We were on our way home again, and I couldn't have been happier about that. The city makes me feel like I've got a flu: achy and miserable. I was ready to get out on my land and try out some of the things we'd learned in the last couple of days.
I shrugged out of my short canvas jacket. It was getting warm as the sun moved west, shining through the windshield. Underneath I wore a faded black T-shirt, void of any logos or labels.
“There sure are a lot of hitchhikers,” Ramona commented, looking out of her passenger window as we passed the last western exit into Albuquerque. I nodded absentmindedly.
“When did they say they're coming?” I asked.
Ramona sighed and sat up. Her eyes seemed almost emerald, contrasting the purple of her short-sleeve sweater. I remembered when she dyed the wool yarn for that sweater, after she had spent months carding and then spinning the wool. It was from a mohair sheep in Mom's flock. The glossy wool had not absorbed the dye evenly, and some of the purple was a deep royal with a hint of midnight blue. Other stitches were almost lavender with streaks of white. Ramona was very happy with the overall effect, which resulted in a long, figure-fitting sweater that carried the organic color scheme very well. I wondered why she hadn't worn it in the city, but had instead waited for the ride home.
“When the school year is over,” she answered. She took my jacket, folded it, and laid it on the seat between us. “About a month from now. Molly said she'd call or email first.”
“It sure was good to see Daniel again,” I said. I glanced at Ramona, wondering why she looked so melancholy. “What did you think about his friends?”
“They were nice,” she responded with a shrug. “Melanie was fun and had tons of energy. Jace was shy and scared of the bugs flying around the lights. I never really got to know Tony at all—how was he?”
“Distracted,” I replied, chuckling. “I didn't get to know him either. What did you think about Senna?”
“She was fragile, and very—well-dressed.” Ramona hesitated and then laughed. Then she turned and smiled at me. “Don't worry, Will. I'm not heartbroken.”
“Good,” I answered, feeling awkward and relieved at the same time. “Because you're worth so much to me—to all of us. You deserve the best.” I reached out and squeezed her shoulder.
“Thanks,” she said simply, and sighed again. “His friends. . . well, they seem kind of helpless, don't they?”
“Yeah, and why are they all girls?” I shook my head.
“Except for Tony,” Ramona pointed out.
“Maybe,” I snorted. “Like you said, he seemed pretty helpless too. What is Daniel thinking, I wonder?”
“He's taking care of them,” Ramona answered with a smile. “Helping them make it. Remember when Daniel found that puppy? T-Rex?”
“That's funny,” I said, “I thought of that too. His friends reminded me of T-Rex when he was just a pup.”
“Exactly!” Ramona agreed. “I remember Daniel saying that the puppy loved him because he had saved it from being lonely. Daniel needs to be needed; and Senna, Tony, Jace and Melanie. . . they need him.”
“And you don't.” My voice sounded hard in my own ears. I sighed and shook my head. “That angelic little vice will be the end of him if he doesn't watch out.”
Ramona reached over and touched my arm. “It's okay, Will. I have you and Jake and Sue. I have a whole family of people that love me and value me. Besides, I'm only seventeen. I don't really want anything—anyone—else right now.”
We were quiet for a while, and I started thinking about that; wanting someone else—someone other than my family. I thought about moving onto my land when the straw bale house was finished. It could be finished by Christmas. I could live there all by myself, but I thought of how lonely the evenings would be in a house without anyone else there to talk to or laugh with.
“What did you think about Molly?” I asked before pausing to consider my own question.
“I think she likes you,” Ramona said, with a grim smile.
“Why do you look mad about it?” I asked, diverted by her irritability. Ramona chuckled this time, and appeared to shrug off her mood.
“Because I think she has a chance, I guess,” she answered. “Maybe I'm jealous. If you get a wife, I'll be out of a brother.”
“No, you won't,” I immediately denied. “Besides, who said anything about getting married?”
“Come on, Will,” Ramona said, shaking her head, “you know it will change. No wife is going to want me hanging around helping you with all your projects. Instead of us going for rides, it'll be you and her. She won't want me to cook your favorite meal or dance with you—she'll want to be the one who does that. If she didn't, she wouldn't be good enough for you and I'd really hate her then. It's the way it goes.”
Ramona's expression was as pragmatic as usual, but her voice sounded downright mad. I didn't know what to say, so I didn't say anything. She was right; it would change.
“But in spite of that, I liked her,” Ramona spoke again. This time she sounded resigned. “She was genuine and passionate about the things she believes. There's nothing fake about Molly, and she sure is impressed with you!”
“You think?” I asked, too eagerly. “But not impressed enough to leave her dream of being a Doctor of Bioscience? I don't know if she could leave that life behind.” This time I was the one sighing and feeling mad.
“Yeah,” Ramona agreed. “Maybe she won't. Time will tell. It'll be interesting to see her reaction to the farm.”
“It's good that she's coming, I think,” I said. “We'll see what she's really made of.”
“You can count on me to make sure she experiences farm life at it's best,” Ramona replied dryly, with a smile that made me laugh.
“Jake will help you, no doubt! He'll have her mucking out the stalls and helping him teach some mustang how to ride double.”
“Oh, you're right—he'll kill her, without even meaning to!” Ramona exclaimed. “All I'll do is make sure she has to do everything I do, at least once: wash dishes, cook a meal on the wood burning stove, milk a cow, ride to your land on a horse—not in the truck—, wash her own clothes in the hand washer, and hang them out to dry.”
“Is that all?” I chuckled.
“It depends on how long she stays. Between me and Jake, she might not last a day.”
“You're a cold hearted-woman, Ramona Nizhoni Morgan,” I chuckled. “What if she loves the farm like she did the raw milk?” In spite of my laughter, I was hoping that Molly would surprise us all. No, I was hoping she would surprise me.
“She won't,” Ramona said emphatically, but she looked a little worried.
We were quiet for a while, and I sighed with pleasure as we drove into the beautiful and formidable walls of Mesita. Halfway between Albuquerque and Grants the red and white rock formation closes in around I40 like an enormous citadel. I always think it would be a great place for a “last stand” in some movie. Five minutes later we drove upwards, out of the red rock formation, and topped a mesa that gave us a forty mile view of the landscape ahead. Mount Taylor rose in the distance to the north of the interstate, and it's peak was still covered with snow. One time I went there with Grandpa, looking for obsidian stone. We found some on the lower, rocky slopes of Taylor.
We drove into the Malpais, a name for the old lava flows from Mount Taylor, which at one time had been a volcano. Dark, harsh, and uneven streams of lava stretched for miles to the south, the remains of ancient red-hot rivers of fire. In some places there were long tunnels and caves in the Malpais, places where a man could get lost and never found again. Beyond the lava flows lay the Zuni mountains, forested mesas, red canyons, and the little valley that we call home.
“Jeremy was awesome,” Ramona commented, as we neared the base of Mount Taylor.
“He really was,” I agreed. “His hands-on experience in Africa is more valuable to me than all the theory and philosophy put together.”
Ramona nodded, and her hair fell out of the loose knot she'd wound behind her neck. She gathered it up again and continued speaking. “Yeah, but I think it was worth hearing the whole thing. It makes me think we should do a lot of things differently.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Like, even though we keep fertilizing, we should stop planting the cornfield every year in the same place. We should let it rest every couple of years and plant somewhere else instead of trying to keep it going. And we should plant more cover crops like rye and barley.”
“Oh yeah, I thought that too. And we should buy a chipper to chip up the old branches and fallen trees, to make ground cover.”
Ramona shook her head, “You'd need electricity for that—and money to buy a chipper. Why not just use old hay and straw that has gone bad?”
“Oh, definitely that,” I answered. “But there's so much dry brush on the mountain. We could cover the whole forest with a layer of wood chips—if we could just chip the fallen trees. Can you imagine how completely that would reduce forest fires? If all the dead and dried wood became ground cover, the soil would stay wet, and nothing would be burnable.”
“Ifs and buts don't count for much,” Ramona quoted Grandma May, who passed away several years ago.
“Don't rain on my parade,” I said, grinning as we played our family game again.
“I can't help it—you've got your head in the clouds,” Ramona responded, as she laughed in anticipation.
“You have to dream before your dreams can come true,” I retorted.
“The best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up,” Ramona shot back.
“Slay the dreamer, and see what becomes of his dream,” I warned with mock austerity.
“Dream on, dream boy,” Ramona shrugged flippantly.
“Who's that quote from?” I asked as we both started laughing.
“I don't know, I just made it up. I was out of ideas.”
“Hey, we're almost home.” I turned onto the long, dirt road that leads to our farm. I rolled down the window and took deep breaths of the sweet air.
As we drove up, the farm house seemed oddly silent. Ramona jumped out to open the gate, looking around for evidence of the family, but there was none. I parked the truck and got out, and we walked into the house together.
“Halloooo. . . anybody here?”
“That's weird,” Ramona commented quietly. “Maybe they're down at Grandpa's cabin.”
We walked through the house and out the kitchen door. The straw bale garden beds showed evidence of having the soil turned and loosened while we were gone. Mom was getting ready to plant her spring salads and root vegetables. We passed through the garden gate, walked around the water tank and windmill, and at the top of the hill, we looked down across the small lake toward Grandpa's cabin. There, around a grill and a picnic table, our family was cooking out, in anticipation of our return. I smiled; we had been cooking out for three days. I could hear Jake's voice loud and clear to begin with, and escalating with every phrase.
“What about the bread? Mom, what about the bread? Hey—guys—what about the bread?”
“Quick, let's hide, and sneak around the cabin and surprise them,” I said to Ramona, stepping back behind the stand of oaks we stood beside.
She joined me quickly, asking, “Did they see us?”
“Are you kidding? The whole valley would know we were here by now if they had.”
I followed the tree line around the top of the hill, with Ramona along side of me.
The oak trees had not bloomed yet. Every year they are the last trees to leaf, waiting until June, when everything else is vibrant and green. Then, almost overnight, the waxy, bright leaves of all the scrub oaks come out in full force, pleasing the cows and elk who love to eat the young leaves. Without their thick foliage, the small, gnarly oak trees appear more like enormous bushes, growing in tight clumps that spring outward like tangled hair. We passed behind them unseen and made our way down to the lake.
Years before, Roy and I had pulled large stones out into the valley where the water keeps the ground wet and marshy. This served as a pathway for an impatient hiker who might want to keep his shoes dry. Ramona and I jumped from rock to rock until we reached the other side of the valley. Then again we followed the tree line as we headed back up the valley toward Grandpa's cabin.
It was late April, and the afternoon was warm and pleasant. The spring winds blew high above us. They were unable to reach Grandpa's cabin because it sat between two ridges of the mountain, sheltered from the sustained 30 - 40 miles per hour winds of spring. Jake's voice was the first I heard again.
“I've got the butter, Mom. I've got the butter. Where should I put it? Mom, where should I put the butter?” he asked, louder and louder. In spite of being so loud, Jake is often ignored. I think we tune him out because he is so loud.
Ramona and I snuck quietly up behind Grandpa's cabin and squatted at the base of the hill in the brown oak leaves of last Autumn. Everyone was on the other side of the cabin, getting the grill ready and setting the picnic table.
“Now what?” Ramona whispered. Suddenly Grandpa's back door opened. It was Grandpa. He winked at us, and motioned for us to come inside.We had not escaped Grandpa's keen eyes.
We followed him quietly into the one room cabin. It smelled of herbal tobacco smoke and silver dust. Grandpa had been making a belt buckle on the small pine table I had built for him. A silver disc with a fancy braided rim lay there with stamping tools nearby and a buffing machine clamped to the edge of the table. A handful of Kingman turquoise cabs lay in a saucer, waiting for their settings. I paused to see the design he was making on the belt buckle. Grandpa covered it quickly with a piece of deerskin leather that was streaked with black silver dust, and shook his head without expression. He didn't want me to look at it yet.
“I'm going to take the potato salad10 out to the table,” he said, while giving Ramona a sideways hug. “I'll leave the door open. When I get out there, just come out and sit on the porch. Everybody will be looking at me.”
Without another word, he picked up the bowl, and carried it out in one arm, using his cane with the other. Like every old Navajo cowboy, he wore Wrangler jeans and a long sleeve button-down shirt; it was red and white checks, worn thin at the elbows. A large silver buckle adorned his belt, but not one of his own making; this one was a prize buckle, reminiscent of his days as a rodeo cowboy.
I watched furtively from behind the curtains. Grandpa sat the bowl down on the table. Dad was opening an ice-chest with Mom beside him, probably checking out the temperature of the free-range steaks inside. Sue was chasing T-Rex around the table. Jake lay stretched out on one of the benches, harassing Anna who was sitting underneath the table with her doll, Chizzy11. Every time the green and yellow flowered tablecloth blew in the breeze, I could see Anna's mouth moving as she talked to her doll about that “rascally boy, Jakey.”
“Here's the potato salad,” Grandpa said, peeking under the cloth. “Well darn it—is that a cockroach?” he exclaimed with shock and dismay.
“Where? It can't be, we don't have cock roaches!” Mom cried, as both she and Dad turned to look into the bowl. Jake and Susanna both crowded around to look as well.
“Now,” I whispered. Ramona and I slipped out the door and sat down swiftly and silently on the porch steps.
“Just kidding,” Grandpa chuckled, as everyone turned away again, rolling their eyes and shaking their heads.
“Hi Will,” Anna said from underneath the table. “Hi Mona. Say ‘hi', Chizzy.”
As though on a timer, the whole family turned around.
“You're home!” Jake shouted.