In February of 1540, conquistador Vasquez de Coronado left Mexico City with a small army in search of seven cities “of gold,” rumored to be up north in Nuevo Mexico, ripe, to a certain mentality, for the plucking. What settlements they found fell far short of advance billing.
Near present-day Albuquerque, they were refused entry to a Zuni village and bullied their way in. A dozen villages were destroyed in short order, setting the stage for the centuries of racial animosity that have followed. Enlisting an Indian guide called the Turk, they were led on a wild goose chase across the Texas panhandle and into Kansas, where the futility of their quest became clear. The Turk, in the finest Spanish tradition, was garroted and what remained of the company tucked tail and beat a retreat. Coronado, who started out a young dandy, spent all his wife’s money and ended in disgrace. But, hey, anything for a buck, right?
It is believed by some that the Turk led Coronado out to the barren steppes of the east in an act of deception, at the behest of Indian leaders, to steer the Spaniards away from the true cities of gold, which lay to the northwest. The magnificent cities of Chaco and Aztec, with their hundreds of rooms and extensive system of well-constructed roads, had by this time been abandoned for a couple hundred years, and it is not a stretch to imagine them being held in high regard for the good life they provided in times of plenty. Further over the horizon, the mind-boggling cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde were fast becoming legend and conceivably inspired fantasies of a charmed existence. The good old days are always better than reality.
Further still to the northwest, the Hovenweep-style pueblos of the Great Sage Plain — Lowry, Sand Canyon (larger even than Mesa Verde’s Cliff Palace), Cannonball Mesa and Little Ruin Canyon — with their fields of corn, beans, squash, bulging granaries and widespread irrigation, ample game and well-ordered way of life, must have seemed dreamlike to the surviving bands of people scratching out a subsistence living in a harsh land. These cities, their good times burnished in the way memory polishes things, their free-standing towers awash in evening light and viewed from the distance of time, could fairly be considered “cities of gold.”
An overcast Saturday in a snowy April, peaks wreathed with clouds, reluctant to let go of a long and weathery winter, compels a midday decision to run from the hills, to see what lies outside the storm in which we’ve been swimming for many months. Chores dispatched, cooler, tent and sleeping bags are tossed into the truck and away we go. Snow turns to sleet turns to rain turns to mist turns to gray turns to blue and by the time we meander down McElmo Canyon, a beautiful sun warms fields green with new growth, home to foals and kids and calves and lambs.
Catkins have given way to tender leaves, tender and tough; cottonwoods erupting with green line the creek; roadside apricot trees already a month past their first blossom raise hands to the sky. Irrigation ditches, embankments bald and black from their spring torching, smell of smoke. Along the wire fence enclosing the well-tended yard of a small white bungalow grows a magnificent lilac hedge in full bloom, the color purple stopping us in our tracks, pulling us over; we imbibe lilac perfume until we get to where we need to be.
Emerging from the canyon, we make our way to Hovenweep and set up camp, the little girl relishing her role at the center of the operation, shuttling gear from the truck, helping set up the tent — a semi-comical procedure anyway — spreading out sleeping bags, testing their coziness. Her infatuation with camping, encouraged, has led her to insist on a sleeping bag on top of the bed covers at home. Pretty cozy.
With the last hour of sun, a late addition to the gear is brought into play, a toddler bicycle with a long handle attached to the frame behind the seat post, with which an overseer may prevent mishap. Progress had been made last fall, but it had been a long, snowy winter devoted to skiing, and the first few pedals are tentative.
“Don’t let go!” she cries for the first couple laps around the campground, sun growing low, asphalt smooth, wobbling on the slight downhill sections, grunting with great effort on the inclines. The next couple circuits the handle is barely engaged, unknown by her, then she realizes her freedom and squeals; “Let go! Let go! Let go, you old geezer!”
A dozen laps later she is warming the cockles of her geezer Dad’s heart by singing “Motorcycle Mama, won’t you lay your big spike down!” and charging the ride, little legs pumping, grinning wildly, campground neighbors, having eyed her progress, coming to the edge of the lane to cheer her on. A page turns. The sun sets.
We reach our campsite, she kicks out of her bike, drops her helmet in the dust and announces that she’s starving and ready for dinner. Mac and cheese, pre-made, followed by fire-toasted marshmallows. A brush of the teeth, a big drink of water, a warm snuggle into the sleeping bags, a quiet night. Perfection.
The Spaniards can have their puny gold. We have something better.
It is here, at a small campground looking over a rimrock canyon, mountains of promise steel blue in the distance, backlit by pale yellow dawn, that another great thing happens, spontaneously, after a good jolt of coffee clears the fog from the lens and shows a clear path forward: marshmallows toasted over a campfire on Sunday morning before breakfast. Then more mac and cheese for breakfast! Don’t you just love Daddy camping?
Sean can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org