By Richard McCord

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Flight 297 from Chicago to Albuquerque hit turbulent air over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and the seat-belt light flashed on. I put aside my magazine and gazed down at the 12,000-foot peaks, white with snow. We would be landing in 10 minutes, and I would just look out the window till then.

"How odd," I mused. "I've just spent three weeks in the northland-Minnesota, Chicago, Wisconsin-yet the only snow I've seen is back home in the Southwest, in New Mexico."

"Can you tell me what we're looking at?" asked a voice on my right. She was a pretty, dark-haired young woman, a student perhaps. Until now she had been reading a book.

"Yes, I think so," I replied, pleased that by now I knew the terrain well enough to identify the landmarks 15,000 feet below. "That's Interstate 25 to Santa Fe, and those are the Sangres, of course. The mountains up ahead are the Ortiz."

'No, that's not what I mean," she said. "Can it really be as dry as it looks? Doesn't anything grow? What are those black dots? And where are all the houses?"

"Oh, then you don't live in New Mexico," I deduced.

"No, this is my first trip to the West."

The plane banked. Our wing dipped, and the window opened onto a vast panorama, of desert and mountain, sun and cloud, snow and shadow and rock, engulfing hundreds of square miles.

"Oh, my God," she gasped. "I've never seen anything like this."

How I envied her. She was on the edge of one of life's truest thrills, which can come only once: The First Time.

Eagerly she stretched across me for a better view. The black dots, I told her, were trees: juniper and pinon. She could not believe they were so far apart. Yes, the ground was as bare as it seemed, I said. It grew only sage and sere grass, as brown in winter as the soil itself. I pointed out an arroyo. After a rain, I said, it would flow like a river.

"I've only heard of these things," she said with appropriate awe. "I've always lived in Boston."

"What will you do in Albuquerque?" I asked, suddenly fretful that she might pass all her visit within the city limits, plunging no deeper into New Mexico than Old Town.

"I'm not staying in Albuquerque," she replied. "I'm going to a place called Shiprock. Have you heard of it?"

"Shiprock!" I was astonished. "What takes you to Shiprock?"

"I'll be working in the Shiprock hospital for a month. I'm driving straight there from the airport in a rented car."

"In the Indian Health Service Hospital?" I felt the brooding mystery of the reservation. "With the Navajo?"

"Yes, that's right. I've learned the Navajo words for 'hello,' 'please' and 'thank you.' But I'm told that Shiprock is really different. Just a couple of traffic lights. And so far away from everything. I hear you can't even get television there."

Total immersion. Her first Western experience was going to be total immersion. I tried to put myself in her place for the next four hours, the next 250 miles, of her life. It took my breath away.

Just west of Albuquerque on Interstate 40 she would first meet desolation. It might frighten her, but she would be safe enough. Then the graceful adobe dwellings of Laguna Pueblo would pass to the north. She would cross the tip of the black lava sea called the Malpais, near Grants. Towering red-rock cliffs would see her into Gallup. Then a darker desolation into Shiprock. And all of it for the first time.

Yes, I envied her. One of life's truest thrills.

I promised she would feel the looming presence of the ancient volcano cone called Shiprock long before she reached the town itself. Whatever else you do, I urged, don't miss Monument Valley. Get a Navajo friend to take you there. And all by yourself some night, just stand under the stars.

"After your month in Shiprock," I said, "you will not be the same. This land will be part of you, and then you'll come back, again and again."

"Oh, I hope so," she said, her eyes bright and ready. "I hope so." But I had no doubt, for I knew.

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