THE FIRST TIME
Articles by Richard McCord
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.
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."
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.
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."
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?"
then you don't live in New Mexico," I deduced.
this is my first trip to the West."
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.
my God," she gasped. "I've never seen anything like this."
I envied her. She was on the edge of one of life's truest thrills,
which can come only once: The First Time.
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.
only heard of these things," she said with appropriate awe. "I've
always lived in Boston."
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.
not staying in Albuquerque," she replied. "I'm going to a place
called Shiprock. Have you heard of it?"
I was astonished. "What takes you to Shiprock?"
be working in the Shiprock hospital for a month. I'm driving straight
there from the airport in a rented car."
the Indian Health Service Hospital?" I felt the brooding mystery
of the reservation. "With the Navajo?"
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."
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.
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
I envied her. One of life's truest thrills.
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.
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
I hope so," she said, her eyes bright and ready. "I hope so."
But I had no doubt, for I knew.
Articles by Richard McCord