensely aware of each other, and hardly paid me any mind at all.

All but one had already crossed over, and were waiting on the east side. The laggard had stopped on the west shoulder to sniff and snuffle something in a small pile of rocks. The lead horse turned and raised his head, said something directed right at her. She looked up, her nose quivered, and quick as that she danced across the road. Right in front of me.

There are no fences here. They lined out immediately for the mountains, more or less single file. Not running, but moving with an easy mile-eating economy of motion that was in itself an inspiring sight. Soon they disappeared to dots.

I turned around and went back about a mile to a marshy lake by the side of the road, and spent the night there. I hoped to see their like again, but I did not.

Now I have this memory, which may have come merely from an old movie or fairy tale, that members of some primitive tribe, on the lookout for a Name to flesh out their narrow lives, paid close attention to certain totemic animals they met along the way. Perhaps, if the person had been smoking weed, or hadn't eaten in a while, the animals would speak to him, or even render aid. In gratitude, that person might thereafter take a name in memory of the event, such as Black Elk, or Crazy Dog, or even Dances With Wolves. Such names were reputed to have transformative power.

These horses were impressive, but I think I'll have to pass. They did not speak to me. Or even notice me much. Besides, the last thing I really saw was the west end of an east-bound horse, running away.

What kind of a Name could I make out of that?


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