Off the Lost Highway

The cosmic GPS kicks in, and just in time.

Initially, I could locate my pull to New Mexico solely in its terrain. Each August, escaping the stifling heat of Texas in an old Volvo station wagon, my family and I would make our annual trek to southern California to visit my folks. My parents, retired military, lived near the beach in North County, San Diego. We looked forward to getting out there. Invariably, though, near the Texas–New Mexico border, as we climbed the Caprock, something would happen. The temperature would plummet, refreshing us. The vibrant colors stretching ahead would sweep into the car. My teenage boys would find themselves captivated by the drama of a distant thunderstorm.

“Dad, where are we?” they would ask. “This place is amazing. It’s electric here.”

How electric I didn’t begin to understand until one evening in March 1989, when I was driving back to Dallas after spending a difficult six weeks in Los Angeles, trying to penetrate Hollywood with a spec film script. During a 10-year NFL career, I had written two books. After retiring, I had assisted an A-list Hollywood writer on important film projects. A good story had come to me. I had hoped to make writing my future. However, my experience in L.A. was a disaster. Although my script ended up being optioned several times, producers were generally more interested in having me write their material than funding my project. They told me that if I wanted to see my story on film, I would have to raise the money myself. I wasn’t interested in raising money. That could take years.

Strung out, wondering what I was going to do with my life, I started driving home. That’s when things got strange. First, I was in one place, then I was in another—except the two places were hundreds of miles apart. After stopping for early-morning coffee in Victorville, California, the next thing I knew I was pulling into Needles for lunch. In an instant, I had traveled 174 miles. In the next instant, I was coming into Flagstaff, a leap of 213 miles. In the next, I was approaching Gallup as a full moon popped up in the east.

Having been concussed in football, I knew that my body could function quite well with only minimal conscious awareness. I had watched myself on game film play entire halves of flawless football with no conscious memory of even a millisecond of it. But this was something else. Yes, it was a great way to travel. Yes, the tedium of desert driving had been eclipsed. But who was driving the car?

Hungry again, I stopped at a Gallup McDonald’s. It was about 8 p.m. No other customers were present; it was just me and the Diné kids who worked there. As I finished eating, the manager came out and sat down to eat his own food. He was also Navajo, perhaps 17 years old. As I discarded my trash, I asked him if there were any sacred sites nearby. I didn’t know what I was saying. The words just tumbled out of my mouth.

“Yes,” he said, “they’re everywhere around here. Chaco Canyon is the most famous one. Just head east on the freeway. The exit’s clearly marked. It’s kind of a Navajo church.”

“Thanks,” I said. But when I got back on the road, I went out again, coming around only as the Chaco sign flickered by on my right. Geez, I thought. Continuing on, I pulled off at a lonely exit 10 miles farther up the road. The gas station was off the ramp, next to a KOA campground. As well as being a place to buy fuel, it seemed to serve as a camp store. It was strictly a local business.

I got out of my car, filled up. Now it was 9 p.m., clear, cold. My breath was condensing to mist. Above, the moon was blazing as bright as a tiny sun.

Inside the store, as I paid my bill, I asked the young cashier where Chaco Canyon was. Also Navajo, she told me it was back west, to the exit I’d missed, then north 65 miles. Damn, I thought. That’s too far to go. “Do you have any pamphlets on Chaco?” She said, “No, not here, but Mrs. Baker, up at the camp office, has some. It’s closing time, but she’ll wait for you if you want to run up.”

I drove up the short hill. The camp office had video games in it, racks of postcards, and an old sheepdog asleep on the rug in front of the door. Mrs. Baker was waiting for me behind a glass-topped counter. Plump, with bright eyes, she handed me her Chaco pamphlets. As I looked them over, she said, “The ruins there are nearly a thousand years old and stunningly beautiful.” I told her I wanted to go there. She said that shouldn’t be any problem, there was a campground where I could spend the night. “You could walk through the ruins in the morning.”

“No,” I said. “I don’t want to go in there in the morning.

I want to go in there tonight.”

“Tonight?”

I nodded. “The moon is full,” I said. Again, I had no idea what I was saying.

“But I don’t think you can go in there at night,” she said.

“Oh.”

We stood there for a moment in silence. She was staring at me. Then she said, “But there are some other ruins as old as Chaco nearby—you could go in there tonight.” And suddenly she was pulling out a stack of her own photographs, spreading them out on the counter.

As I looked at them, I asked if there was a kiva among the ruins. She said yes, although it hadn’t been excavated. “But it’s very close, no more than four miles away.” Then she drew me a map, explained how to get there. “The ruins are just beyond the turnoff for the power plant. You should pull over as soon as the road turns to dirt.”

“There’s a power plant up there?”

She nodded. “It’s the generating plant for, you know, the entire region. What you’ll see then, to your left, is this sandstone cliff. It has three elliptical hollows carved into it by erosion. At the foot of those hollows is the site.”

I thanked her for her help. As I was about to walk out, she said, “It’s interesting to us that the local Indians won’t visit the site because they’re afraid the ancestors will bring sickness.”

I thought for a long time. Again, words came unbidden. “Or health,” I said.

Back in my car, I crossed railroad tracks, then followed a narrow strip of asphalt into the countryside. The night was brilliant, and my heart was beginning to pound in my chest. I was having difficulty getting my breath. There were no houses anywhere, and no other cars on the road. Then, cresting a ridge, I saw the towering stack of the power plant. It was off to the west, and a flashing strobe light on it pierced the darkness as the stack disgorged billowing plumes of steam. As I passed the turnoff for the plant, the pavement abruptly ended. I slowed, looked off to my left for the sandstone escarpment. Then, 200 yards away, I saw it rising out of the scrub. I pulled over, got out of my car. As I scaled a barbed-wire fence, my heart felt as if it was going to explode.

It was a gentle ascent to the foot of the hollows. As I started up, I was fixed on the formation. Then I turned around and looked back at the moon. Huge, brilliant, it was ever ascending. Shaking my head, I looked back at the hollows, into whose face the moon was beaming. And suddenly I felt I understood why the site had been located here: The hollows were moonbeam catchers, natural dishes focused on the heavens, to capture and hold them—to create a confluence— so that their essence could be imbibed by whoever the long-ago people were who had lived here.

I clambered over a second barbed-wire fence. As I crested the top of a knoll, I came upon the ruins—a sprawling rectangle of crumbling walls. Instinctively, I took off my shoes, tiptoed down what appeared to be a corridor. Then I was flat on my back in the circle of the kiva.

It took a while, but finally my breathing stabilized. Then the moon popped into view. The top of the crumbling east wall had concealed it. Watching it climb, I realized that soon it would hover over me— that if I stayed here, it would pass directly over my head. I wondered if this alignment was fortuitous, or if it was another reason these structures had been built here. Taking a deep breath, I closed my eyes. As I did so, a series of images bubbled up in my mind. Images of my wife, my kids. My friends. Then me, as I was situated at that moment: sprawled on my back in the middle of these ruins.

As the final image dissolved, my body went slack. A sense of deep tranquility settled over me. I listened to the rustling of a gentle breeze. Then my body started tingling. A little later, as I walked down the slope to my car, my body was still tingling. And the tingling made me want to sing. I slipped Van Morrison’s Irish Heartbeat album into my car’s tape player and cranked it. I was still singing hours later as I crossed the Texas line.

I knew then that I would be back.

Probably, someday, for good. ✜

Pat Toomay played 10 years in the National Football League, for such teams as the Dallas Cowboys and the Oakland Raiders. He is the author of numerous articles about pro football, and two books: 'The Crunch' and the novel 'On Any Given Sunday.' Toomay lives in Albuquerque, where he enjoys the friendship of Acoma Pueblo spiritual elders Gilbert Concho and Becky Chino, and his relationship with Tibetan Lama Karma Rinchen. Wandering New Mexico’s charged terrain is an important pastime. He has two sons, Seth and John.

About the photo by Silas Fallstich: Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon The Silver City–born photographer has spent countless seasons backpacking and exploring in southern New Mexico. He took this image on his first trip into the north.