It took us about an hour of leisurely riding to get to the old Agua Bonita ghost town. Our destination was a mountain valley where a spring of water surfaces for a while and runs through a tangle of water cress, wild mountain mint and amaranth. Hogbacks—long, jagged mountains—rise on either side of the valley. As we came over the top of the trail, we could see the whole lush landscape. It took my breath away. I love it in the mountains. I can’t believe anyone would prefer living in the city!
“Wow,” Daniel said, quietly.
“I know,” Jake replied. “It’s amazing. There are so many places like this in these mountains. People think of New Mexico as a barren desert—and a lot of it is. But there are also places like this.”
“And no people to clutter it up,” Will added. “We’re like, the only people I’ve seen all day.”
“Let’s eat at the falls,” I said, leaning forward in the saddle to urge Caramel into a trot. The wide open valley affected the horses the same way it affected me. Their heads were up and they were all pulling on the reins, ready to run for joy. I gave Caramel some slack and she stretched out into a lope.
“Hang on!” I heard Jake instruct Daniel and realized he had not ridden faster than a walk yet. But there was no slowing the horses now. Their nostrils were wide, breathing the mountain air. I could feel the excitement in Caramel as she stretched out, galloping ahead of the others.
We were on an old forest road. It was dirt and sand, with deep ruts in it where vehicles had tried to drive through the mud. The ruts were still pretty muddy from the rain the night before but the high center was dry and the sides of the road were pretty firm as well.
Will and I rode side by side, Jake and Daniel came behind on Ranger. I looked over at Will and had to admire his profile. Pioneers must have looked like Will, strong and full of life and expectation. He laughed aloud and tossed his head at me.
“I’d race you to the falls, but we might lose our Green-foot back there.”
“Yeah, better not. Man, it’s a gorgeous day. Caramel is loving it!”
We reached the end of the valley and slowed the horses to a trot as we followed a trail under the tall pines again. Then I heard the water. It wasn’t much water, but in New Mexico, even a little water is precious. The Agua Bonita spring came up out of the ground here, flowed a couple hundred yards, turned around the base of a small hogback, and then fell about twelve feet over some rocks and into a pool that was thickly overgrown with willows and cattails.
The horses came to a stop of their own accord, right next to the small stream and bent their heads for a drink of perfect water. I dismounted and let the reins hang. Caramel began grazing on the thick grass around the stream.
There was already a circle of rocks nearby where we had built a fire and had cookouts on earlier trips. Will put the pack down near the rocks and started gathering wood. Jake and Daniel arrived and dismounted. Daniel hobbled toward us, grimacing and significantly bowlegged.
“Holy crud!” he groaned. “Why am I so sore?”
“You’ll get over it if you ride often enough,” Jake laughed. “Don’t worry, you didn’t injure any GMO products.”
Daniel shoved him and they started wrestling on the grass. Ranger moved away, making room for them without pausing in his efforts to eat as much as he could.
I was breaking dry dead twigs off of the lower branches of nearby trees. It’s funny how the lowest branches of Ponderosas are always dead. I looked around. Maybe it’s just a tree thing. The cedars and piñons were the same way. Well, it sure is handy for somebody collecting wood for a fire. No need to cut a tree down. Just trim it.
Once I had a small pile of dry bark and twigs, I pulled out the lighter and got the fire going. Will dropped a pile of larger wood near me and I fed it to the flames slowly, until the fire was burning strong. Daniel started to pile on more branches but Will stopped him.
“No big fires,” he explained. “Big fires are harder to control and we sure wouldn’t want to ruin a place like this.”
“Okay. Right. Hey, where is the ghost town?”
“This is part of it,” Will said, and then pointed with his chin like Grandpa does. “Look over there, at the edge of the tree line. That’s an old log cabin. There’s a pretty cool stacked rock chimney in it. If you follow the tree line, there are another eight or ten old log structures up the valley we just came through. If you walk back into the trees, you’ll find more.”
“Cool. Hey, let’s go explore, Jake.”
“Okay.” Jake hesitated. “Are you guys going to make lunch?” he asked.
“Yeah. I’ve got it,” I said. “Go ahead. The food will be ready in about twenty or thirty minutes.”
They took off on foot, running across the valley, trading blows to each other’s head and shoulders as they went. Will laughed.
“Was I ever like that?”
“Yesterday,” I said, grinning. But actually, Will was never quite like that.
Will dropped a rock at one corner of the fire and then two more on the other side. Then he laid a grate on top, a wire rack that he keeps strapped to the outside of his pack. I put the pot of beans and meat on top and carefully pulled the duct tape off. Will lifted the lid and sniffed.
“Not bad. For dog food.”
Will took the ginger beer out of his pack and laid them in the spring water to get cold. Then he laid on his back on the incline of the bank.
“I’m going to collect some herbs while this heats up,” I told him, pulling the bags out of his pack. “I’ll be back in a minute, okay?”
Will sat up and turned around. “You brought bags? Give me one. I’ll get some rose-hips for Mom.”
“They’re not ready yet.” I looked across the creek at the pink flowering thorn bushes. “See, they’re budding . . . you have to wait till the petals fall off to collect the hips.”
“Oh. Well, what else do we need?”
I looked around me and at the greenery.
“I’m going to get some young mullein and some watercress . . . and I was thinking about getting some usnea and dandelion root. You know what those look like, right?”
“Yeah, I think so. I’ve got my folding shovel in the pack—unless you took it out?”
“No. It’s still there.”
“Okay. I’ll get the dandelion roots. Are they for coffee?”12
We headed in different directions. The watercress was down in the creek bed, so that is where I headed. I took off my boots and socks, and left them on the bank.
It was easy to dig up the watercress with my hands. The roots were shallow and lay in loose, wet soil. I filled a gallon bag with hardy looking plants. Watercress tastes just like its name: moist and light like a fresh salad. And that’s the way we eat it.
Mullein is a plant also known to the Navajo as Big Tobacco. It’s really nothing like tobacco, Dad says, but it is part of the mix Grandpa makes to smoke in his pipe. It dries up moisture in the lungs—and even in the inner ear if you make an ear oil out of it.
We have some growing near our lake but it was already tall and flowering. I wanted young mullein leaves. It grew in the full sunshine of the valley, so I walked a bit further and out of the trees to collect the soft fuzzy leaves for Grandpa.
Nearby, I also found horehound, a plant I’d been looking for since I’d first read about it a year ago. There was another not too far away, so I dug up one of the plants and put it carefully in a bag with some of its home-soil. Horehound would be a good addition to Granddad’s tobacco and was good for many other things. I knew people used to make candy and lozenges out of it. I put a leaf in my mouth to see what it tasted like.
A little bitter, I thought. What shall it be, candy or ale?
When I returned to the fire, Will was washing the dandelion roots in the water.
“It’s not the best time to collect the roots,” I said regretfully, “but they’ll still be pretty good.”
“Why isn’t it a good time for roots?” Will asked, shaking the water off of the roots and looking up at me.
“Because the energy of the plant is in the bloom now. In the fall, when the bloom is gone and the first frost comes, the plant puts all its energy in the root. That is when it is full of flavor and moisture.”
“I see,” said Will. “It’s cool that you know all this stuff. I should pay more attention.”
I checked the beans and meat. They were hot and bubbling, so I left the lid off. Will took the tortillas out of the paper package and laid them around on the hot rocks, facing the fire, to warm up. Behind me, I could hear Jake and Daniel coming back.
“Hey, look what Daniel found!” Jake announced. We turned around and saw an old glass jug in Daniel’s hand, partly coated with clay from the ground he’d dug it from.
“Awesome,” Will said, “it looks like an old whiskey jug. It was made for a cork, not a lid and it’s got a pouring spout.”
“I like how it’s not perfect,” I said, turning it over in my hands after Daniel handed it to me to look at. “It’s kind of wavy on the sides. It’s beautiful.”
“Yeah. I’m going to wash it . . . man, the food smells great!” He turned toward the water and Jake followed him.
I got out the bowls and started dishing up the beans and meat. Will was slicing the cheese and wrapping pieces of it in hot tortillas.
I heard Jake chuckling awkwardly and looked up. Daniel was pretending his jug was full of whiskey and that he was drunk. He staggered toward us in a manner so convincing I remembered his dad was in jail for stealing a car while drunk.
He staggered up to me and lunged against me like he’d lost his balance.
“That isn’t funny,” I said, moving away and refusing to look at him.
“Why?” He asked, dropping the jug to his side as he stood still and looked at me.
“Drunk people smell like urine and vomit. They’re beautiful people that lost control and became ugly.” I felt tense about saying it so harshly but having him lunge against me while appearing drunk brought back a bad memory.
Once, when I was a little kid, we were shopping in Gallup. A man we knew came up to us and begged for money. He was drunk and I hardly recognized him from the friendly carpenter I had known. It scared me to see the crazy look in his eyes.
When Mom walked away from him without giving him cash, he got aggressive and started demanding money. She had moved away hurriedly, trying to get me away from the irrational man but he kept following us. Before we got to the car, he tripped over a seam in the sidewalk and fell next to me. I panicked inside, afraid of his heavy, foul-smelling body laying there on the concrete. Something terrible had happened to the man we once knew as a friend.
Daniel was standing there looking at the jug in his hand. We were both lost in thought for a few seconds. I wondered if he was thinking about his dad.
“I know,” he said, with intense bitterness. Suddenly, Daniel jerked the jug backward over his shoulder as though he were going to hurl it over the waterfall.
“Wait!” Jake and I cried at the same time. Daniel lowered the jug and looked at me.
“The jug isn’t evil,” I said. “It’s beautiful.”
“Do you like it?” he asked, looking thoughtfully at the jug and turning it over.
“Yes. It’s really nice. You should keep it.” Daniel walked over to me and put the jug in my hands. His face was void of expression.
“Here,” he said. “You can have it. It’s a present.”
I didn’t know what to say. I felt uncomfortable and sorry I had spoken at all. I wondered what Daniel was thinking and what memories was he dealing with.
“Let’s eat. The food is ready, and it smells so delicious,” Will announced. He always knows how to defuse a situation. He tossed a cold ginger-osha beer to each of us and started handing around the tortilla-and-cheese sandwiches. I knelt down and handed the bowls of beans and meat around.
We ate silently for a few minutes. I think we were all feeling a little unsure of ourselves. Except for Will. He was just enjoying his food.
“You know,” Daniel said, breaking the silence, “You guys eat really well.”
“Yeah,” Jake mumbled enthusiastically, but did not pause at shoveling food into his mouth.
“No. I mean, you have no idea. You really have good food. And you—” He spoke emphatically in my direction, “Are a damned good cook.”
He looked around at us and added, “Do you guys say that word?”
We started laughing and I knew I was smiling from ear to ear at the compliment, spoken sincerely.
“No,” Will replied seriously, “we say ‘good’n goodence.’ You’re a good’n goodence cook!”
“What the heck? Who says that?” Daniel exclaimed. I was laughing so hard I couldn’t swallow my bite of beans.
“Anna!” Jake crowed. “Anna made it up.”
The rest of our day was perfect. We ate and sat around the fire talking. Then we had a water fight in the spring and all got soaked. I laughed so hard my stomach muscles hurt later.
Finally we packed up again and headed home. This time, we went a little faster and Daniel stayed on behind Jake just fine. I heard Jake complain once that Daniel was bouncing around like a rubber ball every time Ranger started trotting. But even if you’ve ridden a lot, it’s hard not to bounce when you’re riding double at a trot.
When we got back to the house, Mom and Dad were already there. They were all sitting on the porch drinking limeade. Grandpa was with them and Anna was in his lap. Susanna looked like she regretted not going with us.
“How was it?” she shouted, running down the steps to meet us. We dismounted and Daniel hobbled toward her, more bowlegged than ever and groaning all the way.
“How. . . was it?” Susanna repeated again, quietly this time, as she watched him reach a porch pole and hang onto it with a sigh of relief.
“Good’n goodence,” Daniel moaned.