I’ll never forget the day looking over the rim of sandy Chaco Canyon.
“Oh, we’re so lucky to be here!” she said.
I agreed and recalled looking around with wonder at red flat-topped mountains, distant green pines climbing high, and even Mt. Taylor far in the distance, its perfect conical shape, a fixture steeped in Navajo legend. Are anymore of these wonderful mornings waiting for me in the future, or did this place of mystery and beauty mark the last.
I watched her happily clap her hands and try to gather the morning into a memory. I didn’t tell her about another morning when I’d awakened to watch distant Lanai in new sunlight. The small island lay across a stretch of water with humpback whales cavorting somewhere beneath the surface. On this day, none broke the deep blue, but just the day before by fluke or divine design, I dived next to a mother and her calf. A morning later, I hiked alone along a trail that led into a true American rainforest, among animals and insects predating man’s arrival to the volcano. On Monday, I went back to work in Honolulu, the city no slouch in the scenery department either.
Not long before that day in Hawaii, and on yet another morning filled with promise and fear, my brand new copilot and I flew beneath a tiny rainstorm. We ducked under an offending cloud in a place called Elephant Valley. There ahead of me lay a circular rainbow, a supernatural phenomenon amidst an ugly war.
A perfect halo for imperfect men.
Half naked people toiled below, knee deep in rice paddies, their water buffalos and children working beside them. They never looked up, and frankly I didn’t blame them, not then and not now. The rainbow meant little to them.
I won’t forget a morning on a Carolina beach where Herb and I spent the night in my dad’s station wagon. We rolled up into sleeping bags and tried our best to share a case of beer. Eighteen year olds, right? The night before we’d graduated from high school, and somehow got permission from the colonel and the major to spend the night cavorting with the rest of our high school graduating class. But, no one else showed. A better offer emerging that we’d not heard. Herb and I stayed there, anyway, lasting the night, hidden from the mosquitoes and no-see-ums. A year later, he was dead in a place where rice tractors looked a lot like water buffalos .
There’d been an earlier time in another place with late night air cool and clinging to the inside of an encircling fog. A Great Lake beach, my new swim team and a challenge to the new guy. Go and touch the bell on the buoy, they told me. That I couldn’t see the bell because of the fog meant little. The whole team would race together. The bell was there. Great fun. The shipping lane wasn’t too far beyond and I’d seen the bobbing yellow and red object before. I wasn’t worried. I was the new guy.
There’s no audio in a swim race. The sounds are bubbles in the ears and breaths in your mouth. Very soon after we stripped and started, there was also no other splashes near me. No swimmers and no beach. I couldn’t see the horizon, in front of me or behind me. Which way was which? I called out, and no answer. No giggles or laughs. The new guy. The unknown guy. The transient guy. The outside guy. The disposable guy.
Was there a bell? I don’t know. I don’t recall ever hearing the bell now, because when the world disappeared in a circle of black mist, so did I.
For every morning horizon I’d ever see, for every sunrise that crested distant pinion trees or that illuminated a distant island, I’ll forever rejoice that somehow and in some way, a direction chose me.
As a I swam arm over arm, the sand touched my finger tips first. Even if I still couldn’t see a shoreline, at least I could stand. Sort of. My skin, shriveled and taunt welcomed the warmth of the cooler night. The shaking wouldn’t stop. Soon enough, I found land.
No shore lights meant I’d lost my way. A moment of walking back and forth on lake rocks and the reason became clear. The tall cliff’s of Lake Erie and a steel factory lay above me. I’d drifted far to the east. For how long, I hadn’t a clue. I had been scared. Another bell clacked dully in the distance. I called and called, but I was alone. No team, no boys or girls, no other sounds… and no clothes.
Walking on strange streets, barefoot and in my underwear, the fog hid me. I found my way home, the joke was on me. The lack of clothes didn’t seem to surprise my dad. He just shook his head. Another disappointment. My mother demanded to know, who had done such a thing. Why, me and who else? I couldn’t tell. Embarrassment replaced raw fright.
And it’s funny, but my teammates never mentioned the wonderful evening, either. They never talked about the great time and how lucky we were to live on the doorstep of a wonderful lake. What fun it was to make a fool of the new guy.
I swam out the season, transferred to another school that didn’t have a swim team, and tried never to look back.
When I saw that New Mexico morning and breathed in the sage, the night in Lake Erie never occurred to me. Neither did the days when salt spray wetted my face stepping from island rock to island rock. I’ll never forget the joy of sharing beers with a friend even when others in the class left us behind. I don’t think too often about being the butt of a joke, and I’ve been in on some pranks, but I never forgotten the round rainbow in an unlucky land.
On most days, I get up in the morning to see dark gray covering the little farm. The sun hasn’t risen but I’m not frightened anymore. Sometimes, I can watch the moon, a ghost waiting to slip away in the day. Goats and chickens and ducks eventually make their noise inside the barn and wait, anxious to be released. Predators ease back into the woods, watching.
I never impressed the young woman in Chaco. I don’t remember her, nor she me. I hope she’s as lucky and doesn’t need any memories. My life lays ahead of me, and except for this morning when I remembered that cold lake, I’ll sit and wait for the day’s treasures to come.