I’m perched on top of a knife edge, a volcanic dike. I’m completely enswathed in solitude for miles in every direction except for the far off, silent glints of the pickups on the highway rattling toward Newcomb, NM. I hiked up toward the Shiprock monolith, its Anglo name, of course. To the Dine’, it has more than one name. To the northeast, the La Platas were already sewn in with snow, the day before All Hallows Eve. Sleeping Ute slept in the north.
The dike stretched south toward Gallup. Up close, its a parapet of battlements. Only these walls rise 65 feet and stand up to 10 feet thick, bearing the impossible lode of the dreams and myths of whole peoples.
The dike seems so small from the road. But when you’re standing in its fins and spires, it’s the Tetons in miniature. Stacks from the Four Corners Power Plant cough out their tornadoes on the horizon. My unaccustomed city eye dimly gathers in my rented Honda Civic a couple miles away in the flat scrub where I abandoned it, a shimmering pin prick just now. It’d taken me as far as it could on the rutty road. I hiked above the high desert floor, where locusts twitched and beetles fiddled in the sand.
I’d followed some cattle down another unpaved road much nearer the monolith, where they poured over a break in the dike, graceful in their distant movements. A strong, steady wind forced me alee along the west face of the dike. The high semi-desert opened up on the west side of the wall. Far in the distance, a pinnacle lay like the hat of a buried witch. Low mounts gathered in the southwest. I didn’t know what they were called. Better they remained nameless. So many ranges like this west of the Rockies. Naming everything, pinpointing coordinates, understanding geological causes just sapped more mystery and gigantism out of the landforms. The hell with that. I just want to picture it, to remember it, keep that space inside myself vast when I’ll feel affronted by all the pettiness again.
A stubby outcropping of sandstone pokes up from the high, undulating plain due south. Another heap of mountains, some teased with snow, rests behind the witch’s hood, southeast. A pair of crows caw to each other, spiraling down the thermals on an invisible staircase. Deer flies bask on the warm kopi of my black Nike sweats, which, along with my green fleece pullover, are my second skin wherever I go. Always seems my nephew, Andy, buys me for Christmas what I sink into comfortably and wear forever. Funny we’re not close.
The monolith has other fantails besides the major dike flowing south for almost two miles, interrupted only by the black highway. Shiprock was an old volcanic neck, made of sturdy igneous rock that resists erosion. It was burping magma back in the Pliocene, over 30 million years ago. The dikes that flow from it in a radial pattern, known as fantails, are the remains of eruptions. The main dike flows south, there’s another one west, one northeast, and one northwest. The geologists call it an igneous intrusion, magma injected into surrounding rock below the earth’s surface. When the soft sediment of the blanketing plains above it weathered away, the hard volcanic rock was exposed. The Navajo call it sa-bit-tai-e, the rock with wings. It was the great bird that brought them from the north. It does seem as if it once flew. Geology or myth. Who knows which story is truer? Maybe they’re both true, and it’s just the strata of the history we choose to study: magma or myth.
I hike around the rock. The monolith is sacred and should not be climbed. Up close, the multiple summits of sharp lava breccia stand like spears of broken glass. One history – the geological – says that they were formed by violent explosions that shattered rock within the volcanic vent. But this happened three thousand feet below the earth’s surface. Steadily the currents of magma rose from underworld to overlord, born so ancient, cured so slow.
I scrutinize at a cross-section of the main dike as I approach the pass through it into the surrounding plain. Below jagged incisors that form the two-mile jaw of a 30 million-year-old beast, gentle folds of talus sweep down, speckled with sage and broken volcanic glass like gaudy diamonds on a woman’s stole. A sleek black spider wasp with iridescent blue-black wings mistakes my shoelaces for a wolf spider and tries to anesthetize my boot with its stinger. The hell if I was gonna go down its burrow without a fight.
I spill down into a boulder field that guards the west approach to the monolith. I crouch down and pick up a blue air freshener, the kind you hang on your rearview mirror. It’s shaped like a Christmas tree.
The dike keeps changing. From head on, it’s the spine of a stegosaur, tapering off on the other side of the highway into its battle-ax tail. The dinosaur must’ve burrowed its head deep within earth’s mantle to try and survive the apocalypse that extinguished its kind. It’s hibernating perhaps, until liberated by wind and sand, waiting ’til the two-leggers forfeit their rein.
Standing in the middle of the boulder field, I scrutinize the stones for the best seat. So many chairs to pick from. I nestle in and contemplate the plains south that heave like vast waves. Far off, another volcanic plug floats in a convoy of landed ships, stranded by the regressing, long ago sea. Still more miles south, another monolith breaks against the sky, shaped like a bar graph. The land rises and falls most of the way to Gallup. Closer still, just a mile or two on the other side of the road, a discontinuous mesa parades by in four pieces.
Orographic clouds hang like a bonnet over the low mountains west. I take it in, scanning the horizons, memorizing the mesmerizing jaggedness and orangeness, inhaling the soft sands that scud against the rocks in the wind. The sun slides lower, and the teeth of the smaller dikes hang gaunt shadows on the floor, in the shapes of evergreens. The very end of the main wall nearest the monolith itself is pocked with kettle holes and a sandblasted turret. Yet the only masons here were the wind and sand, and the gods of the People who came from the north.
I have to drink this place in. Move out into it. Buy land near it. I cling to it. It’s trying to peal me off as I wrap around its stone, afraid of losing it, trying to capture it in a memory or photo frame or transmute it into words that I’ll box in between two covers and preserve in that moment forever and ever, in a kind of ownership. How possessive is my love, a grasping need that understands not its beloved or the lover would see that love has no object, since objects can only be possessed and never really loved. How can these thousands and thousands of majesty miles that shoot out into the void be owned? Even though this scene appears unsubject to the law of time, these lands, too, are in the bed of flux, and so no snapshot of them in word or picture is a sculpture of its eternal now.
Solitude can only be seen in a frame beyond pictures and heard in a language beyond words. It can’t be kept in clocks the way we try to store and spend moments. This place can’t be owned or studied well or understood. It can only be experienced. Yet I’ll try and capture it. When I cling to this place out of fear of losing it, it becomes a mirage of dust. When I stand with it on its own terms, I’m the lover who loves without his object.
I had to come all the way out here just to remember that one thing.
© 2021 by Michael C. Just
Mike’s novel, The Dirt: The Journey of a Mystic Cowboy, is available in softcover or eBook formats through Amazon.
You can purchase the book through this website. Or go straight to amazon at https://www.amazon.com/s?k=the+dirt+journey+of+a+mystic+cowboy&crid=1S40Q4BXSUWJ6&sprefix=the+dirt%3A+journey+of+a+m%2Caps%2C180&ref=nb_sb_ss_i_1_23
Mike’s other titles, including The Crippy, The Mind Altar, and Canyon Calls, are available through Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B002
Two of his short stories have recently been published online. The Obligate Carnivore has been published by the Scarlet Leaf Review @ Category: MICHAEL JUST – SCARLET LEAF REVIEW
I See You, Too has been published by the 96th of October @ I See You, Too – 96th of October