Fishing the River, Essay by Laurie Doctor

Laurie Doctor, Iris, from the Sketchbook


Fishing the River


I am almost to the New Mexico border where the sign says, in big red letters, “You Are Leaving Colorado.” Further down the road there’s a second sign: “Welcome to New Mexico, The Land of Enchantment.” I have always wondered about that place between the two signs. It is some kind of demios oneiron1, a village of dreams, that does not exist on any map.

Highway 17 is a rural mountain road circling above the Chama River. I have traveled it countless times on my way to teach at Ghost Ranch (named by the Spanish as a place of witches, Ranchos de los Brujos). The spectacle of river, evergreens and aspen glades make frequent stops a pleasure. When I have my son with me, we spontaneously pull off the road to explore a remote fishing spot, or identify a hawk with binoculars.

Rural New Mexican byways are marked with descansos, a pastoral cross with flowers, honoring the resting place of one who has died on the road. Often I have stopped when seeing an old cemetery guarded by iron gates and filled with plastic roses and small figurines of the Virgin Mary. Mary is represented as the Virgin of Guadalupe, “a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.”2 There are many accounts of the apparitions of the Virgin of Guadalupe, going back to the 1500’s. She symbolizes a bridge between heaven and earth. The gravestones have old writing and engravings of crosses, of which I have made many rubbings. New Mexican graveyards are distinct — flavored with Native American and Mexican roots. In this necropolis, New Mexico feels like a different country.

On this trip I am thankfully alone, and it is night. The moon is half full and I have been listening to a recording of Father Thomas Keating talking about the role of mantra in contemplative prayer. I have no intention of leaving my truck to sightsee. But just after climbing the Cumbres Pass I come to a bend in the road and my Toyota 4-Runner skids on loose gravel, going out of control. I have a searingly vivid moment of horror as I am suspended on the edge of the cliff, about to leave ground. I have no memory of the car crashing against rock, or flipping off the cliff. The next thing that I do remember is finding myself in the driver’s seat of my truck, which is sitting vertically up in a pine tree, perched over the river. As if I have been lifted there. I have no sense or memory of violence, only evidence of it in the smashed windows and destroyed rear of my truck. My supplies have fallen out of the back and scattered into the river below. Somehow a treetop holds the weight of me and my truck and keeps us from going the rest of the way down.

Eventually I decide that even if my truck is all smashed up, I may as well get down from this tree. I don’t even consider waiting until daylight. I am concerned about retrieving the materials I have so carefully prepared for teaching, from the river below. The tape I have been listening to is still in the tape player, recalling my mantra: lleve me, lleve me: (take me, take me). I remove the keys from the ignition and the tape from the player, and put them into my purse. I wonder later, do I need to change my mantra, or is it what has saved me?

There are no other humans out there, and my cell phone has no reception. I crawl out the broken doorway with my purse over my shoulder, into the treetop. Climb down the tree in my olive skirt and tangerine blouse, platform shoes- sliding all the way down the mountainside to the river. I step in, feeling icy water on my feet and ankles, holding my skirt. The first thing I find is the stone owl shining white like the moon, on the river bottom. It is
the one that was carved for me by my shaman friend, Jorge Calderon. I reach into the cold water and cup the owl in my hands. With my finger I feel the gouge in the owl’s head and then discover the matted hair on my own, where blood has collected. Me and the owl baptized in the river with blood and water under the half moon.

I am struck by the sudden miracle of having my hands and my eyes unbroken, and the ability to stand and walk and see. I feel my love for this place and the certainty and conviction of getting to Ghost Ranch to teach my class, even without a vehicle, materials or a plan. I am far away from any town, and Ghost Ranch is another sixty miles down the road. I am standing in the river under the silver stars, salvaging tubes of paint, a case of CD’s, and my French press for coffee. The only sound is water rolling over stone. It is the middle of the night in the middle of a river on a rural mountain road. In the moonlight I can see white papers, a stack of them, at the river’s edge. It’s the poetry I have copied for my students. I reach down and carefully gather them in my hands. “The deed took all my heart” reads the first line of Mary Oliver’s poem. I am grateful for the saving grace of this need to fish the river for poetry.

1 Telling Time, Angels, Ancestors and Stories; Nancy Willard, p.46 Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1993
2 Revelation 12:1, St. James Bible

Laurie Doctor

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