We arrived in New Mexico on a cold winter’s night. We had turned off of Highway 40 in eastern Arizona and headed north on Highway 12 towards the ‘Devil’s Highway’ as the sign said. This sounded foreboding, and as we exited and began driving into the deep night and the barren landscape, it also felt foreboding. Had I known then what was in store for us up ahead, in about an hour’s time, I would have clearly understood this foreboding. We continued driving through the deepening darkness while a light snow began to fall and the temperatures plummeted. I was driving the Taurus with MD in the passenger seat and we were leading the way, while S. was driving the Toyota pickup behind us, then J. in his car and lastly M. and S. driving the Suburban and trailer loaded with all of our supplies. It was a quiet night and I was tired from driving. We had been steadily climbing for a little while; outside it was pitch black and I had no sense of our surroundings. The road crested and then began its descent; not long after that, as we came around a curve, I lost control of the car. It began sliding across the road, gently and smoothly, as if in slow motion, but inexorably we slid in the direction of the utter darkness just beyond the other side of the road. MD grabbed the wheel, and turned into the slide, correcting us, as we had also begun to spin. The car straightened out and I saw the very end of a guardrail up ahead, which we proceeded to slam into, bringing us to an abrupt stop. A moment later we felt the Toyota slam into the back of our car; and a moment after that we heard J. plow into the back of the Toyota and then felt the force transfer into our car. I waited for a few moments more, expecting to feel the Suburban ram into all of us. It was a brief span of time as we waited, and in this moment’s pause I considered our position as the last two collisions had jogged the end of our car loose, and we were aimed squarely into the unknown. It seemed likely, even certain, that when the Suburban would hit us, with all of that mass, we would be thrust out into the darkness, and though I couldn’t see what was out there, I felt as if it would be better not to find out.
Several more moments passed and then, as I looked through our back windshield, I was relieved to see M. pass slowly by, in control, and on the proper side of the road. By God’s grace nobody was hurt and all of the vehicles could still be driven, though they had sustained a fair amount of body damage. Several miles up the road we found a small church and parked our vehicles there. It was very late by now, and we all were very tired from the previous events, so we set up our tents in a flat, open field to the side of the church building and fell asleep.
The next morning we awoke to find that it had snowed quite a bit and we were in the midst of a wide and expansive plain, with little more to be seen than the church building we had camped next to and a few other small homes in the distance, and mountains far beyond that. The church was at a crossroads of the little connecting road that we had been on, and the highway which headed back south to Gallup NM. We were about an hour or so north of Gallup and planned to go in that direction, but before we did, we drove back to the scene of the accident to get a sense of what had happened. Clearly we all hit a patch of ice on the road and lost control; fortunately the weight of the Suburban gave it more friction and connection to the asphalt, enabling M. to keep it going in the right direction. We pulled up alongside the section of guardrail that had kept us from whatever was on the other side, and as we parked, I realized that we had truly escaped death. Just the other side of the guardrail, the earth disappeared and there was only a vast emptiness. A deep and rocky gorge ran alongside the road and it wasn’t clear how deep it went, but it was deep enough. Across this chasm, perhaps sixty feet or so, the rocky face of the other side looked ragged and ominous. The early morning light cast gloomy shadows across the craggy rocks and gave them a threatening appearance. Leaning over the edge as far as was safe, and attempting to see into the depths, none of us could determine anything down below, unable to lean out far enough to see over the edge.
Our next campsite was on a plateau high above the surrounding desert, some twenty or thirty miles to the east and slightly north of Gallup, not far from Hosta Butte. We found a remote area along the ridge of the plateau, amidst the rock faces and outcroppings and settled in for the next month or two. I found a shallow cave to set up my sleeping bag. It was actually more of a deep shelf carved into the face of the rock. It was not much deeper than the width of my bag, and not much longer either; yet it afforded enough additional room to keep my few personal effects, along with my sleeping bag and a groundpad.
Before driving to our new campsite we stopped off in Gallup to buy a few provisions; and it had to be very few indeed because we only had seven dollars between the six of us. We found a discount grocery store and purchased a large bag of rice, a gallon can of honey, a large bag of beans and a substantial package of tortillas to live on until we could find work and make some additional money. We had enough money to get the vehicles to our campsite but not much further. However, the Toyota pickup still had enough to make a trip back into town so M. and I left the others on the plateau and returned to Gallup to find work and earn money for more food and gasoline. The others spent time setting up the camp. Because the weather was so cold and the wind was strong on top of the plateau, they didn’t set up the larger tents or the kitchen, but instead excavated into the earth and created a large protected living space roughly 4 feet deep and about twenty feet across. It was semi-circular, and in the middle of the straight side, they constructed a large fireplace using soil and melted snow. Over the top of this living space they erected large tarps set on branches placed vertically as pillars to raise the roof slightly, which allowed us to walk about the space only slightly hunched over; and then they tied the tarps off all around the perimeter to other rocks or vegetation to hold them in place. The fire generated a lot of heat in this small space and kept us very comfortable against the elements outside.
Meanwhile, in Gallup, M. and I struggled to find work by day, and slept in our truck bed by night. We found some day labor, unloading hay bales from a semi-trailer and stacking them into a barn, which paid three dollars per hour. It was back breaking work and we managed to make about twenty-five dollars each, after a full day of effort; but we slept effortlessly afterwards. Nights were cold in the bed of the truck, as the snow fell, covering us and our sleeping bags while we slept. During our stay in Gallup, he and I cobbled several jobs together and raised a small sum of money, enough to keep all of our vehicles fueled and enough for food and other essentials.
The desert rock and the towering plateau, from which one could gaze upon the world far below or at the mountains east of Albuquerque in the extreme distance, set the scene for our bucolic and austere life. Frugality was at the center of our existence, yet even closer to our lives’ center, was the sense and feeling of brotherly love and familial caring. The world’s vicissitudes had faded for us long ago, and now we lived simpler lives, hand to mouth, and close to the earth. It was easy here to feel as if the modern world had disappeared and gone away, and we could touch something beyond time, and taste a bit of eternity. It was also a good setting for living out the life that Christ exhorts of His followers; to live as one, sharing all things in common without private property, caring for one another and using our gifts for the benefit of the whole.
In January 1994 I was hired to work as a waiter in an upscale restaurant of a local hotel in Gallup. After weeks of sporadic day labor for little money I was relieved to finally have a job that could bring in steady and good income. I drove back to our home on the plateau to share the good news. The next day MD said it was time for us to move, so we packed everything up and drove southwest to Tucson AZ. I was a little stunned and disappointed and suggested that maybe I should stay for a little while to earn money and then join everyone later but that wasn’t to be our plan, so I quit before I started, and we moved our community to Arizona.
From a practical perspective it didn’t make sense not to keep the job at the restaurant, especially after the struggles of the previous weeks, but then I had to remember that our goals were not worldly, and while we certainly needed money to survive, it was a secondary consideration to the spiritual purposes of our training. In fact, struggling to get my job and then letting go of it immediately thereafter actually fit perfectly with the goal of being detached from the outcome of my actions; and leaving at that precise moment helped me to gain humility in the face of my imagined success, and also through the process of relinquishing my immediate goals and achievements.
(to be continued)