Consumed by reverence. Consumed by rain and wind. Consumed by thoughts of death. Consumed by a great mystery. Our thirteen days at Rockhound State Park in Southern New Mexico immersed us in a world of extremes.
“Two feet of snow fell this morning in Albuquerque.”
“It will be so wet in California over the next few days that they’re going to call it an ‘Atmospheric River’. ”
“Snowstorm expected to further bury northeastern US.”
“Major pile up. Dozens of vehicles involved in winter mashup.”
“Thousands without power after major storms hits.”
“Major windstorm hits east coast.”
This is what we kept hearing was happening all across the US and Canada. We looked at a weather map and saw only a paper thin band of weather suitable for those of us living out of our campers. That band included the southernmost parts of New Mexico.
During our last few days at Rockhound State Park, we had to contend with the wind, rain, and cold. There were nights when the temperature dropped to below freezing and the rain turned to hail, peppering the roof of our camper and making us grateful not to be the couple shivering in the tent across the way. Even so, we were reminded just how close we are to the world of primal elements every time a gust of wind caused our camper — and us — to shudder.
The weather network informed us the winds could gust up to 60 miles per hour (120 KPH) or more and that “The winds will also make driving hazardous and we could see a few large commercial vehicles being blown off the road.” I wondered if these types of warnings were normal here in the same way cloudy days are normal back in the west coast of BC. We were both glad that we weren’t on the road with our shoebox of a truck camper.
The wind was so strong at times I thought the razor-edged metal roof covering the picnic table at our campsite was going to tear loose from its mounting bolts and slice through the fiberglass walls of our camper like a huge guillotine. I made sure to position our truck in a way so that, if the roof did fly off, we wouldn’t be decapitated in our sleep. The wind rocked us during one of the nights like a boat out on a stormy sea, or “like a car on a train,” as another camper described it.
We spent the past nineteen days living between only two campgrounds in southern New Mexico: City of Rocks State Park and at Rockhound State Park. Even though we had to contend with days of wind and cold, I didn’t want to leave. This was the first time on our journey I wanted to stop moving. Other than needing to go to the town of Deming every few days to get supplies (and to empty our holding tanks when we stayed at City of Rocks), I was content to just remain still and let the world shift around me.
Deming felt like it was never meant to be a town, but just a place to make a quick stop. Maybe a few hundred years ago it started out as a watering hole, a place to swap horses for the stage coach, and later on became a pit stop for fuel, a bag of chips, and maybe a can of Red Bull while on the way to El Paso or Silver City. Wherever we looked, nothing seemed permanent. The outer edges of the town were ridged with cuts of dirt roads and broken brick or rusty chain-linked fenced lots surrounding sagging mobile homes, dirt-crusted pickups, and the guts of a thousand kinds of machinery. In the town’s heart, it seemed that there was someone at every street corner holding up a crudely written cardboard sign. It didn’t matter what the signs said. They all say the same thing: I’m broke. I’m poor. I lost my way. Please help. Give money. Praise God.
When we left Deming, I saw an old man in crumpled and faded clothes standing at one street corner and all his sign said was “Broke Down.” On our first trip into town a week earlier, I had seen the same man with the same sign on the same street corner. I wondered how long he’d been standing there. I got the feeling that Deming was the kind of place where many of the inhabitants sort of just got stuck. During one of our days at Rockhound State Park, we got a flat tire and had to hobble into town to get it fixed. I wondered if it was more than poverty that was keeping people here.
There is a poverty in the desert of New Mexico though. The stingy coarse red and purple sand littered with jagged broken rocks holds few nutrients and even less water. The few handouts given from the rain clouds are hoarded by all the plants that protect their stashes of moisture aggressively with spines so sharp they pierce through our jeans and even the thick soles of our trail shoes. Melo and Pixel have gotten better at avoiding them, but we all occasionally brush against one of the prickly pear leaves and need to stop and remove the vicious barbed needles.
On one of our hikes, Pix accidentally stepped on a cactus the size of a baseball. As he tried to walk away, he uprooted the cactus as one of the curved needles hooked into the webbing between his toes. He dragged the cactus a few steps before he stopped and looked up at us with resignation in his eyes. Both dogs have learned, when it comes to removing sticklers, fingers work much better than mouths. As I carefully unhooked the cactus, I wondered if this was the cacti way of migration in the same way that burrs and sand spurs are carried into new lands when they latch onto passing animals. “Velcro from hell,” I thought, once again, as I poked a hole in the dirt with my finger and carefully replanted the cactus.
The campground at Rockhound State Park is surrounded by tall, jagged cliffs. The park itself is unique as it’s the only park we stayed where they actually encourage rockhounding and bringing rocks home. They do ask you to keep it under 16 pounds (which isn’t all that much actually — rocks weigh as much as, well, rocks) but it’s a lot of fun leaving the main trail on one of the spurs and staring at the ground hoping to find a thunder egg or maybe a shiny opal. I did find some thunder eggs, but no opals unfortunately. I’m not sure if I would have recognized one if I did.
Friend, go up higher
– Luke 14:10
On one of our days, I hiked out on my own leaving Kat, who was nursing a rare cold, in the camper along with Melo and Pix. On impulse, instead of sticking to one of the well-worn trails, I veered off and just started climbing, higher and higher, letting my feet take me wherever they wanted. I tried not to step onto any plants, not only because I think I’m too late in my life to get any piercings, but because many of the plants are fragile and struggle hard enough for existence. I didn’t need to make their lives any harder.
As I continued to climb, I entered a space between the crags and found myself completely alone in a mysterious and hidden valley. At least, that’s how I thought of it. I wandered around one of the many boulders taller than myself, casually strewn in the field as if tossed there by some primeval giant. When I spotted a small cave, I crawled into it thinking that, in another time, a Comanche or Apache warrior may have once sheltered there from a storm. I looked for some sign of his passing, maybe a symbol carved in the rock, or maybe a handprint, but I saw nothing but stone.
A short while later, I found a large rock, perched myself on it like a gargoyle, and listened. It was what I didn’t hear that mattered more than what I did. There were no roars from trucks maneuvering their 40’ rigs into tight camping spots, no barking from dogs rudely expressing what they thought about their transitory neighbours. Other than the occasional whoosh of the wind and maybe the odd whirr of a grasshopper who forgot it was winter, I was alone.
I watched the sun as it gradually made its way behind one of the western peaks. Although I still had maybe an hour or so of daylight left, when the shadow of the mountain touched me, it felt like the edge of night. I thought I heard voices, but I was too far from the campground. I convinced myself the voices were the wind making the dry branches of the old trees rub together, and not the cries of some poor cursed souls trapped forever in the mountain valley. A dark mood overcame me but, instead of resisting it, I fully embraced it. I opened myself up to the spirit of the barren but beautiful place of darkening red rocks, broken cacti, and patches of bone white grasses. I rested my eyes on the silver grey branches of a long dead tree and contemplated my own mortality.
One thing about being alone is it allows time for the quieter thoughts to emerge. While working at raising a family, grooming a career, and trying to forge meaning out of a world in chaos, there is very little time or desire for contemplation and introspection. After the grindings of the day, it was always easier to fall to a glass of wine, or two, or three, and then spend the evenings “researching” websites for shimmering baubles of trivia, or binging on Netflix to distract us from the pressing but boring thoughts about life’s purpose and existence. The last thing we wanted was to stop, and think about the meaning of life, and ask questions like, “Who am I” and “Why am I here.”
Dust Storms May Exist
– Sign on the side of the road in New Mexico.
As I squatted on the rock, I had the time to think about my life and how it felt to be a soul surrounded by flesh, bones and skin which, in turn, were surrounded by rock and wind and the infinite sky. I thought about a sign I had seen beside the highway on the way to Deming: Dust Storms May Exist. I thought to myself, maybe we too are like dust storms, briefly appearing on the road of life, but ephemeral in the end, with little remaining of who we were once we’re gone. A hundred years from now, it will be as if we never existed. “Dust in the wind. All we are is dust in the wind,” the popular song from the 80’s tells us.
My thoughts were really starting to gloom me out. And I felt I was missing something important. I remembered a question I had asked myself a few years ago, one I was reminded of during solitary moments on our travels, most recently when I went on my moonlit walk at City of Rocks State Park.
I asked myself, is there anything remaining when you take away everything of your self you can think of: your blood, your flesh, your bones, your memories, your mind — everything?
The obvious answer, of course, is: Nothing. Zero. Emptiness. A void. Yet, aren’t many of the spiritual practices of the far east all about emptying the mind? If so, to what purpose? For health benefits? For relaxation? To live longer? To attract a girlfriend (or boyfriend)? I didn’t think so. Because I knew the end goal is always the same: Realization. Or more specifically: Self-realization.
Again, if we take away everything, what remains is either nothing, or…
He who says, does not know.
He who knows, does not say.
I turned away from my thoughts and tried to attune to what, if anything, resided underneath it all. I tried to attune to my awareness, but not the object of my awareness, not to the sense that the rock was hurting my butt, and that the cold shadow engulfing me was making me shiver. I wasn’t interested in being conscious of my body, or even of my self. I sought only plain, ordinary, untethered awareness. Pure consciousness. I just wanted to experience the primal state of my being. My existence.
For the briefest of moments I felt a spark of something bright, something transcendent. Instead of nothingness and emptiness, I felt something that was alive, profound, incredibly vast, warm, and somehow, deeply reassuring. It was as if I had been living all my life in a dark room and a random breeze had opened a crack in the curtain that I did not know was there and, coming through the crack, I caught a glimpse of the sun.
In the back of it all, my brain was chattering like crazy: Hey, what is this? Is this consciousness? Being? Existence? Life? The soul? The Light of Heaven? The Force? The last firing of a dying neuron? As soon as I entertained those thoughts, the spark dimmed. But it didn’t go out. Not completely. How could it, I thought? It felt somehow like an essential part of me — of all of us — and that we are all nothing but layers of dark matter surrounding these tiny sparks and, even when the layers disintegrate into dust, these sparks will remain, and perhaps all meld into an infinite sea of light and bliss.
And then I had the thought that my brain was making this all up, and it was only pretending to give me this experience because it was bored out of its skull and could I please take my butt off this hard rock and go do something much more entertaining, like go back to the camper and drink some wine and see what Kat’s cooking for dinner.
My Negative Nelly brain didn’t stop me from flying down the mountain, leaping down the rocky trail in great leaping strides like I was still in my early twenties and I had no fear of falling down and breaking my head like an egg on one of the rocks. Even as I write this, days later, I can still feel the glow from that spark deep in my heart and, with it comes the thought: Nothing else matters. Nothing.
When I got back to the campground, I told Kat about where I was and what happened, even if it was a bit too nebulous to describe. She expressed interest in going there as well. I told her that the climb up was steep at times and that I had concerns about her being able to manage it, especially dragging along the cold she was fighting. But she said she could do it. She wanted to go. Then I asked her, “What’s for dinner?”
The next day I found a more people-friendly route, a small path, maybe a deer trail, that took us all up the mountain to the hidden valley. I walked a good distance ahead to give her a chance to explore and discover some of her own mystery. When we arrived at the top, I wandered off on my own for a bit and, after I returned, I saw her sitting on one of the rocks. She carried an aura of serenity. Perhaps she heard the sound of her own soul being consumed by the beauty of this special place in New Mexico. Maybe she had a revelation of her own.
On one of our last nights at Rockhound State Park, with the desert wind rushing around us, I looked over to the kitchen counter where three thunder eggs were sitting beside the sink. Thunder eggs are rocks that are made by huge pressures within the earth and then spat out by volcanos. At least that’s how I like to think they were created. A few days earlier, we had met a couple a few years older than us on a hike and they told us about the rocks they found here. We expressed interest and, the next morning, the woman knocked on our camper door and gave us the three thunder eggs as gifts.
I looked at them, gifts of stone as old as the earth. On the outside they’re gnarled and craggy, like hardened globs of baked mud. Sort of like the people we meet every day, especially the ones who look right back at us every morning in the bathroom mirror. One day, we may cut the rocks open to reveal to the light of day the brilliant crystals hidden beneath their ancient crusts.
For now, we’ll just let the mystery be and content ourselves in knowing that something special awaits within.
Kat talks about her own soul journey at Rockhound State Park here:
Note: My featured pic is of the decayed leaf of a prickly pear cactus.