MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 52 – Petrified Forest and Painted Desert
Since Michael required little sleep, and our miracle baby was already now sleeping through the night, our routine, while not carefully controlled or so rigid that if we slept late, there was concern, rarely varied, and we were usually on the road by 10:00 a.m. and off on another day’s adventures. The road to Flagstaff took us westward and through land that belonged to one, and then another, Indian tribe, Laguna and Acoma, but there was not a town or pueblo in sight, just bare dusty land, too poor for grazing cattle or growing crops. I could not help but wonder how they managed to eat and drive cars, although most of the local vehicles we met on the road were rusty old pickups, and I queried Billy, with his American History minor. He explained that most just lived off the U.S. Government who placed them on these barren lands that could not support them, so they qualified for our welfare programs.
I could not help but compare them, once again, to the unfortunate black people in those rickety houses perched on cinder blocks, in my much-loved south. The main difference, I could understand was we had fought an Indian War, and the United States Calvary HAD won, but most of these tribes were not among those who had waged such a costly war to keep the White man from settling on land they believed belonged to all. I knew, from my own history classes they believed no one man could own any of the land; rather it was for all men’s use, as were the herds of buffalo. However, none of them, even the most warlike, had a chance against the U. S. Calvary’s firepower. These people were not those brave warriors with frightening painted faces so often depicted in the Hollywood Westerns, rather most were peaceful tribes who tried to coexist with the White man even as they watched their livelihood; the buffalo herds, being slaughtered, mostly for sport, and almost brought to extinction.
There were exceptions to the rule with the Apaches, the Sioux, and a few other tribes, who had killed many of the settlers, and waged fierce resistance to avoid imprisonment behind barbwire fences on the land where they used to hunt and roam free. Only after their defeat, had they given up, mostly on life itself, and they had no choice but to live off the government. I did not resent them one single penny, and am now delighted to see their culture has fascinated another generation, among them many of their old enemies, the White man. It sends chills up my spine to listen to the age-old chants and drums of those who once roamed carefree across this great land.
I find it quite appropriate that now they can make a lot of money with their oil-rich lands in Oklahoma, with their casinos, and now their culture. However, in the mid-sixties, they were still a defeated people, many of them were alcoholics, their only food came from the U. S. Government, healthcare was non-existent, and they sold their wares to the tourists for far less than they were worth.
Billy then told me the story of soldiers called ‘Wind Talkers’ from the Navajo tribe who during World War II used their distinctive language to send messages in a code the Japanese could not decipher, and I already knew about the brave, young Marine who helped to raise the flag on Iwo Jima. Once I saw a movie about his life, and how the government exploited his heroic deeds, and paraded him around the United States, championed as a hero, in an effort to sell War Bonds. After the war was over and his services no longer needed, he had no choice but to come home to the reservation and the poverty of his people. I knew he became an alcoholic and died alone face down in a ditch. I cried when the movie was over and it just reinforced my empathy for these once proud people. Like others, they served their country with pride, and I shuddered, now seeing, for the first time, the conditions in which they had to live.
At the time I did not realize that alcoholism was rampant in the Indian population, but had I known I think I would have cursed the first White man who brought ‘fire water’ to the braves who ruled the plains, hunted buffalo for clothing and food, and longed for peace. Often it backfired on the very men who sold it to them for an outrageous price, or traded it for furs and other paraphernalia worth far more than a bottle of spirits. The Indians, who were not accustomed to drinking alcohol, often thought, after a bottle or two, they were invincible, and with a belly full of cheap liquor they slaughtered the traders, stole all their goods, and often attacked and killed all inhabitants of nearby settlements. Having witnessed, first hand, how alcohol made my own father violent and aggressive, I understood how it happened, just not why. I did not want to see any more villages, and neither did Billy, so our son’s hopes for seeing what he thought was a ‘real’ Indian were as dead as the earth where they had been ‘corralled’. We tried to explain to Michael that the Indians now dressed just like everyone else, but he continued to gaze out the window looking for cowboys and Indians although there was not much to see on the first leg of this day’s ride.
Billy was the one who spotted the sign saying ‘caverns’ off to the left side of the road, although I reminded him of the ‘caverns’ we found in Tennessee. However, not being in any hurry, once again he could not resist the pull of the arrow, and he turned down the dirt road, but this time I did not expect we would find much. I realized since we had not even seen billboards along the highway proclaiming this wonder, it would not be an overly commercialized cavern like Luray in Virginia or Carlsbad in New Mexico. However, it just might turn out to be an interesting diversion, and Michael could use the exercise since he was so bored with the bare landscape. We parked in the visitor’s lot and Billy carried Margie down a trail, again marked with an arrow that had ‘caverns ahead’ painted on it, much like the sign in Tennessee. Michael ran just ahead of us, but I did not worry about him getting too far since he made a habit out of turning around frequently to make sure we were still following him, but he liked to be in the lead.
As he ran down the path, I again had the thought that perhaps I should have brought a harness to keep him safe aboard ship although I hated to see a child trussed like a dog, but he was a typical, curious almost three-year-old, and I worried he would get hurt or worse. The late morning air was pleasant, not too hot, not too cool, and the ground was even, so the walk was not difficult, and I enjoyed being out of the car every so often. Obviously, it was a necessity for our sanity that Michael could run off some of his liveliness, and Billy encouraged him by calling after him, “Run, Michael, run.”
Since he had long ago given up naps as a part of his daily routine, we found if he had some exercise before and after lunch, by late afternoon, with the sun pouring into the car, he would usually fall asleep, at least for a short while, and this made his behavior tolerant during supper.
Finally, we reached the ticket booth, which was nothing more than a ramshackle wooden hut hastily constructed out of two by fours, and Billy asked for brochures before we paid to visit the caverns. We could see the entrance from where we stood and perhaps that was not very smart on the part of the owner, since the only way into these caverns consisted of a steep ladder that led down into a huge hole in the ground, and definitely was not tourist friendly. After we glanced through the brochure, that stated these caverns’ claim to fame was their immense bat population, we both decided we had been a bit hasty in our search for adventure, and thanking the proprietor; we turned away from the cavern and walked back up the trail to our car. Neither of us was big on bats, but Billy was still disappointed he had not found a suitable attraction to visit, and I reminded him the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest would take up most of our afternoon, and perhaps this was for the best. Consoled, back in the car he began to sing ‘Home on the Range’ with Michael when he reached the open highway, and I nursed our daughter who had been awake all morning.
The next town of any size on our route was Gallup, and I expected it would be much like Albuquerque, just a bit smaller, but what we found surprised both of us. This was a real ‘cow town’ with wooden buildings and sidewalks, much like those we had seen in the deserted ghost town on our way to Denver, except the buildings were not quite falling apart, and the highway was the main thoroughfare of the town. Later we found out that Gallup was a popular site for many ‘cowboy and Indian’ movies, and the Hollywood crews even covered the roads with dirt when they were filming.
Everywhere we looked we saw only Native Americans, Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, and others, lolling about the streets, and even sitting on the sidewalks propped up against the wooden buildings, and some did not even try to hide their bottles of ‘firewater’. Could they be drunk? Probably, and this was their ‘escape’ from the poverty that surrounded them. Some had wares to sell, mostly turquoise and silver jewelry and brightly colored blankets, and I wished then we had enough money to buy something from each of them, but our meager purchases could not solve their problems. Billy tried to convince me the Indians probably did not make most of the items, rather they came from Mexico or some other country where labor and materials were cheap, but I preferred to think of these women sitting behind their handlooms weaving the beautiful blankets and meticulously stringing the highly polished beads into necklaces.
Later that evening after we looked at the map we saw that Gallup itself was not on a reservation, rather it sat right smack dab in the middle of many. All the land surrounding the town belonged to the various tribes; just north was an immense Navajo reservation, while to the south was more Navajo land. A Zuni and a large Hopi reservation were just over the border in Arizona, and this was the closest town for all of them. No wonder we did not see any white faces, nor did the people seem to be friendly, rather just stared at us as we drove slowly through ‘their town’. Again, just as I had the day before, I felt like an interloper, but mostly I felt very unwelcome, although I am sure they would have been pleased to take our money. It must have been my guilty conscience working overtime because none stared or even looked in our direction, but still I felt fear, another childhood leftover.
Even as an adult I sometimes had a recurring nightmare that the family of my childhood lived in a log house in the middle of a small tree covered island, surrounded by water shallow enough for a horse to ford. One morning as I slept in my bed, Indians attacked, and I ran through the house looking for a place to hide, knowing if they found me, I would be scalped, or worse. Finally, I crawled up into the top of my closet hidden behind piles of blankets and pillows, and just when I felt safe from discovery, the entire house turned to glass and exposed everyone to the murdering Indians. I always woke up at this point, but I am sure a psychologist would have a field day with this entire sequence, and someday I will have to ask my daughter to interpret my dream.
Perhaps the ‘Indians’ were simply friends and neighbors whose prying eyes sought out the dysfunction in our ‘cabin’, and as I tried to hide the fights and beatings from them, the house turned to glass, and I knew I could not hide anything. That is the way I have always explained this particular dream to myself. I do remember as a small child I saw a movie with painted savages attacking and scalping every man, woman and child in a settlement and in spite of my lifelong empathy for the Indians I still occasionally depicted them through Hollywood’s image on the silver screen. I definitely had a sympathetic fear of all of them, and I really had no desire to stop in Gallup, which obviously, surrounded by reservations, belonged to the Indians. Rather than look for a place to eat lunch there I wanted to continue with our journey, besides it was far too early to be hungry again.
The sights intrigued Michael although there was not a feather in sight, but he wanted to know where the cowboys were since cowboys and Indians went together in his mind. Billy tried to explain that real cowboys were busy at work on the ranches, but that did not satisfy our far too wise son since he had seen two cowboys on our trip so far, and they were not working on ranches. We finally consoled him by telling him to keep looking, and maybe he would find a cowboy on down the road, so with his little face glued to the window we drove out of Gallup.
From there it was a short drive to the Arizona border and The Petrified Forest National Park, which was one and the same with The Painted Desert. We stopped at the Visitors Center and toured their exhibit, not too unlike the exhibit we had seen at The Great Sand Dunes the day before, although the display of petrified wood was much larger and there were a lot more pieces of jewelry available, but at much-inflated prices. I was very glad now Billy insisted on buying the small pendant I was wearing around my neck at our first stop, since we could not have afford to buy even a smaller piece here. Billy thought since the first park was a newly established National Park, we had been fortunate to visit there first, and as it became better known, eventually the prices there would increase too. He picked up a map that warned us to drive slowly, to enjoy the scenery and in bold print not to take any of the wood, since federal law protected it, and there was a huge fine and/or jail time for doing so.
Before we began the tour, we decided to feed Margie her lunch and we could eat the leftover crackers and drink the cokes in the cooler Billy had filled with ice before leaving the motel. It was past lunchtime but there was no place here to get a sandwich, and since I had not wanted to stop in Gallup, again we would have peanut butter crackers and cokes. We always had a big breakfast and supper so this snack would quell our hunger until we reached our motel that evening, although we promised Michael we would stop for ice cream later in the afternoon if we found somewhere to buy it. He was just as happy with the crackers and coke as he would have been with a hot dog and a glass of milk, and the ice cream would give him his needed calcium and mine too!
I had never liked milk, not since the days when it was not homogenized and the cream would rise to the top. As a child, I hated the thought of the cream in my milk and my mother and grandmother would have to take a spoon and skim off any, and all, bits of cream or I would not drink it. The only milk I liked was chocolate in a carton, not home made with Hershey’s syrup, so while carrying and nursing my babies I took calcium tablets to make sure they got enough of the necessary mineral.
Margie was hungry and ate almost half a jar of Gerber strained peaches and Michael finished the rest, at least he got some fruit with his carbohydrate-loaded snack. After changing Margie’s diaper, I took her into the front seat with me to nurse although I did not think she would nurse long before she fell asleep and I was right. When we got to the first stop on our tour map, Billy took her gently from my arms and put her in the car bed so I could get out, read the signs, and enjoy the scenery.
As we slowly drove through the park, we stopped at almost every scenic area marked on the map, and before long realized we would never reach our goal by dark if we did not travel a bit faster. Now, before we left the car, I would read the brochure to Billy, and he would decide if he wanted get out or not, and usually we did. To try to describe The Painted Desert would be like trying to describe the colors in a magnificent painting, only more difficult since Mother Nature’s talent far surpasses anything man can create. It was a beautiful afternoon, and even though we were in the desert, the temperature was relatively cool; Michael did not even perspire as he ran up and down the parking areas working off the energy that only a child can possess. There were no garish colors in the landscape, just soft desert tones of peach, light purple, amber, tan, and soft blue. There was nothing green out here but the other colors made up for the lack of it. There was no water either but we had a cooler full of melting ice, which was fortunate since it was a long drive from the beginning to the end of both parks.
Gradually, without interruption, The Painted Desert became The Petrified Forest and it appeared there were large boulders all along the side of the road, but instead they were trees thousands of years old that had turned into stone. Out here in the park itself the wood was not polished so it was not as appealing as that in the jewelry, but it was indeed impressive just to think these ‘stones’ had once been trees. I will have to admit that after awhile the landscape became monotonous and even Billy thought so as the afternoon wore on, and he drove past most of the places designated as ‘scenic’.
It was nearing dusk and he wanted to get into Flagstaff before dark, so we left the park behind, and with our son now soundly sleeping in the backseat Billy was able to pick up speed as we headed for the Holiday Inn.
Again, we had a room convenient to the car, this one was a bit larger and plusher than those in Albuquerque and Denver were, but Flagstaff was a ‘tourist Mecca’ almost all year round. We were paying for it too since even with our military discount the room was almost twice as expensive as any we had previously stayed in although not nice enough to justify the difference. Following our established routine of showers and a bath and supper for the baby, we were famished as we headed to the dining room after our light afternoon snack of crackers and coke. Seated in a large booth where we could put Margie in her infant seat between us, Michael sat first by his father and then would climb over his sister to sit by me, at least until our meal came, then Billy placed him firmly in the booster seat. I audibly gasped when I saw the prices on the menu! This was by far the most expensive place we had stopped along the way, and as far as I was concerned steak or shrimp was out of the question, but Billy told me to order what I wanted since if we were unable to pay off the entire bill with his travel pay, we could make monthly payments. I did not want to have to make payments since I knew if we had to live on the economy in Hawaii, it would be far more expensive than in Georgia. However, Billy did not want to have to worry about prices and bills, which was typical of him, but he said it would ruin the trip we had been looking forward to for months.
It simply never dawned on him that we barely made it through each month without having extra bills, and left me the only one to worry about how we would pay. He knew that as an officer in the Army he could not afford to fall behind on any of his payments, since it would reflect badly on how he handled his personal affairs if his commanding officer found out. Unfortunately, that was the furthest thing from his mind now, and I could understand he wanted us to have a journey to remember for the rest of our lives. So far, it had been that and more.
While he ordered steak for himself, I told him I was tired of beef and ordered a broiled half chicken with wild rice, which I could share with Michael, giving him the leg, thus not ordering a separate meal for him. I also ordered a fruit salad, instead of the usual tossed salad, which I could also share with our son, and with hot buttered rolls, I had all I could eat and then some. Billy, as usual, ordered the largest T-bone steak on the menu, and although he offered to share it with me, I declined since I really did enjoy the chicken for a change.
Back in our room while I nursed Margie, Billy read a Little Golden Book to Michael, and this night it was once again ‘The Pokey Little Puppy’, which Michael and Billy had almost memorized. Soon our son was fast asleep since he had more exercise this day than on any other day so far. Billy took the baby from me as soon as she had nursed from both breasts, he burped and changed her and laid her on the bed where he tickled her fat little feet as she cooed at her handsome father. At least she already had good taste in men, but it would be hard for her to find a husband as good-looking as her daddy, or who loved her any more. He played with her for about an hour while I read the brochures about The Grand Canyon we picked up in the lobby. Billy had already seen the canyon on the trip with his grandparents, so he was more interested in my reaction to what he called a jaw-dropping sight. Finally, he picked up his daughter, and cradling her in his arms, he rocked her back and forth on the bed with her tiny ear next to his heart and it was not long before she too was fast asleep.
He then turned his attention to the brochures, and to me, and soon we were cuddling and kissing, although I knew it was difficult for him since we still had a few more days before we could make love, but I was well satisfied without consummating our desires since I was still a bit sore. It would not be long now, and we would probably be in a motel in San Pedro when Margie turned six weeks old. As much as I loved my precious Billy and wanted to satisfy his longing, I was not particularly looking forward to the first time making love because of the lingering pain. Honestly, I thought I was being silly since I feared the same thing after Michael was born, and I had no problem. Surely, I was just imagining I might have pain this time. I knew Billy would be ever so gentle, just as he had that fateful day when I gave in to his desires at the copper mine, and then again after Michael was born.
Since we still could not culminate our longings for each other, it was not long before we cut off the light, and with Billy’s arms wrapped around me as usual, we both fell into a frustrated slumber, but not before he assured me that his dreams would be of making love. I did not doubt him – not for one minute, since my own dreams were much the same.