Under the Sunset Crater

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Her husband was in Denver, at a writers’ s conference, and Sarah, for the first time in two years, felt free to roam. She was in Tucson, the city founded in 1775 in the Sonora desert, visiting William Freyr and his wife Marie, her friends in the Southwest. William was teaching law at the University of Arizona, and Marie was a researcher in desert ecology in the famed Life Sciences department.

Still mentally exhausted by her journey to the new Eastern Front with Helga, Sarah felt liberated in the warmth of the South Arizonan sunshine. She had met Marie only once before, at her wedding, one of a handful of  invited Pahaana – white people – guests, when William had introduced Sarah to his young wife “as my best European friend.” Now, as Marie was on holiday, the two women went for hikes in the Catalina mountain, for brunch at El Charro, for long visits to the Art Museum, and to the collection of Native American Art at the University. The wilderness of the canyons seduced Sarah, who admired the variety of the flora, the great Saguaro, the smaller cacti, the ashes and willows, the short olive trees and acacias, and the vistas over the Tucson basin, opening along the rocky trails. It was winter, with the air temperature down to freezing point at night, and a balmy fifteen, or even twenty degrees at midday: what difference form Berlin! The air was clear, crisp-dry and vivifying.

All day long they enjoyed discussing almost any subject, from the water table of the Southwest (Marie’s hinting at the foolish wasteful habits of the new Americans), to the various law suits being prosecuted by the Hopis, Marie’s tribe, for recovery of their lands rights. Both William and Marie had their roots in the Hopi tradition, and came originally from the high plateaux of the North-East, Marie from the Wupatki country. She talked about the role of women in Hopi society: not only as mothers and grand-mothers, but as property owners, religious leaders and creators of beauty. Sarah asked her friend about her family, the history of her clan, the Water clan. Marie was patiently educating Sarah, explaining that she could not discuss details of some ritual traditions and customs, but visibly enjoying the interest Sarah showed to her culture. Sarah and Marie were discovering shared ideas and aspirations, from their respective traditions, and discovery led to intimacy.

One morning, Marie mentioned she was planning to visit her ancestors in the North-East, and invited Sarah to accompany her. Sarah accepted enthusiastically. Their itinerary would take them on Highway 77, to Phoenix, the state capital, then on the long road to Sedona and Flagstaff, to reach the volcanic region of the Sunset Crater and Wupatki. Sarah helped Marie prepare for the trip, packing clothes and food, and Marie’s elaborate hiking and camping gear. They then loaded their luggage on Marie’s Jeep, an elegantly painted four by four, itself a good example of modern-days Hopi graphic art.

On route 77, Marie was negotiating the dense traffic with skills, from time to time smiling to Sarah, who was retelling the story of her journey in the East. Marie questioned her friend about the people, their language, their homes, the city Sarah had visited. The road North was edging down towards Phoenix and the temperature was rising. Marie explained that Tucson was privileged, by the altitude of the basin, already over one thousand meters above the lower grounds of the capital. Phoenix was more polluted, and she was happier to live further South, in the country of the ancient O’odham tribes. They passed long freight trails moving North at snail pace, from Mexico.

The traffic got busier and slower as they approached the stretched-out suburbs of Phoenix. Sarah was silent, admiring Marie’s driving dexterity. Phoenix was huge, a metropolis compared with Tucson. Soon they were leaving 77 and took route 17 to the North-East. The vegetation was changing, cacti at first mixed with low grey bushes, and the colour of the soil turned paler. They were now climbing, the road no longer a straight ruler, but winding up between huge rocks and round hills. Near Cordes Junction Marie pointed out the turn-off to Camp Verde, a historical site of the Mexican wars. She explained that the whole North-East was packed with pre-historical and historical remains, from the ancient people who had cultivated the desert centuries back, to invaders and friendly or hostile tribes settlements, and to the nineteen century trail of tears, the genocide of her people. On the right they saw the sign to Montezuma Castle.

“It has nothing to do with Montezuma,” laughed Marie, “but there you are: such a confusion about us!  This is the country of the ‘People in Between’: the Sinagua and the Salado.” Marie pointed out the changing landscape to Sarah. “The Seen-Awa made their homes here in what was, for you, early in the sixth century of the Christian calendar…”

Sarah asked where those settlers came from. “From far North,” replied Marie, “probably from somewhere near what is today Canada… They knew how to use rocks to moderate soil temperature, they knew about water… Our tradition is that the Hopis learned from them.” Sarah was silent, stunned by the beauty of the landscape. They left route 179 on their left, the road to Sedona: “All tourism and fake new age” remarked Marie. She explained her people disapproved of the new agers’s attitude toward the sacred sites, and their naivety toward the traditions. They were now approaching Flagstaff.

“It’s a new town,” explained Marie, “built by prospectors and gold diggers around 1860…” They stopped for refuelling, Sarah looked at the map. To the South-East was Apache country; after Flagstaff, on route 89, they would enter Wupatki, and the home of the Water Clan, Marie’s ancestral family. On the horizon rose the snowy summits of the San Francisco range. A few miles from the town Marie stopped the Jeep near a dark wood of pine trees. There was no traffic, the air was much colder now. The earth was white with frosty snow, the soil dark grey with touches of ochre. They drove a little further, then took the loop road to the Sunset Crater Volcano. At the visitor centre Sarah looked at the exhibits, the history of the great eruption of 1040. Marie was engaged in a deep conversation in native language with the young ranger, a local woman in her late twenties. They got their permit to park and camp near the lava flow trail. Marie told Sarah she knew the grounds by heart. She drove the Jeep to the overlook, and they took the rucksacks and hiking boots out.

They were surrounded by hills of cinder. In between grew pines, mountain oaks, olive trees and acacias. The grey lava trail contrasted with the darker cinder, and with the lighter ochre soil that appeared between the trees roots. “The trees grew again,” said Marie following Sarah’s eyes, “and we stayed because the land was so fertile…” Sarah turned toward her friend, they stay silent, and close to each other, for long minutes. Sarah knew she was falling in love: with the country, with the sky, and with her friend. Then Marie said, in a voice and a language that Sarah understood to come from her soul:

“For us, this is sacred ground, we are going to follow the trail, and we’ll sleep tonight under the stars that guided my ancestors.”

Later, after sunset, in the absolute silence of the Arizonan night, Marie told Sarah about Hopivotskwani, the Hopis Path of Life. In the early morning, in the warmth of their tent, Sarah woke up in Marie’s arms. Lifting the tent door, they saw the rising sun, above the snowy mountains, and, to their left on the horizon, the magical colours of the Painted Desert.

 

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