by Helen Sinoradzki
“. . . you have to get used to an inhuman scale; you have to understand geological time.”
Wallace Stegner, “Thoughts in a Dry Land”
Holy Saturday morning. Byron and I sign the register at Bandelier National Monument for the 22-mile round-trip hike to Painted Cave. We tighten the straps on our backpacks, hike out of Frijoles Canyon, and settle into a rhythm of ascent, bodies leaning slightly forward against the pull of our packs. By the time we reach the mesa between Lummis and Alamo Canyons, the clouds have moved in. The rain starts, just a mist at first, becoming thicker until the dust turns a darker brown. Alamo Canyon is a tapered slash. I imagine that when we reach the bottom, we will be able to stretch our arms out and touch the rocks on the other side. The carved layers make geological time real. The steep switchbacks shove my toes forward in my boots. A lizard scuttles across the trail. Small stones roll under our feet. At each turn of the switchbacks, the rocks make irregular steps down that jar our knees.
We make the top of Alamo panting. My thigh muscles burn. The rain is serious now. When we reach the Stone Lions Shrine, we don’t linger, even though the shrine is a sacred place. The lions, the only rock formations of this kind in the monument, look like boulders with tails. The rain turns the stone slate grey.
By the time we head down into Capulin Canyon, where we will make camp, my flannel shirt is sodden, my jeans plastered to my legs. Water drips off my hat brim and down my neck. We find the campsite and get the tent up. My teeth chatter. I strip and get in the sleeping bag. Byron brings me sweet tea and soup, then zips his sleeping bag to mine and undresses. He spoons me until I drowse while the rain drums the tent. His skin is warm, a little damp. My body unclenches, presses closer to his. We breathe together. Time slows.
The Holy Saturday Easter vigils of my childhood. The church was dark and hushed as if we were all holding our breath. We each had a small unlit candle set in a white cardboard holder. At the back of the church, the priest lit the paschal candle. An altar boy carrying a crucifix atop a tall pole walked down the aisle, followed by the priest, who carried the candle. Another altar boy swung a censer and a cloud of incense surrounded the candle and drifted through the air. The priest stopped three times as he walked down the aisle. Each time, he sang lumen Christi, light of Christ. Altar boys with tapers went to each pew and lit the candle of the first person, who passed the light on until the whole church glowed. Time slowed until the eternal came near. For years I believed I could carry that long moment into my ordinary life. It never lasted.
Easter morning. The rain is gone. We walk the bottom of Capulin Canyon to see the pictographs in Painted Cave, a giant amphitheater fifty feet above the trail. The back wall is a gallery of figures and symbols painted in black, white, and red ocher, a deeper red than the rock itself—the sun with three lines radiating in the four directions, human figures with spears, open-mouthed wolves, deer in flight, Kokopelli and his flute. In the hardscrabble life of the Anasazi, someone made time for these images.
We strike camp and hike back to the Visitor Center under a high blue sky. Each needle and leaf has been washed. We take the easier route at the other end of Alamo Canyon where charred ponderosa pine from the 1977 fire still stand. Closer to the ground, the Gambel oak and aspens have returned. I sing hymns from childhood Easters and almost believe in resurrection.
The red-gold walls of Zion National Park loom over us. In the early morning, the air is still cool. We swig water from our canteens, settle our packs, and take our first steps on the trail from the canyon floor to Angels Landing. We are sweating when we reach Scout Lookout. Off to the side, there’s a narrow path. A chain is drilled into the rock.
“They can’t possibly expect us to climb that,” I say. I’m a flatlander from Ohio. When I first moved to the desert Southwest, the landscape was alien in every way. I didn’t recognize the stunted trees and bushes. After the soft rounded foothills of the Appalachians, the mountains were high and forbidding. So were the violent purple thunderstorms, their lightning fast and jagged, their clouds releasing water that poured down the arroyos. The thinner air caught in my chest and pinched the inside of my nose until it bled. I wanted to go home.
Byron, who grew up in the mountains of Colorado, says, “I don’t see another path,” and grabs the chain. I follow him, rust from the chain turning my hands the color of the rock. We scrabble, our backs hunched, our knees aching. I can’t look out.
On hands and knees, we make the top. We are 1400 feet above the canyon floor. Standing up is an act of faith. The trail goes along the center of a spine, a narrow fin that demands we watch each footstep on the uneven rocks. In my head, words from a psalm, “I will lift up my eyes to the mountains.” I left my childhood faith when I was twenty-one, but the words are still there, as is the longing to be lifted up. The ambivalence is there, too, the wish to be rid of this longing that has plagued me since my faith died. Byron snaps pictures. I envy him his scientist’s rationality, his lack of need for faith, but he will never capture these rocks, their contours and colors, their edges and shadowy crevices.
In my early thirties, I tried other churches. At an evangelical service, I stood amazed as all around me people sang, cried out, and waved their arms. I tried the words to an alien hymn and lifted my arms hoping to catch the wind of the spirit that seemed to fill the church, but it passed me by. I imagined attending a Quaker service and didn’t go. I was afraid of the long periods of silence. They would only remind me of all my failed attempts at meditation. At the Unitarian church my heart lifted when we sang “Morning Has Broken,” but faltered at the words, “where His feet pass.” I went to a Catholic Mass for the first time since I had lost my faith. Everyone lined up to take Communion. I couldn’t join them. I couldn’t dishonor the sacrament I once believed in.
The Bryce Canyon National Park brochure gives human names—Wall Street, Thor’s Hammer, the Poodle—to the rock sculptures, the hoodoos carved over centuries by wind and rain. From the rim, the names make sense. Below the rim on Fairyland Loop, ordinary time falls away as if it were dropped into a canyon. As we hike, any thought of humanizing the landscape disappears. Above us, the cloudless blue of the desert sky. Around us the rock—stacked, slabbed, carved—unnameable.
At a museum in Santa Fe, an exhibit of Helen Cordero storytellers, clay figures she fashioned to honor her grandfather, a Cochiti Pueblo teller of stories. Her figures sit, their legs straight out in front of them, the soles of their boots visible. Eager to hear their stories, clay children stand near each storyteller’s knees, cling to his back, sit on his shoulders, pat his face. Some of the children hold animals. Cordero says that the figures’ mouths are open because they are singing and their eyes are closed because they are praying.
The storyteller Byron bought me, made by an Isleta Pueblo artist, is a small figure with dark hair, a grey and white robe, and a one-strand necklace of turquoise beads. One child sits on her lap holding a bear cub. All three figures have their eyes closed and their mouths open.
In a gallery in Taos, a collection of coyote sculptures. In Native American mythology, coyotes are tricksters. These coyotes fit the bill. Their snouts are shaped to whistle a mysterious song. Some wear striped jester hats. They are all wrapped in ceramic blankets. I buy two and set them facing each other so they can scheme together. I imagine that someday I will overhear them.
On Canyon Drive in Santa Fe, pots made by Iris Nouvelle, a member of the Nampeyo family of potters. A pot that is one of the colors of a desert dawn has an irregular oval lip. A clay ear of corn rises on its side as if the pot has given birth to it. From the ends of the corn, a paler slip tapers as it circles the pot. I cup it in my hands and breathe in, hoping the spirit of slow time will come to me from the potter’s hands.
Byron and I walk down a sloping path to an overlook. Cliff Palace lies below us, a fortress the Anasazi built without mortar, piling stone on stone, chinking in the holes with smaller stones. Standing there, I slip into a different time, slow as the seep of water in the shade of the back wall, where desert varnish has turned the rock the color of mahogany. I touch the water where it pools.
I peer through rectangular windows into small, dark storage rooms where the dust lies undisturbed. A wooden ladder leads down into a round kiva, a place used for religious ceremonies. Once it had a roof. Now it is open to the desert air. I climb down the ladder. There is a rectangular opening in the wall of the kiva to let air in. In a line with a fire pit and a slab to deflect air from the fire, someone has dug a small cup of a hole, a sipapu, a place where the natural world and the spirit world connect. I stand near the sipapu. The hole seems too small to hold such power, but for the time I am there, I believe it can.
HELEN SINORADZKI has published fiction and narrative nonfiction in various journals including Alligator Juniper and Pithead Chapel. She has written a memoir about her experiences in a Catholic cult. An English teacher turned technical writer turned indie bookseller, she now writes full-time. She was prose co-editor for three issues of VoiceCatcher. A native Ohioan, who has lived in nine states, she moved to Portland, Oregon, almost twenty years ago and plans to stay for the rest of her life.