Spirits on the Mountain (by Stardust)

Summary:  I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s ….
Category:  General fiction
Genre:  Memoir
Rated:  G
Word Count:  4900


I grew up in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, watching any movie or TV show that had anything to do with cowboys, Indians, and horses. I still watch them. From Stagecoach to Hang ‘Em High to Bite the Bullet. I am still a fan of the Roy Rogers Show to The Rifleman to Gunsmoke, and Bonanza, Lancer to Alias Smith and Jones. Bordertown to Young Riders to The Magnificent Seven. To me, the old West was a time when Western heroes — be they real or imaginary — became more like fantasy-legends than real people, – real cowboys, and cowgirls, ranchers, and farmers, solders, and frontiersman. I guess I put the stories in the same class as the old mythology story heroes or the modern Star Trek heroes

I read all the cowboy books I could get my hands on – thank goodness for libraries. I read My Friend Flicka and Thunderhead, as well as Smokey, the Cowhorse by Will James and The Longhorns by J. Frank Dobe. I discovered Zane Gray while in junior high, and then in high school, I devoured every Louis L’amour book he had written at that time. I have a full collection of his books now, along with an 1886 copy of a biography of Daniel Boone. These writers weren’t just good writers but were wonderful story tellers.

I spent many an hour avidly memorizing the stories of cowboys, and Indians told to me by my parents and grandparents. I have one of my granddad’s spurs. It’s a bit rusty and the leather strap that held it on his boot is dried and cracked, but it was worn by a real Texas cowboy. I have by great uncle’s felt hat. Not a fancy Sunday-go-to-meetin’ Stetson, but a well-worn work hat. If I try real hard, I can still smell sweat, dust, horses and cattle in it. Finally, at the age of 50, I was able to get my own horse. A real horse. Like all those horses I had watched on TV all those years.

I grew up playing games of cowboys and Indians, sheriffs and outlaws, but deep down, I knew I could never be a cowboy – or, as in my case, a cowgirl. So I had an even more un-real dream of being a writer of cowboy stories. I started by writing down the family stories. I never got much farther.

Now many years later, I still find myself reading westerns. None of them seem to be able to top a Louis L’amour. I watch the old TV westerns in black and white and they make me realize just how old I am, especially when I know that most of the old western actors and actress have passed on to that big range in the sky. But I still enjoy those old shows. Many times those old Maverick or Cheyenne shows have a lot better stories than any of the newest comedies, or reality shows, or cop shows. Certainly better than soap operas or talk shows.

There are times, though, when the big city life gets to be just more than I can handle. Then I head for the mountains. One day this past fall I found myself doing just that.

*****

I pressed harder on the gas petal and pushed my old Dodge pickup a little faster down Interstate 40 between Albuquerque and Grants, New Mexico. It was early morning, not light yet. I couldn’t see the countryside but knew what it contained. It was high desert country. Lots of large boulders, covered by buffalo and gramma grass. Cholla and pricklypear cactus. Juniper, cedar and pinion trees. I like the desert and take frequent long hikes across it, but today I am interested in the mountains, particularly one special mountain. The Turquoise Mountain.

Traveling the highway, I passed several turnoffs to small farming communities and the pueblos of Acoma and Laguna. I know Route 66 had gone near here once, but this was the newer interstate. The rest area at the north end of a large acreage of lava rocks known as the Malpais is full of big diesel trucks, several with there engines running, drivers getting ready to hit the highway again. I didn’t stop.

I took the first exit into the town of Grants and headed down the main drag. At the Pizza Hut, I made a right, eased through the small town and took State Road 547 into the San Mateo Mountains. About ten miles past the prison and some country homes, the two lane paved road cut through a zig-zag log fence, turning to a dirt road maintained by the county and the forest service. There was a sign saying I was entering the Cibola National Forest. From here on, I considered myself on the Turquoise Mountain. The Indians call it the Turquoise Mountain. On maps, it’s called Mt. Taylor. The white man called it Mt. Taylor after General Zachary Taylor, latter to be president. But I prefer the Turquoise Mountain. From my Albuquerque home, it is 65 miles away. The huge mountain looks as if it is hovering over the desert floor in that beautiful, southwest, turquoise color everyone loves. In the winter, covered in snow, it looks like a big white thunderhead on the horizon.

The Indians consider Mt. Taylor a magic mountain. To the Navajo, it is one of the four scared mountains. They say Blue Flint Girl lives there, and she and the mountain, are protected by Big Snake. Many Indians still make frequent trips to the Turquoise Mountain for ceremonies and to collects herbs and other things for medicine bags.

I once found a pealed aspen stick with several small feathers attached to the stick by leather strings. One string had some red pony beads and a bit of what looked like horsehair tied to it. Out of respect, I left it where it was. On returning to work, I questioned my Navajo friend. He said it was an Indian prayer stick, and shouldn’t be bothered or it would disrupt the prayers to the person who had left it there. He said the Turquoise Mountain is very special to all Indians.

Although he wouldn’t tell me more, I understood what he was saying. I have always felt there was an unusual quality to Mt. Taylor from the very first time I went there. Now I try to make at least one excursion there each year. A few days before, I had sensed an overpowering urge to go see the mountain. I knew I had to do it soon, as winter and the snow season was coming, so it might be some time before I would have another chance. My next day off, I loaded my truck with enough food for breakfast, lunch and a few snacks, an ice chest for some sodas, a jacket, and extra water. I dressed in comfortable outdoor cloths, or what I consider comfortable. Tee shirt, well worn jeans, hiking boots, and a wide-brimmed felt hat.

I followed the winding, twisting road, a trail of dust behind me. At least the mountain was open to travel now. At times, New Mexico’s forests have been closed due to the drought and fire danger that has plagued all of the southwest. I was glad it was now open but knew there were still lots of fire danger, and the dust on the road only confirmed it. There had been rain but not near enough. I looked at the blue, blue sky. Not a cloud in sight

Over the years, I had leaned that nearly every time I came to the Turquoise Mountain, something special would happen. Or anyway, special for me. The very first time I was on the mountain, I saw a golden eagle on the ground with a rabbit it had just caught. Then it rose to fly high over the tree tops and disappeared. It had looked huge. An eagle! Most people have never seen an eagle in the wild. Another time, I had come with two friends. We had spent the day exploring and it was well after dark before we decided to head home. We didn’t mind the dark. You can see things at night you’d never get a glimpse of in the daylight, as we did that night. Lee was driving. I sat in the passenger’s seat of the Chevy Blazer and Jim in the back seat. We were tired and quiet after a long day.

“Look,” I yelled as a small, greenish-white light streaked out of the dark, night sky and almost hit the Chevy‘s hood. We talked excitedly for a few minutes, as Lee found a place to turn around and go back. We were sure it had been a meteorite. We weren’t exactly sure where it had happened and although we looked for some time, we didn’t find anything we suspected of falling from the sky.

On this day, I drove on past several places I recognized. The meadow where frequently I have seen deer and elk. Past San Mateo spring. Past the canyon with the rail fences that looks like the perfect place for a homesteader’s cabin. Past miles of thick, dark forest full of ponderosa pine, jack oak, blue spruce and fir. Being late fall, there were wildflowers everywhere. Purple asters and yellow daisies were scattered along the road. A few others, like Queen Ann’s lace and Indian paintbrush, still showed here and there.

I climbed higher and saw thickets of aspen trees, their white bark trunks and branches contrasting with the yellow of fall leaves. The leaves fluttering and trembling in the slightest breeze and sprinkling the ground with gold. Everyone in Albuquerque always talks of going to the northern part of the state to see the aspen trees in the fall. To me, Mt. Taylor’s gold aspen and red oak leaves are just as spectacular as other places.

 I stopped at Frog Pond and had a breakfast of a boiled egg and a chunk of cheese. I call it Frog Pond because the first time I saw it, there were little frogs all over and tadpoles in the water, and my young son had been enchanted with them. Now it was almost dry, with no frogs to be seen. The pond isn’t on the map, it is so small. I think it is manmade for cows and wildlife. Today I find several deer and elk tracks around it.

I spent the next hour hiking near the pond. As John Muir said, “Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.” It is true. I soaked up the sun as I listened to the wind in the tree tops. I watched scrub jays come in to my little picnic for a handout and nuthatches looked for insects on branches. A bird, called a flicker and is sort of like a woodpecker, went drumming up and down a still standing dead tree. A red squirrel scolded me from several different pines and a young chipmunk sampled a cracker I gave it.

And thunder rumbled overhead. Thunder? I looked up, and to the northeast were several large, beautiful, white thunderheads. The thought of rain didn’t really bother me. I had been in rainstorms before and certainly the land could use it.

I slowly returned to the truck and stowed the picnic leftovers away. Leaving Frog Pond and pulling back onto the main dirt road up the mountain, I headed for the timberline and La Moska Peak.

The highest point on Mr. Taylor is 11,300 feet, or so the sign says. There is a fire lookout tower there. I have heard the tales of how lightning jumps and plays all over the top of the mountain in an electrical storm. The tower is well grounded but a lot of the trees up high have been stuck by lighting at some time. Well, maybe I didn’t want to go all the way to the top if there was going to be a storm.

I’m not sure why — most likely a fire — but a lot of the top of the Turquoise Mountain is open, rolling country. Or at least the area near the road, and the road here is rough with pieces of lava rock. The San Mateo mountain range is part of a 40 mile long volcanic plateau, with Mt. Taylor the highest point. I came to a place where the road was rough enough to jar your teeth out due to the chunks of lava rock making up the road bed.

I dropped the Dodge into four-wheel drive and drove on for a long, rough half mile. On seeing a side road leading across an open field, I took it, and traveled on maybe another half mile. I pulled up and stopped under a cluster of oak trees.

I hadn’t paid much attention to the distant rumbling from the thunderheads, but now I did as the bright, hot sun dimmed and a sudden gust of wind caused a shower of jagged, rusty-red leaves to spiral down from the oaks to join the leaves already on the ground. I opened the pickup door and stepped out to stare at the sky. The clouds were piling up and were now dark gray instead of white. Several spears of lighting jumped between clouds. The wind blew harder.

There was a harsh, but piercing scream overhead, and a red tailed hawk appeared out of nowhere to land in the top of the tallest oak. It cocked its head and watched me while I watched it. Then it took to the air again. As it did, a tail feather came free and drifted down through the tree branches. I watched the feather touch down onto a handful of dry oak leaves just as a blast of wind swirled the leaves, and the feather, along the ground. I ran after it, reached down and grabbed it, as the leaves raced on.

A gleam caught my eye. It was a black stone. I picked it up, too. An arrowhead? No, not quite, or maybe a broken one. There was a tip, and one side was almost razor sharp, the other side was dull. It was obsidian, but the shape could have been natural, the result of hundreds of years of wind, rain, and the other forces of Mother Nature. Still, I kept it.

Again I heard the hawk scream. Looking up I saw it gliding away from me toward a large acreage of thick, dark, spruce trees.

I hurried back to the Dodge. Jumped in, tossing the feather and stone on the seat next to me. Starting the engine, I followed after the hawk to the comparative shelter of the evergreens. Just as I entered the trees, a blinding white light lit up everything, followed instantly by an ear-splitting boom and crackle. I glanced back to see one of the oak trees split in half. I felt the small hairs rise on the back of by neck, and I shivered. Seconds before I had been parked by the same tree.

The smell of sulfur filled the air, followed by the refreshing scent of large rain drops striking dry dirt. In the next minute, the clouds opened up, pounding the Turquoise Mountain. I parked the Dodge about a hundred yards in, under the canopy of intermingling spruce boughs, and settled down to enjoy the storm. As the air cooled, so did I, so I pulled a sweatshirt on over my tee shirt, then munched some cookies and sipped on a soda. I doubted the rain would last long. Most New Mexico rains usually didn’t. I watched the drops force their way down through the spruce, many hanging up in the trees to gradually slide down the blue-green spruce needles to, finally, find their way to the ground. These spruce were tall, huge and very old. Maybe this was even a virgin forest area. When I see an exceptionally big tree, I always try to imagine it as being here long before any man came. It makes me feel small and insignificant but fascinated that a living tree has been around to see as much as it has seen, and that I now get to see that tree.

As I sat there, I got a strange feeling. A feeling like I wasn’t alone, that I was being watched. I looked around expecting a deer or a squirrel. I finally spotted my watcher sitting high in a spruce, under an especially thick needled branch. It was the red tailed hawk. Occasionally he would ruffle his feathers trying to stay dry.

I remembered the tail feather he had lost and picked it up to examine more closely. It was reddish-brown with bits of white. It was flat and smooth, soft to the touch while the quill was hard and sharp.

On my key ring was a short piece of a leather thong threaded through a small silver concho, two blue pony beads, a white bead and a red bead. I removed the little memento from the key ring and tied it onto the quill of the hawk feather with one end of the leather thong. After a second, I tied the other end around the arrowhead shaped stone. Then laid it back on the seat next to me.

The rain continued, so I took a spiral notebook and a pen out of my pack and recorded my experiences. The birds and animals at the pond, the hawk, and his feather, the thunder, lighting and the storm. It might be good material for a story later on. Us would-be writers are always looking for the unusual to add dramatic adventure to our stories, and experiencing things first hand always makes for better telling. As I finished writing and closed the book, I noticed that the hard rain was now only a light drizzle. I wasn’t sure if it was still raining or just the last drops still falling through the trees. Movement caught my eye. The hawk left his shelter, flitting through the trees and out into the open.

It was time for me to leave, too. As I drove out from under the spruce, I realized that, although the rain had stopped, the clouds were still everywhere, sitting on the ground, making fog. There was no wind now; the fog simply drifted on air currents so light they couldn’t be felt.

Rapidly, more fog moved in. It was hard to see more than a few feet in any direction. Trees, boulders, and shrubs were half-seen shadows. The road was a dimly seen line. I traveled it slowly back to the clump of oak trees, letting the Dodge idle past the lightning-stuck oak, surrounded by fog. I took my foot off the clutch and let the engine die. Stepping out into the open again, I shivered. I didn’t think it was just from the chill. Now the mountain felt spooky. I felt that there was something unusual going on. I reached back inside and snagged my down jacket. As I pulled in on, I realized I had also, picked up the black stone and feather. I stuffed them into my pocket as I walked to the fallen tree.

The oak hadn’t burned after being struck by the lightning due to the rain, but there was a long, black gouge where it had split open and lots of fresh, raw, white splinters and pieces of wood scattered around. I ran my hand down the still standing part of the tree. Down the center I could see and feel the heartwood of the tree. At the base of the tree was a small stalk of purple asters that I had not noticed before. Drops of water clung to each petal and along the stems. I crouched down to admire the small bouquet that had been unhurt by the lightning. There was a shifting of the fog and I stared out across a cleared expanse of land with only a few stunted fir and Engleman Spruce. There was a thin growth of native grasses and each blade had droplets of water sparkling like diamonds, as one frail sunbeam tried to push through the clouds. My mouth dropped open in wonder at the delicate sight.

A large patch of fog seemed to roll over the meadow and a horse and rider came out of a ravine. The mist still hovered around him so he was almost obscured. Other figures slowly came from the wash. Horses and people walking. I giggled. It looked like a scene from out of an old western movie. Indians riding horses and walking by other horses pulling travois’. There were even a few dogs.

Was it a group of Indians on the mountain for some kind of ceremony? They seemed to fade from sight as the fog came in again. Then they were gone. Had it been my imagination? Probably. Most likely only a few wondering deer or elk becoming horses and Indians to my overly-active imagination. With thoughts of seeing more wildlife, I half rose and eased onto the downed part of oak, stuffing my hands into my pockets. My fingers came up against something strange. I pulled it out. It was the hawk feather and the black stone. I ran by fingers over them. Hearing something — or more like feeling something — I looked up. The clouds parted and there, about fifty feet away, stood a brown and white pinto horse with a big, tall Indian on him.

The Indian wore a leather shirt, leggings and high-top moccasins. His long hair hung loose except for one braided strand, an eagle feather in it. His face was lined and wrinkled, with a few dabs of paint. There wasn’t a saddle on the horse, only a blanket. The Indian carried no weapon except a knife at his belt.

I stared at him. I knew that face. I had seen it on many a TV and movie screen. It was the Indian actor, Will Sampson. I laughed out loud, and he was gone. I looked all around me but I didn’t see the Indian anymore.

Twisting around, I looked behind me. The fog was thicker again but there was someone back there, this time on foot, without a horse. As I watched, he walked out of the fog. This wasn’t an Indian but a cowboy, tall and slim, and he did carry a weapon. A Winchester rifle. I gasped. The Rifleman – Lucas McCain – Chuck Connors. He didn’t say anything or even look at me, just walked on by and disappeared into the clouds.

I rubbed my eyes. I had to be seeing things. Maybe I was asleep and dreaming. I tried to pinch myself, but instead stuck myself with the tip of the black rock. Anyway, I was awake ‘cause it hurt.

I looked out to where the Rifleman had disappeared. Now a woman stood there, long skirt swaying round her ankles as she walked toward two men and linked arms with them. They looked identical to  Gunsmokes’s Kitty Russell — or as she was known in real life Amanda Blake — Doc Adams played by Milburn Stone, and Festus Hagan played by Ken Curtis. As I watched the three friends fade away, a man on a big white horse rode at a gallop across in front of me. He had on a white suit and a leather jacket with lots of fringe. He took off a white setson and waved it as he went by, his long white hair and beard blowing in the wind. It looked like Buffalo Bill Cody. Could it have been?

Another man rode by on a horse strumming a guitar. Softly I heard the words to Marty Robbins’ song “El Paso.” Behind the singer were three men on horseback. The first rode a buckskin, the big man rode a black horse and the smaller man rode a pinto. He spoke to the horse, calling it Cochise. Could these men be Ben, Hoss, and Joe Cartwright?

Another man, in buckskin pants and shirt, walked up to me. This one actually spoke to me, or seemed to. “Ain’t never been this far West before. Sure is purtty.” He walked on, his long, heavy, flintlock rifle laid over his shoulder, the tail on his coonskin hat swinging. Had it been the real Daniel Boone or an actor? Or was I just seeing things?

A man and a woman in a buggy pulled by a brown horse came straight toward me. The man pulled on the reins, stopped the horse, and he spoke to me. “Afternoon, Granddaughter. Fine day isn’t it.”

I answered without thinking, “Yes, it is Granddad.” I recognized by grandparents. Maybe the others I had seen today had been movie star cowboys but my grandfather had been the real thing, as well as being part Indian. My grandmother sat beside him. She smiled at me. “Hi, Gram,” I said to her, then I noticed the small Siamese cat sitting on her lap. “Ginger,” I whispered, remembering my well loved cat.

Gram spoke my name. Then Granddad called to the horse. “Let’s go, Buster.” The horse neighed softly and took the buggy off into the mist. Before it disappeared, they stopped by another man and women. Farmers by the look of them. They turned and waved to me. They looked like my other grandparents. I waved back and they were gone. They had been true pioneers. Another man walked off after them. He wore an Air Force Sergeant’s uniform. “Dad?” I thought.

I shivered and pulled by jacket tighter. Was I really seeing spirits, or ghosts? I found myself petting the head of a large dog, standing beside me. “Oh, Sandy!” My shepherd whined softly, waged her tail and ran after my relatives. They seemed to be following a herd of cattle being driven by some cowboys.

I saw another figure appear. This was certainly no cowboy or movie star that I could recognize. He was only average height, and slim. He had on a dress shirt, slacks and loafers, but he did hold a shotgun in his hands. I heard him call out, “Pull.” He raised the shotgun as a clay pigeon tore through the clouds. The gun boomed and the clay target shattered. I knew who he was. A man I had only recently met, who had died just a few weeks ago. I had been saddened at his death, wishing I had taken the time to know him better.

“You know what?” a voice spoke behind me.

I turned around and saw a man leaning up against an oak tree. At first I didn’t know him either. A stocky man with a face like a boxer but with a ready smile. Louis L’amour?

He spoke again. “You do know that this is a special mountain? A mountain where dreams can come alive. Where stories can be born.”

“Yes, sir, I know,” I answered him.

He nodded slightly as he faded out of sight.

I turned in a circle but no more forms came out of the mist. I was still holding the feather and stone tied with the leather string. On impulse I picked up one of the larger splinters from the broken oak tree, and wrapped the cord around it, then pushed one end of the piece of wood into the ground beside the purple asters. A breeze stirred the feather and the fog. The sun began to burn through the clouds and the fog gradually rose, and floated off to the south.

I found myself back in the pickup. Had I dozed off and had a wild dream? I shook my head in wonder at what the human mind can come up with, awake or asleep.

I turned the key and the truck started. As I made my way to the rough, lava rock road, I looked back. A man on an appaloosa horse was trotting up the trail behind me. He slowed the horse to a walk and came around the Dodge. He was followed by another man on a palomino stallion and a woman on a white horse. They were singing a song. I heard a few words – “Happy Trails to You, Until we meet again.”

Was that John Wayne? Roy Rogers? Trigger? Dale Evens? Horses and riders disappeared around a bend in the road.

I sat gripping the steering wheel. This was Mr. Taylor, the Turquoise Mountain. The scared mountain. Everyone considered it special. It was so full of history. Of Anazasi, of Indians, pioneers, homesteaders, ranchers, miners, farmers, and the cavalry, explorers and even the modern tourist. Could it be that occasionally there was a tourist of another kind? Travelers from another time or dimension. The spirits of those who had lived before. The spirits of people who had loved the land, the deserts, mesas and mountains as I, and my family and friends do. Did the spirits come to enjoy the mountains as I did?

I hoped so. How wonderful it would be to know that someday my spirit would wonder on the Turquoise Mountain with my heroes.

Happy Trails to all.

***The End***

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