The Last Cheater's Waltz: Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwestby Ellen Meloy
From the recipient of the 1997 Whiting Award.
Feeling disconnected from the wildly beautiful desert that she has known intimately for twenty years, award-winning writer Ellen Meloy embarks on a search for home that is historical, scientific, and spiritual. Her "Map of the Known Universe," devised to guide her quest, reveals extraordinary details of a physical/p>… See more details below
From the recipient of the 1997 Whiting Award.
Feeling disconnected from the wildly beautiful desert that she has known intimately for twenty years, award-winning writer Ellen Meloy embarks on a search for home that is historical, scientific, and spiritual. Her "Map of the Known Universe," devised to guide her quest, reveals extraordinary details of a physical link between the atomic age and her home on Utah's San Juan River. The Map grows to include Los Alamos, the Trinity A-test site, White Sands Missile Range, and primary sources of uranium.
Meloy casts her naturalist's eye on the Southwest's "geography of consequence," where she finds unusual local bestiaries, the bodies of long-buried neighbors, an underground bubble of nuclear physics in a national forest, and the rich textures of nature on her own eight acres of land. The Last Cheater's Waltz: Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest is multilayered and far-reaching, yet always infused with Meloy's prodigious research, finely tuned prose, and wry humor.
The New York Times Book Review
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The Last Cheater's Waltz
Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest
By Ellen Meloy
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1999 Ellen Meloy
All rights reserved.
Tsé Valley I: Alien Pebbles
Any day, any time, I would without complaint travel seventy miles to see a claret cup cactus in bloom. The quest would not arise from botanical interest, from some sort of dead-butterfly impaling, snake pickling, tweedy naturalist curiosity. If you must know, I seek the claret cup — Echinocereus triglochidiatus, member of the hedgehog cactus family, also called strawberry cactus — for sadomasochistic pleasure.
The claret cup cactus grows in dense clusters of cylindrical green stems topped by scarlet blossoms so seductive, you want to but should not fall facedown into the lush halo of nectar inside each cup-shaped flower and wallow there. Each flower rests atop a nest of needle-sharp spines; each succulent stem wears a fiery sheath of them, deterrent to your lips and the tongues of herbivores. A mound of claret cups in full bloom throws its glory against the russet desert in brazen harlotry. Theirs is a wild and transient beauty of sweet, precise torture, an incarnation of the thin threshold between what the Zuni call the beautiful (tso'ya) and the dangerous (attanni). The flowers peak and wilt in a few days, and that was why I went traveling. On a seventy-mile loop from home and back, I aimed more or less for a broad ledge of sun-warmed slickrock that would likely bear enough of those gorgeous grenadine blossoms to drive me mad with love.
It gives me great pleasure to rise before dawn and set out on a remote, empty trail or road to a seductive place. A giant reef of tilted sandstone, the morning's lure to claret cups, ran north-south, jumped the San Juan River near the Utah border, then curved into Arizona like the tail of a snake. Its Navajo name, Tsé k'aan, means "upright rocks." Amid a confusing jumble of bluffs, buttes, and dry washes, it remained distinct for its resemblance to a rib or a spine that seemed to run around the world underground but just happened to surface here. I knew Tsé k'aan's midsection well; it lay a few miles downriver from home. The less familiar southern Tsé k'aan now guided my way: I planned to keep it on my right, cross it, then drive back up the other side. Except for the first stretch of road, which was paved, I would find my way on the unmarked maze of sandy tracks that typify Navajo Reservation backroads.
Slung over the southern horizon, the Carrizo Mountains floated above the sprawling desert, their flanks indigo, the last veneer of spring snow gleaming on their peaks like silver mirrors. I passed bleached white bones strewn along the roadside for several hundred feet, the boneyard of a sizable flock of sheep, although no one around here has ever been able to explain its history. Up ahead a hungry dun-colored dog, all head and rib cage, sniffed a roadkill but, lacking a spatula, gave up and trotted off.
Around me stretched the land of the humans — Diné, the People, as the Navajo call themselves — a rugged, elemental expanse of Colorado Plateau whose face is inextricable from the Navajo soul. The flavor of Navajo country is almost palpable. Human and physical terrain fit one another in an exquisite friction of conflict and harmony. What you see from the road is the land dwarfing the human: towering bare rock in bewildering shapes and vibrant colors and broad sweeps of rolling desert dotted here and there with a house, corrals, stock tanks, usually a hogan, and always a motley spill of junked cars, some upside down, some not, every car that anyone ever owned since the Korean War, lined up and sun fried.
I crossed a deep, tamarisk-lined canyon, a major tributary of the San Juan River and, rumor has it, the preferred route of skin-walkers on the move. These witches, also called Navajo wolves, are normal people by day — well, maybe they have an extra pickup truck or two — and evildoers by night. The Navajo feel great discomfort talking about witchcraft, not only because it is a serious matter but also because more than one Anglo missionary in the past prohibited the chants and cures that could protect a Navajo from such evil.
For vengeance, envy, or other reasons, a Diné skinwalker inflicts injury rather than a Faustian soul theft, often with spells or by injecting a foreign article — bone, quill, bead, stone, arrow — into the victim. Incantation levitates the projectile, which then shoots off magically through the air: a kind of Navajo smart bomb. In years past, the victim could be a car — not so farfetched when you consider the possible consequences of a disabled vehicle in remote, sparsely populated country. The upper reaches of the canyon I crossed have seen strife and tragedy in Navajo history, which may explain its concentration of skinwalkers. I understand little about such beliefs but admit that at night any number of inexplicables could careen around the canyon's sinuous bends on accelerated tendrils of an ill wind. I left the canyon behind.
Several miles beyond the canyon I turned off the pavement to a dirt road and started up a steep incline, slowing to maneuver the truck over bumpy, exposed rock slabs but maintaining momentum through drifts of fine red sand. The road climbed to a notch in the Tsé k'aan ridge. On the other side I descended a series of switchbacks, fishtailing and vibrating on a washboard surface so rough, my molars rattled and the door handles fell off. In places the curves were so tight, I collided with my own taillights. Partway down the dugway, I parked and peered over the road's edge to view the lay of the land.
Red sand dunes five hundred feet high piled up against the base of Tsé k'aan. Beyond them sprawled a valley that tilted gently northward toward the San Juan River, cut with dry washes and sprinkled with salt pans and sparse stands of greasewood, snake-weed, and fourwing saltbush. The valley filled over twenty square miles, with only two or three houses visible in the near distance. Close to the sand dunes rose a hogback with broken ledges on one flank — perfect habitat for the claret cup cactus. Several roads and faint tracks led off to ... well, nowhere. However, it was clear that the public access passed close to the ledges. I would not have to walk far to visit the wildflowers, and I was grateful for this, not that I am lazy but because I was apprehensive about intruding.
An intricate, largely invisible system determines customary land rights among the Navajo. Occupancy and use, stories, family lineage, and small bundles of sacred soil bear as much authority as a courthouse deed; they recognize land tenure but not possession since, in the end, the land belongs to no one. Without the Anglo iconography of private property — survey pins, signs, barbed wire, gates, helicopter surveillance, remote sensory devices, half-starved Tibetan mastiffs — outsiders presume that Indian land is open range and that they can wander over any or all of it as they please. For this and other reasons some Navajo post areas, but for most the message is implicit: trespassing is rude behavior. I returned to the truck, bumped down Tsé k'aan to the quiet valley below, and stayed on the sandy, single-lane, main track.
* * *
In a poem from ancient Greece, heartstruck mortals describe their burning love as a powerful, transforming god that literally inhabits them. Eros lives inside me, one lover cries, Eros's wingbeats shake my limbs. One mistake in my reckless love affair with this desert was, perhaps, to invite a cactus to supply the wingbeats. Within inches of the claret cup's crimson blossoms lies a dense snare of needles. The hand that strokes the velvet will come away with thorns. And so, on a rock ledge with a delirious explosion of cactus flowers, my feast of bliss had to be visual and vicarious. Tséde, in Navajo, means "to be recumbent." I tséde'd across the warm sandstone and shut my eyes. I made myself into a very small bug, hovered over a bloodred cup, and, little bug heart pounding, dove in.
I dreamed I fell into a lobe of hell. Something horribly magnetic emanated from the rock. The flower's vivid colors struck like blows. To fend off my assailant I had to reach up and seize the blade in my hand, nearly severing my fingers to save my own life.
Wait! I shrieked, sitting bolt upright. I was merely seeking fundamental union with primordial nature. I was only pretending to be a bug. I was only trying to take a nap.
Around me all appeared normal — the truck parked nearby, a sandy valley nosing up to the foot of Tsé k'aan, slickrock ledges sprouting their gaudy wildflowers, including the claret cups, now filled with bees lurching about in drunken nectar stupors. A lizard scrambled up a nearby boulder, then turned to stare at me with the stoicism of a creature fully aware that Homo sapiens are oblivious to their imminent demise as a species. Two ravens circled above, and something — a toad? — plinked into a rain-filled pothole on the ledge below. Yet, like the religious statue, as inert and familiar as old furniture, that suddenly begins to bleed, or the cheap postcard photograph that pushes the desert reds a bit too far, my surroundings had changed. I had the distinct sensation of a suppressed vibration in the landscape. I would see it clearly only if I gazed more intently.
I picked up the notebook with the Map of the Known Universe and, sitting cross-legged on the sandstone, began to draw. Warm stone, loose limbs, sun on my shoulders, dreams — weird dreams — this was the basking lizard life. I waited for the peaceful radiance to come. It did not.
Red from iron oxides, the primary pigment maker in southwestern rock, dominated the earth's palette around me. I sat on the Triassic, a geologic period that is often called, for its ubiquitous and unmistakable sediments, the Red Bed Age for the Entire Earth. On an empty folio in the Map I sketched a cactus flower above rosette-shaped bursts of daggers, sheep bones, a toad, a toothy section of the Tsé k'aan anticline, and a rather fetchingly phallic sandstone spire to the west. As I inked in an outcrop in the middle distance, I noticed that several fans of rock debris formed an unnatural talus below a rough escarpment. The rim was dotted with dark holes — mine shafts and waste piles, I thought. I worked on the Map but felt restless and uneasy.
I set the notebook down and walked to the top of the hogback that held the claret cups. On its other side the valley stretched away into a hard blue glare. An intricate network of dry washes fanned out over the valley floor like dendritic veins, then fed into a larger, salt-lined artery. Cutting across the wash was an unlikely sight: the world's longest, curviest landing strip.
No, not a landing strip, a road. A carefully graded dirt road as elegantly broad as a Parisian boulevard, plunked down in the middle of wild, dust-bitten, single-track Navajoland.
I saw that my route, the smaller road, met the larger swath at a T intersection. I would have to turn right on the Parisian boulevard to exit the valley and go home. However, by the time I walked back to the truck and drove to the intersection, tiny invisible devils made me turn left. The fancy road veered southwest, aimed true and bold over the rolling desert. An uncharted route to Las Vegas? Yet the wider and fancier it became, the farther the road penetrated the isolated, desolate valley. Only one sign marked the way. DIP, it said, warning of a slump across an arroyo.
I cruised along this odd four-lane for several miles, passing a herd of pink sheep and goats, their fleece tinted by the dust and rosy light of their environment. A pickup truck approached from the opposite direction. The driver, an ancient Navajo man in a faded plaid cowboy shirt and Stetson, lunged down the strip, white-knuckling the steering wheel with the grip of a stuntman in a balloon-tired truck, four-wheeling over a row of Volvos. But for the spray of loose rocks from his rear tires as he passed, and the lack of about 15.3 million people in the vicinity, he could have been commuting to Los Angeles.
Although reservation dwellers want better roads, county and tribal governments have neither the energy nor the budgets to maintain far-flung miles of them. Thus, many routes to isolated dwellings remain slightly glorified goat tracks, dusty in summer, bogged in red gumbo in the winter. A wide, hard-packed, well-graded, red dirt freeway in the middle of the outback — I had no explanation for it or the next onslaught of topographical bedlam.
The big road ended abruptly at an enormous field of disturbed soil, put back together and recontoured with earth-moving machinery. On it could have parked all those jumbo jets that might someday take off and land on the ersatz airstrip. A smaller, more typically bad road, striped by the old Navajo fellow's tire tracks, led to a distant house. Next to the reclaimed field was an enclosure roughly the size of a tennis court but squarish, surrounded by a chain-link fence about twelve feet high. The fence undulated and sagged. The wind had blown so much loose sand out from under the steel corner posts, their exposed concrete footers practically stood in thin air; there was barely any ground left beneath them. It was a huge fence, it was not in good shape, and it was very strange.
I parked, walked over to the fence, and peered through it. Inside was a deep, sandy pit lined with wind-tattered black plastic, which at one time might have been laid down to prevent erosion and wind-borne dust. Tumbleweeds and a small pond filled the bottom of the pit. I could not tell if the water had pooled up from recent rain or seeped to the surface from a spring below. The pond shimmered in the bright sunlight — no skull and crossbones, dank salts, mutant plants, or dead bodies to indicate an alkaline or poisonous spring. Why such a cheap, half-baked fencing job? Anything and everything — sheep, children, Boeing 747s — could go in and out of the enclosure. The plastic liner was in shreds.
Then I thought of an even creepier question. This valley was one of the most parched places in the region — ephemeral rainwater in potholes, scant, widely scattered, one-drip-an-hour seeps, an average of about eight inches of precipitation a year, in a good year. Why fence off water in the desert?
The more I puzzled over this place, the more fretful I became. I paced about. Here I was surrounded by my beloved home wilds, yet here I felt unspecified dread. Dread, I supposed, can be part of the neighborhood, so I sketched it into the Map of the Known Universe. Then it struck me. Rock — it has to do with the rock. So a rock, too, flying about with a question mark, went down on the page under my name for this place: Tsé (rock) Valley. The garish postcard reds were coming back. I wanted nothing more than to lurch out of this aberrant, demented magenta blip in the desert pastorale. The lurch came in memory, however, not venue. From some dim, fuzz-clogged sector of my oversized hominid brain I dredged up motley remnants of knowledge and immediately lost most of them. At least one nugget remained in the sieve: Shinarump.
No one in the Southwest's red-rock desert can fail to be enthralled with time. Through the soles of your feet you feel an improbable, skinless earth cut through and through with the past, every rock so saturated, there appears to be no space for the here and now. The sandstone exposed in this valley went back 245 million years to the Jurassic and Triassic, periods that saw oysters, sponges, ferns, and dim-witted, three-ton lizards eating everything in sight and stepping on toothy, insignificant beasts still trying to figure out how to be mammals. Streams and rivers also flowed through these eras, carrying mineral-rich sediments in their broad, meandering braids and depositing them across the ancient plains.
Disturbed talus slopes below local mine shafts, like those I had noted earlier, often bear the distinct hues of a Triassic sediment known as the Chinle Formation. Set against the bloodred of adjacent strata, in a certain light, one variation of the Chinle's colors resembles the pale mint-green of Crest toothpaste. The Chinle Formation, and specifically its Shinarump member, is one of the most common uranium-bearing strata on the Colorado Plateau. I was well acquainted with the plateau's role, from the early fifties through the seventies, as a major producer of uranium for the cold war's nuclear arsenal. Relics of the uranium mining boom still lingered around the neighborhood. I lived in the continent's most bombed province, where for many years the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense tested their wares on the western deserts.
Excerpted from The Last Cheater's Waltz by Ellen Meloy. Copyright © 1999 Ellen Meloy. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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