SAILING up the hill through the blackness of the night, the car seemed about to ascend onto a meadow of long-hanging stars. The star-filled sky was so close it reminded me of the paper of florescent stars pasted on my brothers' bedroom ceiling when he was little, a universe within reach. Through the open car window came crisp air with the scent of pinyon; no street lights, signs of habitation, or passing cars interrupted the blackness. I kept the radio off. The car was quiet. I was sailing alone in a wo nderful dream world. I almost hadn't made the trip. For so long, I had wanted to spend more time in the Southwest. I did, vicariously, by reading travel books, novels, histories of the area, and by reviewing memories of two long-ago trips. Then came a break in writing and teaching schedules. It was accompanied by the question of "If not now, when?" There was only one possible answer.
With plane, car, and bed-and-breakfast reservations completed, I experienced, unexpectedly, a feeling of dread. Why this gnawing anxiety instead of anticipation? It didn't take long to realize I was worried about ruining a wonderful dream world with a dose of reality.
There may have been reason for feeling guilty about making such a pleasure trip, but not for dreading that the dream would be spoiled. The Southwest, I soon realized, was better than either my memories or dreams.
The trip did not begin well. The car-rental company left me sitting at Albuquerque airport for a very long time waiting for a van to pick me up. It was late in the day. I was due to arrive about dinner time at a place far north of Santa Fe. I was concerned about finding my way after dark, about wasting precious time.
What I now realize is that my attitude began changing during that wait. After stewing for a while, I began enjoying the dry air and blue sky, watching travelers come and go, chatting with airport workers who offered advice about which car rental company to use next time. I think now that I was exchanging my East Coast inwardness for a southwestern outwardness, a sensitivity to place and people. And I was switching to a more relaxed sense of time.
I drove north for a few hours and then began to realize things were not what they seemed. My usual eyeballing of a map for approximate travel time was way off - set to East Coast and European distances.
I was a good way from my destination and off course when I stopped to look at the map. Road signs and map didn't agree so I sought directions in a nearby undistinguished looking building. The inside looked like a stage set of a Mexican town; along the walls, the fronts of houses, a jail, a saloon, and stores projected into the room. The place was crowded. In the "saloon" area, four people in white robes and turbans, an unexpected sight in this small New Mexican town, were finishing their meal. A railing enclosed the center of the floor which served as the town plaza. One table was empty. I joined the crowd for a Mexican dinner before getting directions.
DARKNESS and the fatigue that hit after eating contributed to the difficulty I had finding my destination - a ranch conference center. It seemed as though I were driving forever through the darkness with just the stars for company. I caught a glimpse of a sign that I couldn't read in the dark. But I took a chance and followed an endless, bumpy dirt road through the black night toward I didn't know what until finally, to my great relief, a few lighted buildings appeared in the distance. There was life so mewhere ahead.
And what a somewhere it was. In the early morning light, I left the whitewashed adobe interior of my cabin to wander toward the dining hall. What was invisible at night was breathtaking in the daylight - gold and crimson cliffs surrounding wide-open spaces. In the shadow of the cliffs hid an assortment of buildings for housing, classrooms, eating, and recreation, unobtrusive man-made additions to the land. The dramatic cliffs and views worked their spell undisturbed.
At the end of my first day - after lectures, hikes, plentiful food, interesting conversations - I sat under a huge cottonwood with a new friend who had been teaching a course about the Pueblo Indians. She explained the need she had for private space and for quiet, a need that she had not noticed in most Anglos. I agreed that space and quiet were rare in my world, but, I already realized, much needed and appreciated by this visitor.
Many places known only through travel books became real to me during that trip. Not one was a disappointment. But most intriguing was the appeal of the non-noted places - the vistas that made me stop, some days too many times, at the side of the road and study the scene while taking deep breaths as if to inhale the spirit of the place. Many of the people I met in the Southwest exuded a feeling of serenity, as though they had been infused with some of the space and the quiet of the landscape.
NOW, a few months later, I review my pictures and marvel. The striking beauty of the immense landscape is diminished in the hand-sized prints. And, strangely, the sky that I remember as always blue is often filled with menacing storm clouds. I'm still not sure I'm distinguishing between reality and dream. I'll just have to return soon to do more research on the subject.