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Rio Pueblo

22 May 2005

Near Sipapu, NM

I woke up in the middle of the night to the roar of incessant traffic. It was hard to get my head up off that pillow. Like pulling a small bush up by the roots. Lots of resistance, lots of connections.

When I was a kid I used to lie back in the dark and listen through the always open windows to the traffic on old Hwy. 81, before the Interstate. Back then, everything had to come through town. All those big semis slowing down and speeding up again, complaining with a clatter that blended in the distance into a rhythmic roar. Like the ocean. Like the sea. Like a tide coming in, lapping and rising remorselessly closer and closer to my bed. I knew in my heart that one night it would reach me, and off I'd go, floating away to a life of mysterious adventures and dangers.

Sometimes I could hardly wait.

I read a letter from Scott Fitzgerald once, in his own illiterate scrawl. Some housewife had written him asking for advice, telling him about her wistful attempts at writing. She said she couldn't seem to make much progress against the demands of love and duty made by her family. The only time she could write, she said, the only time she could concentrate, was when everyone else was asleep, at three in the morning.

"In the dark night of the soul," he replied, "it is always three o'clock in the morning."

All very well for him.

But my sympathy was with the housewife. In the actual middle of the night, the metaphor is concrete. It may be then that you get your best ragged chance to escape for a moment the mirage of who you think you are. Fresh from dreams, slowly putting the parts together again, you may glimpse, from the corner of your eye, who you really are.

Who you have always been. Who you might yet be.

But it's darned hard to remember later. Especially with that incessant roar. Jesus.

I threw back the covers. Yes, covers. I'm up at 9000 feet, above Taos on Hwy 518, and it's 46 degrees inside the trailer. I arrived yesterday afternoon to a turnout beside the Rio Pueblo.

Wait. What the hell. I see. It is 5:46 in the morning. And I know exactly who I am.

I'm an idiot.

Those rising waters coming to float me away are in my bladder. And that thunderous racket isn't traffic. It's the river. Unnnnnh.

I made a dash for the toilet, hop-hop-hopping on the cold floor. Then I dove into the pillows, pulling the blankets over my head, trying to go back to that place where things made a different sort of sense. Sleep. Sleeeeeeep.

No go.

There's no rhythm to this roar, no ebb and flow. It is not like the ocean at all, nor like traffic, nor like any other familiar comforting thing. It is not a dream. It is an inescapable pressure, boring into your brain. Somehow it seemed pleasant when I first got here. I sat out there for a while. Now there is every chance it may drive me bonkers. Ga-ga. Bleeding nuts. Wacko. Round the bend.

May as well get up, then. And let's get some heat in here.

Coffee. I want coffee.

The Rio Pueblo is one of many perpendicular streams responsible for all the narrow valleys in this part of New Mexico. Usually it is pleasant enough, though fast, and in August you might be able to jump across it in places. If you tried that now you would be lost forever.

This river is completely out of her banks, foaming, turbid, churning, mad with the meltwater. She puts out strong arms, making islands, and long, subtle, supple fingers, probing the land with rivulets that thoroughly explore the meaning of flood before returning to her.

Thick grass hides much of that, which you will discover if you walk out there. Yesterday I watched a Stellar's Jay wading carefully high on the far side, picking up each spindly foot and shaking it before putting it down again.

The nominal but submerged banks, seen only in outline, have calved away in places, and whole groups of trees bend over, limbs and leaves trailing, barely holding on, bowing and bobbing to the beat of the pounding waters.

There seems to have been a lot of snow last winter. It is almost June, but there is still a lot, even down low. I saw thick banks of it under and between the pines, coming over the pass from Mora.

This incredible pandemonium will not be over soon.

The old Greeks put a river in Hades, their rather placid notion of hell. They called it Lethe. Those who drank from it forgot their trials and troubles, forgot their lives, sank into sweet oblivion. No wrath, divine or otherwise, no torments, no fires, no troubling dreams of love lost or gained, no roaring memories came to rescue them.

Hell was a just a place where you finally lost it, once and for all.

But that wasn't a river like this one. Apparently Lethe was never fed by the melt. There is no peace to be found by the Rio Pueblo tonight. These waters uproot. These waters roar.

So this must not be Hades, after all.



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