By Harry Parmer
Rock in the desert, my shield from the blast
Under Thy shadow I’m hiding at last;
Dear is Thy refuge, and welcome to me;
Rock in the desert, my soul flies to Thee.
Rock in the desert, how lovely the star,
Guiding my footsteps from wand’ring afar;
Now I am happy, Thy shelter I see;
Rock in the desert, my faith clings to Thee.
Rock in the desert, how peaceful my rest,
Kindly protected, no longer oppressed;
Long have I thirsted for streams cool and free.
Rock in the desert, I find them in Thee.
Rock in the desert, O Savior divine,
Thou art my refuge, no love is like Thine;
Thou my Redeemer art gracious to me;
Rock in the desert, I live but in Thee.
~ Fanny Crosby, 1885 ~
The morning cold increased as I accelerated eastward on old Route 66 leaving Church Rock, New Mexico behind. Then something in the sky caught my eye - it was a Sun Dog – my first – a good sign according to the Navajo – a blessing on the hunter sent by the great wolf to his children.
For the first time in three days I was completely alone. Well – as alone as one can be with a lifetime of memories. After riding for two days with 300 Vietnam War veterans to Gallup, New Mexico, I decided to go my separate way. I had enough of the distractions, the noise, and the burdening weight of human emotions. Riding with the herd is not in my blood. Solitude is my bag – it brings a comforting peace most of the time, in between spurts of terror from a few restless old ghosts.
Now my mind was clear – nothingness – ahead on the right the sign for Route 371 – north turnoff approaching – 190 miles today – starting to warm up – need to shed the leathers.
Riding alone through Navajo country gave me a sense of history and a mysterious feeling of Déjà vu – to a time when the horse wasn't iron. But my “horse” needs gasoline and the small community of Crown Point is just ahead – it will be good to stretch a bit.
With a full tank and the sound of my pipes braiding time and distance into one, the minutes fade and the miles melt under my tires. Soon the countryside turns green – Farmington is on the horizon and a place to get some grub.
The old country café served up a good meatloaf and mash potato lunch, along with a cute little twenty-something waitress with deep blue eyes that sparkled when she asked where I was heading.
"North to Colorado," I said, "Durango actually. Want to come with me?"
With a smile and a sexy tilt of her head that displayed her innocence, she couldn't hide her embarrassment as to whether I was being serious or not. For a fleeting moment my mind wondered, but then reality set in and I let her off the hook.
"Nah, your boyfriend wouldn't like that now would he?" She smiled shaking her head and then with a sigh of relief thanked me for the invitation.
Lucky man that boy friend I thought, as I handed her a double sawbuck. "Keep the change, lass. It's time I hit the road."
With a full stomach and the memory of beautiful sparkling blue eyes, I turned north on route 170 and highballed it through La Plata and Red Mesa into Hesperus where I turned east on Highway 160 , kicking my iron horse into gear for the last 12 miles to Durango.
It didn't take long before traffic slowed my progress. After traveling nearly 200 miles through beautiful open country I was now irritated with the sudden onslaught of civilization, especially after a young mother with two kids in her SUV and a cell phone in her ear cut me off as I turned onto Main Avenue. Of course she was completely unconscious to the fact that she almost killed me, so it was wasted energy for me to even get angry let alone to wreak hell on her day. Besides I was ready to put my kickstand down for the day and to check into my room at the historic Strater Hotel. After that I had one objective – to find a honky-tonk saloon stocked with a good bottle of Irish whiskey.
As the afternoon wore on, the shadows grew as the sun descended in the western sky. With my gear stowed in my room and my iron horse secured for the day, I left the hotel lobby to see the bustling activity of pedestrians and shoppers moving freely along Main and East 7th Street. I stepped onto the sidewalk and stood on the corner taking in all the sights – there was a bench along side of the hotel, so I pulled out a cigar and lit it up and plopped my butt down – I liked Durango – there was history and character in this town and I was eager to see and do as much as I could in the next day or two.
Relaxing on the old bench was comforting as I watched the smoke from my cigar drift around me. Then – out of nowhere – almost magically – he appeared. With curious surprise I watched him sit on the bench next to me until he became motionless. After overcoming the surprise of his presence, I looked away and ignored him, until the three teenage girls came walking by.
As they passed, the girls stared at him whispering and laughing. I saw him look at them with disdain and then heard him mutter, "I'm angry."
I turned looking directly at him. He was thin and small framed and was wearing a sweat-stained black cowboy hat, a dirty black long-sleeve shirt with pearl buttons, and age-stained black Levis. His cowboy boots were scuffed and ragged. He had a brace on his right knee and his face was unshaven with stringy shoulder-length hair. To me he looked like just another of the many homeless people that I've seen in my lifetime, and as the wind shifted my way it gave evidence that he smelled like one too.
As the teeny-bopper girls faded in the city streets he kept looking at them while continuing his muttering, "I'm angry, I'm angry…" Finally, when the girls were out of sight he shifted his body away from me and fell silent.
I took a long drag on my cigar and watched him. He didn't move – it was like he didn't even know I was there – so I turned away and wondered – who was this man and why did those girls make him so angry?
The bus pulled up to the corner and stopped, opening its door I motioned no to the driver and looked toward the cowboy. He didn't move. The sound of the door slamming shut startled me as I turned to watch the bus accelerate through the intersection.
Then, I heard him say, "You got a cigarette, old man?"
I looked back at the cowboy noticing he wasn’t looking at me. He sat there motionless staring towards the distant mountains. A little confused I responded, "No, I sure don't cowboy."
He then turned my way and looked directly into my eyes pushing his hat to the back of his head while saying, "They sell them in that store across the street, old man."
"Oh, really," I said.
"Yes, really old man! Why don't you go over there and get me a fucking pack?"
Hearing this I started laughing. This certainly wasn't the first time that an apparent homeless person had tried to panhandle me. But this cowboy had audacity, and I like that. So I lifted myself up from that comfortable old bench and walked across the street and into the store.
When I returned I pulled out the pack of Marlboros I had purchased and handed it to the cowboy along with a book of matches. He took them from my hand without saying anything. I watched him open the Marlboros and light one up. He took a long deep drag and leaned back against the bench while again looking off toward the distant mountains.
After a few minutes I heard him again muttering the words," I'm angry, I'm angry, I'm angry…"
I sat there next to him, quietly watching with curiosity until I decided to risk more involvement of my time than just a casual encounter. "Why are you so angry, cowboy?"
He didn't respond. He just kept repeating, "I'm angry, I'm angry …"
I continued to watch him as he took another drag from his cigarette gazing off into the distant mountains. When he finished his cigarette he threw the butt into the street and sat quietly and motionless. Then I risked again, "Why are you so angry, cowboy?"
He shifted his weight toward me and again looked directly into my eyes but now with apparent irritation. "They make me angry, old man – all of them – because they themselves are always angry."
He then looked down at his hands and rubbed his knee while adjusting his brace.
"You ever rodeo, cowboy?"
"Yes, old man. I rodeo’d."
"So, how long have you lived in Durango?"
"I don't live here, old man – too many angry people here."
"Where do you live, cowboy?"
He lifted his hand and pointed toward the distant mountains. "I live out yonder – under the tree, next to the rock where the bear lives."
"That sounds like an interesting place, cowboy. You have a house there?"
"Don't need a house, old man – the tree doesn't care; the rock doesn't give a fuck, and the bear steps over me."
After those words he shifted his weight back away from me and stared again at distant mountains. We sat there together in silence for a few minutes longer until he suddenly got to his feet.
I stood up too and held out my hand to him. "Nice talking with you, cowboy. I wish you well."
Hearing that he shook my hand and walked away. I watched him until he was no longer in sight and pondered to myself trying to make sense of what had just happened.
My days in Durango went fast. I saw most of what I wanted to see and visited a couple of good honky-tonks and enjoyed a few sips of good Irish whiskey. But once again it was time for me to hit the road – to the west now, on the last leg of this journey.
As I passed Mesa Verde with the thundering sound of my iron horse in my ears and the blue sky and open countryside surrounding me, I wondered about the cowboy. I never saw him again after that encounter on the bench in front of the Strater Hotel, but for some reason I couldn't stop thinking about him – his audacity, his anger, his silence, his distant stare – a complex and paradoxical human life to ponder – or perhaps I simply saw more of myself in him than I am comfortable in acknowledging.
Whatever the reason, I am grateful for the experience. Throughout my life I have always appreciated the simple things and my time with this cowboy was by any measure a simple experience.
But with simplicity comes elegance and in elegance truth exists. And when we have that rare experience that enables us to see and know truth, we all seem to yearn for that safe and peaceful place --- under the tree, next to the rock, where the bear lives.