My first stop in New Mexico is the place I used to ride to with my father, to a small coalmine where the mission pickup would be loaded with coal for our furnace. The mine was nestled into a gap at the base of a hogback, a type of rock formation seen often in New Mexico. Actually, I am at the home and farm of my friend Gloria, which is immediately across State Highway 491 from the two-rut dirt road that winds in toward the defunct coalmine.
As kids we called those two-track roads "paper roads." I don't know where the appellation came from. Maybe we sensed that they were less permanent than the graded dirt road we usually traveled between T'iis Názbas (Teec Nos Pos), meaning "A Circle of Cottonwoods," and Naat'áanii Nééz (Shiprock), meaning "Tall Leader." And, of course, less permanent than the two-lane asphalt roads that were rare in our lives then.
The Diné (Navajo) name for this place where I'm staying is Tsétaak'á (Hogback), meaning "Rock That Tilts Down Into Water," the water being Tooh (San Juan River), meaning simply, "River." The San Juan River runs very close by this rock formation, which extends for miles into the distance, appearing from above to be an ancient, snaking river of slanted rock.
For a long time, no one seemed to use the word Tsétaak'á. The place was always called "Hogback." Then people started writing the Diné names for places. Usually today, it's written Tse Daa K'aan. Written Diné is an artifact of colonization, the first known attempt at developing an orthography being in the late 19th century by military surgeon Washington Matthews, who was stationed at Ft. Wingate near present-day Gallup. Today there is standardized written Diné, but the majority, when they write something in Diné, do it phonetically, rather than in the standard orthography. The Tse Daa K'aan spelling is a phonetic spelling.
Up against the opposite side of the formation are the ruins of Hogback Trading Post, just outside the Navajo Nation, where liquor could be sold and infamously was. Because of the San Juan River, there are farms here. Gloria's farm thrived in earlier times, especially when her parents were living, but today it constitutes just a small orchard.
From time to time Gloria will text me a photo of the hogback, its colors and form changing at different times of day, depending on the sun's light and angle and cloud formations.
When I stay with Gloria, we talk about old times, when she was my boss at the Native American Materials Development Center. We talk about writing, she being a poet whose use of language takes my breath away. She is also a painter and her artist soul enlivens all of her home. My first full day there, we visited two of our artist/writer friends in Cortez, CO to see a magnificent exhibit on the theme of movement/migration––a theme dear to my heart. All the artists and writers, are well known to Ed and Sonja.
After four days in and around Shiprock, I drove to Regina, just outside Cuba, NM, where I once lived and worked as a school counselor. More about that another time, but my plan is to review a book of poems and paintings by Gloria in my next post. Until then...